Authors: Minka Kent
There are no police lights, no investigators, no broken glass.
Just a pacing Niall.
I watch him through the kitchen window, practically wearing a pattern into the kitchen tile, and when I let myself in through the back door, I’m greeted with his lanky arms wrapped around my shoulders.
“What’s this about?” I ask, letting him hold me as I breathe in the faint scent of his morning shower mixed with the scent of antibacterial soap that always lingers on his skin.
“I came home, and you were gone. There was no note. I was just worried,” he says.
This is about the other night. It has to be.
He has concerns about my mental stability now.
He thinks I’m seeing things.
He thinks I’m behaving abnormally, erratically, and irrationally.
He isn’t all wrong.
“I just went out for a couple of drinks,” I say.
His gaze falls to the leather messenger bag slung across my body. I wait for him to ask why I brought my laptop, and then I quietly exhale when the moment passes.
“Alone?” he asks, his tone equal parts disbelief and concern.
“It felt good to get out again.” I remove the bag and sling it over the back of a kitchen chair. “Baby steps, right?”
When I turn back to him, he cups my face in his hand, eyes searching mine. A shiver runs through me, the good kind. And then I’m blanketed in velvety warmth, the kind that feels like home.
“You have no idea how worried I was.” There’s a lightness in his voice that wasn’t there before. I suppose he’s relieved.
“You don’t have to worry about me.”
“You say that like it’s so simple.” His thumb brushes across my lower lip, and I’m too paralyzed to move. “You’re the
thing I worry about.”
Oh, my God.
He wants to kiss me.
I see it.
But I’m not ready.
I’m not there yet.
Niall is my closest friend. My companion. And my confidant.
I’m not prepared for that to change even if I have fantasized about it more times than I should.
I’m paralyzed. Unable to speak, unable to move. Terrified of scaring him away but also wondering what would happen if I succumbed to this moment with him. All those times I thought he pitied me, perhaps I had it all wrong.
The space between us closes, and an endless moment later, his lips are pressed against mine.
His kiss is soft, lingering. Merciful.
I kiss him back—against my better judgment, lifting my hands to his face and letting my fingertips trace his jaw before trailing down his neck.
And then he turns away, the kiss ending before it had hardly begun.
Molten heat sears my cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
I chew the inside of my lip, avoiding his eye contact.
“We shouldn’t rush this,” he says. “Your recovery. You have no idea how many people I see every day, patients who want things to go back to normal so badly that they hurry their recoveries and find themselves sick all over again,” he says.
I take a step back, arms folded. “I’m not one of your patients.”
“That’s not my point,” Niall says. “One thing at a time. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.”
“You do realize you kissed me first?” I say.
He drags his hand through his neatly combed hair, his lips moving though nothing comes out but a sigh.
“This is about the divorce, isn’t it?” I ask before he answers my first question.
Last I knew Kate still hadn’t signed.
It’s possible he likes me.
And it’s possible he’s still holding out for her.
And it’s also possible that he kissed me and suddenly felt guilty and now he’s trying to backtrack, to put it all on me.
Exhaling, he lifts his shoulders and lets them fall. “Yes.”
Niall might be a lot of wonderful things, but he’s also a man with baggage and a past.
“Good night, Niall.” I squeeze past him and leave the kitchen, heading to my room and locking the door behind me. Not that I need to. It feels more like a metaphor than anything else. I need to guard my heart right now.
I need that separation and distance.
I strip down and change into jersey-soft pajamas, pale peach covered in tiny flowers. Girlish. Unsexy. And then I wash up for bed. When I’m finished, I grab my phone and lie in bed, ignoring the fact that it’s hardly seven o’clock.
The glow of my screen stings my eyes, and I dim the brightness until my vision adjusts. Tapping the Instagram icon, I get a wild hair to search for Niall. I’m not looking for anything specific . . . just looking for the sake of looking.
He’s a few years older than me and one of the rare human beings on this earth who aren’t walking around with their noses buried in their phones all day long. I don’t think I’ve ever once actually seen him use any kind of social media app, but it’s worth a shot.
I type in “Niall Emberlin” and hold my breath.
Out of curiosity’s sake, I type in “Kate Emberlin.”
I go through each of them, top to bottom. Three of them are teenage girls. One is a grandmother type. And the other lives in the United Kingdom and wears black lipstick and dyes her hair purple. I’m willing to bet that’s not her.
Half of me is disappointed that I can’t see what Kate looks like; the other half of me is almost relieved. I could spend all night comparing myself to her, digging up dirt and sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong, but it would all be for naught.
At the end of the day, if Niall wants to be with her, he’ll be with her. Wasting my time comparing the two of us won’t change the fact that he kissed me when he clearly isn’t ready to move on from his marriage. The fact that Kate hasn’t signed the papers yet is an indication that there’s still hope for them, that it isn’t necessarily over.
Before closing out of the app for the night, I do a final check on the other me, finding a new picture posted mere minutes ago.
She’s at the Clever Canary, some bar I’ve never heard of in the Merchant District, not too far from where Niall took me for dinner.
A photo of four martini glasses lined up precedes a group selfie of her with three friends, the same friends she was meeting up with at Baru 46.
The final photo in the series is of her, Sazerac in hand and head tilted at a flattering angle.
“Last-minute drinks at #theclevercanary with my girls!” she captions the second photo.
