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The lovers game, p.13
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       The Lover's Game, p.13

           J. C. Reed
 
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  I winced inwardly at the way she said his name, as if he resembled an infectious disease.

  “No. It’s—” My voice failed me. I took a deep breath and released it slowly. “It has nothing to do with him.”

  I shot her a begging look, silently urging her to stop talking about him. Couldn’t she leave the matter be, forget his name like I was trying to?

  “What is it then?” Sylvie insisted.

  “It’s just...I can’t believe that I’m pregnant.”

  “So being in denial is your solution?” She stared at me in shock. “You have to face reality eventually, particularly when you stop fitting into your clothes.”

  “I’m not in denial,” I protested. “I just don’t want to risk anything.”

  “Risk? I don’t understand.” She spread her hands, palms out, her usually smooth forehead creased in a frown. “What’s the problem? I understand you don’t want to talk about Jett, but what about your baby?”

  “You’re a hell of annoying, you know that?” I laughed, even though the situation didn’t seem particularly amusing to me.

  “I’m your friend. I’m supposed to be annoying.” She leaned forward, smoothing her hair back. “That’s what friends are for. We’re supposed to breathe down your neck to make sure you stay on track, but I can’t do that if you keep things to yourself. Ever since you met Jett, you’ve been shutting me out. Have you ever thought about how that makes me feel?” Her tone betrayed her hurt.

  Surprised, I looked up at her and slowly realized that Sylvie had likely felt that way for a while. Shame burned through me.

  Had I been so blind that I didn’t realize I was neglecting our friendship? We had been friends forever, and yet there were things Sylvie still didn’t know about me—things only Jett knew. For the past few weeks, I had been so focused on Jett that I had not realized Sylvie might feel left out. She had always been the sister I lost. And now with Jett gone, she was all I had. There was no doubt that she deserved my trust more than he did. I owed it to her to tell the truth.

  “Look, I get your concern.” I sighed. “I know it’s wrong not to talk about things, but if I start talking, I’ll start making plans. I’ll dream and hope, and I don’t want to do that right now. When I was with Jett, I always had this unexplained fear that something would happen.”

  “That you would break up?” Sylvie cut in. The question was harmless enough.

  “No. It wasn’t only that,” I said softly.

  I walked over to the coffeemaker. We had been so engrossed in our discussion that she had forgotten to switch it off. I poured steaming coffee in two cups, then handed Sylvie hers.

  “I want this child more than anything, but I don’t want my hopes raised, only to see them shattered,” I said. “What’s so wrong with that? If you had experienced what I’ve gone through, you’d probably feel the same way.” I wrapped my fingers around the cup, but even the hot liquid didn’t warm my cold hands. Looking up into Sylvie’s blue eyes, I remembered it wasn’t that long ago that someone had planned to kill me.

  Sylvie remained quiet, so I continued, “Trust me, I want to embrace motherhood. I want to paint the nursery in hues of pink and blue. I want to talk about baby plans all day, but I can’t. Do you understand?” I paused, wondering whether the question was directed at myself as much as at Sylvie. “It’s just not an option at the moment—not when Nate is free and I’m living in constant fear. Every night is a struggle, and I can’t fall asleep. I’m in such a state, I don’t dare hope for the better, and I most certainly don’t imagine what things could be like.”

  I waited for Sylvie to ask another question, but she remained uncharacteristically silent. With a frown, she stared at her coffee, engrossed in her own thoughts.

  “I understand,” she whispered at last. “I’m sorry, Brooke. I was so wrapped up in the belief that you weren’t happy about being pregnant that I thought...” She stopped in thought, unable or unwilling to finish her sentence.

  “It’s okay. I know you mean well,” I said softly, my hand starting to rub my flat tummy, a habit I had developed since I’d learned I was pregnant.

  Please stop talking about my baby or Jett. Especially Jett.

  “Anyway, let’s not linger on those depressing issues.” I forced a smile onto my lips, even though there was no feeling behind it. “Enough about me already. What about you? What are your plans for the day?”

