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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 33


Grumpy Bear

Lucian

How am I supposed to know the man’s grandmother died?” I snapped in exasperation at Lina, who stuck to my heels like one of those annoying yappy dogs that wanted something from you.

I was marching down the hall when my employee lost her damn mind and committed a fireable offense by grabbing me by the back of the jacket and dragging me into an office.

“Carl, I’m sorry to do this to you, but it’s for the good of everyone. Get out,” Lina said.

Carl’s eyes went wide behind his thick tortoiseshell glasses. Hastily he gathered his World’s Greatest Dad coffee mug, phone, and—­inexplicably—­the photo of his three bucktoothed children.

Petula needed to remind Carl that his benefits included dental insurance.

“You’re definitely fired,” I said to Lina when she shut and leaned against the door after Carl’s hasty retreat.

“Good. Because I didn’t sign on to work for a grumpy man bear. Broody man bear, yes. Grumpy, no. You’re being a dick to everyone.”

“Did it ever occur to you that everyone is too fucking sensitive?”

“Malik did two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and he was very close to his grandmother.”

“I didn’t know she died yesterday.”

“You made Holly cry Monday.”

I scoffed. “Holly cries when she watches Olive Garden commercials. And she rear-­ended my security vehicle in the parking garage with the SUV I gave her,” I reminded her.

“Holly is a lousy driver. She’s rear-­ended four people in the last month, but you’re the only one who made her cry,” Lina pointed out.

“Then either get someone to give her driving lessons or have security drive her to and from work. Or better yet, fire her,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.

“Yesterday, you told Nolan to get his ass out of your office until his presence wasn’t a waste of oxygen.”

In my defense, Nolan had taken it upon himself to question whether my mood had anything to do with Sloane.

“That statement stands for all employees,” I said.

Lina squared up and put her hands on her hips. “Let me lay this out for you in language you’ll understand. You’re being a fucking asshole. People don’t like working for fucking assholes. So unless you have time to deal with a mass exodus, unemployment claims, hiring a fresh team, and training them, I suggest you shut up and listen.”

I sat on the corner of Carl’s desk. “I’ll listen for one minute, and then you’re fired.”

“You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat others when things aren’t going well.”

She let that hang in the air between us, meeting my eyes.

“You’re going through a rough time, and that makes you feel out of control. But you don’t get to take it out on other people.”

Her words landed like hammers on my skull. “Leave. Now.”

“Oh, I am. But just so you know, Nolan and Petula told everyone to spend the rest of the day working from home.” She headed for the doorway. “Get your shit sorted out, Lucian.”

“I don’t recall asking for your opinion.”

She paused in the doorway and batted her lashes condescendingly. “That’s what friends are for. By the way, if you’re this messed up in the head over her, maybe you’re not as done as you think you are.”

And with that, Lina strutted out the door.

Beyond her retreating back, the cubicles were a flurry of activity as employees put on coats and packed up, all while shooting nervous glances in my direction.

I ignored them and stormed to my own office. I’d run this company alone once. I could do it again if necessary.

I’d get more done without the distraction of needy employees lurking about, I decided, slamming my door, then cursing the soft close mechanism. I wasn’t upset about Sloane, the stubborn pain in the ass. It wasn’t like I saw her face every fucking time I closed my eyes.

I was behind my desk, scowling through the latest vague report from the FBI, when I was interrupted by a knock at my door.

“Unless the building is actively on fire, I suggest you leave,” I barked.

Petula flung my door open. “If you don’t lighten up, IT is going to have to replace your down arrow key again.”

I pettily stabbed the key again with excessive force.

“Do you have a reason for annoying me, or are you hoping to get fired too?”

“You’d never find someone else less annoying to deal with your temper tantrums. Now if you’re done being a gigantic toddler, your mother is here, sir.”

Behind her in the doorway stood my mother, who looked like she was desperate for an escape. Shit.

Kayla Rollins was a lovely woman by anyone’s estimation. She was tall and delicate. Everything about her seemed ethereal, fragile. She wore her thick, dark hair swept back in a sleek twist. Simple gold hoops adorned her ears. Her dress was ivory, her coat a knee-­length camel. Her face looked younger, fresher, and I guessed she’d paid another visit to Dr. Reynolds. Something I should have noticed if I’d bothered paying attention to her bank accounts lately.

She’d never remarried after my father. And except for a brief stint in Grover’s Groceries the summer after his arrest, she’d never held down a job. I’d gotten “creative” in college, supporting myself and my mother with some legal and not strictly legal employment, selling test scores and fake IDs.

“I can come back another time,” my mother said, her dark eyes darting for an exit.

I rose and used the walk from desk to door to rein in my dickishness. “Go home, Petula. After you’ve given security instructions,” I said, nodding toward my mother. I didn’t need Anthony Hugo targeting her too.

“Gladly,” she snapped.

“What can I do for you, Mom?” I asked more gently.

“It’s really not that important,” she said to her Jimmy Choo wedges as she inched for the door.

“It’s fine,” I insisted as gently as possible. “What do you need?”

I looked like him. I assumed it was this reminder of old ghosts that always made her behave so tentatively toward me.

“Well, I just came from a meeting with the event coordinator at the hotel. There was a problem sourcing some of the menu items, and the budget is…no longer adequate,” she finished quickly as if ripping off some invisible bandage.

