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The lovers game, p.4
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       The Lover's Game, p.4

           J. C. Reed
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  I shuddered at the thought.

  That can never happen, Stewart.


  He had broken my heart in so many places I’d never be complete again. My heart still ached, and the image of them kissing would be forever etched in my mind. For the sake of my sanity, I had to stay away from him—if only I knew how.

  Believing lies was easy when the truth was too painful to accept.

  My hands itched to switch on my cell phone, because a part of me just didn’t want to give up hope. I longed to hear Jett’s voice, and yet another part of me wanted to make his life a living hell for destroying us and everything I had believed in.

  The thought of taking him back after his betrayal enraged me so much that I quickened my pace, as if there was some slight possibility that I could outrun my own masochistic urges and stop hurting myself. Whatever his intentions, Jett was not good for me. Staying with him and allowing him to deceive me. Even seeing him again wouldn’t be good for my mental health. It would all be too tempting to recount the positive times and forget about the bad ones; I’d foolishly forgive his cheating while allowing one excuse after another until my confidence would die like a frog in a boiling pot.

  Somewhere in the distance, a bird screeched, and I couldn’t help but think of Grayson’s words about nightingales and the need to find one’s path. For me, that path was just beginning.

  Wrapping my coat tighter around me, I hurried to get to my destination.

  The street was dark and eerily quiet. Police sirens echoed in the distance, and then the silence resumed. I rounded the corner. Ahead was the familiar five-story building. Other than a little light coming from a window on the second floor, all apartments were bathed in darkness. Reaching the front door, I tried to push the key into the lock when it slipped out of my cold hand and dropped to the ground, the sound unnaturally loud in the quietness. I winced. For a second, I had the image of someone opening a window and telling me to shut up, but no one stirred. As I bent down to recover the keys, I heard a different sound. Soft, thudding steps carried over from my right, and for a brief moment I caught a flash of movement, from the periphery of my vision.

  Someone was following me.

  My heart almost stopped in my chest, then picked up with incredible speed. The hairs on my arms rose. I turned my head, panic rising inside me, and peered around me. I had been so absorbed in my thoughts about the future that it hadn’t occurred to me that someone might be following or watching me. Not once had I bothered to look behind me.

  Talk about being careless.

  It was New York City—not exactly the safest place in the world at night. Pressing my handbag against my chest, I scanned the dark street again, ready to scream my lungs out of my chest if need be, but there was no one. The realization that I was overreacting didn’t manage to calm me.

  With shaky hands, I quickly snatched the key off the ground and let myself into the building, then slammed the door behind me. My breath came shallow and fast as I strained to listen for any sounds. Except for the wind swirling and hissing outside the windows, there was silence, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that, in that very instant, I was being watched.

  Could it be Jett?

  It had to be him. The thought that it might be someone else perturbed me. However, I had to take that into account and be prepared for anything. For a few minutes I just stood there, the image from before replaying in my mind on a constant loop while my eyes continued to scan the street outside the glass door.

  Whatever that flash of movement had been, it had happened too quickly, and the thudding sound had been too sudden. Was it possible that I was being paranoid?

  Again and again, my eyes scanned the streets. Apart from a few passing vehicles, the night remained as quiet as a tomb. No one walked past. No one emerged from behind the bushes and trees that were bathed in darkness. Eventually, I decided that maybe my nerves were overworked and my unsettled mind had played a trick on me. Not only was I tired, but I also had a hard day behind me.

  Riding the elevator up to the fifth floor to our small apartment, I decided that I had to deal with my stress level. Jett had occupied my mind for too long; he had become a distraction from more important issues. If I wanted to build my life without him, I needed to take a break from even thinking about him. My thoughts and feelings for him had become a bitter poison to my soul, and there was only one solution: I had to get rid of them—the anger, the denial, the pity. Anything would do, as long as my thoughts stopped circling back to him and I would stop seeing his face in my mind. I figured, once I arrived home, I’d write a list so that I’d never forget what Jett had done to me and learn to accept what had happened in order to leave the past behind.

  I pushed the key into the lock and let myself in, welcoming the faint smell of my former home and the silence that seemed to penetrate every wall. Sylvie’s designer handbag, coat, and heels were gone, meaning she was out, probably working late or on a date. Dropping my handbag on the old coffee table in the hall, I kicked off my shoes, and headed into the kitchen to make myself a sandwich. I ate slowly, taking measured bites, then slumped onto the bed in my room. My body felt exhausted, but I was unable to close my eyes and rest because of the racing thoughts in my mind.

  Eventually, I couldn’t bear the mental torture anymore. I had to check if the legal firm had called back, so I switched on my cell phone, ignoring the hammering in my chest at the thought that Jett might have tried to contact me. I was afraid of his next lie, afraid that hearing his voice or even reading his texts might catapult me back onto dangerous terrain, where each word was like a double-sided blade: beautiful to look at but too dangerous to come close to.

  The screen came to life and sure enough, text messages and call notifications began to pop up one after another. My skin prickled as my fingers swiped over the message button.


  Two text messages and eight calls. And all were from Jett.

