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The lovers secret, p.11
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       The Lover's Secret, p.11

           J. C. Reed
 
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  I entered the gigantic lobby and stopped, considering whether to head upstairs to the penthouse and try to open the locked suitcase or head for the shops and buy something to wear and surprise Jett at the office…when I remembered that my credit cards were maxed out.

  Dammit.

  “Welcome to reality, Stewart,” I mumbled.

  Not only were my debts messing with my life; they were also ruining my chance to buy something sexy and new, if only to feel better.

  I never thought I’d miss my old room resembling a matchbox, but a few weeks into living with Jett and seeing his walk-in closet, which was larger than an entire store department, and I felt like asking Sylvie to let me move back into our tiny abode, just so I could pick and choose from her stuffed-to-the-brim wardrobe. Sylvie had so much stuff—thanks to her family’s platinum VISA card—that she hardly remembered what was in her closet. Such a surplus would have come in handy at the moment, if only to get out of the dress I was wearing.

  I had almost reached the elevator when I noticed a redhead dressed in black heading in my direction. I recognized her as the receptionist who had greeted me upon my arrival the day before.

  “Miss Stewart?” she said.

  I nodded.

  She handed me a large envelope. “This letter was left for you an hour ago.”

  “Thanks.” I watched her walk off, her dress shoes click-clacking across the marble floor, before I turned my attention to the envelope. There was no address; not even a room number. Only a name, printed in capital letters:

  BROOKE STEWART.

  My heart pounded in my chest. Apart from Jett and Sylvie, no one knew where to find me. I figured it had to be from Jett, even though he could have just called me instead.

  Was he trying to surprise me with yet another game?

  He could be quite creative when it came to our sex life. But, even for his standards, this felt a little surprising, and for some reason all I could think of was that maybe…just maybe…this was one of those days that would end in a proposal after all.

  Granted, Jett thought marriage should feature in one’s cards only after at least half a decade of dating, but weren’t miracles known for hitting you when you didn’t see them coming? A girl could dream.

  I sighed. If Jett only proposed, I wouldn’t even need a proposal like the ones you see in the movies. I’d take a hand-written note, a hint, or anything at all.

  With shaky hands and a half-smile on my lips, half expecting the cameras to roll on me, I tore the seal open, my heart threatening to jump out of my chest. As I pulled out the sheet of paper, I frowned and eventually my smile died on my lips. A cold shudder ran down my spine.

  Oh, my God.

  That couldn’t be.

  As I scanned the letter in my hand, another cold shudder ran down my spine and then the shock came slowly in thick, long waves.

  This couldn’t be right. It just…couldn’t be.

  In my hand was a piece of paper titled, “Visitation Log,” and on it was a long list of dates. Disbelief washed over me as I stared at all the times Jett’s name popped up at one and the same address.

  Six weeks.

  Twice weekly.

  In prison.

  Jett had been visiting his brother in prison.

  My heart thudded against my chest as my throat constricted. I didn’t know what to think, what to make of this—of what it was supposed to mean. My pulse raced at the thought of Jett meeting with him, of all people. Sure, he was my boyfriend and my boss, but wasn’t he supposed to tell me this little fact—after everything that had happened?

  I turned the paper in a feeble attempt to find out who had sent the list, and for a second, my heart stopped, and my legs threatened to buckle beneath me as nausea gathered in the pit of my stomach. I stared at the words as if they belonged to another language, but there was no mistake. Right there, it clearly stated—in black and white:

  Freed, on the grounds of a lack of evidence.

  It had been signed two days prior and stated that Jonathan Mayfield, who was known to everyone as Nate, was to be released within twenty-four hours. That placed his release the previous day—which was right when Jett and I had arrived at the TRIO hotel.

  Gripping the wall for support, I closed my eyes and inhaled a deep breath, but the air felt stuffy, as if it contained no oxygen. I felt so weak that I feared I might just pass out on the spot, and the walls would come crashing down on me.

  “It’s not possible,” I muttered to myself.

  That just wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be because in the past few weeks I had not once considered the possibility. Of all the things I had feared, his immediate release had featured nowhere in my mind, nor in my imagination, not even in my nightmares. My hands were shaking so hard I had to ball them into fists. The magnitude of the words hung heavy in the air.

  The sword of Damocles dangling from a thin thread above my head.

  Fear and anger threatened to choke the life out of me as I read those words over and over again in the hopes they might somehow dissipate into a figment of my imagination if I begged them long enough.

  Jett’s brother, Nate, was free—the very man who had kidnapped me, hurt me with the intention to kill me, and then had sent Jett’s father into a coma. In my mind, I could see the images happening in slow motion: Nate holding a knife to my throat, the blade slowly penetrating the thin barrier that was my skin. He was a monster, a cold-blooded killer with a sick need to inflict pain.

  How the fuck could Jett visit him?

  He might not care about how I felt about Nate, but what about the things Nate had done to his own father? And, most importantly, why did they release Nate?

  My fingers gripped the paper so hard it crumbled in my hand.

