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The lovers secret, p.5
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       The Lover's Secret, p.5

           J. C. Reed
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  I couldn’t help but wonder why he’d risk bringing up such a heavy topic after having such a good time, but I remained quiet as I waited for him to continue.

  “You slipped away, Brooke, and I realized that even the darkest moments in my life before you entered it were nothing compared to not knowing whether I’d see you again.” He looked up and something passed over his features; it was the same ominous glint I had seen before, like dark clouds gathering before a thunderstorm.

  “We broke up, we made up, and now you have me again.” Keeping my tone light, I shrugged. I didn’t want to think of that topic or that time. The mere mention of our breakup and the consequent prospect of an empty future—a future without him—had rendered me hopeless. Just thinking about it made me sad, and this wasn’t the time nor the place for sadness. “You explained your motives, and I chose to believe you.”

  “I know. It’s just…well, I wish it never happened,” Jett said softly. “But at least it made me realize you’re the risk I’ll always take.”

  I frowned. For some reason, the statement—the odd combination of words—annoyed me. It wasn’t just the prospect of him taking risks for me; it was the way he said it.

  Big words.

  Yeah, that was the problem. Big words too easily spoken. So easy it was hard to believe them. Words weren’t always easy to prove, and I certainly would never expect him to. While I had no doubt that he meant his statement, I didn’t want to hear it. I knew Jett would stand by me, no matter what. After all, he had saved my life when I was in trouble, even though he could just as well have turned his back on me.

  But talking about the risks he’d take for me?

  It was like an invitation not to live up to expectations. It was like an invitation to hurt me all over again. One thing my past had taught me was that big words equaled false promises, resulting in disappointment, and I had more than enough of that already.

  “We’ll be there for you, honey,” people had promised at my sister’s funeral, and again when my father died. Then, in the weeks and months that followed, not one of them showed up to check on my mother and me to see if we were coping. In some ways, that was worse than not saying anything at all. I would’ve preferred a quick hand squeeze or a soft smile as long as the moment lasted, because at least that would have left us with the impression—even a prospect or a false belief—that the pain in people’s eyes was heartfelt, that we weren’t just an inconvenience, never to be thought of again.

  Better forgotten.

  I balled my hands to fists. As much as I loved hearing Jett’s words, I wanted him to show me the sincerity of his words later, maybe in a few years’ time, when life had settled and there were no more mysteries left, when novelty became monotony and routine, and maybe even tragedy. Years later, when he would be able to say with full confidence, “She was always the risk I’d take. I knew it right from the beginning.”

  Right now, however, relying on his words just wasn’t an option for me, even if I wanted it to be. I had to be prepared to be loved and left. To be hurt again.

  Because that was reality.

  Life was beautiful, but it was also painful. People fail, a few get up, but there’s never a guarantee that their second attempt will work out. Claiming I was the risk he’d always take when he didn’t know what the future would hold in store for us was just wrong.

  Too wrong.

  “The future is an endless pit of uncertainty and promises, some of which might not come true,” I said, keeping the rest to myself. “There’s no point in talking about risks or decisions, Jett.”

  Talking challenges fate. It attracts disaster and causes chaos to unfold.

  “I know what’s true for me, and what I’d be willing to do for you,” he said stubbornly. An angry undertone was palpable in his voice. He propped up on one elbow and turned to glare at me. I ignored the two lines that had formed between his brows and took a long, deep breath, ready to stand my ground.

  “I understand, but there are so many bad things that could happen.”

  “Nothing bad will happen. I won’t allow it.” His gaze met mine with such ferocity that I had to swallow past the sudden lump in my throat. He was dead serious, and his intensity scared me.

  A guy like him could love fiercely and drop it all in the blink of an eye, just as fiercely. A guy like him could also walk blindly into the fire, ignoring the smoke that was about to kill him. Didn’t he realize that just because we loved each other and would soon have a child, life never comes with an assurance policy? We might not last—no matter how deeply we loved each other right now.

  “Maybe,” I whispered.

  His glance hardened just a little more. “Brooke,” he said, in a tone that left no room for discussion, “I’m serious. I would do anything for you, no questions asked.”

  My jaw clamped shut, unwilling to continue so as not to annoy him even more, but I wasn’t going to budge on the subject either, and he knew it. Besides, Jett would probably come up with countless reasons when I didn’t want to listen to any of them because, deep in my heart, I knew Fate always had a few surprises up her sleeve. It was a lesson I’d learned early on in life. But how could I possibly explain to him that even if his ego would never admit it, Fate always called the final shot?

  “What, Brooke?” Jett asked.

  “You wouldn’t understand,” I said.

  “Try me.”

  I shook my head, realizing that dropping the subject was the best way to go. Even if I explained myself a thousand times over, we’d never see eye to eye. We were too different and yet alike, and that was the perfect recipe for disagreements and fights.

  “I don’t want to,” I said. “In fact, I don’t want to talk anymore.”

  “All right. I guess the conversation’s over.” Without waiting for an answer, Jett headed out the door, calling over his shoulder, “I’m taking a shower.”

  No invitation to join him.

