Read Toxic Online

Authors: Kim Karr

Toxic (7 page)

Jeremy eyed me, and then grabbed the bill. “We’re ready.”

I tried to pay my share, but he refused to let me. He always refused.

I hated that he worked so hard for what he had and I’d just come into a trust fund with millions in it. I wanted to share with him what I had. Pay for him to go to grad school. But I knew he’d never accept a dime from anyone. That was just how he was—proud.

On the drive home, Kat and Jeremy mostly talked. It was a relief. He stroked his thumb back and forth over my hand while I closed my eyes and pretended everything was going to be okay.

But I knew that wasn’t true.

How could it be?

Kat was suspicious.

Jeremy didn’t have a clue.

I was a liar.

And I knew I was going to stay that way.

Another three weeks passed.

Everything was blissful.

But I had yet to tell him the truth.

What Jeremy and I were having was a great love affair.

That’s what Lily called it anyway. She called me almost every day for updates. She wanted sex updates more than anything else. She couldn’t have been happier for me. She was even more happy that I had come to know what a real orgasm was. And she was right; I hadn’t known what I was missing.

But what she didn’t understand was the guilt I felt that my new relationship was built on a lie. For almost two months now, I had been pretending to be Phoebe Saint. A girl from the city. No one special. Average. No one anyone particularly cared about except Jeremy.

And that was all true, except for two things—my name and my money.

The lie had grown gargantuan. I had told him my father was a manager, which he was. I just didn’t tell him my father was the man he hated.

My friends pleaded with me to tell him the truth. They could see how much I cared about him. But they were so lost in their own adventures—mine wasn’t much of a blip on their radar. With Lily gone, I was mostly on my own. Emmy was high now most of the time, Danny was being Danny and just having fun, and Logan, like me, wasn’t around much. Something was going on with his father that had caused him to have to go to Boston a few times. All I knew was each time he came back he had enough coke with him to make both Emmy and Jamie happy.

I, on the other hand, wasn’t pleased with the drug use at all but since Jamie wasn’t exactly happy with me, he wasn’t listening to what I had to say. He didn’t like where my relationship with Jeremy was headed, which according to him was nowhere since I refused to tell him the truth.

It wasn’t that I refused.

I just couldn’t.

Jeremy and I spent little time in town. We’d ventured into South Hampton itself only once or twice, so it wasn’t hard to avoid seeing my parents.

At least I didn’t have that to worry about. I couldn’t even think about whether my father would find out about my mother’s affair and leave her. Regardless of everything, my father and I were her life. I couldn’t accept what she’d done. I didn’t understand it. I despised cheaters. So I chose not to think about it.

Instead I spent my time with Jeremy—happy. Time passed quickly.

It was a sunny afternoon and I was sitting out on the back porch when I clicked
SCHEDULE
on the Department of Motor Vehicles Web site. Signing up to take my driver’s test was so easy, so real, I couldn’t contain myself.

I shot up and ran in the house. “Jamie,” I yelled.

He came into the kitchen looking like shit. “What the fuck? Is the house on fire?”

“I need a ride to the club.”

He ran his hand through his hair. “Why now?”

“I have some good news I can’t wait to share.”

“And that would be?”

“I scheduled my test to get my license.”

Jamie never said no. “You better fucking love me because you know if you were anyone else you’d have to blow me first.”

I was used to his crassness. Jeremy would probably kick his ass just for saying it to me, but I knew if they’d spent any real time together, they’d be friends. They were a lot alike.

Emmy walked in. “Can I tag along?”

She must have been listening.

Her bleached waves of hair fell all the way to the points of her pelvic bones, which protruded even more in her skimpy bikini.

“Sure,” I said.

“Sorry,” Jamie said, sweeping her with his eyes. “I have some things to do afterward.”

Emmy pursed her lips. “I bet you do.”

Jamie sighed heavily and turned and walked outside.

I stayed behind. I didn’t care if she came but obviously Jamie did. I wondered what was going on but I knew better than to ask him.

“Are you okay?” I asked Emmy instead.

Her head shot up and I noticed her face was pale, there were dark circles under her eyes, and her cheeks were hollow. “Couldn’t be better.”

“Well, if you need to talk—”

“You won’t be around,” she said fiercely and walked out the back door, slamming it behind her.

