More asleep than awake, Lori Gordon fumbled for the shrilling phone. She heard her roommate grumble, "It's yours" and flop a pillow over her head.
His voice brought Lori awake instantly. Her head, her body, the constant ache that always seemed to reside in her heart no matter how she tried to exorcise it jolted her to consciousness. She sat up, forcing herself to take a deep breath. Calm down; find out what he wants, then hang up! she commanded herself, already sure she wouldn't do any of that.
"It's four o'clock in the morning," she said, and her roommate flopped again. After sliding out from the warmth of her blanket, she started toward the bathroom.
"Yeah, sorry. I..."
His voice brought tears to her eyes as she closed the bathroom door behind her and flipped on the soft light over the medicine cabinet.
"...just needed to hear your voice."
A part of her had known he'd call at some point today. She'd warred with wanting him to and desperately hoping he wouldn't.
Blackie's voice was always enough to shatter her resolve. Everything she'd done since she'd turned nineteen came down to getting over her love for this man. At first she'd tried to tell herself what she felt amounted to a stupid crush. As soon as she'd started dating, she'd known it was more than that. Every other male she'd met since moving to New York to attend Parsons School of Design failed to make her forget Blackie Scarpacchio. In fact, each one just made her remember him more, made her long for him and cringe at her own tenacity.
"How was the wedding?" she asked.
Their friends Jon Rushing and Tracey Scott had gotten married today. She knew neither of them understood why she hadn't gone back home to Milwaukee to attend. Maybe she should have told them the truth--that she couldn't bear to see Blackie. Maybe they would have even understood and accepted it. She could bear how sweet he'd be to her, so infinitely gentle, treating her in the manner his pet name for her suggested--like a princess. Like always, she'd fall in love with him again, make a fool of herself for the ten millionth time, and then she'd have to start all over again building her walls. Whenever she went home to visit her father, Blackie somehow seemed to know she was there because he always came. He was always there as if he was a physical part of that place. Maybe he was. She couldn't think of home without thinking of him.
From the other end of the telephone line, Blackie made a noncommittal noise in response to her question, something that was as familiar to her as the haunting in his dark eyes, the taste and scent of him...
"Everybody missed you, Princess," he said softly.
And you? Did you miss me? Tell me yes! Tears filled her throat, and Lori found that she couldn't face herself in the mirror over the sink anymore. With a deep breath, she closed the toilet lid, then sat down on it. She leaned over her knees. "I couldn't...I have an interview with Kira Gunn...I mean, I had one. Today." She realized her half-truth, the one she'd fed both Jon and Tracey earlier this week, had become a lie. She'd told them she had an important interview and implied it was today. Kira Gunn owned one of the foremost fashion design companies in the industry. Lori certainly couldn't blow off a meeting with her. Even re-scheduling could spell missed opportunity for her. Unbelievably, Jon and Tracey had offered to postpone their wedding--they'd wanted her there that much, but Lori had refused to hear of it. All their plans were made. Besides, postponing would only force her to lie again.
Blackie had to know she was lying. His silence spoke that eloquently. She did have an interview with Kira Gunn, not today but Monday.
Lori found her head in the state Blackie forever left it in--confused, crazed. Her fingers clenched in her hair. "Are you alone?" she asked, more self-torture.
The silence that followed told her everything. Of course he wasn't alone. In the six years she'd believed they were a couple, he'd had enough women to populate a continent. For some stupid reason, she'd not only believed she was the one woman for him but that he loved her enough to want only her. She'd been a moron. And she was still one because she was allowing the thought of the slut in his bed right now to hurt her.
"Why do you do this?" she exploded. "Damn you! Why do you call me like--" Like I'm the only one who can rescue you? Like we don't both know I'm the one person you won't allow to save you from your loneliness and pain.
"What do you want me to do, Princess?" he asked wearily.
They hadn't had this conversation nearly as often as his tone suggested, but each time it'd been on the basis of this question. What did she want him to do? Lori realized now that the real question should be what did he want her to do? "I want you to stop calling me like this. I want you to stay away when I come home." Saying the words forced a razor-sharp reality deep into her heart.
A reality he wanted spelled out. "What are you saying?"
She didn't like his rough tone. She didn't understand it, and that all the more fueled the crazy state of her mind. She'd never understood him. She never would. He wouldn't allow her to. She'd always be a baby to him, a little kid who helplessly gave him her heart after he so cruelly tricked her into handing it over.
"I don't want to see you anymore, Blackie. Ever. For any reason."
