Best I've Ever Had, Page 2Abbi Glines
Cruz nodded. “I’m not talking about me. I know what’s out there. I lived it. Then I accepted I’d been in love with Lila most of my life and she was what made me complete.” he paused and pointed at me. “But you’ve not lived for shit. You have no idea what you want. And no woman will ever make you happy until you can appreciate her. Living life and making wrong choices makes it easier to know when you find what’s right.”
I opened my mouth to argue when he shoved another sandwich inside and I was forced to chew while I scowled at him. He studied me a moment then gave a nod like he had made a decision.
“You’re lost, Eli Hardy. Motherfucking lost. Six months ago, I wouldn’t have given a flying fuck. But I’m a different man now. So, when this wedding is over, you’re gonna take the keys to my Harley and go. Just fucking go. Don’t stop until you figure out what it is in life you want or where you belong. Just drive the damn thing. Make bad decisions. Get a tattoo, date a stripper, work in a bar.”
There were a lot of things I could say at that moment. Several thoughts ran through my head. But in the end, I simply nodded.
This may be the biggest mistake of my life, but at least I was making it.
MAY 20 / 7:03 AM
THE COOL SPRING mornings were now gone. I missed those. Sitting outside with my coffee enjoying the sounds of the day was so peaceful. Now, the heat was back and nothing about sitting outside with early morning mosquitos and humidity was fun. Frowning, I stood at the large windows of the flat I lived in over the dance studio owned by my best friend, Lila Kate Kerrington. The parking lot was empty now, but in a couple of hours, it would be a busy Monday. The silence of living alone would have been hard to adjust to after Lila Kate had married and officially moved out six months ago, but the truth was she’d been sleeping at the house Cruz Kerrington had bought them for the most part anyway.
I didn’t mind the solitude. I was thankful Lila Kate had agreed to let me lease the place on my own. I loved the location and I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I hadn’t gone back to college after my break. The fact I was turning twenty-two in a few months made that a little stressful if I thought about it too much. Instead I pretended like working at the dance studio was exactly what I wanted to do. I liked my job well enough. I got to work for Lila Kate and that was always fun. Maybe answering the phones, updating the website, stocking the dance store, and handling the class schedules wasn’t an ideal forever career for me but it worked for now.
Besides, it wasn’t like I had a dream to chase. Even as I thought it, the corners of my mouth sank. Why did that bother me so badly? Not having a dream. I should be glad I wasn’t chasing something. Fighting daily to achieve some out of reach goal. I was content.
I drank down the last of my coffee in one big gulp and ignored the knot in my chest that didn’t agree with me. It was an annoying little knot. Always creeping up when I didn’t want it around. Life was good here. No need for me to get restless.
My phone rang and for once I was thankful for the distraction of a call. Normally I stared at it in horror until it ended. My voice mail message would tell them to text me. Which was my preferred communication. I had to answer the calls in the studio all day. I didn’t want to do it in my personal life too.
My sister-in-law’s name appeared on the screen. Bliss was one of the few people who rarely attempted to call me. She knew I liked to text and always did that instead of calling. Not to mention it was early. Snatching the phone up immediately concerned, I quickly said, “Bliss, hey, everything okay?”
“Yes.” Her voice sounded amused. I instantly relaxed. “I didn’t mean to scare you. Sorry. I’m just driving and couldn’t text. I knew you’d be awake getting ready for work, so I figured calling was safe,” she explained.
“Of course. What’s up?” I replied.
“I wanted to see if you were busy this weekend. The house is finally finished with the renovations and the new and improved pool is complete. Anyway, we were going to have a party to celebrate originally, but the Hardys received some bad news last week. Eli’s grandmother is undergoing surgery this weekend and we decided to have everyone over Friday night as more of a support of friends. Everyone needs something to get their mind off of it all. We would love to have you here, to see the house and us.”
Sea Breeze, Alabama was only a two-hour drive away, but I hadn’t been to visit my brother and his wife there in months. They’d been here to visit several times and I’d not found a reason to go back. I had been back only once since their wedding last summer. It was time to visit and getting out of my routine here would do me some good. Maybe the restlessness I had begun to battle lately would ease if I took a little short trip.
I told her, “I’ll be there.”
“Wonderful! I can’t wait to see you. Come whenever you can get away. I’ll have the guestroom overlooking the gulf ready for you.”
“I’ll talk to Lila Kate. We normally don’t have late Friday classes. She does some private classes, but I’m not needed in the afternoon for long. I should be able to leave here by three Friday at the latest,” I told her.
“I can’t wait to see you. If you hear from Phoenix, tell her I’m trying to get in touch with her too. But her phone number is saying it’s not working . . .” Bliss trailed off as if she wasn’t sure if she’d said the right thing or not. My younger sister was a hellion and getting worse with each year. I hadn’t heard from her in three weeks since she showed up here drunk and needed to sleep it off before going to see our parents the next day. How she hadn’t flunked out of college yet, I had no idea. But the phone thing was odd.
“How long has it been giving you that message?” I asked, knowing Mom called to check on Phoenix daily. She needed the reassurance her baby was still alive. My poor momma.
