CHAPTER IX — Dirty Little Secret
“Thank God for hand controls.”
Alex barely reacted to his voice. She simply turned her head around, her cheek pressed against the steering wheel.
She held her breath, her face burning. I’m sorry, she wanted to say, but instead looked down at the polka dot skirt she’d taken less than a second to find, lying on the kitchen floor, and slip over her head.
Disgusting, Alexandra. You’re disgusting.
“Or you’d have stolen my car.”
She tried to detect a trace of bitterness in his voice, anything that told her he was as disappointed and angry at her as she was at herself. But when she dared to look up at him, instead of his lips pressed into a thin line and a deep frown between his brows, Alex found a lopsided smile.
Alex heaved a sigh of relief and despite herself, she gave him a tiny, more ashamed than happy, smile.
“Sorry,” she said under her breath.
“So your plan was…”
“I didn’t have one,” Alex confessed, feeling her face burn with shame.
“I think that’s yours,” Elliot had murmured, lying on his side.
Why couldn’t he just ignore it? It’s three a.m., she thought to herself. But he nudged her with his elbow until she couldn’t ignore it anymore and the ring she’d been blocking out got louder and louder in her ears.
“It could be important.”
It couldn’t, she had wanted to tell him. It could be disaster, and disaster only—that was the rule of phone calls after midnight. That or drunk calls, but that too would classify as a disaster, wouldn’t it?
She’d sat up, turned on the bedside lamp and took her time brushing her eyes with the palm of her hands, all the while hoping the phone would just stop. But it didn’t. She reached for it and leaned against the headboard, feeling sicker and sicker as she heard the person on the other side of the line.
“I’m coming,” was all she’d managed to say. Elliot had his eyes wide open then, staring straight at her, and upon hearing those words, propelled himself on his elbows, squirming at her because he was both concerned and without his glasses.
She’d ended the call still feeling strangely numb. He raised his eyebrows.
“It’s my brother,” Alex said in a low voice, even though there was no one sleeping. There was something in the night that shouldn’t be disturbed. “He’s in the hospital.”
What did she say? Phone calls after midnight. Not a drunk call?
Disaster. Always disaster.
Elliot insisted on driving her. It made sense, considering she didn’t have her car with her anyway. As he pulled his chair closer to the bed, she noticed how his clothes were folded over his backseat and his sneakers were carefully arranged on his cushion ,but they definitely weren’t last night, when they were ripping each other’s clothes off. She also noticed how he was wearing a white tee, instead of the bare chest she’d slept on. His black sweatpants slid down his hips a little when he did a sluggish transfer onto his chair, exposing the waistband of his boxers.
“Give me fifteen minutes, okay? I’ll be right back.” He’d asked as he pushed into the bathroom, his Chucks on his lap.
She wasn’t sure how long she’d given him, after all.
The streets were quiet. Alex looked out the window, at the ghostly trees and yellowish lamp posts, hearing nothing but the distinct sound of the car moving. The night breeze held the kind of cold that only existed after midnight; fresh, clean, sincere. Like she could inhale deeply and feel every single molecule of oxygen filling every single fiber of her lungs, so completely. She liked it. She really liked it.
But the tension hanging in the air between Elliot and her was almost unbearable.
They’d had sex. Not just sex—they’d made love. She couldn’t have grasped the full meaning of the expression before.
So they’d had sex—made love—and things were supposed to be different between them. And they were. But not the way she’d like them to be.
Because Alex was a complete and utter bit–
Elliot’s apologies cut through the thick wall of tension between them like a fucking japanese ninja warrior sword. (Heck, maybe she was spending too much time around him). Alex’s thoughts were immediately shut down, as if she’d been interrupted mid sentence. She was confused.
“What for?” She frowned. Sometimes Elliot apologized but didn’t elaborate any further than that.
He didn’t avert his eyes from the road. He shook his head.
“I was taking too long…” He said in a low voice, “Your brother is in the hospital, I should’ve…”
Alex felt herself soften. “I freaked out.”
“I freaked out,” she repeated it for emphasis. It was nuts that he was apologizing for something on her behalf. There was quiet for a moment, just the car cutting through the night. “I can’t think straight when… It’s just me and Max.”
