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Beautiful distraction, p.28
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       Beautiful Distraction, p.28

           J. C. Reed


  The thick manila envelope was heavy in my hand as I made my way downstairs, past the gathering of business people waiting for the elevators in the main reception hall. Only as I reached the confined space of my car did I dare let an idiotic grin fall into place. Seriously, I couldn’t stop grinning because I, Brooke Stewart, had been headhunted. It was a huge word. An important word. And it happened to me. And I, Brooke Stewart, would go to Italy. I was about to take my very first trip to Europe.

  I fished my phone out of my purse and considered whom to call first. Mom was my first option, but then again wasn’t my boyfriend supposed to know first? He deserved to be put first, particularly after I cheated on him. I ignored my guilty conscience as I speed-dialed Sean’s number. He answered on the second ring.

  “Sean McDermott.” I could hear the usual cafeteria background noise: students talking and laughing, trays shifting, and cutlery clinking. He was probably having his lunch break.

  “Guess what?” I didn’t wait for his reply. “I just got a job with Mayfield Realties.”

  The line remained silent. I held my breath as I waited for Sean’s reaction, which came a second too late. “Wow, that’s awesome. Let’s celebrate tonight. I could pop over.” He sounded strained, which wasn’t the reaction I expected. Maybe he had other issues on his mind and was trying hard to be happy for me.

  “Yeah, that’s not all. I’m going to Italy. There’s some big acquisition, and I’m supposed to assist Mayfield.”

  A pause again, then, “That’s great. We’ll celebrate next weekend.”

  “Yeah, about that. My flight’s tomorrow and I’ll be back in two weeks.”

  “Then we’ll catch up when you get back.”

  Did I detect a hint of irritation in his voice? I frowned and moistened my lips. “Are you okay, honey?”

  “Yeah, I’m good.” He didn’t sound good at all. We remained silent for a second or two. Sean resumed the conversation first. “Actually, no. Can we talk? There’s something I need to tell you.”

  Why didn’t I like the sound of that? My hands grew clammy, and my heart began to pound like a sledgehammer “Sure.” I tried to infuse a cheeriness I didn’t feel into my voice. “Our usual place? I can be there in half an hour.”

  “Okay.” He hung up.

  “Bye,” I whispered, even though he couldn’t hear me. My heart pounded so hard I thought my ribcage might explode. Maybe Sean saw me and Mystery Guy. Maybe he somehow found out about last night before I got a chance to tell him, and he cared after all. This was my chance to be honest and set things straight before I headed off to Italy. I didn’t want to part with something this major standing between us.


  Twenty minutes later, I took my seat at our usual table overlooking the east side of NY University campus and ordered a large latte, a chicken panini, and fries on the side. The café was almost empty at this time of day, which I attributed to lunch break being over and everyone stuck in class. Sean arrived a few minutes later. I had a few seconds to regard him before he spied me and strolled over. He was a few inches shorter than Mystery Guy, with dark-blond locks that tended to curl behind his ears, and hazel eyes to die for. If his blue shirt and black slacks didn’t scream PhD student and teaching assistant, then his rimmed glasses did. He looked a bit like a book nerd, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Coming from a family of academics, Sean was pushed into following an academic career, but his dream had always been becoming a pro racer. He had the physical strength, talent, and experience, but not the will to pull it through against his family’s wishes.

  “Hey, you.” I raised on my toes to kiss him on the lips. He smiled and brushed his lips fleetly against mine. The feeling that something was amiss intensified. “Want something?” I asked. My hunger dissipating, I pointed at my still warm panini. Whatever he had to say, I decided I wouldn’t like it.

  “I just ate,” Sean said, and took a seat opposite from me. I didn’t fail to notice how much distance he put between us. He folded his hands on the table and gazed up. His expression remained dead serious as he regarded me. His typically warm hazel eyes exuded none of the love I usually saw in them. Holy cow. I had never seen him this cold and calculated. It could only mean one thing. I might not have much experience with relationships, but I could see the telltale signs. My heart sank in my chest.

