Chapter 23- Marked Exits
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
Landon was frozen feet from the bar, pale as a ghost.
I was watching his strange reaction to the girl so closely, I almost missed Jesse’s response.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” he snarled, stalking towards the girl. Automatically, Landon’s hand shot out, keeping him away.
Raven and I exchanged startled glances. In all the time I’d known him, I hadn’t ever heard Jesse curse like that, or speak to anyone with such hostility.
Something about this entire situation didn’t sit right with me. What had Landon called her? Naomi? Frowning, I tried to pinpoint why the name wasn’t new. Had he mentioned her before?
While I was struggling to place the girl, Raven was moving forward to take Jesse’s arm. She tugged him towards the bar, away from Landon. Placing soothing hands on his shoulders, she somehow managed to tame the savage rage the girl’s arrival triggered.
Maybe I’d seen her in a picture? I scrutinized her appearance. Straight jet black hair fell to her waist. Matching bold eyebrows framed an exotic face, with sharp cheekbones and natural pouty lips. On top of amazing bone structure, she was tall, leggy, and tanned.
No way would I have forgotten her picture.
“What are you doing here, Naomi?” Landon hissed, recovering marginally. A vein I rarely saw pulsed along his neck.
Naomi’s brows furrowed, and she crossed her arms over her chest defensively. “I was in the area. I thought I’d see how you were doing. It’s been a while, and you haven’t exactly kept in touch.”
“Bullshit,” Jesse growled, but it was low enough that only Raven and I heard it. Deciding enough was enough, I walked over to Landon and took his hand. I wish I could say the gesture was supportive and supportive only. But truth be told, I wanted to stake a claim. She was beautiful, in a haunted kind of way, and she clearly evoked strong emotions in Landon.
He glanced down and struggled to smile, but I could see my appearance had only made him tense more. Naomi was watching us closely, lips flattened and expression guarded.
I cleared my throat. “Hi, I’m Sophia. Landon’s
girlfriend. And you are?”
Naomi shifted on her feet, and took me in. “I’m Naomi Reynolds. I’m Landon’s ex.”
Part of me had expected her to be something of the sort, but it still hit hard. Landon said I was his first girlfriend.
He’d needed a learning curve and patience. But if he’d gone out with Naomi first…
My heart twisted, and no matter how much I tried to shove my writhing insecurities behind a dam, they pulsed angrily, threatening to break through.
“Enough,” Landon said shortly. “Naomi, a moment.” He dropped my hand. Without waiting, he stormed over to the hallway and opened the door. I got a brief glimpse into the office before the door shut with them behind it.
I felt like a fool, standing there, watching the closed door. Not willing to look at my friends and see pity in their gazes, I warred over what to do. My morally upstanding-self wanted to sit quietly by until Landon was done and could explain everything clearly and calmly.
The other part, the Sophia that didn’t understand what Landon saw in her, the Sophia that knew deep down she’d always be the nerdy, reclusive sister- that part wanted to go hear what they were saying.
Resolved, I marched towards the door, shooting Raven a glare when she attempted to follow. Carefully placing my ear on the door, I tried to tune out the din from the rest of the bar.
Their voices were muffled, and I strained to listen.
“…doesn’t explain how you found me,” Landon said, anger blatant in his tone.
Naomi huffed. “So maybe I asked around, alright? What’s the big deal?”
There was a scoff of disbelief, followed by, “You haven’t changed a bit, have you? I have a life here, Naomi. I already have a situation with someone from my past- you’d only make it worse. It’s been nearly four years-did you guys set a Google reminder to come haunt me at the same time?”
“Someone from the past? Who?”
I could practically feel Landon’s frustration emanating through the door. “That’s not the point. You need to leave.”
There was a beat of silence.
“Shit, this wasn’t exactly the reception I was expecting,” came Naomi’s thick voice.
Oh my God. Was she actually crying?
“Ah…Nai, c’mon, don’t cry. It’s not…look, it’s not that I’m not glad to know you’re okay.”
“Is it because of the girl outside?”
