The tide change caused the water to recede, but there was still enough left behind at the beach’s edge to wade her feet in. Téa could feel the grainy material pack itself between her toes as she curled them deep within the sand. It was something she did every time she and her sister, Carmen, came to the lake. It was almost like she was imprinting herself in the land, marking where she’d been, like others who had been there before her. There was a little something left behind of everyone.
The sun was beating down, heavy and insistent, but the wind coming off the lake made its effect less heady. Téa was sitting on a large beach towel, having just come out of the water not twenty minutes prior. She pulled her hair off to one shoulder, wringing out some of the water that had soaked into her long brown hair, then smoothed it back, so it didn’t appear too untamed. Her bathing suit still clung to her toned frame, but the sun’s rays would soon change that.
She watched her sister floating on her back, a blip of yellow—it was the color of her bathing suit—in a mass of blackness, arms outstretched, body motionless as the water carried her still form. She could make out the smile upon Carmen’s face, see that her eyes were closed, her entire body relaxed. It was as if that single moment granted her freedom of everything that threatened to weigh her down, making her feel as weightless as she appeared in the water.
Téa looked past her sister to the backdrop of trees, awed by the beauty the picturesque scene made. She couldn’t help but smile in return. It was moments like these, when a bubble of peace seemed to wrap around them, appearing impenetrable, blocking out anything negative, that she could just be. There were no expectations, no responsibilities, nothing outside of the calm that this place offered her.
She glanced down at her hands, turning them palm up in her lap, noticing the way the skin of her fingers were pruned at the tips. She’d been in the water a long time, but Carmen had been in much longer. Téa could only imagine how her sister’s skin appeared. She laughed, knowing it was going to be near impossible to get Carmen out of the water. She’d live in it if she could.
It was getting late in the afternoon, though, and they’d yet to have lunch. She stood up and began calling out to her sister, reminding her that they needed to eat. She called out four times, getting no response back. It was like all that liquid blackness deafened her sister to any sounds.
As she gazed on, the water seemed to come alive, morphing into a sinister being, ominous in the way it moved around Carmen, as if its intention was to swallow her up and ingest her life force, because it fed off anything good. The light inside a person that beamed within because their soul was pure, it was like a beacon that drew evil to it. Consuming good souls gave undiluted power.
Téa was screaming out to her now, the terror in her bones amplified to a degree that practically eviscerated her insides.
Her throat felt raw from the overuse, but no amount of vocalization made any impact on freeing Carmen. She struggled to move, so she could get to her sister, but an unseen force immobilized her, keeping her feet cemented to the ground where she stood.
Carmen’s arms were splashing while she screamed out, as though she was hoping to find something drifting along that she could hold to in order to stay afloat. Her body was being pulled under the water, but she flailed, gasping for air when her head was able to pull itself above the water. The fear was tangible upon her face, like she knew hope did not exist where she was, and that felt like a jagged knife stabbing at Téa’s heart. She had no control over her body, no ability to move, and she felt powerless.
But the screams, the gurgling screams that filled the cool air, attacked her hearing, ripping at her eardrums. She was trying to move, trying so hard to get her body to cooperate with what her mind was telling it to do. Then, there was silence. No noise, no Carmen.
The silence bled throughout the area. She wanted to scream but couldn’t. She thought it was gone, but it wasn’t. The tree branches rustled in the distance, and then she heard the eerie voice the wind carried, the one that promised it was coming for her, too.
It was coming. She could feel it, smell the decay in the air. Her body trembled with terror. It was close, closer, so close that her blood ran cold. It was there in front of her, but she couldn’t close her eyes to what was going to happen to her, and, dear God, she wanted to close her eyes. It was reaching for her, snarling. It opened its mouth, ready to devour her whole. It was going to—
Téa’s eyes shot open, and she sat up quickly, clutching at her chest as she gasped for air, but it took her a moment to realize that she’d only been dreaming. She breathed in deep, exhaling the air in her lungs slowly. She did this repetitively, trying to beat down her frazzled nerves and the wild thumping of her heart.
When she finally calmed enough to feel as if she was in her own skin again, she released the death grip her free hand held on the bed sheet. Her body felt raw, prickled with that sensation, and the texture of the blanket covering her was identical to sandpaper rubbing against her flesh. She hated how real the dreams felt, how incapacitated they made her.
The nights became colder, more alone, and Téa would lie in bed, perpetually blinking the haze of sleep away before her eyes searched the thick blackness surrounding her. The air around her was suffocating. Her body felt lax from the muscle strain that occurred during her dream state, and sweat accumulated all over her, making it feel as if she were sticky and dirty. It was nothing she wasn’t used to by now, though. The only thing different about this time was the location. She was sleeping in a different bed, in a different city all together.
Just like the after of every dream that starred her sister, she would see Carmen through the dark of her room but knew she wasn’t really there. No, Carmen hadn’t been there for months now, but, then, neither had Téa, not emotionally. Still, that fact didn’t stop the mental pictures Téa’s mind projected. She could see them as clearly as if the images had been burned into her retinas.
