“Leaving so soon?” Patrick Murphy asked.
I froze in the foyer of Patrick’s grand house, took a deep breath, and then turned to look at him.
I didn’t bother plastering on a fake smile.
Patrick wouldn’t be convinced. We were past that point in our relationship.
“Yeah. I said good-bye to Nya,” I answered carefully.
“Not everyone else?” he asked.
I could feel my lips curling into a frown, but I fought that feeling, tried to keep my expression neutral.
Failed, if the little smirk on Patrick’s face was anything to go by.
“I said good-bye to who I needed to,” I said.
The words came out a little more sharply than I had intended, but they were honest. It wasn’t a nice thing to say, certainly not a nice thing to think, but no one had ever accused me of being nice.
Patrick smiled. “You know, that’s one of the things I really appreciate about you, Jade,” he said.
I looked at him, curious. In the two years since I had met him, he had never said so much to me. I wondered at the change now.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“You’re direct. I appreciate that, more than you probably know,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said curtly, mostly for lack of anything else to say.
After that I said nothing else, but neither did Patrick. I didn’t know if this was a test, some kind of mobster character assessment, but if it was, I certainly wouldn’t fail it. I got the sense that Patrick believed I would.
He was looking at me intently, studying me, and even I, a person who wasn’t afraid of any damn body and more than willing to tell that to whoever cared to ask, was feeling slightly nervous.
Those nerves were probably misplaced.
If anything, I seriously doubted that Patrick would send me to sleep with the fishes after his daughter’s first birthday party. But then again, what did I know?
Well, a fair amount if I thought about it.
I knew that Patrick and his brothers were mobsters. I knew that because of that my best friend, Nya, had found herself in some uncomfortable situations.
I fucking hated that.
Every day Nya and Siobhan spent with him was a day they were in danger. Nya was smart; she had to see that, but even if she did, it didn’t seem to matter. She loved Patrick beyond all reason, and nothing would change that.
In some ways, I was happy for her. It appeared she’d found a love, a life, that others—people like me—could only dream of. But I wasn’t so sure it was worth the risk.
Not that my opinion mattered.
At the beginning, I’d tried to talk some sense into her, and she’d shut me down cold. I’d taken her message and held my tongue, though doing so was a mighty feat. But what other choice did I have? Were I to speak against Patrick, Nya would cut me out of her life without a second thought, and there was no way I was risking that.
So I kept my mouth closed and played as nice as I could.
Which, to my shock and annoyance, wasn’t always so hard to do. If I let myself, I could forget what Patrick and his brothers were. Could pretend that they were just a regular family. In some ways, that was true. Patrick and his brothers were devoted to their families.
So what did I know?
That Nya loved Patrick and always would, that together with Patrick’s brothers and their families, they had built a strong, connected, tight-knit group.
That I didn’t have a place in that group.
Knowing all that, I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening and why Patrick suddenly felt the need to talk to me, but I was too damn stubborn to ask.
“I’ll confess, Jade,” Patrick finally said.
I quirked a brow, nodded at him to continue.
“This isn’t usually my thing,” he said.
“And what ‘thing’ is this?” I asked.
I didn’t intend to sound hostile; it just came out that way. But again, if Patrick noticed he didn’t seem too bothered by it.
“You’re my daughter’s godmother, and since you’re a person with such an important role in her life, I need to know you better,” he said.
“Really? Because it seems to me that all you need to know is that I would do anything for Siobhan and Nya,” I said.
“But not me,” he said, his expression one I couldn’t quite read.
I shrugged. “You said you like direct, so I will be. I’m happy that Nya is happy, but I don’t know you,” I said.
Getting those words out was probably something I shouldn’t have done, but saying them made me feel ten pounds lighter.
I’d been holding onto those words for years now, watching as Nya had gotten pulled deeper and deeper into Patrick’s world, and further and further away from me.
“And you’re not interested in getting to know me,” Patrick said. The sentence was a statement and not a question, and for a moment I paused, pondering how to respond.
“I…” I trailed off, stopped to reconsider again, something that was quite unusual for me. Then, I finally settled on my answer. “I think you’re fine. Is anything else necessary? I mean what, do you want to be besties or something?” I said.
Patrick chuckled, his voice low and deep. I would never admit it to Nya, but he was really quite handsome. But that, his money, didn’t change the facts.
He was dangerous, and I feared he would be Nya’s undoing.
“Jade,” Patrick said.
I must have drifted away, for I snapped my eyes to him, saw that his expression had changed.
The ease, the not exactly playfulness, but more softness than I usually saw in his very serious demeanor was gone.
In its place was the stern, intractable presence that I imagined him to be, and in that moment, he looked every bit the mob boss he was.
Even still, I wouldn’t be intimidated, or at the very least wouldn’t let him know that I was.
“Yes, Patrick?” I asked. My tone had just the right level of indulgent impatience, but even that didn’t seem to reach him.
“You don’t know me, and you don’t seem interested in getting to know me,” he said.
He cut off my attempt to defend myself with a quick shake of his head.
“It’s fine. Your prerogative,” he said.
The way he spoke the words made me think that he wasn’t necessarily too keen on getting to know me either, which vaguely offended me, but I decided the hypocrisy of that notion was far too large for me to even indulge. Besides, he was probably doing this for Nya, something I decided to ask about.
“So what is this little moment that we seem to be having? Did Nya put you up to it?” I asked.
“No. I decided to take this little conversation on myself. It needed to be had.”
“And have we had it?” I asked, my voice lifting with my uncertainty.
“Almost,” he said.
Then he looked at me for another moment and began to speak. “You don’t know me. I don’t know you. And I guess we’re fine with that. But I do want you to know this—I love Nya and that little girl more than life itself. Nothing will ever happen to them while I breathe. Since you feel the same way, let’s focus on that and forget all the other shit,” he said.