“Her name is Sophia,” Landon said, and I barely stifled a snort. She remembered my name, the coy little sneak. “And she’s a big part of it, yeah.”
“And she’s your girlfriend? Since when do you do the domesticated thing?”
“That’s my whole goddamned point. I’m not the same person you knew.”
“A tiger never changes his stripes, Landy.”
I nearly choked on my spit. Landy? What the hell was a Landy? It sounded like the nickname for a balding pedophile.
“This conversation is over. I’m going to go find my girlfriend now. I’m fucking terrified to know what she’s been thinking the last few minutes.”
Crap! I shoved away from the door and hurried to the bar, barely managing to slide into a stool before the door opened. Raven narrowed her eyes, and I knew I’d have plenty of explaining to do later. At the moment, all her ire was focused on the two people walking toward us. Despite my burning curiosity, I didn’t want to talk to Landon. Not yet, not with guilt and confusion swirling in my chest like a clawed creature, waiting to spring and tear at my insides.
“Maddie,” I said, quickly grabbing her hand. “Can you come with me to the bathroom?”
Blinking rapidly, Maddie had scarcely nodded and I was dragging her towards the ladies’ room. I could feel Landon’s gaze burning into my neck, but I didn’t turn around.
There were only a couple of women inside, and they cleared away after a few minutes. I braced my hands on the cool tile of the sink, taking in my flushed cheeks and matted hair from the car ride. Lovely.
“You okay?” Maddie asked quietly, watching me in the mirror.
I was saved from a reply by the door opening. Raven burst in, a thunderstorm of energy in the small bathroom. She placed her hands on her hips. “You have some ’splaining to do.”
“Its fine, guys,” I sighed, turning the faucet on. I ran my hands under the cold water and touched them to my overheated cheeks. “I’m being ridiculous.”
“Yeah, you are,” Raven agreed. “What was with the whole Pink Panther schtick?”
“Give her a break, would you?” Maddie said sharply. Raven’s attention switched, and her brows rose. Maddie wasn’t known for losing her temper.
Especially at Raven.
“She did what any person would do. If Jesse had been behind that door, are you really trying to say you have stayed behind like a patient little girlfriend?” Maddie continued. “I don’t think so.”
Tilting her head, Raven assessed Maddie for a charged second. I wanted to punch myself in the gonads even more for causing this new pressure. Thankfully, Raven hopped onto the sink and shrugged. “Point taken.”
“I guess I should go out there,” I said reluctantly. My first instinct when things got complicated or raw was to run.
It always had been. Fight or flight wasn’t even an option for me-it was a premeditated decision.
“I came to tell you what Jesse told us at the bar while you were playing sleuth. That chick, she apparently fucked over Landon something wicked when they were in high school. He wouldn’t give many details, but I get the sense he hates her guts for good reason,” Raven shared thoughtfully. She tugged on the laces of her combat boot and leaned against the mirror. “Did you hear anything interesting, Sophia?”
My mouth opened to answer that I hadn’t when the memory dancing on the edge of my mind for the last twenty minutes slammed into place.
“I was rip-roaring drunk and dancing with this girl
I’d been involved with for a month or so. Naomi. She was as drunk as I was. What I didn’t know at the time, and even if I did I doubt I’d have cared, was that she had a boyfriend. A hotheaded, temperamental boyfriend.”
My hand flew to my mouth. Could it…of course it was the same Naomi. It made complete sense. The girl who’d played a major role in pushing Landon into utter darkness and despair was here. The girl who’d cheated on her boyfriend with my guy. The girl who’d stood by and did nothing while Landon took a life, leaving him with permanent blood on his hands.
“Sophia?” Maddie shook my shoulder. “Honey, where are you?”
I took a deep breath through my nose. “Sorry. Just putting together a few pieces of the puzzle.”
“Care to share with the class?” Raven pushed, earning another glare from Maddie.
The deflection on my lips died quickly when the bathroom door opened and Landon entered. He didn’t glance at the Raven or Maddie. He just stood there, studying me quietly. I scratched my shoulder and stared at the floor, willing it to open and transport me to my bed and Poe.
