Skin of the Night

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Chapter 31: Who The Fuck Are You?

With our hands linked, Robby and I strolled along the pavement toward my flat. It was nearly two o’clock, so it wasn’t very late taking English party hours into account, but I was exhausted after going out two days in a row. Robby had noticed when my enthusiasm over shuffleboard had diminished.

Like I’d promised, and however barely, Rosaline and I had beat Tyler and Robby. After the match, Robby had proposed to take me home. I’d expressed concern of ruining his night, but he had convinced me that I wouldn’t. ‘I’ve never been much of a party-person,’ he’d reminded me.

So there we walked, embodying idyllic joy while completely oblivious to the drunken Londoners we passed on our way. Robby was a peaceful man. Around him, I felt calm, serene, and even static.

I had just unlocked the front door when I heard music derive from the living room. Since I hadn’t expected it, I paused in the doorway, confused. Was Jason home already?

“Hello?” I called and stepped aside to let Robby enter.

“Home already?” Jason yelled back.

“Hi, Cara!” I heard Stephen greet.

My heart faltered. Immobile, I stood in the hallway while Robby kicked off his shoes beside me. What was going on? Why was Stephen here?

Fearing the worst, panic swallowed me whole. Had their plans changed? Had poker night been moved to ours instead? The potential made me gulp in horror. I had Robby with me, and if poker night was being hosted here, it would mean William was here as well.

Shit!

Colour drained from my face while I turned my head to see Robby tuck his hands into his pockets. When he was about to move forward, my hand acted on its own accord and reached out for him.

What was I supposed to do now? I couldn’t just kick him out. I’d invited him, for crying out loud, and he would gauge that there was something not quite right. He knew me too well not to pick up on it if I suddenly told him he had to leave. Even so, I didn’t want to tell him I’d slept with William.

First of all, William was my boss, and that was surely not going to impress Robby. On the contrary, he’d probably judge me for it. Secondly, we weren’t supposed to tell each other about people we had slept with on the side.

Atop it all, there was William to consider. Last time I’d mentioned Robby, he’d lost his head. How would he react now, when actually facing the man?

Bollocks. Another clusterfuck. I wanted to hide in my room and never come out.

“What’s the matter?” Robby enquired and sent me puzzled look.

Within me, my heart sprinted. How to handle this?

“I...” I couldn’t bring myself to say anything coherent. I was too shocked. Why hadn’t Jason informed me? Had he thought I’d be home later than this?

“Cara, you’re acting strange.”

“Sorry. I’m only surprised. I didn’t think we’d have company. Jason wasn’t supposed to be here.” My voice sounded anxious even to my ears.

His eyebrows furrowed. “So what if he is?” he replied bewildered and jerked his arm out of my hold to approach the living room.

Oh, no. This was not going to end well. I could feel it in my bones.

With my tail tucked between my legs, I trailed after him. I could barely hear the music above my loud pulse. In fact, my heart pumped so dramatically that I could actually feel it pound against my ribcage. This was real intimidation.

I wanted to cry. William was not going to handle this well, possessive as he was, and Robby would be completely blindsided. And, in all honesty, I didn’t want to hurt William like this. He didn’t deserve it. While I had every intention of continuing my arrangement with Robby, there was no need to rub it in his face. However, I hadn’t meant for this, and that was the sole reason I didn’t immediately seek shelter in my room. I was desperate to defend my actions against William’s wrath.

As we turned around the corner, my heart skipped a beat. Around the table sat the four men, with stacks of poker chips in front of their respective seats. Various spirits decorated the table, and bowls of crisps.

I sensed his glare before I saw it. Thoroughly intimidated, I barely managed to meet his eyes for a quick acknowledgement. He was here, and he was seething where he sat, barely composed.

“Who’s winning?” Robby asked through a delightful smile.

“Who the fuck are you?” William retorted and reclined in his seat. I saw his strong jaw clench in the dim lights, and in front of him, Jason rubbed his own face and shook his head to himself.

“That’s an interesting way to make a new acquaintance,” Robby remarked through a chuckle. “I’m Robby, a friend of Cara and Jason’s.”

With wide eyes, I watched William size him up with a brooding expression on his face as he connected the dots. “Right. She’s mentioned you,” he replied so calmly that my heart stilled. I’d never heard that tone of his before, and that only made it scarier, because I had no idea of the consequences it entailed. It made him unpredictable.

After a beat, he directed his gaze at me, and in his eyes, there resided a thick layer of resentment, but it was the unmistakable vulnerability that shined through that made my heart ache. “I won’t let this happen,” he quietly told me, and his tone remained calm and resolute. “I won’t let you do this, Cara.”

Andy coughed beside him and reached for his broad shoulder to give it a hard squeeze. “Man, get a grip,” he chastised and glowered at his profile.

