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The lovers promise, p.2
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       The Lover's Promise, p.2

           J. C. Reed
 
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  She shrugged. “I thought you wanted to. That’s why I booked the room.”

  “Are you drunk right now? Because if you aren’t, I swear I’ve no idea what’s gotten into your fucking head.” I regarded her intently, unsure whether to laugh or shake some sense into her.

  “What’s wrong with you? I’ve been sober for the past seven years, and I’m very proud of it.”

  I shook my head. “No, Ti. What’s wrong with you? You’re in a fucking relationship and so am I.”

  “If it’s about Brian, I can explain,” Tiffany said softly. “I never thought you’d return to the gang. I never thought I might still feel the same way about you. When you told me you needed me, I knew it was your way of saying that you needed to see me the way you used to in the past.”

  I stared at her. This was even worse than I had imagined. The whole situation was awkward and I didn’t do awkward.

  On the one hand, I could understand her confusion. People don’t remain friends for no reason. They always fall back into benefits territory, which I had done too many times in the past before I met Brooke. Like last year, when in a desperate mood for sex, she just happened to be available and we hooked up. Time after time. On the other hand, Tiffany always changed when she started drinking. She became unpredictable, difficult to communicate with.

  “We shouldn’t talk for a while,” I said weakly. “Meeting you here was a mistake.”

  “What are you saying? That this is the wrong place?” She slowly scanned left and right, as if Brian might be lurking around the corner. I snorted inwardly because I doubted he’d just be standing around, watching, if he caught his girlfriend cheating.

  “It’s not about Brian.” I swallowed. “I like you, Ti. I really do, but…”

  There was a long pause.

  “But what?” she prompted.

  “You’re like a sister to me.”

  “A sister?” She stared at me. “No one fucks his sister, Jett.”

  “You know that’s not what I meant.” I sighed and ran my hand through my hair. “That will never happen again.” My voice betrayed my anger. “What happened between us is over. Do you understand? Nothing will ever happen again.”

  Now it was her turn to look at me, confused and vengeful. I could see her mind trying to glue my words together in order to make sense of them while her heart was slowly breaking.

  “It’s her, isn’t it?” The tone was accusing. “She’s younger, and she’s pregnant. It’s her you want at the moment, but no woman ever lasts with you. They never did in the past and they won’t in the future.”

  “This is different.” I turned away. “You knew she’s the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. Those were my exact words when I ordered the ring.”

  “And yet I thought it was all part of some grand plan of yours.” She laughed and brushed her hair out of her eyes. “You can’t blame me because you tend to have quite a few of those.”

  Fuck, Tiffany had always been good at ignoring the obvious.

  “It is, but not the way you might imagine.” I wet my lips, unsure whether to elaborate. As much as I trusted Tiffany, I didn’t trust her that much. “I’m doing it for real, because I want to be with her, not because I’m being forced nor because she’s pregnant. If her circumstances didn’t demand that I marry her, I’d still be thinking about it. I don’t expect you to understand, Ti.” I stared her down, my gaze hard. Maybe I hadn’t been clear enough. Maybe I needed to be a jerk for her to finally get the hint and move on. “I’m a changed man. What we had was not the same as what I have now with Brooke. So don’t tell me who I am. You don’t know me anymore. You don’t know fuck about me, Ti.” As soon as the words came out, hard and accusing, I regretted them. Being a jerk was one thing; being an asshole another.

  “I’m sorry.” My hands reached out, but it was too late. She flinched as she looked at me as if I had just hit her with a fire lash.

  “For what? For telling me the truth? Or for not feeling the same way I do?” She smiled bitterly. “It’s not your fault that the truth sucks, Jett.”

  “I still had no right to be so rude.”

  “You had every right.” She looked away, past my shoulders, and took a deep breath. “You might be an asshole for hurting me when you left and then again the day you returned, but it’s not your fault for feeling the way you do. I mean…” She sighed. “I knew someday casual sex would no longer be enough for you; I knew you’d find someone who’d make you want to commit. I just hoped I’d never get to see it. I just hoped…”

  I hoped it would be me.