  Still no reply from the legal firm. But it was a weekend, so I wasn’t particularly surprised. Sinking back against the cushions, I stared at Jett’s name, a part of me wondering what he had to say while a different part of me wished I could just tell him to go to hell. While it wasn’t like me to seek confrontation, the silence suffocated me. With a sigh, I unclasped the necklace from around my neck and locked it inside a drawer—the action making me feel better already, as though I was finally taking my fate into my own hands. Yet sadness continued to linger inside my heart. As the seconds turned to minutes, my indecision tugged at me, until I couldn’t bear it any longer. I had to read his messages. At least one. Without hesitation, almost automatically, I opened the first text message.

  Baby, I’m done at work and will be back at the hotel in 10 min. Can’t wait to see you.

  He sounded so innocent, it was ridiculous. Be back at the hotel? He had been there all along. What a liar!

  Staring at the screen, I checked the timestamp, my hands gripping the phone so hard I feared it would break. The message had been sent half an hour after Thalia had picked me up, which meant Jett had probably spent the entire day with Tiffany—plenty of time for them to have a little fun in their private hotel room, probably laughing at my stupidity.

  I smiled bitterly as I scanned the next message, sent an hour after the first.

  Have you forgotten our date? WHERE are you? Let me know so I can pick you up.

  My pulse raced at the obvious annoyance seeping from between the lines. Who the hell did he think he was? Did he really believe I would wait for him in a room all day while he enjoyed himself with someone else? Slowly, all the conflicting emotions that had been building up throughout the day erupted at once. The cold breeze turned into a raging storm. Not only was he a cheater and a liar; he was also trying to make me feel bad about not obeying his commands. The thought that he sought control over me made me so angry, I grabbed my pillow and threw it against the wall.

  Forgotten our date? As if. For once, I wished that had be
en the case. Before I realized what I was doing, my fingers quickly typed up a reply message.

  I want you to fuck off and get out of my life. I trusted your word, and you betrayed me. Don’t deny it. I saw you with her. How could you hurt me like that?

  My fingers lingered over the send button, hesitating. It would be the only message Jett would receive before I blocked his number forever. What was holding me back from sending it? In the end, I realized as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t yet ready to admit to him the extent of my hurt feelings. Besides, what would be the point of letting him known how hurt I was? Or telling him I saw him with her? He’d only deny it and then he’d probably start calling, attempting to sway me over, and that I couldn’t afford. Or, worst-case scenario, Jett would shrug it all off with no care that he had hurt me, telling me it was his right to kiss whoever he wanted.

  My stomach did a flip. That would really be the tip of the iceberg. We weren’t married; I had no claim on him. But even though I could admit that to myself, I knew I wouldn’t be able to hear those words coming from his mouth. Ultimately, I pressed delete in the hope that my refusal to talk to him and listen to any more lies would grant me the energy to stay strong and move on. I figured, as long as I didn’t hear his voice or see him in person, the list of arguments I had put together would help me stay out of his path. And maybe, in time, my feelings for him would fade away. Come to think of it, now would be a good time to have Sylvie close by. But until she got back—

  A soft knock jerked me out of my thoughts. I strained to listen, unsure whether it had been my imagination, when the key turned in the lock. A well of release rose inside me.

  Sylvie was back.

  It was about time.

  I couldn’t wait to pour out my heart and soul, and bitch about Jett. If anyone could help me—if only by listening and being overly annoying—it was Sylvie. She was the only one who knew how to distract me.

  The doorknob jiggled before there was another frustrated thud, followed by a knock.

  “I’m coming!” I shouted, figuring the door was stuck again. It happened often, particularly when Sylvie was so drunk that it took her a while to turn the key at just the right angle. Not her fault though. We had an old lock; the kind that had to be jiggled a few times. Sometimes, when it was really stuck, we had to kick the door hard, until the bolt released. We had been meaning to get it fixed for ages, but money was always tight and Sylvie too busy with more pressing issues than calling a locksmith.

  As I hurried down the hall, I already felt better in the knowledge that I’d soon be able to share my misery with someone who cared.

  “Just leave it. I got it,” I said and pulled the door open.

  No one there.

  My breath caught in my throat, and my smile froze in place. As my glance swept over the empty hall, a sense of dread traveled down my spine. There were only two other doors in the corridor, and both were closed, but I knew someone had been there, because I was sure I had heard a key turning in the lock. The fact that the lights were switched on was proof that I hadn’t just imagined it.

  “Sylvie?” I asked quietly as I stepped into the narrow hall. Had she forgotten something in her car and headed back downstairs to get it?

  Frowning, I bent over the railing and scanned the illuminated levels below, but there was no sign of her.

  No sign of anyone.

  “Sylvie?” I whispered again, unable to stop the trembling in my voice even though I knew it had to be her.

  Why wouldn’t she reply when I called her name? My mind began to make up logical explanations. Maybe she was entrenched in her thoughts. Maybe she was making out with her date that instant, completely filled with lust and oblivious to everything around her. Still, why would she head back downstairs and not bring him up to the apartment like she had done with previous dates?

  What if...?

