While every precaution has been taken in the preparation of this book, the publisher assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein. MID LIFE LOVE: AT LAST
Table of Contents Notice Dedication | For the readers who wanted more... Author ’s Note: Mid Life Love Epilogue Mid Life Love: At Last | Whitney G. Friday August 15, 2014 Chapter 1 Chapter 1.5 Chapter 2 Chapter 2.5 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Monday September 1, 2014 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Thursday September 18, 2014 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Epilogue The End Twisted Love Excerpt | Prologue: Chapter 1 Acknowledgments More works by Whitney Gracia Williams: A Preview of Desperation of Love by Alice Tribue Prologue***
Notice This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author ’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of the author. Cover photograph by Julia Savchenko, Getty Images
Dedication For the readers who wanted more...
Author’s Note: About that ‘Mid Life Love’ Epilogue... Before you begin to read this book, let me first say THANK YOU for reading the book that came before it: Mid Life Love. As I was editing that book with my beta team, there was a collective decision to leave out the epilogue at the end. I know a lot of you didn’t agree with the final decision, and for that reason I posted it on Two Crazy Girls with a Passion for Books blog shortly after publication. I want you to know that I’ve included the polished, edited version of the epilogue at the beginning of this book for anyone who hasn’t read it, and I truly hope you enjoy Mid Life Love: At Last as much as you enjoyed Mid Life Love. Thank you for being the best readers in the world, Whit’
Mid Life Love Epilogue Eight months later... Claire “I need three hundred of those granite tiles here by tomorrow afternoon. Can you make sure that happens? Oh, and could you see if those doorknobs I designed for Mulholland were approved yet? Okay. Thank you very much.” I hung up the phone and swirled around in my chair, smiling at the red and white entwined “C” letters that hung over my door. I was sitting in my office at C & C’s Charming Designs, my own interior design company. I’d quit my job at Signature weeks after Jonathan and I got back together, after he demanded that I accept his money and start my own company. Business was extremely slow at first—especially since he kept showing up in the middle of the day and preventing me from getting anything done. But after about four months, I started to pick up client after client, and word of my services began to spread like wildfire. I now had a six month waiting list for design projects, and I was in the process of expanding my store to include small home furnishings. I adjusted the picture frames that were standing proudly on my desk: Jonathan and I smiling on his favorite yacht. Him and my daughters jumping into the ocean. And the most recent one—him kissing me onstage after receiving another prestigious award. “Miss Gracen?” My secretary buzzed my office. “I’m off to lunch, and your twelve o’ clock is upfront waiting.” “Tell the client I’ll be right there.” I slipped into my jacket and headed down the hallway. Since I’d picked up so many clients, I was never able to get more than five minutes alone. “Caroline?” I walked around the front desk. “I told you that you and Ashley don’t need to make appointments to see me. You could’ve just called.” “Yeah, right.” She rolled her eyes. “You practically live here.” I shook my head. “What do you want?” “I need thirty dollars.” “Excuse me?” “Actually, I need fifty dollars. Ashley does too, but thirty each will do.” “Did the airport stop giving out paychecks all of a sudden? Where is your money?” “What’s going on?” Ashley walked into the store and stood next to her, not even glancing my way. “Did she give you the money yet?” “No.” Caroline sighed. “She still thinks we save money from our jobs...” “How do the two of you expect to go to college this fall without knowing how to save money?” I was tired of going over this with them. “Do you think it grows on trees? Do you think it falls out of the sky whenever you need it?” “So she’s not going to give us the money?” “I think that’s what she’s saying.” “Did you tell her it was for summer-senior-night and everyone who’s anyone is going to be there?” “No, I just asked for the money. I didn’t think I needed to explain why.” I sighed and prepared to re-start my lecture, but Jonathan walked in with a large bouquet of bright pink roses. “Good afternoon, ladies.” He looked at me and then he looked back and forth between
Ashley and Caroline. “Good afternoon,” they said in unison. “Can we have fifty dollars—each?” Ashley smiled at him. “Of course.” He pulled out his wallet and handed them both a hundred dollar bill. Just like that. “Why don’t we just do that every time?” “I don’t know...Maybe we like the challenge?” They both laughed and rushed outside. I watched as they climbed into two separate white Range Rovers—Jonathan’s ridiculously overthe-top birthday gift to them. “You have to stop doing that.” I took the flowers from him. “Doing what?” “Giving them money whenever they ask for it.” “Why?” “Because they don’t need it. And they’ll never learn how to save their own.” “They make nine dollars an hour and they work fifteen hours a week. How much do you honestly expect them to save?” “I give up.” I rolled my eyes. “Thank you for the flowers—and for the ones you sent this morning. You know, we’ve been together for a while now...You don’t have to keep sending me flowers every day. I’m sure the cost has to be adding up and I don’t want you to feel like you have to do that.” “Shhh.” He kissed me, making me forget whatever I was going to say. “How’s your day going?” “It’s okay. It’s been a bit busy.” “It doesn’t look busy...” He looked around the empty store. “It is.” “Where’s your secretary?” “On break. Why?” He smiled and pulled me closer. “No reason.” I saw the familiar ‘I’m-about-to-pull-you-down-to-the-ground’ look in his eyes and immediately stepped back, rushing behind the counter. He laughed and moved close to the counter ’s edge—ready to join me, but I hit a button that made a clear panel drop down from the ceiling, completely blocking his way. He raised his eyebrow. “What the hell is this?” “This is what I had the engineer build for me last week, after you interrupted a very important meeting with your distracting sex and cost me two hours’ worth of design time.” “You think I’m a distraction?” “You are a distraction. And you have your own company to run—one worth billions last time I checked, so I would appreciate it if—” “You had this built to keep me from coming behind the counter?” He pressed his hand against the glass. “To keep me out of your office?” “Clearly. And it seems to be working.” “It’s very cute.” He nodded. “You always amaze me with your sense of creativity.” He pulled his wallet out of his pocket and pulled out a key. Then he slid that key into the panel’s hole and pushed the door open. What the... “You are aware that I run a background check on any man that comes near you, right?” I blinked. “The second you told me you were having more construction done,” he said as he pushed the door shut and walked over to me. “I made sure the company and the engineer knew exactly who they
were dealing with. And I demanded to have extra keys to any locks you might attempt to install.” “Why do you always do this?” “How long is your secretary’s break?” He pushed me against the wall. “Jonathan...” I tried to ignore the look in his eyes. “I really need to get some work done. You can’t show up every day...” “I don’t show up every day.” He pressed his lips against mine. “I only show up when you don’t answer my calls. And I’m beginning to think you do that on purpose because you know exactly what’ll happen if you don’t.” “I was busy.” “How long is her break?” “An hour...” I moaned as he kissed my neck, as he squeezed my ass and lifted my leg around his waist. “I’ll make this up to you tonight.” “You said that yesterday.” “I...” I gasped as he ran his fingers against the back of my bra. “I promise.” “You’re going to lose this argument, Claire. Give up,” he whispered. Then he laughed. “I didn’t come here to have sex today.” I gave him a blank stare. “I didn’t.” He kissed me again and stepped back. “I just wanted to remind you about this weekend, wanted to make sure you didn’t forget.” I didn’t forget. He’d made that impossible. Even though I’d moved into his house and we’d traveled to amazing places with the girls, he and I still hadn’t had an entire weekend alone. For him, there was always some major business deal that couldn’t wait until Monday. And for me, it was always some project that I couldn’t step away from. “I didn’t forget.” I smiled. “Is it a surprise location?” “Isn’t it always?” I blushed. He still had a way of making me feel like it was the first time we’d met, like he was going to do anything to show me how much he cared. “I’m working late, so Greg will pick you up from our house at nine.” He brushed a strand of hair away from my face. “And then we’ll be on our way... Don’t bring any work with you or I’ll make you regret it...” “Looking forward to it, darling.” “Darling?” He rolled his eyes and kissed me one last time before walking over to the door. Then he turned around. “If you wear a fucking pantsuit like you did on our last date, I’ll rip it off of you before you make it into the car.”
Jonathan “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Mr. Statham.” The editor of Forbes stood up to shake my hand. “Not a problem, Miss Evans.” “It’s such an honor to finally meet you in person.” She bit her lip and I tried not to roll my eyes at her unwanted attention. She’d been flirting with me the entire meeting—batting her eyes, uncrossing and re-crossing her legs. She’d even “accidentally” let a mint fall down her revealing silk shirt, terribly pretending to be “so embarrassed” because she’d “never been this clumsy before.” She looked like she was about my age, and her hair was radiant blond with autumn colored highlights. Her eyes were a spectacular shade of blue, and in all honesty, she was quite beautiful. But she didn’t have shit on Claire. At all. “It was nice meeting you too, Miss Evans. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you.” Her eyes lit up and she bit her lip again. “Would it be too much to ask for a tour?” “Not at all.” I picked up my phone and called Hayley. “Hayley? Would you mind giving Miss Evans a tour of corporate this afternoon? Okay...Great. Thank you.” I hung up and walked her over to the door. “Hayley will meet you in front of the elevators. Have a great afternoon, Miss Evans.” “Thank you.” She scoffed and walked away. I plopped down in my chair, happy that the unnecessary magazine interview was over. I opened a drawer to shut off my voice recorder and caught a glimpse of my digital photo-book. Scrolling across its screen, I smiled at the pictures Claire and I had taken of Caroline and Ashley last month. Over the past eight months, I’d realized that I finally had everything I could possibly want —almost everything I could possibly want. Claire and I had grown closer than ever and she’d finally learned to accept our relationship and be comfortable with it. Sure, she still frustrated the shit out of me from time to time—but not because of insecurities or being seen in public together. It was mainly because she’d agreed to move into my house, but not before turning it into a damn renovation project that never seemed to end. She was always finding something new to tweak, some part of the house that could be “done better.” If I didn’t love her so much, I would’ve put a stop to it a long time ago—like the time she shattered the windshield of my Bugatti while installing new lights in the garage. “Mr. Statham?” Angela’s voice bounced off my walls. “Yes?” “Corey and...Miss Gracen are here to see you.” I looked at my watch. There was no way Claire had left her company this early—surprise weekend getaway or not. I always had to personally drag her out of there at the end of the day. “Send them in please.” I looked towards the door and watched as Corey held the door open for...Ashley. I smiled. “Yes, Ashley?” “Can I have fifty more dollars? I forgot to account for a few things...” “A few things like what?” I handed her a hundred. “Is that the only reason you came by?” “No, not really. I was wondering how long you and my mom were going to be gone this weekend...” “Why?” “No reason.” She put on her best poker face—something she’d definitely inherited from Claire. “I just thought I’d stop by to ask. That’s all.” “We’ll be back on Tuesday...”
“Good to know!” She clapped. “Have a safe trip!” “The house is under state of the art surveillance.” I narrowed my eyes at her. “Only two cars are allowed through the gate within the same four hours unless I have the key, and I’ve already alerted my security team to check the property every hour to make sure no extra guests arrive while we’re gone.” Her jaw dropped. “I thought we were friends, Jonathan.” She shook her head. “You and I have history...” I laughed. “We do have history. I still haven’t told your mother about the last secret pool party you had on my yacht, her crashed Audi, or last weekend when you and Caroline came home at four o’ clock in the morning. Would you like me to?” “No.” She rolled her eyes. “I’ll see you later...It was nice seeing you again, Corey.” She gave us both a hug before walking out of my office. “How do you tell them apart again?” Corey sat down at my desk. “I could’ve sworn she was Caroline.” “Instincts I guess. Are we all set on the CS account?” He nodded. “The shipment should get here within an hour. I’ll sign for it and have Greg bring it up. You made an appointment with me so I could tell you that?” “No...” I looked at the only photo on my desk, the one of Claire and Hayley playing Scrabble. “I need you to find out who Hayley is dating.” “What?” “Claire slipped up and said something to me about it yesterday...She and Hayley are apparently BFFs now and they’re keeping secrets from me. I need to know who this man is so I can kill him.” Corey blinked. “Kill him?” “Yes.” I balled my fists. “Not literally kill him. I just want a few words.” “Right...” Corey cleared his throat and adjusted his tie. “Well, I um...I already screened the guy.” “Great. What’s his name?” He sighed. “Um...” “Mr. Statham?” Angela called over the intercom again. “Yes?” “Miss Gracen is on line one.” “One second, Corey.” I picked up the phone. “Hello?” “Hey...” Claire’s voice was faint. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing...I just decided to leave work early today.” “Was there a fire?” “No...” She laughed. “I was ripped off a couple hours ago. The man I’m seeing stopped by and he just...” “He just what?” “He left without giving me what I wanted. And to think, I purposely avoided his phone calls all day so he would get the hint. He usually doesn’t back down so easily...” I smiled. “You’re at home?” “Not yet. I’m leaving my office now. But as soon as I get there, I’m going to take a nice, long shower to get ready for this weekend.” “Don’t leave. I’ll come get you.” I hung up and sent Angela an email, canceling the rest of my day. Then I looked up at Corey. “Remind me to ask you about Hayley’s asshole boyfriend when I get back.”
“Oh my goddd...Ohhh myyy—Oh my god...Jonathannn...” Claire moaned as I gripped her hips and moved her back and forth. “I....I...” She shut her eyes and cried out, louder and louder. I watched as she let go the same moment I did, as she sucked in breath after breath and collapsed against my chest. “I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of taking the scenic route with you...” I rubbed my hands against her bare back. “Are you okay?” “Yes...” She murmured and nodded her head, still breathing heavily. I waited until she completely calmed down before pulling her up and helping her back into her dress. I ran my fingers through her hair and sighed as I pushed one of her clips back into place. “You seem tense...” she whispered. “Are you okay?” “What makes you think I’m not okay?” “Because you’re making the face you always make when something’s bothering you...Is it the CS account?” I raised my eyebrow. “I eavesdropped a few nights ago...You were talking on the phone in bed and I couldn’t sleep.” “Hmmm. Well, yes, it is the CS account. Would you like to offer your advice on landing the biggest deal I’ve ever pursued?” “Sure.” She sat in my lap. “How much is it worth?” “Why is that always your first question?” I laughed as she scrunched her face in anticipation of an answer. “It’s worth more than my entire company. A lot more...I would be twice as rich if I landed it.” Her eyes widened. “What happens if you don’t land it?” “I guess I would have to figure something else out...You want to come back to Statham Industries to help me if that happens?” “Please.” She rolled her eyes. “Can I have a hint about where we’re going this weekend?” “No.” I kissed her lips. I was tempted to have Greg take us on another scenic route, but I held back. For the rest of the ride we slipped into the familiar silence that we’d grown accustomed to sharing —a special silence that no one else could possibly understand. “Mr. Statham?” Greg’s voice came through the speaker. “Yes, Greg?” “We’ve arrived sir.” The car came to a sudden halt and I adjusted Claire’s straps again. Greg opened the door and reached for her hand, helping her to step out. Then he directed the other men that were standing nearby to load our bags onto my plane. I placed my hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Are you sure about flying today?” “Is this the best way to get there?” she whispered. I nodded and held her hands. “But there’s always a Plan B. You know that.” Even though she’d assured me that she was on better terms with her flight phobia, I wasn’t completely sold so I always took precautions. If she looked uncomfortable or hesitant for one second, I called the whole trip off; I’d had to do that four times over the past few months. “I’m okay,” she said. “I promise.” I studied her eyes for several seconds more, watching for signs of uncertainty, hints of fear. When I didn’t see any, I walked her over to the steps and slowly led her up and into the plane. I motioned for her to sit down and pulled out the “Pre-Flight Words” paper that she’d received in therapy. “I need you to read it aloud, Claire.” I held her hand and waited until she’d recited every word, until she gave me a look of assurance that said she was okay with this. I nodded at the pilot and sat down in the seat next to her.
“DeLille Chaleur Estate Blanc to drink, Miss Gracen?” The flight attendant checked our seat belts. “That would be great.” Claire leaned against me. She fell asleep before the flight attendant returned and didn’t wake up until we stopped at a refueling point. “We’re here?” she asked. I shook my head and offered her some of my food, but she leaned against me and fell asleep again.
“Did you put something in my dinner yesterday, Jonathan?” Claire rolled across the bed and looked up at me. “What?” “I’ve never slept like that before...And I remember you carrying me off the plane when it landed. Did you put something in my food?” “No, Claire.” I walked over and kissed her. “It’s called being tired. You work all damn day every day and we did have sex twice before the flight. If I thought I had to drug you to get you to fly, then you wouldn’t fly. It was only a ten hour flight.” She blinked. “I’m sorry...Where are we?” “Take a look.” I pulled the floor to ceiling drapes open and watched as her eyes took in everything. We were staying right on the edge of clear blue waters, in the biggest villa the island had to offer. To the left of us was a beach of sprawling white sand and sky high palm trees. And in the distance there were rows of hidden bungalows, tucked beneath miles of lush greenery. “What’s the name of this place?” She slid the glass door open and stepped out onto the balcony. “St. Kitts and Nevis.” “Could you put that in terms that a non-billionaire who hasn’t traveled the world can understand?” I wrapped my arms around her waist and laughed. “Southern Caribbean.” She opened her mouth as if she was going to say something, but then she stood on her toes and kissed me, pressing herself against my chest like she wanted to take this further. “Wait...” I slowly pulled away. “I want to take you down to the other part of the beach. Leave your shoes.” “Can I change first?” I nodded and kissed her again before she slipped back into the suite. Leaning against the railing, I looked out into the sunset and shook my head at the couple that was attempting to kayak without a paddle. I was trying my best to distract myself from the looming CS account, but it was all I could think about. “I’m ready now.” The sound of Claire’s voice made me turn around and—I stopped. She was wearing a tightly fitted short white dress that hugged her in all the right places, a dress that flowed with each short gust of wind that blew past us. It was strapless and thin enough to where I could see the bright red bikini she was wearing underneath. “You don’t like it?” “I do.” I reached for her hand and led her down the shore. We paused ever so often to take in the waves or watch another couple run into the water. We were halfway down the shore when I walked her over to a small clearing that was hidden away from everything else. I slipped my arm around her waist and sighed.