  As if sensing my need for a change in topic, Sylvie lifted a mushroom and smelled it, then grimaced. “I’m going on a date today.”

  “What?” I said, agog. “With whom? Why didn’t you tell me sooner? We could have gone shopping to find you a nice dress.”

  She smiled with little enthusiasm and shrugged. “It’s no big deal. A friend set me up on a blind date. I might call it off.” Sylvie loved going on dates, and more than anything, she loved any excuse to go shopping. It was odd for her not to be excited about it.

  I inched next to her, knowing that the only reason she’d blow one off was because she thought I needed her.

  “No, you should definitely go,” I said. “In fact, I insist. Just because I’m having a bad day doesn’t mean you have to stay home and play babysitter. Besides, I’m working late today.”

  “I don’t know.” She hesitated, catching my eyes. “Will you be okay?”

  I smiled gently and shrugged. “Sure I will. You’ve already helped me so much.”

  It was the truth. Sylvie and I might have had our conflicts and our own personal dramas, but having her near me, knowing she cared so much about me, helped me. I had always admired Sylvie, with good reason. She had gone through many more breakups than I had, and yet she was quick to stand up and move on. It was as if her heart was free to love whomever she wanted, and she could easily let go with the prospect of dating the next guy, whereas I just wouldn’t learn from my mistakes.

  My heart resembled a trained falcon with its feet tied to its master and a hood on its head, unable to escape into freedom. All my life, I had vowed that I would never let anyone into my heart. When I made an exception for Jett, I never thought that it would change my life. My priorities and focus had shifted to the point that I had neglected my friends and my mother. My plans had been put on the back burner, and previous goals had lost importance. Too many things had changed, me included.

  Sitting in the silence, in our old kitchen, with the penetrating ticking of the old clock above the door as the only sound, I realized that while I couldn’t turn back time, I still had the power to change things to how they used to be. Having Sylvie close reminded me why I had to stick to my resolutions and promises never to let a man control my heart.

  “You go on your date,” I said resolutely. “I’ll even help you choose a dress.”

  “If you insist.” She smiled at me. “But you’ve got to give me a hand with this cooking.”

  “Are you really going to cook those things?” I pointed to the mushrooms in her hand, my mortification probably written all over my face. I was standing a few feet away, yet I could still smell the unpleasant bouquet of hippie, old cheese, and gym socks. I hoped the stench would dissipate, because I wasn’t going to eat anything smelly. Besides, they looked so dark and wrinkled, I doubted they were edible at all.

  Even Sylvie looked doubtful as she eyed the old mushrooms with the kind of disgusted expression she usually reserved for spiders or anything that had more than four legs, but she remained quiet.

  “Not trying to say I don’t want you to do something nice for me, but maybe we could do Chinese another day? I’d kill for a pizza with cheese crust, pepperoni, onions, and black olives,” I said. “What do you think?”

  “Thank God. Me too.” She looked genuinely relieved as she dropped the shriveled mushrooms. “I’d love ham and extra cheese. With lots of different toppings, right? I can wolf that stuff down like no other.”

  I beamed at her. “Same as always.”

  God, I loved Sylvie.

  My gaze followed her as she
got up and crossed the room. She was almost out the door when I called out, “Sylvie?”

  She stopped and turned around. “Yeah?”

  “Thank you,” I whispered. “You’re such a good friend. I have no idea what I’d do without you.”

  A mysterious smile lit up her glossy lips. “I’m not a good friend.” I frowned and she let out a soft laugh. “A good friend knows about your best days, but a best friend has lived through all your worst. See the difference?” she whispered. “I’m your best friend, Brooke. Guys will come and go and break you in pieces, but I will always be here to mend you again.”

  “Then you’re my Super Glue,” I said, laughing.

  “Damn right I am.” She flashed another smile and picked up the phone to order our lunch.

