Switching to speaker, Zoe Tyler tossed the phone on her bed. She groaned with delight as she lifted her sweater over her head. Between the groan and the fabric muffling her ears, she missed her boyfriend’s response.
“Sorry, Jake. What was that?”
“I said I’m running late.” He let out a sigh. “Ian needs to approve some materials for a pitch to a client tomorrow and I need to wait around until they’re printed and take them to him. I might be able to meet you at the bar for round two.”
Ian, Jake’s boss at the firm Wexler Investments, had been an almost unending source of tension between Zoe and Jake for the past four months. Working as Ian’s second assistant he had come home late more evenings than not and had missed a few too many dates. Jake typically made an effort to take Zoe out to their favorite local bar for weekly trivia night, but it looked like he was canceling on that tonight too.
Zoe gripped the jeans she was about to change into and held them in her lap as she collapsed back on the bed, disappointment washing over her. “It’s fine.”
“Well, when you say that, I know it’s not actually fine,” he replied, his voice holding a hint of sharpness. “I am sorry, babe.”
“We can just go next week.”
His voice brightened as he replied, “Definitely. I love you.”
“Love you too,” she murmured. He’d already hung up and probably hadn’t even heard her reply. She tossed the jeans across the bed, covering her eyes with her arm. Another night of Jake bailing on plans. Joy.
She sat up and looked down at her mostly naked body. The black underwear with a hint of lace contrasted starkly with her pale skin. Zoe figured she had two choices. Get into comfy clothes, open a bottle of wine, and binge-watch some TV. Or she could make different plans.
Both options were appealing, but she had been in the mindset to go out, so going out was what she’d do. She texted her best friend, Mia.
Let’s go out. Corks…meet in 15 min?
Within a minute, Mia replied with several wineglass and smiley-face emojis followed up with, See ya there!
Zoe quickly dressed by putting on the discarded jeans and a black and red flannel shirt. She checked herself in the bathroom mirror and then was on her way to their favorite wine bar, Corks.
After a quick but chilly ten-minute walk, Zoe entered Corks and found Mia sitting off to the right at a high-top table. Her curly, dark brown hair was pulled into a loose bun high on top of her head, a few strands escaping at the base of her neck. The pendant light above the table cast an orange-red glow on Mia’s warm brown skin. A glass of dark-red liquid was set in front of the empty chair. “Pinot noir?” Zoe asked by way of greeting.
Mia smiled widely, showing off a dimple on her left cheek. “Of course. What else do you ever order?”
Zoe chuckled. “True.” She shrugged off her coat and hung it on the back of her chair before sitting.
“I’ve also already ordered hummus and a margherita flatbread.”
“Oh, that sounds delicious. I love you.”
“Again, of course,” Mia said with a wink. Then she leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Before we get into things, do you see that woman sitting at the bar, two seats from the corner?”
Zoe turned to the woman in question. She looked to be in her fifties with bright, obviously bottled-blond hair. She had dark-rimmed glasses and was drinking white wine. Zoe could only see her profile so she wasn’t sure whether she should recognize the woman or not. “Yeah. What about her?”
“Doesn’t she look like Mrs. Silver?”
Zoe furrowed her brow at the unfamiliar name. “Who?” she asked.
“Mrs. Silver. Junior year English teacher.”
Zoe had known Mia since they were sophomores in high school and had sat next to each other in chemistry class. “Oh,” Zoe replied, dragging the word out. She glanced over at the woman again, and now that she had the idea in her head, the woman did kind of look like their former teacher. “She does, a little at least. Has that big mole on her cheek though. Mrs. Silver didn’t have one.”
Mia gave the woman another look, squinting as if that would make her figure it out quicker. “Yeah, you’re right. Wouldn’t it be awkward to drink at the same bar as a teacher? I hate running into people that you kinda know and should probably say hi to, but you always know those conversations are awkward as fuck.”
Zoe chuckled. “Remember how she always had the radio set to a classical station and played it in the background? Like listening to that would ever make talking about Romeo and Juliet better.”
“True,” Mia replied, holding up her glass.
Zoe clinked her glass with Mia’s and took a sip of her wine, enjoying the hints of cherry on her tongue.