“You promised me that you weren’t going to do any work while we were on this trip, Jonathan...” She looked up at me. “I did, and I meant that.” “Does that promise not cover when I’m sleeping?” “Excuse me?” “I was going in and out of consciousness when we had that layover. I heard you talking about the CS account again...We could have pushed this trip back if you were that worried about the deal. You’ve pushed things back for my projects before.” “Claire...” I released her hips and shook my head. “There is no CS account.” “What? So what have you been doing for the past eight weeks?” She paled. “Is that—you made up the biggest deal of your career to...to do what? Why? Why would you lie to me?” “CS stands for you, Claire...It stands for what I want—what I need you to be.” She raised her eyebrow in confusion, shaking her head as if she didn’t understand. I gently grabbed her hand and got down on one knee. “Claire...” I stopped once she gasped. “I need you to know that there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you. Nothing. Ever. And I’ve never felt for anyone what I feel for you.” I resisted the urge to stand up and wipe away her tears. “I fell in love with you the moment we stopped at those vacation rental houses in San Fran, the moment I realized whatever it was between us was more than physical. Much more. And I—” I felt her trembling. “I told myself that no matter how much you frustrated me, no matter how much you tried to deny that you were falling in love with me too, that I would never let you go.” “Jonathan...” She was crying. “This is the biggest deal of my life and it’s worth much more than my company or any other billion dollar deal that’s come across my desk. And I can’t go another day without knowing.” I pulled the eighteen carat ring out of my pocket. “I want you to be mine—officially. I want you to be Claire Statham.” I paused for a few seconds. “Claire...Will you marry me?” “Yes. Yes!” She joined me down in the sand as I slipped the ring onto her finger. I kissed her lips—again and again, wiping all her tears away with my fingertips, stifling her cries with more kisses. When we finally pulled away to catch a breath, we simply stared at one another in silence, smiling. Then I pulled her on top of me. “What are you thinking about?” I looked into her eyes. “You...How do you think Claire ‘Gracen-Statham’ sounds?” “Like it’ll never happen.” I narrowed my eyes. “It’s an all or nothing deal.” “Is your jealousy included in the package?” “It’s the best part.” “Hmmm...” She smiled. “How many days do I need to set aside for negotiations and paperwork?” “Paperwork?” “Yeah...” She lowered her voice. “I’m not silly enough to believe that you won’t draft a pre-nup for this. I mean, I’m sure you wouldn’t rake me over the coals if you and I didn’t work out, but—” “Stop.” I pressed my finger against her mouth. “There is no pre-nup. And there won’t be one. Ever.” She gasped. “This is forever, Claire. Do you understand? It’s you and me, together forever, until the very end.” I kissed her lips. “Would you like a wedding?” She nodded. “A big one?” She nodded again.
“Okay.” I smiled. “We can plan that the second we get back. In the meantime...” I slipped my hands underneath her dress and untied the strings of her bikini top. “I’d like to explore the future Mrs. Statham right now.” She rolled her eyes. “I’ve told you over and over that sand and sex don’t go together.” “I remember you saying that...” I ripped off the bottom of her swimsuit. “But I’d like to find out for myself.”
Mid Life Love: At Last Whitney G.
Friday August 15, 2014 Jonathan Claire drives me fucking insane... I’m sitting next to her at Timeless, Weddings Inc.—an event planning firm, listening to her ask the director a list of never-ending questions: “How many people do you have on your staff?” “How confident are you about finding us the perfect venue?” “What’s the highest budget you’ve ever worked with?” Even though it looks like I’m paying attention to everything the director says—casually glancing up and making eye contact every now and then, my attention is definitely elsewhere. The only thing I can think about is the woman at my side and how, although she is undoubtedly the love of my life and the most amazing woman I’ve ever met, she never ceases to find new ways to frustrate the shit out of me. I’ve given her three months to marry me and in the past five days she’s managed to schedule us for twenty three catering interviews, forty wedding venue showings, and sixteen cake testing appointments. She’s turned my parlor room into a hoarding cell for hundreds of bridal magazines and fabric swatches, and every day when she gets home she insists on showing me the newest wedding ideas she’s found on Pinterest and YouTube. “What do you think about that, Jonathan?” Claire interrupts my thoughts. “What do I think about what?” “Having a celebrity singer at the wedding and the reception. Two different ones...Would that cost too much? ” “We can have whatever you want, Claire.” I hold back a sigh and she smiles. I’ve told her over and over how I don’t need—much less want a damn wedding, but I know it’ll make her happy so I’m willing to spend however much it costs. “It was a pleasure having you two here today, Mr. Statham and Miss Gracen.” The director stands up and shakes our hands. “I hope to be chosen as the director of your wedding.” Claire says a few more words to the woman and then the two of us leave the room hand in hand. “Is this the last meeting for today, or do we need to meet with every wedding firm in the city before you make up your mind?” She rolls her eyes. “There’s two more and then we’re done. Oh, and don’t forget about our premarital counseling session. I scheduled it for tomorrow morning at nine.” Marriage counseling. That’s another thing she’s doing, another thing that’s completely unnecessary. Outside of her testing my nerves every so often, we don’t have any serious problems and we don’t need any counseling. As a matter of fact, I’m going to make her cancel those appointments. Marriage counseling is for couples with trust issues, couples who lack intimacy and have problems connecting. As soon as we get back into my car, I’m going to show her just how well we connect. Literally.
Chapter 1 Claire “We don’t need pre-marital counseling, Claire.” Jonathan looked over at me as the elevator doors closed. “This is a waste of time.” “I didn’t say we needed it. I said we should try it—to make sure we both have honest expectations about being married.” “And what expectations are those?” “You’ll find out when we get there.” I smiled at him and he rolled his eyes. I’d told him I wanted to attend a few sessions before we got married—something Ryan and I didn’t do, just to make sure we were on the same page about a few things. Of course, he was one hundred percent against the idea, but after I told him it would make me “happy,” he slowly gave in. We were scheduled for a two hour session with the top counseling firm in San Francisco—Waldo and Emerson Associates. The doctors had assured me that it would be a light and easy process and that Jonathan and I would come out of it feeling closer than before. As our elevator came to a stop and the doors glided open, I realized that there was nothing ahead of us. There was no secretary’s desk, no simple sign that read “Waldo & Emerson,” nor was there anything that resembled any sort of professional counseling business. Instead, the entire floor was covered in white sand, the few clear columns that stood ten feet apart were filled with colorful fish, and there were three beige beanbags that surrounded a small makeshift fire-pit. Before I could accuse Jonathan of tampering with our session, a man dressed in an all-white tunic stepped in front of us. “Ahhhh,” he said, smiling. “The future Mr. and Mrs. Statham. Welcome to Waldo pre-marital counseling. I’m Dr. Choate and I’ll be assisting you through the first stage of unity today.” “Wait a minute. I’m sorry.” I shook my head. “We’re supposed to be meeting a Dr. Clinton. Is this the wrong floor?” “No. You’re in the right place. This is it.” “Then where is Dr. Clinton?” “He retired last week. He didn’t send you an email?” I shook my head. “Oh, well sorry about that. The company decided to hire me in his place the same day that he left. After all my success with the Zen rituals at Statham Industries, they thought I was the best choice.” He reached out to shake Jonathan’s hand. “That’s why it’s an absolute honor to bestow my new and exclusive Zen practices with the man who made me a household name.” Oh god... He instructed for us to take our shoes off and then he led us over to the bean bags. “So...” He put on a pair of glasses and looked at a sheet of paper. “Miss Gracen, I see that you’ve signed up for the two hour session. Is that correct?” “Yes.” “And when asked what you wanted the main focus to be on...” He flipped the paper over. “You said that you two are having problems in the intimacy department?” Jonathan quickly turned his head to face me, raising his eyebrow.
“NO. I never said that. I said that—” “Ah, ah, ah. It’s right here. My secretary never makes a mistake.” “You don’t even have a—” “Shhh.” He leaned forward and pressed a black pen against my lips. “Don’t be ashamed of your bedroom problems, Miss Gracen. Every couple has them in some form or another. That’s what today‘s all about.” I could feel Jonathan glaring at me, begging me to look his way so he could say something, but I kept my eyes straight ahead. “If you’re hurting about something—anything at all, no matter how small it is, these next two hours are the perfect time to let it out.” He took a deep breath. Then he shut his eyes and slowly exhaled. “Let it all out.” He sat like that for at least two minutes—shut eyes, Indian style, head tilted up to the ceiling, and I signaled to Jonathan so we could leave and end this joke of a session, but Dr. Choate’s eyes suddenly flew open. “Now that that’s done,” he said. “Let’s get down to business. Why are you here today, Mr. Statham?” “To help fix my fiancée’s intimacy problems.” “See that, Miss Gracen?” Dr. Choate nodded. “He wants to fix things too! So, on a scale of one to ten, how satisfied are you with your current sex life, Mr. Statham?” “Twenty.” “Okay, that’s great. Miss Gracen, how about you?” “Twenty,” I whispered. “Hmmm. I see...” He wrote something down and held out two notecards. “I want you to write down your honest expectations for sex after marriage. Is it going to be the same as it is now? More? Less? Well, definitely not less because Miss Gracen clearly isn’t satisfied.” “Thank you, Dr. Choate.” I snatched my notecard from him, still avoiding the intense glare that was coming from Jonathan. I wrote down “same” on my notecard and waited for him to speak again. “Okay, now toss your cards into the fire pit.” What? We both crumpled them up and threw them into the small fire. “Now,” he said as he handed us two more. “This time I want you to answer the question that is printed on the notecard and be as honest as possible. And actually, could you address them as ‘Dear Future Husband’ and ‘Dear Future Wife’? We’re going to toss them into the fire again as soon as we’re done, but make sure you take this seriously.” He reached behind him and turned on a small radio—a radio that played the sound of ocean waves, and then he shut his eyes again. There was only one question on the card: What’s one thing you wish you could change about your current intimacy exchanges? I looked over and saw Jonathan scribbling away, but I couldn’t think of anything. I suddenly felt guilty for suggesting this session in the first place. Whether I wanted to believe in my current fairy tale or not, there was nothing I would change. Not a damn thing. Sure, he and I argued about things from time to time—me working late so often, him being so damn controlling, me redecorating every room in his house, but for the most part we were great. More than great. As a matter of fact, last night he’d held me in his arms and told me everything he loved about me, assuring me that our marriage would be the greatest accomplishment of his life.
“Miss Gracen?” Dr. Choate snapped me out of my thoughts. “You’re not writing anything down. Don’t be afraid to unleash your honesty. You have to let him know exactly how you feel. How else can you expect your bad intimacy to change to good intimacy? Unless you want to experience bad sex for the rest of your life that is. I know you only said ‘twenty’ because he said it first.” He winked at me and then whispered, “It’s okay. We’re going to fix this.” Jesus... I rolled my eyes and wrote down a few words so it would seem like I was trying. When I looked over at Jonathan again, I realized he was still writing. He has that much to say?! “Time’s up!” Dr. Choate beamed. “Now, before we feed the fire, we’re going to exchange the cards and read them out loud.” What?! “No...I can’t.” I started to crumple mine in my hand. “I didn’t know that was going to happen. I would’ve written something else...” “What’s wrong, dear?” Jonathan smirked and held his card out to me. “I thought we were working on having honest expectations for our marriage.” I sighed and handed him my crumpled card, taking his into my hands, not bothering to look at it. “Mr. Statham, you first.” Doctor Choate smiled. “What’s the one thing your future wife would change about your current intimacy?” Jonathan looked down at the card, then he looked back up at me—smiling with his eyebrow raised. Please don’t read it out loud...Please don’t read it out loud... “She says better communication.” He smiled even wider and I exhaled, relieved. “And what about you, future wife? What did your future husband have to say about you? I flipped the card over and forced myself to look at it: Dear Future Wife, the only thing I wish I could change was letting you wake up late this morning because I should’ve woken you up early, taken you in the shower, and made you forget about this dumb ass meeting. However, now that we’re here, I want you to be fully aware that right after this is over, I’m going to make sure the words “marriage counseling” and “intimacy problems” never come out of your mouth again. :-) I blushed. “He says the same thing.” “Okay, well great. Now we’re getting somewhere. Communication is very key in having a successful intimate relationship. Moving on... In an average week, how many times do you currently have sex now, future wife? And in all honesty, is it fulfilling?” Is he fucking serious? “A few times,” I said, hoping he would move on to something else. “A few times?” Jonathan looked into my eyes. “That’s what you honestly think?” Stop it...I knew he was reading my mind right now and could sense that I wanted him to stop, but he was clearly enjoying my embarrassment. “Doctor, what classifies as a few times?” Jonathan kept his eyes locked on mine. “Two or three times a week, Mr. Statham.” “Hmmm...And a lot?” “Well, I guess I would say eight to ten times a week.” “Interesting.” He leaned forward and ran his fingers across my golden anchor necklace. “So Claire, having heard that, you think a few times is accurate for what we do?” “Yes. I do.” I didn’t want the doctor in our sex life. At all. When I’d made this appointment, I’d been assured that the focus would be on us discussing our expectations for the long term—our goals and our dreams. There was no mention of dissecting what we did in the bedroom and I was damn sure I never said anything about “intimacy problems.”
“I am so hurt by these claims, Doctor.” Jonathan put his hand over his chest. “I mean, to have the love of my life tell me that she feels like we only have sex a few times a week is just...Is this the part where I’m allowed to cry?” “Yes, Mr. Statham. Let out all of your pain.” He smirked. “Is our sex not memorable to you, Claire? It must not be if you think we only have sex two to three times a week. I want an honest marriage as well, so if you think we have intimacy problems and that our sex is that terrible—” “We have sex every day.” I nearly lost it. “Every. Day. Sometimes more than once. Sometimes more than twice. And every time is fucking memorable. Happy?” I narrowed my eyes at him and he kissed my cheek. “Um...” The doctor adjusted the sleeves of his tunic. “Well...I....Very good for both of you. Let’s move away from intimacy then, shall we?” “Thank you.” We both said in unison.
