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Bad Decisions: Out in Early October

Chapter[HO1]  One

 

The phone rang, pulling Tabitha’s attention out of her textbook, and back to the small, dingy back office where she was stationed for the night.

Tabitha looked at the rainbow of highlighter-accented text covering both pages of the open law book in front of her, and let the phone ring a second time while she yawned and shifted in her chair—she was so tired, and this patent leather catsuit was a sorry, uncomfortable excuse for a work uniform. It was bad enough when she was standing up at the front desk. She’d been sitting for a while now, and she thought it was cutting off circulation to one leg. There would for sure be pins-and-needles when she stood up.

Two more weeks, then one more semester, Bar Exam, and my real career starts. The mantra was getting shorter as time went on, but it was also getting old. Real old.

She closed her eyes against the glow of her highlighter-covered book, feeling them burn, and picked up the handset before it could ring again.

“Fernando’s Club, sadism a specialty. You’ve reached scheduling. How can I help you?” She kept her eyes closed as she capped and put her yellow highlighter down (yellow was for facts of the case), then opened them again as she fiddled with the pink one, which had been resting next to it. Pink was for conclusions of law. Blue for the appellant, orange for the respondent. Purple for WTF. In Tabitha’s opinion, informed by two-point-five years of law school, legal textbooks should all have purple covers. It would save her a lot of highlighter money.

“Tabitha! I know that voice. How’s my best girl?” said a British-accented voice on the other end of the phone. Tabitha rolled her eyes at the flirting, but smiled and felt her shoulders loosen and her attention perk up at the voice of one of her favorite club patrons. Jason. Yum.

Phone tucked under her ear, she woke up her computer, and made a mental note to talk to management about getting her a different style of headset—the headband style was comfortable, but it would squash her softly puffy, braided updo, and she didn’t want to walk around with a permanent dent across the top of her head. But bracing the phone like this would give her a crick in her neck.

“Hello, Jason. Are you calling to set something up with Mistress Penny? Or with Tomas?” she replied, waking up the computer on her desk, and ignoring his flirtation.

Jason had been visiting the club since before Tabitha started working here, on and off, and he usually saw one of those two.

He was one of the few contractors who took his payment in club sessions—he was the club’s self-defense instructor. Fernando’s might be in famously liberal San Francisco—it might be downright respectable for a sex club—but it was still a sex club, and attracted a few crazies. Damian and Penny had decided a few years ago to make self-defense classes available for free to all employees.

She smiled into the phone, and pulled up his profile. He was listed on her computer as “SelfDefense, Jason” instead of a last name, which always made her laugh. He made her laugh, himself, when he stopped by the front desk, and chatted until her neck hurt from looking up at his giant, blond cheerfulness. He had a good sense of humor—one time he’d come in wearing a spandex cycling suit, to show solidarity with the reception desk staff and the stupid vinyl catsuits. He’d looked so uncomfortable too. She grinned at the memory.

Although, actually, it had been a while since he’d dropped by her desk to say hello, or to check in for a session. She looked at the “past bookings” line on her computer monitor—six months since his last visit? She blinked. He had a lot of credits pending.

“Err, no, I’m not scheduling anything tonight…” Jason said into her ear, his voice sounding almost shy.

“No? How can I help, then?” she answered, curious.

Jason was one of their few clients who almost made her wish she was into BDSM, almost made her want to work upstairs. Her memories of sex were getting a little fuzzy at this point, and the idea of teasing that hot, blond, eager man…instead of manning the front desk and phones in this stupid shrink-wrapped cat-suit…

But there was some cultural baggage that came with BDSM, and she couldn’t go there. She couldn’t even read “50 Shades of Gray”—she’d gotten a few pages in, but her Mom or Gran’s voice would keep calling out from the back of her head “what black woman would put up with this?”

It ruined immersion. But Jason was talking again.

“Well, Tabby Kitten, I’m calling to have you erase my profile,” he said, with a sigh. She blinked, surprised. “I just spoke with Damian, and I’m going to get paid in real money from now on, because…because I’m a taken man.” His voice was as deep and sexy as ever, but sounded a little shy, and a little proud at the news. The content of his words jarred her awake again, just as his lovely accent and the timber of his words were lulling and arousing her.

“Aww, we’ll miss you,” she said, and that was true. She’d never endanger her job by hitting on the clients—it paid a lot better than anything else she’d done, stripping aside. But Jason was so fun to flirt with.