  It wasn’t so much the pain of the past, of what had happened, of knowing that Jett could still face this man, but the shock at the realization of what might now lie ahead, of what I had been hoping would never repeat itself. I had been trying to forget and run from the past for so long that it had taken every ounce of my willpower not to let things get to me. And now a serial killer was a free man.

  My God!

  Nate might be after me this very minute, eager to get his revenge for all the trouble I had caused. The evidence I had found was supposed to tie him down for a lifetime. That they let him go didn’t make sense. Unless Nate had connections, someone who helped him find a loophole.

  A killer who had run an illicit club.

  And now he could continue with his previous crime spree—raping innocents, killing for sport like a hunter would chase after a fox.

  My throat constricted at the thought, and the trembling in my limbs intensified. As the black pit from my past slowly opened beneath my feet, threatening to engulf me once again, I realized my past efforts to control my fear had been in vain. Suddenly, the shiny marble floors of the TRIO hotel didn’t look relaxing at all. They looked like they were about to crack like stones.

  Was it possible that Jett didn’t know about his brother’s release?

  Possibly, but not likely.

  He’d visited him so often. Surely someone would have told him during one of his regular visits. He had to have known it. Anything else wouldn’t make any sense.

  With the envelope clutched to my chest, I rushed to the front desk. The receptionist was summarizing the hotel’s amenities to two guests.

  “Who sent this?” I asked, cutting in front of them, hardly able to contain my voice. Even to my ears, I sounded hysterical. Knowing this, I tried again, this time calmer. “You gave me this envelope.” My voice still trembled with shock as I showed her the envelope. “Someone left it for me. Who was it?”

  She stared at me for a moment, confused, and then her eyes widened as recognition crossed her face. My heart pounded so hard I feared it might be about to burst.

  “It was left for you this morning, ma’am.” She turned to a man to her right. “I wasn’t here, but my colleague was.”

  From
the way he was standing, rigidly observing the entire situation, I concluded that her colleague was actually her superior.

  He stroked his beard and shook his head slowly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see anyone. It was given to one of the bellboys, who delivered it to the desk. I’m afraid the sender left no name,” he said in a deep voice.

  The female receptionist nodded and turned back to me, repeating the man’s words. “I’m sorry.” She then turned her attention back to the couple, apologizing for the disruption.

  I stared at her. Under different circumstances, I would have complained that they weren’t more forthcoming. But seeing that I was the one disrupting their service to the guests, and they were just trying to do their jobs, I mumbled weakly to the waiting couple, “I’m sorry,” and then walked away.

  Once I reached the elevators, I stopped, unable to ignore the rising panic inside me. Leaning against the cold tile wall, I stared at the envelope, unsure of what to do. Someone had wanted to deliver a message. Their mission had been accomplished.

  Did it really matter where or who it came from?

  Whoever sent it had wanted to tip me off, all the while choosing to stay anonymous. I figured the person was someone who knew Jett well; someone who was familiarized with Jett’s working schedule, and probably knew Nate, too, which wasn’t so surprising. Before his incarceration, Nate had been on the board of Mayfield Realties. That the sender knew where to find me bothered me, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I needed to talk with Jett. Until then, none of it was going to make sense.

  I speed-dialed his number and waited. The line rang until it went to voicemail.

  Pressing my hands back into fists, I couldn’t stop another wave of anger from gushing through me. Couldn’t he sense my distress? Jett usually picked up on the second ring, unless he was in a meeting or conference, which, I assumed, had to be the case.

  I stashed my phone back in my handbag, only to pull it out a minute later. I didn’t know what made me punch in one of the assistant’s number. I reckoned it was out of desperation and the knowledge that doing something—anything—was better than doing nothing. As the phone kept ringing and I waited for her to pick up, I prayed that the message in my hand was nothing but a joke, some kind of stupid, thoughtless prank, and Jett would set it straight.

  Emma picked up on the second ring.

  “It’s Brooke,” I said by means of introduction. “I need to speak with Jett, please.”

  There was a short pause before Emma answered in her usual snobby tone. “He’s off work until Wednesday, as you know.”

  I blinked several times in succession. Of course I knew that tiny detail…only he had cut short our weekend to return to work, and that was a detail she should have known.

  “He’s not there?” I asked, incredulously.

  “No, Brooke, he’s not.” Emma’s voice was thick with sarcasm. “Aren’t you supposed to be on a vacation together?”

  Was that a hint of glee I detected?

  I clamped my mouth shut to keep back a venomous remark. The woman was full of contempt, and it wasn’t just a personal issue she had with me. She had once dated Robert Mayfield, Jett’s father, and for some reason, she had the impression that it somehow entitled her to be bitchy. The tension between us had always been thick as smoke. For a long moment, I pondered if she could have been the one who sent me the envelope, if the glee I detected in her voice actually stemmed from her delight at me being in the dark while she held all the cards.

  Since I wasn’t sure, I decided to proceed carefully.

  “We are. It’s just…” I paused, grasping for words. “Jett wants to know if everything’s fine.”

  She paused, her hesitation palpable.

