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The lovers game, p.11
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       The Lover's Game, p.11

           J. C. Reed
 
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  The rage had been etched in his flaming eyes, which morphed into a wildfire when I suggested he might want to kill me to get his hands on the Lucazzone estate.

  Oh, my god, the rage—just because I suggested he might want to kill me to get his hands on the estate. I shook my head. It wasn’t even that farfetched. The news was rife with dark stories of murder and betrayal out of greed. Why wouldn’t I assume the worst when his brother was a killer and Jett had been visiting him in prison? He had told me a lie once. I chose to believe him, and he did it again.

  It was a perfectly reasonable explanation. It was the only explanation I had, given the fact that Jett had refused to share his reasons for keeping secrets. All he had to do was answer my questions. He refused and begged for undeserved trust instead. The fact that he wouldn’t be honest annoyed me; it implied that I was right, strengthening my need to keep my distance from him. He had too much power over me, and I needed a second perspective.

  I retrieved my cell phone from the nightstand and texted the only sane person I knew: Sylvie. As her best friend, it was my duty to tell her everything before Jett did. The last thing I needed was for her to side with him. I texted:

  You’ll never guess what happened last night. I slept with J, and I didn’t even know it! I feel like shooting myself. Don’t trust him if he calls you. Xx Brooke.

  I sent the message, pulled on a baggy sweater that went all the way down to my knees, and then closed the window absent-mindedly. Thousands of thoughts raced through my mind, but they were nothing compared to the millions of feelings threatening to throttle me.

  For a while, I stood in front of the window, the weight of the situation lingering heavy in the air. Eventually, I turned my attention toward the apartment building on the other side of the road. In front of it stood a couple with a little boy sitting on top of the man’s shoulders. They discussed something for a moment, and then the woman just smiled the kind of smile that signaled happiness. His lips melted into hers in a brief but intimate kiss, as though they were used to public displays of affection. My heart ached at the way she smiled proudly at her little family.

  I will never have a family with Jett.

  My baby will never know what a real family feels like, never ride atop Daddy’s shoulders in the sunshine.

  The thoughts sat in the pit of my stomach like heavy rocks. While I had pushed Jett away, a part of me wasn’t ready to let him go just yet. That same foolish part of me kept hoping he wouldn’t give up on us so easily, wished he’d find a way to prove to me that he was an honest man.

  A heavy sadness washed over me at the realization of how much I had believed in our future, how much I had looked forward to raising our child together—as a happy family. Now that it was over, we would be estranged parents, one poor and the other rich and successful. Someday, Jett would find someone else and marry her, and while the thought had been lingering at the back of my mind ever since we met, time hadn’t taken the sting out of it.

  As I returned to the warmth of my bed, I realized I was still shaking from the fight. Too many things had piled up, but they were nothing compared to the bad feeling of impending doom. Nate was out, and with him free, I had no doubt Jett would be seeing him on a regular basis, just as he had before.

  Ignoring Jett’s scent on the pillows, I leaned back and began to flick through my messages. The legal firm hadn’t replied. For a moment, I considered calling them again, then decided against it. For one, I was a professional and didn’t want to seem as though I was harassing them. And then I figured if they thought the matter important, they’d get back to me. I had nothing to lose by waiting a little longer.

  My eyes rested on the wallpaper on my cell phone screen, a picture of Jett and me, laughing and grimacing at the camera. A sharp pang shot through my heart as I remembered that day in all its vivid glory. It was one of the many happy memories—too many to count. The first day of autumn, we had been sitting in the park, fooling around, capturing both the change in seasons and our blossoming love. Or at least my blossoming love. Not his. He was probably too busy thinking about screwing his ex.

  Before I could change my mind, I deleted the picture and replaced the wallpaper with the image of a desolate winter landscape in the hope that the loneliness would empty my mind and the snow would gradually freeze over my feelings.

  By midday, the entrance door opened, and footsteps thudded across the corridor. My pulse spiked, but there was no time to steady my nerves or hide. I knew it was my best friend. The way she hurried in, I almost expected her to shout, “Fire.”