And really, he was taken now? Somehow, she was shocked that he could be taken. Surely a man that hot, that laid-back, should be like[HO2] …a public resource. Like a water fountain, available to everyone.

She looked at her huge tumbler of water. She was thirsty.

“Talk with me while I delete your profile,” she said, bracing the phone under her ear again, so she could type with two hands, and going to the master controls for his profile. “I’m really happy for you. Do we know the lucky girl? Or guy?” She knew she’d still see him at self-defense class, but…

Well, she felt a little deflated. Sad that he wouldn’t stop and chat with her at the front desk after a session, relaxed and cheerful, and probably post-coital. In those moments, when he chatted with her, she felt like she had a chance with him. When she was ready. When she had time.

Maybe when she was a hot-shot attorney, and didn’t work here anymore. Her eyes strayed to her homework.

Well, it’s not as if she would ever have enough time.

“No, he’s not a club patron. You guys wouldn’t know him. But he’s wonderful—and he’s a grad student, like you,” Jason said, sounding a little proud and very English, the heat of his voice making her feel warm. He remembered that she was in school? “Will I see you at the Dojang[HO3]  after finals are over?” 

It always took her a minute to remember that “Dojang” was the Taekowndo term for a Dojo… or, as Tabitha thought of it, the self-defense studio, since she only attended the self-defense classes. Having grown up in dance studios, it was the term that made the most sense to her.

“Sure, you know I miss it when I’m too busy to come.” The self-defense classes were one of her only chances to use her body, now that she wasn’t dancing. And Taekwondo classes never gave her a chance to feel socially awkward or adrift. Her anxiety didn’t mess with her there.

As if summoned by the thought of her anxiety, an awkward memory of talking to him after class a few years ago, over-eager and running through her Grad school applications flashed to her mind, leaving her embarrassed in a way that the memory of Jason’s presumably post-coital smiles did not.

Ignoring that, she pursed her lips and imagined him with no shirt on instead. That made her happy. She asked, “Are you sure you want me to delete your profile, and not just put it on hold? Some of our people see couples, you know.” She didn’t have a script for closing out accounts, it didn’t happen often. She wasn’t sure if it was a stupid question or not.

Tabitha didn’t really know what happened during his appointments, because she only had access to the scheduling module of the Club’s software. She could usually make some educated guesses, based on the professional they saw, or the room they rented, or the special equipment the club’s Dom or sub requested. Jason saw both men and women, submissives and Doms, and they never requested any special equipment.

It gave her a lot to wonder about, when work was slow and she wasn’t staring at a pile of homework.

“Just delete the whole profile, Nate wouldn’t be into it. How’re you doing, girl? Still studying?” he asked. Tabitha mmm-hmmed as she keyed in the override codes, deleting his profile.

Once his profile was gone from the reservations section, she added, “Studying hard. I’ll be glad when this semester is over. I overloaded this half of the school year, so next semester will be light.” She stopped there.

Jason probably wouldn’t be interested in the details of her classes, any more than she’d be interested in the details of his business. Less, probably—she at least was interested in how businesses ran. She doubted that Jason was interested in the principles of International Arbitration.

The business aspect was why she liked this job—it was fun, seeing the financial and day-to-day operations of a business that was built on other people’s secret desires. Learning how the puzzle pieces connected behind the grand Victorian mansion’s facade, all the little things that made the club tick.

Feeling like she was part of over three-hundred peoples’ dirty little secrets.

Of course, this was San Francisco. A town where a BDSM club was almost respectable, and most people thought of their club as a public service—nothing was a real secret here. She shifted and watched the computer crunch away the last module of Jason’s profile. She pulled on the leg of her catsuit, where it was sticking to her skin.

The fancy, sleek computer booking system cycled back to its home page on the desktop, Jason’s profile eliminated.

“Okay, you’re all set, profile deleted. We’ll miss seeing you.”

He laughed. “I’ll still see you, it’ll just be at the Dojang instead of your job—I hope.”

“Knock on wood. I’ll have some free time next month,” she answered, and rapped her desk for good measure. She heard knocking on his end too. “Do you want me to email you a confirmation?” she asked, not actually sure how to do that.

“No, I trust that it’s sorted,” he answered easily. “So I’ll see you in December?”

“Roger that, sir,” she said, trying to sound a little flirtatious. He wasn’t a patron anymore, she could wink back now.

