"There is no way we're renting a mechanical bull! Reed and I are leaving the next morning for Salem and we can't do that if his neck is broken." Rhea's voice carried easily through the door. I rolled my eyes. Hadn't she had enough of fighting?

"Who's that?" Killian asked. He tugged on my hand, pulling us to a stop outside the apartment door.

I laughed. "My roommate, Rhea. She must be arguing with her boyfriend's brother again. I swear, they're enjoying this more than they'll enjoy the party they're trying to plan. Don't worry about it, come on."

A crashing noise sounded as something thudded against the door. Killian cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable. "It sounds like we shouldn't go in there right now."

I pouted at him, assuming the wide-eyed expression that almost always ended in me getting what I wanted. "Oh, please? With your mom and sisters home, this is really the only place where we can be alone." I stepped against him, letting my hips brush against his suggestively. Killian smirked and snatched the key out of my hand, opening the door himself and pulling me inside the apartment.

"Florence! Oh, thank goodness you're back. This dunderhead wants to get a mechanical bull for Reed's birthday party. In what world is that a good idea?"

"She's just worried it will outshine her chocolate fountain as the main attraction," Lionel, Reed's brother, put in. I frowned. Frankly, I wasn't sure anything could outshine a fountain of chocolate... but Lionel could be scary. He was a good guy, but I certainly wouldn't be going out of my way to make him upset.

Luckily Rhea jumped back in before I could say anything. "Please. Back to Bach will be the main attraction."

Lionel grinned and the two did a comical fist bump- comical because Rhea looked so unnatural doing it. "Yeah, you're right. Now about our set..." I stopped listening as the two started talking about the band that they were both in. Sensing an opportunity for escape, I squeezed Killian's hand and led him back to my bedroom.

After the door was closed, I mimed wiping off my forehead. Killian asked, "Are they always like that?"

"Oh, you mean the fighting and ridiculous reconciliation? Yeah, it's always been like that between them. I think they both just like to argue and Rhea refuses to do it with her boyfriend. Lionel... well, I think he argued a little too much with his last girlfriend. Kinda scared her away. But Rhea, she wouldn't do anything to jeopardize what she has with Reed. Those two are sickeningly adorable together." This was said with no malice. I didn't hold Rhea's happiness against her, of course I didn't. She had been my best friend for years.

Killian's hands touched my hips exactly when my phone buzzed. A moment later someone was pounding on my door. "Florence, you get out here now! Right now, missy."

I stood up on my tiptoes and whispered in Killian's ear, "She's kind of a drama queen. I bet it's nothing." I switched from whispering to licking and Killian's hands slid just far enough downward that it was a little embarrassing when Rhea barged in.

"Florence! I'm being serious."

I shifted a little so that I was a little more appropriately entwined with Killian. "Ever tried taking a hint?" I snapped at Rhea. I saw the hurt register on her face and felt immediately guilty. "I'm sorry. What is it you wanted to tell me?"

Florence's gaze shifted to Killian. She tilted her head and gave me a pointed look. "Rhea, just say it. Don't worry about Killian. I don't have anything to hide from him."

Now Rhea smiled, but it wasn't her usual smile. No, it was clouded by the worry in her eyes. "It's about Marcus." I could hear the sympathy in her voice. It made me want badly for her to see his name not affect me. I had been trying to convince her for months that I was over Marcus. Still, I couldn't help the jolt that his name sent through me and I know that she saw it.

"Who's Marcus?" Killian asked.

"My ex. Whatever it is, Rhea, I'm sure it's nothing that I need to hear about now," I said. I did my best to sound casual but I wasn't sure it worked. Deception wasn't something I was very good at, being long out of practice. In junior high school I had decided that I wanted to be honest in everything I did. It was like a pact I made with myself- I even wrote up a contract that outlined the self-induced consequences I would inflict upon myself for breaches and signed it. Being a young teenager, the punishment that I had come up with was no worse than putting a dollar in my piggy bank for each offense, but it was a tradition that I still followed. Even now I reached into my pocket and felt my wallet. Yes, I owed Piggy. I slipped out a dollar and fed it in so that I wouldn't forget.

"Marcus is moving back. I just got the call." Rhea said this like an apology. Though I wouldn't admit to it, she was just as aware as I was that Marcus' name still cut like a wound. Time had done nothing to erase the missing him from my life. It wasn't something I could help.

I stared. I think I must have stood there staring for quite a while. It was long enough that Killian withdrew his hold from my waist. He wasn't one to dance around an issue- it was the very thing that had drawn me to him- and so he didn't hesitate to ask, "You going to get back with him?"

I blinked the shock away and gave an immediate, "No!"

Rhea stood quietly in the doorway for a minute before shrugging and backing away. "I'll be in my room, alright? Reed's coming over, but you know he wouldn't be upset if I told him to hang out elsewhere tonight."

I rolled my eyes- a completely honest action. "Of course Reed should still come over. Jeez, Rhea, I'm not upset."

"Promise?"

