Travis finally broke through the crowd with Benny’s hand on his shoulder, whispering in his ear. Travis nodded and replied, and my blood ran cold seeing him so friendly with the man that had threatened us less than twenty-four hours before. Travis basked in the applause and congratulations of his triumph as the crowd roared. He walked taller, his smile was wider, and when he reached me, he planted a quick kiss on my mouth.
I could taste the salty sweat mixed with the coppery taste of blood on his lips. He had won the fight, but not without a few battle wounds of his own.
“What was that about?” I asked, watching Benny laugh with his cohorts.
“I’ll tell you later. We have a lot to talk about,” he said with a broad grin.
A man patted Travis on the back.
“Thanks,” Travis said, turning to him and shaking his outstretched hand.
“Looking forward to seeing another match of yours, Son,” the man said, handing him a bottle of beer. “That was incredible.”
“C’mon, Pidge.” He took a sip of his beer, swished it around in his mouth and then spit, the amber liquid on the ground tinged with blood. He weaved through the crowd, taking in a deep breath when we made it to the sidewalk outside. He kissed me once and then led me down The Strip, his steps quick and purposeful.
In the elevator of our hotel, he pushed me against the mirrored wall, grabbed my leg and pulled it up in a quick motion against his hip. His mouth crashed into mine, and I felt the hand under my knee slide up my thigh and pull up my skirt.
“Travis, there’s a camera in here,” I said against his lips.
“I don’t give a fuck,” he chuckled, “I’m celebrating.”
I pushed him away. “We can celebrate in the room,” I said, wiping my mouth and looking down at my hand, seeing streaks of crimson.
“What’s wrong with you, Pigeon? You won, I won, we paid off Mick’s debt and I just got the offer of a lifetime.”
The elevator opened and I stood in place as Travis stepped out into the hall. “What kind of offer?” I asked.
Travis reached out his hand, but I ignored it. My eyes narrowed, already knowing what he would say.
He sighed. “I told you, we’ll talk about it later.”
“Let’s talk about it now.”
He leaned in and pulled me by the wrist into the hallway, and then lifted me off the floor into his arms.
“I am going to make enough money to replace what Mick took from you, to pay for the rest of your tuition, pay off my bike, and buy you a new car,” he said, sliding the card key in and out of its slot. He pushed open the door and set me on my feet. “And that’s just the beginning!”
“And how exactly are you going to do that?” My chest tightened and my hands began to tremble.
He took my face in his hands, ecstatic. “Benny is going to let me fight here in Vegas. Six figures a fight, Pidge. Six figures a fight !”
I closed my eyes and shook my head, blocking out the excitement in his eyes. “What did you say to Benny?” Travis lifted my chin and I opened my eyes, afraid he had already signed a contract.
He chuckled. “I told him I’d think about it.”
I exhaled the breath I’d been holding. “Oh, thank God. Don’t scare me like that, Trav. I thought you were serious.”
Travis grimaced and steadied himself before he spoke. “I am serious, Pigeon. I told him I needed to talk to you, first, but I thought you’d be happy. He’s scheduling one fight a month. Do you have any idea how much money that is? Cash!”
“I can add, Travis. I can also keep my senses when I’m in Vegas, which you obviously can’t. I have to get you out of here before you do something stupid.” I walked over to the closet and ripped our clothes from the hangers, furiously stuffing them in our suitcases.
Travis gently grabbed my arms and spun me around. “I can do this. I can fight for Benny for a year and then we’ll be set for a long, long time.”
“What are you going to do? Drop out of school and move here?”
“Benny’s going to fly me out, work around my schedule.”
I laughed once, incredulous. “You can’t be that gullible, Travis. When you’re on Benny’s payroll, you aren’t just going to fight once a month for him. Did you forget about Dane? You’ll end up being one of his thugs!”
He shook his head. “We already discussed that, Pidge. He doesn’t want me to do anything but fight.”
“And you trust him? You know they call him Slick Benny around here!”
“I wanted to buy you a car, Pigeon. A nice one. Both of our tuitions will be paid in full.”
“Oh? The mob is handing out scholarships, now?”
Travis’ jaws clenched. He was irritated at having to convince me. “This is good for us. I can sock it away until it’s time for us to buy a house. I can’t make this kind of money anywhere else.”
“What about your Criminal Justice degree? You’re going to be seeing your old classmates quite a bit working for Benny, I promise you.”
“Baby, I understand your reservations, I do. But I’m being smart about this. I’ll do it for a year and then we’ll get out and do whatever the hell we want.”