“Not your Sir,” he answered, sounding amused. “But I’ll talk to you soon.”

She waited for him to disconnect, and then hung up on her end, grinning, and turned back to the textbook.

Her grin faded. She’d been able to concentrate earlier, because it was a slow night on the phones. The Club itself wasn’t quiet, she heard a lot of people moving around upstairs, and saw a lot of employees passing in the hall outside, headed to the locker rooms in the Victorian mansion’s former servants’ quarters.

She’d been in the zone, studying, before Jason called, and now she was…slightly energized by talking to another person, a little sad her work crush was in a real relationship now, and so tired she didn’t think she could get back into her homework.

She was so tired, she wasn’t even sure she remembered what she’d just read. She turned her gaze back to the book. It looked thick and boring, and nothing like the fun YA fantasy novel she’d like to be reading. The one that had been sitting on her nightstand for two months now, taunting her. The latest in a series she’d been following since the books were age-appropriate.

Looking at the textbook made her moody. But she still had a half-hour of work left, and she knew it would be dead quiet. She should at least try.

The multi-colored highlights covered almost every strip of text on the page of her book, but none of it was purple, so that was good. The case involved…what? Oh yeah—a couple getting divorced and the woman getting screwed.

She sighed and ran her finger down the margin of the book as she scanned it, trying to figure out how the Judge justified this result. Oh, of course—it was from a non-community property state, and… She glanced at the year. It was old.

She made a note in her ring-bound notebook: “New York. Equitable Distribution. Living expenses paid by wife, savings by husband; husband got all savings in divorce.” And jotted down the year. Made a mental note to never get divorced in New York.

Kanye West had a point—she wasn’t a sucker, and law school was making her a fan of pre-nups. She moved on to the next case on her list for class tomorrow.

The phone didn’t ring again before quitting time, which was good, because the next case on her list was complicated. She drew a little family tree diagram to make sense of the facts, and then started in on it with her highlighters. Despite being too tired to concentrate well, she quickly lost herself in the work.

“Tabitha, it’s coming up on one in the morning.” A woman’s voice came from the doorway, startling her and breaking her concentration. “Your shift ended at midnight.”

She looked up and started blinking rapidly, her eyes burning from focusing on the text for too long. Penny, one of her bosses, was standing in the doorway, dressed in jeans.

That meant Penny’s shift was over—her last session ended at midnight, and she usually kept her last client a little late if things were going well.

If she’d already showered, changed into jeans, and wandered in here? It was way past quitting time.

Tabitha glanced at the lower right corner of the computer screen as she turned it off, then yawned, her body catching up to the news about the time. Penny grinned at her.

“Go home and get some sleep. You have class in the morning, don’t you?”

Tabitha nodded. “How can you still look so awake?” she grumbled. “I feel like I could sleep for a week.”

“Well, yeah,” Penny drawled. “I sleep late every day. Also, I just got laid.”

That was obvious.

The average height, thick-hipped woman was bonelessly lounging in the doorway, her newly dyed red hair loose, with a smug smile on her face. It made Tabitha feel a little wistful, seeing all the people who came to say hello to her after they just had sex. She remembered what it was like to get laid, barely. She hadn’t gotten any since starting law school, and was starting to feel like there were cobwebs on her lady parts. She scowled.

“You really should try to sleep more,” Penny continued with a mock-stern look on her face. “It’s like vitamins for every part of your body.”

Tabitha stopped scowling, and lifted one incredulous eyebrow, because Penny seemed serious about this mother-hening.

Boss, I have an eight a.m. class.” Her voice was tart, with a lot of sarcasm sunk into the first word. “I’ll do what I can.”

“See if you can take a nap during the day,” Penny said. “Or on your breaks here. We have rooms with beds.”

Tabitha thought about what happened on those beds. Housekeeping at the Club was amazing, but they’d seen a lot of fluids over the years. She didn’t want to go there.

“I need to study on my breaks,” she said, then yawned again, her jaw cracking. Time to get away from this conversation, she really was tired. “But I’ll go home and sleep now, I promise. And before you ask, I don’t need a ride—there’s construction on Filmore, Muni will be faster.” Her work computer blooped a few times, as it shut down behind her.

Penny smiled at her again. “Okay then. See you tomorrow? Oh wait, no. See you on Friday?”

