But I’m not going to share any of this with Tatianna. She would just laugh me out of the house if I did that. Her eyes are on me, waiting for me to respond.
“I...” I search for words, anything that isn’t the real reason I came. “I lost my job.” I feel myself sinking down in my chair, unable to believe I'm about to admit to Collins and his girlfriend that I am a failed accountant. “I was fired actually.” Someone please shut me up.
Collins hands me a new drink, and I take several fortifying sips.
“What did you do?” he asks. He looks genuinely perplexed as he takes the seat across from me. I’m sure the girl he remembers never would have been careless enough to get fired from a job. I guess things change.
“I was an accountant.” I look down at my drink, stirring it with the straw. “My boss framed me for embezzling funds. And I had no way to prove it.”
Collins holds his hand up as if to stop me. “There’s always a way. I know several excellent forensic accountants. I could help connect you with one.” He leans forward in his chair.
The concern in his eyes tells me he’ll help me if I want. He’d always been protective of me, and I love seeing that side of him again. I chew the inside of my lip, considering it briefly, but I’m too humiliated by the whole thing, besides, it isn’t worth the trouble. It was a small enough amount that they didn’t press charges. I wave him off. “It’s not worth it. He only managed to get a couple thousand before he...or, rather ‘I’ was caught.”
Tatianna laughs. “The guy must suck at embezzling if he only managed a few thousand.”
I force a smile, but a few thousand seems like a lot to me. They kept my last paycheck to make up for the loss. It would have been enough for me to at least pay rent for a few more months.
“Anyway, I’m here because I needed a place to get a fresh start.” I stir my drink as I try to think of any topic of conversation other than my failed accounting career.
Tatianna yawns and stretches in a way that looks more practiced than real. She’s definitely not an actress.
I take it as a not so subtle suggestion that it’s time for me to leave. Humiliated, I stand up, “I should get going,” I say, downing the last of my drink, and placing it on the nearest table. I head out to the hall and the direction I hope will lead to my bag and the exit. I may not have enough money for more than one night in a hotel, but I can’t stay here.
“Wait, Gremli...Mia. Hang on, where are you going?” Collins follows me out into the hallway, and catches my arm, forcing me to stop. The contact of his large hand closing around my upper arm sends chills zipping down my body. It's been a long time since he touched me so intimately, yet my body recalls that night with perfectly clarity.
“I shouldn’t have come. You’ve got...” I wave my hand around vaguely, not sure what I’m referring to exactly. It could be the amazing house, beautiful girlfriend, or perfect life. Any one of these makes me feel small, but the combination makes me feel as if I could cry. I swallow against the hard lump in my throat and force myself to look up at him.
He smiles, making me smile.
“Nonsense. You came all this way. I want you to stay. At least a few days. We have fifteen years to catch up on.” His eyes latch onto mine, kind yet insistent. It makes me warm. He still has the look that makes me feel like I’m the only one who matters. How does he manage to do that, even while dating the drop-dead gorgeous woman in the next room? I don’t know, but I can’t say no to him. Not when he looks at me this way. Besides, the house is so big he must have ten extra bedrooms, it’s not like I’m putting him out or anything.
I sigh. “Okay.” Just thinking about a bed makes me tired. It was a long day and a long flight. A yawn escapes.
He leans back into the library doorway. “I’m gonna give Gremlin here the purple bedroom.”
“Who? ...Whatever,” Tatianna answers in a dull tone.
He slides his hand around mine, as if we’re still little kids, only now his hand is much larger, and my fingers and palm are swallowed by his firm grip. It feels completely natural, him taking my hand, and I follow him to the front hall where he effortlessly lifts my suitcase and pulls it up the steps. We venture down a long hallway until he finally stops in front of a door, opens it, and puts my suitcase down just inside.
“Grem...Mia, I’m glad you’re here.” His mouth hooks up in a playful smirk as if he thinks it’s funny that he can’t seem to call me by my real name. The first time we met, I was wearing a Gremlins T-shirt. The outdated, thrift store tee was the reason he’d had to save me that first day in kindergarten. Some of the other kids were teasing me about my second-hand clothing, and he came to my rescue. After he told the other kids off, he managed to turn the whole thing into a joke by saying gremlins were cool, then calling me gremlin. Not in a mean way, but as friendly jab. I was so thankful for the rescue that he could have called me almost anything that day, and I would have laughed for him. The nickname unfortunately stuck.