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The lovers secret, p.9
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       The Lover's Secret, p.9

           J. C. Reed
 
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  “Oh, sweetie.” Her hand clasped around mine, squeezing gently.

  I shrugged as if it didn’t matter, even though it did. “But instead of asking for my hand in marriage, he demanded that I promise not to run away, not even if we separated in the future. As if such a promise would be enough to keep our relationship going for years.” I paused as I remembered his words. Five years, to be more precise. “Needless to say, I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t make that kind of promise.”

  I looked up and almost began to laugh at the way Sylvie’s eyebrows furrowed. Wrinkles didn’t suit her. They made her seem stern, and she didn’t do stern very well.

  “Why?”

  I moistened my lips. “If I make a promise without getting a promise back, I’ll always think that he’s not as invested in the relationship as I am. It makes sense not to give in to his every demand.”

  “So you didn’t do it?” she asked, incredulous, and I realized she wasn’t on my side. “The guy is crazy about you, and he wants the reassurance that you won’t run away.”

  I shook my head, slightly irritated by her response. “You don’t understand. I can’t.”

  “What’s the big deal? Just do it or pretend to. It’s probably only a matter of time until you two get hitched anyway.”

  “Not for the next five years, we’re not.” I grimaced. Just thinking about his words made me feel defeated.

  “Why’s that?”

  “Jett implied that marriage is for the foolish, and…” I waved my head as my words choked me. When the barista brought us our cappuccinos, I plastered a fake smile on my face to hide my emotions.

  “He said that to you? Just like that?” Sylvie leaned back in shock.

  “Not directly, no.” I shook my head again and watched the barista depart. “He pointed out that he feels it takes that long to get to know someone, so I don’t expect a marriage will happen anytime soon. But…” I looked up, ignoring the aching burn in my heart as I considered my words.

  “But what?” Sylvie prodded impatiently.

  I let out a frustrated sigh, then pretended to take a sip of the hot beverage, when all I wanted was the warmth to comfort my cold hands. The cup took the chill out of my fingers, but the warmth didn’t reach the freezing sensation settling around my heart. “I’m pregnant…and to be honest, I can’t really wait that long. Call me old-fashioned, but I need more. I need some sort of assurance that we’ll last. A little more proof that we’re in it for the long haul and not just for fun.”

  I eyed the liquid in my cup. Before I met Jett, my life had been dark in so many ways: impenetrable. Unforeseeable. Always filled with the need to stay awake, out of fear that my nightmares might just become real. Now things were different, and I couldn’t help but wonder how my life would turn out if he ever left. Because a breakup was a possibility, what with my body changing in the coming months and the child demanding all of our attention. And even if he still found me attractive after I gained too much baby weight in all the wrong places, what if the years would pass us by and Jett continued to shy away from any sort of official commitment? Where would that leave me?

  “You could propose to him, you know,” Sylvie suggested. “Many women do it nowadays. All we’d need is a ring.”

  I snorted.

  Granted, it wouldn’t have been a bad idea…under different circumstances. Maybe if I were dating a guy who didn’t mean so much to me. But I would never propose to someone like Jett, because a rejection from him would break my heart.

  “It’d be pointless,” I mumbled. “He’s had more women than he can count.”

  “So? He has you now. Who cares about before?”

  “Well, I do,” I whispered. “It just proves that someone like him doesn’t commit easily. He said his past doesn’t matter, that I’m the exception, the only woman he’s ever loved.”

  “Sounds romantic,” Sylvie cut in.

  “Sounds like bullshit, coming from someone who doesn’t like to be tied down.” When Sylvie inclined her head, clearly unconvinced, I continued, “Did it ever occur to you that he might only be asking for that absurd promise because I’m pregnant and he just wants the child in his life?”

  For a second, we stared at each other in silence.

  It was only when Sylvie’s gaze fell on the necklace that I remembered how much Jett cared for me. He did his best to make me happy. Just because he had his personal views on official, legal commitment, it shouldn’t matter if he and I got married or not, as long as we stayed together. I suddenly realized I was being too harsh on him. Instinctively, I touched the pendant, and guilt washed over me for wanting so much of him when he already did more than anyone had ever done before.