“You don’t just quit Benny, Trav. He’s the only one that can tell you when you’re done. You have no idea what you’re dealing with! I can’t believe you’re even considering this! Working for a man that would have beat the hell out of the both of us last night if you hadn’t stopped him?”
“Exactly. I stopped him.”
“You stopped two of his light-weight goons, Travis. What are you going to do if there are a dozen of them? What are you going to do if they come after me during one of your fights?”
“It wouldn’t make sense for him to do that. I’ll be making him lots of money.”
“The moment you decide you’re not going to do that anymore, you’re expendable. That’s how these people work.”
Travis walked away from me and looked out the window, the blinking lights coloring his conflicted features. He had made his decision before he’d ever come to me about it.
“It’s going to be all right, Pigeon. I’ll make sure it is. And then we’ll be set.”
I shook my head and turned around, shoving our clothes into our suitcases. When we set down on the tarmac at home, he would be his old self again. Vegas did strange things to people, and I couldn’t reason with him while he was intoxicated with the flow of cash and whiskey.
I refused to discuss it further until we were on the plane, afraid Travis would let me leave without him. I buckled my seat belt and clenched my teeth, watching him stare longingly out the window as we climbed into the night sky. He was already missing the wickedness and limitless temptations Vegas had to offer.
“That’s a lot of money, Pidge.”
His head jerked in my direction. “This is my decision. I don’t think you’re looking at the big picture.”
“I think you’ve lost your damn mind.”
“You’re not even going to consider it?”
“No, and neither are you. You’re not going to work for a murderous criminal in Las Vegas, Travis. It’s completely ridiculous for you to think I could consider it.”
Travis sighed and looked out the window. “My first fight is in three weeks.”
My mouth dropped open. “You already agreed to it?”
He winked. “Not yet.”
“But you’re going to?”
He smiled. “You’ll quit being mad when I buy you a Lexus.”
“I don’t want a Lexus,” I seethed.
“You can have anything you want, Baby. Imagine how it’s going to feel driving into any dealership you want, and all you have to do is pick your favorite color.”
“You’re not doing this for me. Stop pretending you are.”
He leaned over, kissing my hair. “No, I’m doing it for us. You just can’t see how great it’s going to be.”
A cold shiver radiated from my chest, traveling down my spine into my legs. He wouldn’t see reason until we were in the apartment, and I was terrified that Benny had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. I shook off my fears; I had to believe Travis loved me enough to forget the dollar signs and false promises Benny had made.
“Pidge? Do you know how to cook a turkey?”
“A Turkey ?” I said, taken off-guard by the sudden change of conversation.
He squeezed my hand. “Well, Thanksgiving Break is coming up, and you know my dad loves you. He wants you to come for Thanksgiving, but we always end up ordering pizza and watching the game. I thought maybe me and you could try cooking a bird together. You know, have a real turkey dinner for once in the Maddox house.”
I pressed my lips together, trying not to laugh. “You just thaw the turkey and put it in a pan and cook it in the oven all day. There’s not much to it.”
“So you’ll come? You’ll help me?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
His attention was diverted from the intoxicating lights below, and I allowed myself to hope that he would see how wrong he was about Benny after all.
Travis set our suitcases on the bed and collapsed beside them. He hadn’t pushed the Benny issue, and I was hopeful that Vegas was beginning to filter out of his system. I bathed Toto, disgusted that he reeked of smoke and dirty socks from being in Brazil’s apartment all weekend, and then towel-dried him in the bedroom.
“Oh! You smell so much better!” I giggled as he shook, spraying me with tiny droplets of water. He stood up on his hind legs, covering my face with tiny puppy kisses. “I missed you, too, little man.”
“Pigeon?” Travis asked, nervously knotting his fingers together.
“Yeah?” I said, rubbing Toto with the fluffy yellow towel in my hands.
“I wanna do this. I want to fight in Vegas.”
“No,” I said, smiling at Toto’s happy face.
He sighed. “You’re not listening. I’m gonna do it. You’ll see in a few months that it was the right decision.”
I looked up at him. “You’re going to work for Benny.”
He nodded nervously and then smiled. “I just wanna take care of you, Pidge.”
Tears glossed my eyes, knowing he was resolved. “I don’t want anything bought with that money, Travis. I don’t want anything to do with Benny or Vegas or anything that goes along with it.”
“You didn’t have a problem with the thought of buying a car with the money from my fights here.”
“That’s different and you know it.”
He frowned. “It’s gonna be okay, Pidge. You’ll see.”
I watched him for a moment, hoping for a glimmer of amusement in his eyes, waiting for him to tell me that he was joking. Uncertainty and greed reflected in his eyes.