Once the counseling session finally came to an end, we both shook Dr. Choate’s hand and said we’d be “in touch” about scheduling part two. As soon as the elevator doors opened, I rushed inside and pressed the “door close” button over and over—anxious to get far away from white sand and invasive notecards. “What’s the rush, future wife?” Jonathan stepped directly in front of me and pressed my back against the wall. “Do you have another meeting to go to right now? Somewhere else where you plan on discussing our intimacy problems?” “I never said we had intimacy problems...That was a mistake and you know it.” “Hmmm.” He brushed his fingers against my necklace. “I can’t believe you pushed me into telling him about our sex life.” “He asked.” “You didn’t have to tell him the truth.” “I thought you wanted me to be honest.” He ran his fingers through my hair. “I’ve told you a million times that I don’t lie.” “Well, why didn’t you tell him what I wrote down on that card?” He slipped his hand underneath my skirt. “If you would like, we can go back up and I’ll happily tell him that my future wife wishes that my head was between her legs right now.” I blushed and shook my head. “Are you sure?” He tugged at my panties. “I’m not opposed to telling him that.” “That’s okay...” He lowered his mouth to my neck, taking his time to press gentle kisses onto my skin as he wrapped his arms around my waist. I looked up at the floor numbers that were flashing above the doors as we passed them by—Eight, Seven, Six, and pushed him away from me. “We’re almost back in the lobby,” I murmured as I stepped to the other side. “No. We’re not.” He hit the stop button and walked over to me, pressing me against the wall again. “I actually think we do have one huge intimacy problem, Claire.” “What?” “Why is it that you can only be open with me about sex in text messages and notecards?” “What are you talking about?” “You know exactly what I’m talking about.” He cut me off with a kiss and slowly hiked my dress up to my stomach. “I always have to try and read your mind, or read between your little smart-ass
comments when it comes to what you want...Why is that, Claire?” “I...” I couldn’t focus when he looked at me like this, when he locked his eyes on mine and demanded answers that I didn’t have. “If you like when I fuck you with my mouth, why don’t you ever say that when we’re at home?” I bit my lip as he slipped a finger inside of me, as he held me steady with his other arm. “Hmmm, Claire? I’m standing right here...Tell me what you want...” “Jonathan...” I moaned; he was pressing his thumb against my clit, punishing it with slow, sensuous circles. “You can’t tell me right now because you’d rather wait until you get to work and tell me in a text message?” “No...” “Then tell me what you like...” “Everything...” He closed the little space that was left between us, keeping his thumb busy, bringing his mouth close to my ear. “Tell me you love it when I fuck you with my mouth.” “I do.” “Say. It.” I swallowed. “I love when you go down on me...” He sighed and slowly pulled away from me, and I thought he was going to step over and hit the start button, but he spun me around so that I was facing the corner and gripped my waist. “You were right...We do need better communication.” “Jonathan, there are federal offices in here. The fire department is going to—” I stopped once I felt him sliding into me, forcing himself deeper and deeper. “If you think that I’m going to be happy in a marriage where my own wife can’t tell me what she wants, you’re sadly mistaken, Claire...” He held me completely still once he was entirely inside. Kissing the back of my neck, he whispered once again, “Tell. Me. What. You. Like.” I couldn’t think. I was too pre-occupied with thoughts of the fire department calling the elevator to check on us, thoughts about how my standing in a corner with Jonathan buried deep inside of me would look. Before I could snap back into reality and answer him, he pulled out and quickly thrust himself back in—over and over, making me scream louder than ever. “I asked you a question, Claire.” He gripped my breasts and squeezed them, slamming into me with each moan I let escape from my mouth. “I...I like...” I stuttered. “I like when you...” “Yes?” He moved one of his hands down to my clit and started rubbing it in a rhythm he knew all too well. “When you...” “Fuck me with your mouth...” He was speeding up his thrusts now, making it harder and harder for me to talk straight. “Finish. The .Sentence.” “Wait...I...I like when...when you—” BEEP! BEEP! “Elevator car number 510 at Waldo and Emerson Associates, This is responding unit 861.” A voice came over the speakers. “Speaking to you right now is fire chief Brennan Marshall. We’ve noticed the current cart has stalled for over six minutes. Are there any persons inside?” BEEP! BEEP! “You know I don’t care if they see us like this...” Jonathan reached down for my hands, pulling them up over my head and pressing them against the wall. “And I won’t stop when they open the doors
if you haven’t answered me.” “Are there any persons inside?” The fire chief repeated. “Hmmm. Might be an empty cart gentlemen,” he said in a lowered voice. “There are persons inside.” Jonathan answered calmly, but his thrusts inside of me were the exact opposite. I was doing my best to hold my breath and bite down on my lip to prevent myself from screaming again. “Okay, hold tight. We’ll send a team over now.” There was another series of beeps to end the conversation, and then everything around me went hazy—blurred. I was suddenly screaming at the top of my lungs as he pushed me to the verge of an orgasm, as he demanded that I answer him one last time. “I love when you...” I let my head fall back against his shoulder, let my body completely go. “When you fuck me with your mouth...” I shut my eyes as my knees gave in beneath me, as he slowly slid out of me and let me fall down to the floor. I wanted to sit like that forever—on a high, in bliss, but Jonathan pulled me up and held me against his side, hitting the stop button and pressing the level that was right above the lobby. When we stepped off the elevator, he kept me tucked by his side and led me down the emergency stairwell and outside. As soon as the first whiff of fresh air hit my face, I took a deep breath. “Do you always have to do that to me? Is it impossible for you to wait?” “It’s the only way to get you to tell me the truth...” He released me. “And I think you like it...” I rolled my eyes and tried not to smile. “I love you, Claire.” He kissed my forehead and adjusted my necklace. “I don’t know why you’re still so reserved about discussing sex with me, but you shouldn’t be. You should be able to tell me what you want, whenever you want, and I’ll make sure it gets done.” He kissed me again and wrapped his arms around my waist, leading me over to the parking lot. As we approached our cars—town car for me, Bugatti for him, he spun me around to face him. “Do you still think we need pre-marital counseling? Are there any other intimacy issues we need to discuss?” “No...” “Hmmm...” He pressed his lips against mine. “You are so lucky that I have a flight to catch right now,” he said as he slowly pulled his mouth away from me, as he pressed my crumpled notecard into my hand. “Be home by six.”
Days later, I stood in my office and stared at the newest set of family photos I’d hung on my wall: pictures of me, Ashley, Caroline, and Jonathan hanging out at a private lake. In one photo, the four of us were building a large sand castle, laughing at how long it’d taken us to put it together. In another we were rowing four small kayaks across the water. Ever since Ashley and Caroline had gone off early to college in Arizona, my days at home were a lot less noisy. They were actually quite boring. I missed the two of them lying around on the couch—talking about absolutely nothing, laughing at my terrible jokes, and ultimately getting on my nerves from time to time. I missed that. Now, instead of family dinners on Sunday and Thursday nights, Jonathan and I simply went over to his little sister Hayley’s condo and ate dinner with her. Although he never admitted it, Jonathan was missing family dinners too; I was pretty sure that was why he’d already planned a week of meals for their Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. “Miss Gracen?” My assistant interrupted my thoughts. “Yes, Rita?”
“Your daily flowers from Mr. Statham have just arrived. Would you like them in here?” “Yes, please.” I leaned back and watched as she pulled a small cart of flowers—orchids, Baby’s Breath, and white carnations, into my office. As usual, there was a silver card with a note on top: Dear Future Wife, Do I need to start picking you up from work to get you home in time to eat dinner with me? You’ve been late all week. Stop Testing Me. Love, Your Future Husband I laughed. I was about to pick up my phone and call him, but Rita stepped inside my office again. “Your three o’ clock is here now,” she said. “I’m going to go ahead and bring her back before my lunch break.” “Thank you, Rita.” I stood up and smoothed my dress, ready to seal another deal, blocking everything else out. As soon as the client walked inside my office, my mind was focused on white columns, framed cabinets, and the stained wood necessary to create a brand new space. She and I talked for hours, negotiating the timeline, the best materials, and of course—the cost for everything. When I handed her the final contract, she nodded her head and grabbed a pen to sign it. “Everything looks really good, Miss Gracen. These dates work well for me.” “Great. I’m really looking forward to designing your new living room, Mrs. Klein.” I shook her hand and stood up. “Thank you.” She smiled. “I’m sure it’ll be just as fabulous as all your other work.” “I guarantee it.” I led her out of my office and back inside the storefront, pulling all the drapes closed once she walked outside. I’ll finally get to make it home on time today... I started straightening the pillow display that was over by the bay window, making sure all the tags were tightly tucked underneath. I was tempted to lay across them and relax, but my phone rang. Jonathan. “Hello?” “Hello, Claire.” His deep voice still had the power to make me melt. “What are you doing right now?” “I’m...I’m closing the store. You?” “I’m driving. Are you tired?” “Why?” “Answer the question.” “Yes.” I rolled my eyes. “I’m too tired to have sex with you right now.” He laughed. “Would you like me to reschedule our meeting with the wedding planner then?” “No!” I’d been looking forward to that meeting for weeks. “Not at all.” “Good. I’m on my way to pick you up. I’ll be there in five minutes.” “See you soon.” I hung up and started swiping a mini-duster over all the candle shelves. I was halfway done when I heard the bell over the door ring. “I’ll be right there.” I sighed and didn’t bother turning around. “Let me finish this last shelf and—” “Claire?” My blood boiled at the very sound of that voice. I shook my head, knowing that I couldn’t be standing in my store. I had to be at home and asleep in my bed. I had to be dreaming. I had to be having a nightmare.
“Claire?” He asked again, and I pinched myself before slowly turning around. I wasn’t at home. I wasn’t dreaming. It was Ryan. “What are you doing here?” I hissed. “I almost didn’t recognize you when I walked in. You look good, really good...” He looked me up and down. “Life must be treating you well.” “What. Are. You. Doing. Here?” I narrowed my eyes at him. “Look. I know I’m the last person you want to see right now, but since I’m in town, I thought I would—” “Invite me out to dinner? Catch up on life? I don’t have shit to say to you.” “I beg to differ. We need to talk.” “No thanks. Not interested.” “It’s important.” He sighed. “No. It’s not.” “Claire, it’s been five years now. We can at least be cordial to one another.” “Cordial? How cordial do you think I should be to the lying sack of shit who got my ex-best friend pregnant?” I shook my head. “Actually, don’t even answer that. I’ve already used up my ‘pointless conversation’ minutes for the day. Please get the fuck out of my store.” “You’re going to listen to me, Claire.” He took a step forward and looked directly into my eyes. “Whether you like it or not, you’re going to stand there and listen to every fucking word that I have to say.” I crossed my arms. “If I were you, I would leave right now. My fiancée will be here any minute and he won’t be as nice as I’m being to you.” His face suddenly fell—or at least it looked like it did. “You’re...You’re engaged now? To who?” “Please leave, Ryan.” I felt an ache in my chest—a painful, burning ache. “I don’t want you here. Ever.” He stared at me—shaking his head as he slowly backed away. Before he opened the door, he looked over his shoulder. “I’m only leaving right now because you’re closing and I have somewhere to be. I was just stopping by to make sure it was true that you worked here. Trust me, I’ll be back. And you and I are going to talk.” It took every ounce of strength in my body not to run over and stab him with the sharp edge of my dust wand, but I just stood there. Paralyzed. Livid. As soon as he was gone, I gained mobility again and threw my dust-wand to the floor. I headed behind the counter, pressing the button that made the glass panel drop down and block anyone from coming any further; I didn’t want to take any chances on him returning minutes later. I locked myself in the bathroom and ran cold water in the sink, splashing my face over and over again. As hard as I tried to fight it, my most vivid and bitter memory of our failed marriage began to play in my mind...
I took another sip of disgusting wine and looked at the incriminating photos Barry had handed me. “I asked Amanda where she was on last Friday.” Barry lit a cigar and shook his head. “She told me she was with you—out shopping for a new dress.” He picked up one of the photos and ran his fingers along the timestamp. “Maybe she meant she was wearing a dress while she was fucking Ryan in his office...” I let out a short nervous laugh, but I couldn’t stop crying. As hard as I tried to repress my sobs, the tears were falling faster and faster and my chest was heaving uncontrollably.
A waiter stopped by and cleared his throat. “Um, sir? This is a nonsmoking café.” “My wife is fucking her husband.” Barry snapped. “I can smoke wherever the fuck I want today.” The waiter ’s face turned bright red and he dashed across the room. I wiped away another stream of tears and stared at the photo that had fallen in my lap, the one of Ryan tucking a strand of hair behind Amanda’s ear, the one of her leaning in close for a kiss from his lips. “Can I keep a set of these?” My voice cracked. “Of course you can. I made four copies. One for you, one for me, and two sets for my lawyers.” I nodded and slid the stack of photos back into the envelope. I was too numb to say anything else. I needed to be alone. Standing up, I walked over and hugged Barry—knowing that I wouldn’t see him again for a very long time. He hugged me back and used his wrinkled sleeve to wipe my face. “You’re going to be okay, Claire. Don’t let what they’ve done to us ruin you. You’re an amazing person and you’ll bounce back from this...” He said a few more things, but I couldn’t make out any of the words. I was too busy focusing on the drive home, too busy wondering what the hell I was going to say when I saw Ryan face to face. I dragged myself out of the hotel lounge and into the rain—not bothering to put up my umbrella. The valet brought my car around and offered to give me a towel for my seat, but I slipped inside and sped off. “I love you, Claire...You’re the love of my life...I’m going to make sure our anniversary is the best one we’ve ever had...” I sniffled as I remembered him saying those words to me—last night. “You’re the only woman I’ve ever loved—and you always will be...” I pulled off on the exit that led to our suburb, shaking my head at all the beautiful memories that were playing in my head—knowing that no matter what I said to him tonight, our so-called “fairytale” was long over. I drove around our neighborhood until my gas needle hit “E,” trying to come up with something to say, but I was too numb, too hurt. After deciding that I would let the pictures say it all, I drove my car into the garage and sat at the wheel with my head in my hands. The two of us were just shopping for new kitchen countertops last week—he wanted wood and I wanted granite. We were just planning our fifteen year anniversary, and even though he’d been vague about the plans, I was sure he was taking me to the Panama Canal—the place I’d always wanted to go. A round of thunder roared in the distance and the rain began to pelt even harder, so I closed the garage door and slipped out of the car. Taking a deep breath, I slowly twisted the doorknob and stepped inside the house. “Hey, Mom!” “Why are you so late today?” Caroline and Ashley didn’t look up from their homework. “Hey babe.” Ryan pulled me into his arms and kissed my forehead. “Are you okay?” He raised his eyebrow, lowering his voice and asking why my face was “so red...like [I’d] been crying.” I didn’t answer his question. I just stared into his eyes, wondering how he could act as if everything was normal—as if he hadn’t just fucked Amanda in our bedroom yesterday. “You’re drenched...” He ran his hands against my soaked blazer. “Did you lose your umbrella?” I swallowed, shaking my head. He smiled. “Well, go dry up. Whatever ’s bothering you—whatever it is, we can talk about it after dinner. Okay? I ordered pizza from the girls’ favorite place and it’s ready now.” He kissed my cheek. “I’ll be right back.”
I heard him whisper “I love you” into my ear before he walked away and disappeared into the garage. As soon as I heard him revving up his car and heading down the driveway, I turned to face my daughters. “Mom?” Ashley tilted her head to the side. “What’s wrong with you?” Caroline lifted her head up and frowned. “Mom? Why are you staring at us like that?” She looked at Ashley and shook her head. “Why isn’t she talking?” “I need you two to go to your room.” My voice cracked. “I need to...I need to talk your dad when he gets back. Alone.” They exchanged confused glances, but they put their folders away and hugged me before heading upstairs. As soon as I heard their door close, I took the envelope from the inside of my blazer and sat down at the table, thinking about how I was going to present the photos to Ryan. All of a sudden, my phone vibrated. A text. Amanda. “Hey Claire! Just texting you to remind you about that jazzercise class we signed up for tomorrow morning! I’ll pick you up at nine!” Is this bitch serious?! I tossed my phone across the room, knocking a photo frame off the wall. Hurt, I stood up and took the photos out of the envelope. I walked around downstairs and tossed them all over the floor, leaving a trail from the dining room to the living room and into the kitchen. The last photo in my hands was one of Amanda straddling his lap in his car last week—in the parking lot of his law firm. I wanted to rip it apart and force the pieces down his throat, but I heard the knob of the garage door twisting, heard him saying, “Where’d everybody go? I’m back!” I leaned against the table and tried to calm my shaking hands. “Ashley? Caroline? Claire?” His steps were getting closer and closer. “Did a tornado hit the inside of our house while I was gone?” He finally stepped into the kitchen. “What’s going on, Claire?” He set the pizzas down on the counter. “What are all these pictures and why are they all over the place?” I didn’t answer. I just stared at him as he bent down to pick one of them up, as his face immediately went white. He looked up at me in utter horror, devastation. “Claire, I’m so sorry...Can we...Can we talk about this?”
I cringed at the memory and splashed more water onto my face. The mere thought of Ryan still lit a bitter flame within me, but seeing him? In person? That was a damn wildfire, and I wasn’t sure how long it would take to put out. I couldn’t believe his audacity—to actually show up and attempt to have a regular conversation with me, to act as if I would give him the time of day. What the fuck does he want? There was a knock at the door, but I didn’t answer it. I couldn’t. My body was shaking and my thoughts were consumed with rage and anger. Why would he even show up here? He knows I HATE him... “Claire?” Jonathan’s voice was on the other side of the door. “Yes?” I snapped out of my trance and unlocked it. “Why are you in here? And why is your face wet?” He grabbed a towel off the rack and softly pressed it against my cheeks. “Are you hot?”
“No...I’m...” I hesitated. “We can reschedule the appointment.” He wrapped his arm around my waist and walked me back out front. “I’ll let her know we can come another day. You don’t look like you’re feeling well.” “I’m not...Ryan was just here.” His body suddenly stiffened, and he looked down at me with his jaw clenched. “Your ex-husband Ryan?” I nodded. “What did he want?” “I don’t know...I told him to leave. I didn’t want to talk to him.” “Good.” His eyes softened a bit, but I could tell he was upset. “How does he know where you work?” “I don’t know...” Caroline and Ashley knew better than to discuss me with Ryan, just like they knew better than to discuss him with me. The few mutual friends we shared back in Pittsburgh only knew tidbits of my new life—nothing major, and they would never share any information with him. “Do you know why he would bother coming to San Francisco?” I shook my head. There was nothing here for him. “Hmmm.” He pulled me close and kissed my hair. “I’ll make sure he never bothers you again.” I wanted to ask, “How?” but I knew he would handle it. I leaned against him and sighed as he led me over to the passenger side of his car. “Since you’re finally leaving work on time today, what would you like for dinner?” He revved up the engine and looked over at me. “You.” “That’s implied.” He grinned. “We can order something in.” He pulled off and sped onto the highway, making me smile at how perfect my life was right now, how everything I wanted and needed was sitting next to me in this car. As I looked out my window and watched the city disappear in the distance, I tried not to think about Ryan’s visit, but I couldn’t help it. Outside of scheduling time to see our daughters, Ryan hadn’t bothered me any other year that I’d been living here. He knew not to, and I didn’t need my painful past colliding with my perfect present. Ever. It has to be something really serious for him to come here...No, fuck him. It doesn’t matter what it is...
