Here Without You (Between the Lines #4)

by Tammara Webber

1

REID

My girlfriend hasn’t told her parents about me.

It’s been a week, but we’re still a secret – hanging out but never going out, just like we did last fall. Despite my appreciation of how she’s willing to spend that time, I don’t want to be confined to my house with Dori. She’s like a new toy that I can’t show off – which was a dick thing to slip and say, but she just rolled her eyes at me for it.

As it is, John is the only friend I have who knows about my new relationship status, although my co-star on my last film – Chelsea Radin – smirked perceptively whenever she saw us together during the last few cast volunteer days at the Habitat house. I’m guessing she knows. Especially after she caught us emerging from an alcove on the side of the house, Dori’s ponytail loose and her face flushed, me wearing a shit-eating grin.

John and I are hanging courtside when he decides to bring up my clandestine affair, because his concern for timing is identical to his regard for tact – non-existent.

‘So when are you revealing this so-called relationship to the world already?’

The level of noise in Staples Center keeps our exchange confidential, but that doesn’t mean I want to discuss Dori in the middle of eighteen thousand people – never mind several hundred cameras broadcasting the game to millions more. Plus, he pronounces relationship in a tone most people reserve for STD. When I shoot him a look, he blinks innocently. I suspect this guise worked on his father for years before he figured out that John really was a next-generation version of himself.

‘What? Reid Alexander has a girlfriend.’ His voice dips at this last word – not like he’s obeying my gag order – more like this fact is too appalling to divulge at full volume.

I stare at the three-point shot, lined up and missed. We both curse.

‘It’s Perez-worthy news, bro! What’s with the containment?’

If John is waiting for my answer, he can f**king keep waiting.

Kobe gets penalized for travelling – which never happens – and I slump back in my seat, crossing my arms tightly over my chest. ‘Shit.’ That expletive defines my current feelings for the Lakers and Dori, both of whom I love, both of whom are pissing me off.

Elbowing me, John smirks. ‘C’mon, man, you know I’m the soul of discretion.’ Oddly enough, that’s true. When I don’t spill immediately, he starts guessing. ‘So it’s over? Is that it? Dude, I said it wouldn’t la–’

‘She hasn’t told her parents yet.’

From the corner of my eye, I watch him frown in confusion and peer at me like I’ve just spoken a foreign language and he’s waiting for the translation.

Staring at the game, I add, ‘I feel like I’m stuck in a f**king teen drama.’

John arches a brow. ‘Wait. You’re serious. That’s the reason? Because she hasn’t told her parents? I could line up a hundred girls who’d be jacked as hell to go out with you – once. You’ve made this girl your girlfriend, and she’s not telling everyone she knows?’

I shrug, but it stings when he puts it like that. Like I said – tact is not John’s thing.

He shakes his head. ‘Never thought I’d see the day some girl got Reid Alexander pu**y-whipped – Ow! Dude!’ Glaring, he rubs his arm where I punched him. ‘What is it about this girl that makes you so f**king violent?’

I laugh, because now we’re on the screen over centre court. Time to appear as if we’re screwing around rather than beginning a private brawl that would unseat the Lakers and the Jazz as tonight’s primary entertainment. ‘Camera.’

At that word, John switches gears and plays along with the horseplay ruse, shoving me back.

‘That was your last warning, man.’ My on-camera smile doesn’t conceal the sharp threat in my voice. ‘Don’t talk about her like that.’ He’s lucky I gave him a deep bicep bruise instead of rearranging his face.

‘I was talking about you,’ he growls in return, his fake smile mirroring mine.

BROOKE

‘Ms Cameron? Bethany Shank here. I’ve located him.’

I shouldn’t have answered her call in the middle of a pedicure, but when I saw her name pop up on the screen, my curiosity was overpowering. No way that was going to voicemail. When I hired a private investigator, I expected her to find my kid. I mean duh – of course I expected her to find him. Even so, this news floors the hell out of me. My heart is thrashing like I’m mainlining espresso.

‘That was … fast.’

The woman currently patting my feet dry is pretending she isn’t listening to my side of this conversation, and I wonder if she can hear the thundering slam of my heart.

‘Yes, well, I told you it would go quickly once you gave me the go-ahead to conduct the search.’

‘So what’s next?’ I’ve found him. Despite my superficial confidence, my hands start to tremble. I wish I was at home, alone, so I could lie down or pace in circles – anything but sit here with my foot on some stranger’s knee, shaking like my mother’s inbred Pekinese, which pees if someone sneezes.

‘There’s a lot of sensitive information here. Too much to relay over the phone. Would you prefer to come by the office tomorrow, or would you prefer that I come to you?’

Okay … he’s four. How much information can there be? He finally stopped wetting the bed. Throws an occasional shit-fit tantrum. Learned how to write his name in preschool. Has a normal life. That last bit is all I care about: I just want to hear that he has a normal life, so I can go back to mine in peace.

Part of me feels like a hundred kinds of idiot for doing this at all. Except that for months now, I’ve had a recurring nightmare about the baby I’d refused to see or hold before my attorney and the social worker transferred him to the adoptive parents. In the dream, I’m holding him and he’s staring up at me. And then he bursts into tears, crying like his heart is breaking, and I wake up buried in a landslide of guilt.