  Sylvie threw open the door, her first question hitting me before she even set foot in the room. “Please tell me I’ve been pranked, because someone just texted me that you slept with Jett.”

  Her blonde hair was a mess, and her cheeks were flushed, as if she had been running a couple of blocks, which couldn’t be, because Sylvie never engaged in physical activity of any kind, unless it was to get a limited edition of shoes at half-price. I sat up and regarded her grimly as she sat on the edge of the bed, barely able to move in her fluffy, pink cashmere sweater, tight red pants, and dark brown high heels. In spite of her flushed face, she looked as if she had just stepped off a runway.

  “I wish,” I muttered, “just as much as I wish I could kill myself this instant.” To my horror, a tear ran down my face.

  “Oh my God,” Sylvie exclaimed in shock. “You didn’t!” Slowly, she shook her head in what I assumed was exasperation; that was understandable as I, too, was slowly growing exasperated with myself. “Why would you do that?”

  Why indeed?

  “Because I didn’t know it was him.” I raised my hand in defense, feeling defeated.

  Her eyes widened. “But how...how could you not know it was Jett?”

  “I don’t know.” I raised my hand in defense, feeling defeated. “And before you ask, no, I’ve no idea how I couldn’t know. I just didn’t recognize him. It all happened so fast. It was dark and the lights in the club made him look strange and distorted.” The whole thing rang farfetched, unbelievable, because it was.

  “But still. You have ears. You must have spoken at some point and yet you didn’t recognize his voice?” Sylvie asked in disbelief, her tone dripping with accusation.

  Talk about not being judgmental! What happened to compassion?

  “There is a term for it,” I muttered. “It’s called selective perception, seeing and hearing only what your mind chooses to see and hear. Google it if you don’t believe me.”

  “I might do that,” Sylvie said and plopped down on the edge of the bed. “What was he doing at the club anyway?”

  “I’ve got no idea.” That was the one question I didn’t get the chance to ask.

  She shook her head in disbelief again. “Jesus, Brooke. I thought we talked about this.” She kicked off her expensive shoes, exposing swollen feet and red, painful marks that would soon turn into blisters. “Don’t you remember what you’ve been drilling into me for years?” She cocked an eyebrow meaningfully.

  I shook my head to signal that I had no clue.

  She picked up her left shoe and held it up in the air like a preacher waving a Bible around. “If a shoe doesn’t fit the first time you try it on, it’ll always give you blisters. Why don’t you trust your own advice and accept that if a man hurts you once, he will always hurt you?”

  Her footwear analogy summoned a faint smile to my lips. “Jett isn’t your average pair of shoes,” I retorted. “He’s a big, fat gumboot and too much to handle. Nothing gets to him. Nothing can change his form. He does what he wants, whenever he wants, and how he wants it, paying no mind to anyone else’s feelings. I’m swimming in those shoes, but I can’t seem to pull them off.” Hysteria bubbled in the back of my throat. I turned to Sylvie in the hopes she’d get the joke, but worry was still etched into the lines of her face.

  “I’m serious, Brooke.” Her frown deepened. “A shoe is a shoe, and if it doesn’t fit the first time you try it on, it
never will. There are no exceptions.”

  My laughter died in my throat. I let out a sigh and nodded. She had always looked out for me, and as much as I would have preferred otherwise, she was right. No matter how hard I tried to deny it, Jett wasn’t good for me. I might have adjusted to his ways, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t have to endure all sorts of pain along the way, unless I gave up on us forever.

  “You’re right. I’m sorry.” I relented. “I know I shouldn’t have slept with him. It’s just...” I struggled for words.

  How could I possibly explain to her that, on a subconscious level, my body responded to him because I loved him? That it didn’t matter if Jett wore a paper bag on his head, that something inexplicable kept pulling me to him. I couldn’t change that, whether I wanted it or not.

  Sylvie’s face lit up.

  “I know what went wrong,” she said coolly. “You had to be drunk, because no woman in her right mind would ever take back a guy like him after the stunt he pulled.”