  No. I pressed my hands against my chest in fear and scanned the staircase again, suddenly aware of the faint sound of footsteps, then breathing. My head snapped in that direction. Without a doubt, the sounds carried up from somewhere below, near the stairs on the first floor.

  My heart pounded hard against my ribs as the scene from earlier that day flashed through my mind: the strange movement, accompanied by the unsettling feeling of being watched. What if someone had followed me inside the building? But how was that possible, unless they had a key? Maybe I was being paranoid or, worse yet, developing a severe case of schizophrenia that was making me imagine things.

  It’d certainly make sense.


  God. Self-denial was bliss.

  Then I heard it again—breathing and more shuffling. Listening intently, I held my breath. There was no mistaking he fact that someone was there that very instant, in the corridor below, listening to me, maybe even watching me, knowing I was scared out of my mind. A voice inside my brain urged me to move, but my legs wouldn’t budge from the spot as my eyes scanned frantically for any signs, waiting for the predator to show himself.

  Suddenly, the lights switched off, and everything went dark. I remained rooted to the spot, a pang of panic shooting through my body, crippling me. I turned my head sharply toward the weak light coming from the kitchen of our apartment. My heart pounded harder as my mind began to conjure up images of someone creeping up the stairs, ready to kill me. What if it was Jett’s crazy brother? Out of all the people who had ever meant to hurt me, he was the most obvious choice, given the circumstances.

  Getting inside and locking up was the only coherent thought I could form. As fast as my legs could carry me, I sprinted back to our apartment and slammed the door. My legs were trembling with so much force that I had to lean against the wall to stop them from giving out on me. My breathing was labored and as loud as a whistling train, and my mind kept obsessing over the identity of the person outside.

  Could it have been Jett?

  It had to be. I wouldn’t have been surprised. He had always been sort of dominant, never taking “no” for an answer. The last time I had failed to answer his calls or texts, he tracked me down. I settled on him as the most obvious explanation; any other possibility would scare me too much.

  Taking another sip, I leaned back against the cushions and pressed the cold glass of water against my throbbing temple. My eyelids felt heavily and I let them fall, the disturbing images of Jett with another woman drifting at the back of my mind and cruelly dancing there as I fell asleep.


  From the periphery of my mind, I heard the muffled sound of a key turning in a lock and a door jiggling. Confused and disoriented, my head snapped in the direction of the noise. One quick glance at the clock revealed that I had dozed off for twenty minutes. Twenty minutes since someone had knocked at the door. Was it possible that whoever had been outside had hung around that long?

  I jumped out of the bed, straining to listen for any more noises over my unnaturally loud puffs of breath. Finally, feet shuffled somewhere, and my heart began to hammer hard against my chest.

  A door opened slowly and closed.

  Not just any door. The door to our apartment.

  Fear grabbed a hold of me as the realization kicked in that whoever had been inside the building might have entered the apartment. All it’d take was the knowledge to pick a lock.

  Retrieving the baseball bat Sylvie had once given me as a joke, in case we were ever burgled, I hid behind the door, mentally preparing myself to do whatever it took to protect myself and my child. My steps were slow and measured as I inched forward and raised the bat high, at head level, ready to bash. Eventually, the door to my room opened slowly.

  “Brooke? Are you here?” Sylvie’s blonde head popped into my line of vision. Her eyes widened with shock when she caught a glimpse of me. “Oh, my God, Brooke.” She pressed a manicured hand against her chest and took a step back, her eyes filled with surprise and fear. “You scared the living shit out of me. I saw the lights switched on in your room, and I thought so
meone broke in. I almost called the cops, but then I let myself in and saw your shoes and handbag. Why didn’t you just—” She stopped abruptly. A deep frown crossed her features as she eyed my face and then the baseball bat in my hand. “Are you okay?”

  No, I wasn’t okay, but where would I even begin?

  It was all too much to deal with. My frayed nerves caused my hands and knees to tremble. I dropped to the floor, back pressed against the wall. All the tension I thought was gone, returned in an instant and stronger than before. I didn’t even know where to begin. After all the crying and the self-blaming, I felt like an empty shell of myself.

  “Brooke?” She inched closer and gently took the baseball bat out of my hands before she sat down next to me. Without a word, she wrapped her arms around me in a tight hug.

  For a while, we sat there in the stillness, her warmth and touch the only thing that felt real. It was only after my limbs stopped shaking that I told her everything: the bad, the worse, and the blackest moment in my life. Recounting my memories almost ripped a hole in my chest, and yet, while the pain was all consuming, I didn’t cry—because all the tears I had for him were gone.

  By the time I finished talking, Sylvie had almost emptied an entire bottle. When I insisted that she pour me a glass—not to drink it but to stop her from polishing it off—she adamantly refused.

  “You can’t drink in your condition.” She patted my hand gently, her eyes blazing with anger. In all my life, I had never seen her so upset, especially when it should have been me who was full of fury. Sylvie wasn’t the crier in our friendship. That was all me. Or at least had been upon finding out that Jett was cheating on me. Now my tears were depleted, and anger and humiliation had taken their place.

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