Chapter 1.5 Claire Summer 2009 “You didn’t see any of this coming, Claire?” My next door neighbor Andrea handed me a box. “There had to be signs.” “No. There weren’t any signs...” I gritted my teeth. “I’m sorry...I just—” “You just what?” “Amanda’s a really good person...” “Are you fucking kidding me, Andrea? I asked you over so you could help load up my car, not stand there and defend that ho-bag.” She sighed. “I’m sorry...I just thought you would’ve been a little suspicious...” “Suspicious about what?” “The two of them hanging out so much maybe?” She placed the girls’ blankets into my trunk and shut it. “Michael and I thought something was up when the three of you came to our Christmas party last year...They spent an awful lot of time on our patio...” “Thank you, Andrea.” I tried not to roll my eyes. “That’s what I really need to hear right now. You know what? Say it again so I can feel even better.” She pulled me into her arms and hugged me tightly. “I’m only saying it because...I never really liked Ryan, Claire. I’ve always thought that you could do better—so much better...I’m not happy at all about what happened to you, and if I could kill them both and get away with it I would.” Her voice cracked. “I’ve just been trying to change your mind about moving but...Keep yourself safe in San Francisco, okay? I want you to find someone who actually deserves you.” I nodded and slowly let myself out of her embrace. I tried to hand her the two thousand dollar check she’d given me earlier, but she refused to take it and walked away—crying. I forced a lump down my throat and slipped into my Audi Q7 with my daughters, heading straight for the highway, for my new life. “You had to see the signs, Claire...You had to see the signs...” I hadn’t. I really hadn’t. How could I when Ryan was so fucking wonderful? So fucking perfect. And Amanda was—she was my best friend. I drove down the interstate and flipped through all my memories—birthdays, get-togethers, anniversaries—and in every last one the two of them were right by my side as always. I thought back to more recent memories as I crossed over the state line, and then a couple ones started to stick out—a couple ones that I would have never second guessed before...
Three months ago... “Death by falling off a building or drowning in the ocean?” I threw a peanut M&M at Ryan. “Falling off a building.” “What? Why?”
“It would be an instant death once my body hit the concrete. Drowning takes way too long. Plus, there’s no guarantee my body would be found if I died in the ocean. I want my body to be in the casket after I die.” I nodded at his logic and looked up at the bright, blue sky. We were sitting in the grass at Frick Park, enjoying a small breakfast picnic together. We’d been coming to this park once a month ever since we were in high school, ever since he admitted that he was in love with me and wanted to marry me someday. “Okay, wait.” I looked over at him again. “I have another one: Which is worse? An emotional affair or a physical affair?” He paused before answering, then he looked into my eyes. “Emotional. It’s easier to cut off sex. Feelings never go away—no matter how hard you try to bury them...” “That makes perfect sense...So, let’s say your wife is having an affair. Would you rather it be with a stranger or with your best friend?” “What?” “Would you rather lose your wife to a stranger or to your best friend?” I threw another M&M at him. “Jesus, Claire. What type of question is that?” “You’ve asked me much worse before.” I shuddered, thinking about the time he’d asked me whether I’d rather have sex in front of twenty people or get gangbanged by three guys in private. He looked out over the lake and sighed. “Neither.” “You can’t choose neither.” I shook my head. “That’s one of your rules, remember? Pick.” “I guess I would pick the stranger...Yeah...The stranger.” “That’s it? That’s all you have to say? You usually have an entire reasoning behind your pick. Give me the logic.” “Well I guess it would...It would hurt either way, I just...” His voice trailed off. “With the stranger I wouldn’t have to worry about feeling as betrayed...Whereas, if I lost you to my best friend I—I’m not sure how I would ever deal with that or if I would ever get over it. It’d be the worst thing my best friend could possibly do...” “I one-hundred-percent-agree.” I pulled him down onto our blanket and kissed his lips. “You know what I was thinking the other day?” “Tell me.” “We never got the chance to have a real wedding...” “What do you mean?” I sighed and remembered how poor we were when we decided to tie the knot, how I’d had to buy my wedding dress from the neighborhood thrift store and beg my mom to make all the alterations. We didn’t even have enough money to rent a venue, and since our church was undergoing renovations, we decided to have it in his mother ’s backyard. Don’t get me wrong, that was the happiest day of my life and our moms decorated the hell out of that backyard—so much so that it almost looked like it belonged in a magazine, but it wasn’t everything I wanted it to be. “Wouldn’t it be great if for our fifteenth anniversary we renewed our vows at an actual ceremony?” I asked. “Well, wait. It would probably have to be five or six months after our anniversary.” “Why is that?” “Because of Amanda. She’ll have delivered her baby and I would want her to be my maid of honor again—with a real dress and flowers this time.” He mumbled something that I couldn’t hear.
“And we could have it at a real venue, not in your mom’s backyard.” I smiled. “Ashley and Caroline can be junior bridesmaids. Or do you think they’d rather be hostesses?” “They’ll probably just be happy to be in the wedding.” He moved closer to me. “I thought you liked our wedding. I did...” “Oh, I did too, but it wasn’t the wedding of my dreams. You know?” “It was for me.” He caressed my hand. “I just wanted to be married to you. It didn’t matter where it happened. It could’ve been in the courthouse for all I cared.” My heart swelled as he pressed his lips against mine. It was small moments like this that made me appreciate Ryan more and more. Even though he was making ten times the amount of money he was making when we first got married, he always touted me as his best asset and he always found the sweetest words to say. “I hope it’s always like this, Ryan.” I smiled. “Always.” “Like what?” “Calm. Easy. Perfect. Just perfect...” I kissed him again. “Me too.”
Two months ago... “Tell me why you’re planning a trip to the Panama Canal again?” Amanda tied an apron around her baby bump. “You’re scared of planes.” “We’re going to take a cruise there, smartass. And I figured that we need to start planning now. You know Ryan doesn’t have much free time outside of his off days. He seems to be a lot busier now.” She cleared her throat. “Right. Would you like some cookies? I made your favorite yesterday.” She walked over to her refrigerator and pulled out a tray of mint chocolate chip cookies. “I think I finally perfected my mom’s recipe for these. Do you know she still won’t give it to me? That’s how stubborn she is.” “Ryan would never cheat on me, right?” “What?” She raised her eyebrow. “What did you just say?” “That....That Ryan would never cheat on me, right?” “You think he’s cheating on you?” She frowned. “No...I just...I don’t know. I think I’ve been watching too much Dr. Phil or something. Every couple on there that’s been together for ten or more years seems to fall apart over infidelity. And a lot of them talk about all these signs that signal that an affair could be happening but...Ryan is just really busy now. It can’t be what they say.” “No, it’s definitely not. Don’t read into it too much.” I sighed. “I’m sorry I ever brought this up. I don’t even know where that thought came from.” “Don’t apologize...I’m sure every woman has doubts about her marriage from time to time. I know I do...” “You do? I thought everything was great now, especially since you finally have a baby on the way.” I leaned over the counter and took a few cookies off the tray. “Looks can be deceiving.” She looked like she was about to cry, like whatever was on her mind was something that was tormenting her. “Barry is...I don’t know...He’s different lately. He hardly ever speaks to me. It just started happening a few weeks ago...We were fine and then one day he came home, walked into the kitchen, and he just stared at me for a long time—looking me right in my eyes. It hasn’t been the same since. I don’t know what it could possibly—” She stopped and her eyes widened. “You think you know what it could be?” I took a bite of my cookie. “Oh god, these are really
amazing. You should sell these someday. Can I take half of them home?” She didn’t answer me. She stood there silently, staring off into the distance like she was in an awful trance. “Amanda?” I waved my hand in the air. “Hello? Amanda? You there?” She shook her head and smiled nervously. “Yeah, sorry...Would you excuse me for one minute? I need to call someone...If those brownies go off, would you please take them out for me?” She slid a pair of oven mitts towards me and rushed out of the room before giving me the chance to respond. When she returned—ten minutes later, it was as if that odd little episode had never happened. And for the rest of the afternoon she and I laughed over our favorite pastime—baking. “Promise me that we’ll do this for the rest of our lives, Amanda.” I smiled at her as I placed my favorite cookies into Ziploc bags. “Ashley and Caroline are going to be disasters in the kitchen, so I’ll need you to do this with me when life stresses me out.” “Of course,” she said. “I’ll always be here when you need me. No matter what happens between us...” “What could possibly happen between us to make us not be friends, Amanda?” She smiled and picked up a cookie. “Nothing...” “Damn right...Next to Ryan, you’re my everything, and don’t you ever forget it.”
Tears fell down my face as I tossed quarters into the toll booth, as I flipped through more memories and realized that there were “signs,” but the two of them had worked so hard to cover them, and they’d purposely left me in the dark. Maybe from the outside looking in the cracks had been easy to see, but from where I’d been standing everything had looked complete. I sped onto the next highway and turned my music up, trying to drown out the cries I was finally letting free, promising my heart that I would never allow myself to be so trusting and vulnerable. I’ll never allow another man to get that close to me again... Ever.
Chapter 2 Jonathan “I don’t want Ryan Hayes within ten miles of my fiancée. Are we clear?” “Yes sir.” “Of course, Mr. Statham.” “As you wish sir.” My top security personnel nodded their heads in agreement. “I need to know why he’s here by the end of the week, and if he’s still here at that point, we need to figure out a way to get him the fuck out of here and back to Pittsburgh. Dead or alive.” “Mr. Statham...” Greg narrowed his eyes at me. I rolled my eyes. “Barely alive or alive...You’re dismissed gentlemen.” I waited for them to leave before falling back into my chair. I’d been too angry to sleep the night before, and I could tell by the way Claire looked when she woke up this morning that she hadn’t slept well either. On the one hand, I was happy she’d told me about Ryan making an unwanted visit at her store, but on the other, I was angry with myself. If I had gotten there a few minutes sooner, I could’ve personally made sure he would never bother her again. Claire was mine. Period. I didn’t need him trying to win his way back into her life, or whatever the fuck he was trying to do now that she was happy. I’d worked too damn hard to repair all the damage he’d done, too damn hard to earn her trust and show her that she could be loved again, and I wasn’t going to let him fuck that up. I need a drink... “Mr. Statham?” Angela walked into my office without knocking. “What happened to using the intercom?” “I have special privileges. Plus, I’m covering for Hayley today so protocol is going to be a little loopy.” “Why are you covering for her?” “She has a breakfast date.” She shrugged. “It’s no biggie. She’ll be back in two hours. Anyway, your daily flower delivery to Miss Gracen has just been confirmed, your meeting with Flynn tech is set for noon, the wedding planner ’s meeting with you and Miss Gracen is set for three, and you have another appointment with your mother and the therapist at four thirty.” I hadn’t heard anything she’d said past the words “breakfast date.” Hayley hadn’t mentioned anyone new to me in months. That had to be a mistake. I shook my head and forced myself to believe that my little sister had simply said the word “date” instead of “meeting.” Then again, I’d heard her and Claire giggling about something over dinner a few days ago, something neither of them seemed interested in telling me. “And the City Foster Center has invited you to receive the annual Humanitarian Award. “Angela slid an envelope across my desk. “They say they’ll plan the ceremony around your schedule. I know you have the month in mind, but have you set an actual wedding date yet?” “Not yet...” I leaned back in my chair. “Send me a text later tonight. I think we’ll have one in mind by the end of the day.” “Of course sir. Do you need anything else from me before I run down to executive affairs?” “No, Angela. Thank you.”
As soon as she left my office, I picked up my phone and called Corey. “Yes?” he answered. “Who are we stalking on this lovely day?” “Are you at corporate?” “Not yet. I’m still at breakfast. What’s up?” “I need you to build a file for me as soon as you get in.” “I have my tablet on me. I can do it for you right now.” He paused. “What’s the name and date of birth?” “Ryan Hayes. I don’t have a date of birth. He’s Claire’s ex-husband.” “Good enough. Hold on....” He hummed a few times and mumbled a few words to himself—his normal hacking ritual. “Alright, done. I sent you everything from the three largest databases. When I get back, I can run his name through sixteen more.” “Thank you. Don’t forget.” I opened my email and sifted through all the documents and security footage he’d sent. I couldn’t find anything linking him to San Francisco except Claire. Hell, Ashley and Caroline were in Arizona and I knew he was well aware of that. I was about to set it aside for the day, but I saw an email about a high school class reunion at the Regency Ballroom that was two weeks from now, something Claire hadn’t mentioned to me: Dear Schenley High School Class of 1991, It is my pleasure to invite you all to our yearly reunion in California! As usual, I’ll be covering the travel expenses for each of you. (It pays to be CFO of Disney doesn’t it? And YES I’m rubbing that in your faces. Again.) Since we did Anaheim last year and L.A. for most of the years before, I figured we’d do San Francisco for a change! Now, as usual, if you choose to be a planning assistant, I’ll fly you out a couple weeks before the reunion to help me with certain aspects of coordination, but you must help for at least five hours a day. (You know how HUGE this event is to all of us and we have to make sure each year is better than the last.) If you are an assistant, you’ll help finalize the final itinerary and be responsible for setting up the gift bags for our class of 500 awesome people. If you’re busy and have a life (Yes, James Klein, we all know you’re a huge golf star now and your schedule is hectic), just send me your travel/lodging preferences (up to two tickets per person) and the assistants will mail you your official tickets a week before the reunion. Looking forward to seeing you in a few months! Harrison Woods I clicked through the attendees that had signed up and noticed that next to Claire’s name was a “no response” checkmark. I called Corey again. “Corey, I need something else...I need you to intercept any emails regarding a Schenley High School class reunion from a Harrison Woods. He’s the CFO of Disney.” “Disney? Are you serious?” “Can you do it?” He sighed. “Their firewall might be a bit challenging to get through...Give me a few seconds...” “If you can bypass any emails about insignificant party details that’d be great. I just want the finalized RSVP list.” “Got you something even better...Do you see it?” I looked at my screen and saw a spreadsheet detailing each member of her high school class and every California reunion they’d attended throughout the years. Claire hadn’t attended any. Ever. “Were all of these reunions in California, Corey?”
“It looks that way, which is crazy because the high school is in Pittsburgh. Looks like it all started with their ten year reunion and then it became an annual one. That Harrison guy literally pays for each and every one of these things. It must be a pretty good tax write off.” “Hmmm...Okay, thanks.” I hung up and called Ashley. “Hey, Jonathan.” She picked up on the first ring. “Hello. Are you busy right now?” “Not at all. I actually just opened the care package you sent me. Are you calling because you meant to send five hundred dollars and not three hundred? Don’t worry. I knew that was a mistake. You can wire me the rest.” I rolled my eyes. “That’s more than enough to get you through the week. I’m calling to ask you something: When’s the last time you talked to your dad?” “Um, two days ago. Why?” “Just wondering...Has he mentioned moving out of Pittsburgh?” “No. He did mention taking me and Caroline to a hockey game this winter since his firm gave him free season tickets—which is odd because we both hate hockey.” “So, he still lives in Pittsburgh?” “To my knowledge, yeah. I’m sure he would’ve told me and Caroline if he was planning on moving. He tells us everything.” “Right. Well, thank you for letting me know.” “You were serious about only giving me three hundred dollars? Don’t you think that’s an odd amount to give someone every week? The first few times were okay, but it’s getting out of hand now.” “Goodbye, Ashley.” I hung up. I was about to call Claire, but I heard my doorknob twisting and—there she was. She was dressed in a short white dress and high heeled grey pumps, with a one of a kind triple pearl strand necklace I’d bought for her last weekend. “Are you familiar with the phrase ‘knock first’?” I raised my eyebrow. “Am I interrupting a private session? Is there a woman sucking you off under your desk?” “Not today.” I stood up and walked over to her. “She only does that when she’s really happy with me.” “She is really happy with you.” She wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me. “I know our meeting isn’t scheduled until later, but can we cancel it? I want a different wedding planner.” “You came here just to tell me that?” “I came here because I’m on my lunch break. Speaking of which, if you’re going to continue sending my staff a catered lunch every day, they prefer sweet tea and lemonade over Coke.” I smiled and kissed her neck. “I’ll have it changed by tomorrow. How many minutes do you have left on your break?” “Ten.” She rolled her eyes and stepped back. “Is that a no to changing wedding planners?” “It’s a maybe because this is your third wedding planner...Are you trying to stall marrying me?” “What? Of course not... I just want our wedding to be perfect. And actually, I’ve been reading a few in-depth articles about huge weddings and most of them agree that the ideal planning period is six months to a year.” “What’s your point?” “My point is that I think you should re-consider the time limit you gave me because that’s not enough to even scrape the surface of everything I want to do...Since you claim you want nothing more than to make me happy, I think you should be a bit more generous when it comes to this—especially since this day is so important.”