Jason groaned and looked to the ceiling. “Robby, I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but that knob is unfortunately my brother. The gent beside him is Andy. Stephen you already know.”

“Jason!” I snapped in my anxiety. My brain was threatening to crash. “Why the hell are you here? I thought you were meant to be at Stephen’s!”

“Yeah, sorry. Our plans changed last minute,” Stephen explained and turned to regard me. “Giselle had to take an early shift at the café in the morning, so because we didn’t want to keep her awake, we decided we’d do it here instead, since you weren’t going to be home and William hosted last time. Andy doesn’t... Well, he’s staying at a hotel for the time being, so we reckoned this was our best option. Sorry about this. We hadn’t expected you so early.”

“And I honestly thought you’d be spending the night at Robby’s,” Jason added, and I could hear in his voice that he was seeking atonement.

"Early? It’s bloody two-thirty! You could at least have texted me a warning, Jason!”

“See him out, Cara,” William insisted while he glared at Robby.

Robby blinked a few times over until his head – very slowly – turned toward me. “Am I missing something here?”

Filled with guilt, I looked away from him.

“Enlighten him, Cara,” William prompted me.

“Please don’t tell me you’ve slept together,” Robby said, and his voice was achingly quiet. “Isn’t he your boss?”

“It was an accident!” I shouted flustered and waved my arms in the air. When I met his green eyes, they were etched with disappointment. I had never seen him like this, and it fed on my chest like vicious poison. Not only disappointed, but he also looked hurt.

“Cara, I’m so, so sorry,” Jason mumbled into his hands, as he was covering his face again. “Had I known this was going to happen, I would never have proposed to host this.”

“Robby,” I whispered when he didn’t reply. Instead, he looked back to William’s hostile expression with a grimace on his face.

“More than once?” he then queried, but it was directed at William.

It was clear as day that Robby’s reaction satisfied him, because a crooked smile took to his mouth, and above it, his eyes gleamed. He was enjoying this – killing the competition. “Well, since you ask, last night wasn’t exactly innocent.”

“That’s strikingly unprofessional. Aren’t you supposed to be her boss?” Robby retorted, and he started to tremble.

I was desperate to soothe him, desperate to make amends, but I knew that if I reached for him, he’d only shudder away. He always did when he was upset about something, and this time, he was upset about something I had done.

William arched a brow at him. “You’re sure you want to know this?”

He gritted his teeth. “Yes.”

William sighed. “Well, then. We slept together before that happened. As for last night, I suppose we realised that three months was too long of a wait.” After a beat, he continued, “You should leave her alone, Robby. You won’t win.”

Andy sent me a look so scornful that my heart stilled. There was no doubt whose side he was on, and it was William’s. He did not approve one bit of how I was treating his best mate. Part of me found it warranted, but another didn’t. However, what I knew for certain was that I found this intervention utterly inappropriate.

I moaned. “William, why are you doing this?”

His eyes frosted. “I’ve had quite enough of your disrespectful behaviour, Cara – that’s why. I will not stand for being treated like this,” he replied firmly. “Did you think I was just going to sit idly by while you fuck another bloke? Honestly, what do you take me for?”

“Last I checked, Cara’s single,” Robby defended me. “Stop speaking as if you’re in a relationship, you entitled prick.”

“That’s rich, coming from you.”

“She may fuck whomever she wants.”

William passed him a lopsided smile. “Then why do you look so upset?”

Jason released a despaired sigh. “Right, that’s enough. Shut up, both of you.”

“Do you know,” William continued regardless, “when she first mentioned you to me, she compared you to air and said she hardly ever pays you a thought. I just thought you deserved to know of the insignificant light she views you in.”

I gasped. That lawyer in him was bloody ruthless. He was deliberately angling this all wrong just to provoke Robby. “That’s bogus! You know that’s not how I meant it!” Scared of how Robby would interpret it, I turned toward him. “Robby, he’s completely twisting my words. When I said that, I was referring to how low-maintenance you are.”

“Right,” he uttered through grinding teeth and glared at William. “I’m not falling for your bullshit. You’re deliberately trying to stir an argument between Cara and I, just to get what you want. And I’m not having it.”

William’s eyes took to a darker shade while his jaw clenched and unclenched. Meanwhile, hope filled my system. What Robby had said caused it. He was too clever to fall for William’s manipulative ways, and I could kiss him for it.

He scoffed before he continued, “Do you honestly believe that you know her better than I do? I’ve been sleeping with her for three years, and there’s a reason for that. It’s going to take a bit more than a mere fuck-up to ruin it. Besides, we’re not exclusive. The fact that she sleeps around isn’t a surprise to me, and it isn’t going to chase me away. And I can tell you one thing for certain – being a dick to her isn’t going to make her warm up to you.”

