Caleb Parker barely held in a grimace. Across the table from him Amber burst into tears. He hated how good he’d gotten at predicting when the emotional shit would hit the fan. From the chin quiver to the reddening of the nose to the welling of the eyes, he’d memorized all the signs. What grated most was the skill came from years of experience. He could teach a Master’s class in Jerkology. In his defense, he thought he’d made the rules clear when he first approached her about this arrangement. She agreed without complaint to each one he’d listed. He specifically chose her because he thought she understood his situation.
The original plan was to break up with her a week before he left for Yale. Unfortunately for him and his carefully-crafted post-summer break up speech, she had other plans. Yesterday, at her graduation after party, she invited him out to the dock behind her house and broke the most important rule of all under the moonlight. If he were less messed up, he would have been happy to have someone like Amber in his life. Beautiful. Well-bred. A girl his father would approve of. Instead he kissed her on the cheek, made some excuse about running an errand, left the party, and then sent her a text asking to meet him at the Country Club for lunch.
He pushed the starched white napkin on his side toward her. She ignored it and opened the small purse she had with her, pulling out a lace square smaller than what would be considered a proper handkerchief. Did the tiny thing even absorb moisture? Still, she dabbed at the corners of her eyes and sniffed. He suspected crocodile tears from the way her actions seemed so rehearsed. Each sniff and silent sob orchestrated to tug at his heart, or whatever was left inside his chest.
Tapping the table with his index finger, he admitted to himself asking her out to lunch to break up with her might not have been the best idea. He definitely shouldn’t have started the speech right after ordering a blue cheese burger and truffle fries for him and a Caesar salad with croutons, anchovies, and dressing on the side for her. But he had to nip this in the bud before Amber dug her grave even deeper than she’d already done last night. In his mind, Caleb was doing her a favor.
Heads swiveled their way from curious on-lookers. Since it was the weekend the dining room was packed. Another strike against him. Caleb shut his eyes to keep from rolling them when the women began whispering to each other. Before sundown, news would reach his father. He could see the headlines in big bold letters: Famous lawyer’s son breaks up with important client’s daughter.
“Amber,” he said, his eyebrows coming together. She gasped as if he’d lobed a grenade at her. He sighed and schooled his features to a more charming mask. “Look, I’m sorry.”
“But…but…you and me…” Her shoulders hitched up with every word she attempted to say. Hiccups prevented her from continuing. Thank God for small miracles. This situation was painful enough without her having to justify why they were perfect for each other.
No longer interested in Amber’s hysterics, Caleb waved one of the wait staff over. A girl about his age shuffled toward him. He paused. Something about her was familiar, yet he couldn’t quite place her. Surely he wouldn’t forget eyes like hers—brown with specks of gold. They reminded him of fireworks on the Fourth of July. Yet he saw no light behind those remarkable irises. It was like she looked past him. Her hair fell in a messy braid over her shoulder as if she hadn’t bothered running a comb through the strands before weaving them together. Her skin—almost sickly pale—stood out despite the blandness of the Country Club’s uniform of tan slacks and button-down in a color his cousin Nathan called sherbet—whatever the hell that was. To Caleb the shirt was the color of puke. His eyes landed on the most scuffed white Docs he’d ever seen. One of the laces had come undone. Surely her choice of footwear wasn’t part of the uniform.
He didn’t bother hiding his grimace when an ear-piercing keen accompanied Amber’s hiccups. “Can you bring us two glasses of water?” He glanced at her name tag. “Diana.”
Diana Alexander, or Didi as they called her, forced a smile on her face when the stretching of the muscles around her lips was the farthest thing she wanted to do. She nodded at the trust fund brat who’d reduced the poor girl sitting across from him to a mess of tears and turned on her heel to do as she’d been asked. She should really care more, but she couldn’t bring herself to. If she wanted to make it through this day, she had to pull it together.
At the bar, she took a deep breath that didn’t quite make it to her lungs. Exhaling anyway, she concentrated on her task. With practiced movements, she pulled a circular tray from the stack and placed two glasses on the center. Then she reached for the pitcher with cucumber and lemon slices floating with ice in the rich people water and poured. Once the glasses were three quarters of the way full, she balanced the tray in her open palm and returned to the table.