“Um, Landon?” Maddie said. “This is the girl’s bathroom.”
He cut a look her way. “She’s been in here for close to ten minutes. That’s more time with her,” he inclined his head towards Raven, “than I’m comfortable with.”
“Go screw yourself,” Raven replied hotly, but the command fell on deaf ears.
Landon started walking towards me and stopped. “Can we have a minute, please?”
Maddie glanced in my direction. My slight shrug must have been permission enough, because she grabbed
Raven’s arm and hauled her from the bathroom. “We’ll watch the doors so you guys can have a minute.”
From ahead, Raven went, “All yee females, take your vile urine elsewhere!”
The door closed, and it was just the two of us. There was a pause, and I mustered the balls to break it.
“How are you doing with the blast from the past?” was the best I could do.
Landon rested his back against the sink and rubbed his hands over his face. “Absolutely peachy.”
He lifted his head and looked at me, surprised. “Wait a minute. How do you know who she is?”
I swallowed. Tapping my nails against the tile, I tried hard not to start rocking back and forth. He’d know I was ready to bolt. “Um, you mentioned her name. You know, after the attack, when you were giving me the low-down on Carter.”
He shook his head with astonishment. “Damn, your
memory is like a steel trap.”
It wasn’t hard to remember the person you were crushing on revealing he’d accidentally killed a guy.
Landon shoved a hand through his hair. “So you remember. Then you must remember I completely cut off interaction with her after…you know. I had no idea she was here.”
It finally dawned that Landon must be going through hell right now. Naomi represented everything he was trying to forget, and here he was, catering to my feelings first. I still wanted to run. But I didn’t want to run from him.
I threw my arms around his waist and buried my face into his neck. He didn’t hesitate in returning the embrace, holding me tightly. The strain left his body slowly, until he wasn’t strung tighter than a rubber band.
“Thank God,” he muttered.
“I eavesdropped on you,” I blurted. “And that chick is not leaving. Not without a fight.”
Landon’s low chuckle banished leftover fear of his anger. “Can’t be mad. If I’d been in your shoes…hell, I wouldn’t even have let that door close in the first place.”
Pecking his cheek, I moved out of the circle of his arms. “Don’t worry, I’m well-versed in your double standards, sir. Now, what are you doing to do with Naomi?”
Hmm. I probably should’ve phrased my sentence differently.
“I can hardly ship her out of the country,” Landon said.
I rubbed my chin. “Don’t be so sure. Maddie says she knows people.”
Rolling his eyes, Landon threw his arm around my shoulder, tucking me into my favorite nook in the world. “I’ll deal with it. But before I do anything, I need you to know that Naomi and I are over. You’re the most important person in my life, and nobody can change that. You get me?”
“I got you.”
Landon opened the door, and since he wouldn’t release me, we had to angle ourselves to squeeze through. Maddie and Raven glanced over from their vigil. Maddie visibly relaxed when she saw me snuggled into him, but Raven remained suspicious.
Landon passed the bar without stopping. I barely managed a glimpse of Naomi watching us go, a gleam of violent hurt and anger in her eyes chilling me to the bone.
Jesse and Erica were already outside, hopping from foot to foot to maintain circulation in the icy weather. Maddie immediately slid her hand in to Erica’s, and I decided to try to get her alone to catch up with that whole situation later.
“It’s been a treat, ladies, but I think it’s time for my roommate and I to hit the hay, don’t you think?” Jesse clapped his hands together, and the look on his face dared Landon to argue. Sighing, Landon pressed cold lips to my forehead and stepped away.
“After you, sergeant,” he drawled. The girls said their goodbyes, and I was curious to see Raven more subdued than usual. We parted ways, the four of us heading to the girl’s dorm.
“I live in a different dorm, so I’ll leave you guys here,” Erica said once we reached a fork in the road.
Maddie frowned. “You sure you don’t want me to walk you there?”