“Why did you even ask me, Travis? You were going to work for Benny no matter what I said.”
“I want your support on this, but it’s too much money to turn down. I would be crazy to say no.”
I sat for a moment, stunned. Once it had all sunk in, I nodded. “Okay, then. You’ve made your decision.”
Travis beamed. “You’ll see, Pigeon. It’s going to be great.” He pushed off the bed, walked over to me and kissed my fingers. “I’m starved. You hungry?”
I shook my head and he kissed my forehead before making his way to the kitchen. Once his footsteps left the hall, I pulled my clothes from their hangers, grateful that I had room in my suitcase for most of my belongings. Angry tears fell down my cheeks. I knew better than to take Travis to that place. I had fought tooth and nail to keep him from the dark edges of my life, and the moment the opportunity presented itself, I dragged him to the core of everything I hated without a second thought.
Travis was going to be a part of that, and if he wouldn’t let me save him, I had to save myself.
The suitcase was filled to its limit, and I stretched the zipper over the bulging contents. I yanked it off the bed and down the hall, passing the kitchen without glancing in its direction. I hurried down the steps, relieved that America and Shepley were still kissing and laughing in the parking lot, transferring her things from his Charger to her Honda.
“Pigeon?” Travis called from the doorway of the apartment.
I touched America’s wrist. “I need you to take me to Morgan, Mare.”
“What’s going on?” she said, noting the seriousness of the situation by my expression.
I glanced behind me to see Travis jogging down the stairs and across the grass to where we stood.
“What are you doing?” he said, gesturing to my suitcase.
If I’d told him in that moment, all hope of separating myself from Mick, and Vegas, and Benny, and everything I didn’t want would be lost. Travis wouldn’t let me leave, and by morning I would have convinced myself to accept his decision.
I scratched my head and smiled, trying to buy some time to think of an excuse.
“I’m taking my stuff to Morgan. They have all those washers and dryers and I have a ridiculous amount of laundry to do.”
He frowned. “You were going to leave without telling me?”
I glanced to America and then to Travis, struggling for the most believable lie.
“She was coming back in, Trav. You’re so freakin’ paranoid,” America said with the dismissive smile she had used to deceive her parents so many times.
“Oh,” he said, still unsure. “You staying here tonight?” he asked me, pinching the fabric of my coat.
“I don’t know. I guess it depends on when my laundry gets done.”
Travis smiled, pulling me against him. “In three weeks, I’ll pay someone to do your laundry. Or you can just throw away your dirty clothes and buy new ones.”
“You’re fighting for Benny again?” America asked, shocked.
“He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
“Travis,” Shepley began.
“Don’t you guys start on me, too. If I’m not changing my mind for Pidge, I’m not changing my mind for you.”
America met my eyes with understanding, “Well, we better get you back, Abby. That pile of clothes is gonna take you forever.”
I nodded and Travis leaned down to kiss me. I pulled him closer, knowing it would be the last time I felt his lips against mine. “See you later,” he said. “Love you.”
Shepley lifted my suitcase into the hatchback of the Honda, and America slid into her seat beside me. Travis folded his arms across his chest, chatting with Shepley as America switched on the ignition.
“You can’t stay in your room tonight, Abby. He’s going to come straight there when he figures it out,” America said as she slowly backed away from the parking block.
Tears filled my eyes and spilled over, falling down my cheeks. “I know.”
Travis’ cheerful expression changed when he saw the look on my face. He wasted no time jogging to my window. “What’s wrong, Pidge?” he said, tapping on the glass.
“Go, Mare,” I said, wiping my eyes. I focused on the road ahead as Travis jogged alongside the car.
“Pigeon? America! Stop the fucking car!” he yelled, slamming his palm against the glass. “Abby, don’t do this!” he said, realization and fear distorting his expression.
America turned onto the main road and pressed on the gas. “I’m never going to hear the end of this — just so you know.”
“I’m so, so sorry, Mare.”
She glanced into the rearview mirror and pushed her foot to the floor. “Jesus Christ, Travis,” she muttered under her breath.
I turned to see him running at full speed behind us, vanishing and reappearing between the lights and shadows of the street lamps. After he reached the end of the block, he turned in the opposite direction, sprinting to the apartment.
“He’s going back to get his bike. He’s gonna follow us to Morgan and cause a huge scene.”
I closed my eyes. “Just…hurry. I’ll sleep in your room tonight. Think Vanessa will mind?”
“She’s never there. He’s really going to work for Benny ?”
The word was stuck in my throat, so I simply nodded.
America grabbed my hand and squeezed. “You’re making the right decision, Abby. You can’t go through that again. If he won’t listen to you, he’s not going to listen to anyone.”