She threw the covers off her heated body and sat up, tossing her legs over the side of the bed, resting her bare feet on the plush carpet. She lifted her right hand and rubbed her palm along her forehead, wiping away the perspiration that coated her skin. With all the sweating she did, it was a damn shame she couldn’t sweat out the emptiness she felt coursing through her like sick people could some infections. Oh, she was sick inside, but what she felt was like a poison that rooted its claws into her soul, growing and devouring her from the inside out. No amount of sweating would ever cure that.
Once believing that her sister’s presence would lessen as time ticked on, Téa discovered that wasn’t the case, because she felt her everywhere, in everything. She supposed that was fitting, really. Carmen was a part of her, always had been, and now she was gone from this world
Dragging her heavy body out of bed, Téa made her way to the small bathroom of her hotel room. She removed the dampened clothing from her body, leaving them in a wadded pile on the floor, and then readied the shower, planting her body underneath the mildly warm spray. She leaned her forehead against the cool tile, closing her eyes as the water beat down on her bare back. Water trails zigzagged down her body, creating odd patterns.
Her eyes lowered to the ceramic flooring, noticing beads of water rolling off the skin of her feet, making their way down the drain. They had served their purpose, and now they were being expelled. She could relate, though she wasn’t sure that she ever really had a purpose. She just was.
There was nothing now, nothing but the darkness to wrap around her, caging her in its chokehold. She was alone. She felt the loss of her sister, her grandfather, the mother who never loved her, and the man who broke her heart daily, and the only way to feel any reprieve was to take solace from others in whatever capacity she could find it. Most times, it was with her body. It was self-destructive, but it made her feel something other than dead inside.
She was in search of something. She was in search of a salvation she was yet to find.
Téa noticed the buildings pass by as she stared out the taxi window. Colors from city lights, business signs, advertisement billboards, and homes bled into the mix of browns and grays, making the blur of scenery appear like an abstract painting. Normally, she’d be interested in the surroundings of a new city, but her dismal mood prevented her from really enjoying the view.
“You’re too quiet. You okay?”
Téa lifted her head from the cool glass and turned to face the passenger beside her. She recognized the look she was getting. She should have been accustomed to it by now, but, every single time Lena leveled her with concerned eyes, she became weary with guilt. It was one thing for her emotions to encumber her, but it was another to show it and allow it to affect her best friend.
So Téa did what she always did when some of her inner turmoil trickled out. She compartmentalized her emotions, put on a smile, and told herself to just breathe.
“Yeah, I’m alright. I’m just feeling a bit exhausted. It’s been a long day, you know.”
“Yeah,” Lena agreed. “Traveling tends to do that.”
Téa laughed. “Honestly, it makes no sense. We aren’t actually doing anything but sitting, so how can sitting cause so much fatigue?”
“They say it’s from resisting the movement of the vehicle you’re in.”
Lena held up a book on travel. “Experts.”
Téa’s gaze shifted between her friend and the book. “Since when have you been a reader of travel books?”
Lena shrugged then turned her smiling face toward the window beside her. “Since we became travelers,” she replied. “There’s nothing wrong with being prepared.”
Téa couldn’t disagree with that remark, and she was a little more than relieved with the silence that followed it. The silence allowed her a modicum of peace, something she desperately desired but found so little of, and she needed those rare moments to sequester the desolation she felt.
It was, after all, her first day of vacation, and she refused to be a buzzkill for Lena’s sake. Well, technically, it was her first day in Grayson Falls, Michigan, not her actual first day of vacation, but that was a moot point. She and Lena had already been to Orlando, Florida and had trekked through New York City in the last two months. Both places were two of the twelve destinations they planned to visit that year. Grayson Falls made the third.
She could recall the exact moment the “trip” had been planned. She and Lena were five, and it was the first time they met, sitting in the sandbox at the park while the other children occupied the swings and merry-go-round.
The thing was that they didn’t mind being the odd ones out, because neither one ever really fell in line with the other kids. Still, all it took was a few shared raisins between them, and they were inseparable.
Lena popped a raisin into her mouth while swiping at her long blonde hair to clear the view it obstructed, but Téa could still see the excitement within her brown eyes. “My daddy says when I’m a big girl like mommy, I can drive a car like his. I’ll get one for my big girl birthday. And guess what?”
“What?” Téa asked curiously.
Lena patted the sand cake she made, her little tongue poking through the left corner of her mouth as she smoothed the edges of the damp sand, before placing a stick in the center to signify a candle. She seemed very proud of her creation as she stared down at it. “I can go bye-bye wherever I want to.”
Téa’s eyes widened. “Even to see Cinderella?”
Lena giggled. “Yep. And you can go, too. We’ll have a sleepover.” She wiped her tiny hands on her jean shorts, then popped another raisin into her mouth. “But we can’t forget the raisins.”