  “I see.” Not even pretending to hide her disappointment, she heaved an exaggerated sigh. “Let me check.”

  Papers shuffled audibly in the background, and then the line fell completely silent. For a moment, I wondered if she had put me on hold, keeping me waiting on purpose. The seconds stretched on forever, until I was sure Emma would never return.

  Finally, something rustled in the background. Candy? Last time I had checked, the candy bowl had been in the lobby sixty stories down, which meant my gut feeling had been right. She was keeping me waiting on purpose.

  “Nothing to report,” she said, after what felt like an eternity. “Tell Jett everything’s fine. We’re managing perfectly well without him.”

  I winced as the noise of foil wrappers carried down the line, then a chewing sound echoed in my ear, so loud I had to keep the phone away. It wasn’t hard to imagine Emma chewing with her mouth open. She knew it got to me, and that was my fault. A few weeks earlier, in an attempt to break the ice by having a little chat, I told her that I’d once shared an office with a guy who always distracted me with his noisy eating.

  When I could bear to put the phone back to my ear again, I rolled my eyes and put on the sweetest voice I could muster. “Great. Thank you, and have a good day, Emma.”

  I disconnected before she could answer. As much as Emma’s hellish and childish behavior annoyed me to no end, my thoughts were on something much more grim: Jett wasn’t at work, and I was worried that something bad had happened to him, which might have been the reason why he wasn’t answering his phone.

  By the time I returned to the reception desk, my heart was pumping hard, this time with yet more worry. The redhead gazed at me with a patient expression, as though she had been expecting me. She was probably used to dealing with annoying guests like me.

  “Hi,” I said and smiled sweetly. “Do you happen to know when Mr. Mayfield will be back? We’re staying in the penthouse suite.”

  I almost expected her to shake her head and offer a curt, “No, sorry,” just to brush me off, but instead, she pulled up her eyebrows in recollection.

  “Mr. Mayfield is booked in Conference Room 5A for this afternoon.” She pointed to the open entrance to her right. “Follow the hall, then turn left. You should find him there.”

  I stared at her, open-mouthed, as the images of horror in my head slowly dissipated and turned into something else: red, boiling fury.

  He hadn’t been in an accident. No need to start making calls to all the hospitals in New York City. I couldn’t have been happier about that, but I also couldn’t have been angrier at the newest development in his actual whereabouts.

  “He’s…?” My voice failed me, and for a second I was about to lose it.

  He had been here all along.

  The reality hit me hard and fast, knocking my breath out of my lungs.

  “Conference Room 5A,” the receptionist repeated. “Would you like me to show you the way?”

  She eyed me with sympathy, as if she could sense my distress. Or maybe she was just used to female guests being disappointed by rich men. Either way, she suspected that I’d had a hard day. What she didn’t know, though, was that my day had not just been hard; it had been a living nightmare, and I was worried it was only going to get worse.

  I shook my head in response. “Thanks, but that won’t be necessary.”

  I headed in the direction she had pointed, barely paying attention to the expensive paintings or the polished marble floors. My feet walked fast, as if something was chasing me, as if my life depended on it. In a twisted way, something was chasing me: the past I had hoped would never catch up with me.

  If this is a dream, God, please…please let me wake up.

  The prayer was futile, though, because it wasn’t a dream. No dream I had ever had felt so surreal, yet was real, and I knew I wouldn’t be waking up from this living nightmare, no matter how many times I tried to pinch myself.

  I had a bad feeling about Nate, not least because he was a killer on the loose. Countless questions kept spinning in my mind, all of which I hoped Jett could answer. The sooner I met with him, the faster I could secure the water dam, before the flood burst through and swallowed me whole.

  I crossed the hall and took a le
ft, toward the conference rooms. The area was quiet, almost serene, decorated with huge arrangements of orchids and a plush, red carpet that hushed the sound of my heels.

  Conference Room 5A was the last door to my right. Even before I stopped in front of it, I noticed that the doors were wide open, and it was awfully quiet.

  A rush of disappointment surged through me. No one was inside, meaning the meeting was over. I entered nonetheless, and sat down at the ridiculously huge, round, mahogany table that would have made King Arthur’s knights proud—in ancient business times.

  The faint smell of coffee hit my nostrils, making it clear that the room had been recently occupied. But by whom and why? Who did Jett meet here, and why would he hide it from me?

  My head was a blurry, spinning mess. So many questions, so few answers, but among them the one question that kept burning inside my mind: why would Jett lie to me about being at the office when he was right here, in the hotel? And, most importantly: why hadn’t he told me that he had been visiting with his brother—the very man who had tried to kill me—in the past few weeks?

  They were little lies, but lies nonetheless. For some reason, I kept thinking that maybe Jett didn’t know his brother had been released.

  It was possible.

  Hard to imagine, but still possible.

  I had to believe that…for the sake of our relationship and our baby.

  However, in the event he had known about it, what prevented him from telling me? My fingers traced the smooth surface of the mahogany table as my mind fought hard to put the pieces together.

 
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