  The unspoken words lingered in the air.

  “Anyway, I’m better off now.” Signaling that she was ready to leave, she gathered her coat and bag, barely looking at me. “I’m sorry I won’t be at your engagement party, Jett. I have so much stuff to do at work, but I’ll make sure to send you a gift.”

  “Don’t do that, Ti.”

  She held up her hand, stopping me in mid-sentence. “No, it’s okay, I want to. I should never have booked that room, anyway. Brian has been good to me; way better than you ever have.” Even though her smile indicated that it was all a joke, I didn’t miss the sting in her tone. “He didn’t deserve all that shit, you know?” She looked up at me. “Please do pass on my best regards to Brooke and tell her…tell her I’m sorry for everything.”

  I nodded, watching her get up and slide into her coat.

  “Will you be okay?” I asked. Opposite from us, a neon light flickered across the bar area, illuminating countless bottles of alcohol, making them even harder to miss—or resist.

  She rolled her eyes and a soft smile lit up her face.

  “Look, Jett, I’m fine. And I’m clean. If you think I’m back to my old days of guzzling down booze, you’re wrong. So very wrong.” She laughed. “I have absolutely no desire for a single drop. The fact that you see me walking into a bar to meet you over a glass of water should be proof enough that I’m long over my addiction.” At my skeptical expression her smile widened. “Really, you’re making such a fuss. It’s like you don’t know me at all.”

  The lie sounded plausible enough—if only I could believe it. If only I hadn’t caught the way Tiffany looked at the guy holding his drink. If only she hadn’t been so quick to kiss me and act the way she only did when she was drunk. If she cracked, there would never be enough alcohol to sate her addiction and it’d all be my fault.

  “Ti…” I began, gathering my words.

  “Goodbye, Jett.” She flashed me another smile and snatched the bag out of my hand, then leaned forward to plant a kiss on my cheek. “Be good to Brooke. I know you’ll make a great husband…and dad.” Her eyes lingered on me for a few moments. And then she walked off without waiting for my reply.

  BROOKE

  New York City, Present Day

  Calm down.

  Calm the fuck down.

  There was nothing to fear, because I had done nothing wrong. It had been Gina’s idea to visit the club, not mine. All I had to do was answer the detective’s questions and then I was free to leave.

  Countless thoughts raced through my head but only one registered: Gina was dead. Killed. Who would have done it? And for a handbag? Even as I asked myself those questions, I knew a mugging wasn’t the answer. While people stole handbags, they didn’t necessarily cut the victim’s throat in the process, which was why the detective was here—to unravel the mystery and get to the bottom of things. Like me, he probably suspected foul play and while I hoped he’d find the killer, I also hoped that, just because Thalia and I happened to be the last people who saw Gina alive, we wouldn’t end up as persons of interest.

  “Jenna?” Grayson’s voice drew me back to reality. “You’re the first. The detective would like to ask you a few questions now.”

  Oh, shit.

  The icy knot in my stomach intensified, growing as big as an iceberg under the water’s surface. Why did I have to go first when I didn’t want to? He’d only pour all his e
nergy into grilling me, and I had no answers, no clues, nothing to help out in any way.

  Basically, I was doomed to look like I was guilty.

  “Great. I’ll be happy to help,” I said weakly and shot Grayson a confident smile, avoiding the detective’s intense stare. To be honest, I had no idea if he remembered our brief encounters at the hotel, but I could feel his gaze burning a hole in my head. When I finally dared look up, I realized his eyes not only rested on me, but there was also a flicker of recognition clearly written on his face. I froze in horror.

  This is what happens when you stare at a guy you don’t know, Stewart. You come across as a complete creep.

  Back then, I had probably looked like a guilty mess to him. I swallowed down the lump in my throat, and tried to behave as innocently as possible.

  “Detective, you’re welcome to use my office,” Grayson said, oblivious to my frayed nerves.

