Authors: Tressie Lockwood
Max grunted. “She is. Shira needs…well, she needs someone to look after her.”
His brother’s eyebrow rose. “If you know that, then you know you can be that one. Max, if you don’t get your head out of your ass, you’re going to miss what’s right in front of you.”
“I don’t want her. Not now. Not ever.”
Alec didn’t answer. When Max raised his attention from the mess he was trying to get up, he noticed Alec staring past him. Dread tightened the muscles of his stomach, and he turned around. Whisper and Shira were standing in the doorway. There was no doubt in his mind that Shira had heard his last words and knew they were about her. He was the worst of all men and the biggest fool.
She held up a hand and directed such a scathing look at him, he flinched. “Don’t even. Whisper, want to keep me company cleaning up this mess? Then we can get out of here.”
Whisper’s gaze raked over him as if he was nothing more than scum. That hurt. He loved her like a sister. Then she nodded to Shira. “Yeah, sure.”
Shira walked over to the table and took up his plate without asking if he was done. She nabbed his coffee cup and his silverware and disappeared into the kitchen. He knew he should say something to her, but maybe this was for the best. She would get along a lot better if she was angry and not hurt. He’d handled everything wrong, but none of them seemed to understand that he could not have a second mate. To even try was an insult to Sarah’s memory. He scraped his chair back and stood up. What he needed right now was a run—
. He met his brother’s gaze and saw agreement there. Alec would join in their leopard forms and run off some steam through the woods. Maybe when he was done, Shira’s face wouldn’t loom in his mind’s eye bringing with it guilt and an odd tightness in his chest.
Shira laughed at every funny scene in the movie and traded comments with Whisper as they watched. On some level she enjoyed herself, and her smile never wavered, but deep inside, a weight pressed on her. She couldn’t stop thinking of Max and of what he’d said. Whisper had lit into him. Shira had heard them arguing while she kicked herself for cowering in the kitchen. The truth of the matter was she was angry, but if she said one word to Max, she thought she might break down. She’d given enough of her tears to Sam, and he didn’t deserve them. Max wasn’t getting any. Not after what he’d said.
She kept leaning toward making excuses for him, telling herself that he was just hurt from losing the woman he loved. She wanted to tell herself that he was cut off from his emotions, but whether that was true or not, she couldn’t afford to give in to thoughts like that. They were what led to her staying in a relationship that was not good for her. Never again.
“Hey.” Whisper tapped her arm. “Movie over. Where are you?”
Shira blushed. “Oh, sorry. My mind was wandering.” She forced another smile.
Shira jumped at the sharpness in Whisper’s tone.
“You’re pretending to be on top of the world, and you don’t have to. I know what it’s like to be hurt when you give yourself to someone and they throw your gift back at you.”
Shira stilled at Whisper’s words. She didn’t want to hear it, but her friend went on.
“I could have ripped Max a new one for the way he acted and what he said. I know he’s not that kind of man, but there he was acting like it, and that I won’t stand for.” She rose, and Shira did as well. She couldn’t bring herself to say a word, but then Whisper didn’t seem to need a response. “I think he cares about you. He just doesn’t know how to face it. He thinks he’s betraying Sarah.”
This time Shira did comment. “Don’t. I can’t hear that right now. I get it that he likes me. He may even want me again after… Well, whatever. I’m over it. I admit I feel a little sad, but we’ve only known each other a short while. No need to throw myself into a depression because he said some mean words. Please, I’ve heard that and much worse.”
Whisper took her hand and held it. “I’m so sorry. You’re the last person to deserve him acting like that.”
Shira shrugged it off as if it was nothing, which was so not true. “My past made me stronger. Come on. I’m hungry. Let’s get dinner.”
They left the theater and walked down the street in the direction of the stores and restaurants. Shira noticed Whisper power up her cell phone. She needed one if she was going to get calls for jobs. She tallied the money she had and didn’t think she could afford anything other than a pay as you go phone for the time being.
Whisper made a noise of frustration, capturing Shira’s attention. Her friend handed over the phone, and Shira read the text message.