In the background a middle-aged man asked for extra parmesan cheese. She ignored him, side-stepping the hand he reached out for her ass. She reminded herself to chill. Just attend to one table at a time. She’d woken up to a mood downswing. Normally she could cope, but her alarm hadn’t gone off because the power was cut in the middle of the night. This triggered the downhill slide. Her super mom had probably forgotten to pay the bill…again. No power meant no hot water, so no shower. To make matters worse, she had to make do with yesterday’s uniform because she’d been too exhausted to run the wash. And to top everything off, no matter how hard she looked she couldn’t find her white sneakers, forcing her to wear boots that had seen better days. She saw the way trust fund boy raked his gaze over her. Not that Didi was insulted. She’d experienced worse looks, especially from the socialites who frequented the Club with their new noses, fake boobs, and expensive everything.
Another patron calling her name surprised Didi out of her head. She stepped on the shoelace she kept forgetting to tie, sending the tray lifting out of her hand. She managed to catch the tray by taking a step forward and placing her free hand on the edge. Sadly, the two glasses had already spilled their contents on the blubbering girl with trust fund boy. The girl screamed and pushed away from the table so fast the back of her chair caught Didi on the hip. This activated a sequence of events that killed her inside. The glasses fell and shattered. The once crying girl yelled for the manager and spat obscenities no lady should ever know.
Humiliated and close to tears, Didi dropped to the ground and began gathering shards of glass and placing them on the tray. Chairs scrapping against the floor told her patrons at the tables closest to them were all getting up and most likely sneering at her as they often did during a commotion. Blubbering girl wouldn’t stop screaming hateful words, adding to Didi’s fast rising stress levels. Doing her best to close off as much of the noise as she could, she concentrated on picking up what was left of her dignity scattered among the glass and lemon slices. She wasn’t going to cry. Damn it. She totally wasn’t.
When she reached for the largest piece, a hand beat her to it. She looked up into the brightest blue eyes she’d ever seen. They were so clear she could almost see her reflection in them. She gasped when the tips of her fingers grazed the back of his hand.
“You don’t have to do that,” she said quickly, hating how shaky her voice had become. The corners of her eyes stung.
“You shouldn’t be doing it either,” he replied. “You can cut yourself.”
“But it’s my job,” she insisted, reaching for a clump of cucumbers.
“To cut yourself?”
She pinned him with a withering glare. She’d had just about enough. Her day had to stop getting worse or she’d explode. Or spiral into a deep, dark pit of despair. Either was bound to happen. She felt it like an itch under her skin.
The corners of his gorgeous eyes crinkled. “To be honest, what just happened did me a huge favor.” He glanced up at the still chattering girl looming over them. “It’s just a little water, Amber. Calm down.”
Didi would have laughed if she could find it in herself to. He just said the two worst words any guy could say to a clearly distressed female. Something about him being a jerk was yelled. She looked over her shoulder and witnessed pink pumps striding away. She would have breathed a sigh of relief if the stocky form of her manager wasn’t lumbering toward them.
“Mr. Parker, I’m so sorry,” her manager said.
Trust fund brat stood up. Didi followed him with her eyes because how could she not? Paying attention, she could make out the best details about him. Besides those eyes, his dark tousled hair was combed to one side. When he smiled at her manager and shook his hand, a hint of a dimple appeared. She was pretty sure the combination of navy sports jacket over a simple T-shirt, jeans, and loafers cost more than what she made at the Club for an entire year. Add sparkles and he’d cut a dazzling figure. Hell, it was like he’d stepped out of a Ralph Lauren catalogue.
“Don’t worry about it, Tony,” he said to her manager after pulling his hand away. “Put everything on my tab.”
It rubbed Didi the wrong way how he used his money to smooth everything over. Sure, she couldn’t afford paying for the glasses and the food that had already been ordered, but she didn’t need someone like Mr. Parker coming to her rescue. Oh why did he have to sit in her section today of all days?
Impulsively, she pushed to her feet and said, “That won’t be necessary.”
The corners of his eyes crinkled again. “Really. I’m happy to pay. What’s two glasses and lunch? You can even keep the burger and salad.” He leaned in, giving her a good whiff of his cool cologne, and whispered, “You saved me. I owe you.”
Like a dam breaking, words spewed out of Didi’s mouth. “You think your money solves everything, don’t you? I tripped because I was wearing the wrong shoes. I spilled the water on Ashley—”
“Amber,” he corrected.
“Whatever.” She huffed. “I’m done! All you women are so fake you make me gag. You order a salad and ask for everything on the side. You might as well munch on rabbit food.” She gestured at everyone in the dining room, not caring about the stunned silence she was responsible for. “Just because you’re rich you think you can get away with anything. If one of you perverts grabs my ass one more time, I will stab you with a fork. You treat us like we’re your slaves and don’t even tip properly. Well, you can all shove your cash where the sun don’t shine.” Didi yanked off her name tag, threw it at trust fund brat, and stomped off in the direction of the staff locker room.