  “I’m sorry,” I whispered in a feeble attempt to conceal my inner thoughts. “I shouldn’t think of him that way. He’s trying so hard to make it work that I have no right to judge him.”

  Sylvie grabbed my hand again. “It doesn’t matter. It’s how you feel. And I totally get you, Brooke.” Her voice came so low that I wasn’t sure I heard her right.

  “You do?” I asked, surprised.

  “Yes. In some crazy way, I do.” Sylvie smiled and squeezed my hand again. “It’s your right to have wishes and dreams. We all have them. It’s what makes us who we are—susceptible, stupid, and blind. But love gives us hope to live another day.”

  That was why I loved Sylvie. She never judged me, but more importantly, she understood where I was coming from—at least most of the time.

  “I’m not really an expert in relationships. You, of all people, should know that,” Sylvie said. That was true. She was anything but a relationship guru. In fact, she usually shied away from them like the plague.

  “But I know this. Marriage is not such a big deal,” she continued. “People think that once they’re married, problems won’t ever arise, but the truth is, there’s always work to be done, marriage license or not. Two people can be married and still not be committed to each other. But then two people can be committed and happy without having to be married. My point is…you don’t need a ring to prove that your love is real, because marriage doesn’t give your relationship a day off work. It doesn’t make it easier or give you the happiness you should find within yourself.”

  “So, what do you advise?”

  She hesitated before she proceeded warily. “Since Jett’s your first real relationship, I say you should throw caution out the window. Just go with it, and stop being overcautious.”

  “Great.” I sucked in my lower lip. “I’m overcautious, and he’s overprotective. What a perfect combination.”

  “Better a careful combination than nothing at all,” she said. “At least Jett wants to know how you are and what you do.”

  Was that bitterness talking?

  Her tone made me look up, and something passed between us. It was just a moment, but it was enough to know what that look meant.

  “Has Kenny called?” I asked, treading carefully.

  “I wish.” Sylvie smirked. “But it’s not the end of the month yet, so he might decide to.”

  I nodded encouragingly as I tried to conjure Kenny’s face before my eyes. Just like Jett, he was sexy, tattooed, and had trouble written all over his forehead. The two of them were best friends. On the few occasions when I had met Kenny, he had been distant, taciturn even, so it came as no surprise that I barely knew anything about him.

  “I’m sorry,” I said when Sylvie remained silent, playing with the spoon.

  “Don’t be.”

  “He probably has a good excuse.”

  “More like a lame one.” She checked her cell phone and shrugged. “You’re so fortunate, Brooke. Your lucky stars have sent you a good guy. Knowing my crappy luck, my soulmate is probably some loser who’s too busy playing video games to find me. In all seriousness, though, I’d rather have your problems than be stuck with a guy who doesn’t have time for a relationship. Trust me, I’d rather be in a relationship with the prospect of getting married in five ye
ars than in one with a status saying indefinitely undefined.”

  There was something depressing in knowing Sylvie was unlucky in her love life when I was the one with the perfect boyfriend. Okay, Jett wasn’t perfect. He had the perfect body, the perfect dimples. He knew how to give me mind-blowing orgasms, and he was sexy as hell, but he wasn’t perfect…because he hadn’t proposed yet.

  If he’d just go down on one knee and ask, with a ring in his hand or not—I sure wouldn’t mind as long as he just asked—he’d be more than perfect. He’d be a dream come true, because nothing sucked more than being untied and raising a child alone, all while being deep in a financial pothole.

  “Things will change, Sylvie,” I assured her in the most serious and convincing tone I could muster. “If it doesn’t work out with Kenny, someday, somewhere, someone will come knocking on your door and blow you away.”

  “Hopefully sooner rather than later, while I still look young and I can get them young. There’s no way I want to be an old cougar,” Sylvie said, trying her best to infuse some humor into the situation. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be okay. As I’ve always been. I just need to go on a few more dates.”