  “You wanted to talk,” I prompted him to get it over with.

  “Yeah.” He ran a hand through his locks, bidding for time.

  “Just say it.” In spite of the turmoil going on inside, my voice seemed surprisingly calm and composed.

  “Okay.” His eyes settled on my lips for a second, as though he was about to kiss me. And then his gaze moved down to his folded hands. He couldn’t even look me in the eyes. “I can’t do this anymore.”

  “Do what? Go to work? Study for a PhD? Live in New York? You’ll have to be more specific, Sean.” Hysteria bubbled up somewhere at the back of my throat. I swallowed hard to get rid of it.

  “Us.” His eyes settled on me, and in that instant I had my answer. The last grain of warmth seeped out of his expression. Maybe he was scared that I might make a scene, shout, ask questions, beg him to want me. “We can’t do us anymore.”

  He was breaking up. Call it intuition, but I had known it since the strange phone call; I just didn’t want to acknowledge it straight away. Strangely the realization didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. I didn’t want to ask, and yet I had to know. “Is there someone else?”


  My gaze searched his expression for a clue that he was lying, but found none. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

  “What then?” I asked.

  He sighed and shook his head slightly. The passion I was used to seeing in his eyes returned, but this time it had nothing to do with me. “Do you ever get the feeling there’s more to life than what you have and what you do? I mean, I wake up, go to work, come home, do the same things over and over again. I don’t want to waste my life with this shit. I need more.”

  I nodded even though his rambling made no sense whatsoever. The guy was twenty-five. How could he possibly have a midlife crisis? Black dots clouded my vision. I rubbed my eyes to get rid of the throbbing sensation gathering behind them.

  “So you’re going for the racing thing,” I said.

  “A while back I got a sponsoring offer from a French auto manufacturer,” Sean said, unaware of what his words did to me. “I’m flying over to sign the deal. It’s done. I can’t back off.”

  “I didn’t ask you to,” I said softly.

  His hand wrapped around mine, and he looked straight into my eyes. “You know you’re amazing, and under different circumstances I would have never let you go. But this is what I’m supposed to do. I can’t focus on both my career and this relationship. You deserve better than that.”

  “Your calling, I get it.” You can still follow your calling while remaining in a relationship with the one you once claimed to love, I felt like shouting. And yet I remained composed, ignoring the sharp stab piercing my chest. Since Sean was breaking up anyway, now was the time to tell him about my cheating, but for some reason I remained quiet. Maybe it was selfish for me to want to part ways in good light, even if that light was nothing but a sham.

  He gave my hand a light squeeze. “I want us to stay friends.”

  I nodded. The pain in my chest grew stronger.

  “So, you got a new job. Tell me about it,” Sean said, suddenly changing the topic. I smiled bitterly and waved my hand.

  “Compared to yours it’s nothing special really.”

  He smiled, not pressing the issue. His eyes sparkled again, and in that instant I felt a strong urge to get up and leave him behind. I had been wrong to think what Sean and I had was special. He wasn’t ‘the one’. He couldn’t be. ‘The one’ would never leave me behind.

  “I’ve got to get packing,” I whispered, jumping from my seat. A forced s
mile played on my lips.

  “Sure. Want me to—”

  I held up my hand to interrupt whatever half-hearted offer he was about to make. “No, I’m fine. And congrats on finding a sponsor. It must have taken you weeks, if not months of hard work.” Hard work he failed to tell me about.

  He straightened to kiss me on the cheek. I somehow managed to dodge him, grabbed my bag, muttered a ‘see you around’ and ran for the door, eager to get away from him as fast as I could. I didn’t hate him, but I also didn’t feel the way I knew I should have felt.

