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The lovers game, p.1
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       The Lover's Game, p.1

           J. C. Reed
 
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The Lover's Game


  Copyright © 2014 J.C. Reed

  All rights reserved.

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods without the prior written permission of the publisher.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarities to persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

  Trademarks: This book identifies product names and services known to be trademarks, registered trademarks, or service marks of their respective holders. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of all products referenced in this work of fiction. The publication and use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

  Cover art by Larissa Klein

  Developmental editing by Shannon Wolfman

  Inline editing by Autumn Conley & Edee Fallon

  CONTENTS

  TITLE

  COPYRIGHT

  CONTENTS

  PROLOGUE

  CHAPTER 1

  CHAPTER 2

  CHAPTER 3

  CHAPTER 4

  CHAPTER 5

  CHAPTER 6

  CHAPTER 7

  CHAPTER 8

  CHAPTER 9

  CHAPTER 10

  CHAPTER 11

  CHAPTER 12

  CHAPTER 13

  CHAPTER 14

  CHAPTER 15

  CHAPTER 16

  CHAPTER 17

  CHAPTER 18

  CHAPTER 19

  CHAPTER 20

  COMING NEXT

  AUTHOR LETTER

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  OTHER BOOKS BY J.C. REED

  To all who love and are loved:

  Love grants us the power to forgive, to love when we’re hurt, but it also gives us the courage to let go, and the understanding that to love, we love freely—at our own choice.

  - J.C. Reed

  I hope to never see you again. Last time you betrayed me, I ran away. You looked for me and found me, and I chose to forgive you. This time, your secrets hit me much worse. I don’t think I can ever recover. I don’t think I can ever look at you and not be reminded of them. This time, I’ll make sure you’ll never find me.

  I say that I hate you, but deep inside I love you. Love is in my mind, in my soul, and deep in my heart. As it always has been. As it always might be. But for how long? That I don’t know. In love, we bonded. In passion, we rose. And in trust, we reconciled. I told myself that if you ever broke my heart again, karma would get back at you. And if it won’t, if it takes too long, if it forgets, I will make sure revenge will pay you back.

  My name is Brooke and I know this: Love has four letters.

  One for you.

  One for me.

  One for our child.

  One for revenge. Sweet, bitter revenge.

  I bet you didn’t see that one coming. I look forward to the day you’ll feel the same pain I went through. I look forward to the day I can look at you in the knowledge that we’re even. Maybe you had secrets, but this time I will make sure secrets won’t be the only thing you carry home.

  The street was abuzz with life, the noise of traffic and human crowds droning in my ears. Tears trickled down my face in steady rivulets, as though my eyes were connected to an ocean. My legs carried me so fast that, at some point, my feet began to hurt, and I realized I had been running. And yet I didn’t stop, not even when my lungs began to burn from the cold air and the lack of oxygen. It was only when I reached a bench in Central Park, the one where my sister and I used to sit ten years prior, that I stopped and slumped down, grateful for the cold, snow-covered wood that numbed my body.

  He had broken me into pieces. The stupid fool I had been for falling in love with him, how could I have taken him back after he had betrayed me only to betray me again? And to think he told me I could trust him, that he loved me, that I was the only one in the whole world for him, and that he would never cheat on me.

  Yeah, right!

  They were stupid lies I had believed—lies I wanted to come true. Someone should have offered me a personality test and marked me “naïve, foolish,” and let’s not forget, “prone to being broke.” When she had named me Brooke, my mother had apparently forgotten to remove the –o on my birth certificate, because now, I wasn’t just broke in terms of money; I was also devoid of some much-needed wisdom—if only to see Jett for who he was when I had viewed him through rose-colored glasses: a cheater and lying bastard who was still seeing his ex behind my back. Sylvie had been right when she had warned me to be careful around him. I just wished she had shaken some sense into me rather than gushing about his good looks, all the while counterpointing that he was bad news, which was counterproductive. It hadn’t exactly helped me ward off his advances; it only made me want him even more. His intensity had pushed me into a state of obsession, where desire became my addiction and hunger my passion. If it weren’t for my longing to be loved, I never would have been so blind to his intentions.