“So what’s up? What’s with the last-minute invite? Not that I’m upset by it or anything,” she said with a grin. “I’ll always say yes to wine.”
“Jake and I were supposed to go out tonight.”
“Oh yeah, it’s Wednesday, trivia night. What happened?”
“He was stuck at work. Didn’t think he’d make it in time. I told him to just forget about it. Didn’t want to sit at home alone again so I hit you up instead.”
“Well I’m flattered.”
Zoe replayed what she’d said in her head and cringed. “Sorry. That kinda came out like you were my last resort or something. I totally didn’t mean it that way.”
Mia chuckled. “It’s okay, really. Besides, I was just going to restart that sweater I’m trying to knit for like the fourth time. You saved me from spending a night of wanting to tear my hair out. I thought knitting would give me a relaxing break, but, honestly, sometimes I’d rather study instead.”
The waitress placed their food and plates at the center of the table. “Here you go. Can I get you two anything else?”
“No thanks,” Mia replied, already reaching for a plate and a slice of flatbread. When the waitress walked away, Mia said, “This looks so good. You better grab some for yourself before I hog it all.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Zoe replied with a smile. She grabbed a carrot stick and swiped it through the hummus. It gave a satisfying snap as she took a bite. “So how is school going?”
Mia had just started her doctoral program in clinical psychology, which had added to Zoe’s appeal of moving to Indianapolis for Jake’s job. Zoe and Mia hadn’t lived in the same city since they graduated high school in Evansville, Indiana, about three hours’ drive south.
“Oh, it’s fine. So far. Trying to enjoy the calm before it all gets too hectic. First semester is never a good indication for how things are gonna go.”
“Especially if you consider how your first semester of college went,” Zoe said, her eyebrows lifting as she took a sip of wine.
Mia held up her hands. “So maybe I enjoyed the freedom of being away from home a little too much.”
Zoe cleared her throat. “You mean partied a little too much? So much that you came close to failing a class?”
“In my defense, I didn’t fail it. And you have to admit, I got my shit together after that.”
Zoe nodded. “You did. Mama Pat would’ve given you a talking-to if you hadn’t.” Mia’s mom had always been a stickler for getting good grades and not slacking off. But not in the super-overbearing way, but in the wanting-her-kids-to-do-well-and-succeed kind of way. She had even taken a hands-on approach, more than Zoe’s parents ever had, helping Zoe and Mia study for tests, and editing their papers.
“Oh yeah. She probably would have marched on over to Cincinnati and sat with me in the library until I got all my work done.”
They shared a good laugh at that image and finished off their wine. The waitress stopped by to confirm another round. Once she brought their drinks, Zoe took a sip of hers while Mia just spun hers around by the stem and stared at the glass. A sign that something was definitely up.
Zoe moved her plate to the side and put her elbow on the table, resting her chin in her hand. “Okay, hit me with it. What’s wrong?”
Mia opened her mouth but closed it just as quickly. She squirmed in her seat, sitting up a little straighter as she continued spinning her wineglass. She licked her lips. “I don’t want to upset you, but I hate to see you so disappointed. And…well, I’ll just come out with it. Do you think something else is going on?”
“Something else like what?” Zoe asked, her mouth turning down in a frown.
“I’m sure it’s not the case so don’t get upset. But…do you think that maybe…Jake is seeing someone else?”
Zoe dropped her arm to the table and stared at Mia with wide eyes. “Like cheating on me? What? No way. Why would you think that?” Zoe sat back and crossed her arms over her chest.
Mia held her hands up. “I’m not saying he is. But you’ve told me about all the times he’s gotten home late or skipped out on plans. I was just throwing it out there.” After taking a sip of wine, she sighed. “I know he loves you and I don’t really get that vibe from him. Just…be careful.”
Zoe’s stiff posture relaxed and she uncrossed her arms. “I appreciate that, but he’s never done anything to make me think that.” She leaned forward and ran a hand through her hair. “Yes, he’s been a little flaky about date nights. And he comes home late more nights than I’d like. But his boss truly sucks. He’s an ass. I met him at the company picnic on Labor Day. Jake never got to enjoy himself or spend time with me because his boss always had him getting him something or writing down details of any prospective clients.”