Details may have changed over the years, and they were raisin free, but they still went where they wanted to, and they had done it together. The memory almost had Téa chuckling to herself, but the abrupt stop the cab made in front of the large hotel building interrupted her mental reflection.
“We’re here.” Lena’s enthusiasm made Téa smile. She loved seeing her friend so happy.
As Téa opened the car door and began climbing out, she almost wished she hadn’t. It was cold out, making the wind feel as if it sliced against her skin like a thousand tiny shards of glass all at once. She was well aware that some people would probably think of her and Lena as crazy to go vacationing in places that were obviously still chilly in early May. Michigan weather was known for its unpredictability, but that’s what makes it so exciting. She and Lena had no idea what to expect.
"You know," Téa started, wrapping her jacket tight around her body. "We certainly picked the right time to visit New York and Michigan, considering it’s freezing. I really don’t think that bikini you bought will see much use.”
Lena stepped out behind her, laughing. "That’s nonsense. Even if the pool is outside, which I doubt, it's still heated. And don't forget about the hot tubs." She wiggled her eyebrows. "Besides, it's not that cold. You're too warm-blooded."
Téa’s scowl triggered more laughter from her friend. She shook her head in annoyance as they approached the trunk of the cab to gather their luggage.
"You may have no problem freezing for the sake of showing your ass, but I can think of better ways to lure the opposite sex than acquiring frostbite anywhere on my body to do so.” Lena’s incredulous stare had Téa swallowing hard... and wishing for a subject change. “But none of that matters, because that's not why I'm here."
"Wait a minute." Lena stopped a few steps shy of the trunk, circling around to face Téa. "When did we role reverse? You're usually the one worried about the extracurricular activities, not me."
Téa frowned. "Oh, that’s hilarious. I’ll have you know, sex is not the center of my universe, and it’s not a priority for this trip. We're supposed to be on vacation, Lena, and that means enjoying the scenery and relaxing."
“Lena Marie Jensen, are you mocking me?”
Téa knew Lena did not like the full use of her name, but she was also aware that using it was quite effective in getting answers.
“Because I distinctly heard mocking in your tone.”
“I wasn’t mocking, I just... What about Ryan Ellison, Josh Williams, or even Philip Anderson? Do you see the pattern here?"
"What's your point?" Téa asked sarcastically. She glanced back at her friend as she pulled her luggage toward the hotel entrance.
"My point is you move from one to the next, Téa." She felt a flicker of guilt when Téa glared at her offensively. "I'm not saying you sleep around. That's not what I'm saying."
"Then what are you saying?"
Lena walked ahead of her into the lobby but moved a few paces back to walk alongside Téa, lowering her voice as she spoke. "I'm saying that you never settle. It’s like they just... They don’t...” Her words tapered off into nothingness.
“They don’t what?”
“They don’t ever become more. Not since-”
“Don’t say his name,” Téa bit out. A sliver of guilt balled in her gut, but the cold emptiness she felt ache its way to her bones made it impossible to apologize for being so harsh.
“I’m sorry. I never should have...” Lena swallowed down the regret then exhaled a deep breath, like she was trying to expel the unwanted feeling. “It’s just... It’s almost like you don’t want anyone to be more, like you’re convinced you need to push them away. You do whatever it is you do with them, and then they're gone. You don't let yourself love or be loved."
The conversation was not one that needed prying ears, and that reason was why both women stopped moving toward the reception desk. Téa peered around to make sure they weren’t being watched before answering her friend.
“I don’t need their love.”
“Everyone needs love, Téa. It makes you stronger.”
Téa shook her head furiously. “No, it makes you vulnerable. It leaves you empty and alone when the person you give it to is gone. That’s not strength. That’s cruelty.”
Her outburst shocked Lena.
She sighed, glancing at her feet. "Look, I can agree that I'm a little unorthodox at times and apparently confusing, but this is who I am, and I don't want to settle, Lena,” Téa explained. “No one should have to settle for someone or something. I'm open-minded in regard to what I want out of life. What's so wrong with that? Why can't I just enjoy myself and my life without being judged for it?”
“I just meant-”
“I know what you meant, okay?” Téa started moving toward the desk again. She couldn’t take the pity staring back at her. “I just don't want to look back later in life and have regrets, because I didn't get to live the way I truly wanted to, because I didn't get to do all the things I told myself I'd do. I won't apologize for that. My sister wasn't given the opportunity to live her life, so I'm doing it for the both of us. This is for Carmen and for me."
Just the mention of her sister’s name had the ability to inflict a visceral reaction. She physically hurt from it.
Lena grabbed Téa’s left arm, bringing them to a standstill. Her expression softened, and a deep rooted understanding permeated her eyes. "I miss her, too. I miss her every day. Carmen was the better half of both of us, but we can't bring her back… and you can't keep taking the blame for what happened. She got sick, and, no matter what the doctors did, they couldn't save her. You couldn't save her. It was her time, whether we were ready for it or not. There are never any guarantees when you deal with cancer."