  I didn’t know what hurt me more: the fact that I had trusted him blindly—as in only seeing what I had wanted to see in him, trusting that he’d never lie or cheat on me. Or that he had actually done all the things he had promised he wouldn’t do behind my back. And I hadn’t even seen it coming because I had chosen to believe his promises.

  Sexy men like him don’t deserve another chance, another glance, another surrender. They deserve to have their ass kicked...and not only out of bed.

  I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that just a few hours earlier, I had been happy. Truly happy. There had been no warning, nothing to indicate that my life would be turned upside down. Even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t have foreseen such events. There had been no signs to prepare me for what had happened or for all the feelings that had just crushed me to the core.

  Minutes felt like hours. I didn’t know how long I’d been sitting on the bench, oblivious to the people passing by and the curious glances they cast my way. But at some point, the cold began to creep up my body, intensifying the shudders running through me. I had never been so cold in my life, and yet I had never welcomed the numbing pain more than now. The cold did not only numb my limbs; it seemed to penetrate every layer of my being. But I had reached a point where I didn’t care what happened to me, if I froze to death or if the world came to an end.

  Everything had started out so well, and now I was, in so many ways, back to square one: single, heartbroken, and broke—except I was a little worse off than before. In the beginning, I could have walked away from Jett in the hope that my heart would heal. I would have moved on to the next man who was eager to get into my panties, and I wouldn’t have had to hide from shame.

  But now I was pregnant, and while I had inherited the Lucazzone estate with all its dark secrets, that only added to the problems I couldn’t run away from. With Nate free and on the loose, I still had to fear for my life. I had to give up on my dreams about a future with Jett.

  Come to think of it, there was no sense in believing in an us anymore.

  All that mattered now was keeping myself and my child safe, and the only way I could accomplish that was by getting far away from Jett and his family. But to accomplish that, I needed money. Even with my faith in men and in ever finding true love ripped to shreds, I could feel that my discovery was a blessing in disguise. The pain would be temporary, but in the end, the entire situation would serve a greater purpose because I finally knew which path to take.

  I opened my handbag in search of the piece of the paper that was my beacon of hope. I had to gi
ve Thalia’s job a try, because any job, as long as it paid the bills, was better than none. If only a tenth of Thalia’s claims were true, then I had found a way to get away from here, from him, from everyone—a fresh start. Once everything calmed down, I’d focus on healing my heart and move on from a past that wasn’t worth remembering.

  By the time she came, it was dark, and I had been waiting impatiently for almost an hour, my hands frozen in the pockets of my coat as I watched the late afternoon sun disappear. The beautiful Victorian-style lampposts were already switched on, their dull flicker casting an eerie yellow glow on the asphalted street. Central Park was magically beautiful, both during the day and at night. I usually avoided parks after dark, but today I was making an exception. To kill time as I waited for Thalia, I had walked around the southern half of the park. I had assumed it would be devoid of life at that hour, but to my surprise, clusters of people had gathered here and there, walking or jogging, immersed in their lives, probably struggling with their own demons.

  After what seemed like an eternity, a car finally pulled over. From a distance, I spied Thalia getting out, right where we had arranged to meet. I waved to get her attention, then walked over.

  Even under the weak illumination from the lampposts, I could see that the car was a scrambled mess with clutter all over the passenger and back seat. Never in my life had I met anyone so chaotic—except for Sylvie, when she was about to pack her suitcase and couldn’t decide on what to take with her. It was as if Thalia had practically been living in her car; for all I knew, she had been.

  “Jesus. What happened to you?” Thalia slammed the car door and turned to regard me. Her voice betrayed a worrying edge as she eyed me up and down. “Your lips are all blue, and you’re freezing.” She pulled my hands into hers and shivered as if to prove her point.