  “I’m not saying you should give up on Kenny yet.”

  “I wasn’t planning to.” She smiled, tilting her head. “But I’m also not giving up my partying ways. If he isn’t here most of the time, and can’t be bothered to call, I’m not wasting my time waiting for Prince I-Can’t-Care. I’m keeping my options open. So, for the time being, he might just have to share me with others.” She touched my arm lightly, and her chirpy voice began to reflect her worry.

  “Brooke, I totally get your fear with Jett. But it will be Thanksgiving soon, and your mom still doesn’t know about him. She doesn’t even know that you’re pregnant, for that matter. Maybe you should stop thinking about marriage and instead start worrying about how to tell her. You can’t avoid her for the rest of your life, you know.”

  Oh crap. Mom.

  Double-crap.

  Think of all the explanations and endless interrogations I would have to endure.

  Obviously, I hadn’t forgotten to tell my mom about Jett and the pregnancy. I had just pretended to myself I could pull it off, that there would be plenty of time later. Simply put, I had been postponing the inevitable.

  My temples began to throb. I hated being questioned, and in this instance my mother wasn’t so different from Sylvie, maybe even a little worse. The questions would start at as soon as my mother realized I had found a new job and inherited an Italian estate, which had been the home of a kinky sex club. Then she would go on about me dating my boss, who just so happened to be the father of my unborn child.

  Try to explain that to someone who insisted you had to drown in endless motherly love. Someone once said that a mother’s love is unconditional. I wasn’t so sure that applied to my mom, but the point was: too many incredible things had happened—incredible as in over the top or impossible to believe—and I had no idea where to start.

  First, like any mother, she’d worry about my mental well-being, and suggest that I move back in with her. Second, she would ask so many questions that I’d end up having a headache for the rest of the year. And third, she’d judge the fact that Jett and I weren’t married and yet we were having a baby.

  “I won’t say anything to her if you don’t,” Sylvie said conspiratorially, “but surely you realize the moment the baby’s born it might just be too late?” Now she was making fun of me. I grimaced but said nothing.

  “Oh, for crying out loud.” Sylvie rolled her eyes in mock annoyance. “Just keep it simple, and tell her over the phone so you can hang up and blame it on a bad connection.”

  “It’s not that easy.” I took another sip of my now lukewarm cappuccino and began to trace the edge of the cup with my fingertip. “It needs to be done in a public place, where she won’t dare throw a hissy fit. You know her. If she doesn’t like Jett, she’ll be upfront about it, and I can’t have her insulting him.”

  I knew she would; after my father’s death, she lost all trust in the male population…and people in general.

  “You mean like the one time she told me I’ve got no talent for karaoke?” Sylvie grinned.

  “Yes, and I was mortified.” I cringed inwardly.

  My mother had an honesty about her that could pierce even the sturdiest of all armors. Granted, Sylvie was a little tone-deaf, but no one had the right to tell her that. With Jett, it’d probably be a little worse, her honesty more brutal, because there was a difference between sexiness and being pretty. With sexiness came power, which my mother equated to breaking a woman’s heart. Jett had that particular look about him, that impressive confidence and sexy charisma that screamed sex god, and I doubted he could play those down.

  “Besides, she lives in Philadelphia now, so I can’t even pretend I don’t have the time to drive over.”

  “Tina moved to Pennsylvania?” Sylvie asked, faking surprise.

  In truth, it wasn’t that much of a surprise. My mother moved around a lot, depending on the guy she was dating.

  “When?”

  “About a month ago.” I let out an exasperated sigh. “You know her. New guy, new place.”

  Sylvie let out a laugh, and I couldn’t help but join in. Years ago, my mother had been different, but after my father’s death, she had sworn off any sort of commitment—an attitude I had adopted before I met Jett.

  “Who’s the lucky guy this time?” Sylvie asked.