“Claire...” I looked directly into her eyes. “I’m going to say this one last time and I’m never going to say it again. You have three months to plan this wedding. Three. Months. Period. I do want nothing more than to make you happy, and by the way you scream my name every night, I’m pretty sure I’m doing a damn good job. That said, I’m not waiting any longer than ninety days. And trust me, I’m being more than generous.” “Jonathan—” “If it had been up to me, I would’ve married you the day after I proposed. But since you insist on having a wedding, you need to figure out a way to plan it within that timeframe. If you have a problem with twelve weeks and an unlimited budget, or if you even try to push this wedding back by one fucking second, we’re getting married in a courthouse and you’ll be planning an after party.” She narrowed her eyes at me and I pulled her back into my arms. “Why didn’t you tell me about your high school reunion being in California? Don’t you think that’s why Ryan would be in town?” “I guess I wasn’t thinking about that...” She shook her head. “The reunion is always in California and he’s never bothered me before so...” “You don’t want to go?” “No. I never go.” “Why not?” “I don’t want to see him or her...I can’t handle being in the same room with either of them—ever.” She gave me one last kiss and untangled herself from my embrace. “I have to get back to work so I’ll see you at home. And before you ask—Yes, I’m redesigning the living room again this week. I’ll see you at dinner.” “At six?” “At six.” She smiled as she left my office, and I knew damn well she wasn’t going to be home by six. She never was. After she left my office, I went back to examining Ryan’s files. Even though he was in San Francisco two weeks before the reunion, he wasn’t one of the “planning assistants” and he still hadn’t responded to the actual invitation—which meant he definitely wasn’t here for that. He was here for something else...
“Okay. Jonathan, Denise, we’re in the closing minutes of this session.” Miss Tate looked over at my mother. “In all honesty, how do you think today went?” I think we’re really making progress,” she said as she tied a scarf around her neck. “I feel like we’re getting somewhere.” “We are.” I sighed. “If you keep behaving, I might invite you to the wedding.” “Excuse me? What wedding?” “My wedding.” “You’re engaged?” Her eyes widened. “To Claire?” “Is that a problem?” Miss Tate tapped her notebook. “We can discuss that next time. No new conversation topics within the last ten minutes, remember?” “Let me get this straight.” My mother ignored her. “You’re about to get married and you didn’t think to tell me?” “I didn’t think you would care.” “It’s been over eight months, Jonathan.” She sighed. “I’ve apologized to you, I’ve sent Claire godknows how-many letters in the mail, and I would really like to have a functioning relationship with at least one of my children. I shouldn’t have to beg for that.” She looked over at Miss Tate. “Should I?”
There was silence. I didn’t feel like going into a deep conversation with her today. I was fine with the molasses-speed progress we were making and I had no desire to fully integrate her back into my life. I stood up and shook Miss Tate’s hand. “As always, thank you for mediating these sessions, Miss Tate. Mother, Greg is downstairs waiting to take you home.” “Is twice a week too much to ask?” My mother looked hurt. “Can we at least try it?” “I’ll ask Claire about it and get back to you next week.” “Claire? You have to ask Claire?” She narrowed her eyes at me. “I know my opinion doesn’t matter much.” “It doesn’t matter at all.” “Let me finish, Jonathan. I can at least—” “No, you can’t. You don’t need to say anything about what I’m doing with my life or anything that relates to Claire because it’s none of your business. What you can do is be happy for me, stay on your best behavior, and show up to the wedding if I decide to invite you.” I kept my eyes locked on hers. “If you pull what you pulled last year—if you even attempt to say anything to her without my permission, I’ll never speak to you again.” “Jonathan, Denise...” Miss Tate stood up. “I think it’s best if we end the meeting without saying another word to each other. You’re both doing so well. You don’t want to lose all the ground we’ve made so far do you?” “You’re still holding that bullshit from last year against me?” My mother scoffed. “Seriously? That’s what this is about? You’re over our past, but you just want to throw in the Claire drama to keep me out of your life?” “My keeping you at a distance doesn’t have shit to do with Claire. It never has.” “Then why are you still treating me like this?” She stood up, hissing. “Why are you acting like a goddamn child? I said I was sorry. And just in case you didn’t catch what I said earlier, I’ve apologized every damn day and I’ve even apologized to your girlfriend—excuse me, your fiancée, telling her how much I wish I could take it all back. What more do you want?” I felt like I was going to vomit. She was literally making me sick. “I treat you like this because it’s never been about me.” I stood up and narrowed my eyes at her. “I could’ve handled myself. I did handle myself. It’s always been about Hayley and how you left her in my care—a child’s care. Why can’t you see that?” “Hayley has nothing to do with what happened between me and you, Jonathan. It’s her fault if she doesn’t want to reconcile with me because you know damn well I’ve tried. You’re just coming up with another hoop I have to jump through, and you know what?” “Go to hell.” Her face paled as soon as I said those words, and for half a second I regretted saying them, but not enough to stay. “Mother, Miss Tate, I’ll see you two next week. I can’t deal with this right now.” I stormed out of my office and headed towards Angela’s desk. “Mr. Statham? Is everything alright?” She looked up. “No...Can you call my fiancée and tell her I’m on my way to pick her up for dinner please? Tell her it’s non-negotiable.” “Yes sir.” I hit the down button on the elevator and stepped inside as soon as the doors opened. I wasn’t sure why I still put up with my mother—why I even tried, because she honestly didn’t deserve anything from me after what she did last year.
Maybe deep down it was pity—shame, but I promised myself I would never forgive her until she completely acknowledged and understood how she’d almost wrecked my little sister for life, how she’d singlehandedly damaged her, leaving me to repair what little I could.
Chapter 2.5 Jonathan Summer 1995 I sighed as I twisted the door handle to our trailer, slowly stepping inside. “Where the fuck have you been?” My mom sat up and took a long drag of her cigar. “It’s three in the afternoon and you’ve been gone all day.” “I was at school.” “Oh, right. Well, could you go back there and shut your sister up? She’s been screaming all day and I can’t get any sleep. All she ever fucking does is cry.” I looked down the hallway and noticed that once again, the door to me and Hayley’s room was locked so she couldn’t get out. “Can you sign this?” I pulled a paper out of my backpack and handed it to her. “Pre-K starts next week. You have to bring that form next Monday so she can go.” “Ugh, god, Jonathan! One thing at a damn time! Can you do what I asked you to do first? Can you shut that girl up please?” She threw the paper onto the floor and curled into a ball. “How can you expect me to sign paperwork when she’s back there screaming her lungs out? Get the hell out of my face.” I realized that I was going to have to pull out one of her old checkbooks again and forge her signature. I was also going to have to come up with one hell of an excuse because I knew she wouldn’t show up for Hayley’s first day of school. She never did anything for Hayley. Before I could make it down the hall, a beer can hit me square in the back. I turned around and saw my father taking a seat on the couch next to my mom. “There’s more of that in the fridge boy,” he said. “If you can’t get her to shut up, just give her some of that and she’ll be out in twenty minutes. It worked like a charm yesterday.” I stared at the two of them for half a second, wishing that I would wake up from this nightmare any second, that they would go back to being who they used to be; but I knew it wouldn’t happen. They’d been this way for the past couple years and there was no going back. Untwisting the doorknob to my bedroom, I slipped inside and saw Hayley hugging a pillow to her chest, rocking back and forth. She hadn’t noticed that I’d stepped in and she was still crying, screaming. “Let me out please, Mommy! Let me out please!” At four years old, she was a lot smaller than other kids her age, and even though she was the spitting image of my mother, she was the only person in my family who had blond hair. She hadn’t always cried so much, but that was back when she actually got attention from my parents. As soon as she turned three, their interests went elsewhere and she cried for their attention all the time. “Stop crying, Hayley.” I walked over and scooped her into my arms. “It’s okay, it’s okay.” “Johnnie?” She looked up at me in tears. “You left me...” “I’m sorry.” I patted her on the back. “I had to go to school, but I’m here now.” “But you go to school every day...Why?” I sighed and held her close, consoling her until she stopped sobbing. I looked behind me and noticed that she hadn’t wet the bed today—a good thing because I hadn’t stolen any quarters this week
and I didn’t feel like walking to the Laundromat in the rain. When I was sure she was okay, I rummaged through my backpack and pulled out what I’d saved from my school lunch: Two apples, smashed macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, and a turkey sandwich—practically a gourmet meal for us. “I got you something special today.” I handed her the last Ziploc bag—something I’d stolen from my math teacher, and she squealed and emptied it onto the bed. “Strawberries!” She grabbed a handful and stuffed them into her mouth. “Slow down. One at a time before you choke.” I waited until she withdrew three of them from her jaw. “Did you watch anything good on TV today?” “Sesame Street...But I’seen it before. I knew all the songs! Cookie Monster played the drums!” “That sounds great. Which song was your fav—” “Thank fuck you got her to shut up!” My father barged into the room. “That girl isn’t going to have a voice by the time she’s ten if she keeps crying like that. Have you seen my car keys?” “They’re on the TV out there.” “Right. Well, me and your mom are going out to get some pizza.” “Pizza?” Hayley’s eyes lit up and she clapped. “Pizza!” He nodded and bent down to pinch her cheek. “What type of pizza do you want, Hales?” “Pepperoni! And cheese!” “Okay. That’s exactly what we’ll get. Jonathan, what type do you want?” I didn’t answer. I just shook my head. “Okay, well I hope you like pepperoni and cheese because that’s what Hayley wants and that’s what we’re getting.” “Ooohhh!” Hayley was still clapping. “I can’t wait! I can’t wait! Can I come with you and mommy, daddy? Can I help pick up the pizza? Please?” His thin smile faded and he patted her head. “Next time, babe. Okay?” “Okay...” She seemed saddened, but then she looked up at me and whispered, “We’re getting pizza!” My dad left the room and Hayley followed him into the living room. She stretched her arms up in the air—waiting for our mother to give her a hug, but she simply looked down at her and said, “We’ll be back, Hayley.” And with that, they left and slammed the door to our trailer on their way out. Sighing, I went back into our room and picked up the Ziploc bags, placing them into the refrigerator. I knew they would come in handy later tonight. “I love pizza, Johnnie. Don’t you?” Hayley sat on the couch and looked out the window. “It’s my favorite!” I shook my head and pulled out my homework, looking up every fifteen minutes or so—watching Hayley stare out the window in anticipation of a pizza that was never coming. After three hours of waiting, she eventually fell asleep. I wanted to carry her back into our room and tuck her into bed, but I didn’t want her to wake up hungry. “Hayley?” I shook her shoulder. “Hayley, wake up.” “Did the pizza come?” she murmured. “No...It didn’t. You need to eat something before bed.” I handed her a plate of microwaved mashed potatoes and macaroni. “Here.” She scrunched her face and shook her head. “I don’t want it.” “Now, Hayley. Eat.” Frowning, she picked up the fork and took small, slow bites. When she finished, she walked over to where I was sitting and grabbed the bright pink sheet I’d given to my mother hours ago.
“E-e-e-meh-meh-oh-oh-reh-yuh. P—re-s-c-ool. Emehreeyuh Puhreyscool?” She looked up at me. “Emory preschool.” “E-mor-y pre-school.” She repeated and her eyes lit up. “I’m going to pre-school, Johnnie?! I’ll read really really good if I get to go!” “We’ll see...” “That means yes!” She jumped up and hugged me. “Oh, I can’t wait! I can’t wait!” I forced a smile and decided to change the subject. I didn’t want to get her hopes up. “Let’s watch a movie, Hayley.” I reached for her hand. “Which one do you want to watch?” “Cinderella!” “Okay.” I walked her back into our room and tucked her underneath the covers. Then I hooked up the VHS player and put in the movie, waiting for her to fall asleep. She sang along to every song, encouraging me to sing along as well, and since I knew all the words from the millions of times we’d watched it before, I tried not to sound too terrible. As the evil stepmother locked Cinderella away in the attic, she rolled over to face me. “I got a question, Johnnie...” “What is it?” “Are you my gwardan?” “Your what?” “My gwardan...Elmo says everybody has a mommy, a daddy, or a gwardan.” “Your guardian?” She nodded and I sighed. “No. I’m not your guardian. I’m just your big brother.” “But you do everything a guar-di-an does...You tuck me into bed at night...You teach me how to read...You get me food...” “Go to sleep, Hayley.” “And when I cry you come and hug me so I can stop...” She rolled back over. “That’s what guardians do, Johnnie. I saw it on the TV...”
A week later... It was Hayley’s first day of pre-K and my mother had shockingly remembered to take her. As the three of us walked to Emory, Hayley giggled and clapped about going to “Real school! Like on TV!” “Can you stop fucking shouting?” My mother rolled her eyes. “It’s too early in the morning for that shit.” “I’m sorry, Mommy...” She looked up at me—hurt, so I patted her head and made a funny face to get her to smile again. The three of us walked into the school building and waited as my mom filled out more paperwork and handed over her ID. When she was finished, one of the teachers led us into a colorful classroom. Hayley squealed and immediately let our hands go—walking around the room in awe. “Wow.” The teacher smiled. “I think that’s the most excited I’ve ever seen a child about her first day of school. My name is Miss Cole and I’ll be Hayley’s general education teacher for the year, Mrs. Statham. Since you’re here early, where would you like to sit today?” “Sit?” “Yes. We ask that at least one parent sit with the child on their first day of pre-K, so they can make the transition as easily as possible. Don’t worry, during naptime the principal orders food for all the parents so you can get a little break.” “I...” My mother shook her head. “I can’t stay here all day...I have...I have a long shift ahead of me at the hospital...Lots of lives are at stake. She’ll be just fine.”
Miss Cole looked confused. “Can you stay for the first couple hours at least? We usually let the kids introduce themselves and their parents over orange juice and muffins.” “No, I can’t. Sorry.” She shrugged. “Can my son take my place?” “Um...Doesn’t he have to go to school today too?” “Do you have school today, Jonathan?” She looked down at me and then she laughed. “Of course he has school, but it’s only two blocks down. Since you guys are Emory I and he’s at Emory II can’t you call over and work something out? I would stay if I could—I really would, because I don’t want her to be alone on her first day...If I had known about this I promise I would’ve taken off...I just...I just can’t—not at the last minute.” Miss Cole’s eyes softened and she looked like she actually believed my mom’s lies. “I’ll see what we can do, Mrs. Statham. Thank you for all the hard work you do at the hospital.” My mother reached out to shake her hand and then she walked over to Hayley, whispering something in her ear that made her bright face dim and her eyes water. “Mr. Big Brother?” Miss Cole handed me two paper plates. “Pick whatever seat you want for you and your little sister and then take out the crayons that are in the desk. Before we introduce ourselves, we’re going to draw a picture of our favorite things. I’ll sort everything out with Emory II when I get back. I have to get more students.” My mother patted Hayley’s head one more time and threw two thumbs up at us as she left the classroom, saying, “I love you, Jonathan and Hayley!” in the fakest voice I’d ever heard. I tried to keep Hayley distracted by suggesting things for her to draw on her plate, but I couldn’t help but notice the tears falling down her face as the other kids took seats with their parents, as they were kissed and hugged repeatedly. “Make sure you draw a picture of your parents or your guardians on the paper plate too!” Miss Cole smiled from the front of room. Hayley’s bottom lip quivered and she took several short breaths, a sign that another one of her long crying episodes was about to begin. Before she could get it out, I tilted her face towards me and whispered. “Can you keep a secret, Hayley?” She nodded, still taking short erratic breaths. “What does a secret mean?” “I...I can’t... tell no one...” “Exactly...” I held her chin up and wiped her tears away with my sleeves. “So the secret is...I am your guardian.” “I knew it!” She covered her mouth and then uncovered it, whispering, “I knew it, Johnnie! I won’t tell no one! Ever! I pinky promise!” She held out her pinky for me to seal the deal and then she leaned over and gave me a hug. She started to color her plate again and then she looked up at me. “Can you keep a secret?” “Of course.” “I don’t think mommy and daddy love me...” She blinked. “That’s not true, Hayley. They do love you.” “No they don't. They’re not like the mommies and daddies on TV...They don’t care...But you do, Johnnie...You’re the best guardian in the world.”
