Page 61 of The Keeper

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“That’s not fair. Don’t lash out at me because I said I don’t want to kiss you.”

“Well don’t friend zone me just because I don’t villainize your parents.”

“That’s a ridiculous thing to say to me, Stuart. You can’t force me to have feelings I don’t have.” I turn to find a cab or walk in the opposite direction—anything to distance myself from him. “I’m out of here. Call me when you’re not being crazy.”

I start to walk away, but Stuart grabs my arm—hard. I turn on him, teeth bared. “Get your hands off of me!”

Before I know it, there’s a blur. Another human, I realize slowly, still shocked by the way Stuart grabbed me. I blink, just as Cal punches Stuart in the nose with a sickening crack.

Stuart falls backward, hitting the ground, hands over his now-bleeding nose. Cal bends down and growls in his face, “Asshole, you don’teverput hands on her like that.”

My mouth is literally hanging open as I look from Cal to Stuart and back again.

Stuart gets to his feet as Cal steps in front of me, ready to do some more damage, if necessary, but thankfully, Stuart isn’t stupid enough to go another round with someone who could tear him limb from limb. Like, say, a professional hockey player. He looks at me, shakes his head, and rushes to his car.Coward. What was he thinking?

Cal turns to me, jawline rigid, showing more expression than I’ve ever seen on him, and says, “You okay? Did he hurt you?”

I rub my arm but shake my head. “I’m fine. I’m okay.”

“Can I get you home?”

I nod, feeling a little shaky all of a sudden. “I’ll call a ride.”

Cal and I don’t talk in the car. It’s not a long ride, but it feels like forever with the whole situation running through my mind again and again. I’ve known Stuart for so long, and I’ve never seen him act like that, so possessive. The space on my arm where he grabbed me throbs, and I rub at it absently, stunned.

My phone rings. Stuart’s name scrolls across the screen. I hit decline. A second later, he spams me with a series of apology texts:

Stuart: I’m sorry!! So fuckin sorry…

Stuart: I’m an asshole, Bill

Stuart: I can’t believe I did that shit just now

Stuart: I deserved the bloody nose. PLEASE forgive me!

I turn off my phone and shove it into my bag, forcing back tears. This is exactly why I didn’t want this with Stuart. I just wanted him to stay my friend, and now this ugly thing hangs between us.

“Can I walk you in?” Cal asks gently.

I jump, snapping to attention. “Oh, we’re here.” I look around, making sure I get everything from the car before sliding out to the curb, Cal trailing behind me. He hangs back, even as the car drives away, waiting for an invitation.

“Come on, then,” I say, hurrying my pace, eager to get into my safe space.

Once inside, I tell Cal to give me a minute to change. As soon as I get into the safety of my bedroom, I sag onto the bed, head in hands, just trying to breathe.Oh God. How did that escalate so quickly? Why do I feel like such a fool?Get it together, Billie. Just breathe, and get it together.

When I emerge, I’ve scrubbed my face and pulled on a pair of baggy sweatpants and a UNLV T-shirt. I find Cal scouring the shelves in my living room, seemingly enraptured by music memorabilia I’ve collected over the years. I’ve got signed drumsticks, T-shirts, books, records. It’s all arranged haphazardly, but I know where each piece is, where it came from. I have a memory for every item here.

“Does all of this stuff make you uncomfortable?” I ask after indulging in a moment of watching him study various items with rapt attention.

“Why would your things make me uncomfortable?” He looks up at me with a half-smile, curious.

“Well, your place is…well, everything is in its place. It’s kind of sterile and clean. I thought maybe all this clutter might annoy you.”

Cal stands up straight and runs a hand through his hair. “It’s not annoying. Your collection of memorabilia isn’t clutter…it’s interesting. And I keep my place structured because that’s the way my brain works. It organizes things. I’m not sentimental about physical things. I don’t get attached so I don’t keep things around unless they have function and value.”

“Ahh, yes, function and value.” I flop down on my couch and pull my favorite fuzzy blanket over my legs. Cal sits next to me, but he doesn’t relax. He sits pitched forward, hands on his knees like he might jump up at any second, like he might get spooked.

I get it, I guess. Things have been weird between us since I found out about Emily Marshall. I googled until I found a reference to her in an article about the young goalie phenomenon. She’s a young wannabe academic, blonde and perfect, from Montreal’s high society set. I found a few pictures of them at events. They looked good together, but honestly, I couldn’t see the connection between them. Both looked like they were going through the motions. I want to ask about her, but I can’t gather the courage. I want to kiss him, but I can’t do that either.

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