“Ugh. I don’t know how he deals with it.”
Zoe knew there was more. “But? Don’t leave me hanging on what you really want to say.”
Mia reached across the table to take Zoe’s hand. “But, honey, when is enough enough?”
Zoe sighed and squeezed Mia’s hand in return. “I know. I’ve brought it up a bit before, but I don’t want him to think that I don’t support him or his work. He says working for this guy could really open doors for him and that if he can get through a year, then he can easily get promoted or move on to someplace better.”
“I get that. I really do. But I don’t want you to keep giving and giving and getting nothing in return. If he makes you feel shitty sometimes, you need to talk with him and tell him that.”
She smiled at Mia, always grateful for her protective side. “I’ll try.”
“Do more than try. Do it.”
“Aye, aye, captain,” Zoe replied, giving Mia a mocking salute.
“Smartass.” Mia rolled her eyes. “You know I’m always here if you need to talk. Especially if it’s here,” she replied as she grinned and took the last carrot.
Zoe chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
After finishing their wine and parting with a hug, Zoe began her walk home. The wind had picked up so she pulled up the collar of her jacket and wrapped her arms around herself. She replayed the last bits of her conversation with Mia. She had never even thought about the possibility of Jake cheating, but Mia had planted the seed. What if he was though? Would she even recognize the signs? He wasn’t being secretive and he never tried to hide his phone. She knew he still wanted her, if yesterday’s quickie before work was anything to go by. She shook her head at the thought. No way. He couldn’t be cheating.
Still, he was absent and consumed by work. Each time he bailed on their plans, whether they were scheduled date nights or just dinner at home, it hurt. It made her feel like maybe she wasn’t enough for him. That no matter what she did—cooked for him, gave him gifts, let his career guide their life—he’d never make her needs a priority. If she was honest with herself, she had given thought to what her life would be like if she ended things with Jake.
But she loved him. She just needed to talk with him. Let him know how she was feeling. Admittedly, not her favorite thing to do or something she was good at. If she had to talk to someone that was in anyway confrontational, she’d mentally rehearse exactly what she wanted to say. But when the time came to say it, did she say any of her important points? Nope. Her mind would just go completely blank.
As she stood in front of their apartment door, she took a deep breath before putting the key in the lock. The lamp in the living room was off, but she thought she had turned it on before she left. Maybe she’d forgotten since she had rushed out to meet Mia.
She took off her coat and shoes before calling out, “Jake?”
“In here,” he replied, sounding like he was in the kitchen.
She turned the corner and let out a breath. The sight before her brought a smile to her lips and a warmth to her chest. Candles flickered on their small kitchen table, and plates, silverware, and an open bottle of her favorite wine were set out. Jake was taking out food containers from their go-to Thai restaurant.
“What’s all this?”
Jake looked up with a wide smile and set a container onto the counter. He walked up to Zoe and gave her a soft kiss. “Hey. I wanted to make it up to you for bailing on trivia. You haven’t eaten, have you?”
“Not really. Mia and I just had appetizers at Corks.”
His blue eyes shone with relief. “Awesome! I got you pad thai and a double order of shrimp rolls.”
Zoe wrapped her arms around him and melted into his embrace. “You always knew the way to my heart was with shrimp rolls.”
“Well, when you ordered them on our first date and refused to share, I kinda got that idea.” He hugged her tighter and whispered, “I am sorry.”
She kissed him below his ear and pulled back, stroking her thumb across the stubble along his chin. “I know. But let’s talk about that later. I’m ready to eat.”
“No surprise there,” he said with a chuckle.
Zoe shoved him away and sat down. “Oh shut up.”
Jake put the containers on the table and Zoe immediately snatched up the one with the shrimp rolls. She put a couple on her plate and handed the container to Jake. She almost wanted to say, “See. Sometimes I can be good at sharing.” As she added the pad thai, Jake piled his high with red curry chicken.
They ate and talked about their day, and Zoe found her frustration softening. It wasn’t gone completely, just hanging around in the back of her mind. Surprises like this always reminded her how thoughtful and sweet Jake could be. That had been one of the things that had drawn her in when they started dating in their junior year of college at Ball State in Muncie. When she was stressed out by tests or big presentations, he’d show up to her door with something to make her smile. It wasn’t even the food or little presents themselves that made things better. It was that he was able to read her moods and know she was struggling. And then knew exactly what she needed to brighten her day.