  My tongue flicked over my numb lips. I hadn’t realized my physical appearance would so easily give away the way I felt. Granted, I didn’t have a mirror, so I had no clue how I looked. But surely it couldn’t be that bad, apart from a bit of smudged mascara. I absent-mindedly smoothed my hair and smiled.

  “It’s not as bad as you think.”

  Deep worry lines creased her forehead, signaling that she didn’t believe me. “Do you want to talk about it?” she asked quietly, after a pause.

  Great. Just great.

  I figured I must really look like crap, which wasn’t ideal, given the fact that I was supposed to go on a job interview. I should have changed at Sylvie’s place. Or maybe not as, I thought, remembering why I’d decided against it in the first place: I couldn’t deal with her questions, nor did I have the energy to recall all that had happened or, worse yet, acknowledge my mistakes and whatever hard facts I needed to accept.

  “I’d rather not.” Swallowing hard, I shot her a shy look. “I just had a crappy day, that’s all.”

  “I don’t mean to be pushy,” Thalia said. “I’ve been told I’m a good listener, and I just want you to know I’m here to talk whenever you feel like it.”

  I shot her warm smile. “I appreciate that, but I’m not ready. Sorry. Maybe another time?”

  “All right.” She eyed me one last time before she sighed. “I brought coffee. Figured you might want one.” She inclined her head toward the car, signaling that she was about to change the subject. “Sorry I kept you waiting. I had to clean the floor after my shift.”

  “No problem. I’m just really grateful you’re offering to take me along.”

  “You really need this job, huh?” Thalia pointed around the car impatiently, a sign that she wanted to leave. I walked around and slid into the passenger seat.

  “After today, I definitely do,” I said, realizing there was no point in lying.

  I watched her walk around to her side and hop into the driver’s seat. Leaning forward, she handed me a cup of coffee.

  “Thank you.”

  I warmed my cold hands against the cup containing the hot liquid, then took a tentative sip. After being outside in the cold for hours, the warmth soothed me from the inside, and I savored the flavor of coffee, sugar, and whipped cream, reminding me that I was still alive and living.

  “Don’t worry. I’ll persuade Grayson to give you a job, but first—” Her eyes brushed over my clothes in thought before she pointed to the cluttered mess on her back seat, “—we need to get you out of that. I have countless dresses I bought before my self-imposed shopping ban. There should be one that fits you. My motto is, ‘If you look good, you feel good.’ So...” She shrugged and paused, hesitation written all over her face, as though she wasn’t sure why she was about to divulge such information “Whenever I have a bad day, I dress up. It makes the world a better place, at least for a while.”

  At that moment, Thalia officially sounded like Sylvie. I decided to like her; after all, anyone who resembled my friend Sylvie had to be a good person. In fact, I figured most human beings on the planet were better than Jett and his sick family. Compared to them, Thalia was a God-sent angel, and through her, for the first time in my life, I saw a way out, a way to escape my debts.

  “I don’t know why you’re doing it, but thank you for helping,” I whispered.

  Staring out the car window, various emotions washed over me as thoughts kept spinning in my mind. The job was an option. An option I could accept, but didn’t have to. Still, the more I thought back to my college days, eating ramen noodles day in and day out, working my ass off to avoid amassing a fortune in loans, the more I was convinced I was doing the right thing. And I really didn’t care what I had to do, as long as I was in control of my own life. And control I was seeking.

  Finally, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, an escape from a precarious financial situation that I had thought would keep me enchained for the rest of my life. My best friend had always told me that if I wanted something, I had to work hard to achieve it. I had done that, but as it turned out, working hard was not enough, and it was certainly not always the fastest way to solve a problem. So I had always poured everything I had into my career, but now, a shortcut was necessary.