His lips were sealed shut. It felt too early, or too late, to be having this kind of conversation with him. But she said it herself—there was something about those few hours after midnight that was able to rip a murder confession out of anyone’s lips. Something in the air. Alex felt like stripping right then, but refrained herself from doing so; he’d seen her naked enough for today—and she was afraid he wouldn’t like this naked nearly as much as he’d liked her perky breasts.
“And your aunt?”
Alex smiled faintly when Aunt Elida’s image came to her head. Yeah, there was Aunt Elida too. But…
“She’s a recent addition to our thing.”
“Your ‘thing’?” He quickly moved his eyes to hers in amusement, crinkling at the corners like they were smiling on their own. “You mean your family.”
“Sheesh, whatever you kids want to call it these days.”
He chuckled lightly and was still smiling with his eyes when he stared ahead. Tension averted. They’d get along well, Alex thought. Aunt Elida and Elliot. They both thought and felt more than they let on.
“I have siblings, too. And nieces and nephews,” Elliot said, like a peace offer for what little she’d shared.
“I figured,” she shrugged.
“You don’t get a pink World’s Best Uncle cooking apron because it’s fashionable.”
“Excuse me,” Elliot shot her a quick, amused look. As if the tension had dissipated somewhere along the way. “But I’ll let you know that pink aprons are very much in, thank you very much.”
It occurred to her that that was the most personal talk they’d had in over three months of dating.
Elliot parked in front of the hospital, in one of the few handicapped spots available. While he transferred into his chair, she noticed with a pang in her chest, that he was still wearing the black sweatpants he’d slept on and an old gray Columbia sweatshirt that bulged slightly around his abdomen. She felt a little awkward in her pretty midi dress and high heels, but also mostly guilty. It’d taken her what? Five seconds to put her dress on? And she couldn’t even have waited for him while he dealt with things he most likely couldn’t control.
Shame on you, Alexandra.
When she said she was looking for Maximilien Devieilhe and proceeded to spell the last name, she could feel Elliot’s eyes watching her curiously. Thankfully, he neither said nor asked anything. She followed a nurse to where he was, noticing how he followed along but kept a certain distance from Alex, and soon as a nurse drew back a curtain hiding Max’s bed, her heart leapt inside her chest.
At the sound, Max, who was laying in the hospital bed as if he’d been asleep, opened his eyes. He didn’t have much time to do anything before she crushed him with a hug. He was fine. Max was fine. She whispered a you scared me in French into his ear and he hugged her tighter.
She finally pulled away.
He gestured at the bandaged foot she hadn’t noticed before. “I was running...”
“Were you drunk?” But she didn’t have to ask, did she? He smelled like it. He looked like it. She felt sick.
“Un peu.” He set his thumb and index finger apart by an inch. He had that drunk glow that always made her want to puke. “Trop.”
She slapped his shoulder, wishing she could yell at him. Instead, Alex took a deep breath in to ground herself.
“What happened?” She asked.
Max’s face fell and he stared down at his lap. “We can talk about this later.”
His French accent could normally barely be noticed, but the alcohol got it rolling off his tongue like it was never truly gone. Alex wondered if the same thing happened to her when she drank.
“Or we can talk about this now.”
“I was running,” he clicked his tongue.
“Do you think keeping this figure comes naturally?”
Despite the joke, Alex couldn’t help but noticing how loose his shirt was around his body. Max had always been big—tall and muscular. A natural athlete. Now, he was like a shadow. She had to swallow down the guilt.
“I’m being serious, Maximilien.” She pressed his hand between hers. “Were you… Running from someone?”
When he didn’t answer, she took that as a yes. “Look, I’m supér-”
“No one you know.” His green eyes were hard. “I won’t drag myself into my mess, Alexandra.”
“We never had that problem before.”
They stared at each other, battling in silence the way only siblings did.
Elliot was right behind her, keeping a respectful distance and clearly not wanting to impose. Alex noticed his puzzled look, dancing between her and Max, trying to figure out how exactly they were siblings.