William reeled in a deep breath before his eyes flickered in my direction. His light blue eyes resembled glaciers while they studied me. He looked intensely scary. Without a doubt, Robby’s immunity to his ways was adding fuel to the fire.

“I’m not a dick to her. I’ve said nothing but the truth. If she can’t take responsibility for her actions, that’s not my fault. Frankly, she’s the one being a dick in all this.” He directed his gaze to me. “Please, don’t do this, Cara. Just tell him to leave. I’m begging you,” he pleaded, seemingly changing his methods. Instead of trying to stir Robby’s temper, he was now trying to stir my sympathy and bad conscience, and it was working. I felt despicable.

What I’d done with him last night had obviously triggered his hope, and by having brought Robby home with me, I was now brutally murdering it. He must have felt led on, and I loathed myself for it. He didn’t deserve it.

Neither of them deserved this.

However, I hadn’t thought my actions would result in this dreadful scenario – this pissing contest between them. Rationally, I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, as I was perfectly allowed to sleep with whomever I saw fit. I was not William’s girlfriend, and I had told him time and again that I was not inclined to pursue any sort of relationship with him. He had obviously decided to ignore that fact after last night’s events, as if I’d had a change of heart – as if I’d told him I’d had a change of heart. But I hadn’t said that. He had simply read it that way.

To top it all off, exclusivity was not part of the arrangement I had with Robby. So, at the end of the day, I truly hadn’t done anything wrong, but William felt wronged. He had set expectations of me that weren’t justified, rational or realistic – expectations I hadn’t concurred with. Ultimately, emotions I hadn’t predicted were getting involved now. I hadn’t considered the irrational aspect of this. Just because his feelings weren’t justified did not mean they did not exist, and now I was paying the price for my obliviousness, regardless of how unwarranted I might find it to be.

Either way, I found myself both confused and frustrated. I didn’t belong to either of them, but they clearly harboured the strange notion that I did. I was my own, first and foremost, but that didn’t mean that I was not responsible for managing their expectations.

What an utter mess. I dreaded the cleaning job already. This simply could not continue. If I intended to maintain my arrangement with Robby, I would have to leave William alone altogether, physically speaking. It didn’t matter if he was a grown man and should be considered capable of making the best decisions for himself. If I acted on my lust for him again, he would dive in head first, only to guilt-trip me afterward, just like he was doing now, and I refused to allow that to repeat itself. I was obviously hurting him, and that was not a matter I took lightly. He did not deserve to have his feelings toyed with, even if it hadn’t been my intention.

It was glaringly apparent that I would have to reconsider how I went about things, though I would postpone those contemplations for tomorrow, when I was sober.

“Ever considered that she might be a dick toward you simply because she doesn’t like you?” Robby countered and tilted his head.

That pushed William to the end of his tether. “Oh, I assure you, Robby, she loves me when I give it to her.”

My lips parted with my level of dread. He knew no bounds.

“Fucking hell, enough!” Andy barked, losing his patience. “That was just bang out of order, Will. You do not talk about her like that. Show’s over. We’ll pack up and go home.”

“But I’m winning,” William protested and gestured toward his pile of poker chips. For a brief second, I’d thought he meant the argument, because he was winning that, too. “And there’s not a chance that I’ll leave her with him.”

“Yes, Will, you are,” Jason interjected, and his tone was resolute. “That’s her best mate of three years. Most importantly, she’s her own woman. You don’t get to make decisions for her, much less control her. Who the fuck do you think you are?” When I looked over in my surprise, I found him glowering at his elder brother. “You’ve caused enough drama as it is. Where’s your fucking integrity, man?”

“No, really, it’s no bother,” Robby said and removed his hands from his pockets. “You can keep playing. Cara and I will just retire to bed.”

William shot him a deadly glare.

Meeting it, Robby retaliated, “If you’re lucky, you might get to hear her moans again. Though, you won’t be the one causing them.”

That was a step too far. I couldn’t let that one slide. “Robby, don’t. He might be an arsehole, but there’s no need to hurt his feelings.”

The whole room fell silent while all five of them stared shocked at me, even William, and Robby the most. “You’re defending him?” the latter uttered disbelievingly.

I folded my arms together and blew my cheeks out before I said, “I just don’t find it necessary to rub it in his face.”

“You have got to be kidding me,” Robby snapped at me. “You can’t honestly be considering his feelings in all this. Have you listened to him at all tonight?”

“Robby, he’s my boss. I know he’s controversial, but when you’re not involved, he can be surprisingly sweet. For starters, he looked after me last night when I was blacked out, and mind you, I have to see him nearly every day for the next three months. To make matters worse, he’s Jason’s brother. I am not defending him, but I do think you could consider his feelings a bit more. You’re kicking him when he’s already down.”