“Whisper, please have Shira give me a call. I need to talk to her.”
Shira handed the phone back just as it rang.
“Speak of the devil,” Whisper said. “You want to talk to him?”
Whisper chuckled and pressed a button that made the phone stop ringing. “So where are we eating?”
They found a restaurant and sat down. Soon they had drinks at their elbows and menus in hand. Shira automatically scanned the prices more so than the food itself.
“Get whatever you want,” Whisper said. “My treat.”
“You got the movie. I can get this,” she said.
“You can get everything the next time,” Whisper insisted.
Pride made Shira want to argue, but she had to give in. One way or another, she would get on firm ground. “Okay, fine. And thanks.”
“You got it. We have to stick together.”
Shira was half way through her dinner, at last able to fully enjoy herself, when she glanced up and froze in place. On the other side of the restaurant sat Sam with a woman.
“You look pale, Shira. Are you okay?” Whisper asked.
She opened her mouth to speak, but the words were nothing more than a breath. “Fine.”
“Who’s that?” Whisper said, obviously following her line of sight.
“That’s him? The asshole that—”
Her friend sucked her teeth. “I think I should get Alec to kick his ass.”
“What? He deserves it.”
Shira snapped out of her shock and fear, and laughed. “Yeah, he does. Thanks for the sentiment, but no, leave him alone. As long as he stays out of my life, I’m happy staying out of his.”
“And you should be.”
Shira made herself finish her meal even while her appetite had taken a nosedive. She would not let Sam steal anything else from her, including the delicious steak, baked potato, and side salad she had ordered. She had just swallowed the last bite and was wiping her mouth when a shadow blocked the light on her right. She looked up into Sam’s blue eyes.
“Shira, I thought that was you,” he almost simpered. “How are you?”
She stiffened when he leaned down and kissed her cheek. Whisper moved as if to stand, but Shira put her hand out. The anger rolling off her friend must have been obvious to Sam, but he acted like he didn’t notice. Shira glanced at Sam’s companion and caught an expression of resentment and jealousy, but she focused on Sam. Not paying him attention had cost her, and it was habit to do so now.
“Sam,” she said. There was no need to get into a conversation with him. The sooner he moved on, the better. She wasn’t going for the acting like they were old friends even if she was scared of him. A sense of panic had risen in her when his lips touched her cheek, but he hadn’t pushed it by staying close.
“I’ve missed you, Shira,” Sam went on. She chewed the inside of her cheek, hating him. Sam kept his distance, and his tone of voice was low and pleasant. Yet, he provoked emotions in her that she couldn’t explain. “Looks like you’ve put on a little weight.”
You always hated me so thin.
Their short time apart hardly made that much of a difference, but then eating regularly without drama didn’t take a lot to gain.
Shira clutched her hands in her lap and drew courage from somewhere deep. “Save your comments or compliments—or whatever they’re supposed to be—for someone who doesn’t know you like I do.” She eyed the woman and then focused back on him. “You’re not real, and what’s more important, I don’t give a damn what you think.”
The rage that flashed in his eyes made her want to run, but she stood her ground. He sucked in a deep breath and then smiled. “You hurt me, honey.”
“Don’t call her honey, fucker,” Whisper snapped. “Why don’t you just go about your business. Your girlfriend is getting jealous.”
Whisper’s words seemed to be too much for him. He whirled on her. “Know your place, before I put you in it.”
Her friend stood up, hands on her hips. “Oh please try.
please! My boyfriend would put you in the ground without breaking a sweat.” She looked Sam up and down. “Matter of fact, I’m sure I can take you myself, a spoiled little egghead like you.”
Shira sat there in awe. She didn’t know if she should laugh or drag Whisper back into her seat. She’d run her mouth too many times to Sam, and she never felt like he’d completely broken her. Still, even
wouldn’t have gone so far as to belittle him to his face. Whisper was brave, but then she could afford to be with a man like Alec behind her. What she’d said was probably true. Shira had seen the way Alec looked at Whisper. She bet he wouldn’t think twice about killing Sam because he put his hands on Whisper.