As they cleaned up, Jake explained his boss’s ridiculous demand earlier in the night. Guess this would be as good a time as any to talk to him, Zoe thought. The plates were loaded in the dishwasher and leftovers stowed in the fridge. Zoe leaned back against the counter and crossed her arms. “Can we talk about that?”
Jake straightened, wiping his hands on a towel before tossing it on the counter. His slight frown told her he had anticipated this conversation. “Of course. Go for it.”
Zoe dropped her arms and started fiddling with her fingers. She would be a horrible poker player—her anxiety was always front and center, manifesting in some form of fidgeting. “You know I support you and I know that this job could give you so many opportunities later on.” She sighed. “It’s just…getting a little tiring that you come home late so much. It feels like you cancel plans all the time now.”
Jake stood in front of her and rested his hands on her hips. “I know. And I hate that that’s what’s happened, especially the last couple of months. It’s like Ian gets this perverse joy out of knowing he can make my life as miserable as possible because I’ll just suck it up and do what he wants. This morning he had me get him this huge bag of trail mix and I had to take out all the raisins and almonds.”
“That sounds like a great use of your time,” Zoe muttered. How was doing petty tasks like that going to open doors? She lightly gripped his forearms and looked down at her hands as she rubbed the sleeve of his button-up between her thumb and forefinger. She had bought it for his birthday last year and she loved how smooth the fabric felt. Clearing her throat, she asked, “Can’t you just tell him that it’s putting a strain on your personal life?”
He scoffed. “I wish, babe. He’d just say I don’t have the drive for the job and tell me to quit. Hell, he would maybe even fire me on the spot.”
“He’s such a dick. I don’t know how you can stand it.”
“One year. I just need to stick it out for one year. Then I can get the analyst job and I’ll be set. I can make my mark with that team and just keep moving up. I told you they mostly promote from within. This is my chance.”
Jake’s favorite professor at Ball State had hooked him up with this job at Wexler, the best investment firm in Indianapolis. Professor Freeman had assured him that working as Ian’s assistant would then secure him a spot as a portfolio analyst within a year. Zoe hated the fact that Ian seemed to completely take advantage of Jake, but she tried to stay quiet and support him. Bad-mouthing the situation would take away some of Jake’s excitement for the future.
“I get it. I really do. It’s not just the canceled plans and late nights though. I feel like I have to do everything around here. Cooking. Cleaning. Laundry. Shopping. You say you’ll help on the weekends, but then you end up telling me it’s your only time to relax and none of that shit gets done. It’s hard.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve been an ass letting you pick up my slack. I’ll try to do better,” he murmured. “I promise.”
“That’s all I ask.” Only time would tell if he would keep that promise. Her initial, albeit weak, attempts to get him to help more never seemed to result in him pulling his weight for long. Maybe this time she’d stand up for herself a bit more if she didn’t see a change.
“Adulting sucks,” he said with a sigh.
Zoe snorted. “You got that right.”
He cupped her face in his hands, forcing her to maintain eye contact. “I love you.”
And there it was. Proof to Zoe that he wasn’t cheating and never would. The soft yet intense look in his bright blue eyes. Eyes that always revealed what he was truly thinking. He loved her and only her. He had never given her any reason to think there would be someone else. And she hated that she had questioned it for even a second. His recent behavior was all due to work and nothing more. Now they would just have to work through that and everything would be right in their world.
The corner of Zoe’s mouth quirked up. “I love you too.”
Jake smiled and leaned in for a kiss, hesitating right before their lips met as if checking to see if she was still upset with him. Zoe closed the distance for a slow kiss and wrapped her arms around his waist. Before either of them could deepen it, Jake pulled her into his body for a tight hug and rested his head on the top of hers. Zoe closed her eyes as she listened to the comforting sound of his heartbeat.
After a few moments, Jake pulled back and met her gaze. “Let’s go to bed. I can make it up to you even more,” he said with a grin.
Zoe chuckled and let him guide her down the hallway.
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