For the first time, Cammie looks unsure of how to answer. She looks to Caleb, who smiles at me indulgently.
“We went to college together,” he provides simply. “And, frankly, Sam, if Cammie recommends you — family or not — I believe you’re the best.” He winks at Cammie, who raises her eyebrows and smiles.
An alarm goes off in my head. Caleb was a hotshot basketball player in college. He slept his way through the cheerleading squad, and then went on to meet that home-wrecking bitch Olivia. I narrow my eyes at Cammie. Did she know Olivia? Had they competed for my husband? My questions are left unanswered, as money becomes the topic of conversation.
I half listen as Caleb offers Sam a generous salary, which he accepts, and before I can protest that I would prefer a traditional female nanny — preferably one with both a large ass and a large facial wart — Caleb is standing up and shaking Sam’s hand.
It is decided. Sam will take care of Estella five days a week, with evenings off to attend class. He will start tomorrow, as Caleb leaves in two days on another business trip and he wants to make sure Sam is settled before he goes. Which is code for: My wife doesn’t know what she is doing, and I have to teach you how to coerce her to use the breast pump.
I sigh, defeated, and remain seated as Caleb walks them to the door.
Well, I got my way — kind of.
I was not a commitment girl. Until Caleb rejected me — then I was. We’d had the talk, the one where I asked him where we were going, and he looked at me like I was a space alien.
“You knew,” he’d said. “You knew when you got involved with me that I wasn’t looking for commitment.”
I countered that I hadn’t been looking for anything, either. That things change when people click.
But, Caleb had remained firm. He wasn’t ready. He didn’t want me. He wanted her. He hadn’t exactly said that, but I knew it down to my marrow. I knew it by the way he always looked away when I brought her up. He wouldn’t even tell me her name. Whoever had ruined him had ruined everything for me.
I felt like a small piece of regurgitated potato skin. He just wanted to f**k me. I was curled up on my own sofa, after leaving his place in a fit of rage. I wanted to do something destructive. I called every single one of my slutty, ho bag friends and arranged to meet them for drinks.
I walked into the bar and had three numbers within an hour. Normally, I didn’t give any of the douchebags who approached me the time of day, but there was a doctor with an accent I found attractive. I tucked his number into my purse and had another drink.
By the time I left the bar, I was sufficiently sauced. Nothing new for me. I climbed into my car after bidding my girlfriends goodnight, and hadn’t driven five blocks when I crashed into a parked SUV. I sped off before anyone could notice me, but I was severely shaken.
I called my mother.
Her voice was impatient when she answered.
“Mom, I got into an accident. Can you come get me?”
“I’m in bed.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I’m drunk. I need you, Mom.”
She sighed heavily. I heard my father’s voice in the background and her snap — “It’s Leah. She’s gotten into some sort of trouble. She wants me to go get her.”
They exchanged words I couldn’t hear, and then she was back on the line. “Did anyone see you?”
I told her no.
“Good,” she said.
They spoke some more. My father sounded angry.
I waited patiently, massaging my head. It had hit the steering wheel on impact, and I felt the beginnings of a headache.
Her voice came back on the line. “Daddy is sending Cliff. He’ll bring you to the house.”
Cliff was my father’s driver. He lived in a little apartment on their twelve-acre property. I thanked her, trying to hide the disappointment in my voice, and gave her directions to where I was.
What had I expected? My mother hopping in her little, red Mercedes and driving to my rescue? A hug? I wiped the tears from my face and shrugged away the hurt feelings.
“Don’t be such a f**king little baby,” I told myself.
Cliff arrived ten minutes later. He parked his pickup in an empty lot and jumped in the driver’s seat of my car. I looked over at him gratefully.
He nodded and shifted the car into drive. The good thing about Cliff was that he wasn’t a talker. When we pulled through the gates of the mansion, all of the lights were out. I stumbled through the front door — which was left open for me — and felt my way up to the spare room. No mother waiting, no father waiting.
I cleaned up in the bathroom, put a band-aid on the cut on my forehead and swallowed three Advil for my headache. Crawling into bed, I drifted off, thinking of Caleb.
I woke up to the sound of my name. It was my mother’s voice, impatient. I sat up quickly and flinched at the pain that zigzagged across my scalp. She was standing next to my bed, fully dressed, her hair coiffed on top of her head in a perfect chignon. Her lips were ruby red and pulled tight. She was angry with me. I flinched again and pulled the sheet up to my chin.
“Your father is very angry, Johanna. This is the third time this year you’ve had an incident with your car.”
I shifted uncomfortably. She was right.
“He’s having breakfast. He wants you to come down so he can speak to you.”
I nodded. Of course he would send my mother. Ever his envoy, my father never spoke to me unless he sent my mother to summon me to a meeting. Even when I was a little girl, I remember being called this way when I did something naughty.
I hurriedly dressed in my clothes from the night before and followed her down the stairs to the dining room. He was sitting in his usual spot at the head of the table, with the paper spread out in front of him. At his elbow was a cup of coffee and a goat cheese and spinach omelet. He didn’t look up when I walked in.
“Sit,” he said. I scooted into a chair, and the housekeeper brought me a coffee and a small, white pill.
“Johanna,” he said, snapping his paper closed and peering at me with his hard, grey eyes. “I’ve decided that it’s in your best interest to come work for me.”
I started. I already had a job. I worked as a teller at a local bank. My father did not employ family; he called it a conflict of interest. Just last year, my cousin begged to be taken on as an accountant and my father refused.
“W — why?”
He frowned. ‘Why’ was not a word my father enjoyed hearing.