“I called her three times before calling you. I was trying to catch her before she was in class.”
I held back a laugh. Phoenix had no early morning classes. The girl couldn’t get up before mid-morning at the earliest. “I’ll tell her. See you Friday,” I told Bliss before ending the call. I quickly found my sister’s name and hit call. Waited . . . and sure enough, the not a working number message played in my ear. Frowning, I looked at my phone and tried to think of every possible scenario. My parents paid her phone bill. She was a college student. They covered those things while we went to college. When I had decided to take a “break” from college, they’d agreed and would have kept paying my bills if I hadn’t asked for them to be handed over.
Knowing there had to be a reasonable explanation, I started to call my mother and stopped. Just in case there was something going on that would upset her, I decided calling Dad was a better idea. Mom was tough, but when it came to her baby girl, she got very worked up. It wasn’t that she loved Phoenix more, it was that she feared for Phoenix more. My sister was crazy as hell. With a mean streak a mile wide.
“Morning, beautiful,” my dad’s voice said over the line after the first ring.
“Good morning, Daddy,” I replied.
“I rarely ever get calls from you. Is it just my lucky day?” he was teasing. I visited my parents regularly. I also texted both of them. I did call my mom more though. The older I got, the worse that got. Needing to talk to her about things.
“I was wondering if you had heard from Phoenix?” I asked, getting to the point before my imagination got the best of me.
“Yes, I spoke with her yesterday. Why? Did she call you?”
Yesterday? That’s weird. “So yesterday her phone number was working?”
He paused. “It was . . . but as of today, it won’t be.” He knew about this, which meant she was okay.
“I tried calling her.” I stopped and waited for him to explain.
There was a heavy sigh then he cleared his throat. “Phoenix has decided she’s in love with a guy she met on her recent trip to London. She’s not taking her exams and finishing up this semester of college even though the t
ests are this week. Tossing it away because she doesn’t want to leave him. It’s her choice, but after speaking with your mother, we decided that if she can so easily toss away the money we have spent this semester on her college education with no regard to her future, it’s time we take a more firm hand. She wants to be grown and make her own decisions then she can. Starting with paying her own bills.”
I sat there with the phone in my hand unable to find words. Phoenix was in London with some man and our parents had cut her off financially. I was torn between being furious with her stupidity and panicking over her safety. She couldn’t survive out there. My little sister made the worst choices on a good day. Sure, not too long ago I’d been wild. Made some bad decisions. Was a little rebellious but it was a phase. I did “take a break” from college and not return but otherwise, I was doing good now. I’d never have run off to freaking London no matter how bad I got.
“How’s Mom?” I asked finally.
“Worried but like me, she knows we can’t keep funding Phoenix’s bad decisions. She has to grow up. Or at least step up and learn how to handle life on her own.”
They were right, but she wasn’t ready. The idea of getting on a plane and going to find her and slap sense into her was tempting. But so was finding her and holding her tight so she couldn’t do anything stupid that could hurt her.
“You haven’t told Nate,” I said, already knowing the answer since it was Bliss who called me about the number.
“No. I was putting it off. He’s finished the renovations on the house and they’re enjoying things being done there. No need to put a damper on things for him.”
Nate would freak the hell out when he heard this. Damper was a very tame way to describe his reaction. Dad knew that too.
“Bliss called Phoenix this morning. She’s who called me to ask about the not a working number message.”
Another sigh. “She’s supposed to call with her new London number by noon. I’ll make sure you get it then I’ll call and deal with your brother.”
“Okay,” I said, wanting to ask him more questions. Like did he have an address for her and had he done a background check on the guy or call some connection in London to find out more. But I didn’t.
Instead, I ended the call with our usual “bye love you” and hung up.
Sinking into the kitchen chair, I stared out the window no longer enjoying the view.
MAY 23 / 9:10 PM
WHEN I’D DRIVEN away from this town a year ago, I hadn’t planned on being gone so long, but until a call I got from my dad last week, I hadn’t even thought about returning. Life had changed me. They would never understand just how much. No one would and I wasn’t ready to tell anyone why or how. I had dealt with the demons and they hadn’t destroyed me. But there were times I thought little reminders just might.
Returning to Sea Breeze wasn’t what I was ready to do. Finding a way to face each day the past six months had been hard enough. Seeing my family wasn’t what I wanted to do and my life would never be here again. Even though it had been an easier life I left behind in Sea Breeze. Memories from that part of my life didn’t hurt anymore. Pain had been something I hadn’t truly experienced then. I’d been a spoiled fool thinking the events that had taken place back then were real heartbreaks. No love I’d experienced in Sea Breeze had ever brought me to my knees. That power was solely given to losing a life . . . beauty . . . innocence that in the end had never truly been real. A façade that would forever haunt me.
In the morning, I’d go to my parents’ house. They were expecting me. I was sure my sisters would be there. My aunt Larissa, her husband Micah Falco, and her daughter Jilly. There was a good chance my aunt Amanda, Uncle Preston and their three sons would be there too. The family would come together. They’d support each other as they always did.