It’s true, they looked nothing like each other. Perhaps the difference that stood out the most was the skin tone, Max’s chocolate brown to Alex’s pale olive. And then there were the eyes, his were bright green while hers were ordinary brown. Max was taller than her, though not by much. To make things harder, their last names weren’t even the same. Nobody ever guessed they were brother and sister.
Alex took a step to the side, swallowing down the urge to have yet another argument with Max that would lead to yet another fight. They didn’t need that right now. So she gestured Elliot closer with her head. He rubbed his palms against his knees and moved his hands to the pushing rims again, closing the distance between them. Max was the one to watch them with a puzzled look this time.
“Max, this is Elliot.” The lack of titles didn’t go unnoticed to anyone in the room.
Max narrowed his vivid green eyes, red right now, and didn’t offer his hand. Either because he saw a handshake wouldn’t work or simply for the sake of assholery.
Her brother stared at her for a while longer. He asked, and because he did it in English, she knew it had the sole purpose of throwing Elliot back.
“Are you fucking him?”
But Alex didn’t miss a beat. She knew Max like she knew color theory.
“Yes. Now be nice so I can take you home.”
She turned around to find a nurse. Elliot’s grin didn’t go unnoticed, either.
“Not home,” Max said to her, while in the backseat of Elliot’s car, squeezed by the pieces of his chair.
She lifted his eyes and stared at him through the rearview mirror, feeling strangely like a mother checking her son, even though he was older than her. Alex raised an eyebrow in a silent why?
“I can’t… Not right now.”
Without thinking, she exchanged looks with Elliot—as if they were a parental unit. It scared her how easy it was to see him as a partner.
“My place, then.” She told Elliot and watched as he nodded silently and took his usual route.
She sighed longingly. Alex wanted to wake up next to him in the morning. Their first morning. Smile sleepily as the first sunbeams peeked through his windows. Have breakfast together. The full circle. Leaving before the sun was up, wearing the same clothes as yesterday, feeling like sex and unfinished business... It was deja vu. Not the good kind.
When he parked in front of her building, without turning the engines off, Max hobbled out after mumbling something unintelligible, anything from Bye to I’ll wait for you upstairs. Alex rolled her eyes, watching him enter the building, and finally turned to Elliot.
“He behaves like a five year old sometimes,” she said without meeting his eyes, releasing a desperate sigh. “I swear he’s not like that all the time.”
“It’s okay, he’s just hurt.” She looked at him with surprise. In his eyes, she saw the kind of sympathy that came from personal experience.
“I’m sorry. Tonight didn’t go as planned.”
“I’m not.” He put his hand in her thigh. His eyes burned through her skin. “And I beg to differ.”
Alex smiled and leaned forward, meeting his lips for a long kiss.
“Okay, maybe it didn’t end as planned. I kinda had great plans for breakfast.”
“Next time.” He rubbed the back of her neck. “Lunch tomorrow? Or dinner?”
“Why not both?”
And she could do with that. This wasn’t deja vu. She wasn’t rushing off nowhere. It felt nice. She leaned in for another kiss, grabbed her purse and opened the door, but before she could leave, he pulled her shoulder lightly.
“Lexie” His eyes were serious and sober. “About your brother… If he’s in trouble or if you need anything, anything at all…”
Alex could barely bring herself to look at him. Again, she couldn’t believe how easy it was to see him as a partner instead of an intruder—the idea of bringing him into the Devieilhe-Harrington siblings problems didn’t even feel as scary as it should. And that alone was scary as fuck. She swallowed down and nodded.
“Thank you.” She said. Her heart clenched inside her chest when she realized what she’d almost said but managed to stop herself in time. Too soon, Alexandra.
Max slept across from her, his feet on her face, like when they were younger. It was strangely familiar and yet not exactly the sight she’d hoped for.
Alex found Aunt Elida making coffee in her kitchen. Sometimes she wondered if giving the old woman keys to her place had been the wisest idea, or living in the same building as her. Aunt Elida lifted her clear blue eyes and gave her a heart-warming smile. Yeah, it had been a wise idea.
“I thought you’d sleep with that boyfriend of yours today,” she said. “Imagine my surprise when I came in to water the plants and found out you and Maxie here!”
