I’m mid sip, and her admission makes me suck in a breath—or drink rather—down the wrong way, sending me into a coughing fit.
“Excuse me,” I stammer between coughs. “I’m sorry. Of course you are.” I manage to get my breathing back under control, but I can tell my face is flushed. Embarrassed isn’t a strong enough word for how I feel. He has a girlfriend!? I want to die.
I think back to when he gave me the tour of his home. The place is amazing and beautifully decorated, but there were no photos of him with a woman, no flowers or feminine touches anywhere. There wasn’t even a cozy nook where a girl might curl up and read a book or fashion magazine. And when Tatianna showed up, sure they were familiar with each other, but not in any way that even hinted at romance. Their eyes didn’t linger on one another’s, and from how far apart they sat, I just assumed she was an employee. Heck, the house is big enough that he must have several employees living here.
Also, I’d been so lost, deep in conversation with Collins, that I’d hardly noticed how beautiful she was. Now that I really look at her for the first time, it is obvious this is the type of woman he would date. She's tall, slender and gorgeous. In fact, she looks familiar. I realize that she's Tatianna Markov, the woman whose photo was on the cover of every Vogue magazine I saw at the airport kiosk.
My stomach sinks as I look at both of them—a tricky feat since they are on opposite ends of the room. But while my gaze floats between them I see some familiar mannerisms. Both have matching perfect posture. Just looking at them makes me sit up straighter. Their faces are harsh and cool with neutral expressions that give nothing away. That’s a new look for Collins. He never used to look so cold. I think back to our younger years. He was always guy-serious, but it was easy to put a smile on his face, one of my favorite things to do. The look on his face now is stern and immobile. I’m glad it isn’t directed at me, but it's sad to see him this way at all.
Tatianna tosses her hair back and turns to me. “So, what brings you to Los Angeles?”
My eyes dart to Collins, but he manages to hold his stoic look, unfazed by her question. In a panic, I try to take a sip of my drink but it’s empty.
Collins gets up. “I’ll get you another one.” He steps over to the bar and sets up three more glasses, making another round for each of us.
I take a deep breath, anything to stall. I don’t like lying, but there is no way I’m going to tell this woman I came here in the hopes of marrying her boyfriend. It was so stupid of me to come. I wish I’d taken time to think about what I was doing instead of just rushing online to find the cheapest ticket. It hadn't even occurred to me that he might not be single. Although I’ve always been a bit out of control whenever Collins was involved. Why should now be any different?
But I’m not going to share any of this with Tatianna. She would just laugh me out of the house if I did that. Her eyes are on me, waiting for me to respond.
“I...” I search for words, anything that isn’t the real reason I came. “I lost my job.” I feel myself sinking down in my chair, unable to believe I'm about to admit to Collins and his girlfriend that I am a failed accountant. “I was fired actually.” Someone please shut me up.
Collins hands me a new drink, and I take several fortifying sips.
“What did you do?” he asks. He looks genuinely perplexed as he takes the seat across from me. I’m sure the girl he remembers never would have been careless enough to get fired from a job. I guess things change.
“I was an accountant.” I look down at my drink, stirring it with the straw. “My boss framed me for embezzling funds. And I had no way to prove it.”
Collins holds his hand up as if to stop me. “There’s always a way. I know several excellent forensic accountants. I could help connect you with one.” He leans forward in his chair.
The concern in his eyes tells me he’ll help me if I want. He’d always been protective of me, and I love seeing that side of him again. I chew the inside of my lip, considering it briefly, but I’m too humiliated by the whole thing, besides, it isn’t worth the trouble. It was a small enough amount that they didn’t press charges. I wave him off. “It’s not worth it. He only managed to get a couple thousand before he...or, rather ‘I’ was caught.”
Tatianna laughs. “The guy must suck at embezzling if he only managed a few thousand.”
I force a smile, but a few thousand seems like a lot to me. They kept my last paycheck to make up for the loss. It would have been enough for me to at least pay rent for a few more months.
“Anyway, I’m here because I needed a place to get a fresh start.” I stir my drink as I try to think of any topic of conversation other than my failed accounting career.
Tatianna yawns and stretches in a way that looks more practiced than real. She’s definitely not an actress.
I take it as a not so subtle suggestion that it’s time for me to leave. Humiliated, I stand up, “I should get going,” I say, downing the last of my drink, and placing it on the nearest table. I head out to the hall and the direction I hope will lead to my bag and the exit. I may not have enough money for more than one night in a hotel, but I can’t stay here.
“Wait, Gremli...Mia. Hang on, where are you going?” Collins follows me out into the hallway, and catches my arm, forcing me to stop. The contact of his large hand closing around my upper arm sends chills zipping down my body. It's been a long time since he touched me so intimately, yet my body recalls that night with perfectly clarity.