  Once I reached my car and I dared take a deep breath of cold New York air, my heartbeat slowed down, and my hands stopped trembling. I drove home more carefully than usual. My cell rang once, and then beeped a few times with incoming messages. I looked at the caller ID and switched it off. I couldn’t blame Sean for following his dreams, when I was about to do the same. But I sure as hell couldn’t bear listening to him talking about it the way he did—with that sparkle in his eyes that told me he had found a passion greater than our relationship. My insides felt numb, but my brain was surprisingly lucid. So this was it. A year with Sean wasted, gone in the blink of an eye. The pain might come later. Right now I felt stupid for ever believing we had a future together. This job couldn’t come at a better time, and I was determined to get over Sean by focusing my whole energy on it.

  Sylvie wasn’t in, for which I was grateful. I didn’t feel like company and even less like bitching about Sean, which was the only way Sylvie knew how to get over a breakup. I locked myself in my bedroom and texted Mom, telling her I couldn’t make it tonight because of my new job, and promised to call her as soon as I landed in Italy. For a minute I considered texting Sylvie in case she didn’t make it home before I left for the airport. It wasn’t unusual for her to find some guy and then spend the next forty-eight hours shacked up with him, oblivious of the world outside their bedroom. Eventually I decided to wait until ten p.m. in case she found her way back home after all.

  I made myself a cup of hot chocolate and settled on my bed to flick through my contract. So far it looked better than expected. Great perks like health insurance, a brand new smartphone with two lines, one being mine and one belonging to Mr. Mayfield, and even a bonds package. A ten per cent pay raise once I got through the initial trial period of three months, company traveling with all expenses paid, and even a Christmas bonus. I liked what I saw and signed it right away, then spent an hour flicking through my wardrobe to choose what to take with me. I had clothes, lots of them, but I didn’t feel they looked like something a senior assistant would wear. Living in New York wasn’t cheap. After nine months of unemployment right before I landed my job—previous job, I reminded myself—my credit cards were maxed out, and I was still repaying my debt, so getting out there to buy new stuff was out of the question.

  In the end, I borrowed Sylvie’s navy Jil Sander suit, and from the same collection a tailored, long-sleeved dress that ended just above the knee. They were the least expensive clothes in Sylvie’s stuffed-to-the-brim wardrobe, so I knew she wouldn’t mind me borrowing them. She usually preferred a riskier style anyway, think short and sheer, so she’d probably not even notice them being gone.

  I was still flicking through Sylvie’s wardrobe when her key turned in the lock, and she walked in a few moments later.

  “Are you ransacking my stuff?” She lifted the navy suit I had decided on earlier and smirked. “You could have picked something less—”

  “Boring?” I prompted.

  “I was about to say matronly, but boring will do.” She tossed the suit aside and sat down on the bed, tucking her naked legs beneath her. Her skirt was so short I could see her frilly Victoria’s Secret panties.

  “I hope you don’t mind.”

  “Actually, you’re doing me a favor.” She shot the suit a dirty look like it was about to steal her purse.

  “I got kicked out of the department,” I said, ready to share my big news.

  “What? Was it that prick, James?” She inched closer and wrapped her left arm around my shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Brooke.” I could tell by her excited expression that she wasn’t. “But seeing the bright side: now we’re two unemployed chicks with the margarita world at our feet.”

  I smirked.

  “See, I don’t get it. Why do you always have to be so conventional?” She emphasized the word like it was a bad thing. “You don’t slack off at work. You don’t sleep around for the sake of it. You’re just—” She waved her hand in the air, looking for the right word.

  “Dull?” I prompted, smiling.


  My smile turned bitter as I looked away. She had asked me the same question many times during our friendship. I always avoided giving her an answer because I knew she wouldn’t understand. No one would. The world didn’t like to hear about that part of my life. Luckily Sylvie knew me well enough not to press the issue.

  “Let’s have another drink,” Sylvie said. “Knowing you it’ll be a brief stint, so I say we make the best of it.”

  I hated to shatter her alcohol-fueled dreams, but someone had to do it. I owed it to mankind. “I wasn’t sacked. James signed the company over to Mayfield Realties, and Mayfield promoted me to senior assistant. I’m leaving for Italy tomorrow.”

