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The lovers game, p.12
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       The Lover's Game, p.12

           J. C. Reed
 
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  I lifted the recipe book and flicked through the first few pages. It was the smallest cookbook I had ever seen, barely bigger than my palm.

  “This is it.” Sylvie pointed to a page.

  Doubting the sanity of her idea, I scanned the recipe and was about to express my concern, when Sylvie opened a packet of black, shriveled fungi. I pinched my nose at the pungent smell: a noxious mixture of old cheese, stale beer, and wasted onions and garlic. “You sure you want to do this?” I asked, even though I knew she wasn’t; I could tell from the darting eye movement and the nervousness reflected in her expression. Like me, Sylvie was scared of cooking. “I mean, I appreciate the effort, but we could always just order in.” I made it sound nonchalant, as though it didn’t matter to me either way, even though I was almost ready to beg her to throw away the smelly stuff and leave the cooking to people who knew what they were doing.

  “No.” She shook her head with the kind of determination I had learned to fear from her. “I want to cook for you, to do something nice. Anything that makes you feel better, you know?”

  My mouth went dry. Usually, when Sylvie tried to do something nice for me, it ended in disaster, but I couldn’t bear to tell her that. In order to prevent any calamity that could possibly happen, I would just have to keep an eye on her. “In that case, at least let me help you.” I grabbed a knife, ready to chop a carrot, but Sylvie snatched it out of my hands, shooting me an awkward look.

  “I’d rather you enjoy the movie.” She stashed the knife out of my reach.

  Was that a hint of nervousness I detected? I eyed her carefully. Avoiding my probing gaze, she held the knife close to her chest, as if it was some prized possession and anytime someone might try to steal it from her.

  My stomach churned.

  Surely...no, it couldn’t be. As if sensing my stare, her grip around the knife tightened, until her knuckles whitened.

  Oh, for crying out loud.

  “You’re right. I should relax more and take it easy.” I smiled. “I’m going to take a bath.” I headed for my room and closed the door behind me. I had barely pressed my back against the wall when footsteps thudded down the hall and the door was thrown open. Sylvie’s frantic gaze swept over me and then the bathroom. She looked so miserable, that I had to stifle a laugh.

  “Taking a bath sounds great, but could you leave the door open? Please?” She smiled but it looked pasted on. “In case I need you,” she added. “Thanks.” She smiled again and, without another word, she returned to the kitchen.

  Oh, my god.

  No way. No freaking way.

  Sylvie thought I was suicidal. Under different circumstances, I would have laughed and called her out on it. But I couldn’t this time because I had no one but myself to blame. Obviously, she had mistaken my joke about killing myself as a call for help. Or maybe I looked like a loose cannon that might go off at any time. I snorted.

  As if I would kill myself over Jett.

  I opened several doors in our bathroom and scanned the contents of the shelves in the medicine cabinet: pills, razors, and even the hair straightener were gone. Even the belt of my bathrobe was absent. That was ridiculous.

  “Sylvie!” I yelled and followed her into the kitchen, unsure if I should be angry or laugh about the absurdity of the situation. “Where’s my hair straightener?” Or any other electrical items I might choose to electrocute myself?

  “It’s...” Sylvie paused, struggling for words. “Faulty. I had to send it back for repairs.”

  “Really?” I raised my eyebrows. “And where are the razors, so I can shave my legs? I have to be at work at seven.”

  “Used them.” This time, her lie came out smooth and prepared. She even nodded convincingly.

  “The whole pack?”

  “Yes.” Not even a blink.

  I opened our utility drawer. All plastic bags were gone. As if I would pull one over my head and suffocate myself. I took a deep breath and released it slowly.

  “You wouldn’t, by any chance, happen to think I might want to kill myself just because I slept with Jett, would you?” I asked nonchalantly.

  Sylvie’s eyes popped wide open. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it, only to reopen it a second later. I held up a hand to stop her.