  The whole day passed in a blur. Sylvie tried to distract me with movies and food, but I constantly found myself checking my phone like an obsessive lunatic. Jett didn’t contact me. No calls. No messages. Nothing to indicate that he wanted to work things out. His indifference was a blessing and helped to put things in perspective, but even though I should have been thankful, it bothered me.

  The more I pored over Sylvie’s words, the more I wondered what Jett had been doing at the club and what had stopped him from telling me the truth, and, of course, why my foolish brain couldn’t stop thinking about him. I cursed my weakness for him. Hour after hour, I wished my feelings for him far away, and they kept crawling back like ants to sweets.

  I wanted to forget him, but at the same time, I wanted to hear from him. I wanted to see him in pain while wishing him nothing but the best. So many conflicting emotions twisted into an ever-present knot of contradiction and impatience.

  I had to get a grip. And fast, before my life stopped belonging to me, and Jett became the sole focus of my attention.

  At 6:45 p.m., Thalia picked me up from around the corner, the same place where she’d dropped me off before, and we made our way to Grayson’s studio. From the corner of my eyes, I glanced at her gorgeous, yellow, lacy dress, complete with stockings and black high heels. Her glossy, long hair was tied up in a complicated burlesque hairstyle, with beautifully defined curls and waves added to the sides and front, complementing her pretty face.

  Something wafted from her, an air of confidence that brushed over me and made me feel different. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly as I allowed her enthusiasm and congeniality to wash over me and make me feel at ease. Listening to her chatter, I actually looked forward to spending time with her.

  Sylvie was the best friend who would always be there for me, and I usually loved her company, but at the moment, I welcomed the break. Sylvie was, simply put, a bit too much at the moment, with her constant probing and need for assurance that I was okay, especially when things couldn’t have been further from the truth. Thalia made conversation simple, and she had an easygoing attitude. She didn’t really know me, so she didn’t try see through the façade behind which I was hiding.

  “How was your night with your special stranger?” she asked when we stopped to wait for a light to turn green. Her face turned briefly to regard me while her fingers kept tapping on the steering wheel to the music playing on the radio.

  “It was okay, I guess.” I kept my voice light as my mind searched through all the possible answers I could give. “He was nice and took me home, and that was about it.”

  “Nothing happened?” She turned her head to me. “Not even a kiss?” Her surprise reflected in the soft line on her forehead, but her tone remained unchanged. She had no reason to doubt me, so lying to her came easy.

  I shook my head. “I kept feeling sick. Guess I had too much of Gina’s favorite cocktail.”

  At least the first part was true.

  Now was the time to ask about Gina, but for some reason I couldn’t. Thalia had been such a good friend and she had helped me get a job. I couldn’t afford to piss her off by accusing her friend of spiking my drink. What if hers had been spiked, too, and she knew about it all along? Instead of bringing that up, I recounted my interview with Grayson and his request that I posed nude.

  “Where do you get your confidence from?” I asked when the lights changed and she hit the accelerator.

  “It’s really about doing what you believe in,” Thalia said. “For me, confidence doesn’t come with natural beauty. You can be beautiful but still not feel sexy and, hence, have no confidence. Confidence comes when you feel good about yourself and whatever you’re doing. For me, that’s when my hair’s curled and I wear red, waterproof lipstick.” She turned briefly to me and laughed out loud. “Your problem isn’t that you aren’t confident or sexy, Jenna. Your problem is that you try too hard to be like others. When you blend in, you become one of many and so you don’t allow yourself to be unique. Maybe you should care less about what people say and do, and focus more on becoming the real you.”

  She grimaced and changed the radio station until she was happy with the music. Her fingers began to tap to the new rhythm almost instantly, and then she continued, “It’s the only way you should be: simply you. Knowing that there’s just one of you in the world, you should be proud of posing nude. Naturally, me being me is what gives me confidence.”

  The car slowed as we took a narrow left turn, and then Thalia hit the accelerator with so much force I held onto my seat for support.

