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The Fallback by Mariah Dietz (1)

1

“What are you doing?” My words are so pitched I don’t recognize my own voice. It’s appropriate considering everything appears unfamiliar.

Gabe’s hips stop moving over the brunette woman in our bed. He turns his head, and his brown eyes grow three sizes as he stares at where I’m fixed inside our bedroom, watching my boyfriend of six years sleeping with another woman.

“This wasn’t…” he begins before closing his eyes, suddenly looking exhausted. The drained expression feels like a bigger betrayal than his current actions. Like owing me an explanation is burdening him. He rolls off the dark-haired woman and carefully pulls the sheets—my sheets, ones that cost a small fortune for our last anniversary—and covers her. Slowly, she rolls to her back and looks my way.

My heart thunders in my chest, the pulsations so loud and strong I hear it in my ears and feel it in my fingertips. I stare at her, trying to recall if I know her—if I’ve ever seen her in passing or at a work event—anywhere. Under my scrutiny, she pulls the sheets higher and shifts her bright-blue eyes around the room, never settling on any one place as she tucks some misplaced strands of her blown-out hair behind an ear.

It’s nearly impossible for me to stop watching her, working to recognize if she’s been here before—if they’ve done this before. Slowly, my attention moves back to Gabe, realizing he’s talking. Several seconds pass, but I can’t focus on what he’s saying. The bass of my heartbeat is all I hear as he continues speaking, and then he has the audacity to dip his chin and stare up at me with concern rounding his eyes.

“Brooke?”

I blink. Once.

Twice.

Three times, attempting to make sense of the situation. Once when I was thirteen, I had a panic attack. I had thought I was having a heart attack and was going to die. It feels like that again. Like my heart isn’t physically capable of beating this fast, this hard. I’m light-headed and so warm I’m starting to sweat. My thoughts—like my feet—are stuck in place.

“Brooke,” Gabe says my name again, this time louder and more abrupt. It triggers my heart into beating a new rhythm. “What are you doing home?”

“What am I doing home?” Offense coats my voice, which is still pitched high and unrecognizable.

“You said you had to meet a client tonight. Flowers or cake…” He runs a hand lazily over his head, mussing his dark hair further. “Something.”

“They had to reschedule,” I reply lamely. I’d spent my drive home discussing this month’s events with my boss, Catherine, and looking forward to trading my work clothes for a pair of sweatpants, climbing into my expensive sheets, and ordering takeout.

This.

Him.

Her.

They weren’t what I’d imagined when I’d walked in and found our cat, Lucky, sitting at our bedroom door with one paw stretched beneath the small crack in an attempt to get inside.

I stare at Gabe and wait. I don’t know what I’m wanting or even expecting. If it’s an apology or lame excuse—blame because I work too much or tears because he’s just inflicted inexplicable pain to my chest and our relationship. He swallows, the column of his throat moving sluggishly as he considers his words. Brown eyes that I can read better than words reveal none of the replies I’m imagining being a reality.

“Brooke, I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m really, truly sorry.”

My throat grows tight, and my eyes sting. His sympathy hurts nearly as much as his decision to do this so publicly, with the person who contributed to ripping us apart still lying on my bed, privileged to a conversation I never saw coming.

“I love you, Brooke. I love you so much that I’ve been struggling with how to tell you…”

“There are a thousand variations of words you could have used. Words like ‘I like someone else,’ ‘I’m having an affair,’ ‘I’ve decided I want to try dating a tramp.’” I list them off, my voice void of the emotions surging through me as I look pointedly at the woman in my bed. She recoils deeper into the security of my bed, my expensive sheets shielding her.

“It didn’t feel like I was having an affair.” Gabe’s words chill me.

My attention slowly shifts to his long legs hanging off the side of the bed—our gray overstuffed duvet that we picked out a couple of years ago when his mom sent us a gift card for Christmas is tucked over his lap. “I’m sorry,” he says again. “I wanted to have this conversation with you and explain my feelings so you’d know I wasn’t trying to hurt or deceive you. I’ve been meaning to talk to you for so long, it’s just…”

I raise a hand to stop his slowed speech and shake my head before turning and striding back out of my apartment.