  “I see your point,” I said through gritted teeth. “You’re afraid I might harm myself, and I appreciate your concern. But—” I heaved an annoyed sigh. “It’s not going to happen. I won’t kill myself over Jett. Even with all the bad things in my life, that thought has never crossed my mind.”

  “It’s just...” She trailed off, leaving the rest hanging heavy in the air.

  “I slept with him, and I know that’s a reason for concern.” I nodded slowly, trying to keep my voice calm. “I’m reminded of that every hour. And it doesn’t exactly help that I still love him or that I was under the influence of drugs without even knowing it. But that doesn’t mean I’m suicidal, all right? So, for the sake of my sanity, can you please return my things?”

  Sylvie just stared at me.

  I frowned. “What?”

  “I don’t understand, Brooke,” she said slowly. “How can you still love him after everything he’s done?”

  I opened my mouth to offer some sort of witty reply, but my brain failed to come up with any worthy retort. In all the frenzy of her worrying and my assurances that she didn’t have to worry about me, the words had just stumbled out of my mouth. Not once had I stopped to think about what I was saying.

  Crap!

  Why did I have to declare my undying love for him? Even if it was true—truly, crappy, painfully true—Sylvie wouldn’t understand. After Jett’s angry departure, I had thought hard about him. It wasn’t just the images of him and Tiffany and visiting his killer brother that were branded in my mind. I also remembered the hours I had spent with him, all those good times that had made me believe our relationship was long-term material. Even now that it was over, I still thought about him nonstop. Seeing his face in my mind was painful, but so was the fact that I still loved him without wanting to, and there was nothing I could do about that. He was in my mind, behind every thought, every word—sneaking around like the shadow of a draft, always there but not visible to the eye.

  “Brooke?” Sylvie prompted. Realizing she was still waiting for an answer, I looked up and grimaced. Of course she wouldn’t let it go. For once, couldn’t she pretend she didn’t hear my foolish declaration of love to the one guy who didn’t deserve it?

  “There is no off switch to make my heart complete, okay?” I snapped at her. “I thought that seeing his cheating with my own eyes would make me stop loving him. I thought all the pain and anger would erase my feelings for him.” I smirked. “But I was wrong. I still love him, and I can’t help it. You don’t like it. Well, I don’t like it either, but you know what? I can’t do anything about it.” To avoid her pitiful stare, I looked around and began to open drawers. “Where are my things anyway?”

  “Uh-uh. I’ll never tell you.” She shook her head in what I assumed was mock disapproval. “According to various websites, I can’t leave you unsupervised with anything you might use to hurt yourself, not until I’m sure you’re over him.”

  I snorted. “You Googled that?” I stared at her in disbelief. “Sylvie, I’m fine. No need to panic or turn my hair straightener into contraband.”

  “People in forums warn that the person might be lying, pretending to be fine to mask the pain until they are alone.”

  The masking part was true, but I certainly didn’t feel suicidal. “Do I look like I’m being irresponsible and ready to kill myself and leave you and my mother behind?” I snapped.

  “No, but...” She hesitated.

  “Then cut the bullshit.” I held out my hand. “My stuff, Sylvie. Please?”

  She shook her head again.

  I dropped my hand in mock annoyance. “Fine. Whatever. I’ll find it myself.” With one last glare at her, I headed for her bedroom, but Sylvie blocked my pa
th.

  I narrowed my eyes at her and then it dawned on me. She had stashed it all in there.

  “I will return everything, under one condition.” She held up a manicured index finger.

  “Which is?”

  “You let me help you.”

  I let out a short, irritated laugh. “I mean it, Sylvie. You don’t have to worry about me harming myself—or him,” I said sourly, deliberately avoiding saying Jett’s name. I knew I sounded bitter, but my emotions threatened to choke me. “I can accept my feelings for him and yet still not want to be with him. For that, I don’t need anyone’s help.”

  “I hope so.” The doubt in her tone signaled that she wasn’t convinced. “Because if you don’t get over him, I’ll personally drag your ass to the best LAA group meeting in town.”

  I raised my eyebrows in confusion. “LAA?”