We hadn’t been getting along for a while.

I didn’t follow her. Instead, I went the other way—toward Jamie.

He stood on the broken front porch step with his hands in his pockets. “Ready?”

I nodded. “Emmy’s not eating again.” I didn’t have to ask her, I could tell.

“Yeah, I know.”

“Did you tell her parents?”

“Fuck no, they’d just lock her away again.”

We took our time walking to his car. “She needs to quit the coke.”

He nodded.

“And so do you.”

He looked like crap as well. “I know.”

I wasn’t going to lecture him. He knew it was time to quit. “What are we going to do about Emmy?”

“We? We aren’t going to do shit. She’ll freak if she thinks you’re in on anything.”

I looked at him knowingly.

“I’m going to stop by her sister’s after I drop you off.”

“Is that why she’s mad at you?”

His laugh was bitter. “No, she doesn’t have a fucking clue. She’s mad because I fucked some redhead model last night and I wouldn’t let her join us.”

“So you two broke up again?”

He opened my door. “No. There’s no breaking up since I was never with her.”

“Yes, you were.”

He lifted a brow. “Do you really want to talk about this?”

I pulled the door closed, not only on him but the conversation. We obviously had different definitions of what being with someone meant. Mine was that if you slept with someone consistently, you were with him or her. Same argument we’d had for years, but in his defense, we had agreed it was best not to discuss Emmy.

As soon as he got in the car, he turned to me. “You need to tell your boyfriend the truth, Phoebs.”

“What’s the matter with you?” I blurted out.

“You,” he spit back. “I’m tired of all the bullshit going on here. Emmy’s issues. Logan disappearing. Danny hiding who he is. And you too. Just quit the fucking lying to that guy. He doesn’t deserve it. Who you are isn’t a big deal and you’re making it worse by continuing to lie to him. He’s going to find out.”

The hostility in Jamie’s eyes made my guilt instantly flare. “I know,” I sighed. “I want to tell him. I’ve tried to tell him so many times already but I just can’t seem to get the words out.”

“What is it you’re really afraid of?” he asked.

I didn’t hesitate in my answer. “You already know. That he’ll dump me because of who I am,” I confessed again.

He looked at me knowingly.

“He has this chip on his shoulder about people with money.”

“So you’ve said. Did something happen to him?”

“I think it’s just from spending every summer of his life in the Hamptons and being subjected to poor behavior.”

“I can see that. But he knows you. If he dumps you because of your family, he’s not the right one for you anyway.”

I shook my head. “You don’t understand.”

“I do and that’s why you need to tell him before it’s too late.”

“I will . . . soon,” I conceded.

Concern flashed in his eyes. “Promise?”

“Promise.”

But I couldn’t tell Jeremy today. Today was a good day and I didn’t want to ruin it.

He had been the one to teach me how to drive, and even though my mother had insisted it wasn’t necessary—“After all that’s what drivers are for,” she’d said on many occasions—I’d finally made my appointment to get my license.

And I was excited to tell him that I had. He had been urging me to do so.

Jamie and I drove in silence the rest of the way.

When I got out of the car, I turned to him. “Thank you, Jamie. I really appreciate it.”

He reached for my hand. “You know I’d do anything for you and I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

“I know.” I closed the door and thanked him again for the ride.

The parking lot was empty except for a few cars and Jeremy’s motorcycle. It was Monday and the country club was closed but Jeremy was working to prepare for the Fourth of July celebration.

I began at the pool but he wasn’t there. I walked around the grounds but there was no sign of him. An hour had passed and I had looked everywhere for him but he was nowhere to be found. I started to search places I’d never been. When I still couldn’t find him, I went up front, a place I normally stayed away from.

“Miss St. Claire, how nice to see you. What can I help you with?”

The hairs on my arms rose. I was surprised the receptionist had remembered me but I’m sure part of her job was remembering everybody. “I’m looking for Jeremy McQueen?”

“I’m not sure where he might be or even if he’s still working here.”

I smiled. “Thank you. Have a good day.” I should have known she’d be no help.

I went back outside and finally pulled out my phone to call him. I had wanted to surprise him but it didn’t look like that was going to happen.

When he didn’t answer, I was ready to give up. I stopped in the restroom before heading back out to call Jamie and shock filled me as I stared through the open door.

