Still, when Leah comes home from the University of Michigan, we get together to hang out. After a few hugs, most of the initial awkwardness dissipates, and she’s again the same girl who was my best friend all through middle school and beyond.
“I like your place,” she says, walking around my studio and examining the paintings I have hanging on the walls. “That’s some pretty cool art you’ve got there. Where did you get these from?”
“I painted them,” I tell her, pulling on my boots. We’re going out to a local Italian restaurant for dinner. I’m dressed in a pair of skinny jeans and a black top, and it feels just like old times.
“You did?” Leah gives me an astonished look. “Since when do you paint?”
“It’s a recent development,” I say, grabbing my trench coat. It’s already fall, and it’s starting to get chilly. I had gotten used to the tropical climate of the island, and even sixty degrees feels cold to me.
“Well, shit, Nora, this is really good stuff,” she says, coming up to one of the explosion paintings to take a closer look. Those are the only ones I have up—my Julian portraits are private. “I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“Thanks.” I grin at her. “Ready to go?”
We have a great dinner. Leah tells me about going to college at Michigan and about Jason, her new boyfriend. I listen attentively, and we joke about boys and their inexplicable need to do keg stands.
“When are you applying to college?” she asks when we’re mid-way through dessert. “You were going to go local at first. Are you still planning to do that?”
I nod. “Yes, I think I’m going to apply for the spring semester.” Although I can now afford to go to any university, I have no desire to change my plans. The money sitting in my bank account doesn’t seem quite real to me, and I’m strangely reluctant to spend it.
“That’s awesome,” Leah says, grinning. She seems a little hyper, like she’s overly excited about something.
I soon learn what that something is.
“Hey, Nora,” a familiar voice says behind me, just as we’re getting ready to pay our bill.
I jump up, startled. Turning, I stare at Jake—the boy I had been on the date with that fateful night when Julian took me.
The boy Julian had hurt to keep me in line.
He looks almost the same: shaggy sun-streaked hair, warm brown eyes, a great build. Only the expression on his face is different. It’s drawn and tense, and the wariness in his gaze is like a kick to my stomach.
“Jake . . .” I feel like I’m confronting a ghost. “I didn’t know you were in town. I thought you were away at Michigan—”
And then I realize the truth. Turning, I look accusingly at Leah, who gives me a huge smile in response. “I hope you don’t mind, Nora,” she says brightly. “I told Jake I was coming to see you this weekend, and he asked to join me. I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about that, given everything—” her face reddens a bit, “—so I just mentioned that we’d be here tonight.”
I blink, my palms beginning to sweat. Leah doesn’t know about the beating Jake received because of me. That little tidbit is something I disclosed only to the FBI. She’s probably afraid that seeing Jake might bring back painful memories of my abduction, but she can’t possibly guess at the nauseating swirl of guilt and anxiety I feel right now.
Jake knows I’m responsible for the assault, however. I can see it in the way he looks at me.
I force myself to smile. “Of course I don’t mind,” I lie smoothly. “Please, have a seat. Let’s get some coffee.” I motion toward the seat on the other side of our booth and sit down myself. “How have you been?”
He smiles back at me, his brown eyes crinkling at the corners in the way I found endearing once. He’s still one of the cutest guys I’ve ever met, but I no longer feel any attraction to him. The crush I had on him before pales in comparison to my all-consuming Julian obsession—to the dark and desperate craving that makes me toss and turn at night.
When I can’t sleep, I often think about the things Julian and I used to do together—the things he made me do . . . the things he trained me to want. In the dark of the night, I masturbate to forbidden fantasies. Fantasies of exquisite pain and forced pleasure, of violence and lust. I ache with the need to be taken and used, hurt and possessed. I long for Julian—the man who awakened this side of me.
The man who is now dead.
Pushing that excruciating thought aside, I focus on what Jake is telling me.
“—couldn’t go into that park for months,” he says, and I realize that he’s talking about his experience after my abduction. “Every time I did, I thought about you and where you might be . . . The police said it was like you vanished off the face of the planet—”
I listen to him, shame and self-loathing coiling deep inside my chest. How can I feel this way about a man who did such a terrible thing and hurt so many people in the process? How sick am I to love someone capable of such evil? Julian was not a tortured, misunderstood hero forced to do bad things by circumstances beyond his control. He was a monster, pure and simple.
A monster that I miss with every fiber of my being.
“I’m so sorry, Nora,” Jake says, distracting me from my self-flagellation. “I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you that night—”