  I set my jaw and slumped into the cushions, not bothering with a reply, the aftertaste of the chocolate mousse leaving a sour taste in my mouth.

  I should have just waited for Jett to finish his shower and join me, but something prompted me to get up and open his laptop. Just to check my emails, not to go through his stuff. He did it all the time, so I didn’t understand why I had a sudden feeling of foreboding in the pit of my stomach.

  I opened a private browser and navigated to my email account, then typed in my details. There were at least fifty unread messages, most from work, some from friends and acquaintances—nothing important enough to demand an immediate reply. I skimmed through all of them and decided to log off, but before I did, I clicked on the recycle bin, curious as to what was residing in that little trash can icon.

  The message was there, marked as read and deleted. It had been sent from a prominent legal firm in New York City, the kind of firm that tended to be in the news on a weekly basis. With a fleeting glance at the door to make sure Jett was still in the shower, I opened the message. I blinked several times in succession, for a long moment unable to process what I was reading:

  Dear Miss Stewart,

  We’re contacting you on behalf of a client who is interested in acquiring the Lucazzone estate, which we have reason to believe is in your possession now. Our client has had the estate appraised by an independent third party and would like to discuss with you an offer that would benefit both you and your future plans. You may contact us during office hours at the number below. I can also be reached on my private line at your convenience…

  My heart began to slam against my chest in big quakes that rendered breathing impossible. I read the first part again, then moved on to the less important stuff, which included their company letterhead and some legal wording marking the email as private and confidential. Hundreds of questions raced through my mind, all demanding attention at once. Who was the mysterious client? And how did the legal firm get a hold of my personal email address? How had they known I was the heiress to some old estat
e that harbored dark secrets?

  I shook my head and took a deep, shaky breath as I forced myself to focus on one question at a time. But my brain couldn’t move on from two basic facts. First, someone was interested in purchasing a multimillion-dollar estate that belonged to me. Less than six months ago, as an estate agent, I would have been thrilled to arrange such a deal. It would have been an amazing opportunity—the big chance, for both my career and my financial status. Then again, less than six months ago, I had no idea I’d inherit the property the moment Alessandro Lucazzone died. Which led me to point number two: someone had logged into my email account and deleted the email on purpose. And why hadn’t the firm contacted me at work to talk with me directly? Unless my calls were being screened.

  I knew the message could be spam, sent from some hacker who might have found out details about me and decided to target me in a scam. But for some inexplicable reason, I decided to believe it was the real deal. The correspondence details looked too professional. The legal firm was well established in New York City business circles. Given the fact that a private number was included, I figured the request might be either urgent or important, so I memorized the number and decided I’d call it as soon as possible.

  Somewhere in the periphery of my mind, I realized that the sound of running water had stopped. Jett must have finished his shower and would be joining me any minute. I hurried to log off and close the Internet browser, then placed the laptop back on the table and returned to my previous position, all while my mind continued to fight against the onset of mistrust that was quickly nestling inside me.

  “Hey,” Jett said from the door, a towel wrapped around his naked lower body, “why didn’t you join me?” His spirits had risen, and a smile had returned to his lips. Slowly, he inched closer with the kind of hooded look that screamed sex—and lots of it.

  “You should dry off before you flood the floor.” Forcing a smile to my lips, I pointed to his hair and crossed my arms over my chest.

  He got the hint instantly, because he didn’t come closer. Instead, he headed for the bedroom, presumably to get a change of clothes.

  I exhaled in relief. At some point I would have to ask him about the email, but now wasn’t the right time. I was too shaken and needed time to think about the estate and the future the email had mentioned—a future that now included a child.

  Jett returned within a few minutes, dressed in a white shirt that accentuated his broad chest and narrow waist. Under different circumstances, I would have insisted on ripping it off of him, but now my attention was focused elsewhere.

  “Are you okay?” Jett asked. “You seem a little distracted.”

  For a moment, I pondered whether to ask him about the email.

  And risk sounding insecure? No way!

  “I have a headache,” I whispered. At least it was the truth.

  “I hope it has nothing to do with what we discussed earlier.” He stepped closer, wearing a concerned look on his face.

  “No, that’s not it. I’m fine.” My voice came a little too high, betraying my lie.

  Jett sighed. “Look, Brooke, I know you want me to shut up, but we need to talk about the future. Or else it will eat you up. Pretending you’re fine when you’re not is not the solution.”

  Playing for time, I sat up and tucked my legs under me, knowing I had to tread carefully so I wouldn’t hurt him or start a fight. “Let’s leave the past in the past and the future in the future.” My voice came a little too defensive and strong. I cleared my throat, but didn’t quite manage to get rid of the serious edge. “The future’s not really something I want to focus on right now.”

  A silence ensued, the heavy and gloomy kind, like fog draped around the room. Except for the soft crackling of the burning logs and the rhythmical ticking of a clock, no sounds broke through the magnitude of the situation.

  Finally, Jett got up and walked over to the table. His back was turned to me as he poured himself a glass of double-malt whiskey. The stronger kind—I noticed—which he only drank when something troubled him. I knew how much he actually disliked whiskey. He swigged it down in three gulps and winced, then poured himself another and some water for me.