“I’ll be here!” she replied, and smiled, hoping she’d remember to leave the office on time tomorrow, without Penny around to snap her out of her study coma.

Penny started to leave, then stopped and turned around, as if a thought occurred to her.

“Oh hey, I was going to ask. Your schedule is more open over Christmas break, right? Are you doing any shows over the holidays?”

Tabitha shook her head sadly as she picked up her purse and listened to the computer’s fan shut off.

“No. I was in the Jingle Bells Burlesque last year, and they asked me to join again, but their rehearsals conflicted with my class schedule.” This semester had been brutal, and she knew finals week would be worse. She couldn’t take anything extra on—not right now. Not even something fun. Not even something that could make a dent in her credit card bills, which were piling up.

She didn’t miss stripping—her job before Fernando’s Club hired her—but she did miss burlesque. It was fun and active, and made her feel alive and pretty. Like her body was a joy. Like self-defense class did, but sexier.

But the crushing schedule of full-time school and full-time work was taking its toll. Even though this job was easy, and both of her bosses encouraged her to study during the Club’s downtime, it was still hard to do both.

She yawned again, and admitted to herself—silently—that Penny might have a point. The lack of sleep was the worst.

“So do you want to go see the show with me in December, if you’re not in it?” Penny asked, calling her back from thoughts of her bed.

“Huh? Sure!” Tabitha said, surprised, and then immediately regretted it.

She didn’t do well in social situations. Even with low-stress people like Penny. She looked at the other woman, who was cream-cheese pale under the fluorescent lights. She had always been very friendly, but had seemed a little closed-off when Tabitha first met her.

Then when she was promoted to Assistant Director last year, she’d turned into a sort of club mom. No one else would question Tabitha’s sleep habits, or bring her snacks when she worked a double.

It was weird—sometimes nice-weird. Sometimes just weird.

She and Penny had never done anything together outside of work. She grinned at Penny nervously, hoping she looked flattered to be asked, instead of like she was doing mental gymnastics to get out of it.

She needed alone time. Even after finals week was done, when she would be well-rested, she would need alone time. But maybe she was just anxious because this was new, and new things made her anxious.

Penny smiled back, looking pleased. As she did, Tabitha remembered that Penny was bi—was she hitting on her? Penny had a boyfriend, they’d been together for a year or so, was it an open relationship?

[HO4] She noticed she was clutching her textbook too hard, and wished she could hug it without looking weird. Books never gave her social anxiety.

And she was too tired to deal with her social anxiety with any grace.

Thank god, Penny was either understanding or unnaturally chill, and pretended not to notice the book-clutching.

In fact, Penny wasn’t even looking at her—she was making a note on her phone.

“Great! I’m getting a block of tickets, and Damian and Bruce and Mike are all going. Jason’s a maybe, he’ll have a plus one if he attends. I’ll add you to the list.” The mention of Jason shot a jolt of awareness through her, and then Tabitha processed what that guest list meant.

Phew, Penny definitely was not hitting on her. Mike was Penny’s boyfriend, and if he was going, along with all those other people from work, she was just being friendly.

Tabitha felt her smile shift a little as she laughed at herself. What was she thinking? Penny didn’t need to hit on people. She just hit people, and then they’d hit on her.

She realized she was staring blankly at the other woman, who was still staring at her phone.

“Oh, just let me know the date and show you’re attending—I can get them to comp me a seat,” she said as she unclutched her book, and picked up her purse. If she did end up going, at least she wouldn’t have to pay for the ticket.

“Cool. I’ll email you the details,” Penny said, letting her phone fall to her side, and she headed toward the front door with a wave. Then turned back again and asked, with narrowed eyes, “Are you sure you won’t fall asleep on Muni?”

Tabitha made a face and waved her toward the front, and Penny left, shrugging and waving again.

Once she was gone, Tabitha blinked a few times, changing gears. She started running through her to-do list in her mind, remembering her thoughts about the headset as soon as Penny was out of earshot.

She swore softly as she walked down the hall to the employee locker rooms to remove the worst part of this job—the stupid white, shiny[HO5]  vinyl catsuit. Getting it on required a lot of talcum powder, and once it was off, her skin required a lot of lotion.

She went through her post-work routine step-by-step, the locker room shower making her even more tired. She was still tired as she put clothes on, as she waited for MUNI, and as she boarded and rode the weird train-bus hybrid back home with a bunch of strangers. She couldn’t let herself rest, because she might fall asleep on public transit, and that would be bad—so she rotated her ankles, stretching them out as she waited for her stop.

