Carter reed 2, p.9
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       Carter Reed 2, p.9

         Part #2 of Carter Reed series by Tijan
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  By the fourth shot, Amanda was toasting by herself. Theresa had dragged Noah to the dance floor, and we could watch them from our private box. Amanda took her phone out and texted someone, but then left it forgotten to the side.

  When she signaled for a fifth shot, I knew it was time. I’d been waiting since we got inside to confront her again. Theresa had stuck close to Noah, and I wasn’t sure if that was why Amanda was pushing the drinks or if she would’ve been anyway. I sat back and shook my head when she offered me a shot, too.

  “Suit yourself.” Amanda tipped back her head, downing the drink, as soon as the server left. She practically tossed the shot glass back on the table and turned, her frown becoming a scowl as she went right back to watching Theresa and Noah.

  I had covered for her earlier, pretending I’d been missing Carter as I watched the two¸ but now, my eyes narrowed. Maybe it was her. She was missing her boyfriend. Then I thought, fuck it for the second time that night and prepared to go in.

  “You’re still seeing him?” I began.

  She leveled her eyes on me. “What?”

  “You know what I’m talking about.” I raised my chin and squared my shoulders. This was going to be talked about, whether she wanted to or not. “You’re still seeing him?”

  “Was I supposed to break up with him?”

  I ignored that. “You haven’t told Theresa?” I knew she hadn’t.

  Her eyes narrowed. “Where is this going?”

  “You’re not a nasty bitch.”

  Her head reared back slightly.

  “But you’re acting like one right now,” I added, holding steady.

  Her mouth fell open, just a little bit. “Excuse me?”

  “What’s your problem? And don’t lie to me. You might be living with Theresa, but I know you better, and I know you’re not like this. What’s going on?”

  “Who do you think you are—”

  I cut her off, shooting forward so I was halfway across the table and almost in her face. “Your friend. Your family. That’s who I am.”

  “And you? What about you?” she countered.

  I sat back, frowning. “What about me?”

  “We’re all in this mess because of your guy. He’s in the mafia—”

  “No, he’s not.” He was.

  She rolled her eyes. “Stop, Emma. He still is. You’re the only one trying to fool yourself into believing he’s out. Theresa’s so scared that something will happen to you because of him.”

  “I went to him. I did. Because of Mallory. Because of what I had done. Me. He didn’t pull me into this life. Remember that.”

  “But you’re still in, because of him, and where is he? You two hardly go a night without seeing each other, and Theresa told me he hasn’t been around since they got here five days ago. Where is he, Emma?”

  I couldn’t answer that. All I could do was shake my head. “This wasn’t a problem before.”

  “No,” she sighed, losing some of her fight. “That’s the thing. You’re not leaving him. No matter what, we all know that’s the bottom line. You’re tied to that life, and that means we’re tied to it, too.”

  “Noah is friends with Carter, too—”

  “But he would pull away. For Theresa, he would pull away. It’s one of the reasons she’s scared to move in with him, because of his connection to Carter.”

  I stopped. Amanda’s response was so quick. She was so certain, and there was truth in that statement. I saw it on her face. She wasn’t looking away. They’ve talked about it. I sat back, blinking a few times. It made sense. Theresa had confided in me about Noah. Amanda confided about her new boyfriend. I shouldn’t have been surprised that they’d confided in each other about me.

  “Theresa didn’t tell me that,” I murmured.

  Amanda shrugged. “There are other reasons, I’m sure, but I know that’s one of them.”

  “Noah said that?”

  She nodded. “He said that to her one time, and she told me. He’s already pulled away from Carter. Haven’t you noticed?”

  I hadn’t. Carter had been so busy with Cole and the Mauricio family. “Their friendship is none of our business. They still train together.”

  “Not for a month. Noah stopped going in the mornings. He said Carter’s been gone, and since we’re all in New York, I thought he’d be here. Where is he, Emma?”

  I laughed, and the sound was bitter. “What is this? A Carter intervention?”

  “Maybe it should be,” she shot back, but then let out an exasperated sound and looked away. As she did, she wiped away a tear. Her fight was completely gone now, and instead, she just looked sad.

  “Is that what you want? You want me to leave him?” I asked.

  She didn’t look at me. She glanced down at her lap and shook her head. “No. I know that’s not fair. I know everything you said is right. Carter wasn’t in your life until you needed him, and it’s not fair. Now that you love him, you can’t leave him. I’m sorry. I just—I blame him sometimes.”

  “Why?”

  “Because…” Another tear fell. “Because if there was no Carter, I could be with Brian.”

  New understanding dawned. This was about her and her boyfriend. None of this was about Theresa and Noah, but about Carter and me. And her and Brian. My hand fell from the table to my lap. It hit with a thud, and that’s how I was feeling—a bus had hit me.