Alex checked her watch, surprised by the time. She’d always been an early riser, but now it was a little past eight.
“Yeah, Max…” She hesitated about telling Aunt Elida the whole story. Worrying her would bring more harm than good. “Decided to pay a visit.”
As if on cue, Max limped out of her bedroom, looking still half asleep.
“Bonjour.” He mumbled. “Is it coffee I smell?”
Aunt Elida walked up to him and wrapped her fragile arms around his torso. He was much taller than her, and shirtless, Alex could see he wasn’t as scrawny as she’d imagined, but he was still about half the size he’d been only a few years earlier. From football big to model thin. She worried, and judging by the look her aunt shot her shortly after hugging him, so did she.
“Let me get it to you.” She patted him, not letting Max notice her pained look. “Why don’t you get started with the pancakes, Alex?”
“Uh…” Alex looked around, feeling helpless. “What do I need...?”
“Nevermind, sweetie. We can go with waffles.” But she didn’t have waffles either, and Aunt Elida soon found out about it. “What do you usually have for breakfast, Alexandra?”
Alex shrugged. Truth was, nothing. She made some coffee if she had the time, and if she didn’t, stopped for one on her way to work. She’d never felt hungry in the morning. She could’ve sworn the same concerned look she’d used for Max flashed across her aunt’s expression. Before they could come up with any ideas, the doorbell rang. Alex jumped from place in the kitchen and exchanged a quick look with Max before making her way to the door. She looked inside the peephole and saw no one. Annoyed, she pulled the door open, ready to bark at the kids from the fifth floor.
“Good morning,” Elliot smiled.
Alex blinked a few times, her mouth still open with a ‘I’m telling your parents!’ ready to jump from her tongue. She frowned, “How…”
“You should be aware that even though you have a doorman, a real treat in this city, your building isn’t safe,” he said with a lopsided grin, his eyes bright under his rimless glasses as he went on. “I mean, the intruders would have to be under five feet tall, which would limit the police search to a gang of wheelchair robbers. Or dwarves. I mean, it’s not that far off…”
“I looked for your name in the mailboxes,” he told her. “And I wasn’t kidding, that reception station is super tall.”
“Besides, I brought you breakfast,” he put his hands, dressed in leather pushing gloves, on his lap. “And flowers. It felt appropriate.”
Alex finally came to her senses. She didn’t know if she should feel relieved or slightly desperate. A part of her was so glad to see him there, and her heart fluttered inside her chest like it always did when she saw him, but an irrational part, bigger than she’d like to admit, freaked out.
They never came to her apartment.
He held out the flowers, still smiling at her. Alex heard someone clearing their throat behind her. Aunt Elida. Oh God.
Alex muttered a fuck it under her breath and bent down to meet Elliot for a kiss.
“Thank you,” she said, truthfully, into his ear. After the first few seconds were gone, she felt most of her insecurities being washed away. She lowered down the flowers, “I would keep them, though.”
He frowned in confusion, but as soon as she stepped away of the threshold to make way for him, his face was taken by the understanding. He met her eyes briefly and mouthed an I’m sorry, even though he didn’t look like it, as he saw the family convention inside.
Her aunt stood next to the kitchen island, watching curiously as Elliot rolled in. His eyes wrinkled at the corners as he approached her and each time his hands touched the wheel rims. Alex’s heart beat faster.
“Hm, Aunt Elida, this is-”
“Elliot!” She grabbed his right hand from the wheel, and if she noticed his curled up fingers, she didn’t let it show. “Alex certainly did you justice.”
His gaze flickered in her direction for a fraction of second, then he grinned at her aunt and bent his wrist back to grip the flowers on his lap.
“And she certainly didn’t do you justice, Miss Elida. You look delightful, I can see the family beauty,” he held the flowers in the older woman’s direction. “For imposing on your breakfast.”
Alex didn’t want to mention that aunt Elida was her aunt by marriage, not blood. The way she blushed, adjusting her hair behind her ear, told Alex maybe it’d been a while since she’d last heard a compliment. Her aunt took the flowers, looking flattered and smiling widely.
