ColeTijan / Romance & Love
To my readers!
I was surrounded—by champagne, crystal lights, and beautiful people. And I wanted to die.
Not really, but I was huddled in a corner with my back turned to the party. This was Sia’s job. She was the event coordinator at this art gallery, the Gala. I wasn’t even sure what event she was throwing, but I was here because she asked me to be. This was her thing, a typical Friday night for my best friend. The rich and gorgeous people came together to drink, socialize, throw money at some charity and mainly gossip. This was not my thing, and among all these paintings and socialites, I wanted to disappear.
I moved to Chicago two years ago, but that seemed like a lifetime now. We came for Liam’s job. He was the newest counselor at the Haven Center, but a year ago he was killed, struck by a drunk driver on his way home.
A shudder went through me as I remembered.
Liam had left a message that he was stopping to get flowers—he was a block away. The local florist had a booth in our grocery store. I’d had the genius idea to walk Frankie and meet him at the store. Our dog furry child could wait in the car while we got food together. It was silly, but grocery shopping was a favorite “date” for me. Liam thought it was ridiculous. He always laughed, but he’d humor me. And Frankie loved it. He got out of the house and could wag his tail to his heart’s content in the car. We lived in a nice neighborhood, and it wasn’t too hot, so I trusted our child would still be there when we returned.
When Frankie and I walked around the corner, Liam’s car was waiting to cross the intersection and turn in to the parking lot. He smiled when he saw Frankie and me, and he looked so happy. He’d lifted his hand to wave. So had I. When the light changed, Liam started across—I saw his smile fall away. I saw his hand grab for the steering wheel. I saw the blood drain from his face. He’d started to mouth, “I lo—“
My heart twisted. It was being yanked out, slowly, inch by inch.
As I’d watched, my husband’s car was T-boned by a truck.
I bowed my head and gripped my champagne glass now. I could still hear the sound of metal being smashed, crunching and grinding. Then the car had started in a roll.
It had rolled three times before stopping. He had rolled three times before dying.
The terror—I’ll never get that image out of my mind. His crystal blue eyes, high cheekbones, a face I’d always teased would keep the ladies hitting on him long after he passed fifty, had never looked so scared. Everything happened in slow motion. His eyes went to the truck, and then they found me. Frankie was barking. I couldn’t move. My heart slowed.
I was told later that I’d kept Frankie from running in to traffic, but I have no memory of that. All I can remember is Liam and the look in his eyes when he knew he was going to die.
My future died that day.
I had one second to ready myself, and I wiped away the tear that had leaked from my eye. Sia rushed to my side, hissing my name in an excited whisper as she grasped my arm. She moved close, turning so she could speak quietly to me but still watch her friends behind us. Her dress grazed my bare arm.
“I just got the best news ever for you! Seriously, I’m gushing like a twelve year old because it’s that damned good.” She paused, her eyes searching my face, and her head moved back an inch. “Wait. What are you doing all the way over here?” She glanced over her shoulder. “The street’s beautiful and all, but the party’s behind you.”
I had to stifle a smile. She wouldn’t understand. I was indeed facing downtown Chicago. Traffic was minimal due to the impending blizzard. Already the snow was falling, piling atop cars, sidewalks, people, and signs.
It was breathtaking. That was the art I appreciated. Sia loved people, or more specifically, she loved connections. She didn’t just see faces when she met them. She saw wealth, their friends, and potential connections. I was the opposite. I seemed to notice everything except those things—or I used to. I had during my Liam era, when my heart was full and open and welcoming. But that was then.
Now I was in the after-Liam era.
Everything was dull. Grey. Black. White.
I sighed. I even depressed myself.
I tuned back in to what Sia was saying. She hadn’t stopped to wait for my response. “…number, and I have to tell you, you’ll love it. It’s one of the most exclusive places I’ve heard about. No one knows about the opening, but I got the number for you. Can you believe it? How amazing a friend am I?” Her eyes sparkled. “I’m fucking amazing, Addison. Ah—”
“Okay, I got it.” I gently pulled her hand off my arm, keeping it in mine.
She squeezed back, her body dancing with excitement.
“Say it again,” I told her. “What’d you get for me?”
She tucked a piece of paper into my palm. Her voice was so hush-hush. “I got the number for one of the most exclusive buildings there is. It’s three blocks from here. There’s never been a vacancy, but there’s one now. The third floor is open.”
“What do you mean, the third floor is open?” I unfolded the paper to find a phone number scrawled on it, nothing else.
“It’s the silver building.”
“The silver…” I looked up at her as it clicked which building she was talking about. It was a building a short walk away, covered entirely in something silver. Sia had first thought it was a business, but once she found out it housed residents, it took on a whole other appeal to her. Her interest was piqued, and when that happens, Sia’s like a detective, going after every tip she gets. Only she couldn’t find any information about it. There was an air of secrecy about who owned it and who lived there, which only added to its appeal.
I’d been hearing about this building for the entire two years I’d known Sia. We’d met early on when Liam and I moved to Chicago, and she’d been the one friend who stuck with me as my life fell apart.