Tabitha was still in that place past sleep as she got off the train and let herself into her Mom’s first-floor flat.

Her mom had gone to bed much earlier, her job made her an early bird.

But her brother was sitting at the kitchen table when she walked in, and she relaxed at the sight of him—a line chef at one of the fancy hotel restaurants downtown, he had a late schedule too, and usually waited up for her if he got in first.

When she shut the door behind her, he looked up from his phone, stood, got a plate with toast and eggs on it out of the microwave, and handed it to her.

She smiled at him gratefully, grabbed a fork from a drawer, and joined him at the small, dented, blue Formica kitchen table.

“Late tonight,” he said, looking back at his phone as he sat down.

“Studying at my desk,” she answered, and took a bite of the eggs. They were still warm, but not hot. She glanced at the sink—his clean dishes were in the drainer. He must have waited for her before he got too hungry and started cooking. The eggs were still amazing, everything her brother made was amazing, even when he was exhausted at the end of his shift and refused to cook “real food.”

“How’s Cecile?” she asked as she started in on her toast. If he was glued to his phone, he was probably catching up on his girlfriend’s Facebook feed. Happily, they all were old enough now that this was restful instead of a drama-filled shit show, like it had been when he was younger. Or when he’d just started working and Cecile had just started university, and their opposite schedules made them crazy.

“Good. Killin’ it. She’ll be back in a week.” Cecile was working for a winemaker in Napa, a very prestigious one. It was part of her grad school capstone project. Her family had money, so she only worked internships while in school.

“That’s great,” Tabitha said, and meant it. She and Cecile hadn’t always been best friends, but they were close now, and she was glad that things were going well for her. Even if she resented it that Cecile could just concentrate on school.

God, if I could do that, my grades would be amazing, Tabitha thought for the thousandth time. Cecile’s parents were lawyers.

“I need to talk to you about that, T. You know she’s looking into a few different jobs, right? After she graduates?” Malcolm said, looking up from his phone. He started jogging his leg when she nodded, though she hadn’t really thought about it much. “I always planned to propose when she finished her degree. You know I can work anywhere. I can follow her.”

Tabitha felt her forehead wrinkle. She knew that Malcolm and Cecile would get married—she’d resigned herself to it in high school. Now, she was happy about it. However, she hadn’t realized the two of them planned to move away.

“I always figured you would open your own restaurant someday, but I thought it would be here,” she said. That’s part of the reason she was interested in real estate law, so she could help him with commercial leases and stuff. “There are a lot of wineries around here.” It hadn’t been a stupid assumption.

He laughed. “At San Francisco prices? No, no chance. Someday, we might end up in Napa, and I could open a place there—that would work. But for now…”

He looked at her, clearly worried, his big brown eyes peeking through his sparse, pointy eyelashes.

For now, he was planning to leave, which made her weirdly panicky. Since their dad died, her family had been through a lot, she’d been through a lot, but she and her mom and her brother—they’d always been together. Living here in this apartment.

Mal leaving… The thought of it made her sad, like it would break something important.

And then, of course, the thought of living with her mother alone, with no intermediary? That made her breath come short.

Could they even afford that?

She’d already accepted a job offer at the Morgan firm, where she’d spent the last summer as a clerk, and she’d be getting a decent salary. Once she passed the bar… She did the math.

Yes, they’d be fine. The firm had low-balled her on that salary, but they weren’t an AmLaw 100 firm, one of the 100 biggest firms in the country.  They weren’t even an AmLaw 200 firm. [HO6] They were a tiny real estate boutique, and the salary they offered reflected that—even if she knew she should rate better, going to one of the top 20 law schools in the country.

It would be enough to get by. She could pay her student loans, and finally pay off her credit cards. She could pay the bills and building maintenance fees. Mom could save for retirement, and pay off the loans for Dad’s medical bills.

Thank god she had a job lined up after graduation. She took a deep breath through her nose. She’d better pass the bar exam on her first try.

Even if it could work financially, Mal leaving still made her freak out a little bit. He was one of her safe people. She tried to calm down by focusing on logistics.

“Where has she applied? Where is she hoping to go?” There was still toast in her hand. She took a bite. It was very dry.