  “Love Addicts Anonymous,” she clarified. “If an intervention doesn’t help, LAA will solve any sort of obsession problem with any guy.”

  I rolled my eyes. “I’m not obsessed with anyone.” In fact, I hated the sound of the word. Even though I had no doubt that LAA existed, the idea of joining some help organization and talking about Jett, then having to listen to other sob stories, was absurd.

  “If you say so.” Sylvie shot me a skeptical look. “You know, it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.”

  A pang of annoyance hit me at the realization that Sylvie didn’t believe me. Just because I was in love didn’t mean I was also obsessed.

  Okay, maybe a little.

  Still, Sylvie didn’t have to be so brutally honest about it.

  Disappointment or not, what was wrong with being a little obsessed with the man you loved, thinking about him day and night—which was the result of a bruised ego and hopes that were destroyed?

  “I don’t owe you an explanation, okay?” My voice trembled slightly as I glared at her. “I might still be in love with Jett, but I’m not crazy, and I’m certainly not bordering on obsessive or jumping-off-a-cliff-compulsive. It would take a lot more to make me jump off a bridge or start stalking him.”

  “I’m just trying to help,” Sylvie said defensively. “I don’t want you to get hurt and make the same mistake again.”

  I wanted to point out I had repeated the mistake before and survived, but I kept my mouth shut.

  “No man is worth the pain or waiting for him to change,” she continued. “It’s easy to be in love with the idea of love rather than actually loving a person.”

  God, Sylvie could be irritating sometimes.

  “You’ve got it wrong. I’m not in love with the idea of love,” I said in a low tone. I sounded so defensive it was almost laughable. “If I were in love with the idea, we’d be married by now, probably horseback-riding on the beach.”

  She shrugged, unconvinced. “If you say so.”

  I glowered at her as I began to massage my temples to get rid of the pounding behind them. It wasn’t like me to be rude, but Sylvie didn’t see how much I wanted to be alone in the dark abyss of my mind so that I could ignore the annoying agony in my chest.

  “Maybe you moved in with him too soon,” she murmured, oblivious to my reluctance to talk.

  For a second, I was taken aback, and my head snapped in her direction. “What do you mean?” I asked, shocked. I had feared the same thing, but I had discarded it. To hear my hidden fear coming from her mouth was daunting.

  “Think, Brooke. You did everything he wanted. You moved in with him. You worked for him. You always played by his rules.” She counted more reasons, but I stopped listening.

  The blood in my ears rushed faster, drowning out everything else.

  Was it possible that Jett and I had spent too much time together and our relationship fell into a routine, where he felt he didn’t have to chase me anymore because he already had me?

  My heart lurched at the thought that our relationship had become too boring for Jett. It certainly made sense and explained why he had wanted me to dress up as someone he had never met before. I wasn’t a prude when it came to spicing up one’s love life and role-playing could be a part of that, but so early in a relationship?

  I buried my face in my hands, letting my shoulders drop. “I’m so fucking stupid. I should have moved out as soon as Nate was arrested. Better yet, I never should have moved in with him in the first place.”

  “It’s just a theory, Brooke. I’m not saying it’s true. I’m just pleading with you to open your eyes and see him the way I do, rather than loving him for what he appears to be.”

  It made sense. I had given too much too soon. Sylvie was right. The possibility existed that my obsession with Jett was not only stupid, but in vain, too.

  “You’ve made your point, loud and clear. Now, can you please shut up and leave me alone?” I walked back into the bathroom and slammed the door shut before sinking to the floor, feeling number from the cold than ever before.

  A soft knock carried over from the door.

  “Brooke?” Sylvie’s voice was filled with worry. A second later, her head appeared in the doorway, and I looked up.

  “Yeah?”

  “I made us coffee. Are you coming?”

  On the heels of anger came acceptance. There was no point in evading her.

  Sighing, I stood and walked back into the kitchen and sat down at the table. Sylvie slumped into the seat opposite me and pulled her knees up to her chest, regarding me.

  “I want my things back before I go to work,” I said, her gaze unnerving me.

  “Fine.”