Chapter 3 Claire I sat still in my chair at Sweet Dolce—the most highly regarded catering business in San Francisco. I was trying my best not to jump over the table and punch the catering director in the eye, trying not to scream at her for being completely unprofessional. Her name was Miss Hansen and for the past hour and a half, she’d been flirting with Jonathan as if I wasn’t sitting right next to him. She’d shown us over twenty examples of her fruit displays and she’d only asked for Jonathan’s opinion—batting her big brown eyes each time she uttered, “How do you like it, Mr. Statham?” What’s worse was that the members of her staff—all female, were standing in the room. They were eye fucking his every move and frowning at me whenever I said a single word. “And lastly, this is an example of our chocolate covered strawberry tier.” Miss Hansen smiled as her assistants set a medium-sized chocolate fountain in front of us. “The strawberries are cemented around the edges with a clear sugar glue, and your guests will be able to retrieve the chocolate strawberries that are currently floating on the second level.” “With sticks?” Jonathan asked. “Yes, Mr. Statham.” She nodded and blushed. “We can even engrave your last name onto the sticks for an extra touch of personality.” I rolled my eyes as she pulled out a glass box of wooden sticks, as she handed it to him and asked if he liked them enough to give them a try. “Do you have any questions about anything, Miss Gracen?” She looked at me for the first time all day. “Is there anything else you would like me to show you?” “No.” I placed my left hand over Jonathan’s, purposely showing off my massive engagement ring. “I think you’ve covered everything. Can my fiancée and I have a few minutes alone please?” “Of course.” She sneered as she glanced at my ring, and ordered her staff to follow her out of the room. As soon as they were gone, I picked up my fork and stabbed a strawberry before dipping it into the fountain. Before I could bring it to my lips, Jonathan gently grabbed my hand and pushed the fruit into his mouth. “It’s very good.” He smiled and prepared one for me to try. “What do you think?” “It’s okay. It could be better.” “Are you saying that because she was flirting with me or do you honestly think it could be better?” “So you did notice how much extra attention she was giving you?” He smiled. “It’s not funny, Jonathan.” “I’m not laughing, Claire.” He mocked me. “In that case you should’ve said something...” “Something like what?” “Nothing.” I rolled my eyes. “I did like her take on white truffles by filling them with buttercream, and I appreciated the caramelized almond dip. That was different.” “Something like what?” He cupped my face in his hands. “Are you jealous?”
“No...” He trailed his fingers across my lips. “Are you sure? You have no reason to be...” “I’m not jealous. I’m just...It would be really nice if we went somewhere and every woman wasn’t gaping at you or flirting with you like I’m not even there—like I’m invisible.” I remembered our last dinner date at a restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf, how the waitress immediately blushed bright red and giggled—fucking giggled, upon seeing Jonathan. I was pretty sure that if he hadn’t ordered my food for me, she would’ve never asked me what I wanted, because outside of saying “More water, Miss?” or “May I take your plate?” she directed all of her attention towards him. “I could say the same for you.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “Other men stare at you all the time, especially when you’re wearing a dress.” “Well, at least I don’t flirt back.” I picked up one of the heart shaped croissants that was on the table and handed it to him. “Men won’t even talk to me when you’re around and you know it... How do you feel about these croissants? Do you like how she made them ‘pieces’ in the upside down chess square cake? Or do you think she could’ve—” He pressed his lips against mine and pulled me into his lap, making me forget whatever I was about to say. “First of all,” he said as he let my lips go. “I never flirt back. I simply smile and respond because that’s the nice thing to do. Second of all, the only reason I didn’t look at you during this meeting was because I knew that if I did, I’d be laying you across this table in front of everyone. And third, eight months ago I couldn’t get you to go out in public with me and now you’re showing me affection all the time—which, I fucking love I must say, but I think you are jealous. As a matter of fact, I think you’re the jealous type.” “What? I am not...” “You are.” He kissed me again. “But I like it.” I shook my head, prepared to tell him exactly why I wasn’t the jealous type, but he lifted me out of his lap and set me on the table. Before I could ask what he was doing, he slid the straps of my dress down and unsnapped my bra, letting it fall into my lap. “Do you want to know how I know you’re the jealous type, Claire?” He smiled and grabbed one of the wooden sticks, placing a strawberry on it and smothering it in chocolate. “Seeing as though I’m not, it’d be pretty interesting to hear your thoughts...” “Hmmm.” He moved the strawberry over my breasts, letting the chocolate drip over my nipples. Then he slowly moved it towards my mouth. “Eat it...” I took a few small bites and swallowed. “I can see how dripping chocolate on me proves that I’m the jealous type.” “You ran onto that stage last year and kissed me in front of everyone because you were jealous that Stacy was pretending to be my girlfriend, because you didn’t want her anywhere near me.” “No...I ran up there to prove to you that—” I stopped once he leaned forward and licked one of my nipples. “I think that deep down that’s the real reason why you ran up there—you didn’t want her to have me.” He slowly took my other nipple into his mouth and ran his fingers through my hair. “That’s not true...” I murmured. He looked into my eyes and smiled. Then he dipped one of his fingers in chocolate and pushed it into my mouth. “I wanted to fuck you right on that stage when you did that...” He waited until I’d sucked his finger clean. “But seeing as though you didn’t do it out of jealousy...” My breath caught in my throat as he pushed my shoulders down so my back was against the table.
“There are other reasons that clearly prove you’re the jealous type...” I moaned as he shifted the bottom of my dress up to my stomach, as he leaned forward and pressed a long, hot kiss between my thighs. “The real reason why you always go as my date to company functions isn’t because you’re trying to be a good girlfriend...” His voice was low. “It’s because you don’t want another woman to get close to me without knowing I’m taken. And you make sure that they know because you never let my hand go...Am I drawing the wrong conclusions?” I didn’t say anything. I just bit my lip as he flicked my clit with his tongue in between sentences— rendering me completely helpless. He sat up and grabbed another strawberry, letting the warm liquid drip onto my stomach. He kept his gaze locked on mine as he smeared it across my navel. “You make Angela text you anytime I have a one on-one meeting with a female client...” He swirled his tongue around my skin, gently licking everything and holding my thighs still. “And you always call right before those meetings... Or show up to my office as soon as they’re done...” He kissed his way up to my neck. “You think I haven’t noticed?” “Jonathan...” He let out a low laugh and blew a kiss against my ear. “You still don’t think you’re the jealous type?” I was trying not to give in. He was kissing my lips and softly caressing my breasts with his hands. “Am I going to have to fuck you on this table to make you tell me the truth?” I shook my head and he slowly pulled my legs apart. “Then tell me the truth, Claire...Tell me you were jealous when you ran up on that stage...” “I was a little jealous...” “A little?” He grinned and trailed his fingers against my lower lips. I sucked in a breath as he massaged my swollen clit with his thumb, as he used his other hand to grab another chocolate strawberry. “A lot...” “How loud do you think you would scream if I fucked you right now? Do you think the women on the other side of that door would get the point?” I gasped and squeezed my legs around him. “Please...We have...” I didn’t want to cum on the catering table. “We have other...other appointments to go to...” He narrowed his eyes at me, but he slowly pulled me back up and licked one last drop of chocolate off my breasts. “We’ll finish this tonight.”
Hours later, Greg pulled the town car into a small shopping plaza and slowed as he approached the speed bumps. “Okay, Claire...” Jonathan let out an exasperated sigh. “This is the last appointment of the day. If you don’t like this place, you’re going to have to pick one of the other eight because I’m not putting up with another day of this shit.” “Seriously? This is our wedding. Don’t you want it to be perfect?” “I don’t have to have a wedding and you know that. I just want to marry you—the sooner the better.” I sighed. Since I’d insisted on having a separate caterer for the main dinner, we’d been testing different sweets caterers all day. While most of them were good, none of them left me that impressed. Either the execution was slightly off, the presentation wasn’t eye-catching enough, or the taste of the food left much to be desired. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll try not to be so critical. The last place wasn’t that bad, it’s just...”
“Just what?” “There was this place back in Pittsburgh—Stella’s. I used to use them for our company functions and they were phenomenal. It was a tiny business, but the woman who owned it worked magic every single time. She always went out of her way to make sure every fruit and h’ordeuvres display was designed to perfection. Plus, she made the best catered food I’ve ever had in my life. I think I’m just comparing everything to that...” He reached over and held my hand. “If we have to look another day, that’ll be fine. I want this to be the wedding of your dreams.” “Does that mean you’ll give me an extra month to plan it?” “No.” He rolled his eyes. “And the next time you ask me that I’ll make you regret it.” He kissed my cheek as the town car came to a stop. “Don’t even try me, Claire...” Greg opened the back door and reached for my hand. “Mrs. Stath—Miss Gracen.” He cleared his throat. “Thank you, Greg.” I stepped out and looked up at the pink and white sign that hung over the small cream colored building. It read “Happily Ever After Catering—From One Happy Heart to Another.” There were pink and mint colored cupcakes sitting in the store’s windows, and when I saw the flawless display of vanilla mousse in frosted champagne glasses, I hoped we’d finally found our caterer. Jonathan held the door open for me and I walked around the store in utter awe. The walls were painted in stripes of white and silver—stripes that complemented the displays that stood right in front of them. In front of the white backdrops, brightly colored macaroons and pie pops were standing at attention. In front of the silver ones, baby cheesecakes and tuxedoed strawberries looked as if they had been made minutes ago. “Come here. Look at this.” I motioned him over to a fountain that spewed white chocolate. “Look at how those cookies are floating. And they’re all in the shape of the letter S. How cute is that? The director actually prepared for our meeting.” “It’s very creative. I like it.” I walked over to the “Sugary H’ordeuvres Station” and inspected the cherry cupcake and miniature pie spread. “I have a really good feeling about this.” I smiled. “The presentation is perfect and she doesn’t even have any fruit examples out here. I bet those are phenomenal.” The French doors that were to our left suddenly opened and a blonde who looked like she was my daughters’ age came out and cleared her throat. “Good afternoon, soon-to-be Mr. and Mrs. Statham.,” she said. “Welcome to Happily Ever After Catering. Our manager is finishing up an emergency call right now, but I would love to walk you through our gallery until she’s able to personally assist you.” I nodded and we followed her into a huge room where mirrors covered the walls and shimmering chandeliers hung low from the ceiling. “This is where we keep most of our fruit displays. By contract, we’re able to accommodate weddings of up to five hundred people—anything over that requires an additional per person charge and we can only increase up to two thousand due to our permit.” “This is amazing...” I picked up a small ice sculpture that held dove shaped pineapples and caramel covered cookies. “You know what? I don’t need to see anything else.” I clasped my hands together. “This is it. This is who I want to book with.” The woman blushed. “Really? I’ll be right back with my manager!” Jonathan pulled me into his arms and kissed me. “Finally...What else do we need to do?”
“Well, we need to meet with the invitation designer this evening...Then I need to schedule my dress appointment and we need to...” I spotted a chocolate cookie display that spelled “Mrs. Statham” out the corner of my eye. “Give me one second. I have to try one of those...” I walked over and stuffed one into my mouth—then another and another. God, I’m in heaven... As I was eating my fifth one, I heard a raspy voice behind my back. “Jonathan Statham? As in the Jonathan Statham?” The woman said. “My husband and I are both huge fans of your cell phones! Congratulations on your engagement! It’s an absolute pleasure to show you our gallery today.” I tried to swallow down one last cookie before I turned back around to greet her. “It’s a pleasure to do business with you as well.” He wrapped his arm around my waist and spun me around. “This is my fiancée, Claire Gracen. She was just talking about how much she loved—” “I don’t want anything from here.” I could feel the blood draining from my face. “What?” He raised his eyebrow. “I thought you just said...” “Claire?” Amanda’s eyes widened as she looked back and forth between me and Jonathan. “You’re engaged? To him? Well, I...Congratulations...That’s wow... I um...” She said something, something that sounded like “I hope you won’t let our personal past interfere with doing business with one another,” but all I could do was stand there and stare at her in shock. In disgusted disbelief. And the more I stared at her, the more I tried my hardest not to lunge at her and give her the beatdown she deserved. She hadn’t changed much since the last time I’d seen her. She still had long, flowing auburn hair and soft brown eyes that would make it hard for anyone to believe that she was a home-wrecking bitch. “I’m only the part time manager,” she whispered. “You don’t have to work directly with me if you don’t want to.” “I don’t want to.” I narrowed my eyes at her. “I don’t want to work with anyone that even fucking knows you.” “Claire, you don’t have to be like this. A lot of time has passed and if you would just give me a chance to—” “You’re not carrying a baby anymore, Amanda.” I snapped. “And since I still owe you an asskicking for what you did to me, I suggest that you simply shut the fuck up and let me and my fiancée walk out of that door without you saying another word to either of us.” Her face turned white and she stepped back, allowing us to walk past her and out of the store. I was shocked at how well I’d kept it together in front of her, because as soon as I made it outside I lost it. “Am I in the fucking twilight zone?!” I screamed at Jonathan. “Did that really just happen? She works in San Francisco now? Why the fuck couldn’t she and that bastard live someplace else? And why didn’t Ashley and Caroline tell me that they’d moved here? They could’ve at least warned me— they’re smarter than that...” “Calm down...” He put his hands on my shoulders. “Neither of them had any idea. There was no way you could’ve known about her being here either. You’ve always thought she was still—” “In fucking Pittsburgh! Where she and Ryan belong! What the fuck is this, Jonathan? Both of them? Here? I see them in the same week?” He looked into my eyes and it looked as if he was about to speak, but he pulled me into his arms and held me close.
“I don’t want to lie to you, but it still makes me sick...” My voice cracked. “I can’t stomach either of them. I just can’t do it...I’m really happy now and I...I don’t want them anywhere around my happiness... I don’t like knowing that they still exist.” I kept shaking my head, but I didn’t allow a single tear to fall. I wouldn’t dare. I’d let myself come this far and I didn’t want to go back. Ever. “Can we make the invitation designer meet us later in the week?” I looked up at him. “I just want to be at home with you for the rest of the day.” “Of course.” He walked me over to the car and helped me inside. Before he joined me, I heard him say something to Greg: “There’s a catering business in Pittsburgh called Stella’s. Find a way to fly the director and her team here this weekend so we can talk to them.”
Chapter 4 Jonathan I looked over the confirmation files for our honeymoon trip, double checking each flight’s time and each pilot’s flight history. Claire was a lot more comfortable with flying now, but whenever we didn’t use my personal pilot, she insisted on having a copy of the new pilot’s safety record before stepping onboard. She’d been asking me where we were going after our wedding everyday—even attempting to withhold sex to get it out of me, but I wanted everything to be a surprise. I wanted her to love every single second of our trip. “Everything looks great.” I nodded at Hayley. “Thank you very much. Make sure Claire gets a copy of these pilot records in the next few weeks.” “Will do, and you’re welcome.” She took the papers and placed them into her folder. “You know, I honestly never thought that you would get married.” “Why not?” “I did come live with you once you started building this company, remember? Before I got smart and went away for college...There were a lot of women in and out of that condo...” “No, there weren’t.” I sighed. “I never brought any woman near you and you know that.” “I didn’t see them, but I found all their panties underneath the couch cushions—the little mementos they left behind so you could remember how amazing the night was. They even left little notes on the inside tags—‘Last night was the best night of my life,’ ‘You’re the best fuck I’ve ever had,’ and my personal favorite—Oohhh call me anytime, Jonathan. I’ll drop whatever I’m doing if it means I get to fuck you again.” “Get out of my office, Hayley.” She laughed. “I looked through the Berkstrom account earlier. I don’t think we should sign with them, but the board thinks differently so make sure you read over everything tonight. There’s also a meeting with the accounting division at three to discuss new ways to track executive spending, and oh yeah—you need to make sure you have that buyout file for your international call in a few hours.” “Angela briefed me on all of this hours ago because you weren’t here on time today. For the fourth day in a row. Care to explain why?” “I can be late.” “You can be unemployed.” She rolled her eyes. “Are you this strict with Ashley and Caroline? Do they get the overprotective treatment too?” “You’re avoiding my question.” “I am.” She smiled and flipped her blond hair over her shoulder. “I’m also thinking about putting in a complaint to HR about the CEO being excessively hard on me, so watch it.” “Can you at least make sure you’re on time for your dress fitting next week? Claire stresses out about anything wedding-related if it’s more than a second late.” “I’ll be there early. I still can’t believe she asked me to be a bridesmaid! I am so honored to give you and your craziness away to someone else. Does she even know how crazy you are yet? Have you shown her your true colors or are you saving them for later?”
