The sounds of laughter and conversation drift through my bedroom window, along with the scent of meat cooking. Today is supposed to be sunny and warm – an odd occurrence in April. Subsequently, Adam has decided to host a barbecue at his place.
I’m not sure why Adam invited me. When he came over to tell Kristy and Logan about his plans, he looked me right in the eyes and told me I should come, too – as if he didn’t have the proof he needed that he was right about me all along. The memory of Adam pulling up that headline on Thursday knocks me around every time I think about it. My agent called me beforehand to warn me about the article, but nothing had prepared me for seeing those details – and lies – in print.
I thought that Adam was the only person in this world that hated me. Apparently, I was wrong. Karen Malua is clearly out to ruin me, even though she now has everything she wanted. I can’t imagine it was anyone else who spoke with the reporter. Venom like that…I’ve only encountered it from the likes of it from Adam. So, I guess it’s only fitting that he discovered the headline first. He was probably looking for it.
Every time I see my neighbour, my shield of armour slips further and exposes the part of me I wish to keep to myself. No one else has ever seen me like Adam does, but soon they will. Soon they’ll know exactly what kind of person I am. Is it any wonder I’m not in any rush to join the group next door? Four months ago, I would have been over there from the moment the barbecue started, socialising, and charming everyone. Now, I’m dreading the get together with every cell and fibre of my being.
Kristy and Logan have already left. I told them I’d be over in half an hour, but that was an hour ago. If I put off leaving any longer, Kristy is going to come back and force me out the door. Her concern for me is the only reason I agreed to make an appearance.
I get off the bed, despite the fact every part of me is screaming to stay put and crawl beneath the bed covers. I push my feet into a pair of thongs, slide a cardigan over my silk blouse, and force myself out the front door.
The side gate to Adam’s backyard is shut, but someone opens it for me before I need to stick my hand over the top and locate the latch.
I’m not prepared to be swept off my feet and twirled around by the owner of the booming voice. Once I’m finally on my feet, I stare up into Kyle’s grinning face. Kyle, Jamie, and Adam are Logan’s mates, and they’re also good friends with Kristy. Kyle and Jamie have been easy going and friendly on the occasions I’ve spent time with them. It’s only Adam who refuses to like me.
My gaze skitters across the yard and lands on my neighbour. Adam is standing at the barbecue wearing an apron and a dorky chef’s hat that presses his long dark hair flat against his forehead, and yet he doesn’t look dorky. He appears in control. In his element. King of his domain. My stomach kicks as he looks up and from what he’s doing sees me staring. I can’t tell what he thinks as he takes me in. Likely, he’s thinking about the fact I don’t fit in here. Everyone else in his yard is someone he likes and respects. I will never, ever, fall into that category as far as Adam is concerned.
With that uncomfortably painful thought burrowing beneath my rib cage, I return my attention to Kyle and paste a smile on my face.
“Hey, Kyle. It’s good to see you. How’s it going?”
Kyle is tall, solid, and extremely handsome, with dark eyes and dark hair. He, like Adam, is quite the lady’s man, according to Kristy. Since he flirts with me every time we see each other, I’m convinced it’s true.
“Same old, same old. Jim Beaumont Mechanics is fine but hardly like your exciting life, Jess. Why don’t you tell us about London?”
Exciting. That’s one word for my life. I’ve always liked my lifestyle, appreciated the variety. Kristy asked me once how I can enjoy travelling so much when I’m not a fan of change or things being different, but the fact is that when you’re used to something, it isn’t change. It becomes a routine. Living in different locales is never dull. And besides, I always come back to Kristy.
I look around the yard, searching for my dear friend. In social situations, she used to hang out by my side, but she’s front and centre with these people; Jamie and Gemma, Kyle, Logan, Adam, and our friend Naomi. Even Cricket lounges at her feet, happy and confident in the company of his master.
Once again, I force my attention back to Kyle. “London was great.”
“What was your favourite part?”
“Ah, the London Eye.”