The shock turned into betrayal quickly.

There he was—embracing her. Kat. Locked away. Hiding. If he wanted her, why be with me when it was so easy to be with her?

Kit-Kat.

I didn’t like their friendship. I didn’t. I never could explain why. But seeing the two of them together, like that, I knew why. Jealousy. And valid jealousy at that.

Panic rose in my chest but it turned to something darker very quickly. “I can’t believe you. You lying cheat.” My words were sharp like glass.

He looked at me. Our eyes locked. He dropped his hold on her. My stomach turned and my throat got tight.

How long had he been touching her like he touched me?

He was as much a liar as I was. How could I have been so naive?

“Phoebe,” he said, shocked to see me.

I shook my head, mouth clamped shut with nothing else to say.

He took a tentative step my way.

I flinched and took off, running as fast as I could. I felt sick. Sicker than I’d ever felt.

“Phoebe!” he called.

Without turning around, I wove my way through the hallways.

“Wait up, it’s not what you think,” he yelled.

I didn’t stop. I just kept running right out to the parking lot.

As soon as my feet hit the pavement, he grabbed me and turned me around. I wouldn’t look at him. I was trembling. “You are a cheat.”

Angry. Upset. Hurt. That was all I could say.

He took my face in his hands. His eyes, his blue eyes, blazed with intensity. “You don’t really believe that?”

I couldn’t listen. All I could see was the way his hands grasped her face and his thumbs stroked her cheeks, while his lips kissed her forehead. It was the way he always comforted me. It was special to me and he had been doing it to someone else.

“How could you do that?” I shouted and broke free of him.

His thumb kept caressing my cheek. “I’m sorry, okay? But it’s not what you think.”

“Don’t touch me,” I said sharply, jerking back.

“Phoebe, you’re overreacting. Let me explain.”

I couldn’t. I was too raw. I looked at him, stared into his eyes and as tears sprung into mine, I whispered, “I have to go.”

He reached for me. “Phoebe, don’t walk away from me.”

I glowered at him.

“Phoebe,” he said in a hoarse voice.

I shook my head and threw him a disgusted look. As soon as I did, something changed in him. Just like that, he went hard, cold. I could see he’d disconnected from me—completely.

Feeling myself about to crumble, the thoughts of his betrayal forced my need for self-preservation. I twisted the butterfly ring I wore on my right hand. The one my parents had given me for my eighteenth birthday. It was meant to signify change and transformation into adulthood but right then I felt like that lost child I had always been. I didn’t know what to do but somehow I managed to speak. “Please, leave me alone.”

Rage seemed to overcome him, his temper taking over. “What do you think, that I was fucking her too?”

I just stared at him. That’s exactly what I thought.

He shook his head. “Believe what you want. I thought you knew me better than that.”

I’d thought so too. “I will.” I walked toward the main road where I dissolved into a weeping mess. I walked for some time, thinking he might have followed me. When I finally had the courage to look back, I saw the long and narrow road. The trees that blew in the wind. The sky that looked especially blue. But the picture was still ugly because he wasn’t in it.

I’d turned my back and he hadn’t followed me.

CHAPTER 5

Next to Him

Where was I?

The soft, sensuous fabric that enveloped my bare skin felt unfamiliar. My mouth was dry. My stomach uneasy. My head pounded. Against my better judgment, I peeked through one eye and a sea of gray blurred my vision, not the familiar pale blue bedding I was used to. With my fingertips, I caressed the material; soft jersey lay beneath my palms, not the silky satin of my own sheets.

It was not my bed.

On high alert, my eyes flew open and small pieces of the night before swept through my mind.

My wedding day.

The club.

Champagne.

Drinking. A lot of drinking.

My friends.

Dawson.

Lars.

Fucking Lars.

And Jeremy.

Jeremy!

My senses intensified as the rhythmic sound of steady breathing drew my attention. I couldn’t move. Finally, I slowly forced myself to turn around and my stomach rolled with the motion.

First I felt relief.

Then horror.

On its heels came nervousness.

A muss of sandy brown hair, messy and wild, rested on the pillow beside me. His bare back was to me, and the familiarity of his long, lean body caused my breath to catch at the sight. I’d have known him anywhere.

There was a time—he was my world.

Yet, in that moment, I had no idea what I was doing with him.

Him!