“I mean — you don’t believe in mixing family and work,” I rushed. My palms were sweating. God, why did I drink so much last night?
My father was handsome. He had olive skin and light grey eyes. He had spent ten hours a week in the gym for years and had the physique to show for it. With my flaming red hair and pale skin, I look nothing like him.
His eyes locked onto mine and in that moment, I knew what he was saying.
A dull ache worked its way across my chest as if it was searching for something. It found my heart, ripped it open and climbed inside. I picked my emotions up from the floor and looked my father in the eyes. If he wanted me to leave my job and work for him, I would leave my job and work for him.
“You’ll start Monday. You can take the Lincoln while your car is in the shop. Leave your keys with Cliff.”
He reopened his paper, and I knew I’d been dismissed.
I stood up, wanting to say something else, wanting him to say something else.
He didn't even acknowledge I’d spoken.
My mother was waiting for me in the hall. She handed me the keys to the Lincoln. This was such a well-oiled operation.
I drove straight to the bank and informed them I would not be returning to work. Then I headed to my townhouse with the full intention of drinking a bottle of wine and going to sleep. When I got home, Caleb was sitting on my doorstep. I stopped short. He was in his work clothes: grey pants, white button down, sleeves rolled to his elbows. He was sitting with his legs spread, elbows resting on his knees and looking at the ground, seemingly deep in thought. When he heard my heels on the concrete, he looked up … smiled. It was his crooked smile. It reached all the way to his eyes and made you wonder if he was picturing you na**d. God, I was so lost to this man. I walked right past him and unlocked the door. When I opened it, he stood and followed me inside.
Afterward, we ordered Thai food and sat in bed eating it. I was still a little raw from my conversation with my dad — not to mention, I’d just slept with Caleb, again, after he told me he didn’t want me.
“Why did you come here? You can’t come for booty calls and then tell me I’m not good enough to be your girlfriend.”
He set his container down on the side table and turned to face me.
“That’s not what I said.”
“You didn’t need to, asshole. Actions speak louder than words.”
He nodded. My chopsticks froze on the way to my mouth. I had expected him to at least put up a fight … deny it.
“You’re right. I’m sorry.”
He took my container of curry and my chopsticks and put them next to his. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand while he was distracted. Something big was happening. I could feel it.
He pulled me onto his lap so that I was straddling him.
“I’m only going to talk about this once. No questions, okay?”
“I was with her for three years. I loved her … love her,” he amended. Jealousy rushed. That’s all it did — rushed through me with nowhere to go. It felt like I was going to pop from the pressure. I bit the insides of my cheeks.
“You never quite stop loving someone when you're in that deep.” His eyes kind of glazed over at that point. “Anyway, we were really young … and stupid. I couldn’t control her the way I wanted to; she was too strong for me. I made a really bad decision one night and she caught me.”
“You cheated on her?” Up until that point I had kept my mouth shut, too afraid to speak in case it broke the rare chatty moment he was having.
The muscles in his jaw clenched, and his nostrils flared.
“Yes — no.” He rubbed his forehead. “I was...” He dropped his hand to my hip. He looked so tortured that I reached up to put my palm against his cheek. I knew a little about Caleb’s father. He was a notorious womanizer. Currently, he was married to a woman younger than me. It was his fourth marriage. From what I gathered from Caleb, he highly disapproved of his father’s behavior, so cheating was coming as quite a surprise to me.
“I’m not a cheater, Leah. But, God that woman doesn’t trust anyone…”
I took a deep breath and let it ooze from between my lips. He watched me carefully, trying to gauge my response.
“But, did you do anything with her?”
“Not technically — no.”
I didn’t understand what he was saying. Did he think that he cheated just because he wanted to cheat? Did he want to cheat?
“Leah,” he swiped my hair over my shoulder, his fingers brushing against my skin. I shivered. We were having a serious discussion and all I could think about was —
I shook my head in frustration. “Either you f**ked her or you didn’t.”
He sighed. “I never cheated on her. Not in the traditional sense of the word.”
“God, I don’t even know what that means.”
He tilted his head back and laughed. “Obviously our moral compasses do not point in the same direction.”
I blushed. A rare thing for me to do.
“Leah,” he said. “I like you. More than I should at this point. But, I’m still a mess. I can’t be in a relationship if I’m only in halfway. I still love her.”
My eyes filled with tears. He was telling me that he couldn’t even try to love me because he loved someone else.
“Fuck.” I swung my legs off of him and sat on my side of the bed. The sheet was pushed down to his waist. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. His face was wiped of emotion.
“So what are you saying? May I remind you that you showed up on my doorstep, not the other way around?”
He laughed, and tackling me to my back, he leaned over me.
“I am very attracted to you.” He kissed my nose. “I care about you. When you left the other night, you were hurt.”
“Yes, I was.”
I smiled up at him. “Now, I’m hurting in a different way.”
He laughed. He had a great laugh. It started as a rumble in his chest and then rolled out in a smooth, raspy wave. Every time I made him laugh, I felt triumphant.
I suddenly grew serious. “I can make you forget her.”
His lips were still curled in a half smile. His eyes grew foggy as he looked down at my mouth.
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“Okay, Red,” he said, softly winding a piece of my hair around his finger.
I giggled — also an unusual thing for me to do. Red. I liked that.
He kissed me softly and slid on top of me.
We made love. It was the first time in my life that someone made love to me. It had always just been sex.
I fell hard that day.
I am in my Juicy sweats and a tank top, making a smoothie in the kitchen, when Sam arrives for work the next day. I am supposed to be watching Estella — who is napping in her movable bassinet — while Caleb takes a shower, but by the time I let Sam in the front door, I have forgotten where I parked her.