I’m moments from clicking away when something in the photo catches my eye. Pinching the screen with my thumb and middle finger, I zoom in for a closer look at the bracelet on her wrist.
It’s a bit grainy, somewhat hard to make out, but it looks almost identical to the rose gold mantra cuff I used to wear to the office all the time, the one that said, N
. I’d originally purchased it after starting a local ninety-day fitness camp with my friends, but I continued to wear it as a general reminder that applied to most things in life.
I darken my phone and place it on my nightstand.
And then I make an executive decision.
I’m confronting this woman.
And I’m doing it tomorrow.
“Can I help you with something?” A pleasantly plump woman with fuchsia lipstick on her teeth stands in the doorway of the apartment manager’s office at the Harcourt the next morning. “You’re not Jamie, are you? I’m supposed to meet a Jamie for a tour at eight thirty.”
“No. Not Jamie. Just waiting for a friend,” I say, remaining planted on a tufted bench across from the fountain outside the now-functioning elevator where I’ve been camped out for the past hour and a half.
I’m not sure how much longer I intend to wait. I’d hoped I could catch the other Brienne before she left for work, but so far there’s been no sign of her.
Every few minutes, I feel the manager staring at me from her perch behind her desk, and I don’t blame her. It’s odd that someone would be sitting here for a solid hour and a half, checking their phone and counting ceiling tiles. But I’m determined to confront this other me.
This has gone on long enough.
I’m done with being careful and strategic because it’s gotten me absolutely nowhere.
This ends today.
I’ve practiced my speech a dozen times since I arrived, waffling back and forth between classy and civilized to screaming and confrontational. I’m sure I’ll handle myself with dignity when the time comes, though.
While I’d love to give it to this woman, I know I won’t regret taking the high road.
And after I explain who I am and talk to her, I’m going to walk her over to the manager, where she’ll admit that she’s a fraud and that she isn’t who she’s claiming to be, and we’ll settle this matter like adults.
I’d have gone directly to the manager from the beginning, but you never know with people. She might think
the crazy one, and then she might tip the other Brienne off, and if that happens and she gets the hell out of Dodge, I’ll never know who she really is and I’ll never be able to find her. That, or the police will be called and I’ll be handed a restraining order.
The manager stares in my direction once again, only this time I stare back until her gaze flicks away and she shuffles a stack of papers.
I pull out my phone for the dozenth time and check the other Brienne’s Instagram in case she’s out and about, but she hasn’t updated anything since last night, when she was celebrating her Thursday evening with cocktails at the Clever Canary.
All I want is an answer. An explanation. And for this to end. I don’t even need an apology despite the fact that it’s beyond reprehensible to inflict mental trauma on someone who’s already been victimized.
The whoosh and slide of the main door steals my attention, but when I turn, I find an older gentleman making his way to the elevator, a shiny mahogany cane in hand. He gives me a nod before stepping in and disappearing behind the closing doors.
Scanning the lobby, I glance toward the management office and find the woman with the bright lipstick playing on her phone, only the phone seems to be pointed in my direction, unnaturally upright. Her fingertips are tapping against the screen, but no one texts holding their phone straight up and down.
She’s trying to take a picture while pretending she isn’t.
I turn away, chin tucked against my chest.
Taking my time, I gather my things and see myself out. There could be a million reasons why this woman hasn’t left her apartment yet this morning. Maybe she doesn’t go into the office until later? Maybe she went home with someone last night after drinks? Maybe she doesn’t work on Fridays?
Regardless, the office manager could quickly and easily become a thorn in my side, and the last thing I need is to be banished from the Harcourt when I’ve yet to have my moment with this imposter.
A minute later, I’m in my car, debating whether I should hang out here for another twenty or thirty minutes on the off chance she
home and happens to be heading into the office late today.
I had no idea how long I’d be out today, but I was sure to leave a note for Niall this time. “Running errands,” was all it said. I even added a smiley face so he wouldn’t worry like before.
I decide to stick around but only for an hour.
It’s still midmorning by the time I pull into the driveway. She never showed. The entire morning was a bust. When I get inside, I plan to crumple the note I’d left earlier and toss it in the garbage. I don’t want him asking where I went or why. He doesn’t need another reason to worry about me or to doubt my frame of mind.
We haven’t seen each other since that awkward kiss last night, but I’m hopeful nothing will change between us. We’re both mature adults. I’m confident we can move forward.
I climb out of my car, hit the lock button, and head to the back door, keys in hand as I scan my surroundings. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed; I’m constantly worried someone’s going to jump out from behind a bush or from behind the detached garage and grab me.
As I get closer, I notice a half-bent brown and black tail poking up from behind one of the steps.
She mews before she makes a full appearance, and I realize she’s licking at an empty can of tuna fish someone had placed next to the back steps.
It wasn’t me.
And I know for a fact it wouldn’t have been Niall.
He’s deathly allergic to cats, and he’s the one who cautioned me about not feeding her in the first place—not that I needed to be cautioned. Everyone knows not to feed animals unless you want them coming around on a regular basis, and the last thing I need is for something to become dependent on me in any capacity. I need to be able to take care of myself first before I can take care of another living, breathing life-form.
“Sorry, Bea.” I take the empty can of tuna before sticking my key in the lock.
Once inside, I toss the thing in the trash. It isn’t even a brand I buy or keep in the pantry, so no idea where it could’ve possibly come from.
Maybe she carried it here from somewhere else?