“Hayley...” “Mr. Statham?” Angela’s voice came over the intercom. “Yes?” “One of your security advisors is here sir. He says it’s urgent. Should I tell him to wait until you’re done meeting with Hayley?” “No.” I shook my head. “We’re more than done here. Send him in please. Oh and Angela?” “Yes, Mr. Statham?” “On little Miss Statham’s way out, could you please hand her the employee policy on tardiness and order her a Cartier watch—with the biggest numbers available please? Have it shipped overnight.” “Yes sir.” Hayley narrowed her eyes at me and pursed her lips. “You are the worst.” “I love you too.” I watched as she rushed out of my office, as she nearly collided with my second highest security chief—Clive. “Where’s Greg?” I motioned for him to sit in front of my desk. “He’s training a new member today. Would you like me to bring him up instead?” “No, that’s okay. What’s going on?” He removed a small brown box from the inside of his jacket and handed it to me. “We found this outside of Miss Gracen’s store this morning.” “Mail?” “No. It was found at six a.m. There’s no return address and mail doesn’t run overnight. We believe the small red initials of “R.H.” belong to Mr. Hayes, the man we’ve been keeping tabs on.” “Have you found any new information?” “No, but he knows we’re tailing him so he’s giving us the run-around. We do have a reservation at an executive condo building in his firm’s name though. I’ve seen him go inside a few times, but he never spends the night. It’s always in and out. He’s still paying the mortgage on a house in Pittsburgh, so we assume his visit here is temporary.” “Thank you, Clive.” “My pleasure, Mr. Statham. I’ll let you know the moment we find anything else.” I nodded and waited until he left my office. I immediately let Angela know that I didn’t want to be bothered for the next thirty minutes. I stared at the small brown box that was sitting in front of me, wondering why the fuck Ryan would attempt to give Claire anything, and then I ripped it open: A picture. And a letter. The picture was a faded one of Claire, Ryan, and Amanda. It had to have been at least ten years old because they were all dressed in outdated clothing. One of Ryan’s arms was around each of them, and they were all smiling widely and holding their thumbs up. At the bottom of the picture he’d written, “Remember this?” Irritated, I unfolded the letter and read: Dear Claire, I’m sorry for showing up to your store unannounced last week, but I knew that if I contacted you in advance you wouldn’t agree to see me. It’s the same reason why I didn’t tell Ashley and Caroline about me moving here six months ago, why I told them we’d have to reschedule our last visit until this winter. (I know that even though they love us both equally, their loyalty lies with you.) Like I said before, I really need to talk to you. Alone. One on one. It’s something I’d rather not put in a letter or say over the phone so I would appreciate it if you could just remember how things used to be between us—for just five minutes. If you could just remember how we used to be able to tell each
other any and everything...I would really appreciate your time. I know deep down you still have some form of love for me. Your first, Ryan I reread those last lines—“I know deep down you still have some form of love for me,” and “Your first”— and tried my hardest not to pick up the phone and put a hit out on this man’s life. My blood was heating to levels I never knew existed and I was seconds away from exploding. I picked up my phone and called Greg. “Mr. Statham,” he answered. “Please tell me you know exactly where Claire’s ex-husband lives and you’re just keeping it away from me so I won’t murder him.” “I do know sir.” I thought so... “Do you know why he’s in town?” “We’re still trying to figure that out. I will make you aware when I know. Is that all?” “No. I want all of Claire’s mail screened from now on. Nothing from Ryan Hayes, R.H., or anything without a return address gets into her mailbox. And I want you to give all of those things to me so I can personally get rid of them.” “Mail tampering is a federal crime, Mr. Statham.” “I don’t give a fuck. Do it.” I hung up and glanced at Ryan’s letter one last time before stuffing it down my shredder. I’m going to kill him... My alarm for today’s board meeting started going off, but I was too lost to reach into my pocket and turn it off. I sat still at my desk—stunned. Angry. Annoyed. I couldn’t believe her ex-husband’s nerve after all this time, couldn’t believe he would even attempt to contact Claire—my Claire. I was about to cancel all my meetings for the day and go down to Corey’s office to do another round of investigating, but the special ringtone I had for Claire began to sound. I pulled out my phone and read her text message: “I still can’t believe that you send me flowers EVERY. SINGLE. DAY! You are completely over the top, but I enjoy every second of it. The bouquets you sent today are absolutely amazing and I LOVE them. I love you so much, Jonathan...Your last, Claire. :-)” And just like that, my blood temperature began to cool and the ache in my chest slowly gave way. I’ll deal with Ryan later...
“How about this one?” Corey held a mannequin’s hand in front of me, slowly waving it so I could see how the diamonds sparkled in the light. We were standing in the only jewelry store I trusted—Valenti’s, and the store owner had shut it down so I could shop for Claire’s wedding band in private. I slipped the ring off the plastic finger and held it in front of my face, shaking my head. “Claire wouldn’t like it.” “Any woman would appreciate a band with rare pink diamonds—any woman. Trust me, I’ve been with enough of them to know.” He smiled. “Speaking of any woman, didn’t you mention a threesome recently? It was with two actresses, right? You never told me if it worked in your favor or not.” “Couldn’t do it...” He shrugged. “Wait a minute. Why are you getting Claire another diamond ring? Her engagement ring is already eighteen carats. Isn’t that enough?”
“I want to do something special for her since she’s doing something special with mine.” “Right.” He rolled his eyes. “I should’ve known that you would end up proposing. You were a goner the minute you told me about her.” “That’s not true.” “Of course it isn’t. You’ve always called me at one o’ clock in the morning to tell me about some random woman you saw at a party, some woman you’ve never even spoken to. And you’ve always made me track her down four hours later.” “It was six hours later.” “That makes it far less stalkerish doesn’t it?” He pulled out his phone. “When exactly is the wedding? I need to make sure I don’t make any plans that week.” “We haven’t set the date yet.” I spotted two diamond bands in the case that spoke to me; separately they were appealing, but together they could be stunning. As if he’d read my mind, he picked up the two rings and placed them on another mannequin’s finger. “You’re getting married in less than three months and you haven’t set the date yet? You had the IPO ball planned six months in advance and you didn’t even want to go.” “We’re meeting with the wedding planner next week.” He raised his eyebrow but he didn’t say anything. “Is everything alright, Mr. Statham? Mr. Walters?” The store owner walked over to us. “Have you found something that you like?” I slid the plastic hand across the counter. “I want the ring to be a mix of these two designs—not welded together though, it’ll be too thick. And I want the same engravings that we discussed before.” “Of course, Mr. Statham. This should be easy.” “Shit, I’ve got to go...” Corey’s eyes widened as he looked at his phone and started walking backwards. “Firewall breach for the second time today. I’ll call you later.” I watched as the guards let him out of the store before refocusing my attention on the rings. “What were you saying, Miss Valenti?” “That this should be an easy fix, but it’s going to take me at least two to three weeks to perfect it— That’s a lot of tiny diamonds and they need time to set. But as usual, your engraved messages to Claire make me cry.” She smiled. “She’s very lucky to have you.” “Since you’re designing my ring with her, will my band match hers?” She raised her eyebrow. “What?” “Will my band match hers?” She slid her glasses down from her forehead and pulled out her sTablet, scrolling down the screen. “It might match yours, but since she hasn’t asked me to design it...I’m not sure.” What? “She didn’t book a session with you?” She shook her head and showed me the tablet. “You’re my best customer. I always push your appointments to the top of the list. My staff knows that Miss Gracen is to receive the same treatment. She’s never called me. Ever.” I narrowed my eyes at the screen—hoping that her vision was the problem and that Claire had indeed scheduled an appointment like she promised to, but there was nothing there. All the purchases and appointments were things I’d made: the Harry Winston bracelet, the anchor necklace, the vintage charm necklace and matching ring, the engagement ring, various things for Caroline and Ashley, and now this—her wedding band. “She may be using someone else, Mr. Statham.” She offered. She doesn’t ‘know’ anyone else... “Right. Well, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure doing business with you as always. Do I need to pay for this now?”
“No. I think you’re good for it.” She winked and walked over to my side of the counter, leading me to the door. “I’ll do all the work on this one personally and call you for a follow up appointment to make sure you like it. I’m looking forward to your wedding.” I asked her a few questions about her life—how her kids were doing, if any of the colleagues I’d referred had stopped by, and then I shook her hand and promised to personally deliver her an invitation. As soon as I stepped outside, the valet brought my car around and I handed him whatever bills were left in my wallet. I was too out of it to count or care. I sat behind the wheel and stared straight ahead. Why didn’t Claire make the ring appointment? What the hell is going on with her? Did she even book our meeting with the wedding planner?! I scrolled through my phone and called the number she’d given me for the wedding planning firm. “Dream Wedding Associates,” a woman answered. “This is Charlotte speaking. How may I help you today?” “I need to speak to the director right now.” “Um...” She paused. “Well, she’s currently busy at the moment, but if you give me your name I can have her get back to you.” “Jonathan Statham.” She gasped. “I’m sorry, Mr. Statham. I’ll connect you right away.” The phone rang two times before a woman with a high pitched voice answered. “This is Miss Corwin. Who am I speaking to this afternoon?” “Jonathan Statham.” “Oh! Mr. Statham!” Her pitch rose even higher. “I am so excited and honored that you chose me to coordinate your wedding! I promise that it will be the wedding of the year! It’s going to be the best one I’ve ever done!” “So my fiancée has booked an appointment with you?” “Of course she has.” She sounded confused. “I’m scheduled to meet with the both of you...” There were papers rattling the background. “Next Thursday at six. She told me how you feel about the tiny details, so she and I are going to meet Friday to go over those alone. But all the bones—colors, location, date, et cetera—will be discussed Thursday. I am so excited! I can’t wait!” “Me either.” I narrowed my eyes at the picture Ryan had sent to Claire earlier—the picture I’d left on my dashboard. “As a matter of fact, I need to ask you a few more questions...”
Chapter 5 Claire Across and forward...Backwards and across...Across and forward... I weaved my needle through the lampshade, trying to make the stitches as neat as possible. I’d been locked inside my office all day, sewing order after order. Since one of my handmade lampshades had been featured in a national magazine last week, I’d had to hire three more people to fill all the incoming requests. I’d even considered shutting down the store for a couple days to finish, but all my staff members offered to stay late and help. “Miss Gracen?” Rita’s voice came over the intercom. “Lisa and Sam are heading home for the day and your fiancée is on line one.” “Thank you.” I picked up the phone. “Yes, Jonathan?” “Come home.” “I will, right after this last piece. I only have twelve more patches to sew.” “It’s eight o’ clock, Claire. Come home now.” I sighed. “You can’t give me fifteen more minutes?” “No. Now.” He hung up. I rolled my eyes and picked up my needle again, sticking it through the bottom. I’d accidentally used the wrong fabric earlier and I needed to finish it for a customer pick-up tomorrow. I’ll explain it to him later... When I was halfway done, there was a light knock at my door. “Come in,” I said, still focused on my project. “Miss Gracen.” Greg’s deep voice made me look up. “Mr. Statham is adamant about me bringing you home right now.” “Is something wrong?” “He just wants you home.” He held the door open and gestured for me to stand up. “Nonnegotiable.” Sighing, I called Rita to thank her for staying so late. Then I grabbed my blazer and walked out front—tossing the store’s keys to her on my way out. Greg opened the backdoor of the town car and waited until I was comfortable before pulling off. “Greg?” I cleared my throat. “Yes, Miss Gracen?” He looked at me through the rearview mirror. “How long have you been working for Jonathan?” “Since he first started his company.” “Did he treat all his girlfriends like this? Make them drop whatever they were doing just because he wanted to see them?” “No.” He shook his head. “But you chauffeured them around too, right? Those few serious girlfriends that he had?” “Miss Gracen...” “I’m just trying to make conversation to get my mind off the fact that he just demanded that I come home. That’s all.” “Of course.” He pulled the car onto the highway ramp and turned the music up a notch.
“Are you going to answer my question, Greg?” He sighed. “Mr. Statham has never asked me to chauffeur any of his other girlfriends.” What? “How did they get around when they went on dates?” “He drove his own car to pick them up.” “Did he take them on his yachts?” “Miss Gracen...” He kept his voice firm. “I can remember a few random dates on his yacht from years past, but to the best of my knowledge you are the only woman who has been on all of his yachts. With the exception of his sister and your daughters, you are the only woman who has flown on his private plane and you are, without a doubt, the only woman who I have personally chauffeured around. You are also the only woman he’s ever shown his real home. Now, if you don’t mind, I would prefer not to talk about my employer.” I nodded and sat back in the seat, completely speechless. All this time that we’d been together I’d always thought he’d shown his softer side to someone else. Knowing that he hadn’t made me feel even more special. As the town car rolled past the right exit to take me home, I tapped Greg on the shoulder. “I thought you were taking me home?” “Mr. Statham called me a few minutes ago. He wants me to bring you to the airstrip instead.” “He’s flying me somewhere? On short notice?” “He didn’t say anything further, Miss Gracen.” Half an hour later, the town car cruised into the private jetport and stopped a few hundred feet in front of Jonathan and his plane. There were twenty people standing around him—his crew, a few of his top accountants, and a couple of people I’d never seen before. He was pacing in front of them, shaking his head in anger, giving orders of some type. Greg opened my door and reached for my hand, whispering a warning. “Something’s been bothering him all day...” I nodded and watched as Jonathan continued to yell at his employees, something about “This is unacceptable,” and “Why am I just now finding out about this today?!” I tried to step backwards and slip back inside the town car, but he looked over his shoulder and his blue eyes met mine. He immediately stopped talking and stared at me, looking me up and down. He strolled over to where I was standing and pulled me into his arms. Before I could say ‘Hello,’ he pressed his lips against mine and slipped his tongue into my mouth —kissing me until I couldn’t breathe. “Why do you have such a hard time coming home at six?” he whispered harshly. “We’ve discussed this too many times...” “I guess I keep forgetting that I have a curfew.” “It’s an agreement.” “You should’ve gotten it in writing.” A faint smile played on his lips and he leaned forward and kissed me again—more passionately this time. He caressed my back with his hands and slipped his tongue deeper and deeper into my mouth. I opened my eyes and realized that the twenty or so people that were behind us were now staring in our direction, whispering to one another. I pulled away from him, blushing. “You can’t kiss me like that in front of your staff...” “I can kiss you however I want.” He clasped my hand and walked me over to his team. “I need three advisors, one executive, and one intern. Takeoff in five minutes.”
He mumbled something under his breath as he led me over to the plane. As usual, he looked into my eyes for what felt like forever before helping me onboard. He motioned for me to take a seat first and then he sat down next to me. “Where are we going?” I asked. He didn’t answer. “Could you tell my team to hurry up and decide who’s coming with us?” He shook his head at the flight attendant. Within minutes, a few of his staff members filed into the cabin. “Are you going to answer my question, Jonathan?” “No. Put on your seatbelt.” I blinked and he rolled his eyes, reaching over my lap to do it himself. I tried to read his expression so I could see what he was thinking, but he was perfectly stoic. “Mr. Statham,” the flight attendant said as she looked at me—not him. “The pilot is asking if you would like for us to wait a few minutes for takeoff or...” He cupped my face in his hands. “Are you feeling okay?” I nodded. “We can take off.” He clasped my hand. I shut my eyes as the flight attendant reminded his staff to fasten their seatbelts, as the plane roared to life and slowly moved down the tarmac. As we ascended into the air, I felt Jonathan squeezing my hand and kissing my cheek. I kept my eyes closed until I heard the familiar ping that signified that we were free to move about the cabin, until I heard the pilot’s voice over the intercom: “We’re all clear now, Miss Gracen.” I looked behind our seats and noticed that all of his associates were busy typing away on their screens—completely preoccupied by whatever they were doing. “Jonathan...” I was honestly worried. “What’s going on? Tell me.” He unbuckled my seat belt and pulled me up. “We need to talk. Now.” He tugged me down the aisle and into the plane’s luxury bathroom. Locking the door, he pulled me flush against his chest and removed something from his pocket. “What is this?” He held a picture of me, Ryan, and Amanda in between us. “Where did you get this?” “One of my security guards found it outside your office this morning. It was with a letter—in a box from Ryan.” “Your security guards check my mail?” “As of today, yes. Where is this picture from?” “Can we discuss the mail tampering issue first?” “Claire...” “It’s from our first high school reunion.” “I thought you said you never went to one.” “I went to the first one, the one that was in Pittsburgh.” I trailed my fingers around the loosely fitted black dress I was wearing in the photograph, around the pretty gold bracelet that matched the one Amanda was wearing. I cringed as I read Ryan’s “Remember this?” note. “It doesn’t mean anything to you?” He tilted my chin up. “No.” I shook my head. “It’s actually quite ironic that he would send this picture because I do remember this. I remember it very well...” I paused. “They passed out these crystallized awards for the people who won superlatives in the senior yearbook...Ryan and I got Cutest Couple and Couple Most Likely to Get Married, and me and Amanda got Most Likely to Be Best Friends Forever...” “I’m sorry.” “It’s in the past.” I shrugged. “Where’s the letter?”
“You think I saved that shit for you to read?” “Of course not...” I rolled my eyes. “Now, about you tampering with my mail.” “What about it?” “Well one, its illegal. Two, Ryan’s not a threat.” “He is when he wants something that’s mine.” “I don’t think that’s the case. I just think he has something to say but I honestly don’t care what it is.” “You shouldn’t.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “You shouldn’t care about him at all.” “I don’t...” Silence. He slid his thumb underneath the anchor charm of my necklace and spoke slowly. “You’re not his anymore, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to keep him far away from you because—” He pressed a warm kiss against my chest. “You belong to me.” I was silent. “Do you have a problem with that?” “No...” “If he happens to slip past my security...” He looked into my eyes and slipped his hands around my waist. “Or if he comes into your store again—or anywhere around you when I’m not there...You need to call me. ASAP.” I nodded and he drew my bottom lip into his mouth, harshly trapping it between his teeth for several seconds before letting it go. “Tell me you’ll call me.” “Yes, I’ll...Call you...” “I don’t share...” He traced my lips with his fingertips. “And I never will. Never.” I wasn’t sure what to say or how to respond when he looked at me like this. I simply stared into his deep blue eyes and felt my heart beating an entirely new rhythm. “Was that...Was that all we had to talk about?” I stepped to my left and reached over to press the door handle, but he grabbed my hand and pushed me against the wall. “No. That’s not it.” He reached down and pulled the silver clip I was wearing out of my hair. He brushed his thumb across my cheek and murmured something I didn’t understand. Just as I was about to ask him to repeat himself, the jet began to shake back and forth, and I instinctively clung to him and shut my eyes, bracing for the worst. “It’s just turbulence, Claire,” he whispered. But the plane was shaking more violently so I clung to him even more—digging my nails into his neck. The rough rattling continued and I heard the shuddering of the small cabinets next to me, heard the series of loud pings that meant we were supposed to be in our seats with our seatbelts buckled. I won’t feel anything if we crash...I won’t feel a thing... I took several short breaths and lowered Jonathan’s head to mine. “I love you...” I wasn’t sure how long I clung to him, but after I silently said all my goodbyes to everyone else I loved, I noticed that the shaking had stopped and Jonathan’s arms were tightly locked around me. There was another light ping, but just to be sure, I counted to sixty before opening my eyes. When my gaze met Jonathan’s I realized that he was smiling at me with his eyebrow raised. “I’m glad you think that was funny.” I rolled my eyes and pushed him away, reaching for the door. “I’m bursting with laughter myself.” “Stop.” He blocked me and hit a few digits on a keypad, effectively locking us inside. Then he lowered his mouth to mine. “I wasn’t laughing at you, Claire. I was just staring at you because you look really fucking beautiful today...”