  What she didn’t realize was that I very well might not have been in my right mind. All rational thought had flown out the door the moment Jett entered my life.

  I pressed the pillow against my chest as I recalled the previous months’ events. Even when I knew I shouldn’t trust a guy with a Southern accent, gorgeous lips, and a body to die for, my brain had switched off at the mere sight of him. His charm and looks had persuaded me to jump into bed with him soon after we met. I had let my guard down and allowed myself to fall in love with him.

  Fighting the urge to explain, I gave a careless shrug. It would have been much easier to let Sylvie think the influence of alcohol was to blame. But, for some reason, I just couldn’t.

  “You know me,” I said. “I don’t get drunk easily. I had one drink, two max. That’s it. I swear.”

  “I knew it. You would never let a guy like Jett back into your bed under normal circumstances.” In spite of her stern voice, a gentle smile lit up her face as she regarded me. “You know your Jersey-Shore-partying days are over. As much as you love to party, you can’t do that anymore, not in your condition.”

  I rolled my eyes. Sylvie was worse than my mother. Not only was she trying to see straight through me, but she also always managed to make me feel worse. My previous life couldn’t have been more different. It had all been about work and building a career that had gone nowhere—until Jett entered my life and offered me a job with Mayfield Realties.

  “You’re right,” I replied, unconvinced. “I should give up on fun altogether.”

  “That’s not what I meant. But drinking yourself into a stupor so you didn’t even recognize the devil? That’s...”

  Figuring that Sylvie would go on for a while, I stopped listening. As I crossed my legs on the bed, I noticed a blue bruise on my thigh, and I realized it must have happened when I stumbled. Fuzzy images began to flood my mind.

  Even though I hadn’t realized it was him, Jett had managed to break my fall. I remembered the way the stranger had held me, his arms wrapped around my waist, his hot breath on my face as he said something I couldn’t remember. While I knew for a fact that I had barely had one and a half cocktails and the alcohol might have wreaked havoc on my body, was it enough to make me believe I was in a dream and cause trouble remembering specific details such as the events after my fall?

  Possibly.

  However, not likely.

  And why had I kept seeing a wolf? It must have been some kind of hallucination, brought on by Jett’s intimidating flair.

  The question that bothered me the most was why spin a concoction of phantasms rather than just recognize Jett? Sylvie was right: Even under the influence of alcohol, that part made no sense.

  I closed my eyes, because I couldn’t believe what I was about to say. “Jett asked if I was high. It didn’t strike me as odd at the time, but now...” I opened my eyes. My gaze scanned the room before settling on the bucket, and a horrible thought crossed my mind.

  Sylvie spoke out the obvious first. “You think your drink was spiked?” she asked, narrowing her eyes. I grimaced but didn’t respond. “Do you think he would—”

  I shook my head, horrified at the thought. “No. That wasn’t Jett. Gina bought all the drinks.” I paused long enough to notice Sylvie’s frown, then added, “She’s someone I met at work.”

  “I see,” Sylvie said, deep in thought.

  I didn’t like the look on her face and almost feared what she’d say next, but to my surprise, she just leaned back on the bed for a minute.

  “Back when we were in college, my mom always had that irrational fear that we’d get into drugs, remember?” Sylvia finally said.

  I nodded, unsure of where she was going.

  “It didn’t exactly help that some guy smoked pot in the communal kitchen right before my mom popped in for a surprise visit,” Sylvie continued.

  I grinned, remembering the scene vividly. Her mother had been livid, and back then, I was sure I’d never see Sylvie again. She never told me how she managed to diffuse that bomb.

  “She bought a couple home drug-testing kits to detect the presence of common street and prescription drugs—you know, the usual, like ecstasy, amphetamines, opiates, and that stuff.”

  “Really?” I stared at her, open-mouthed. “I didn’t even know they make such a thing. No wonder you never told me.”

  Sylvie waved her hand, her expression betraying her annoyance. “Wait, that’s not all. Whenever she made one of her surprise visits, which was often, she insisted that I do the test. If I refused she’d cut off my allowance.” She grimaced, and her expression darkened just a little more. “Anyway, my point is that the test is 99.9 percent accurate. Were it not for the negative results, my mom never would have believed I wasn’t taking anything because she has this unnerving tendency not to trust anyone, including her own daughter.”