  “Hell, no.” Sylvie’s jaw dropped. For a moment she looked disappointed, until she realized as my best friend she was supposed to be happy for me. “Yay! Well done, you.” She didn’t mean one single half-hearted word of it. Her expression was as enthusiastic as a salmon about to be fished out of the water.

  “Save it. Gee, you’re pathetic.” I rolled my eyes and snorted. “You’d rather have me home with you, picking up guys and getting to bed when others wake up for work.”

  She laughed that tinkling laughter of hers that only managed to confirm my suspicion. “A promotion is almost as good as running around in PJs all day long. This calls for a celebration. Vixen’s in half an hour?”

  “It’s four p.m.”

  “You’re right. It’s getting kind of late. Let’s make it ten minutes.”

  I stared after her open-mouthed as she grabbed a handful of stuff from her wardrobe and headed for the bathroom to change.


  To call Sylvie’s patch of fabric a skirt was an offense to whoever invented the skirt. It was nothing more than an over-sized belt and barely covered her modesty, let alone provide any protection from the cold and damp New York air. I tried my best to persuade her to wear something else, something with more length, but she wouldn’t have it. So I clamped my mouth shut and let her dress in the clothes—or lack thereof—of her choice.

  She downed a glass of red wine before we even left the apartment, then another as soon as we hit Vixen’s. By the time our usual clique arrived a few hours later, we were both intoxicated and having a good time slagging off Sylvie’s ex. I didn’t see the mop of dark hair and green eyes until Sylvie pointed, slurring, “Isn’t that your guy?”


  “You know, your plan cul. Bed candy. Fuck buddy.” She collapsed in a fit of laughter.

  Oh, gosh.

  If it was him I could only hope he couldn’t lip-read. My vision blurred as I turned my head. I narrowed my eyes to focus, but the only things I caught were broad shoulders and a strong back heading straight for the door.

  I rolled my eyes. “You’re so drunk you’d mistake Bruce Willis for a girl.”


  She seemed genuinely confused, so I mumbled, “Never mind” as I waved my hand and signaled the bartender to get us another round of shots. That sparked instant recognition.

  “You’re the best girlfriend in the world,” Sylvie slurred, and placed a wet smooch on my cheek.

  I forced another shot down my throat, then another. The room began to spin until it looked like a giant merry-go-round of laughing people, clinking glasses, and ear splitting music. Something about a job and a new boss briefly popped up at the
back of my mind, but it all got lost in the alcohol-induced sense of freedom that was beginning to wash over me. I felt as though I had no care in the world, and I intended to keep it that way until strong arms wrapped around me, and I was tucked into something warm and fluffy. I opened my eyes to peer into the most electrifying green gaze reflecting a dark puddle of annoyance.

  “You have the most gorgeous eyes. I could stare into them forever,” I mumbled giggling.

  And then I passed out.


  I wasn’t a wallflower when it came to partying and having a good time, but I didn’t usually have more than two glasses. So two nights in a row drinking my head off with Sylvie hadn’t been a wise decision. I opened my eyes groggily and blinked against the bright sun spilling through the window.

  Good grief.

  My head felt as though someone was pounding it with a sledgehammer and my tongue was stuck to the back of my throat. At least I didn’t feel sick. I sat up and placed my naked feet on the rug in front of my bed, testing the ground. It felt a bit shaky but otherwise okay. I walked to the kitchen for a glass of water when I remembered the green eyes from last night.

  Did I have sex with him again? Or had I been imagining him? No idea what might be worse.

  “Sylvie?” My voice sounded so hoarse it made me cringe. I called out louder but got no answer. She was probably still sleeping off her hangover. I padded through each room, looking for a sign that I brought a man home, but found none. Eventually I knocked on Sylvie’s door and entered. Either she left early, which couldn’t be since she would have left me a note, or she never accompanied me home. The stack of clothes she had tossed on the bed while rummaging for something to wear last night persuaded me to go with Option B.

  So the guy had been just a figment of my imagination. I couldn’t help the sudden disappointment grabbing me.

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