My cell phone rang. I looked down to see Travis’ silly face, and then pressed ignore. Less than five seconds later, it rang again. I turned it off and shoved it into my purse.
“This is going to be a God-awful fucking mess,” I said, shaking my head and wiping my eyes.
“I don’t envy your life for the next week or so. I can’t imagine breaking up with someone that refuses to stay away. You know that’s how it’s going to be, right?”
We pulled into the parking lot at Morgan, and America held open the door as I lugged my suitcase in. We rushed to her room and I puffed, waiting for her to unlock her door. She held it open and then tossed me the key.
“He’s going to end up getting arrested or something,” she said.
She ran down the hall and I watched her rush across the parking lot from the window, getting in her car just as Travis pulled up on his bike beside her. He ran around to the passenger side and yanked open the door, looking to Morgan’s doors when he realized I wasn’t in the car. America backed out while Travis ran into the building, and I turned, watching the door.
Down the hall, Travis pounded on my door, calling my name. I had no idea if Kara was there, but if she was, I felt bad for what she would have to endure for the next few minutes until Travis accepted that I wasn’t in my room.
“Pidge? Open the fucking door, dammit! I’m not leaving until you talk to me! Pigeon!” he yelled, banging on the door so loudly the entire building could have heard.
I cringed when I heard Kara’s mousy voice.
“What ?” she growled.
I pressed my ear against the door, struggling to hear Travis’ low murmurs. I didn’t have to strain for long.
“I know she’s here!” he yelled. “Pigeon?”
“She’s not…Hey !” Kara squealed.
The door cracked against the cement block wall of our room and I knew that Travis had forced his way in. After a full minute of silence, I heard Travis yell down the hall. “Pigeon! Where is she?”
“I haven’t seen her!” Kara shouted, angrier than I’d ever heard her. The door slammed shut and sudden nausea overwhelmed me as I waited for what Travis would do next.
After several minutes of quiet, I cracked open the door, peering down the wide hallway. Travis sat with his back against the wall with his hands covering his face. I shut the door as quietly as I could, worrying the campus police had been called. After an hour, I glanced down the hall again. Travis hadn’t moved.
I checked twice more during the night, finally falling asleep around four. I purposefully overslept, knowing I would be skipping my classes that day. I turned on my phone to check my messages, seeing that Travis had flooded my inbox. The endless texts he’d sent me through the night varied from apologies to rants.
I called America in the afternoon, hoping Travis hadn’t confiscated her cell phone. When she answered, I sighed.
America kept her voice low. “I haven’t told Shepley where you are. I don’t want him in the middle of this. Travis is crazy pissed at me right now. I’m probably staying at Morgan tonight.”
“If Travis hasn’t calmed down…good luck getting any sleep here. He made an Oscar-worthy performance in the hall last night. I’m surprised no one called security.”
“He was kicked out of History today. When you didn’t show, he kicked over both of your desks. Shep heard that he waited for you after all of your classes. He’s losin’ it, Abby. I told him you were done the second he made the decision to work for Benny. I can’t believe he thought for a single second you would be okay with that.”
“I guess I’ll see you when you get here. I don’t think I can go to my room, yet.”
America and I were roommates over the next week, and she made sure to keep Shepley clear of me so he wouldn’t be tempted to tell Travis of my whereabouts. It was a full time job evading a run-in with him. I avoided the cafeteria at all costs, History class, and I played it safe by leaving my classes early. I knew that I would have to talk to Travis sometime, but I couldn’t until he had calmed down enough to accept my decision.
I sat alone Friday night, laying in bed, holding the phone to my ear. I rolled my eyes when my stomach growled.
“I can come pick you up and take you somewhere for dinner,” America said.
I flipped through my History book, skipping over where Travis had doodled and scribbled love notes in the margins. “No, it’s your first night with Shep in almost a week, Mare. I’m just going to pop over to the cafeteria.”
“Yeah. Tell Shep I said hi.”
I walked slow to the cafeteria, in no hurry to suffer the stares of those at the tables. The entire school was abuzz with the breakup, and Travis’ volatile behavior didn’t help. Just when the lights of the cafeteria came into view, I saw a dark figure approach.
Startled, I jerked to a stop. Travis walked into the light, unshaven and pale. “Jesus, Travis! You scared the hell out of me!”
“If you would answer your phone when I call I wouldn’t have to sneak around in the dark.”
“You look like hell,” I said.
“I’ve been through there once or twice this week.”
I tightened my arms around me. “I’m actually on my way to grab something to eat. I’ll call you later, okay?”