Téa was all too aware of that fact.
Lena blinked away the beginning tears. "You've been different since she died, almost reckless, like you're trying to punish yourself or something. You know she wouldn’t have wanted that. I just... I worry about you. I'm sorry, but it comes with the territory. You're all I have left, and I don't want to lose you, too. Can you do me a favor and take it easy? Have fun, enjoy yourself, but do it wisely, okay? Can you do that for me?"
Téa purposely ignored the heart of the conversation, choosing to acknowledge what would cause her the least pain. "What do you mean I'm all you have? You have your dad." Lena crossed her arms at her chest, tapping her foot against the hard floor. Téa sighed in acquiescence.
"Alright, I'll be careful. You happy now? Can we get our room key, please?"
"Yes," Lena beamed.
They approached the front desk, finding a dark-haired, hefty woman wearing a permanent scowl upon her face seated behind the counter. The dingy brown and gold of her uniform was not flattering to her appearance, either. "Can I help you?" she asked. Her tone was polite but forced.
"Ummm... yeah," Lena told her. She reached into her purse, pulling out a printed copy for proof of a room reservation and unfolded the paper, placing it on the counter for the receptionist to view. "I have two rooms reserved. The name is Lena Jensen.
Téa leaned toward her friend, speaking with an undertone. "Why two rooms?"
"As much as I love you, I still like my privacy just as you do," Lena whispered back. She winked then returned her attention to the receptionist.
"Oh, yes, I see you here. I have you locked in for two one-bedroom suites on floor twenty… for a total of thirty days..." Her voice trailed off as her eyes lifted from the computer screen, widening in shock.
"Yeah, that's right. Is that a problem?"
"No, ma'am," the woman answered, clearing her throat as she lowered her eyes back to the computer. "Oh, I must have missed this. I see you've paid with a major credit card for both rooms. Is that correct?"
"That's correct.” Lena’s annoyance was tangible.
The receptionist nodded, her fingers tapping harshly against the keyboard. She moved to the right, reaching for a paper from the printer sitting adjacent to her computer. She tore it loose, the sound of tearing paper echoed through the lobby, and placed it in front of Lena, along with a pen. "This is a list of charges for both rooms. Your total including tax is at the bottom. If you could please sign along the line, I'll give you your copy and your keys. The porter will be right with you to take your luggage to your rooms."
Téa glanced over Lena's shoulder to view the receipt. "Jesus, Lena, I didn't realize it was eleven thousand. We could have saved half of that by sharing a room, even more by staying somewhere cheaper."
Lena huffed, waving Téa away with the flick of her hand as she handed the signed receipt back to the receptionist and took the keys. “I don’t think so. And it’s not like we aren’t equipped with money, anyway. You have your inheritance from your grandfather, and I have daddy’s credit card. Besides, daddy got us a discounted rate here. I told you. If we were going to do this, we were going to do it right. I’m not staying in some rundown, no-tell motel. Now, get your bags and let’s go to our rooms.”
Téa shook her head as Lena placed a card key in her hand. “But you can’t pay for everything,” she told her. “It’s not right. I’m supposed to be contributing, remember?”
“You are contributing, TeeTee.” She used the nickname she’d given Téa when they were kids. “You’re putting up with me. If that isn’t contribution, then I don’t know what is.”
“But, Lee, I-”
“No buts,” Lena interrupted. “It’s just money, Téa, and you and I know I have plenty of it.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean-”
“It’s not a big deal, so don’t make it one, okay? I have the money, I wanted to do it, and that’s it.” Lena sighed as she ran her fingers through her long blonde hair. “You’ve always been there for me, even when you had too much on your plate already, and you still never turned me away. I realize that has no monetary value, but it means something more to me. You can’t put a price on friendship like that, and I just... I wanted to do something special for you. So, please, let me do it.”
It was obvious to Téa now that what Lena had done was meant as a gift, and, though she felt it was too much, she also knew that accepting was very important to Lena. It was personal. “Alright, but you didn’t have to.”
Her friend laughed. “Just say thank you, and put a smile on that pretty face of yours. We’re on vacation, so let’s leave the heavy behind us.”
If only it were that easy, Téa thought. Still, she was going to do her best, so up went the smile her friend needed to see. “Thank you.”
The porter, whose nametag read Colin, arrived with a smile. He was handsome in that rugged way; dark eyes, tall and masculine with black hair that fell to his shoulders. Lena smiled back, blushing as his hand came into contact with hers while taking her carry-on bag off her shoulder. It was obvious the man was narcissistic, and he knew the effect he had on women, because his actions were like a revolving door to the female populous. That was why Téa was not interested. She did have some standards.
He retrieved their luggage and began pulling it toward the elevator. He pressed the up arrow, and, no sooner had the button been pressed, the metal doors opened. A gentleman in the same brown and gold hotel uniform was waiting inside.