“It must have been awesome working on television. Did you meet a lot of famous people?”
“Quite a few, yes.”
Kyle waits for me to elaborate, so I reel off a few names, but I’m incapable of flirting with him the way I usually would. The exchange feels strained, and Kyle is the one asking questions and directing the conversation.
“You patronise everyone by appearing friendly, getting their adoration and compliments before walking away from them. They’re nothing but a burst to the ego and an audience you can manipulate.”
I fumble my way through the entire conversation with Kyle, hearing Adam’s words playing on repeat in my head. It doesn’t help that I can feel Adam watching me interact with his friend. Every time I smile or laugh, I think about how fake it must seem to Adam. I’ve always told myself that directing the conversation and topics up for discussion is about making other people feel comfortable. But the truth is, I never let people know what I’m thinking, and I’m never comfortable when the conversation is about me. I prefer to maintain my distance. No one gets to know me, and I don’t get close to anyone. It’s the way I’ve always preferred it.
As soon as I can, I finish my conversation with Kyle and make my way around the group of friends, nodding to Adam and saying hello to everyone else.
“Hey, stranger,” Naomi says.
I hug her. “You look marvellous.”
She does. Naomi is always working herself too hard, but there is no evidence of bags under her eyes or poor food choices. She looks like she’s taking care of herself.
Kristy suggested I talk to her about my publicity, but I’m not sure I want to. I already have an agent and publicist. Naomi and I aren’t close enough for me to want to break down and tell her about everything that happened in London.
“You look great, too,” Naomi says.
Now there’s a lie if ever I’ve heard one. I feel shocking inside and out. No amount of make-up can disguise the fact that I’m still severely jet-lagged and can’t sleep at all.
“Tell us everything about working on a game show,” Gemma says.
I do my best to give the group what they want – amusing anecdotes about my life. Kristy nods and encourages me, and when she takes control of the conversation and steers it into safer waters, I decide that we might have swapped personalities at some point. She’s the one asking questions today and directing the conversation. And I’ll admit it’s a relief.
I stand as part of the group, laughing, smiling, and doing what I’ve always done, but it’s taxing in ways it hasn’t been before. Keeping my smile in place takes more energy than running a marathon. Perhaps that’s why I find myself moving back until I’m standing beside Adam at the barbecue. He hates me and everything I stand for, but at least I don’t have to pretend I’m anything that I’m not with Adam. He already sees through my mask. I can’t fake it with him. And right now, it just feels easier to be in his company.
“Hey,” I say. “Thanks for inviting me.”
“Jess.” He doesn’t take his eyes off the meat he’s grilling. “Glad you could make it.”
Is he? I doubt it. He’s the one being superficial now, but I don’t want him to be. For once, I need honesty.
“I didn’t have much choice. Kristy would have dragged me over here if I didn’t force myself to come.”
Adam chuckles lightly. “That sounds like Kristy.”
I put my hands in the back pockets of my jeans, unsure of how long I can stand here without him calling me out for avoiding people.
“Can I help?” I ask impulsively.
“Ah, Jess. Thanks, but this is a one-person kind of job.”
Immediately, I remember saying the same thing to him when he offered to help me set the table, and I feel a small smile twist my lips in response.
“Fine,” I say, “I’ll let you in on a secret, I didn’t really want to help you anyway.”
He looks over at me now, appearing intrigued. “So why offer?”
“I guess I don’t feel like being fake today, and with you, I can’t be. You see through me.”
Surprise flickers across his features before he stops what he’s doing completely and studies me. After a moment, he says, “If you must help, there’s some stuff to bring out from the kitchen.”
“Bread, marge, plates, tomato sauce, etc.”
“So, pretty much everything?”
“You’re not organised,” I state.
“Well, everything is sitting in a neat stack in the kitchen just waiting for someone else to bring it outside. Are you going to stand there and complain when I’ve offered you the perfect excuse to escape?”
“No,” I tell him quickly. “Thank you.”
He returns his attention to the meat he’s cooking. “Hurry up, then.”
