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Chapter One

Kendall

I picked at my hemline. If I had to wait outside my boss’s office any longer, I’d unravel the edge and walk away in a frayed hot mess. My phone vibrated, and I looked around. With my family, I couldn’t let it go for long. 

The coast was clear. I dug it out of my wrap-around dress pocket and looked at the caller. Yep. My youngest brother. His homework was probably late, or he forgot to get his band card signed. Or he needed money for some club. Or he had a band performance he didn’t tell anyone about. 

It was probably safe to call him back later. He was old enough to know what to do if he missed the bus. Again. 

I slipped the phone back in my pocket and twiddled my thumbs, giving my hemline a break. When was this meeting going to happen? Sitting here gave me too much time to think about my roommate situation, which was also my ex-husband situation. We’d been divorced for almost two years, but had devolved into roommates long before that.

We’d fallen into the complacency of sharing a house. I worked days, and he was on nights at the refinery. Most of his free time was spent at the bar watching “the game” that always seemed to be on no matter what season it was. Our lease was up on our rental house in a week, but Darren refused to talk about signing a new one.

I should’ve saved up for a place of my own, but I’d taken a gamble. Share rent and pay down loans, and I could afford a bigger place. 

Who was I kidding. I was only sharing a place so that I didn’t have to move back home. How can you keep this place without my income, Kendall? You know you’re going to move back home. It’s inevitable and would save you a lot of fucking phone calls.

I shouldn’t have been intimidated by his insecurity when it came to my family. If I had moved home, I would’ve had a lot more saved up by now.

The foreboding wide panel door to my boss’s office opened. Finally. 

Mr. Golding peered out, his hound-dog face especially droopy. “Ms. Brinkley, come on in.”

I couldn’t tell from his demeanor what this meeting was about. Mr. Golding was typically dour, always bemoaning the worst-case scenario. Why he’d chosen the marketing field was a mystery to me, but at least his doom and gloom tone wasn’t selling our clients’ products. I was.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said as he rounded his desk with a sigh. “It’s been an unrelenting morning.”

That’s what he said every day. The only thing that changed was whether it was morning or afternoon. 

“No problem.” I sat in the no-frills metal chair across from him. The un-upholstered seat had long lost its padding, and he was too cheap to buy a new one. I tried to broach the possibility of a work injury claim if it collapsed under someone, but no dice. 

He took his glasses off and huffed out a breath that left his mouth hanging open. I wasn’t sure he’d continue until he blinked up at me. “I’m going to come right out and say that we have to let you go. With many of our clients turning to cheaper online competition, our profits have shrunk to the point where I need to downsize. Your position is being dissolved.”

I bobbed my head, trying to process what he said. Dissolved? “So where am I going to work? Inquiries?” The mailroom? I’d take anything. 

This job was the only thing keeping me from moving back in with my parents. I loved them a lot. They worked hard, to the point of being workaholics, and as the oldest kid, they leaned on me. But if I moved back home, it’d be on the tail of Darren’s I told you so.   

“Outside of this company, Kendall.” He smiled, the look hardly transforming his face. He only smiled at bonus time when he explained how much we were worth and then paid us less. “It’s just… I prolonged it as long as I can, but during lean times we have to make cuts.”

Cuts. I was losing my job. Sh*t. “Why me? I thought my productivity this past year was—”

“It’s your education.”

“Excuse me?” I had a degree in business administration with a minor in marketing. I didn’t major in the eight ways to tap a keg like Terry in public relations. I bet he wasn’t getting fired.

He explained like he wasn’t tearing my worth down to pennies. “You have a four-year degree, but most of your coworkers have a graduate degree or certificate. While you would think that would make you cheaper to retain, I’m going to need those higher education credentials to level up with the clients we have and attract more.”

A graduate degree. I’d wanted one. I had even enrolled. But then I met Darren the last year of college and decided to live a little—which equated to getting a job so we could afford a roof over our heads and pay student loans. I hadn’t even been able to move out of Billings after I left Montana State. Now I was almost twenty-nine, losing a damn job because I’d been young and stupid and in love. 

“I can give you a good recommendation.” 

I cocked my head, uncharacteristically letting my irritation run free. “Really? ‘Yeah, she was so valuable I laid her off.’ Big help there, boss.”

His scraggly gray brows popped up. “I mean…”

“Never mind, sorry. Yes, I’d appreciate it.”

I gathered what little pride I had left and walked out. I had the whole building to navigate to get back to my desk. My heels didn’t make a sound on the carpet tiles. The squares were the ugliest brown I’d ever seen, but then, Mr. Golding had picked it out from a clearance warehouse.  

I passed Mary from billing, and she gave me a sunny smile that said she had no clue I was walking the plank. 

On my way to my cubicle, I popped into the supply closet. I needed boxes. The shelves were stacked with pen boxes and Wite-Out. My gaze landed on the copier paper. 

Perfect. Dumping the reams of paper on to the floor, I emptied two boxes. I ignored the compulsion to organize the reams. Someone who was getting paid could do it.