“She’s applied everywhere. The place hosting her externship isn’t looking to fill any entry-level spots right now, and California is full of Enology majors, so she thinks she’ll have a better chance of getting a good job with a small winery if we move.”

Tabitha nodded, and shoved more toast in her mouth with the unchewed bits already there. Mal stopped looking at her, and picked at a scar on the Formica.

He continued. “She’s hoping for a place at a small, high-end winery, either in Florida or Spain. Those would be her top choices.” Once he finished talking, he glanced up at her, then back down.

That was far—too far away to process. Florida might as well be Spain, frankly, it wasn’t like they could drive to either place. She chewed mechanically, and swallowed. Then she met his eyes, knowing why he was looking worried.

“What does Mom say?”

He snorted softly, and his mouth twisted. “I haven’t told her yet.”

Chicken. He knew it, too—she could tell by his tight shoulders. She wouldn’t call him on it now.

“When do you think you’ll go?” She put some of her crust back on her plate, dusting crumbs off her fingers.

“End of the summer. You both will be graduating around the same time.” That was good. If she passed the Bar, and her salary bumped from the law clerk level to the attorney level, it would be around that time.

“Okay.” She nodded.

“I need to buy a ring, first. I think we’ll just go to city hall. She asked if I wanted to elope a while ago—I said I wanted to get her a big rock first.” Tabitha squinted at him. Their Gran would kill him if they had a courthouse wedding, but it would avoid the question of what church to get married in, so Tabitha thought it was smart.

But that’s not what struck her the most.

Mal and Cecile had clearly talked a lot about getting married and they’d planned a lot for the future, if this conversation was normal for them…and she’d had no idea. Between her job and law school, she knew she’d been busy. She knew Mal was quiet. But she saw him more than almost anyone else, anyone she didn’t work with or have class with. She hadn’t even seen her mom for a month or so, and they lived together, but she saw Mal a few times a week, at least.

Maybe if Cecile were around more often, she would have found out about these plans…but it still made her feel weird she hadn’t known. Weird and disconnected.

“So that’s where your money is going this year?” He’d been home to meet her a lot lately, when he used to go out with the boys after work. Maybe he’d been saving up.

He grinned a little, looking sheepish. “Yeah.”

“Okay.” He looked like he was waiting for her to say something else. “Mom and I will be okay. Once I’m at the Morgan Firm, I’ll be making good money, even with my student loan payments factored in.” She tried not to think about living alone with Mom. She’d never be home anyway, as a first-year associate. That was probably good.

“There’s something else,” Mal said, as he reached behind him to pick something up off the kitchen counter. It was a small envelope, opened, from the City and County of San Francisco.

Inside it was a tax bill. She looked at the amount. “Damn.”

“I know.”

“Goddamn.” She and Malcolm split the utilities, grocery bills, the ever-increasing building maintenance fee, and all the living expenses for their place. Their mom had paid off the balance of the mortgage on their flat with their dad’s life insurance when he passed on. As far as Tabitha knew, she was still paying off the loans for his cancer treatments.

Her only remaining bill was the tax on the flat, and she’d almost defaulted on it the first year after he died, and had pointedly told them when she paid it every year since then. Mom still worked, but Tabitha had no idea how much pediatric nurses made. Her mom never talked about money. “Do you think she can pay that?”

“Do you think she should have to?” Mal asked. Of course he did.

He was the good child, Tabitha thought with a flash of resentment and love. But because she respected that about him, she stopped and thought about their mother, who pinched every penny until it screamed. About their grandma, moving to Oakland after the rent hikes in her Bayview apartment squeezed her out. About the looks they’d both given her when she’d started stripping and came home with the cash that let them keep the flat. The different kind of looks they gave Mal when he started working as a line cook, and applied to culinary school rather than college.

Tabitha sighed. “We’ll find a way.” She didn’t want to go back to stripping. And even if she did want to, she didn’t have time. Or the thighs for it—the last three years hadn’t left time for working out.

“We’ll find a way,” he said, and knocked on the wooden cabinet, next to his knee. She knocked on wood too.

Tabitha looked at the crust of bread, and even though she wasn’t hungry and her stomach hurt a little, she shoved it in her mouth. Don’t waste food, she thought in her gran’s voice.

Mal grabbed her plate and fork and stood up to rinse them off.

“Go to bed, schoolgirl,” he told her.

“Yes, chef,” she answered, and stood up to go to her room.