  “Thank you. It won’t take long,” the man said while his stare remained glued to me.

  Please, don’t leave me alone with him.

  I felt like a lamb scheduled to be slaughtered. My skin began to itch from the strain of trying to act casual. I had done nothing wrong, and yet his intense glance made me feel guilty. Talk about unfair. Talk about the crappiest day of my life. The crappiest of all crappy days.

  The detective turned on his heels and motioned for me to follow him, and so I did, unsure what would happen next. To the daunting sound of impending doom, we walked into Grayson’s office. I was like that woman in white, ready to be sacrificed to King Kong and could almost hear the proverbial drums beating in the background. I felt completely paralyzed with fear. With my heart pounding hard against my chest, I took a seat and waited for the detective to do the same.

  He didn’t sit down, which was probably a ruse to infuse respect into a suspect. He wasn’t even that tall, so under normal circumstances he wouldn’t have intimidated me. But there was nothing normal about today.

  I peered around me, considering getting out of Grayson’s office by faking fainting. I had always wanted to do that, and figured that was the perfect moment, if only to avoid the probing questions and mistrust that would follow. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then closed my eyes for a moment, envisioning the scene. Just too bad I wasn’t cut out for acting. In my head, I promised myself that I’d sign up for some much-needed acting classes. That is, if I ever made it out of here and saved up enough money.

  The detective turned the knob and closed the door behind him.

  Now we were alone.

  Just he and I—behind a closed door.

  Dum. Dum Dum.

  No, make that doom. Doom—as the imaginary drums continued to pound in my head.

  My whole body began to shake slightly as he slid into Grayson’s seat and pulled out a notepad from his pocket. The whole situation felt surreal, like I was starring in a horror movie. I almost expected him to retrieve a string of rope and tie up my wrists to the chair, maybe even switch on a neon lamp, or hang me upside down to torture me into giving him the answers he wanted.

  Only, I had no answers.

  Let the witch hunt begin.

  Sighing, I crossed my arms over my chest, ready to face whatever the detective would throw at me.

  He glanced around the room and his eyes came to rest on the model pictures on the wall. Grayson’s glory. The gems he’d shaped into diamonds—as he liked to proclaim. Every one of his models was up there; everyone but me. It wasn’t that much of a surprise, given that I was new and had yet to book a job. A short silence ensued, during which Detective Barrow assessed me, his right hand stroking his neck in a strange manner. I twitched uncomfortably in my chair and crossed my legs, waiting, assessing him back.

  “So, Mr. Grayson told me you joined two days ago. Is that correct?” he started eventually.

  “Yes.” I nodded, staring at him blankly and gradually relaxed, happy that he didn’t ask about the hotel. Maybe he didn’t remember me after all. Maybe it was just a normal investigation and his frown came as a part of the job description, meaning it had nothing to do with me personally.

  “All right.” He smiled politely and opened his notepad. “Let’s start with the last time you saw Gina alive and we’ll take it from there. You mentioned you went out?”

  It wasn’t a question, but rather a statement. I had mentioned no such thing to him.

  I nodded. “After Grayson offered me a trial period to see whether I was cut out for the job, Thalia invited me and Gina for a drink at the La Rue Bar. We had a few drinks, then Gina suggested we visit the Hush Hush bar, and we had some more drinks there.”

  God, why did it sound like I was a complete party girl when it couldn’t be further from the truth?

  The detective nodded and scribbled a few words on his notepad without looking up. “What happened after?”

  “Gina tried to hook me up with a guy.” Cringe. I didn’t need to hear the detective’s thoughts; I could read them from his expression and they weren’t pretty. I brushed my hair out of my face and continued. “I started to feel sick so a guy brought me home. And that was the last time I saw her.”

  I repeated the same story I had told Thalia: that a stranger drove me home, and then left. “Thalia said she had one last drink with Gina after I left. What happened after that, I don’t know. You’ll have to ask her.”

  “The man who drove you home—” He stopped scribbling and looked up from his pad, his eyes the color of brown parchment assessing me. “—what did you say his name was?”