“Oh, look,” Téa whispered into Lena’s ear. “We have an elevator bellman, too. How cute is that?”
Lena chuckled as the bellman instructed them inside, the porter following behind them. “What floor, please?”
“Twenty,” Téa replied.
The bellman nodded then pressed the number button to their floor. Both women stood inside the lift, falling into conversation about nothing in particular while they waited to arrive at their floor. The lift stopped, and the doors pulled open just as the bellman said, “Floor twenty.”
They politely thanked him and stepped off the lift. “Which way?” Lena asked while looking from side to side.
“To the left,” the porter responded.
Téa led the way. She looked down at her key pass, then glanced back up to the doors, eyeing the numbers as she passed them until she spotted her room. She located it six rooms down from the elevator, on the same side, while Lena’s ended up across the hall from hers.
“Here it is. Lee, you’re across the hall.” She started removing her luggage from the cart. The porter moved to stop her and take the bags himself. His sly grin made her feel uncomfortable but not in the sense of harm. He just really rubbed her the wrong way. She shook her head, because the tip he was looking for wasn’t money... and she wasn’t paying. “Thanks, but I can get my bags. You go on, and help her if she needs it.”
He shrugged his shoulders, as if it were no big loss to him, then beamed that impish smile at Lena, tacking on a wink to seal the deal.
Téa cringed. Lena was a big girl, but dipping into that temptation would be like immersing yourself in a mud bath that catered to the bodies of numerous people. It might feel good at the time, but that wouldn’t change how nasty it was.
“Hey,” Lena called out just as Téa opened the door to her room. As she looked over her shoulder, she caught the porter entering Lena’s room with her luggage. “Do you want to go get dinner or just order in? I’m pretty tired myself. They probably have a restaurant here if you’d prefer that. As long as we don‘t have to leave, I don‘t care.”
“Yeah,” Téa agreed. “We’ll save the sight-seeing for tomorrow. Meet you here in ten? Unless...” She stared past Lena and made a gesture with her head.
Lena sized up the porter, then glanced back at Téa, shaking her head. “Umm... no. Cute but not interested. I’ll be here in ten.”
Téa felt relieved. “Alright. I have to use the restroom first.”
Lena nodded, then disappeared behind her door. Téa grabbed the handles of her luggage, pushing the door open wider with her foot, as she pulled the heavy bags inside. The door closed softly behind her as she walked further into the room.
She first noticed a desk made of mahogany with a high back chair against the wall on the right, situated close to the entry. She placed her key card on the desktop, then briefly looked around, impressed with the state of the room. To the left was a small kitchen, a two person dining table in its center. Further in was a rather large sitting area, completely furnished. A brown leather sectional, that was spaced a few feet from the wall, faced the left of the room, a round mahogany table in front of it. To the right of the couch was an arm chair and ottoman, partitioned from the sectional. On a stand made of the same wood as the other décor was a sizable high-definition television.
What she loved most was how open the room was. She hated feeling cramped in.
Contiguous of the sitting room was a hallway. She hauled her luggage down the small corridor toward the bedroom, stepping inside long enough to set them on the queen size bed centered against the far wall of the room. She took a moment to run her fingers along the Egyptian cotton linen, thoroughly appreciating the softness against her fingertips, before stepping out of the bedroom directly across the hall into the restroom.
Before leaving the room, she checked herself in the mirror, making sure her long curls weren’t in disarray and the black liner that ringed her green eyes wasn’t smeared. She approved, believing what she saw was as good as it was going to get, then made her way to the sitting room, grabbed her room key, and met Lena who was waiting patiently for her in the hallway outside their rooms.
They dined at the Palamo Del Bistro, located on the hotel’s premises. It was a small but quaint restaurant decorated in a multitude of pastel colors, a contrast to the hotel’s earthy tones, though still as extravagant looking.
Téa ordered the linguine primavera while Lena went with the traditional spaghetti. The plates were large in proportion but delicious. After the meal, which neither completely finished, Lena ordered them both a cocktail. The alcohol helped in winding down from the long trip, considering they went by train because Lena insisted on a more scenic route of transportation.
After nearly two hours of downing cocktails, Téa was bone deep in exhaustion. She was warring against the part of her brain that had control of her eyelids... and failing miserably. They felt heavy and dry, like sand-papered weights were embedded in her skin. “Lee, I’m tired, I’m buzzed, and I need my bed.” She rubbed at her eyes, trying to grind out the gritty feeling.
Lena merely giggled as her eyes flickered to and fro, like she was trying to see everything at once, and stood from her chair. “Come on.”
Téa followed behind her, watching her head bobble slightly, her balance visibly impaired.
“Hey, TeeTee.” Her voice carried through the restaurant. “Does my ass look tight in these jeans?”