I was speechless for a moment. She’d finally solved her mystery? “Who owns it?”
A grimace flashed over her face, momentarily marring the image of perfection I knew she wanted for tonight. She’d swept her light blond hair up into a bun and rimmed her dark eyes. They looked smoky, but alluring and sexy. Exactly how Sia was. She moved closer to me, pulling her wrap tighter around her shoulders as she checked behind her. No one was looking, so she reached down to tug the front of her ball gown up. It had ridden low, showing a healthy amount of cleavage, but that was Sia. I’d just figured that was the look she was going for.
“That’s the thing,” she said. “I still don’t know, and it’s driving me nuts. You can find out, though.” She clamped on to my arm again. “This was passed to me through a friend of a friend of a friend, but if you call that number, you can request to view the third floor.”
“It sounds expensive.”
“It’s perfect for you.” Her hand moved to her chest. “I can’t afford it, but you totally can. You have the money Liam left you, and you’ve been wanting to get out of that house. I mean, all those memories. I totally get it. I know you’ve been looking to move.”
I was, though it was a shameful secret of mine. Liam had loved our house. We were going to have our family there. The thought of leaving made me feel like I was leaving him. I’d been putting it off for a year, but it was becoming too much. I could feel him in every room. I could hear him laughing. When I was upstairs, I swore he would call my name as if he were just coming home from work. Everything was him—the furniture, the stupid expensive espresso machine he’d vowed we needed to live and then couldn’t figure out how to use. Even his juicer—I still couldn’t believe he’d bought a juicer for us.
My throat closed. The tears were coming, and I had to shut them down. “Yeah, but downtown?” I murmured, my throat raw. “That’s a big change.”
“It’d be amazing. You’d live three blocks from here. I’m here all the time, and my place isn’t far away either. You can cab that easily.” Her eyes were wide and pleading. “Please tell me you’ll call. Do it! Dooo it.”
I glanced back to the number. “What if this is some elaborate scheme to trap people and kill them? You said it yourself: you don’t know who owns the building. It could be the Russian mob,” I teased.
“Even better!” She rolled her eyes and dismissed that with a wave. “Come on, if it was the Russian mob, I would’ve heard about that. Besides, I heard one of the residents is the CEO of Grove Banking.”
“It’s his place in the city.”
“Oh.” Coming downtown was such a hassle. I loved seeing Sia, but I hated coming here as much as I did. But actually living here…
I’d dodge all the parking and traffic. There was something peaceful about living among the finest restaurants, museums, shopping and so much more. And although things were busy during the workday, I knew there were also times when it was quiet. After hours, it was a sanctuary within one of the most active metropolitan areas in the country. “It’ll be so expensive.”
“Your inheritance from Liam is ridiculous. You’ll be comfortable for the rest of your life.”
Yes, my inheritance was ridiculous—but not because it was twenty million dollars, because I’d never known about it. Liam had never told me. In fact, he’d kept all sorts of secrets. I hadn’t known about the wealth until his family told me at his funeral, begrudgingly. I knew his mother had hated doing it. His grandmother had been a household name, as she’d invented a popular kitchen utensil.
I still couldn’t believe it, even though the money had been transferred to my bank account. Most days, Sia was the one who reminded me about it. I had done okay as a freelance writer before he died, enough to have a small nest egg, but I’d had to dip into his inheritance over the last year. Just a bit, but I’d have to dip into it more for that place.
“I’ll call.” Sia took the piece of paper from me. “I’ll set it up. We’ll go together to see it. You won’t be alone, and that way I get to see inside that glorious piece of heaven. You can decide afterwards.”
I gave her a rueful look. If I saw it, and it was gorgeous, I’d probably want it. I liked to live simply, but I did appreciate beauty. And evidently I could afford it.
I sighed. “Okay. Call and set it up.”
She grabbed my arm with both hands. “Oh my God! I’m so excited!” She yanked me to her, but the movement caused her hair to scoot forward too, looking out of place on her head. She stopped and quickly patted everything back into place—hair, boobs, dress, everything. Her smile never faltered. “We have to celebrate! The best fucking champagne I can find.” And she was off, in the same whirlwind as she’d come. She signaled for one of the waiters.
She moved gracefully through the crowd among all the sparkling dresses and black tuxedos. Sia’s world was beautiful. It was much livelier than mine, and it was okay to come and visit. I didn’t think I could handle living in it, though. Would that be what happened if I moved downtown?
Or even if this place were something I loved, if it was as exclusive as she’d said, would they take me? Surely they’d want someone else, someone who was someone. I was no one. Hell, half the time I wasn’t even me. But I’d go. I’d see the place and let Sia down easy after that.
I could see her approaching now with not one but two bottles of champagne in her hands. I eyed the one she held out to me.
“Take it.” She linked her elbow through mine as I did, and guided me back through the event she’d organized. “We’re going upstairs to my office, and we’re going to get smashed.”
“What about your clients?”