  “Wow. Your mom...” I shook my head in disbelief. “I don’t blame her for what she did though. We used to party pretty hard.”

  “Yeah, like crazy.” Sylvie let out a high laugh as her expression adopted that faraway look that screamed she was being transported back to a different time in our lives. “Anyway, I still have a kit in my room. If you unknowingly took any drugs in the past forty-eight hours, we can know for sure within a few minutes. So...” She looked at me, surveying me for a moment. “Are you up for it?”

  “What? Now?”

  “Yeah, now.” She jumped up and pulled me to my feet. “It’s probably expired, but we could still give it a shot.”

  I nodded, even though the idea wasn’t exactly appealing. How would I react if the test came back positive? What could I possibly assume other than that Gina might be into drugs and that she might have thought she was doing me a favor, helping me loosen up? It wasn’t unusual or unheard of. I had grown up in an area where teens offered others drugs, because they assumed their friends wanted to give them a try, too. But would Gina do that without even asking me? I just couldn’t believe she’d sneak it on me, without even telling me.

  I watched as Sylvie retrieved a box from an upper shelf in her bedroom and motioned for me to follow her. Even as I walked after her, I knew I didn’t want to go through with the test because I feared its outcome. Then again, if I didn’t find out, the fear of not knowing would always be greater, nagging at the back of my mind. Metaphorical dark clouds descended upon me as soon as I joined Sylvie in the bathroom. For some reason, it was almost as bad as peeing on a pregnancy test. With each passing second, I grew more anxious, and finally it was time to evaluate the results.

  “Here you go,” Sylvie said.

  With a flick of her hand, I had my answer. We both stared at the paper in shock. All substances appeared to be negative, except one.

  What the hell!

  “You’re positive for GHP,” she whispered.

  “Now would be a great time to shoot me,” I murmured. Sylvie opened her mouth to protest or lecture me, but I held up my hand to stop her. “Don’t. I don’
t want to hear it.”

  “I’m sorry,” Sylvie said slowly.

  “Don’t be.” I looked at her grimly, my mind strangely devoid of thoughts. I should have been shocked, fuming mad about the results, anything but—cold and composed.

  Someone had spiked my drink, and it seemed that someone was Gina, for whatever reason. The comprehension stung, but it didn’t register. Instead, something else seemed to take center spot in my mind. The knowledge that I wasn’t to blame for what had happened the previous night didn’t ease the guilt of having slept with Jett. Perhaps my foggy mind had failed to recognize him and I had mistaken the entire sordid encounter for a dream, but as sure as hell, Jett had been lingering in my memories the whole time. I wanted him, and he was the one I would always want, the choice I would always make, no matter how bad for me.

  “Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s not your fault, Brooke,” Sylvie whispered.

  I shook my head, because she didn’t understand. It was my fault, and I had no one else to blame. “I could have chosen any man. Why him?” I turned away to hide the telltale moisture in my eyes, but I could feel Sylvie’s intense gaze burning a hole in my back, and her thoughts and anger were almost palpable in the air.

  “Oh, sweetie, come here.” She enveloped me in a hug as tears began to trickle down my face again.

  In spite of my constant assurance that I was okay, Sylvie called in sick at work so she could stay with me. She made breakfast for us, consisting of her usual black coffee and toast, then cleared out a box of old movies for us to watch. For the first time in my life, she even offered to cook us Chinese.

  I laughed, until her offended expression told me she was being serious.

  “We’d better use them before they expire,” she said, standing in the kitchen with a brand new apron tied around her narrow waist. Scattered across the table were the contents of a gift box consisting of a cooking set for beginners, complete with Chinese ingredients. She had received it last Christmas from an aunt and had stashed it away in the back of a cupboard, along with all the other clutter she didn’t need. At that time, she had claimed the gift was ridiculous. Now, she seemed hell-bent on giving it a try.

 
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