One thing Téa could always rely on was that an intoxicated Lena made for an interesting Lena, even if she found herself mortified at times. “Are you seriously asking me if your ass looks tight in your jeans?”
“Yes, I am,” she giggled, slurring her words.
“Umm... I’m sure it’s fine.” Téa chuckled under her breath. “Now, get your drunken ass to the elevator.”
They continued toward the elevators, Lena on rubbery legs, her giggles becoming hiccups. Just as they rounded the corner toward the elevators, several people ran past, nearly colliding into both of them.
“Whoa!” Téa exclaimed, yanking Lena back before she got plowed over. “What the hell?”
“What was that about?” Lena asked, her words coming out sloppy.
There was commotion near the stairwell neighboring the elevators. Téa couldn’t really make out what was happening other than what appeared to be a group of people arguing.
“I don’t know,” she told Lena. “But that was really fucking rude. They could have run you over.”
She grasped onto her friend, keeping her balanced while moving toward the elevators. Her only concern was getting to their rooms, and she hoped to do that without problems.
There were several people outside the elevator, all speaking at once, and others began filtering in. With the amount of bodies standing in the way of where she wanted to go, she realized getting into that elevator was going to be a bit taxing.
Sure, human nature sparked curiosity to know what was going on, but it wasn’t enough of a hankering to stand and observe, especially when Téa felt like her limbs were nothing but dead weight attached to her body. She moved forward with Lena, trying to maneuver around the crowd to get to the elevator. All the while, Lena was jabbering out words that Téa either couldn’t hear or make sense of.
They passed several men in fancy suits, probably haute couture by the looks of them, and every male was accessorized with a lady beside him, wearing dresses that cost more than an entire year of Téa’s salary. Each person had a voice that tried to scale the others in tone. The noise was akin to nails on a chalkboard. But she could make out something about having to wait for the elevator, because it was at full capacity.
So, Téa stood there beside Lena, waiting for the elevator, trying not to stare at the lot of them. But when the woman closest to her turned her head, her red hair no longer inhibiting the view of her, instinct led Téa’s eyes to her face.
Her heart quickened in her chest, and she found it hard to swallow. Maybe the fact that her breath stalled played a pivotal role in that. Her mind tried to reconcile what her eyes saw, and logic told her the alcohol in her blood tweaked her vision, kind of like a mirage of water to someone stranded in a desert, but, no matter how many times she blinked, the face was still the same... and it belonged to actress Mara Loughlin.
Her eyes darted over the group, wondering if any others were celebrities. This was not Téa’s first brush with fame, but it was the first time she stood so close to someone with notoriety like Mara Loughlin. She was Hollywood’s “It Girl.”
Téa had nearly made a visual pass over the entire group, not recognizing any of the other people standing there, when she stopped on the man beside Mara. He had to have just entered the group of people, because he hadn’t been there before. She was sure of that. A face like Dylan St. John’s, the male equivalent to Mara’s celebrity status, was not one that was easily forgotten.
Maybe she should have been nervous at the proximity, but she found herself more intrigued by what was happening between the pair of actors rather than who they were.
Mara was very angry and not just because she had to wait like a commoner for the elevator. Her face was literally contorted into a picture of unrelenting rage, a stark contrast from the poised, smiling beauty Téa was used to seeing on her television.
“I can’t believe the nerve of some people,” one of the women said to her.
“Don’t let it upset you, Mara. It’s not a big deal.” Dylan’s voice was smooth, like cool silk massaging Téa’s ear drums.
“Not a big deal? Of course you’d think that. It’s not as if it happened to you.”
“That’s not what I...” He sighed. “I only meant that it would be handled.”
“It should have been handled before it began. Isn’t that what I have bodyguards for? I mean, that is why I pay them... to guard.”
“Yes, but the gentleman-”
“Gentleman?” she scoffed. “That’s hardly the word I’d use to describe him.”
“It was an unfortunate accident, Mara. He apologized.”
“Apologies won’t fix my fucking dress, Dylan. He ruined it.”
Dylan stopped talking, as if saying another word would stoke her acrimony.
Like an onslaught of reality suddenly smacked her in the face, she glanced around, realizing the scene she made. She reared her shoulders back as she smoothed down the front of her overpriced, designer dress, and, as her hands glided along the wine-stained blue chiffon, anger nearly chipped away at her forced repose. “Look, I’m tired, I’m drenched in some idiot’s cheap wine, and I’d really like to get to my room and change.”
Dylan nodded and eased his hand to her lower back as he whispered something in her ear. She cleared her throat, then suddenly smiled, like an internal switch had been flipped, and waved a goodbye to the collective group as if the last five minutes or so never happened.
Téa wasn’t fooled, though. Her pretty smile couldn’t hide that she was very mercurial.
The elevator doors finally opened, and Téa knew Lena would probably react once she noticed they were on an elevator with a pair of Hollywood dignitaries, and, given the obvious tension and mood they were in, it wasn’t a good idea. So, she leaned in and whispered to her, “Whatever you do, no matter what you see, just talk to me about something to do with the trip and nothing else.”