  The tenseness of his shoulders gave away his anger at my unwillingness to explain. And I understood: he wanted me to share with him everything, and I would…someday. But right now, for the time being, my past, my fears, and my thoughts were my business. They were my burden—a closed door I wasn’t ready to open.

  Jett put the glass of water on the side table.

  I wrapped my fingers around it, but in spite of the dry sensation in my mouth, I didn’t drink any.

  He gave another frustrated sigh and moistened his lips. “Brooke, I’m just saying...” He paused. There was something in his voice that made me look up. Was it hesitation? Caginess? I wasn’t sure, but I could feel something in his stance, some kind of alertness, as though he was carefully watching my reaction. “I’d never do anything to betray your trust. I’m always going to keep my promises to you, but you need to trust me.”

  I frowned again.

  I hated the word “trust.” It reminded me of a house of glass that allowed everyone to enter freely or see what was going on inside. Eventually, someone would want to probe that glass and see how far they could go without breaking it. Maybe even go as far as damaging it beyond repair. People never talked about trust unless there was a good reason. More often than not, there was a morbid curiosity behind it, a hidden motive or an agenda— sometimes good, sometimes bad, however we saw it. That was just the way it worked. So, how could he stand there and talk to me about trust when I had just found the email in the trash and was plagued by burning questions?

  Narrowing my eyes, I took in the burning intensity in his gaze. He wanted something from me, but as much as I wanted him to elaborate, a more urgent question kept burning on the tip of my tongue.

  “I don’t understand. Why did you bring up our separation earlier?” I asked, trying to keep the tone light…without much success. ”Why would you talk about risks?”

  He took his time with an answer. Finally, he drained the last drop of his drink and looked up. “Because I don’t want it to ever happen again.” There was a slight pause, and then he continued, “It’s not so much about the risks I’d take for you, but it’s more the fact that I want you by my side, no matter what happens. We can fight. You can scream at me. Hell, you can even punch me, but I need you to stay, no matter what,” Jett said slowly. “I need your promise that you won’t disappear like before.”

  I shook my head and frowned again. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

  “It’s simple, Brooke. I’m asking you to promise me that you won’t leave.”

  My heart skipped a beat, and a chill ran down my spine. It wasn’t quite the answer I had been hoping for, more like…Look, I checked your email. I deleted it. And yes, let’s get married.

  Not that answer.

  I moistened my lips, hesitating. The way he was looking at me—too composed, too determined—made me nervous.

  A promise that I’ll never leave?

  How could I promise that? What if he hurt me again? While I didn’t fear the fights, I wasn’t sure I would survive another crack in my fragile heart.

  My fingers reached for the flickering candle on the side table—an old habit born out of pain and a need for control—and for a moment, I remembered the feeling of being burned. There had been a time when I welcomed the sting and the painful blisters. Just like a flame, Jett’s actions had once burned me. He had shattered what we built over days and weeks, after which came the claim that, even back then, he had loved me.

  He was my flickering candle—so beautiful yet so dangerous to the touch. Promising him that I would trust him, that I’d never go away, was like lighting a match and waiting for the flame to singe my heart and soul. I wasn’t yet ready to surrender all control to him. For the time being, I needed to belong to myself.

  “I can’t, Jett.
I shook my head, just in case he didn’t hear my whisper. “I just can’t.” My gaze remained glued to my hands, my knuckles white under the taut skin. “I’m sorry.”

  The silence was oppressing. No, make it upsetting. Utterly, totally depressing. For a long time, it remained unbroken and suffocating, with no reply.

  When I couldn’t take it anymore, I gathered the courage to look up, only to see the dark glint in his eyes. There was a depth in them that spoke of chaos and secrets, of wanting to possess and not quite knowing when to let go. Or maybe it was the chaos inside me that I saw reflected in his eyes.

  “Why not?” he asked eventually.

  It was just a question: no pressure, no blaming. It was a simple inquiry, as if he was asking why I wouldn’t want to take the rest of the day off work.

  Why not actually?

  Because it’s not him. It’s you. You can’t trust him.

  Despair washed over me as I realized it wasn’t just a question of whether or not I wanted to trust Jett. It was a matter of whether I would even be able to trust him. Just as some people lose the ability to laugh or be happy, trust no longer came naturally to me. And while Jett seemed perfect in every way, after discovering that email, I felt a strong need to find out whether I could trust him. After all, there had been a time when Jett had targeted me for my estate…and that I would never forget.

  Was it all just some odd coincidence that the email was deleted? Or was it maybe some sort of sign?

  I wasn’t sure.

  “Letting you back into my life was hard for me,” I whispered. “You’ve taught me what it means to love, but life’s shown me how easy it is to lose it all in the blink of an eye. That scar might fade over time, but it’ll never go away. If I make such a promise, I’ll basically be giving you my permission to hurt me all over again, just because you’ll know I’d never leave. And I’m not going to do that, Jett. I can’t, and you shouldn’t expect me to. There’s no way I’d ever want to repeat the experience of loving and having my trust betrayed.”

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