“It’s no imposition, my dear. We don’t even have a breakfast yet,” she laughed, shooting Alex a pointed look before raising the flowers to her nose and returning her attention to Elliot. “Your momma certainly seems to have raised you right.”
“I’ll be sure to pass along your thoughts.” Elliot winked then turned to face her brother, who’d was shielding his face with a coffee mug, but not enough that you couldn’t see his green eyes rolling dramatically. He may or may not have muttered a pathetique into the mug, which Elliot may or may not have heard.“Good morning, Max.”
Aunt Elida frowned. “You know each other already?”
“Oh, I helped Alex pick him up from the hospital yesterday.” He said, a sly grin on his face. “How’s your foot?”
At the same time Max mumbled a ‘fine’, aunt Elida’s eyes widened and she asked ‘what happened?!’
“I fell. I’ll get dressed,” Max said, setting his mug on the counter. “I fear I’m making some of us uncomfortable.”
Alex set her arms down in rendition and exchanged an apologizing look with Elliot. She didn’t like it. Not at all.
“Sorry,” Alex placed a hand on his shoulder. “His attitude hasn’t improved much since yesterday.”
Elliot shrugged, apparently unaffected. He patted his lap. “Where do I put this?”
Aunt Elida rushed up to him, having already put her flowers in a vase, and took the package from his lap, setting everything on the balcony’s round breakfast table. Elliot didn’t follow her, staying behind with Alex.
“I’m sorry,” he said, tilting his chair slightly in her direction. “I swear I didn’t plan this.”
“It’s alright. This was long overdue.” Alex bent down and pecked his cheek. “I like the intention, too. We should do this next weekend.”
“Alone,” he suggested, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively.
“Of course.” Alex chuckled, walking past the french doors. But he didn’t follow her either. Alex spun around in her heels, raising her eyebrows slightly. “Not coming? Or do you want a tour first?”
“Maybe later,” he grimaced, doing a quick pressure relief. She noticed he did those when he got uneasy. “”It’s just… I don’t think I’ll fit.”
Alex was confused for a moment before realizing what he meant. The balcony was too small for him to maneuver his chair around. Maybe if the there weren’t plants, or the breakfast table was better arranged… She bit her lower lip. You really thought this through, Alexandra.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Aunt Elida’s head poked out of the french doors. “You could just hop here…”
The look Elliot shot her was like a slap. His expression hardened as he fought to keep the politeness in his voice, staring at Alex the entire time. “I can’t do that, Miss Elida.”
“But it’s just a few steps...”
“I can’t.” He was a little more emphatic this time.
Her aunt’s gaze flicked to Alex as realization hit her. “Oh.”
His lips were pressed tight. Her heart was pressed even tighter. She sucked in a breath.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Elida,” he said, placing his hands back in the rims. “This was a quick visit, I have to get going now.”
“Wait-” but he was already moving. Shit, shit, shit, shit. “Elliot…”
“I’ll call you.” He said, sounding uncharacteristically cold as he opened the door, using both hands to turn the knob.
“Elliot, just wait…” She followed him outside but he ignored her.
She held his shoulder back and he abruptly came to a stop. She only realized what an awful fucking idea it was to pull a quadriplegic when he tipped backwards, free falling. Alex heard, frozen in place, when his body hit the hard ground, the frame of his chair and him both making a sound, as if all the air had been knocked out of his lungs.
“Fuck.” Alex heard him gasp.
She finally found in herself the power to move, kneeling by his side. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. I’m so, so, so sorry.”
His eyes were closed. One of his legs fell over him, the other got tangled and stuck in the footplate. She was mortified.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated. “Really, really sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Elliot said, finally opening his eyes. His glasses were crooked in his face. She wanted to reach and fix it.
“Do you want me to…”
“I said it’s fine, Alex.” He extended his arms. “I can get up alone.”
“I’m so sorry.” She was like a broken record. “Do you want a hand?”
“Two, actually,” he joked, then sighed deeply.
