“I’m in love with him, Ally.” A trail of dried tears stains my face, my eyes puffy and nose Rudolph red against my pale skin. Perhaps the well has run dry, I’m ready to talk now, words without tears.
“It really took you this long to figure that out?” she questions, half joking. I guess deep down I knew it all along, only I was afraid to admit it. Afraid I would get hurt again if I gave him my heart. Irony is a funny thing.
“I’m not even sure where I went wrong. It started off innocently enough. I admit, at first the thought of trading his story for my dream job was tempting. May have even thought I could do it, I wanted the job so damn badly. But the more time I spent with him, the harder I fell. Then I talked myself into things to avoid dealing with it. For a while there, I actually had myself believing it wasn’t true. That I could be the superhero, prove the truth to the paper, kill the story, and get the guy in the end.”
I laugh at how ridiculous it sounds to even say the words aloud. “By the time I finally admitted to myself that the story was true, I couldn’t bring myself to crush him by telling him what I was assigned to do. Every day it just got harder to come clean, yet I fell deeper at the same time.”
“You need to tell him, Liv.”
I smile at my best friend. She’s always there for me, I appreciate she’s trying to help. But she didn’t see him. That ship has sailed. “I wish it was that easy, Ally.”
“So what are you going to do, sit here and let him walk out of your life? Again.”
“I don’t know, Al, I’m not sure there is anything I can do at this point to change things. You didn’t see him.”
After another restless night of sleep, I wake feeling like a freight train ran me over. Then backed up. And ran me over again. Physical ailing aside, at least morning brings me some semblance of clarity.
“Morning, sunshine.” Ally smiles at me as she retrieves her toast from the toaster, burning her finger in the process. Bringing her finger to her mouth, her usual first aid treatment, she asks, “How are you feeling?”
She smiles. “You look like crap too.”
Leave it to Ally to make me laugh. “Thanks, friend.”
“No problem.” She grabs out a plate and tosses her half burnt toast in the general vicinity. “Want me to make you toast?”
“Ummm…no thanks. I’ll get something on my way.”
She arches her eyebrows in surprise. “You’re going out?”
“I’m going to see Delilah.”
Pouring my morning coffee into a to go cup, I head toward the door. “I have no idea. I just need to talk to her.”
I manage to find my way back to Delilah’s, which is a feat, considering I’ve only been there once and my propensity for getting lost. She looks exhausted and stressed, although after hearing Vinny talk about her, I’m grateful that she seems to be sober.
“Can I come in?”
“Of course, is everything okay?” Stepping aside, Delilah looks past me, expecting someone to be with me.
“Everything’s fine. Well, no. That’s not true. Everything isn’t fine. Vinny is fine. Well, I mean he isn’t hurt or anything,” I stammer. Nice job playing it cool, Olivia, real cool. I mentally roll my eyes at myself.
“I know what you mean.” Her shoulders slump in defeat. “He was here earlier.”
Jesus, I hadn’t even thought of that. What if I’d come by and he was here, or walked in while I was sitting talking to his mother? I’m not even sure why I’ve come…there’s no way I could have explained myself to him. Surely he’d think I was working, trying to glam more for my story.
“Is he upset?”
“Angry. He’s very angry.” Tears well up in her eyes. “All I’ve ever done to that boy was let him down. I just know I’m going to lose him for what I’ve gotten him into this time.”
“I’m afraid I’ve lost him already.” I look at his frail mother. Time has not been kind. She looks older than her years, not healthy, way too thin. We come from different places, yet the two of us have a bond in the moment. Two women, loving and hurting the same man. A lone tear falls, I don’t have the energy to even try to stop it. I’m just so emotionally drained.
“Oh no. I’m sorry honey, I didn’t realize you two were having trouble.” Reaching over, she gently takes my hand into hers, “I saw the way he looked at you. Whatever happened, I’m sure you can fix it.”
“I’m not sure he can forgive me.”
“Forgive you? What could you possibly have done?”
I guess he didn’t tell her that I was the reason he found out in such an awful way the truth about his father. “It’s a long story.” I exhale loudly. “But I was the writer assigned to write the story about his real father.”
“His what?” Her already pasty face goes stark white, every bit of color disappearing almost instantly.
I spend the next hour telling her everything. Spilling my heart out. The Senator, Jax, the fight, the newspaper. All of it. I leave no stone unturned in my confession. I’d thought she just didn’t know about my role in the story, but it turned out, she didn’t know any part of the story. After the shock of her dark past comes to light, she looks sad, yet something in her also screams relief. Carrying around such a big secret for twenty-five years had to have been difficult.
“But I’m confused, if you didn’t know about the secret coming out, why were you so concerned about losing Vinny?”
“I dragged him into something horrible. There was this guy I trusted. I introduced him to some bad people…” She trails off.
She nods and does her best attempt at a smile. “Well, they found him.”