  “I don’t remember,” I lied. “I was too drunk.”

  The detective pressed his lips in a tight line. The way he was drumming his fingers on the table made me nervous, so I looked away, mentally counting the seconds until I could get the hell out.

  “Did anything strange happen yesterday? Such as a fight, not necessarily between you and the victim?” I shook my head and he continued, “Can you think of anyone who might have held a grudge against her?”

  A new spasm of nerves coursed through me.

  “No, of course not.” I brushed my hair out of my face as I considered my words carefully. “I only just met her so didn’t know her particularly well, but it seemed Gina is…was friendly with all the girls here. I think everyone liked her.”

  “How was the relationship between Gina and Thalia?”

  I paused, taken aback by the strange question. “Good, I guess. I think they were good friends. Like I said, I only met them both recently.”

  “If anything unusual happened, no matter how trivial you think it might be, I need you to tell me. It’s the little things that often carry enough weight to break a case. Do you understand?” He stared at me. “They’re often relevant.”

  His tone worried me.

  “I wish I could be of more help, but I don’t remember much, except that Gina brought us drinks,” I said carefully. “We got drunk. We had fun. And the next thing I knew a guy drove me home.”

  Even though I omitted quite a bit, I stuck to the truth. My mind had been a blurry mess. Yesterday’s events seemed so far away, they almost resembled a dream. The only thing I remembered was the way Jett had broken my fall, and the fake name he had given me, but I couldn’t share that with the detective. For some inexplicable reason, I couldn’t tell anyone about the Jett incident. It was like my brain wanted to lock that episode away forever.

  When I finally finished my account, the detective opened a folder on the table. “Maybe these pictures will jolt your memory.” Slowly, he began to sort through countless sheets of paper and pictures.

  “Did Gina wear this makeup when you last saw her?” He slid over the first picture and I shrank back in shock.

  It was a headshot of Gina. For a second, it looked like she was sleeping, until I registered that her eyes were slightly open, and a dried trail of blood marked her chin. There was no doubt the picture had been taken after her death and the discovery of her body. The rest of her body from the neck down wasn’
t in the picture. If there were, I knew I would have needed therapy for the next few years.

  “What do you mean?” I asked slowly. Her face and lips were so pale they almost had a blue shimmer to them. I had never seen a corpse in real life, not even when my father and my sister died.

  The detective pointed his finger to her left cheek. “Did she have the two spots on her face?”

  I narrowed my eyes in concentration and finally grasped the meaning of his words. There were two dots on her cheek—like two little moles or freckles. Come to think of it, they didn’t really stand out. They had been painted onto the skin in a fashionable but realistic way so that it wasn’t glaringly obvious that they weren’t real.

  “No, “ I said and shook my head. “Not as far as I remember.”

  He nodded, as if my answer confirmed his suspicion, and handed me the second picture.

  “Do you recognize this man?” he asked.

  I looked from the detective to the picture, and my heart froze.

  Holy mother of grace.

  That couldn’t possibly be. I blinked several times as an array of emotions washed over me.

  Staring back at me was Jett’s face.

  But how?

  I was so shocked, I couldn’t utter a word. Under the desk, I balled my hands into fists to stop myself from reacting. From screaming. From showing the waves of panic shooting through me.

  Why was he showing me a picture of Jett?

  It didn’t make any sense. I scanned the picture once more in the hope that it might be someone else. But it was really Jett. His handsome face. Sitting in a chair, with a whiskey glass in his hand, his mind lost in thought and a million miles away, just like I had found him the previous night at the bar. The image seemed to have been taken from a security camera inside the club.

  “This photo was taken yesterday,” the detective explained. “It’s the second time a woman was killed after leaving the club. The first murder took place two weeks ago. Both women had the same two moles painted on their faces. The first victim had one, the second two.” He tapped his finger against Jett’s blurry shape. “I’m aware this is a bad photograph, and I apologize for that. Maybe this one might help jog your memory.”

 
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