Caleb caught the tag after it bounced off his chest and ran his thumb over the name engraved across the smooth surface. He only half listened to the manager’s apology. Diana actually spoke the words he’d wanted to say. She had the attention of everyone in the room and it was a glorious sight indeed. He thought the group of housewives in the corner with their salads would spontaneously combust. And the men. Oh, God, thank you for letting him see their red faces. They harrumphed into their mid-day drinks. She made him forget his problems for a minute. And that was saying something.
Unwilling to face what his father had in store, Caleb drove around Dodge Cove for a few hours until he parked the limited edition Mustang his grandmother had given him for his sixteenth birthday a few yards away from the edge of Coward’s Cliff. Still in mint condition, it had been his grandfather’s car. Given to him by the great Carroll Shelby himself. He’d miss the car when he left DC, but it was a small price to pay for his freedom. Taking it with him would just be greedy.
He stepped out and made his way to the front bumper. Half-sitting on the hood, he watched the sun set in the distance. The orange light turned the water to gold confetti and painted the sky a pink Nathan would be proud of. Despite the beautiful sight, he got stuck in his head. He ran through all the things his father would say when he walked through the doors of their too big, too empty house. Words like disappointment and worthless were at the top of the list. Then there were the threats of cutting him off completely. The last one always made his blood run cold. He hated how dependent he was on his father. Access to his trust fund wouldn’t be granted until he graduated college. He could try making it on his own, but what the hell would he do? He had no workable skills to speak of. He didn’t even want the law degree he was accepted into Yale for. Caleb laughed at his directionless life. Pathetic? Yeah, that pretty much summed up his sad situation.
He sent a silent thanks to Diana—wherever she may be—for the entertainment and inadvertently saving him from having to face Amber after her tears had dried. She’d lick her wounds and move on to someone else. There were far richer eligible bachelors for her to latch on to in Dodge Cove. He fished out the joint he’d scored at the party last night and a lighter from his back pocket. If he was going to face his father, he’d at least do it baked. Squeezing one end between his lips, he lit the other and inhaled. Holding his breath for a beat, he allowed the magic to work before exhaling in one long, satisfied puff. The smoke curled up. He sagged heavier against the hood of his car.
After taking a second hit, a hand snatched away the only thing giving him courage to go home. Caleb straightened as fast as he could under the mellow circumstances. The protest died in his throat. Pitching the joint between her thumb and index finger, Diana brought it to her lips and sucked in a lungful. Maybe it was the weed working or the shock of her sudden appearance, but Caleb couldn’t take his eyes off her mouth. The soft whoosh of her exhalation mesmerized him. The way her lips formed an O? Check his pulse, he might have just died.
“Hey,” she said in a breathy voice then took another hit. She still wore the Country Club uniform and those ugly boots.
“Hey,” he said back, unable to think of anything better until, “Quit hogging my high.” Not the best line either. He blamed it on the brain dulling substance he’d been inhaling and subsequently sharing with this intriguing girl who put most of DC’s elite in their places a few hours ago. And on their turf no less.
With a huff for a laugh, she handed him back the joint. The idea of returning it to his lips when she’d just placed it on hers made him suddenly very aware of her. The curve of her bottom lip. The upward tilt of her eyes. The long column of her neck. Her citrusy sweet scent. The possible softness of her cheek beneath his palm.
“Whoa!” He inhaled, eyes wide. “This is some strong shit.”
She settled beside him against the hood. His car’s front dipped slightly. Their shoulders touched. “I’ve had stronger.”
“Oh yeah?” came out with an exhale of smoke.
“Yeah.” She reached for the joint and he willingly gave it to her just so he could watch her bring the end to her mouth again.
He thought of something to say and came up with, “Diana.”
Her name. Just her name. It sounded so good to his ears for some reason. Yup, his brain wasn’t working properly anymore. He reached into his pocket again when she turned her head to face him, the joint still on her lips, and he handed her the name tag. She took it.
“They call me Didi,” she said, running her thumb over her name like he had done back at the Country Club dining room.
“Who are ‘they’?” He took the joint back, the knuckle of his index finger grazing the corner of her mouth.
She shrugged one shoulder—the one with the braid—then looked out onto the confetti water. “Can you see the future?”
“No. Can you?” He played along, not willing to overthink the sudden bizarre turn in their conversation. He was content to float in her company without actually leaving the ground.
“No matter how hard I look, I just can’t see it.”
Before he could ask what she’d meant or anything else about her, the girl they all called Didi pushed off his car’s hood, walked up to the cliff’s edge, and jumped.
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