Our gran was well loved. My father’s mother was our only grandmother. She was either a saint or an angel. Not many women would raise a child as her own that had been abandoned by her husband’s mistress. I was too young to remember it all, but Larissa had been the result of an affair my granddad had before I was born. Larissa’s mother had taken off even after my granddad had left my grandmother to live with the other woman and raise Larissa.
All that was history now. Something all of us forgot about, even Larissa. Gran was her mother. She saw it no other way. She adored her, and I knew that she would be taking this news the hardest.
Gran had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Surgery was scheduled two days from now. We would know then if and where it had spread. I inhaled deeply as the memory of my dad’s voice cracking as he told me over the phone. I’d never seen my dad cry or breakdown. But he’d been about to as the words came out of his mouth. My chest tightened again at the thought. My own emotions still raw from life and the knowledge of our fragile existence. My dad’s tears didn’t make him weak. It took a strong man to face the reality of death and loss. To embrace the emotions and be able to weep.
Life didn’t play favorites or keep score. It didn’t care about the innocent. If it did, my life would be very different now. The darkness inside me wouldn’t exist. I would still know how to truly smile. If life cared at all, babies wouldn’t die and my gran would live forever because of the beauty of her soul. She’d given more love than anyone I had ever known. She was the reason I believed in forgiveness. Even if I knew I’d never truly be able to forgive. I wasn’t like my gran. If life cared, it would take me instead.
I climbed off my bike and unhooked the duffle bag strapped on the back before turning to look at the house in front of me. It was impressive. Bliss had mentioned renovations they were doing to the already nice beachfront home they lived in a few months back in a text message. Bliss was settled down now. Her role as my best friend had changed the moment she said “I do” and I knew that was one of the reasons I’d taken Cruz Kerrington’s Harley and headed west with nothing but a change of clothes and a flask of whiskey.
I hadn’t wanted to be here when it all changed. At least that’s what I thought. I couldn’t say I’d do it again if I had known what would unfold. The guy I once was seemed like another lifetime ago. He had thought he was lost and needing to find himself. What a load of shit. I had been clueless as to what real loss was.
Standing here knowing Bliss was inside with her husband didn’t bother me at all. Which was why I had chosen to come here. I needed one night of sleep before facing my family. Before accepting the fact my gran might not be okay. Before my mother looked into my eyes and saw the emptiness that was unavoidable. She’d ask questions and I’d give her lies. The truth wasn’t something I wanted to share. Not even to her.
Walking toward the house, I hadn’t even made it to the front steps when the door swung open and Bliss came walking outside. Once upon a time, the sight of her long dark hair and blue eyes would grab me in the chest so tight I would lose my breath. Seeing her now, in the moonlight, I felt none of that. What was there was forever gone. Her presence didn’t feel like home. Not anymore. Seeing the happy glow on her face told me she was happy. Her life had turned out the way she hoped. This was where she fit. If I wasn’t hollow, I was sure that would give me peace. Nate Finlay had been her happily ever after even before she knew his name. Their lives had been intertwined since they were kids. I didn’t begrudge her this obvious joy she’d found. I knew she had seen the darkness at a young age and fought it. Life had let her live. For that I was thankful.
“Is this real? Has my life long best friend returned and . . .” she paused as she slowly took in my changes once I stepped into the light from the house floodlights. Her eyes went wide and her jaw dropped. I forgot how much my appearance had changed but seeing the shock in Bliss’s eyes I realized this was going to happen a lot over the next few days. I should warn my dad so he could prepare my mother. “Holy . . . Oh . . .”
A loud bark of masculine laughter followed by, “Holy fuck, man,” came fr
om Nate as he stepped out onto the porch to stand beside Bliss.
“Eli Hardy,” Bliss said slowly as if she needed to reassure herself this was in fact me. I wanted to say, “No. He won’t ever return. Because he wouldn’t. He was gone.” The man I was now was permanently altered inside much more so than outside. “Has your mother seen you yet?”
That got another laugh from Nate but Bliss ignored him and her eyes scanned my tattoos and hair. I didn’t want her to look into my eyes. If anyone could see the change, she would. She knew the boy I had been too well. I didn’t step farther into the light. I kept the shadows over my face enough to mask the rest.
“No. Came here first. I need a night of sleep before I face everyone . . . and deal with things,” I finally replied. I had to speak if I intended to stay at their house.
My words reminded her of why I was here. I saw the shadow of understanding and fear cross her face. Bliss understood cancer all too well. She was a survivor. “I’m so sorry,” she said the words I knew I’d hear a lot. Coming from her I knew she meant them. They weren’t just words because she didn’t know what else to say. She knew the horror of the disease. She’d faced death and lived.
I gave a nod. There was no reason to say anything. I’d been by her side as a teenager while she fought to live. I’d seen it even if I hadn’t experienced it. I had thought I understood death and the fear that came with it. But what I had experienced at Bliss’s side as a kid was nothing compared to what I knew now. Dying isn’t the part to fear. It’s surviving.
“Eli, if your mother doesn’t already know about this,” she motioned toward me. “The changes in your appearance. I think,” she paused and took a deep breath. “Maybe she needs to be warned before you walk into her house with all your family there.” I could tell Bliss didn’t want to say this to me, but she thought it needed to be said.