  “Are you thinking of leaving him?” I had considered pulling away from her, but never that she would leave him.

  “I have to, don’t I?” Her eyes raised to mine. The pain in there was like a second swift punch. I hadn’t seen her like this since she’d found out Mallory was dead.

  “Amanda,” I sighed.

  She shook her head. “Stop. I’ve gone over this, over and over in my head, and that’s the only thing I can see as an out. I knew about your relationship with Carter before I fell in love with Brian. I knew it was wrong. I tried to stop it, but I let it happen anyway. This is on me. I should’ve banned him from the store, but, Emma…” Her voice dropped, and I could barely hear her. “I was so lonely and he was so…” She sucked in a breath of air and used both hands to wipe her face. “It’s the only way out. I have to leave him. I have to do it now before…” Another statement she couldn’t finish, but I didn’t blame her. She asked me, “You haven’t said anything to Carter?”

  I shook my head. “No. I haven’t had the heart.”

  “Good.” She sounded relieved. “Good. I haven’t said anything to Brian, and I’ll break it off. I’ll do it when I get home.”

  “Now.” I said that word, but it wasn’t me speaking. It was a different Emma, someone I didn’t recognize. She was cold and firm while I was comforting and soothing, or that’s how I should’ve been. Amanda’s eyes widened, but I had to say it again. “You should do it now. Get it done. You’re here with us. Maybe you could take some time off next week. We could all stay here and help you.”

  She stiffened at my words. “Theresa doesn’t know.”

  “I know, and I’m here.” God, I was a heartless friend. I was wrong. I was the nasty bitch, not her, but this wasn’t the life we lived anymore. That was the truth about our situation. I couldn’t be the friend to her that I would’ve been before Mallory, before Franco Dunvan. “If you’re really going to do it, do it now.” I reached over the table and slid her phone so it was right in front of her.

  She took her phone. Her eyes didn’t leave mine.

  “It’ll be better this way,” I said. My heart was ripping, though. Chills went down my back from the sound of my own voice. I was so hard right now.

  “Okay.” She held the phone to her chest and slid out from her end of the booth. As she passed by me, she paused and said, “I’m going to need you after this.”

  I was going to hell. Grasping her arm, I squeezed it before letting my hand fall away. Pushing someone I considered family to end her relationship, that wasn’t right. She loved him, I could tell, and she’d never told Theresa
. She’d be mourning in silence.

  I was a shitty person.

  Then my phone buzzed with a text from Carter: I love you. I’m coming back tonight. I’m sorry for leaving without seeing you first, but I’ll explain everything. It took a day longer, but it was necessary. How are you?

  I replied, Fine. It’ll be good to see you. I love you. As I put my phone away, a tear fell onto the back of my hand. I hadn’t even known I was crying.

  Two songs later, Theresa returned to the box. Smiling and sweating, she ran a hand through her hair, fluffing it up as she slid next to me. “Where’s Amanda?”

  “She’s on the phone.”

  “Oh.” A small frown and then a shrug. “I hope she stays on it for a while.”

  “She’s not normally like that.”

  “I know.” Theresa cast me another frown as she picked up her drink and sucked from the straw. “Something’s up her crack, but I know it wasn’t me. She’s the one who wants me to move in with Noah. Maybe that’s what it’s about? You think she’s jealous?”

  I tensed. “Jealous?”

  “Of me and Noah. She’s alone. I mean, I don’t know why. She’s beautiful. I know she’s had offers, but she never dates. Is that what it’s about? She’s worried about when I’ll move in with him.” Her eyes got big and her hand flung up to cover her mouth. “Oh, no. I can’t believe I said that.”

  “When?!” I teased. “When? So it’s happening?”

  “Oh god. I just admitted it, didn’t I? I said it out loud.”

  “You did.”

  She leaned back against the seat and gripped her drink. She shook her head. “I can’t take it back. I mean, I’m doing it. I can’t believe I’m doing it.”

  “Speaking of doing it. Where’s Noah?” Sending her a knowing look, I asked, “Are you supposed to meet up with him in a private room somewhere?”

  She giggled. “No. But, damn, that’d be nice, huh? No, he got a phone call, and I think he was looking for an excuse not to come back here. Amanda’s usually quiet, you know?”

  I knew.

  “And she’s usually friendly, always kinda in the background. I don’t think he knows how to handle her when she’s like this.” She scratched her forehead. “Come to think of it, I don’t either. Did you fix it?”

  “Fix it?”

  “Fix Amanda. Did you send her off to get a new attitude before she comes back?”