Reminding myself that Adam’s lack of pretences were the reasons I sought him out in the first place, I choose not to glare or snap at him.
“I’m going,” I say instead.
I walk into the house, aware I’m willingly helping the devil. Disturbingly, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing while I’m here.
The rest of the barbecue passes by slowly. Adam lets me help with things occasionally, but he refuses to provide my escape for the entire thing. While scraping the barbecue clean, he insists I leave the dishes and everything else and take a seat on the veranda. So, here I sit, on the outer edge of the group, enjoying the sunshine on my feet and face, relieved I don’t have to talk because Kristy is holding court once more.
My best friend blossomed months ago, but now she shines. Brightly. Happiness radiates from her, attracting attention, and it’s clear that everyone here adores her, me included. As I watch her in action, I can’t help asking: did I dim her light when I was around her? Did I squash it?
I look up to see Adam standing to my side with a beer in his outstretched hand. When he passes it to me, I instinctively reach out and take it before shaking my head and giving it back to him.
“I won’t, thanks.”
He quirks an eyebrow. “You don’t like beer?”
“I’m not much of a drinker, and even if I was, I don’t like the taste of beer.”
“I’ve seen you drink it before.”
I remind myself that if Adam observed me enough to know what I drink, it’s because he was worried about Kristy.
I shrug. “A lot of guys think it’s hot for a girl to drink beer, so I have in the past, but let’s face it, I’m not trying to impress you.”
I’m not sure where this honesty is coming from. It’s a little scary – like leaping off the ledge of a building when you’re not sure how far it is from the ground. But it’s also exciting and freeing. And it’s easy to be honest with Adam because I don’t have to be afraid he’ll stop liking me if he sees the real me. We’re past that. He already doesn’t like me.
He looks a little shocked by my honesty, which makes me feel smug. It’s not often I get one up on Adam. A point to me.
“If you don’t want beer, what do you want to drink?”
“Nothing, thank you. I’ll head home soon.”
“Kristy will let you?” he asks smartly.
“I think so. I came. That’s what she wanted.”
Adam surprises me by sitting down next to me. “She’s worried about you, you know?”
“I know, but she doesn’t need to be. She’s genuinely happy for the first time in…well, she’s happier than I can ever remember her being. I used to think she needed me as much as I need her, but now I’m seeing she doesn’t need me at all. She needed the chance to dance in the spotlight. I never gave that to her.”
Damn, I’m getting the hang of this honesty thing now. I look at Adam, wondering if he’s aware of just how much I’m telling him.
Adam merely frowns. “Doesn’t sound like you did it intentionally.”
“No, maybe not, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m sure I did.”
“Well, you can’t change the past.”
“Don’t I know it.”
My comment is offhand, the first response that came to mind, but as Adam’s expression hardens, I realise he’s taken it the wrong way.
“Feeling sorry for yourself?” he asks.
I shake my head. “Not sorry for myself, no.”
“Sounds like it to me.”
“I’ve already told you that I deserve everything that’s happening to me, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t go back and change the past if I could. If I hadn’t gotten drunk that night, my life might not be over right now.”
“Your life isn’t over, Jess,” he says sharply.
“No?” I ask.
I don’t want to sound like I’m indulging in self-pity, but this entire situation isn’t painless or uncomplicated, and if I’m honest – which I’m trying to be – I’m still adjusting to the changes in my life. Right now, I can’t see my way through this mess. I can’t see anything past losing my career or contaminating Kristy’s newfound happiness with Logan by hanging around longer than I need to.
“Life isn’t over until you’re dead and gone,” Adam says. “As far as I can tell, you’re alive and in perfect health. You have more than a lot of people do. Yeah, you messed up big time, but you’ll waste your life if you keep focusing on what you’ve lost. It’s not worth it.”
I know he’s right. I know he is. However, I can’t be that flippant about my demise just yet. Not when the rest of my life stretches before me – a long, lonely, bleak mess.
“I’ll try to keep that in mind when I’m homeless and jobless,” I say with a self-deprecating smile.
