I shook my head. “No. I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“Let’s give it one more chance. We can take it more slowly. I—”
No, it was too much. This. And him. And it was worthless because I couldn’t help him. He needed someone warm and caring, someone who would nurture him and piece together the broken parts, someone who would look in his eyes and be his calming spirit. I was not that girl. I couldn’t even begin to piece together all my broken parts as I’d lost most of them long ago. I shook my head. “No.”
His disappointment felt …tangible. I wanted to turn away from it. He sighed and reached into his pocket, drawing out his wallet. He counted out the money and handed it to me. I almost declined—I had hardly earned it, but he must have sensed my reluctance because he pushed it forward. “I insist.”
I took it and stuffed it in my bra, forcing a smile, forcing myself to look him in the eye. “I’m sorry this didn’t work out. It…it wouldn’t be right for me to waste your time or money. There are several other girls here who I can recommend to take my place—”
“No, thank you.”
I cleared my throat. “Well, okay. Good luck.”
He nodded and stepped past me. I heard the click of the door as he closed it behind him, and something about it brought to mind a cell door shutting.
Don’t give up. Everything is possible when you have the right friends.
Shadow, the Baron of Wishbone
“Fuck,” I muttered, tossing the small stone bird aside. I’d just accidentally carved off his beak. I picked up a second piece of marble and sat staring at it for a moment before sighing and reaching for my hammer and chisel. For a few minutes I was able to get lost in the work as I roughed out the shape, but then her face crept back into my mind. I set my tools aside and removed my gloves.
I was too distracted to pay full attention to what I was doing. And stone carving required focus. I grabbed a bottle of water from the mini fridge in my studio and drank half of it.
I … I don’t think I’m the right girl.
Why had she felt that? And why couldn’t I stop thinking about her? Why couldn’t I get that haunted look in her eyes out of my head? It had followed me into my dreams for three nights straight now. Her panic. I couldn’t shake the feeling that she needed me even more than I needed her. I set the bottle of water down and raked my hands through my hair. Crystal … Crystal. I kept coming back to the way our eyes had met that last time, the pure vulnerability in her gaze, the way she’d looked lost and afraid, so desperately lonely. For just a moment, she’d let her walls down, and the tender beauty of it had stunned me. It had felt like the time George had brought me a geode when I was just a kid. On the outside, it’d just looked like a plain old rock, but when he broke it open, it was filled with glittering, purple crystals. I’d been surprised and delighted that such beauty could be contained in something so unexpected.
I kept coming back to that geode whenever I thought about Crystal. In that sense, her name really did fit her. But I also couldn’t help wondering if maybe I was just a fool captivated by the first beautiful woman I’d ever touched. Christ, I’d barely even touched her. Her dismissal had hurt me, and in all likelihood, she hadn’t given me more than a moment’s thought since. And here I was, feeling a cold, sinking sensation when I considered that I’d never see her again. That I’d never have the opportunity to find out more about her.
She doesn’t want anything more to do with you, Gabriel.
What had changed, though? The minute we’d connected—and there was no question we had—she pushed me away. Why? She had told me she could teach me how to turn off when I felt uncomfortable, so perhaps she’d never learned how to connect. To stay. Maybe we were more alike than I’d imagined. Considering where she worked, it was understandable that she set firm boundaries. Boundaries I was trying to push. Maybe I’d been wrong to ask that of anyone, even someone I was paying to do it—but it didn’t mean I couldn’t be her friend. I massaged the back of my neck as I paced my studio.
Be honest with yourself; you have more than friendly feelings for her.
A stripper. God, what was I doing?
What about you, Gabriel? How would people describe you if they were only going by the few things they knew? If they only met you once, only read the newspaper articles, what would you be called?
Sometimes we wore such hurtful, limiting labels in this life, whether they’d been assigned by others or by ourselves. I’d felt damaged and ruined once, but I didn’t anymore. I was still a work in progress, but I wasn’t a victim. I was a survivor.
And Crystal was more than just a stripper. More than just a girl who took off her clothes for men. I knew she was. I’d seen it in her eyes.
It still didn’t mean she wanted anything to do with me.