There’s no reason for me to feel guilty – no reason. Why the hell am I dreaming of him crying? And why do I wake up with tears on my face?

I just want closure, finally. Closure, and maybe a photo.

‘I assume he’s fine. Right?’

If she provides that one syllable of reassurance, I can stop here. If he’s fine, I don’t need details. A photo is probably a bad idea, even. I don’t really want to know if he looks more like me or Reid.

‘It would be best for us to meet in person. I’ll just transfer you to my admin to set up an appointment.’ Bethany Shank is all detached and impersonal – typical for her. But her clipped demeanour is more grating – and alarming – than usual. There’s a small thread of something unsaid, and I can’t help but tug at it.

‘Is something wrong?’

There’s an unexpected pause in place of the quick denial I expected, and suddenly I need privacy. Like now. I direct a scowl towards the pedicurist’s head – because how goddamned long does it take to dry a foot for chrissake?

Glancing up as though she feels my eyes bore into her, she blanches.

I slide my fingers over the phone. ‘Could you give me a moment? Thanks.’

Once she shuffles away, I ask Bethany Shank to repeat herself.

‘I’d advise an office meeting for this exchange, Ms Cameron.’ Her keyboard clicks in the background. ‘I believe I have an open spot tomorrow afternoon at three …’

I don’t like this at all. She’s not answering my question, which means there is something wrong. Now my brain is off on a new loop: mental disability … terminal illness … dead?

‘No. Today. And come to my apartment.’

My PI sighs into the phone as though I give a shit that I’ve just disturbed her Very Important Schedule. I wait, silent, until she concedes defeat. ‘I won’t be free until seven this evening –’

‘Seven’s fine. I’ll see you then.’

She’s mid-sigh when I click off. If I wasn’t in the middle of a Beverly Hills spa with the nosiest pedicurist on the planet, I’d have forced her to tell me what the hell she found out right now instead of having to wait three hours.

‘Ready for the oil massage?’ The pedicurist returns, a little cowed.

‘Sure. But I changed my mind about the French tips. French tips are for summer. It’s almost February. I want red. Blood red.’

She nods. ‘Yes, of course, Ms Cameron.’

2

REID

‘Stay.’ I roll Dori beneath me and pin one wrist above her head, kissing her deeply so she can’t tell me no right away – though I know she will. Which makes how ticked off I feel when she does that exact thing a bit unreasonable.

‘Reid,’ she groans into my mouth, ‘you know I can’t stay.’

I stare into her very dark eyes, the frustration leaping into my throat, ready to do battle. ‘You’re not a child, Dori. You’re almost nineteen. So yes, you can.’

I release her wrist and she raises her hand to my face, pushes her fingers into my hair, curls them against my scalp.

‘I’ll tell them. I will. Don’t you trust me?’

Of course then my temper goes and f**ks everything up.

‘No, actually. I don’t. Because you’re leaving for Berkeley next week. And because the last time I trusted you about your parents and us, you bailed on me.’

Her hand falls away and the faintest crease appears between her brows. ‘This isn’t like last time.’

I roll off her and on to my back, because I want to believe her, but right there in the back of my mind – and none too far back, either – is the fact that I recently spent one of the most miserable months of my life thinking I’d never see her again. I’m not willing to accept that again. ‘Right,’ I say.

And yeah, it does occur to me that being an asshat isn’t the best way to get what I want with her. Realistically, nothing with Dori fits the mould of what usually works for me with the rest of the world – one of the things I love about her – but I can’t think logically when I’m this pissed off.

She slides from the bed and straightens her clothes, which are gratifyingly askew from our interrupted make-out session. Damn my temper to hell, too, because she would stay at least another half-hour, which I’m blowing by acting like a clingy chick. That thought sparks another round of useless anger. I can’t seem to make it stop.

‘It’s late. I’m going to go,’ she says then, standing next to the bed while I stare at the ceiling.

My new more-perceptive alter ego is pleading with me to just let it go already, but the arrogant prick inside is sulking. I’m not wrong. She is. She knows it too – that’s why she sounds like she’s crying when she turns and leaves.

Ah, f**k.

Ten minutes later, I’m calmer and admitting to myself that I’m a self-absorbed dumbass. I call her but she doesn’t pick up, and I hang up when the call goes to voicemail. Fantasizing about confronting her parents and getting this all out in the open – just getting in my car and following her home – I can’t help but chuckle. The way she drives, I’d beat her there, even with her ten-minute head start.

After grabbing a snack from the kitchen, I screw around on the internet, effectively wasting at least forty-five minutes, and then try her again. Voicemail number two – click. I answer an email from George and check out my fan page, where John appears to be correct about the amount of girls who’d chop off a limb to go out with me even once. But none of them know me. I’m just a pretty face, a hot body, a fantasy stand-in, and though I appreciate their support, such as it is, I couldn’t care less about the shallow praise.

Listening to Dori’s cheerful, musical voice telling me to leave a message for the third time, I hang my head and wait for the beep, one hand gripping the phone and the other gripping the back of my neck as if I could shake some sense into myself.