Faint snapshots of memory of the night before flashed before me. I remembered gazing into his eyes, talking to him, walking away from him, but that was all I could recall.

My heart beat frantically and I wanted to scream, “What am I doing here with you?” but instead I lay frozen and tried to recall how I’d ended up here.

With him!

Squeezing my eyes closed, I focused. But all I saw was a black hole. And I couldn’t control my near hysterical reaction. Not when he was the one lying beside me.

I concentrated.

I tried with all my might to remember.

When I couldn’t, panic encroached further on me.

My breathing became erratic. My pulse raced. My heart sped up.

I wasn’t afraid of him, but I was petrified to see him again—sober. Yet, the magnetic pull that was always there kept me where I was.

It stopped me from running.

I had spent so many days, weeks, months, even years reliving my time with him—embracing the good times, wishing I hadn’t lied, wishing I didn’t see what I did, wanting so desperately to have reacted differently.

Yet, it never changed the past.

I should have been more confident in us.

This was my chance to make it right.

Through everything, all the heartache, the loneliness, the sadness and sorrow, the one thing I never regretted was meeting him.

Him.

Jeremy McQueen.

He wasn’t just any boy—he was “the boy.” The one I never should have met, and the one I’d never trade meeting for the world.

Although my experience with him changed my life, for the longest time I wasn’t sure if it had made it better or worse. I should have been stronger after him. I should have been more determined to be who I wanted to be. But instead I felt weaker than ever and took the road laid out for me. It wasn’t his fault though—it was mine.

My choices.

My weaknesses.

But I was in a good place now. Why I ever wanted to change my life, I couldn’t recall anymore. I loved my job, was happy and satisfied with what I had become.

I stared at his tousled sandy brown hair, in what I could only assume was his bed, and started to wonder if what happened that summer so long ago was actually a blessing. After all those years, I still didn’t know for certain. All I knew for sure was that after him, I’d never been the same. But I had locked those memories away long ago, rarely letting them out. Thinking about that time was a luxury I couldn’t afford—it made me sad, weak, and at times unable to function.

So as I lay here, I couldn’t fathom what I was doing with him. Why we would have ended up together at the end of the night. I should have stayed away from him. My nerves started to fray as the memories I had so diligently packed away came rushing back, no doubt elicited not only from his reappearance in my life, but from his close proximity. The twinges in my stomach were relentless.

I had to calm down or I’d never recall any of the events of the previous night that had led me here.

The sound of splashing water from overhead caused my gaze to shift upward. The architecture of the ceiling was a combination of exposed wooden joists and a skylight that blended seamlessly together, offering a beautiful view of the outdoors.

I saw that it was raining outside as I scanned my surroundings. All the walls were painted white and the one across from me was exposed brick. The floors looked like old wooden planks that had been stained a chocolate brown.

With a thump in my chest, I couldn’t help but peek over at him again. He was the boy I’d caught a glimpse of in the pool on my twenty-first birthday and in that one moment he had forever changed my life. Meeting him opened my heart. Little did I know then, but his face and body would haunt my dreams for years to come. Now inexplicably I was in bed with him, and I had no idea what had brought us to this point.

He stirred, but didn’t wake, for which I was grateful because I wasn’t ready to talk to him yet.

I had, however, dared to widen my gaze and the sight of him lying on top of the sheets, all long, muscled limbs, and smooth sun-kissed skin made me yearn to touch him.

Except I knew I shouldn’t.

Slowly, I turned over.

This was killing me. I couldn’t stare at him so close to me and not touch him. Once I was facing away from him, I stared out a huge industrial window. The neo-Gothic design of the Woolworth Building in the distance gave me a slight sense of direction.

Tribeca.

Sunlight fought to filter through the clouds and I closed my eyes again. When I was young I had a favorite book—
The Velveteen Rabbit
. There was a passage in that book that I often thought about whenever I thought about Jeremy because it seemed so fitting.

“What is REAL?” the Velveteen Rabbit asked the Skin Horse one day. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Velveteen Rabbit.

The Skin Horse answered with “sometimes.”

I’d have answered differently.

Jeremy made me feel real for the first time in my life. And yes, it had hurt when he left. His absence from my life broke my heart into so many pieces—I never found them all. . . .

Now, he was beside me and I had no idea whether I would only break further.

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