Anyone but You Read online

  “But you didn’t listen to him,” Charity finished. “You cared more about your own ego than what he wanted. You were just like him.”

  Nina straightened. “Don’t even try to compare us. He bought a damn house, and all I—”

  “All you did was refuse to let your lover see you naked because you didn’t trust him to love you no matter what you looked like,” Charity finished. “You don’t believe in unconditional love. Neither does Alex. So you both threw away the best thing you ever had because you didn’t believe in each other or yourselves.”

  Nina tried to think of something to say, some way to tell Charity how wrong she was, but it was hard because she sounded so right. Then someone knocked on the door, and her heart lurched, and she thought Alex, and scrambled to her feet to let him in.

  It was Jessica.

  Nina blinked at her on the doorstep. “You’re kidding me.”

  “No,” Jessica said. “I’ve been trying to call you all day. Where have you been?”

  Nina gaped at her.

  “Never mind. May I come in?”

  Nina jerked to her senses. “Oh. Right. Sure.”

  She stepped back and Jessica walked past her and saw Charity sitting on the floor, feeding a pretzel to Fred. “Hello, Charity,” she said. “I read your book last night.”

  Charity looked wary. “Did you like it?”

  Jessica nodded. “Yes.”

  Charity gaped in unison with Nina this time. “You did?”

  “Yes.” Jessica looked around for a nearby chair and, not finding one, sat gracefully on the floor next to Charity. “What is that you’re drinking?”

  “Chocolate milk shakes,” Charity said. “We used to put Amaretto in them, but we’ve seen what alcohol can do so we’re not doing that anymore.”

  “Good for you,” Jessica said. “I need you to keep your mind clear so we can talk about your book.” She looked at Nina. “You were right. After you left, I thought about what you said, about my being intellectually dishonest by refusing Charity’s book without reading it. I read it, and it’s wonderful.”

  “But Howard Press doesn’t publish fiction,” Nina said.

  “It does now,” Jessica said. “Times have changed. We’re going to change with them. You’re hired again.”

  Nina swallowed. “Oh. Good. I’ll get more ice cream.”

  When Jessica had her own milk shake and they were all seated on the floor, Fred included, Nina said, “So does this mean you’ll publish the book, after all?”

  Jessica nodded, her mouth full of chocolate and ice cream. “Yes,” she said when she’d swallowed, “but we’re not going to use those stupid reviews. They missed the point of the book. They missed Jane’s growth.”

  Charity sighed with happiness. “I love you, Jessica. Have a pretzel.” Fred moaned, so she fed him another one, too.

  “That book is Kierkegaard,” Jessica continued.

  Charity blinked. “Who?”

  “Søren Kierkegaard,” Jessica told her. “A Danish philosopher. He said, ‘Life must be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.’”

  “I like that,” Charity said. “’ Understood backward and lived forward.’ Is he single?”

  Jessica blinked, and Nina said, “She’s kidding. She has a mouth problem.”

  “Good,” Jessica said. “She’ll be wonderful on a book tour.”

  “A book tour?” Charity echoed, and as Nina sat back and watched, Charity and Jessica bonded over chocolate milk shakes and a belief that her book was going to make a ton of money for all of them.

  DOWNSTAIRS, Alex and Max were popping tabs on cans again, but this time the cans were full of Coke.

  “You overreacted,” Alex told Max. “We weren’t alcoholics.”

  “Yeah, right, sure,” Max said. “We just drank too much every night and passed out and had hangovers.”

  Alex started to laugh in spite of himself and his misery. “We never passed out. You’re exaggerating.”

  “But I was right, just the same,” Max said.

  “You were right.” Alex leaned his head back and tried to take stock, equally miserable and relieved after the day he’d spent cleaning up the mess he’d made of his life. “What happened there? How did I lose my grip so fast?”

  “You got Nina and didn’t want to lose her and you panicked,” Max said. “And she didn’t help things any, telling you she wouldn’t marry you so you’d be free to leave when you grew up. That’s no way to treat a guy.”

  Alex scowled at him. “Don’t pick on Nina.”

  Max shook his head. “Not me. I’m crazy about her.”

  Alex sat up. “Hey.”

  Max waved him back. “And she’s crazy about you. She just has some stuff to work out.”

  “Well, how long is it going to take her?” Alex asked. “I want her back now, but she was gone all day, and she’s not answering her phone. She even locked her window.” He winced as he said it. That had been the unkindest cut of all.

  “Well, it would help if you canceled the house contract and told Dad you weren’t going to grow up to be a cardiologist,” Max told him, exasperated. “You’re not exactly innocent here.”

  Alex nodded. “I know. It’s done. All of it. I told Dad today. I also told him that you were right, and I gave him AA’s phone number. It won’t do any good, but at least he’s disgusted with both of us.”

  “Well, then,” Max said. “You did all the right things. Go make your move.”

  Alex closed his eyes. “She called me a jerk less than twenty-four hours ago and locked her window. I think it might be a little soon to make my move.”

  Max looked at him with blatant pity. “And then there are those duck shorts you’re wearing.”

  “Hey.” Alex glared at him. “Don’t make fun of these duck shorts. They remind me of Nina.” He grew philosophical. “These are my lucky shorts. I get her when I wear these shorts.”

  Max closed his eyes and shook his head. “Now I remember why I drank when I was with you. When I’m sober, you sound like a moron. Let me get this straight. You’re wearing your lucky duck shorts because you think that will get Nina back?”

  “No,” Alex said. “I’ll get Nina back, anyway. But it’s too soon to make my move. So I’m wearing the shorts because I miss her like hell, and they remind me of her.”

  “And when will you be making this move?” Max asked pointedly.

  “When I get my nerve up,” Alex said. “A hell of a time you picked for us to go teetotal.”

  CHARITY AND JESSICA LEFT at eleven, still discussing what a well-run book tour would entail, and Nina was left alone in her apartment with Fred.

  Just what she wanted. Just what she’d told Alex she wanted.

  Well, she’d lied. She wanted Alex. Not in that damn house, but she could talk him out of that. He didn’t want that, either. He wanted the apartments and Fred and old movies and jogging and the ER. All she had to do was convince him that she wanted that, too, and that she believed in him. She hadn’t had unconditional love before, she’d had a marriage where appearances were everything and being at the right party meant more than being with the right person. But with Alex, she’d had the right person. The problem was, she’d been living her life backward instead of understanding it backward.

  It was time to go forward.

  Fred wiped his nose on her leg.

  “Alex loves me unconditionally, Fred,” she told him. “I know that. There is no doubt in my mind. It’s just my ego in the way. I wanted to give him a perfect body, and all he wanted was mine.”

  Fred whined.

  “One Oreo,” she said, and stood up to get him one, but then stopped, struck by an idea. “No, wait. I have something for you that’s better than an Oreo,” she said, and headed for the bedroom with him trotting after her.

  Nina went to her drawer and pulled out the Incredibra, designed to make not-so-perfect women look like impossibly perfect centerfolds. Never again. “Here, Fred,” she said, and drop