“Seriously?” he questioned astounded.

“Thank you, Cara,” William uttered momentously, and I found pure affection in his eyes when I looked over to him.

“Will, just shut up, would you? I’m still bloody cross with you. You’ve been far out of line tonight. Next time you disagree with something I do, I suggest you act your age and speak to me in private about it instead of confronting me in front of an audience. I’m only speaking now because Robby took it too far.”

“This is unbelievable. I hope you’ll be very happy together,” Robby snarled and turned for the hall.

“No, Robby – what? You misunderstand! I’m not taking his side!” I groaned and stalked after him. “I was just criticising your response. There’s no need to sink to his level. You’ve already got me where you want. You know that!”

“Cara, leave it! I’m both too drunk and angry to have a constructive conversation with you right now,” he snapped back at me. When I reached for his hand, he startled me completely by slapping mine away. In the span of three years, I’d never seen Robby this irate. William must have gotten to him after all. Or was it I?

“If you sleep with him tonight–” He halted then. Turning toward me, I saw that his green eyes were ablaze. “I’ll be fucking furious.”

“Robby, please stay,” I softly replied, trying to calm him down.

His jaw clenched and his nostrils flared upon his intake of breath. “No. I’m going home. I’m not in the mood to be around you right now. I need to settle down before I do something stupid. You know this is how I work. I retreat into myself when I’m upset, and right now, I am bloody livid. I would say it isn’t personal, but it is. I’ll call you tomorrow, if I’ve recovered.”

At a loss of what to do, I watched him tie his shoes. “Robby, I’m sorry,” I whispered feebly as tears welled in my eyes. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Was he really going to walk out on me? I had never seen him this upset before. It was obvious that I’d profoundly hurt him, and I hated it. He was my best friend; being the cause of his injured feelings was the opposite of what I was supposed to.

He reached for the door. When he opened it, he turned toward me again. He looked about to say something, but appearing to change his mind, he shook his head instead and then headed out without another word.

I jumped when he slammed the door shut after himself. The noise of it felt to shatter my heart. For many seconds, I just stared at the wood of it, struggling to fathom reality. He’d left.

“Cara?” I heard Jason call for me. I couldn’t reply. My chest started to shake while I resorted to quiet sobs. I was just so shocked – at everything.

“Hear what you’ve managed, Will? Again?” I heard Jason seethe.

“I’ll handle it,” William replied worriedly.

“No. You’ve done quite enough,” Jason hissed back at him before I heard a chair screech across the floor.

“Oh, come here, love,” he cooed when he found my trembling figure in the hallway.

“He l-left, Ja-Jason!” I stammered through my sobs and attacked his neck with an embrace when he reached me. His mollifying scent was precisely what I needed right now.

“Cara, you’ll be all right. You know Robby. He’s not one to stay angry,” he consoled me and pressed me tightly against him. When I opened my eyes, I saw William approach across his shoulder, and I instantly flinched away.

“Stay away!” I snarled and pointed my finger at him. “I can’t stand even the sight of you right now! How dare you–”

“I’m sorry,” he interrupted me, soft in his voice. My lashes batted while I struggled to comprehend what he’d just said. Since I failed to reply, he repeated himself, “I’m sorry. I truly am.”

I merely stared at him, lost for words. With circumspection, he studied me for another while, perhaps in hope for a reaction, but I was too surprised. Why couldn’t he have thought of that sooner?

“Will, just leave her alone. You’ll see her on Monday,” Jason murmured after a sigh and gently began to guide me toward my bedroom, and after he’d tucked me in, I quietly cried myself to sleep, overcome with worry about my status with Robby.

However, an obscure reality, or perhaps it was a dream, entered my mind a few hours into slumber. It contained the presence of a person in my room, seated on my bed, while a hand softly caressed my cheek.

“I’m sorry, Cara. I didn’t mean to upset you like that. I know I have neither the right nor claim. But you have to understand that I’ll get jealous when you’re about to sleep with another man. Especially after what happened between us last night. I don’t like that I react that way, but I can’t always help it. You drive me insane. You’re so liberal and modern and I... Well, I’m not all the way there with you. But I’m trying to understand.”

I recognised the voice that spoke softly to me, but I barely stirred. I was far too exhausted to properly latch onto reality.

“I just wish you’d give me a chance. I know you want to. Every time you let me in, you look euphoric, so why are you being so difficult?”

“Mm,” I mumbled and turned away from the source that disturbed my sleep. Vaguely, I heard it sigh.

“I’ll see you Monday, sweetheart. And I’ll do my best to make amends. Again, I truly am sorry.”

Warm lips that made my heart skip a beat lingered on my temple. They felt to burn a mark into my skin. And then, after caressing my cheek once more, the presence faded.

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