I drew on the last reserves of my patience. “That’s fine. I’ll allocate more funds if you think the changes are necessary.”

“I think it’s a good idea?”

Most of her statements sounded like questions, as if she were asking someone else to constantly tell her what she thought and wanted.

“I’m fine with it.”

She cleared her throat. “So how are things with you?”

“Fine,” I said gruffly. “I’ve decided to sell the house in Knockemout.”

“Oh. That’s…nice.”

We never discussed what had happened in that house. We never mentioned his name. We hadn’t even discussed the fact that he was dead. We were both satisfied with sweeping it under the rug and then avoiding the gigantic lump in the middle.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Oh, fine.” She hesitated, then glanced down again. “Actually, I’m seeing someone.”

“You are?” I’d missed that too. I blamed Sloane for distracting me from keeping a closer eye on my mother. Another item on the long list of things I blamed her for. My anger welled up again like lava from a volcano. Anger and a stupid longing that felt like a knife to the gut.

“It’s nothing serious,” she said quickly. “We just met.”

“Good for you, Mom.” I meant it too. There was no reason both of us should be paying penance for my father’s actions.

“Well, I’ll let you get back to it,” she said, waving her slim hand in the direction of my desk.

“We’ll have dinner soon,” I decided.

“I’d like that,” she said.

“Security will see you home.”

Her eyes widened. “Is something wrong?”

“Not at all,” I lied.

“Oh, all right. Well, goodbye, Lucian.”

“Bye, Mom.”

We managed to meet in the middle for an awkward hug, and then she was gone.

My phone vibrated in my pocket.

Nash: Hey, fuckface. Did you just seriously fire my woman?

Christ.


“What’s wrong with you?” I demanded.

My friend Emry was slouched in his chair, rubbing both eyes with the heels of his hands.

“Is everything all right with Sacha? The family?”

I’d come here so Emry could tell me I was right and I could finally put all thoughts of Sloane to rest.

“The symphony was wonderful. Sacha is wonderful. My family is wonderful. You, my migraine-­inducing friend, are what’s wrong with me,” he said, picking up his glasses and polishing them violently.

“I don’t think a therapist is supposed to talk to his patients like that. Especially not ones whose fees helped buy that beach house you’re so fond of,” I reminded him.

“You can lead a horse to water, but some animals are so dense you have to half drown them before they’ll drink.”

“That’s not how that particular metaphor goes. Am I the horse or are you?”

“You’re the man whose identity is so tightly bound to how he sees his father that you sabotage your own chances for happiness. He didn’t deserve to be happy, so by default, neither do you.”

“I don’t have the time for happiness.” Or the capacity, I added silently.

“Lucian, you love her,” he said simply.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I scoffed even as my gut twisted sharply.

“You love this girl turned woman who placed herself between you and your abuser. Who fought the injustice you faced because of it. Yet you keep pushing her away, pretending that you’re some kind of emotionless artificial intelligence distracted by eradicating the world of abusers of power and she’s just another enemy, when in reality, you feel unworthy of her. But you’re never going to feel worthy until you stop pushing love away. The second you get anything good in your life, you do your damnedest to rid yourself of it. So you keep engaging in this profoundly annoying self-­destruct cycle.”

I sat there for a beat. “How long have you been holding that in?”

Emry rose abruptly and rounded his desk. He jerked open the bottom drawer and produced a bottle of scotch. “Too long.” He poured two glasses and handed one to me before flopping back down in his chair.

“This has nothing to do with me feeling worthy.”

He cracked a smile, then shook his head. “The infuriating part is you know this. Yet you keep making the same choices. Well, I’ve got news for you, Lucian. No one feels worthy. Everyone feels like an imposter. It doesn’t matter what family you come from, your net worth, or how many powerful friends owe you favors. None of that is going to make you feel like you deserve to be here.”

“Everyone? I find that hard to believe.”

“The ones who don’t? The ones who think they deserve it all? Those are the ones you have to watch out for. Those are the ones who inflict the real damage. They’re the ones who don’t spend years in therapy trying to better themselves. They’re the ones who don’t bother asking themselves if they’re the good guy or the bad guy.”

I wasn’t a good guy worried about being a bad guy. I was a self-­aware villain. There was a distinct difference.

“Let’s change the subject,” Emry suggested. “You seem to be playing the field quite aggressively.”

I sighed. Frankly, I was exhausted. Between redoubling my efforts to nail Hugo to the wall, I now had to carve time out of my packed schedule to go out to dinner and parties I didn’t want to go to with women I had no interest in.

If Hugo had targeted Sloane because of me, he was going to get the message loud and clear. Sloane Walton meant nothing to me. She was just one woman in a long line of meaningless conquests.

“It’s not what it looks like,” I admitted. “Hugo is looking a little too closely at me. I’m doing what I can to confuse him.”

I automatically flipped my phone over and checked for new messages. There were none from her. Not that I would expect it. I’d had to burn that bridge to keep us both safe. But now that I’d had her, now that I knew how my name sounded from that mouth when she came, this surgical excision of me from her life was driving me insane.

She couldn’t just cut me out completely. Not when we shared our small circle of friends and a property line. Not that I wanted anything to do with her, I reminded myself.

“I worry about you, Lucian,” Emry announced.

I looked up, baffled. “Why?”

“I worry that you prioritize winning over happiness, and I don’t know if you’ll be satisfied with winning at the expense of everything else.”


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