I’m trying to make a joke – to make light of the situation, despite the fact I don’t feel like it at all. I thought he’d appreciate it. Too late, I see that I’ve lapsed back into superficiality.
Adam’s gaze fills with contempt. “You have people who care about you too much to let that happen. In your self-indulgent misery, you’ve forgotten that. Don’t know why I’m surprised.”
He stands up, his eyes remaining locked on mine as he wears the harshest expression I’ve seen on his face. “You should remember we’re not all saints like Kristy. I’m not going to sit here and feel sorry for someone who wrecked a marriage. People who fuck married people are amongst those I despise the most.”
I feel as though I’ve just taken a bullet to the chest as he walks away and collapses into the empty sun chair next to Naomi.
As if he didn’t hate me enough already…I feel so damn stupid for sharing my thoughts with him. He. Hates. Me. And what did I do? I rolled over and showed my enemy my sensitive underbelly. Am I surprised he turned around and gutted me at his earliest convenience? What was I thinking, talking to him about it? I deserve exactly the reaction I got.
I take a ragged breath, inhaling through what feels like a deep wound in my chest. Kristy is looking at me, a worried expression on her face, and I wonder how long she’s been watching me. I try hard to smile, to pretend I’m okay, but all I want to do is go back to hiding underneath my bed covers. Unfortunately, Kristy will know I’m upset if I do, and I don’t want to ruin this afternoon for her.
She doesn’t take her eyes off me until her chair moves slightly, and then we both look at the culprit – Kyle.
“Are you still thinking about going camping for your birthday?” he asks her.
I figured I was done feeling cut up this afternoon, but I was wrong. Kristy’s expression is almost guilty as she looks at me. We’ve celebrated every birthday – hers and mine – together since we were sixteen. Either it’s been just the two of us, or we’ve spent the day with Kristy’s family. Usually, I have a boyfriend, but I blow mine off so I can be with my friend. I know it won’t be like that this year, though. And even though I can tell myself I’m happy things are different, I haven’t yet convinced myself of it.
“I’ve been talking to the gang about going camping in the Grampians for my birthday,” she explains. “What do you think?”
What do I think? I think it sounds awful. Because it wouldn’t just be bugs and nature out there, it would be everyone else, including Adam. Kristy looks so anxious and hopeful, however, that I do my best to look pleased with the idea.
Everyone must be able to hear the strain in my voice, and a few of them chuckle. Kristy does, too. Not Adam though, I note. He sips his beer and remains quiet.
“I know it’ll be different,” Kristy says, “but I think it’ll be fun.”
I nod, not trusting myself to say anything.
“I know you and Kristy always spend the day together,” Logan says, “but we thought it would be cool to do something different.”
I can’t help feeling a little insulted that Logan feels he needs to explain the situation on Kristy’s behalf.
“Different,” I say. “I get it. It’s cool.”
Kristy worries her bottom lip, never taking her eyes off me. “I know you’re not always a fan of different.”
I don’t want to talk about my dislike of different here, not in front of her friends. I already feel too exposed.
“It’ll be fun,” Naomi says. “I’m looking forward to some fresh air and a break.”
Good for you, is what I want to say. Instead, I look at Kristy and ignore Naomi.
“I said it’s fine. I’m fine with going camping.”
“Of course, I will. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
That, at least, is the truth. As much as I’m already dreading this camping trip, I would never miss Kristy’s birthday. If she told me she wanted to go firewalking for her birthday, I’d still be there with bells on.
Kristy notes the sincerity in my voice and visibly relaxes. “I was planning this a while ago; before I knew you’d be home for my birthday.”
“I would never have missed your birthday, K. I would have flown back for it.”
“Why are you back from London this early?” Naomi asks, studying me carefully. “Kristy said it didn’t work out in London as you were hoping. What happened?”