Erica gave Maddie a quick hug and peck on the lips.
“I’ll be fine, darling. Sophia, I hope you resolve whatever shit went down in the bar. Raven…see you later.”
Hitching up the collar of her coat, Erica strode away.
We resumed walking. “So, things are going well between you two?” Raven asked, hitching her thumb in the direction Erica had disappeared.
Maddie exhaled dreamily. The wind had chapped the tip of her nose to a balmy red. “I really like her, if that’s what you mean. We talked throughout the break-unlike you jerks, who could barely bother with a text- and she’s so open. Transparent. It feels nice, being in a relationship without any mind games.”
“You must have dated some hardcore asshats,
Maddie my dear. She’s cool, I guess.” For Raven, this was practically a glowing recommendation. “Have you guys itsy bitsy spidered yet?”
At Maddie’s confusion, I quickly clarified our abuse of the childhood tune. She cringed. “You guys are weird.” “Only on orphan eating days,” I deadpanned. “To answer your nosy question,” Maddie said, fingers fidgeting on the hem of her coat, “No itsy bitsy anything. Erica wants to take things slow.”
“Huh,” Raven said thoughtfully. “So like Sophia and Landon’s situation?”
I tuned in to the conversation. “Wait, what?”
“Don’t worry, I don’t mean the crapshoot from ten minutes ago. I’m saving that for later. You and Landon, you haven’t done the horizontal tango, right? The rose petal prance? The fornicating frolic?”
I looked at Maddie earnestly. “Please stab me in the face.”
She shook her head. “Can’t do that. Who would return the favor?”
We reached our room. Maddie followed us inside and kicked off her shoes. “My roommate’s doing her toenails. In her underwear. While she talks dirty to her boyfriend on the phone!”
Raven tossed a pillow her way. “The floor is your best friend.”
I pulled pajamas from the closet and changed quickly. “Do you guys ever stay up late at night wondering if that cat is actually a person, like an evil person who was cursed into a cat’s body for eternity after he tried to like, apocalypse the world?” Raven mused, tugging on a tank top and men’s underwear.
“I think it’s time you and Poe get some couple’s therapy,” Maddie chortled.
Raven launched into her bed and snuggled into her pillow. “Oh precious baby, I promise I’ll never leave you again,” she crooned.
I shook my head and grabbed a book from my dresser drawer. My luck to have friends who were even weirder than I was, a feat I hadn’t thought remotely possible.
“Anyway.” Raven’s words were muffled into her pillow. “Maddie and Erica are like Sophia and Landontaking their sweet time to deliciousness.”
Fiddling with a strand of her honey colored hair, Maddie scowled. “None of your beeswax.”
“Ugh,” Raven complained. She hung her legs from the side of her bed and tried to stretch her toe to Maddie’s cheek. “You guys have no sense of drama. Take Sophia for example. Her boyfriend’s ex shows up, they go off into a private room, and she’s dandy as you please?”
I shot Raven a warning glance. “There’s stuff you don’t know about, okay? I trust Landon.”
“Sheesh, keep your pants on. If y’all don’t want to share, I will. The day after Thanksgiving, Jesse snuck into my room, and he had these prongs-”
I shrieked at the same time Maddie shouted, “I will throw myself from the window!”
“UGH!” Raven flipped off the room at large and shoved the pillow over her face.
The room settled, and I finally had a chance to process my thoughts. So Landon’s ex from four years ago. His older, exotic, gorgeous ex-something. Given their history and her connection to Landon, the attractiveness factor shouldn’t have been the first worry on my mind. But I was a virginal freshman with baggage dating an experienced, worldly upperclassman. As much as I wished I could discard my insecurity in all of this, I would need a crowbar to remove it from my chest.
Lifting my knees to my chest, I twisted a strand of hair between my fingers. It was up to me to get my head screwed straight until Naomi left. I’d put up with a lot for Landon, and I was willing to put up with plenty more. But everyone has a breaking point, a point when it’s time to lay down your weapons and run.
And Landon’s ex was holding the door wide open.