“No. We have to talk.”
“I turned Benny down. I called him Wednesday and told him no.” There was hopeful glimmer in his eyes, but it disappeared when he registered my expression.
“I don’t know what you want me to say, Travis.”
“Say you forgive me. Say you’ll take me back.”
I clenched my teeth together, forbidding myself to cry. “I can’t.”
Travis’ face crumpled and I took the opportunity to walk around him, but he side-stepped to stand in my way. “I haven’t slept, or ate…I can’t concentrate. I know you love me. Everything will be the way it used to be if you’d just take me back.”
I closed my eyes. “We are dysfunctional, Travis. I think you’re just obsessed with the thought of owning me more than anything else.”
“That’s not true. I love you more than my life, Pigeon,” he said, hurt.
“That’s exactly what I mean. That’s crazy talk.”
“It’s not crazy. It’s the truth.”
“Okay…so what exactly is the order for you? Is it money, me, your life…or is there something that comes before money?”
“I realize what I’ve done, okay? I see where you’d think that, but if I’d known that you were gonna leave me, I would have never…I just wanted to take care of you.”
“You’ve said that.”
“Please don’t do this. I can’t stand feeling like this…it’s…it’s killin’ me,” he said, exhaling as if the air had been knocked out of him.
“I’m done, Travis.”
He winced. “Don’t say that.”
“It’s over . Go home.”
His eyebrows pulled in. “You’re my home.”
His words cut me, and my chest tightened so much that it was hard to breathe. “You made your choice, Trav. I’ve made mine,” I said, inwardly cursing the quivering in my voice.
“I’m going to stay the hell out of Vegas, and away from Benny…I’m going to finish school. But I need you. I need you. You’re my best friend.” His voice was desperate and broken, matching his expression.
In the dim light I could see a tear fall from his eye, and in the next moment he reached out for me and I was in his arms, his lips on mine. He squeezed me tight against his chest as he kissed me, and then cradled my face in his hands, pressing his lips harder against my mouth, desperate to get a reaction.
“Kiss me,” he whispered, sealing his mouth on mine. I kept my eyes and mouth closed, relaxing in his arms. It took everything I had not to move my mouth with his, having longed for his lips all week. “Kiss me!” he begged. “Please, Pigeon! I told him no!”
When I felt hot tears searing down my cold face, I shoved him away. “Leave me alone , Travis!”
I had only made it a few feet when he grabbed my wrist. My arm was straight, outstretched behind me. I didn’t turn around.
“I am begging you.” My arm lowered and tugged as he fell to his knees. “I’m begging you, Abby. Don’t do this.”
I turned to see his agonized expression, and then my eyes drifted down my arm to his, seeing my name in thick black letters on his flexed wrist. I looked away, toward the cafeteria. He had proven to me what I had been afraid of all along. As much as he loved me, when money was involved, I would be second. Just like I was with Mick.
If I gave in, he would either change his mind about Benny, or he would resent me every time money could have made his life easier. I imagined him in a blue collar job, coming home with the same look in his eyes that Mick had when he returned after a night of bad luck. It would be my fault that his life wasn’t what he wanted it to be, and I couldn’t let my future be plagued with the bitterness and regret that I left behind.
“Let me go, Travis.”
After several moments he finally released my arm. I ran to the glass door, yanking it open without looking back. Everyone in the room stared at me as I walked toward the buffet, and just as I reached my destination, heads angled to see outside the windows where Travis was on his knees, palms flat on the pavement.
The sight of him on the ground made the tears I’d been holding back rush down my face. I passed the stacks of plates and trays, dashing down the hall to the bathrooms. It was bad enough that everyone had witnessed the scene between me and Travis. I couldn’t let them see me cry.
I cowered in the stall for an hour, bawling uncontrollably until I heard a tiny knock on the door.
I sniffed. “What are you doing in here, Finch? You’re in the girl’s bathroom.”
“Kara saw you come in and came to the dorms to get me. Let me in,” he said in a soft voice.
I shook my head. I knew he couldn’t see me, but I couldn’t speak another word. I heard him sigh and then his palms slapped on the floor as he crawled under the stall.
“I can’t believe you’re making me do this,” he said, pulling himself under with his hands. “You’re going to be sorry you didn’t open the door, because I just crawled along that piss-covered floor and now I’m going to hug you.”
I laughed once, and then my face compressed around my smile as Finch pulled me into his arms. My knees went out from under me, and Finch carefully lowered me to the floor, pulling me into his lap.
“Ssshh,” he said, rocking me in his arms. He sighed and shook his head. “Damn, girl. What am I gonna do with you?”