“Why?” Lena asked curiously.
“Just do it, Lee.” She pulled Lena alongside her onto the elevator, turning them around abruptly to face the doors. Her reflection stared back at her... and it was nothing new; the same green eyes, full lips, oval face, and long brown hair she saw in the mirror every day.
Lena raised a shaky hand to her forehead, like she was attempting to hold her head steady. “Thanks, Téa, I’m dizzy now.” She twisted around slightly, maybe in an effort to balance her wayward equilibrium, with her hand still braced against her forehead. “Hey, wait... Isn’t that-”
Téa pinched her, yanking her by the arm to redirect her attention toward the elevator doors. Staring at her friend, Téa felt bad for being so abrupt, but she was positive Lena’s trademark curiosity, compounded by her drunken state, might get them in trouble. “Ouch, Téa, that fucking hurt.”
Téa could hear the two voices behind her, and the tension between them blanketed the air to the point it was almost suffocating. She pulled at the neckline of her shirt to suppress the tightness in her throat. All she wanted to do was get off that elevator, and it didn’t really matter to where.
She leaned in close to Lena, keeping her voice low in pitch. “Yes, that’s who you think it is, but just leave it alone. Remember, talk about the trip.”
The elevator stopped, and several people filed off, leaving the two women alone with the actors and a bodyguard. Téa tried to remain focused on Lena and not the face of the man behind her that coalesced in the shiny metal before her. Even still, she actually felt his eyes occasionally on her, holding place much longer than just a quick glance. But she had to fight the urge not to stare back, because she really wanted to. Fighting the urge didn’t do shit for the goosebumps her skin wore or the heat of desire thrumming through her veins. She cleared her throat, utterly confused by the way she felt. “So, what do you want to do tomorrow?”
Cocktail was strong on Lena’s breath as she mumbled back. “I don’t know. I’m too drunk to answer.” So Téa started offering suggestions.
“Is there a problem?” The voice was female.
The question led the turn of Téa’s head. “I’m sorry?” she asked.
“I asked if there was a problem.” Mara repeated her previous words, speaking harshly.
Téa was completely at a loss for her rudeness. “I have no idea what you’re referring to.”
“The whispering back and forth,” she answered angrily.
“Mara, just let it go,” Dylan told her. “Why do you worry what people say? It doesn’t matter.”
Téa understood then. Mara figured she and Lena were talking about them, probably about their earlier dramatics. She must have been one of those shoot first, ask questions later type of people. And Téa never liked those types. “First off, I didn’t realize whispering was unacceptable behavior. Secondly, my discussion with my friend here had nothing to do with either of you and everything to do with what our plans are for tomorrow. Not that I owe you an explanation as to what I’m talking about.”
The bodyguard shifted his heavy weight in front of Mara, but she shoved at him angrily. “Oh, now you want to guard me? Where were you when it actually mattered?”
Téa ignored her petulance. “I get that you’re obviously in a bad mood, but I have nothing to do with that, and I won’t stand here and be talked to like a piece of dirt by you or anyone else for that matter.”
Mara’s teeth clenched. “Do you have any idea who the hell you’re talking-”
“My previous statement should have told you that I really don’t give a shit.”
“Excuse me. You-”
“Please,” the bellman interrupted. “We need to keep things civil. I’d rather not have to involve hotel security.”
Téa’s eyes shifted from Mara to the bellman. “No, it’s alright. I’ve said what I needed to say. ” Without another word, she turned her back on the argument... and the woman she had it with.
“Floor twenty,” the bellman said as the doors opened.
“Look, we’re really so-”
Téa spun around quickly, leveling Dylan with angered eyes. The expression he wore, the one that seemed to penetrate through her, almost sliced through her anger, disabling it. Almost. “Save your apology. I don’t need it.” She pulled Lena by the arm off the elevator. “I could use that swim now.” Even she recognized the sarcasm in her voice.
Lena snorted. “Did you just argue with-”
Lena giggled as Téa guided her toward her room. Moving down the hall with Lena was like hefting a load of weights that wobbled on the steel bar they were attached to. Not one of their finer moments.
Téa considered the fact that maybe she should have accepted Dylan’s apology, even though the apology came from him and not from the woman who should have given it. She even considered that maybe she should been a little more compassionate to the underlying reason why Mara reacted the way she had. But she didn’t and she wasn’t. Whatever happened to anger the woman had nothing to do with her, and, still, she took a hit for it.
Mara Loughlin was proof positive that money and fame didn’t correlate manners.
She finally managed to get Lena into her room, situated in bed, the entire time hearing about Lena’s undying love for her, before finally closing herself behind her own room door.
Oddly enough, she was still stewing over what happened, still feeling like the pressure from what happened in the elevator was loaded on her shoulders.