For reasons I couldn’t contemplate, I actually believed him. I didn’t know the man to be a liar, but I didn’t know him to be honest either. All I knew about Patrick was that he had swept into our world like a tornado and completely upended it.
But when I looked at him now, I saw a husband, a father, someone committed to the two people who were the most important to me in this world.
I didn’t have to like it, but I certainly couldn’t change it.
“Fine,” I said.
Patrick took several steps forward and extended his hand.
I looked down for a moment, then reached out and shook it.
“Have a good night, Jade,” Patrick said.
Then, with no more words, he turned and walked back into the heart of the house.
Minutes ago I had been anxious to leave, but now I found myself rooted to the spot. I stood there listening, the laughter, the happiness that I heard from inside the recesses of the home making my heart clench.
I could practically see them all, together, enjoying each other, happy.
That weight of loneliness, the one that was so deep I thought it would consume me, welled up. But I pushed it down ruthlessly, shoved it back inside the box where I kept it.
And then, after lingering for another moment, I left.
The drive home from Nya and Patrick’s was far longer than the ride out there had been.
As I had driven toward the house, I’d been able to focus on what mattered, and that had been Siobhan. Yeah, I still wasn’t too sure about Patrick, but one thing I didn’t doubt, and never would, was my love for that baby.
In addition to being sweet, and smart, and cute, and just about the most perfect baby I had ever seen, she was also the closest thing I would ever have to a child. If nothing else, Patrick was a part of her, and for that reason I couldn’t be completely hard-hearted toward him.
That had been enough to get me through the evening, the beautiful-looking birthday cake I didn’t dare eat, the pure joy of watching a one-year-old get extravagant presents that she promptly ignored.
But now, that residual joy was fading, and in its place was the stark reality of who and what I was.
And that reality was ugly.
Because who and what I was was a small, petty, bitter woman with nothing to call her own.
A poor enough circumstance, but one that was completely my fault.
I could accept that, and could mostly forgive myself for it, but what I couldn’t accept, and what I definitely couldn’t forgive, was how much I begrudged Nya’s different path.
I had been surprised by Patrick’s attempt at a heart-to-heart, but I shouldn’t have been.
Even if Nya hadn’t put him up to it, I understood why he had felt compelled to try to bridge the gap between us. Because he loved her, loved her enough to put aside his own feelings and focus on hers. Loved her enough to try to find some common ground with a person who had offered him nothing.
And realizing that, having lived it, left me with a feeling of shame so deep and intense that it felt like my skin was burning with the weight of it.
Because for all his faults—and call me old-fashioned, but being a mobster qualified as a huge fault—Patrick had been willing to look past his own feelings and consider Nya’s.
I couldn’t say the same.
I was supposed to be her best friend, had known her far longer than Patrick. But I couldn’t do something that simple.
I tried to tell myself that I had kept my mouth closed, tried to be proud of the fact that I’d never tried to undermine Patrick.
It wouldn’t have worked anyway.
Nya was nothing if not stubborn, and if I had even made a peep, she would have told me exactly what to do with my opinion. And she would have been well within her rights to do so. And besides, even if I had thought she was susceptible to such a thing, I wouldn’t have done it. I respected her enough to accept her decisions, and I might’ve been a petty bitch, but I wasn’t that petty.
But still, though I kept my mouth closed, tried to play along, it must have been obvious to everyone that my heart wasn’t quite in it.
And that was what left me feeling so terrible about myself.
Nya deserved to be happy.
Patrick made her happy.
So why couldn’t I be happy?
I knew the answer, and it was always the same.
I was happy for Nya, and though I might not have chosen Patrick, I was happy that she had found someone. That happiness, as real as it was, was so often overshadowed, though. Overshadowed by the fact that as happy as I was for her, I was also jealous.
Even admitting it to myself in the dark interior of my car embarrassed me.
It was never a good thing to be, jealous of your best friend, so small and useless that you couldn’t simply be purely happy for her.
That was me, and I didn’t know what to do about it. Didn’t know if I could do anything about it.
When I finally reached my small house, I did my usual quick scan of the perimeter, making sure not to look in the direction of Nya’s old house.
She had finally sold it, and a nice family with two small kids had moved in.
Still, every time I saw it, I thought back to what it used to be, who used to live there, how different my life was now because of how different her life was now.
And again that sadness, melancholy over what I had lost bubbled up.
I hated that.
I might have lost out, but Nya had gained so much. And that was all that mattered.
I gave myself that admonition, but then tried to push all thoughts of Nya and Patrick and Siobhan and my own pathetic self out of my head.
Nothing was going to change, and all I was doing was driving myself insane.
No, I needed to focus on myself, get my own act together, and leave those people to their happy lives.
So I would focus on my work.
My latest project needed a lot of research.
I had recently struck out on my own and started freelance investigation. Not the shit where you sat in the car for hours on end. That wasn’t me, and my tush certainly couldn’t endure any more hours on it than I already did.
No, I could find a needle in a haystack, and that was what a lot of my work consisted of. Take a stack of boxes, figure out what was in them, figure out what wasn’t in them, figure out why.
I loved it, and at the very least it was something I could count on.
Since I had just gotten a new file, that would give me something to lose myself in, distract myself from everything else.
I disarmed my house alarm and unlocked the door, closed it, kicked out of my shoes, dropped my purse, and made a beeline for the kitchen to fix a nice cup of peppermint tea.
Peppermint tea and a crap-ton of files.
That was what passed for a big night in my life, and I was going to enjoy it to the fullest.
Intent on just that, I walked through my kitchen door.
Froze dead in my tracks.