Clouds and the setting sun darken the sky, promising more rain as I descend the two flights of stairs to the parking lot and numbly climb into the driver’s seat of my car and start the engine.

Without looking, I back up. A horn blares. I stomp on the brake, my body jolting forward against the tight restraint of my seat belt. A small, black car is stopped mere inches from my bumper, his hands thrown in the air with frustration. I make an attempt to wave an apology before moving my car back into drive and rolling forward. He zooms past me, honking once more. My hands are trembling, and all my muscles are strained as I force myself to sit back and take a deep breath, knowing full well neither is due to the near accident.

I blow out a deep, shaky breath. The tiredness I’d felt on my drive home has been replaced with fatigue, and all thoughts about the events I’ve been obsessing over at work cease, replaced with the image of Gabe moving in and out of the brunette. His hands gripping her waist. His face enchanted by the purposeful rhythmic beat his hips followed.

Bile builds in my throat, and with a quick punch to my seat belt latch, I’m out of the car and losing the contents of my stomach on the grass in front of our apartment building.

Moisture escapes my eyes as I get back into my car and search for some tissues to wipe my face.

I turn off the radio, take a drink from my coffee from this morning to rid the rancid taste, then check my mirrors twice before I back up again and drive for thirty minutes of numb silence.

Getting out, I notice it’s raining and wonder if it was the entire drive over. I was working so hard to not think of anything—and more importantly anyone—that I can’t even recall getting off the highway or checking to make sure I took the right turns.

The motion-sensor lights flip on as I move to close my car door, and like a spotlight, they follow me to the front door, where I ring the doorbell and take a step back on the small, concrete stoop. I probably should have gone to Felicity’s. My best friend wouldn’t have time to pry about me being there at this hour because her young kids would need their bath followed by stories, and then she’d likely fall asleep with them while snuggling like she so often does. However, there’s a good possibility she would have deferred the tasks to her husband and insisted on making sure I was okay. I could have gone to my brother’s house. But although Brandon likes to be a pain in my ass, he would have cared too much about this situation and would likely have been up all night, plotting revenge against Gabe—partly out of love and also some strange respect code that men share.

Additional lights flip on, illuminating the front of the small house, and the door swings wide, revealing my grandma holding a large-print book in her small hands. Her face warms from concerned to happy as she quickly pushes the glass storm door open. “Brooke!” she calls. “I didn’t know you were coming by tonight. Are you alone, or is Gabe with you?”

“Sorry, Grammy. It’s kind of an impromptu visit.”

At my words, she pauses. Creases now reveal her age, which her clear blue eyes defy as they carefully inspect my features for all the words I’m not saying. “Supper’s just about ready. Why don’t you go wash up while I pour us some tea?”

Guilt trickles into my senses. “I didn’t mean to impose,” I tell her. “I’ll just sit with you.”

“I said it’s time for supper.” Though she’s more than six inches shorter than me, she drops her chin and stares at me with a challenge to refuse her again.

“I should have called.”

Grammy’s lips curve into a smile. “Don’t be silly. You’re always welcome.” She reaches forward and takes my hand, lending me her warmth and security. She pats the top of my knuckles with her other hand. “Go wash up.”

As I turn to the back of the house, Grammy swats my backside. Though I’m nearing thirty, she still affectionately pats my butt like I’m a toddler in diapers. It’s something that mortified me during my teenage years and later became a contest between my brother and me to see who could best dodge her during a visit. Now, it barely phases me.

Over the small vanity in the bathroom, I stare at my reflection, realizing why Grammy was looking at me with concern. My hazel eyes that often change color with my clothes are too round, my dark-blond hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail, and my jaw is too tight. I don’t recognize my own expression—even my breathing sounds different. My grandma isn’t the type to meddle. She also doesn’t make attempts to fix issues. She’ll listen and offer her support, but she isn’t one to interfere—making coming here the right decision.

I quickly wash my hands and head to the kitchen, where Grammy is absorbed in a game show.

“Can I help?”

She shakes her head and carries a bowl of diced apples to the table. They’re covered in clouds of sweetened whipped cream because the only way she eats fruit is if it’s covered in some form of sugar. I follow behind her, taking a seat so my back faces the TV I know she’ll want to watch.