She paced the sitting room floor a few times before stomping back toward the bedroom. She accepted that she might have been reacting excessively, but, damn it, she was still moderately buzzed. She’d had a long trip via train, and the icing to that shit cake was being disrespected by a movie star whose ego was probably as big as her bank account.
In lieu of all that, she figured she was entitled to some agitation. It was her pissed off fest, and she could be pissed off if she wanted to.
She slammed her suitcases down from their upright position, unzipping them so she could sort through the clothing in search of her bathing suit. When she finally found it, she removed it roughly from the suitcase.
She wasted no time changing, a t-shirt and pair of shorts over the top, then found a plush towel from the bathroom.
At this point, she couldn’t be bothered to care if the pool was outside. It was unbelievably late, and she needed a distraction, something to placate her, because the combination of train lag, alcohol, and anger gnawed at her.
She made her way back to the elevator. As she stepped inside the guest-free lift, she asked the bellman where the pool was located. He kindly responded that it was inside the hotel, not far from the front desk, then pressed the lobby button.
Standing there in that little box, that she was sure on occasion filled with scents someone pleaded for their life over, made her realize swiftly that she did not envy the bellman or his career profession. Not to mention she’d been in the elevator only seconds, and the succession of piped music made her ears want to curl up inside her head.
Once the lift reached the main floor and the doors opened, Téa nodded her thanks as she stepped off. She spun around before the doors closed. “Which way do I go?” He pointed toward the left, so she proceeded in that direction.
When she entered the pool room, it was completely vacant. She wasn’t really surprised, considering it was late and the following day meant the start of work week for some. But she had expected to at least find one other person. A no go on that one.
That really didn’t matter, though. She wasn’t there for company.
A group of lounge chairs were convened near the diving board. She draped her towel over the high back of one, and the clothes she removed were tossed along the seat. She made her way to the pool steps, slowly moving down them while adjusting to the temperature. It may have been heated, but the water still chilled her flushed skin.
She was finally near the center of the pool, the water resting just above her chest, when she lowered herself completely under. The rush of cool water on her skin actually felt good. She stood back up, running her hands over her face and through her hair, smoothing it back into place.
Her reflection stared up at her when the water settled, and memories of a dream she’d rather not have in the space between her ears resurfaced. Steady breaths, clenching eyes, and forced thoughts of something more appealing temporarily saved her body a beat down of agony.
Thankful as she was, those methods rarely worked for her.
To prevent another attack rendezvousing with her brain, she treated her mind like a circuit board and just unplugged to everything but the sensation of the water. Difficult but not impossible when her body felt something.
She swam around the edge of the pool a few times, keeping her head above the water. The anxiety eased its strict hold on her muscles, and she felt calmer than she had before she entered the pool.
Her arms and legs towed her over to one of the pool walls where she braced her feet against the rough tiles. On a quick surge, she dove under to swim the length of it like she used to do with her sister when they were kids.
Back and forth she went, making several laps from one end to the other, taking breaths as she needed, before she finally bankrupted herself of energy. She was beyond exhausted, so she dove under one more time, swimming toward the direction of the lounge chair where she left her clothes.
She swam up along the pool edge, her eyes shut, water droplets zigzagging their way down her face. She started to pull her body upward when she felt a towel press against her face. The motion startled her, but she grabbed at the towel quickly, wiping her eyes enough to clear the water so she could open them.
As she opened her eyes, focusing on what was in front of her, two rather long, muscular legs came into view. She followed them all the way up to the body they were attached to, then further up to the owner of said body’s face.
She recognized him, of course. How could she not? She even noticed he’d changed from his suit to a plain black t-shirt and pair of faded jeans. They looked good on him, too.
He smiled warmly and ran a hand through his brown hair, knocking some of the side-swept bangs into his eyes in an effort to conceal the obvious nervousness underneath. She found herself wanting to run her fingers through the graduated layers, all the way to where they tapered off at the neck, to clear the obstruction of his eyes. But he did it for her. “I’m sorry if I startled you. I really didn’t mean to. I just assumed you needed the towel.”
“Thanks,” Téa said dryly. “What are you doing here?”
He continued looking down at her, and the proximity allowed her a better glimpse of him. He was close enough that she could make out the dark circles around his gray eyes that magnified how tired he was. Didn’t do a damn thing to change how good he looked, though.
If gorgeous had been considered a breed, Dylan St. John would most definitely be a thoroughbred.
He was tall, a good five inches or so over six feet. Sinewy muscle flexed underneath his tanned skin, and there was a tattoo partially exposed beneath the sleeve of his upper left arm, a tribal design of some kind done in black ink with writing below it. His facial features were pretty dominant: angular jaw and chin, straight nose, full lips. All were proportioned perfectly together. There was a small scar at the corner of his left eye and dimples in his cheeks when he grinned.
He was still smiling, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “If you don’t mind, I thought we could talk for a few.”
Téa regarded him cautiously, unsure what to say or why he was even there.
What could he possibly want to talk to her about?