Gourmet 15

“When will you come home? You can’t tell me you don’t want to, not after this. You love me. Come home.”

“Oh my god,” she groaned, pulling away from him, and she put her hands over her eyes, as if to block her sudden revelation from her sight. “Are you kidding me?”

He looked confused and hurt, but she ignored him.

“Is that what this is? Oh my god. You fucked me as a negotiating tactic!” She scrambled for her robe and wrapped herself tightly in it.

“No! I–”

This is my home. This is my life. And this was just a fuck,” she spat.

“Right,” he said quietly.

“Put on your clothes. Go back to New York. Thanks for the sex, but get the hell out of my life now, please, before you find any more ways to fuck with my head.”

He rose, and as he dressed, he spoke, selecting his words carefully.

“Tell me what I can do to fix this.”

“They were gonna give me my own store,” she exploded in spite of herself. “In Manhattan. That is what you took from me.” She looked insistently up at him. This fact had to be true. It was the foundation of every aspect of her present life.

He hesitated, then seemed to make a decision.

“I didn’t,” he said sadly. “I learned that the Shop was only negotiating with you as a maneuver in their negotiations with the people they always intended to work with.”

The implications of this information seeped slowly into her brain and through her skin, like blood in the crevices of concrete after a car accident.

“They do it all the time,” he continued, “and it’s policy never to let the dummy company know. Wouldn’t do much for our reputation if word got out that we waste other people’s time and resources for our own profit. Even now, if they find out I told you, I’ll lose my job.”

“So you stopped negotiations–”

“Yes.”

“–because you knew they were jerking me around–”

“Yes.”

“–but you couldn’t tell me because they’d–”

“Yes.”

“–fire you.” She sunk into the nearest chair, dizzy. “So really I left you not because you manipulated me for professional gains, but because you were too much of a spineless jerk to break the damn rules for the woman you loved.”

“Right in one.” He paused. “I’m a bloody coward.”

“That was…” she searched for an adequate description, but found only, “a bad choice.”

“Unquestionably, the worst I’ve ever made…except possibly the time I rented ‘The Mummy Returns’ the same week your mother died.”

Charlotte gave an uneasy smile and stared at Oliver’s shoes. Then she looked up into his face and asked the question that was spinning in her belly.

“Why are you telling me now?”

“Because,” he said, and again he was selecting words carefully, “you’re kicking me out, and that means I have nothing left to lose.”

“Except your job, you said.”

“Yes. Yes I suppose that’s true.”

“Okay.” She nodded, then sank back in her armchair and put her hand over her eyes. Oliver stood near her for just a few moments, hands in his pockets.

“Goodbye Charlotte.” He turned and walked out. Charlotte heard the door open and close, heard a car start in the driveway, heard it pull away.

All the turmoil of the past 24 hours solidified in her belly as a simple, hollow, echoing sense of loss. Everything she had–this house, the bakeries, the glorious coffee and the peerless waffles, even the sunlight pouring through the window: these trappings of happiness imploded inside her as she realized that this life she had so painstakingly constructed was built in the shadow of the life she truly wanted.

The realization drained her of energy and drew her into a black hole. She sat in her hair with her hands in her lap and succumbed, head down, shoulders shaking with her grief.

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