My cubicle mate, Ryan, looked up from his desk when I entered. “Moving out?” 

Like Mary’s smile, his tone was light. He probably didn’t know. “I got laid off. So, yeah.”

He spun around. “Seriously?” He paused like I was going to tell him that I was joking. “Kendall, I’m sorry.”

The way his voice softened encouraged my tears. I hadn’t liked this job. It was okay, but nothing I was passionate about. Selling items like tomato juice and paper cups wasn’t what most kids dreamed of. But my coworkers had been cool. Ryan was mellow and an all-around nice guy. All he wanted was to do his job and go home to his family. On the bright side, I’m glad he wasn’t fired. 

“What are you going to do?” he asked.

That question was on replay in my head. “Find a new job?”

He gave me a steady look that suggested he was thinking what I was thinking. Where the hell was I going to find a marketing gig, and how long would it take? If Mr. Golding laid off a couple more people, they’d be applying for the same positions. And I was a little raw about being released because of my apparent lack of education. I had experience, but not much else that made me stand out past other candidates.

Ryan rubbed a hand over his face. He wheeled out to the edge of the cubicle and looked down the narrow walkway. If anyone had heard my announcement, they were keeping their heads down. Probably afraid they were next on the chopping block.

He scooted back toward his desk. “My sister just quit this job. Maybe you want to try for it?”

My ears perked up. I’d take what prospects I could get.

“I can’t really tell you much,” he continued. “She had to sign a non-disclosure. But I can tell you that it paid a lot. Like, a lot.”

Sounded too good to be true. “But I thought you said she just quit?”

Ryan shrugged. His expression said beggars couldn’t be choosers, and I was being too choosy. “Like I said, she couldn’t tell me much, and she was pretty frustrated about the whole deal, but it paid a lot.”

The it paid a lot detail was the clincher. “With what company?”

“I think she might’ve been asked to move out of state, but I thought she said she applied for it with King Oil. Send me an email and I’ll get the info.”

Frowning, I sifted through my mind for all the details I could come up with on King Oil. I’d seen their branding enough to know that they were an oil company, locally owned, and out of my league. But they had an opening, so I had a starting point. “Thanks for the heads-up. And thanks for not being a creepy cubicle mate.”

“Same to you. I’m still convinced the guy before you stole my lunch at least once a week.”

Packing up my desk was as painful as I’d imagined it would be, but it only lasted three minutes. I’d been with the company for close to seven years but had never settled in. Was it any surprise I was the first one let go?

I only needed one of the boxes. Leaving the other one on the desk for the next poor soul that got canned, I swung my winter coat on. 

Ryan gave me a solemn nod. “Take care of yourself.”

As I walked out of the office, I tried not to look in the other cubicles. I’d be greeted by people who still had their jobs, looking at me like I was walking to the finale of my death sentence. 

Anyone I passed on my way out the door cast a confused glance at my box, but then they saw my somber expression and figured out the rest. I stepped out into the cloudy late-winter day. It fit my mood. 

I dumped my box in the back seat of my car and slid in behind the wheel. I needed a plan.

I was going to go home and dig out the lease papers. Then the papers and I would wait for Darren to wake up for work.

He’d sign them. He had to. I couldn’t afford to move now, and if I had to move back in with my parents, Darren’s gloating would be intolerable. 

I parked in front of the cute little house we rented in a historic neighborhood in downtown Billings. For the five years of our marriage, we lived here and I’d made it my home. My siblings had come over to play when they were younger and even slept over—until Darren bitched that it happened too often, or interfered with his sleep, or some other reason he used to distance me from my family. 

I parked on the street because Darren insisted on having the garage, claiming I left during daylight hours and didn’t suffer the Billings winter like he did. Never mind that his vehicle had remote start and mine didn’t. 

I could weather one more year, find a new job, and save up.

The house was quiet, but awareness skated over my spine. Was Darren awake already? 

Giggles filtered through the house. Ugh. He had a woman over. I didn’t care if he dated. At first, it hurt that he’d waited all of three days after we agreed that our marriage was over, but I was determined to move on. 

Earlier this year, I’d even had a somewhat steady boyfriend. Until I heard the same tired arguments parroted from him that Darren had used. Do they have to call all the time? Why can’t your parents do more? You don’t have to help them.

I laid my purse and keys on the Italian tile countertop. I was on my way through the kitchen to my bedroom when my gaze landed on the table. There was an unfamiliar backpack sitting on the top with papers spread out next to it.

The lease. 

Relief swept through me when I noticed they were signed. Until my gaze landed on the second signature under Darren’s, the one that was very much not mine. 

I fisted them in my hand and stomped in the other direction to Darren’s room. Breathy laughs and sultry moans grew louder. I raised my hand to pound on the door, but the door was cracked. I pushed it open instead. My face screwed up at the sight that was now burned into my retinas—Darren’s ass swiveling in a not-as-sexy-as-he-hoped striptease. 

I shook the papers in my hand. “Want to explain these?”