Why am I back from London this early? My heart slows down, and my breathing speeds up. I can’t believe I haven’t prepared myself for this question. I’d relied on everyone accepting Kristy’s vague response that it didn’t work out there. I’d hoped they’d buy it until the truth came out in the papers. Stupid. As I look around me, everyone is staring at me, waiting for my response. I must tell them something.
For some reason, I find myself seeking out Adam, but as our eyes lock, I wonder why I’m looking to him for help. He’s not my saviour, and he’s certainly not going to save me from his friends. This is, after all, the moment he’s been waiting for – the moment I crack, and the moment people see me as I am. He can finally rest easy knowing everyone can see under the mask I’ve always worn. The idea of having nothing to hide behind makes me want to puke and pass out.
Kristy is shaking her head, telling me I don’t have to do this, but I can’t run. This reveal is inevitable. Sure, I can lie now and save face, but it won’t be long until everyone knows the truth, or, rather, the media’s version of it. If I lie, or if I run, liar and coward are just two more nails in my coffin.
With every second of silence, the tension grows, everyone watching me. I find myself looking back at Adam, using him to centre myself as I break apart. He was the biggest hurdle to overcome, I tell myself. He hates me, and he’s already seen my true colours. If I can be real and authentic with him – my enemy, then I can be genuine and true with these people. I’ll have no control over what they think of me anymore. I’ll have no shield from their scrutiny, no camera lens to filter my beauty after I say what I need to. All I can do is give them the truth and let them do with it what they will. And if none of them wants to talk to me again, well, I won’t hold it against them.
Taking a steadying breath, I wrench my gaze away from Adam’s waiting one. I make eye contact with every one of Kristy’s friends before letting them in on my greatest shame.
“I was fired,” I say.
There’s an outcry on my behalf. I deserve none of it, and I shake my head.
It’s Naomi who asks the question I have yet to answer. “Why?”
“I slept with Grant Glendon. I slept with a married man, and his wife and my co-worker caught me. I was fired immediately.”
I don’t tell them that I’ll never model again. These are smart people, and they’ll figure it out.
There is no outcry now. No sound but the blood rushing in my ears and the air rushing into people’s open mouths.
I look at Kristy, whose expression is full of sympathy. Any soothing words from her and I’ll fall apart. Too late, I’ve already fallen apart, but I refuse to let the tears leak out here. I want to scream instead – to break something. Because right now I’m afraid the only broken thing here is me.
“I’m going to go,” I say to Kristy.
She nods quickly. “Will you be okay?”
I try to say yes, but the word gets stuck in my throat. Will I ever be okay again? Not so long ago, I had Kristy, my career, and my reputation, but now I have one out of three. And I don’t really have Kristy. Not anymore. She needs to be free of me and my toxicity. As soon as I can, I need to find somewhere else to live.
“I’ll be all right,” I force out. “I’ll talk to you soon.”
I look at Adam, who is still just sitting there. I can’t help but think he looks a bit shell-shocked. If he is, that’s my cue to get out of here. Because once the shock wears off, I’m sure he’ll start celebrating and telling everyone how right he was about me.
“Thank you for lunch.”
He nods once, acknowledging me without prolonging my stay.
“I’m going to go home,” I say to everyone else. “I’m still jetlagged and tired.”
Unlike usual, no one asks me to stay. Gemma and Jamie nod. Kyle and Naomi mutter goodbye. Logan pats my shoulder as I walk past. I try to smile for him, but it’s a fail.
I go home and slide into bed, pulling the covers up to my chin as I stare at the wall. I lie there, waiting for the tears to come. They don’t. I’m numb. Blank. Dead inside. I have nothing left. Nothing to offer. Nothing to give. Nothing to hide behind anymore.
A/N: One step forward, two steps back with these two, right? This story is a slow-burning one. Things do heat up, but not right away. I hope you like the build-up 😀
Some of you may have wondered (others may not have) about Logan and Kristy’s story. Yes, they have their own book. All of it is published on Radish. I wrote it before I wrote Shatter For You. It’s quite steamy.
P.S. Thongs in Australia are flipflops elsewhere, and tomato sauce = ketchup!