  For a long moment, Sylvie just stared at me, the oppressing silence heavy with words unspoken. Each passing second frayed my nerves. The way she just sat there, with her arms crossed over her chest and her lips pressed in a tight line, she looked scarier than a scolding schoolteacher. For an awful moment, I feared she might resume her lecture on obsession. The skin on my face prickled. Without intending to, I brushed a hand over my mouth, realizing I had been stroking my abdomen for the past few minutes, the gesture both protective and indicative of my frightening isolation.

  Finally, Sylvie sighed and leaned back in her seat, the tension between us slowly dissipating as she watched my movement. “Can you feel the baby?”

  “Not yet.” I shook my head, relaxing a little, happy for the change in topic. “It will be a while before it starts kicking, but I do feel different. I feel like part of J—” I bit my lip, stopping myself from saying the one thing that kept burning inside my mind. “I feel like something else is inside me.”

  Sylvie regarded me intently, her expression hardening again, but she didn’t probe.

  Dammit.

  Not only was I under his spell, but I was also having a hard time controlling what came out of my mouth around Sylvie. No wonder she thought I was in desperate need of an LAA session. After admitting that I still loved him and now proclaiming that he had become a part of me through our unborn child, it was as if I still harbored the slightest hope we would end up together...even though I knew I was kidding myself.

  Ending together was impossible. I had broken things off, and he had left me. We were over, even if I couldn’t believe it yet.

  “I have something for you.” She retrieved a yellow envelope from one of the drawers and pushed it into my hands. “I meant to give it to you in a few weeks, but I thought why wait that long?” She shrugged, as though it wasn’t a big deal. “I thought we might attend...together.”

  “What is it?” I opened the envelope but didn’t peer inside.

  Sylvie raised her eyebrows, urging me to take a look. I did as requested. It was a voucher for childbirth classes. I smiled, suddenly overwhelmed by emotion.

  “These will be great. I hadn’t even thought of it.” It was a kind gesture, and probably one of Sylvie’s attempts to try to distract my mind from Jett and help me focus on the future.

  “Thank you.” I looked up at her. To my surprise, Sylvie didn’t return my smile as she watched me push the voucher back inside th
e envelope, and I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. The tension in her posture was unmistakable.

  Was that a hint of nervousness on her face?

  “Can I ask you something?” she said at last.

  I narrowed my eyes, suddenly wary of her scary expression. I wasn’t sure how to reply. I didn’t want her to ask me anything, but I just said, very carefully, “What?”

  “Don’t take this the wrong way,” she started.

  I winced at what might be coming. Sylvie’s questions and statements always had that effect on me.

  “I know you haven’t told your mom about your pregnancy yet. I probably wouldn’t either, because she can be a real dragon. But—” She moistened her lips, pausing as she considered her next words. “For the past few weeks, I’ve been wondering why you don’t really make any plans? I’m your best friend, and yet you never talk about the baby. No offense, Brooke, but it would be hard to believe you’re three months pregnant, if it weren’t for the test.”

  So it was a personal issue between friends. I relaxed a little.

  “Oh, that,” I said, flicking my wrist.

  It was true.

  Up until that moment, I had always avoided any discussion about the baby. I didn’t talk about my pregnancy like other expecting women, and I understood why it was a matter of concern for Sylvie. The truth was, even though I had listened and gone along with Jett’s and Sylvie’s suggestions, the entire situation seemed surreal. Now that Jett and I were over, I was trying even harder to banish any thoughts of what the future might have in store.

  I smirked. “I’m not like other people, Sylvie. Maybe others want to scream it at the top of their lungs, but I don’t. I’m not comfortable telling the whole world my business.”

  “But why? Aren’t you excited?” She narrowed her eyes. “Just because you and he are over, it shouldn’t change anything. You should be proud, go shopping, plan a baby shower. You should be talking about it nonstop, you know, do all the stuff women do when they’re pregnant. I’d love to help, even though I’m not even keen on having kids.” She paused, eyeing me cautiously. “Is it because of Jett?”

 
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