  My heart broke a little more for my friend. She was off ending a relationship and was going to walk back into this? “If there was no Carter, there’d be no dilemma.” Amanda’s words came back to me. Hearing how tormented she’d been, I hadn’t known what to say. She’d said Noah would pull away, but maybe it was me. Maybe I needed to do what I’d considered doing before—pulling away from Amanda. I turned with new eyes toward Theresa. Would she be better off without me?

  Yes.

  The answer resounded in my head. They all would be. That was the right thing to do. Seeing Amanda so grief-stricken, I knew this was the right thing to do. She could still be with Brian, but the phone call—“Let me out.”

  “What?”

  “Let me out, Theresa!” I hadn’t meant to shout, but it got her going. She scooted out, and I was right behind her.

  “Where are you going?”

  “To stop a phone call,” I yelled over my shoulder as I ran from the private box.

  “What?”

  I heard Theresa behind me, but I kept going. Within seconds, as I knew they would be, the guards were around me. The new one who had shown up this afternoon was bigger than the rest, and he moved in front of me, clearing the way. I didn’t know his name.

  They needed to know where I was going, so I turned to Thomas. “I need to find Amanda.”

  He nodded and pressed a hand to his ear, speaking into his other hand at the same time. The new guard nodded and headed down a separate hallway. When we went past the exit door, I figured he knew where to go, so I kept following until we got to a back area. The music had faded, and there were fewer people in the hallway. The farther we went, the hallways grew lighter and lighter until I couldn’t hear the music at all anymore. Only two staff people passed us going the opposite way, and they frowned at us, but didn’t say a word. One girl had a black shirt tied in a knot underneath her breasts. The guy with her had a matching shirt on, and as I looked back, I could see the word SECURITY on the back of it.

  “Here.”

  The new security guard was at a door, but Thomas stepped in front of me, holding me back. The other guards went outside, shutting the door behind them. We waited for a moment until a soft tap sounded on the door, followed by a succession of three more taps.

  “She’s outside, Miss Emma.” Thomas moved to stand guard against the door.

  “You’re not coming out?”

  He shook his head, pressing his hand to his ear again. “She’s coming out. Mitchell, come back inside.”

  I heard a soft voice from his ear saying, “Coming.” Then the door opened, and Mitchell waited for me to step through.

  This was normal protocol. I don’t know why I was surprised. As I stepped outside into a back alley, I found Amanda with her jaw hanging down. She leaned against the wall with her phone still in her hand.

  I looked around at the guys. They’d positioned themselves ten feet from us at both ends of the alley, and Michael took point at the door. They were all going to be able to hear, which meant this would be reported to Carter—which you should’ve done yourself by now, an inner voice reminded me.

  “Is something going on?” Amanda asked me, straightening from the wall.

  “I came out to talk to you.” And not with them. I studied the guards. The conversation I needed to have—it couldn’t happen. Plan B. “Don’t say what you were going to say to the person on the other end of that phone.”

  “What?” She looked at her phone, her forehead wrinkling.

  “The phone call you left to make—don’t do it.”

  She showed me her phone, and I read the name, Shelly, on the screen. “To her?”

  “No. Is that who you’ve been talking to this whole time?”

  She grew sheepish, glancing down at the ground and biting the inside of her cheek. “I chickened out.”

  “Oh.”

  “I will. I promise—”

  “No, don’t. I…” What could I say here? “Don’t.”

  “But…” She gave the guards a meaningful look.

  “I know. I’ll fix it. I’ll make it work somehow.” By leaving you, but I couldn’t say that. That wouldn’t be a topic of discussion. It was just going to happen, and by the time they realized it, I’d be gone. It would be done. I’d need help with Carter, but that was for another day. “I promise. I’ll make it right,” I told her.

  “How?”

  I shook my head. “Who’s Shelly?”

  “My coworker. I was asking if she could take over some of my workload for next week.”

  “Oh.” I felt a tiny bit foolish. “Okay.”

  She skirted between me and the door, then asked, “You hurried out here to tell me that?”

  I nodded, feeling my throat tighten. I rasped out, “Yeah.”

  “Do you mean it?”

  “I do.” A little hole had formed in my chest, and I felt it growing as this conversation continued.

  “Thank you, Emma.”

  I couldn’t talk. I knew what this meant, what I was saying. Even if I changed my mind, she might not be willing to end it with Brian. Love was powerful. I had been given a blessing. Amanda had felt a moment of weakness, but it wouldn’t come back. I could see the relief in her eyes. It was so strong. She loved this guy with everything in her, and Amanda had never loved a guy before. She’d dated a couple, but that had been it. There’d been no mention of love. My soul mate couldn’t be the reason she had to give hers up, and I hoped, right now, that he’d be that to her—her soul mate.

  I was giving my family up for him. He’d better goddamn well be.
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