  Taking this job could be my shortcut. I was willing to adapt, to change, to try something new, and to take on challenges I hadn’t faced before.

  Whatever it takes. It was time to write my own destiny.

  As silently as I could, I switched off my cell phone, so no one could reach me.

  The streets were busier than usual, and the car seemed to stop at every corner. We had been driving for at least forty minutes when we finally reached an area close to the Williamsburg Bridge. The car came to a screeching halt in front of a red, three-story building, and I got out. From the outside, in the dark, it seemed rather ordinary, if not even a bit run-down. If I hadn’t known any better, I wouldn’t have had a clue that it was actually the studio of a successful photographer slash artist. There was certainly no sign indicating the opportunity of a promising job.

  A cold wind whipped my hair into my face, and I wrapped my coat tighter around me. Shivering near the entrance, I watched Thalia change her sneakers for a pair of high heels. She tossed the athletic shoes onto the back seat and retrieved an oversized training bag, which I assumed contained her outfit for the job.

  “Is he famous?” I asked as she locked up the car.

  “Who?”

  “Grayson.”

  “I wouldn’t say that, but he is well established and known for his exquisite taste and expensive art collection.” She turned to shoot me a strange look, then glanced up at the windows. “Whatever he shows you, keep any remarks to yourself. His art takes a while to get used to, if you ask me, but he takes it very personally when someone doesn’t like it.”

  “Is it that bad?”

  She laughed. “See for yourself. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve never understood his taste, but I’m not exactly a creative genius. Maybe it’ll appeal to you. Who knows?”

  She slung the bag over her shoulder and let herself in, motioning for me to f
ollow her up a narrow staircase. Her cryptic words had left me eager to find out what she had meant by “exquisite taste.” Was this Grayson renowned for his taste in selecting just the right model for the job, or did his art cater to the strange and bizarre? The countless questions floating in my mind kept me intrigued and focused and not just as a distraction that helped me forget my relationship drama. As far as impressions went, Grayson was a big, blurry question mark. I knew next to nothing about him, and the sudden realization of the unknown made me nervous.

  “What happens with the pictures he takes?” I asked. “Does he always sell them?”

  “Usually, yeah.” Thalia nodded slowly. “Most go to rich collectors, fans of the fifties era. Others he sells to magazines and film and music studios. He keeps only a few for himself. This is the place where he usually hangs out when he’s not traveling. Sometimes he rents out his studio to art events, gallery shows, and launch parties, which is how he raises his profile. Before he became a photographer, he owned a modeling agency.”

  She pressed a button above a polished steel plate that had “GR Photography” engraved on it. Within seconds, the door buzzed and opened. We stepped into a large hall decorated with marble pillars, huge mirrors, and hardwood flooring. In some ways, it reminded me of an art gallery with white naked walls and high ceilings. No flowers, no paintings adorning the walls.

  “This is the waiting area,” Thalia explained in a muted voice.

  I nodded as I let my gaze sweep over the plain white leather couches and matching chairs near an unoccupied glass reception desk set up in the middle of the room.

  “Obviously, Grayson’s expecting us, so we’re not going to wait here,” Thalia continued and pointed at a door marked “Studio.”

  As we passed the reception desk and crossed the corridor, my eyes fell on a life-sized sculpture. Just looking at it gave me the creeps and yet I stepped back to analyze it, unable to peel my eyes off the horrid statue. It took me a few seconds to process what I was seeing. The thing was carved from wood and reminded me of a distorted face with an open mouth and big, alien eyes reflecting terror. The body resembled a deformed man surrounded by blazing fire, his arms waving as though to cry for help, while his feet were rooted in what looked like earth. I shuddered at just how ugly it was. Actually, ugly was an understatement. It was dreadful. In one word: monstrous. So bad it was almost funny. I pressed my hand over my mouth to suppress a giggle. It was so deplorable and grotesque that I was surprised Grayson’s visitors weren’t too freaked out to return.

 
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