She hung up and predictably burst into tears. How could she avoid not seeing him? Her father was...well, the closest thing Blackie had to a father. His loyalty to Jerry Gordon would never waver, no matter what. Not even for her. Not even because of her.
But if she wanted to have a life, if she wanted to find some happiness and peace, she had no choice but to make the only place she ever saw Blackie Scarpacchio her memories.
Even after she hung up, Blackie continued to listen to the dial tone like she would change her mind, come back on the line, and retract all her harshness. But she'd left him to bleed and die.
He turned slightly to look at the framed picture of Lori on his desk. Eighteen and so damn beautiful with that long, strawberry blond hair, those crystal eyes and her sweet smile. Eighteen, and she'd been completely infatuated with him. Every time she'd looked at him, she'd handed him her heart.
Guess you can call 'em the good old days now. Kiss 'em goodbye.
He dropped the receiver into the cradle and picked up the picture frame.
"I don't want to see you anymore, Blackie. Ever. For any reason."
She'd finally given him what he deserved and didn't want. Wouldn't accept. How could he? He needed her. She was the one, above anybody else on this whole planet, that he couldn't do without. He'd rather die.
He tried to tell himself she hadn't meant it, but he'd felt it coming for awhile. Especially when she lied about why she couldn't attend Jon and Tracey's wedding. She hadn't wanted to see him. For a long time, he'd been noticing that she didn't look at him the way she used to whenever she came home. And he didn't like Lori wary--not of him.
Setting the frame back on the desk, he took a deep breath, then leaned forward with his head in his hands. Couldn't even pride himself on being less f@#d up than his friends anymore. They'd all figured it out. They had their one-and-onlys, their kids and jobs and...Admit it, that's why you cut outta your best friends' wedding so early. All of 'em are happy, too damn happy--and, for you, misery loves nothin' but itself. 'Least when they had problems, you were useful.
A chuckle started in his chest, and Blackie tamped it down violently. Dammit, he thought, rubbing his bare chest like he could rub out the ache behind it. Behind it--in an organ that he'd be a hell of a lot better off if all it did was keep him alive. Damn sight easier being heartless. Nobody could touch you then. Nobody could destroy you with a handful of words.
"...don't want to see you anymore. Ever."
"Next time we might not come back and then what would you do, you little s@#t?"
Blackie stood, moving around the bed grabbing clothes. Then he bent over the sleeping form sprawled across his bed. When Blackie nudged her shoulder, she turned, peering up at him with one half-open eye.
"Come on. Time to get going," he said, soft yet firm. After tossing her clothes over her on the bed, he walked over to the open door of his bedroom. He leaned against the frame, watching her to make sure she understood he meant now, not whenever she woke up enough to figure it out.
Pushing her thick, red hair back, she sat up holding her clothes sloppily against her.
"You need a ride?" he asked.
They'd come here together in his car straight from the wedding reception, as soon as her shift got over.
Red laughed in her throat, as if surprised by his offer. Then she leveled him with a street-wise stare. "I've done this before, lover. I understood from the get-go it was just once."
Without backing away from her stare, Blackie crossed his arms over his chest. She was right--she couldn't claim ignorance. He'd been making his position clear with all his lovers since he was fourteen. Not much to misconstrue when he laid it out so plainly--"We dance, no kissing, you leave, and we never see each other again. Agreed?" He'd never bothered to wonder why nearly all of them had agreed.
She looked away first. "It was worth it," Red told him, standing to slip into her uniform. She zipped it decisively. "You're the best I ever had. Maybe I didn't fall in love..." She came over to him with her shoes and purse in hand. "...but it was close."
This time, Blackie deliberately glanced away from her, unwilling to acknowledge anything she'd said. She touched his chin, gliding her thumb up and over his lips. When she tried to kiss him, he eased her away with a scolding shake of his head.
"My sad, lonely vagabond," she whispered.
Blackie razed her with an eyeball-to-eyeball stare. "I'm not yours, Red."
For an instant, she seemed hurt, then she shook it off. She knew the rules. She'd played this game probably as many times as he had.
"She's a lucky girl. Your princess. Lori."
Had she overheard him on the phone? How did she know--?
"You said her name in bed..." Red told him, "...more than once." She scooped her coat off the floor. When she straightened she said, "Marry her, have a couple kids, if you want. Be happy. God knows that don't happen often enough to turn it down if it ever comes."
As she left his apartment, Blackie laughed to himself. Happy? Hell, more proof she didn't know him at all, to even suggest it. He'd stopped wanting anything good after his parents had exorcised him of all optimism in one fell swoop. He hadn't allowed himself to want...but he did anyway sometimes.
One time. One woman. And she was the one he could never have.