Large bowls of green salad are at each place setting, topped with tomatoes, yellow peppers, and jicama. Grammy’s plate is crowded with a pile of mashed potatoes, gravy, and fried pork chops—foods I stopped eating more than a decade before. A plate of sliced homemade bread completes the table.

“Brandon must not have known you were making pork chops,” I say.

Grammy pats my shoulder as she sets a napkin next to my plate and takes a seat across from me. “If he had, I would need twice as many chops.”

“How was rummy this week?”

Grammy’s blue eyes brighten. “They never stand a chance.”

I laugh at her complete disregard of humbleness.

“How’s work?” she asks in return.

My shoulders drop as I take in a deep breath. So often my job at the prestigious and prominent event-planning company Glitter and Gold overwhelms me with all the moving components and changes that keep me busy late into the night and weekends. After today, though, my job seems like such a simple and monotonous task. “It’s good,” I tell her. “Busy. With wedding season approaching, we’re having a big rush of customers.”

She nods, her attention torn between my answer and the show playing over my shoulder. “I bet it is. Any interesting themes this year?”

“Nothing quite as unusual as the circus wedding from a couple of years ago,” I tell her. “But there is a gothic wedding that is teetering between classy and creepy and another one that is supposed to be a trip around the world. It’s a fun idea, but some of the details are proving to be trickier than I’d expected.”

“You’ll figure it out. You always do.” She smiles at me. Grammy’s attention moves to the TV, where she starts yelling out answers and slapping the table each time the contestants don’t answer correctly, providing me some of the solitude I’d come here for. She doesn’t comment on how little of my dinner is eaten, and I’m grateful, knowing I couldn’t stomach it even if I tried.

When the show ends, Grammy stands and moves toward the sink to do dishes, and I follow, a companionable silence between us.

“How’s Gabe?” Grammy asks as she dries a plate.

I lean against the kitchen sink with my hip, filling the pan she used to make gravy with hot water. Feasible answers don’t come. Nothing does.

Grammy’s small hand covers mine, turning the faucet off. “It’ll be okay,” she tells me. “Everything’s going to be fine.”

“Would you mind if I stayed over on the hide-a-bed?”

Grammy’s lips pull into a thin line, realization fully dawning on her that this isn’t just a minor dispute. Since Gabe and I moved in together four years ago, I’ve never sought out another place to stay. She clutches my hand tightly. “I’ll grab the blankets.”

My phone dings, and my heart catapults to my throat.

Is Gabe checking on me?

Is he apologizing?

Will he tell me it was the biggest mistake of his life and he wants me back?

Trepidation makes my movements to retrieve my phone from my purse slow and tense. I flip the screen over and see a message from Michaela, the wife of James, who is Gabe’s best friend.

My heart rate quadruples in a second.

Has he already told everyone?

Am I going to start receiving pity texts and calls?

Is that how this works?

My thumb shakes and my palms sweat as I flip the screen open to receive her message and read it three times before the words sink in.

Michaela: Sorry to cancel last minute, but James has caught the flu. Hopefully we can reschedule for next week or sometime soon! Love you guys!

My sigh is so deep it’s audible. I don’t respond to Michaela and instead scroll down in my messages to Felicity’s name.

Me: Mind if I come by in the morning to borrow some clothes? I need an outfit for tomorrow. I’ll bring you coffee and a cinnamon roll. *on knees, begging*

Felicity: Begging on your knees for my clothes? Did you message the wrong person again? #MyClosetSucksssss

Me: I messaged the wrong person one time…

Felicity: One time my ass. It happens every time you want to gossip about someone.

Me: And karma, being the bitch that she is, taught me to stop after choking on my own words too many times.

Felicity: You’re welcome to come over. I have my pre-kiddo clothes still in my closet, but they’re probably all out of style. #momlife

Me: #idontcare #yourethebest #hashtagsarelame

Felicity: Well, you owe this *lame* hashtag user a venti now.

Me: Sold.

Felicity: Is everything okay?

Me: It will be. I’ll see you in the morning. Kiss the kiddos goodnight for me.

Felicity: !!!! It will be?!?!? What kind of response is that? What happened?

Me: I’m fine. Promise.

Felicity: ...you’ll tell me in the morning?

Me: Bright and early.

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