He adjusted his legs so they weren’t falling and got up on his elbows, all his weight into his arms. She could see his biceps straining against the black Henley, the effort causing him to grunt. He locked one brake and held onto the silver frame that led to his footplate with his wrist, using it to extend his elbow until his palm was on the floor. Alex was entranced. She couldn’t move even if she wanted. Elliot moved the hand from the frame to the pushing rim of the unlocked wheel and moved it back, causing his chair to slowly un-tip itself. By the time his caster wheels hit the floor, his extended support arm was in a comfortable enough position that he was bent forward over his thighs, so he just pushed against his knees to sit down again. He was crooked in his seat, sitting half over the locked wheel and half on the cushion, his legs tangled, but he was quick to adjust that.
When he was finished, a long breath left both their lungs. For Alex, it was like being washed by a wave of something she couldn’t identify. Relief. She was flushed and deeply affected. She didn’t trust herself with words. Elliot fixed his glasses before staring at her. She felt like he could see into her soul.
“Told ya’.” He said with a lopsided smile, but he was a little breathless.
“I-I’m sorry,” she stuttered, lowering her eyes. She didn’t know what she was apologizing for.
He nodded. There was an uncomfortable silence between them. She hugged herself, subconsciously preparing for whatever blow she was about to receive. Comforting herself, even. What a fucking mess.
“Listen-” They said at the same time. She nodded at him to go first because Alex didn’t even know where to start. Bad choice. “I get it that I showed up without any warning, but after last night, I was just trying to bring us some sort of… spontaneity. I thought it’d be nice.”
“It was,” she admitted in a tiny voice. “Really nice.”
A shadow of a smile crossed his face, but he was still very serious.
“Yeah. I mean, if we’d been alone, right?”
He slapped his knees.
“I really like you, Alex. I more than really like you. Maybe you like going to dinner with me, and the movie theater, and having great sex, but…” He sucked in a breath. “Let me know if that’s all you want.”
“Well, it certainly feels like it.” His adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. “You almost had a stroke once you realized I was meeting your family, or thing, whatever you want to call it.”
“You did.” Elliot interrupted her. “And it seems like you can’t physically bring yourself to give anyone a heads up on me. I’m a quadriplegic. You seem to be fine with it. Heck, you seem more than fine with it. Unless I’m meeting anyone you care about, right?”
She could hear her own pulse, her head throbbing like an oncoming headache. She felt dizzy, her knees felt like jello.
“You wanna keep me as your dirty little secret, you say it. I can do it. I just got the impression that…”
“Elliot, stop.” Alex finally found words to form a coherent sentence. She took a step closer, reaching for his glasses, still a bit crooked. “It’s not that. It’s really, really not that.”
“It’s not me, it’s you, right?”
“Right. It’s really me.” She chuckled to herself, then invited herself onto his lap. “I already have enough dirty little secrets.”
“Then why…” He put one arm across her lap.
“I don’t have a lot of people I care about. And in two days, you’ve met all three of them.” She touched his strong jaw, where a five o’clock shadow scratched against the tip of her fingers. “It’s scary. I don’t usually… I don’t usually get this close to anyone.”
“I get that.” He leaned into her touch. “I really do. It doesn’t explain why you wouldn’t tell them about me.”
“You know what I mean.”
Just tell him, goddamnit. And she could have. It felt so easy, right then. She just had to let the words roll off her tongue and… And deal with those eyes, now soft and understanding, turning into aversion and disgust. She couldn’t.
“I reckon I should have with Callie. It just never came up,” she shrugged. “ And you really think I discuss my love life with my brother?” She chuckled a bit. “Or even worse, my grand-aunt? Then you must be insane.”
“Well, she did seem up to date about me.”
“Well, she likes to think she is.” Alex tickled his skin with her nails, moving them from the nape of his neck to his scalp, and felt him shiver, eyes closed. She smiled, “Let’s have breakfast, okay?”
“I still don’t fit in your balcony.”
“We’ll move to bed.”
“You still have your aunt and your brother over.”
“I’ll move them out.”
He smiled, “Okay, then.”
Alex kissed him, slowly and deeply. She whispered: “I’m sorry that I made you fall.”
“Well,” he opened his blue eyes, releasing a sigh, watching her closely. “It seems to be an art you perfected, isn’t it?”
She blushed at the double meaning of that sentence.