  I shrugged, signaling that I had no idea and no wish to find out either. She wouldn’t be holding on to the new flavor of the month long enough to make it worth remembering his name. “I think he’s Scottish.”

  “Another one?” Sylvie eyes bulged. “That’s the fourth in a row. Seems like she favors them. You know, you could ask Jett to fib a little about his ancestry.”

  “Don’t exaggerate. There have only been two.” I bit my lip to stop my laughter, but failed. “And Jett couldn’t pull off a Scottish accent if his life depended on it. He can barely hide that Southern drawl.”

  Sylvie’s lips twitched. “Can you imagine him saying ‘Yer little bloody scud, yer aff yer heid’?”

  I almost choked on my laughter. Sylvie was great at imitating accents, and in particular British ones, which she had picked up on family vacations.

  “You should be an actress,” I said. “You’re so good that I didn’t even get half of what you just said.”

  “Yeah, I should, even though my family would probably disown me. You know how old-fashioned they are.”

  Sylvie’s entire family was not just old-fashioned, but also wealthy. Old money. That was one of the few things I knew about them, because Sylvie never talked about her past.

  “There’s always YouTube,” I said. “You could make a lot of money with parodies, and they’d probably never find out.”

  We chatted some more, until Sylvie checked the time and grimaced.

  “Shoot,” she said. “I wish I could stay, but work’s calling. Got to look at some fucked-up reports.”

  “Oh.”

  I watched her get up and squeeze into her expensive coat before handing me a brown paper bag. “I’ve brought you your mail. Someone named Judy—or June or Julie or something like that…” She snapped her fingers in thought, then gave up. “Anyway, whatever her name, she’s been calling a lot. She said she needs you to get back to her as soon as possible.” Sylvie pointed at the bag again. “There’s a letter from her in there.”

  “Thanks.”

  It was already after 3 p.m. when Sylvie leaned in to give me a friendly kiss on the cheek. “Call me if you need anything.”

  “I will.” As I watched her leave, I felt a strange coldness creeping up my body again.

  After Sylvie was gone, I turned my attention to the stack of letters and hope surged through me. Whoever contacted me via email, might work at the legal firm, and might have sent me a letter to tell me more about the offer I had received fo
r the Lucazzone estate. Leaning back, I began to sort through them.

  Among the letters was a stunning fuchsia envelope, decorated with glitter, lace, and a satin ribbon, which I could only assume was another invitation to a college friend’s wedding.

  Lucky girl.

  I banished the dark, envious thoughts that were still lurking in the back of my mind and pushed the envelope back in the bag, then went through the usual brochures and ads next—anything but the frighteningly white envelopes that looked way too familiar. Eventually, I finished sifting through the meaningless stuff. When I didn’t find a letter that carried the Wighton & Harley logo, I had no choice but to turn my attention to the ones that mattered.

  Even though I told myself there was nothing to worry about, my pulse started to race as I tore open the first letter and my eyes scanned the writing down to the bottom, where it was signed by a Judith Altenberg. I figured she was the woman who had called.

  Miss Stewart,

  After repeated attempts to contact you, I’m asking you to get in touch with me in regard to your missing payments over the past few months. Your overdraft has exceeded the limit, and we can no longer allow withdrawals. Your total debt has accumulated to a total of $49,867, and…

  I stared at the number, stunned and paralyzed, unable to continue reading.

  Fifty thousand dollars of debt.

  And that was just the money I owed to the bank.

  One bank.

  Oh God!

  How the heck did I—a twenty-three-year-old with a baby on the way—owe that much to a bank? But even as I asked myself the question, I knew the answer. I wasn’t born rich. Living and studying in New York City had been expensive. There had never been another option but to take out loans to fund my college education and to keep myself afloat. After finishing my education, I went through nine months of unemployment, during which I maxed out all my credit cards, then ended up working for Sunrise Properties with a salary that barely covered rent and food. When Jett hired me, he offered me twice what I had made before. But with a new job came the need for a new wardrobe and other expenses in order to fit into Jett’s world.

 
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