I mentally reviewed the contents of my wallet. Yeah, there was another dollar in there I could spare. "Promise." I tossed in a smile and directed my attention back to Killian.

"Sorry about that." I went to kiss him and he pulled away. "What?"

"Should I be worried about Marcus?"

"No, silly. That was ages ago. It's all very in the past. Besides, you're the one in my room, not him. And you're the one I want in here. Now I promise, we'll have no more interruptions."

Killian smiled. "Perfect."

***

Working as a waitress had its benefits. Most people at Hal's- and for that matter, at all of the restaurants I had worked at in the past- had the nasty habit of only focusing on the negatives. Okay, I had those days too. The hours were bad, you went home smelling like old grease, you had to deal with customers who were never right but were always convinced that they were… and that wasn't to mention the way your back and feet ached after every shift. It was exhausting... but really the job wasn't all that bad.

How about I enumerate the positives? The other servers were generally really nice people who weren't big on privacy (believe me, it made for some fantastic, open conversations), you got to know all kinds of new people, and I got half off on dinner every day I worked. Besides, it was better than some other jobs I could have had.

I wouldn't be explaining all of this to you except that I want you to know that it is unusual for me to complain about a work shift. That way you'll take me more seriously when I say that the next day, work was terrible. Somehow the crew had heard about my ex moving back to town. Personally, I thought that the blabbermouth was Stacy, a longtime friend of mine and a confirmed gossip. It would have been bothersome enough when she spent the whole shift petting me and assuring me that everything would be okay. It was another layer deeper into hell when she rallied the whole crew, got them to be giving me the same assurances. Everyone cooed around me, everyone except our newest line chef, Carson.

Naturally it was Carson's company I sought out after closing. We hadn't spoken before but I was confident that he wouldn't shoo me away. I approached his car as he was unlocking the door manually. He had to bend over a bit in order to reach it, giving Florence a brief but pleasant view of his posterior. "Hey, Carson!" she called as she approached.

Carson turned. "Oh, hi. Florence, right?"

I nodded, giving him my signature grin. "Yeah. I was thinking, the ice cream stand down the street is open for another hour and a milkshake would be awfully nice right about now. Trouble is, I don't have anyone to go with..." I trailed off suggestively.

Carson flicked his hair from his eyes. "You're right, a milkshake does sound nice. You want to walk over? It's a nice night. I suppose you know that I just moved here from Canada. We just got out of a rough winter. This heat is perfect."

I widened my smile and took a step closer, offering my arm. He hesitated before linking it with his own. "I agree."

Carson's eyes briefly met mine before flicking away. His strides were a little longer than mine but I didn't mind the brisk pace he set. Putting distance between myself and the restaurant felt like putting distance back between myself and my thoughts of Marcus. A nice, healthy bout of forgetting was exactly what I wanted just then.

"Look, Florence-"

"Call me Flo," I quickly said. Florence was such a granny name.

"We'll talk about that later. I have something to say first. I've heard, Florence, that you are something of a man eater. I think that's a lie. You're too sweet for that. I don't think it's so far off the mark, though. Stacy told me that you stop in to the restaurant all the time when you're off and that you're always with someone new. You seem like a really nice girl, someone who would be great to hang out with. I know better than to be too choosy in my friends right now. Like I said, I just moved here and I don't really know anyone yet. We could be friends, but only if you promise that's all we'll be doing."

Normally let's-be-friends talks were hokey and awkward. Carson said it all like simple fact, though, in a way that did nothing to strip away his masculinity and that didn't make it too weird a conversation to be having. Still, I stopped walking for a second. He did too until I recovered enough to continue. "That sounds like a perfectly reasonable promise. Now, since we're going to be friends, why don't you tell me about why you moved?"

"It was kind of a whim. I transferred to the college here. I wanted a change, I wanted to check out America. New England had always seemed like a great place to live. You're all so close to everything- New York City, Boston, D.C... So I left."

"Really? Just like that?" I laughed when I imagined doing the same, myself. It sounded fabulous. Most people tethered themselves so thoroughly to the places they lived that leaving on a whim was completely unrealistic. If I was to try it, though... Well, there were restaurants everywhere looking to hire experienced servers. Almost all of my college credits would transfer to most schools and maybe Rhea wouldn't be so put out if I moved. After all, I knew that she and Reed had been talking about moving in together. Maybe this would be the push that they needed.

An image of Marcus drifted into my mind. He was coming back. Rhea hadn't told me when he would be back and I knew that asking would reveal that I still cared, so I hadn't. What I did know was that he was coming. No, I couldn't leave, not now.

I turned back to Marcus and encouraged him to tell me more about himself. Luckily he was all too happy to oblige. Suddenly I was much more in the mood to listen than to talk.

Hi everyone. Splitting Pearls is, in fact, a sequel. Will this affect your reading experience? Not one bit. If you are interested in the back story behind the characters (and in seeing Marcus and Flo when they were together), you can find it in Fifty Words for Embarrassment. I promise that not reading it won't leave you confused- but I bet you'd enjoy the experience anyway (:

-Cait