I was confused and frustrated, and my own thoughts were leading me around in circles, filling me with painful self-doubt. I thought about something my father used to say. When you can’t figure out what to do, Racer, you go with your gut. You might not be right every time, but you’ll never regret following your own heart, especially one as pure as yours. I stopped pacing as a sense of resolve settled over me. I was going to go with my gut. And my gut told me to try again. My gut told me she needed me to try again. If I was wrong, I was wrong—but somehow I felt strongly that no one had ever put much effort into trying when it came to Crystal. Maybe not even Crystal herself.
I flipped off the lights in my studio, locked up, and walked outside into the warm evening air.
The quarry had shut down for the night, all the workers were gone, and I took a moment to appreciate the stillness surrounding me. A hawk cried out, its caw echoing in the canyon, and the hum of insects rose and fell. A light breeze came up, and I turned my face up into it. God, that felt good after the heat of the last few days. The wind brought with it the smell of pine and earth.
“Hey, dude, you heading home?”
I turned toward Dominic as he approached from the direction of the showroom. “Oh, hey, I thought you’d left by now.”
“I had an appointment that went late. An indecisive couple who couldn’t agree on anything. Listening to them argue back and forth was like watching table tennis. I need a beer. You up to getting one with me?” He eyed me sideways as we started walking toward our trucks.
“I’m actually already going out.”
“I’ll come along.”
I cleared my throat. “Thanks, Dom, but I’m meeting someone.”
We stopped at my truck, and he raised his eyebrows before giving me a slow smile. “Who is she?”
“Just a girl I met recently.” Guilt ran through me. I felt like I was deceiving him.
“Well, holy shit. Why didn’t you tell me? Aren’t brothers supposed to discuss shit like this? I knew you were up to something.”
“No.” I laughed, opening my truck door. “It’s really not anything, but I guess … I guess I’m hoping it can be.”
Dominic grinned. “If you need any pointers, you know who to come to.”
I raised an eyebrow as I climbed in my truck. He held the door open. “Hey, what about Chloe?”
Chloe. Shit I’d almost forgotten I had an e-mail from her, thanking me for agreeing to the interview, that I still needed to answer. “Chloe is coming here purely on business, Dom. I haven’t even met her in person.”
“Yeah. I just thought you were hoping—”
“I wasn’t hoping anything.” Another lie, although I wasn’t exactly sure what the truth was anymore.
He put his hands up. “Okay, okay. I can see that your head’s been turned elsewhere.” He smiled, a sincere one. “Good for you, big bro. Have fun. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
As if that were even a remote possibility. “Night, Dom.” I laughed and closed my truck door and drove out of town, toward the Platinum Pearl, toward Crystal.
* * *
I sat through a couple of dances at the Platinum Pearl, but when Crystal didn’t come onstage, I asked a waitress if she was working. The girl confirmed she was but that she’d already performed and would be out on the floor soon. I ordered another beer, even though I hadn’t finished the first. I also ordered a plate of cheese fries just so the waitress serving my table wouldn’t get annoyed.
Fifteen minutes later, my heart leapt when I saw Crystal come through the doors with a tray in her hands. She was wearing the same uniform she’d been wearing the first time I’d talked to her, a tiny pair of “shorts” and a striped top tied between her breasts. I took a moment to watch her without her knowing. Her body moved fluidly even when she was just walking from table to table. She obviously felt comfortable in her own skin, had probably been told often enough she was beautiful. But even from here, I could see she had that same distant look in her eyes, that cynical tilt of her lips.
She bent to put a beer in front of one of the guys at a table in her section, and he ran his hand down the back of her thigh. For just a second, a look of pure disgust moved over her face right before she plastered on a smile and said something that made the guys at the table laugh. She hates them. She hates this. The thought came sure and swift. God, she probably hated me, too. Another man here to use her in some way or another. The same wave of guilt I’d felt when I first met with her swept through me. I took a long sip of beer, doubting myself all over again for being here. That’s when she caught sight of me. She seemed to freeze for a portion of a second, her eyes widening before she turned away, walking through the swinging black doors next to the bar that I assumed was the kitchen entrance. I released a pent-up breath.