He whipped around. I’d seen all of him already. Nice body. Decent package that he sort of knew how to use. The woman shrieked and dove behind him. I didn’t see much of her, but the glimpse I got was of someone several years younger than me with bottle platinum hair and less padded hips than mine. 

I swept my gaze around the room. A Montana State sweater was on the floor at Darren’s feet. Did that belong to the backpack owner too? If he was dipping into the college girl pool while pushing thirty, that was his business. All I cared about was the second signature on the lease. 

“F*ck, Kendall.” Darren didn’t bother to cover himself and his flagging erection. He planted his hands on his hips. “What the hell. Knock, will ya?”

This time I wasn’t going to be distracted from the real issue. I’d let him do that to me through our marriage and the divorce. “The lease papers are signed, but not by me.”

He had the grace to look abashed, and even covered his privates. The news must really be bad. “I was going to talk to you about that tonight.”

“Talk now.” 

The girl cowered behind him, snaking a hand out to grab her sweater. 

He cleared his throat. “I’m… Um… This is Daria. We’ve been seeing each other, and we’d like to move in together.” 

I reared back like he slapped me. “And you decided this the week before our lease is up, and figured that this place is as good as any.” Because he wouldn’t have to do the work of moving. 

Just like before. We’re both paying bills. Why don’t we live together? Like roommates.

Why hadn’t I taken into consideration what a user Darren was? Divorce hadn’t changed him, and I’d been naïve to think otherwise. He might cover his rent, but he ate my groceries and streamed shows off my account. And he was still inept at running a vacuum cleaner.

“Look, Kendall…”

I folded my arms, crinkling the papers, and tapped my foot. 

He squared his shoulders, his eyes infusing with determination. He never did like when I stood up to him. “Kendall, I helped you out after the divorce, but you gotta move on.”

“You did not help me out,” I hissed. “We agreed that living together was financially beneficial for both of us. I thought it was understood that the other party would give advanced warning if they wanted the situation to change.”

“Well, the situation’s changed. Here’s your warning.” 

I wanted to scream. “Your girlfriend needing a place to stay because she’s getting kicked out of her sorority doesn’t justify less than a week’s notice.”

The way his eyes flared told me more than I needed to know. I’d guessed the story. I’m sure he was present when she violated whatever rule removed her. 

His face hardened into the mulish pout I knew so well. “Daria’s moving in, and you need to move out. It’s done.”

“I hope she gets enough financial aid to keep you solvent in the beer and porn you love so much.”

“I wouldn’t have needed porn if—”

“Don’t you f*cking dare.” Wanting more satisfaction between the sheets didn’t mean I was the one lacking. I peered around him to his girlfriend. “I hope you don’t have anyone or anything in your life that’ll take attention away from him, or he’ll make you feel like shit for it. He’s immature like that.”

“Get out,” he roared. 

I flung the papers in his face, and they fluttered to the floor. “Gladly. I’m going to find some boxes to pack my sh*t.”

As I was leaving, he took the parting shot. “Have fun moving back in with your parents.” 

I slammed out of the house and went back to my car. I had no plan of where to go, so I drove aimlessly until I came across a fast food place and pulled in. Not to waste money on food, but I had to come up with a plan of what to do without using more gas. 

First of all, I needed a place to live. I spent the next hour calling around, writing down availability dates and amounts. Between the deposit and rent and when I could actually move in, it wasn’t looking good. 

My phone buzzed. Crap, I forgot to call my youngest brother back. I pulled to the side of the road and answered. “Hey. What’s up?”

Wendell’s seventh-grade puberty-stricken voice half squeaked, half growled into the phone. “Mom forgot to leave me money for the field trip.”

I should’ve taken his call when I still had my job. This was like a double whammy. “How much do you need?”

“Twenty dollars. And a sack lunch.” 

“When do you need it?”

“An hour ago.” He sniffled. “They took off already. I’m in the library.”  

My heart cracked for him. “But you only called twenty minutes ago.”

“I was trying Mom, but she didn’t answer. I thought maybe I could still meet them…that you could drive me…”

“Ah, Wendell. I’m sorry. Is Lenny with you?” They were twins, but Wendall was the youngest in every sense of the word. 

“Yeah. We have to sit in the library until school’s done.”

“Okay.” If I ignored my pride and moved back home, I could help Wendell and Lenny out. And my youngest sister that still lived at home. Mom and Dad would happily let me pick up open shifts at the diner and the thrift store. I stared at the people wandering in and out of the restaurant, oblivious to how I was reverting from professional career woman back to my sixteen-year-old self. “I’ll swing by and sign you two out and get you to the field trip.”

His immense relief was worth it. I never regretted helping my family. Could they rely on me less? Yes. But I was still that little girl watching her mom break down in postpartum depression and roam listlessly through the house. As the oldest, I witnessed her struggle to return to someone who didn’t hide in the bathroom and cry. 

Didn’t mean I wanted to stay living at home. I couldn’t help myself or them if I didn’t get my loans paid down. 

The job Ryan mentioned came to mind. It paid a lot. I pulled up his email. I had a mysterious job to apply for.

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