Dakota 17

I hadn’t really been paying attention at work. Everything seemed blurry and hazy, like I was looking through smoke all day, but when I saw Dakota in the costume room, the world seemed to clear up.

My only thought: Shit.

Secrecy was, unfortunately, something I was all too familiar with. I smiled, but let myself sink back into detachment. As much as I wanted to flirt outrageously, he’d asked me to keep it quiet. Lucky for me, Val had been moved to one of the dance shows so she could keep up with classes. I saw her occasionally, but not enough that we’d have time to talk. Or, in my case, time to wallow in guilt for keeping secrets from her.

Heather cornered me at lunch, in the back room of the restaurant nextdoor. Steph’s brother EJ knew how to care for his employees, and the theatre’s as well. The room was almost a cafeteria, big and brightly lit, painted a cheerful lime green that lit up in the sunlight. EJ favored the techies, being one himself, and sometimes brought us free food from the restaurant. Usually though, all it had to offer was vending machines. Lucky for me, I’d brought my own lunch.

I looked up as Heather slid into the seat across from mine. “You’re doing that vacant stare thing again, Piper.”

I forced a smile onto my face. “Yeah. It was a rough weekend for me.”

She opened her own lunchbox in a quietly meticulous way, as though each movement had been routinely practiced. It was interesting to watch. She took out a tub of salad, a smaller tub of dressing, and a plastic fork, arranging them in a particular way that was aesthetically pleasing, but a little too perfect for normal. “Talk to me. What’s been going on?”

My bowl of spaghettios suddenly got ten times less appetizing. I pushed what I hadn’t eaten aside and propped my arms on the table. There weren’t a lot of people around, and luckily Jay wasn’t one of those few taking their lunch. Still, I didn’t want the restaurant employees to go spreading rumors. I dropped my voice and leaned forward. “Remember my ex?”

“Oh no.”

Her tone made me laugh, despite the seriousness of the conversation. “Yeah, that’s one way to put it. He ah… he came over the other day.”

“Let me guess, he wants you back and was willing to do pretty much anything to get you back.”

I snickered. “Good, he’s not only predictable to me.”

“And he’ll flake on every plan you make and guilt you for breaking any plans.” My laughter died as Heather reminded me of that. “Or did he promise to turn over a new leaf?”

“I kept telling him no,” I argued.

“I bet he got pushy.” My silence apparently answered that question for her. I didn’t honestly want to think about it. “He didn’t do anything to you, right?”

Again, silence. I thought about Jay’s visit and felt my stomach roll. Rather than answering, I shrugged.

For the first time, I saw Heather look more than frustrated. She looked downright angry, stabbing her salad with her fork. “I already didn’t like him, but honest to god, he’s trash.”

“It’s not a big deal,” I muttered. “He’s harmless, usually. Just annoying more than anything.” Despite my utter lack of appetite, I dragged my spaghettios back over and spooned some into my mouth. “I just wish I wouldn’t cave every time he makes some romantic bullshit up.”

“You didn’t sleep with him!”

I shook my head, and it was true. I hadn’t gone all the way with Jay. It had been too weird. “He got pushy and kissed me, felt me up some, but I got him out. One of Kimmy’s friends who we gave the spare key dropped by to drop off something she’d borrowed from Kimmy, and he left. And she stayed with me for a bit so that was nice.”

It had been nice, to have someone there when I wanted to vomit and drink bleach at the same time. Jay kissing me when I wanted to be kissing someone else had been straight up weird, but his hands on me when Dakota’s hands had been on me earlier had been infuriating. The number of times I’d had to tell him to stop…

… And now I was almost crying. Ten out of ten, Piper. Great job.

Seeing me slowly stress myself into the void, Heather reached over and patted my arm. “You’ve got people looking out for you. We’ll keep him scarce around here as much as we can. Okay?”

Grinning, I nodded. “Thanks, Heather.

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