“I’ve wined and dined with all of them already. They’ll be fine. The staff will take care of them. It’s best friend time.” She pulled me up the stairs and winked over her shoulder, her voice dipping down. “And besides, I’ve already made my evening plans, if you know what I mean. When you go home and I’m feeling lonely—aka horny—I’m supposed to give Bernardo a call.”
I didn’t ask who Bernardo was; she had so many boyfriends. I just smiled and followed.
I would do what she wanted. And when my sides were splitting from laughing too much later on, I’d call a cab. I’d go home, and I’d curl up under my blanket knowing that for one night, the booze would help me sleep.
It took a month to schedule our showing.
Sia had to do it. She scheduled it; then I changed my mind. She scheduled a second one, and a repeat. What was I doing? How could I possibly leave Liam’s home? It was ours. It was his. I couldn’t leave. But after the third time Sia set up a meeting, she made a pitch that I just had to see it. See. Not commit. Not move in right away.
I was still scared shitless, but I agreed. Her slight guilt trip helped, too. She was my best friend, and I was the excuse for her to see the inside of the building. So here I was, finally.
We pulled up to the silver building, and I saw that it wasn’t really silver. It was glass. The entire building was made of windows. As I got out of the cab and craned my head back, looking up, I couldn’t deny that I was already impressed.
Sia grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the building. “Come on. The manager’s expecting us.”
There was no big double or circling door at the entrance like most places had. It had a single black door, instead, which opened for us once we stepped in front of it. I passed through and saw there was no doorknob. I couldn’t imagine using that to get in and out, but once I stepped inside, I realized there was a doorman. His office was right next to the door, and he now stood beside Sia. I looked at him, and he bowed. Bowed. For real—just enough so I saw the top of his greying head.
He straightened back up. “Good afternoon, Ms. Bowman.”
He used my maiden name. I hadn’t been called Bowman for two years—even before Liam and I got married, our friends were calling me Mrs. Sailor. I caught Sia’s reaction from the corner of my eye. She snapped to attention, her eyes jerking to me, but I didn’t say anything. It sounded strange to hear my old name, but maybe it was time I started using it.
I nodded back. “You, too, Mr…”
“Kenneth. You can call me Kenneth.”
“Okay. Thank you, and good afternoon to you, too, Mr. Kenneth.”
He’d started to indicate behind us, but at his name, he paused. The corner of his lip tucked under, like he might have been holding back a grin. He was just slightly shorter than me, maybe around five foot six, and he wore a thick black sweater over black dress pants. I saw a coat hanging just inside the door and imagined him whisking it on as he stepped outside. He was a cute little man—reddened chubby cheeks, warm brown eyes, and a little pudge in the stomach area. He had a huggable, teddy bear appeal. If I somehow ended up living here, I’d be calling him Ken within the week, whether he wanted it or not.
I found myself grinning back, even though he was still trying to hold his in.
Sia looked between us. “Ookay…”
A door opened and closed, and I heard a low voice call, “Ms. Bowman, Ms. Clarke, welcome to The Mauricio.”
A very quiet squeal came from Sia. I ignored her and nodded at the approaching man. He was tall, with a slender build. Unlike Kenneth, this guy gave off a no-nonsense vibe. He held out his hand and shook mine firmly. I wouldn’t have called him handsome. His eyes were dark, and he had a big nose with a strong jawline. But although he wasn’t pretty, he was authoritative. Sia’s mouth opened an inch, and I knew she was instantly taken with him.
“You can call me Dorian.”
I nodded. “Hello, Mr.—”
He interrupted, showcasing a blinding white smile. “Just Dorian. No Mr.”
“Dorian it is, then.” I spoke at the same moment Sia breathed out, a hand to her chest.
“Oh yes. Dorian,” she murmured.
“Ms. Clarke, it’s good to meet you in person, put a face to the voice.” He turned to her.
If I looked, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see her knees shaking. She was enraptured, and I knew I’d be hearing about Dorian for the next two months, until she slept with him. Mr. Kenneth and I cast her a look, and when she didn’t notice, still transfixed by Dorian, I cleared my throat.
“Thank you for letting us see the apartment,” I said, hoping to break the spell. “And for talking with Sia to set this up.”
Dorian’s eyes had lingered on Sia, but as I spoke, he turned to me. A flicker of something passed over his face. I frowned, not identifying what it was. It didn’t feel right, but then it was gone. He gazed back at me with only the utmost professionalism. Clearing his throat and with a quick nod, he extended a hand toward an elevator located across the lobby.
“Ah, yes. It’s more than an apartment, though.” He glanced at Sia, but went on without saying her name. “I’m sure you’ve been informed that we have a small number of residents. Most have an entire floor. The owner is private, so rent checks will be made out to The Mauricio, should you decide this is a place you’d like to live.”
The elevator doors opened as we approached, though Dorian hadn’t pushed a button. He paused before stepping inside and gestured behind us. “As you can see, Kenneth’s office is right next to the front door. You’ll never have to worry about waiting for