“That’s great.” Might be the first piece of good news I’ve heard in days.
For the next hour, it’s her turn. She fills me in on what they’ve been through the last two days. I feel sick thinking of the choice before Vinny. As if what I’ve done to him isn’t bad enough. He’s now forced to give up the one thing that he probably feels like he can control. The thing he has worked so hard for all these years. My heart that I thought was already broken beyond repair shatters into a million little pieces.
Leaving even more drained and tired than I felt when I arrived hours earlier, I stop as I get to the door, remembering one more unanswered question. “Whose dog tags does he wear every day? He thinks they’re his father’s.”
Not thinking it could get any worse, her answer betrays even me, sorrow oozing from her voice. Her face. Her every being. “Bought them from a used bin at the Salvation Army.”
I drive downtown and walk for hours. Getting nowhere, aimlessly thinking in circles. Finding myself in front of Nico’s gym, I decide I’m more afraid of the consequences of my inaction than the reaction I might receive. Trembling inside, I will myself steady and open the door. The guy at the front door has a face full of cuts, bruises, and bandages, and turns away quicker than I can get my voice out to speak.
But I don’t need for him to tell me if Vinny’s here, because I know. I feel it in my bones, in my blood…the crackle in the air, the unmistakable tension that tells me he’s near. Scanning the room, I turn…it doesn’t take me very long to find him. He’s found me across the room, before my eyes find his. Staring daggers, he takes long strides to make his way to me. Seeing the look in his eyes, my brain tells me to flee, yet my heart has me frozen in place.
“What do you want?” he asks, his words scathing through gritted teeth.
“I wanted to see if you were okay.”
“I’m fine. Is that it?” He folds his arms across his chest, feigning indifference, although I know better. He’s hurt and in protective mode.
“I’m sorry, Vinny.”
“You’ve said that. Anything else?”
“I never meant to hurt you.”
I lower my head. I feel ashamed for what I’ve done, but I have no shame in telling him how I feel. I need him to know. “I love you.” A tear runs down my face.
“If you’re done, you can get the hell out, Liv.” He turns his back and storms away angrily.
Whoever said that time heals all wounds obviously never met Vince Stone. I didn’t expect him to call me, certainly not come running to tell me he forgives me. Yet I also didn’t expect it to end this way either. My heart keeps beating, but with each beat it withers just a little more, forlornly unhappy.
“When are you telling Sleezeball?” Ally leans over the back of the couch, her arms dangling as she talks to me while I pack things up from the kitchen.
“The article is due Friday. So I figured I’d see him then. Don’t want to give them any time to do any of their own digging. The story was supposed to run in the paper the day after the fight.”
“What about your trip to D.C.?”
“Flying down Friday night. If all goes well, I’ll be back to Chicago by Saturday afternoon.” I sigh. “I really do want to see his fight. I know he doesn’t want me there, but I want to be there anyway.”
Picking up the vase of dried wild flowers I’d set on the counter the afternoon Vinny brought them to me, I pick one out and dump the rest in the garbage. I’m just not ready to let go of everything yet.
I’ve been packing for a week. My job in New York starts in seven days. I couldn’t save Vinny from being hurt, the least I could do is leave him and his mother to struggle through everything privately. Give them the dignity and respect they deserve to work it out without being in the public eye. Not surprisingly, the results of the DNA test proved positive. Senator Knight is Vinny’s father, but no one will ever know it. Ally and I burned the results and Senator Knight will be happy I’ve decided to keep quiet. He’s so arrogant, he’ll probably even think I did it for him. That his threats scared me into submission.
“What am I going to do without you?” Ally sprawls onto the couch in an overzealous display of drama, one arm thrown across her face theatrically.
“You mean who’s going to drive you places?” I tease.
Sitting upright, her response reminds me just how much I’m going to miss her. “Well, with you in New York, at least now I’ll be bicoastal!”
“You do know Chicago isn’t on a coast, right?”
“Whatever.” She waves her hand at me like the details are just not important.
Friday morning, Summer smiles at me as I come out from Sleezeball’s office. Actually, it’s less of a smile and more of a gloat. Oddly, I feel a sense of relief telling the paper that I wasn’t able to connect Senator Knight with Vinny. It’s like closing a door behind heartbreak and pain. I only hope that Vinny and his mother find a way to heal, to get through the agony that years of lies and deceit have caused.
While I pack up the few personal belongings I kept at my desk, Summer sits back in her chair, smiling like a Cheshire cat. She’s won, yet I can’t help feel pity on her for what she had to resort to in order to get to the finish line.
“You know Olivia, you shouldn’t feel too badly. If it wasn’t the story, it would have been something else.” She pauses and I pretend I don’t hear her as I clear out the rest of my drawers. Getting a last rise out of me is just what she wants. “That man is just way too much man for you to handle.”
The need to defend him wins out, even though he’s not mine to defend anymore. “You don’t know a thing about Vinny.”