  I swallowed the bile in my throat as I was briefly reminded of Jett’s driving. He was a maniac in that department, as in so many others. He lived hard and loved harder. Relationships with men like him always come with an expiry date. It was just too bad I had to learn it the hard way.

  Half an hour later, we arrived at Grayson’s. Thalia locked up the car and we headed up to the studio, which, according to Thalia, had been rented out for a gallery event for the night. The guests hadn’t arrived yet, which left us enough time to look around and get changed on time.

  The bare walls of the studio had been transformed. Paintings and pictures in black and green hung on the walls, and tables with champagne and delicious appetizers lined the far left side, near the tall windows. I had been assured that the job would be simple. Gina, Thalia and I were instructed to dress up, then pose behind a glass wall like mannequins, and the rest of the girls had to talk and entertain guests.

  I didn’t mind that my green lace dress was so short that others could see all the way up to Alaska. I also didn’t mind that Grayson expected me to sit still on a plush chair, with my legs on each side, so they would look longer. He had come up with the idea to cover up the fact that I was shorter than the other girls.

  Wearing Thalia’s black, China-doll wig, I did as instructed, keeping perfectly still. All my emotions—the good, the bad, and the worse—were hidden behind the glass, even though I felt like a mammoth stuffed in a glass house inside a museum.

  By the time drinks were served, all the other models had arrived, buzzing around with excitement at the prospect of meeting new clients.

  All but Gina.

  I scanned the room, taking in the changes in the interior design and the unfamiliar faces, but there was no sign of her.

  “Where’s Gina?” I asked.

  “I’ve no idea,” Thalia said, glancing at her watch. “She’s probably running late. It wouldn’t be her first time.”

  As it turned out, Gina didn’t arrive later either. A half-hour into the event, a girl with blonde curls, looking like the youngest of them all, joined us as Gina’s replacement. I shot Thalia a questioning look, but there was no time for an introduction, because the actual event had started and guests were piling in.

  The gallery quickly filled with people. With constant new arrivals and free-flowing champagne, laughter and chatter echoed through the open space. I had never before attended a gallery event, so I had always assumed it would be a boring, apathetic experience—certainly not something full of vibrancy and life. From my heightened position, I stared at the guests, who were far less interested in the frames hanging on the walls than in sociali
zing with the other visitors. Only a few turned their head toward the models standing behind the glass wall, paying any attention to our perfected poses. Most seemed taken in by the generous buffet, and that didn’t surprise me; it looked so delicious that my stomach growled.

  Half an hour turned into an hour, then two. At some point, my arms felt numb, and my smile had frozen on my lips.

  “My arm’s cramping,” the blonde next to me mumbled, keeping her face rigid. “On top of that, I can barely feel my legs. No wonder Sarah and Gina quit on Grayson. I wouldn’t bother to show up either.”

  Thalia suppressed a laugh, and I could certainly understand why. The blonde girl was standing, with one leg hovering over a chair, the other on the floor. Her legs were slightly trembling, and her forehead was glistening from the effort to stay impassive. I figured I had drawn the lucky straw, because I had the luxury of sitting.

  For a moment, there was silence, as a group of people passed us by, their gazes glued on us before they moved on to the next distraction. The instant they were gone, the blonde let out an annoyed breath.

  “He isn’t usually that moody either,” she said. “What’s up with him?”

  “What do you mean?” Thalia asked. The blonde inclined her head toward the arched doorway. I followed her line of vision and glimpsed Grayson standing next to the ugly mandrake, talking with one of his male guests, caught in some sort of disagreement, from the looks of it. His forehead was creased with either worry or annoyance, as he shook his head vehemently. We watched their heated discussion in silence.

  “I tell you he’s gay,” the blonde said, resuming her chatter.

  “Who?” Thalia asked.

  “Grayson.”

  “Beth, you don’t know that. You can’t say that just because you’ve never seen him with a woman. Maybe he likes to keep his private life...private.”

 
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