Sam’s face turned beet red. His nostrils flared, and he flexed his fingers at his sides. Even his date seemed surprised at his attitude and the way he appeared to be seconds from attacking Whisper. Shira reached out and pulled her friend’s hand.
“Don’t let him provoke you. He’s not worth it,” she said.
“Listen to your friend,” Sam pushed between clenched teeth.
They faced off for long minutes, but Sam was the one to turn away first. Whisper hadn’t blinked, nor had she backed down. Shira found herself wondering if Whisper would be that brave if she had no one to protect her and if she’d already suffered blow after blow from this man. Maybe some people were different. Maybe Whisper would have beaten him in his sleep and walked out. She admired her friend’s grit no matter what.
Sam uttered something insulting and turned to walk away. Then he came back and leaned close to Shira’s ear. “You remember what I told you, don’t you, honey?”
She stifled a tremor but said nothing. Sam left the restaurant at a clipped pace. His date had to almost run to keep up with him, and he didn’t hold the door for her as he disappeared through the exit.
“You had to deal with that for how many years?” Whisper asked.
Shira shook herself. “Five years. I was stupid, but I’m over it now.”
Whisper studied her. “Not yet, but I’m here for you, sweetie. Everything is going to be fine. I promise.”
Shira nodded, but she was beginning to wonder. Discussing the situation would do no good, so she changed the subject. For the rest of the evening, Sam occupied her thoughts and what to do about him.
* * * *
Shira snapped her earring into place and peered at herself in the mirror. She’d changed them three times from the selection Whisper had given her. The dress she wore was figure-hugging and short. The smooth, silky material stopped halfway up her thighs, and the neckline plunged a little lower than she wanted, but Whisper had convinced her to buy it along with a pair of sling backs that made her legs look longer than they were. Not that she didn’t think she looked good. She had to admit she did. The problem was, she wasn’t happy about going to this party tonight. Max was escorting her, and from what she could gather, his brother had coerced him into doing it for the sake of their business.
“Oh, wow,” Whisper exclaimed when she stepped into the room, “you look amazing. Max is going to be drooling over you all night.”
Shira rolled her eyes. “Please. The only reason he’s taking me is because of his business or whatever he and Alec are up to.”
Whisper walked over and began working a curl Shira had let fall at her temple while she’d put up the rest of her hair. She’d been to plenty of fancy functions on Sam’s arm, so she was an old hand at putting herself together.
“They’re trying to convince some mogul or whatever to get up off this commercial property they want,” Whisper explained. “He’s throwing this party, and they figure they’ll charm him. Alec is pretty good at that kind of thing.”
Shira wondered if Max was when he tried. The last week of him picking her up from Whisper’s apartment and taking her home in the evening wasn’t the best experience. He was quiet most of the time and gruff when he spoke. He mostly left her notes with instructions while he disappeared somewhere, but then later he would insist they have their meals together. He pissed her off, but this was their relationship until she found something else. Now that she was building a good friendship with Whisper, she couldn’t make herself leave town, even if Sam wasn’t far away. What to do about him still plagued her. She could only hope he would lose interest and move on.
“Well, why do I have to go?”
Whisper smacked her on the shoulder. “Because I’m not going to be bored mindless with those two talking business all night. Besides, you need to get out, so you’re going.”
Shira laughed. Whisper did push her more to live, and she didn’t mind. If she had her way, her face would be to the grindstone working overtime at some job so she could save. That dinner and movie the other night had been great aside from the run-in with Sam. She needed to unwind sometimes. “Fine. I’m ready. You look awesome by the way.”
Whisper did a spin. Her dress extended just a bit longer than Shira’s, but it was no less sexy. The style and vibrant color played up Whisper’s generous figure and set off her big breasts. Shira looked down at her own and sighed.
Oh well, it is what it is.
They left the bedroom just as the doorbell rang. Shira drew back, sudden nerves stirring in her belly, but her friend had no such reservations. Shira had noticed Whisper seemed lonely when she wasn’t with Alec, and they called or texted constantly when they were apart. She’d never seen two people more in love.