He hesitated, looking as if he wanted to say something more, but he crushed his lips onto mine and pinned me against the door. I moaned as he took his time kissing me, running his fingers through every inch of my hair. I didn’t even close my eyes to savor the feeling. I couldn’t. He was commanding me to keep them open, giving me a look that said he was about to fuck me senseless. Without breaking our kiss, he slid the straps of my dress down my shoulders and pushed it down, letting it fall to the floor. I slipped my hands to his pants, unbuckling his belt and unzipping his fly—feeling how hard his dick was already. I was starting to unbutton his jacket, but he grabbed my hands and pinned them above my head. He trailed his tongue across my collarbone and in between my breasts, using his teeth to unfasten the latch at the front. When he finally got it open, he swirled the tip of his tongue around both of my nipples, biting down on each one until I murmured his name. Tilting my head back, he pressed kisses up and down my throat and slowly released my hands. He slipped his thumb underneath the band of my panties and slowly ripped them off. I gasped as he hooked one of my legs around his waist, as he slowly pushed his dick inside of me and commanded that I wrap my other leg around him. “Jonath—” “Shhh...” He placed my arms around his neck and pressed a light kiss against my forehead. I bit my lip as he cupped my ass and started to slowly move me up and down. He pressed my back against the wall and slid his hands underneath my thighs, gripping me roughly as he began to pound into me. There was no talking between us—just the sound of heavy breathing and our skin slapping against each other. The plane shook again and I tightened my arms around his neck as he sped up our rhythm. I tried not to cry out, but I couldn’t help it. “Jonathan...” He drew both of my lips into his mouth and held them captive with his teeth, continuing to drive himself in and out of me. I was murmuring into his mouth, begging him to release my lips, but he bit down on them even harder. I squeezed my thighs around him as tremors started to make their way through my body, as I felt myself getting closer and closer to an orgasm. Fuck... He stared into my eyes—silently saying ‘I love you,’ and we exploded together—clinging to each other as our bodies shook violently, as the plane made a noticeable turn in the skies. He let my lips go and panted. “I love you so fucking much, Claire...so fucking much...” He kissed my face over and over again and I breathlessly told him that I loved him too. He looked into my eyes for a long time, caressing my cheek with his palm. As soon as my breathing was normal again, he took a step back—with our bodies still entwined, and sat down on the small window bench. I tried to move out of his lap, but he held me still and kissed my lips. “I’ll never get enough of you.” He caressed my back with his hands. “You have no idea how much you mean to me...”
“I do...I feel the same way about—” My sentence was interrupted with a hot and passionate kiss. When he finally pulled away from me, I tried to finish what I was going to say but he kissed me until I completely forgot. I wasn’t sure how much time passed with us sitting like that, but the next thing I felt was him slowly moving himself out of me and repositioning me in his lap. “I feel like we’ve done everything...” I murmured. “Everything?” “In regards to sex...” “No, not everything.” He cupped my ass and squeezed it, trailing one finger between my cheeks. “But I figured we should save something for the honeymoon.” My eyes widened in shock. “I can also think of several other places where I’d love to fuck you.” “You should make a list.” “I will.” He gently eased me out of his lap. “Are you going to tell me where we’re going now?” “To the only notary I trust.” He stood and picked my dress up from the floor. “He wasn’t able to charter a jet on short notice so we’re going to him in L.A.” “Why do we need to see a notary?” “Because you didn’t sign the papers I sent to your office.” I sighed. He’d sent me a sealed box of property deeds, yacht ownership records, and several investment portfolios at the beginning of the week. He’d had them delivered via two of his security guards with a handwritten note: “I want to share everything I own with you, before we’re married—Jonathan.” “Why are you in such a rush?” I asked. “Why are you not?” “Because I’m being practical. Don’t you think it makes more sense to wait until I actually have your last name before I co-own everything you’ve worked so hard to get?” “Not unless you plan on backing out of marrying me.” His voice was firm. “Since you decided not to sign the papers when I told you to—when my bank was willing to look the other way, we both need a separate set of witnesses and a notary for each set of contracts.” Oh... “I’m sorry...I didn’t know that was why you did that.” “And the second we’re done signing all these fucking contracts, we’re going to make a stop at a hotel.” “We’re spending the night in L.A?” “Yes. With our wedding planner.” “What? I thought we were meeting with her next week. I still need to look through a few magazines and catalogues to make sure I have everything I want.” “We’re doing it now, Claire. Right. Now. I feel like you’re delaying this, and if that’s the case I need to know why.” He looked as if he was waiting for me to say something, but I shook my head. “If it’s not the case, I need to know that you’re as serious as I am about getting married.” He pulled me close to his chest. “You can still meet with her next week to fine tune all the small details, but I want the date and the venue set tonight.” “I am very serious about marrying you, Jonathan...” “Prove it.”
“Okay, let me get this straight...” Our wedding planner paced our hotel suite tapping her lip.
Her name was Paris Corwin and she was the top wedding planner in the country. She’d worked with hundreds of celebrities, superstar athletes, and had even been an advisor for the royal wedding overseas. Impeccably dressed in a dark gray suit and creamy colored blouse, she was wearing her brown hair in an asymmetrical bob that loosely framed her heart shaped face. “You want the ceremony to be outdoors facing the ocean, but you don’t want it to be within miles of anywhere that’s accessible to the public?” She looked at me. “And you also don’t want it to be on a beach?” “Right.” “And you want the reception to be in an indoor facility that’s within walking distance from the ceremony space, but it has to have glass ceilings?” “Correct.” She took off her glasses and rubbed her forehead. “It also has to be in San Francisco?” Jonathan spoke up. “We would prefer that.” “Okay, well...I’m just going to be honest with you two. You may have to concede on a few things if you want to have it there.” “A few things like what?” I raised my eyebrow. I’d been envisioning my wedding every night and I didn’t want to give up any of my preferences. “Well...” She walked over to the projector screen she’d set up on the other side of the room. She dimmed the lights and clicked her mini remote. “This is a picture of The Shores Resort. It is a beachfront resort, but they have a huge ballroom with glass ceilings.” She clicked again and another picture appeared onscreen. “This is La Santa Maria resort. It has a beautiful outdoor area that’s near the beach, but instead of sand there’s grass—which is what you want, but the ballroom does not feature glass ceilings. It does have floor to ceiling glass walls though, and those walls are twenty feet high.” One of her team members walked over and handed me a white binder. “Inside that binder, you’ll find similar resorts that are just as grand.” Miss Corwin said. “They’re just as pricey, but they’re only missing one of the things that you’re looking for.” “Do they all have the grand steps for the reception?” I looked at Jonathan. “I want to enter the reception by walking down the steps, right before our first dance.” “All the pages with the pink tabs have grand steps. The others have standard steps.” “Okay.” I sighed. “Let me look...” I opened the binder and flipped through the pages relatively quick. All the venues were beautiful but they didn’t have everything I wanted, everything I’d dreamed of. “What about this one?” Jonathan pointed at a page that featured a historic castle near the beach. It was gorgeous: Sun drenched stones, grand marble steps, but the ballroom didn’t have a glass ceiling and the outdoor area for the ceremony had more dirt than grass. I shook my head and shut the binder. “I’m sorry, but this isn’t what I want...I don’t want to concede anything. If we move it to another city will our options be better?” “Yes, Miss Gracen. They actually would. Let me show you those options.” She took a flash-drive out of her pocket and placed it into her laptop. “Let’s start with Los Angeles.” “Miss Corwin.” Jonathan cut her off. “You have a full staff of architects on your staff, correct?” “Yes, of course. I’ll make sure that the gazebo you both want is constructed to perfection.” “Actually...” He lifted my hand and kissed it. “I want you to build my fiancée’s dream wedding venue from the ground up. Give her whatever she wants.” There was silence. Ear deafening silence.
Everyone’s eyes widened—including mine, and all her staff members’ faces went white. I looked over at him in shock, whispering, “No, that’s insane. You don’t have to do that.” “It’s just like buying a car. It’s nothing.” He kissed me and turned his attention to Miss Corwin again. “You have a week to find a purchasable location site in San Fran, but I want the proposed budget on my desk by Monday and a list of all the building permits you’ll need. How long do you think construction will take?” She blinked. “It would take about eight to ten weeks once the permits cleared sir.” One of her staff members spoke up. “We’d probably have to bring on another company to help, but depending on the height of the building, we’d also need a zoning clearance from the city. That takes months to get—sometimes years.” “I’ll take care of it.” He didn’t seem fazed. “What’s next?” “Um, well...” Miss Corwin slowly regained her composure. “We um...We need to discuss the more intricate aspects now...What color scheme did you have in mind for your special day?” Jonathan looked over at me. “I...” I was still trying to wrap my head around the fact that he was having my dream venue custom built. “I was thinking angel white and champagne as the main colors—with hints of blush pink, ivory, and pastel yellow throughout. Nothing too heavy though; maybe a pop of color in the petals down the aisle or in the decorations at dinner, but not enough that it’ll take over the main colors.” “That sounds beautiful, Miss Gracen.” She nodded. “We can fine tune the smaller things next week, but just so I have an idea about the bridal party numbers...” She clicked her pen. “Who is your maid of honor?” “I have two. My daughters, Ashley and Caroline.” “And how many bridesmaids will you have?” “Three—my best friends Sandra and Helen, and his sister Hayley.” “Thank you...” She scribbled their names down. “Mr. Statham, who is the best man and how many groomsmen will you have?” “Corey Walters is the best man. I’ll have two groomsmen.” “Very well. I’ll bring samples of your color choices next week. Oh, and while I’m searching for a place to build your venue, could you keep me informed about the status of your dress? I always like to match some of the floral arrangements to the theme of the bride’s attire if possible.” “You’ve already bought your dress, correct?” Jonathan squeezed my hand. “Not yet. I’m going shopping for it this weekend with my mom.” He raised his eyebrow, but Miss Corwin kept talking. “I assume we’re going with black tuxedos for the groomsmen, Mr. Statham?” “Yes.” “Great! Well, since I have to find a place to build your venue, if you two don’t have any questions for me...” She looked back and forth between us, waiting for us to say something. “I’ll have the proposed budget for you on Monday, Mr. Statham. And Miss Gracen I look forward to seeing you again later.” We both stood up and shook her hand, thanking all of her team members for having us on such short notice. I helped them pack their binders and posters away and traveled with them down to the lobby. “Wait here.” Jonathan said to me as he escorted them outside to the waiting limo he’d ordered. As soon as the car pulled off, he walked up to me and pulled me into his arms. “Please tell me you were just being coy with her about your wedding dress.” “Coy?”
“Is it hideous? Show me a picture of it and I’ll let you know my thoughts.” “No...” I rolled my eyes. “I honestly don’t have it yet. I’m going shopping for it this weekend.” “You told me you started shopping for your dress last weekend.” “No I didn’t.” “Yes. You did.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “That’s the reason why you came home late last Friday.” He pulled his phone out and scrolled through his texts. “Friday. Five forty eight pm: Jonathan, I’m going to be late for dinner tonight. I scheduled a late appointment with a dress boutique at six. I promise I’ll make it up to you—Claire.” He raised his eyebrow in anticipation of an answer. “Okay...I did have an appointment, but it wasn’t at a dress shop.” “You lied to me?” “I couldn’t tell you what it was for because it’s...It’s for our anniversary.” “So, you lied to me?” He pulled me even closer. “Jonathan, it was a consultation appointment. After our anniversary, I’ll be happy to show you the timestamp on my receipt so you can see that I wasn’t lying to you. I did have something scheduled.” He blinked. Then he stared into my eyes for a long time—not saying anything at all. “Am I supposed to be staring back at you right now? Are we playing a game of some type?” I smirked. “First one to blink actually acts like an adult for the rest of the night?” “Yes, future wife...” He tightened his grip around my waist. “We are going to play a game. It’s called, Jonathan is going to teach Claire a very strenuous lesson about lying to him...”
Chapter 6 Claire I stood still in the center of a platform, trying my hardest not to roll my eyes. I was at a bridal boutique, patiently counting down the minutes until Greg drove me back home. The dress I was trying on had been selected by my mother, so I was sure it looked terrible, but I’d appeased her and tried it on anyway. “Please don’t drive Jonathan away like you did last year.” She zipped up the gown. “I almost smacked you for that. I ought to slap you right now for insurance, to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” I rolled my eyes and looked at myself in the mirror. “That was over eight months ago.” “I don’t care how long ago it was. If I had a hot, sexy billionaire chasing me like he chased you, I would have given in the moment he asked me out. Hell, I probably would have slept with him the first night too.” “Thank you, mother.” I shook my head and frowned at the dress’ neckline. “I’ll be sure to give that same advice to Ashley and Caroline one day...Anyway, I’m not sure if I like this dress. I don’t think he’ll like it either. There’s way too much beading across the top.” There was actually way too much of everything on the dress. It covered every inch of me from the neck down; it had laced sleeves, a pleated waist, and enough beading for a kindergarten class to be entertained for a week. “Well, I think it looks traditional,” she said. “You can never go wrong with traditional. I’m sure Jonathan will appreciate you in something like this.” “Are you out of your mind?” Helen walked inside the room and immediately shooed my mother away. “No disrespect, Ms. Gracen, but we’ll only be trying on dresses that were sewn in this century— preferably this decade.” My mother huffed and headed back out into the boutique. As soon as she was gone, Helen placed a few new gowns against the rack. I flipped one of the price tags over and held back a gasp: Seventy eight thousand dollars. I knew Jonathan didn’t care how much my dress would cost, but every dress in this store was a bit extreme. “Are you excited?” Helen helped me out of the atrocity. “I am.” I couldn’t help but smile. I went to sleep dreaming about our wedding every night. “That’s good. You should be. And to celebrate this “tying yourself down” mess, I’m throwing you one hell of a bachelorette party. I’m almost done with the details, so if there are any people you want to invite, let me know. Make sure you tell them that everything is on me.” “Oh, no.” I pulled the dress over my head. “That’s okay. I don’t really...” “You don’t really what?” “I don’t think I want a bachelorette party. I’d rather spend that time with Jonathan... I’ll be happy without one.” “Claire...” She clutched her chest. “You are about to get married, which means that for the rest of your life—the rest of your life, you’re only going to be able to experience one dick. One. Dick.” “Helen—”
“Do you know how depressing that is? Do you remember that day you told all of us that he proposed to you—the day you saw my tears? I wasn’t crying because I was happy. I was crying because I truly felt bad for you. I don’t care how good a man is in bed—that’s not enough to make me want to sleep with him for the rest of my life.” “Are you going to be making a point any time soon?” “I’m throwing you the most epic bachelorette party of all time, regardless of your fiancée’s ridiculous warnings.” “He warned you?” “He did.” She smiled. “He also sent me an email with some bullshit guidelines that he wants me to follow—something about not letting your party get too raunchy or over the top. He doesn’t want more than five men there, and he doesn’t want any man to get within three feet of you.” She rolled her eyes. “But guess what? It will be raunchy. It will be over the top. There will be dicks everywhere, and goddamnit Claire you will fucking love it. Now, turn around so I can help you into the next dress.” I turned around and shook my head. Over the next few hours, I tried on dress after dress, but I didn’t fall in love with any of them. They were either way too simple or way too decorative. What’s more was that every time I tried on a dress, Helen and my mother critiqued it as if I wasn’t standing in the room. Then they would argue over who had better taste. “Have you tried looking in our gallery room, Mrs. Statham? I mean, Miss Gracen.” An attendant took a dress off a hanger. “All the dresses in that room are one of a kind.” “I haven’t.” I sighed. “What’s the price range?” “Very affordable. They start at ninety thousand dollars.” Ninety thousand dollars?! I wanted to decline, but Helen and my mother were arguing over veils, so I followed the woman out of my suite and into an all-white room. There were only two racks of dresses, but they extended from wall to wall. It seemed like they were organized by size, because there was no way of telling what each dress looked like; they were all covered in sheer silver bags with pink tags hanging from their sides. The attendant circled me with measuring tape, stretching it across my shoulders and my breasts, briefly holding it around my hips. “What type of dress do you love to wear on a regular day?” she asked. “A day when you’re only going to be running a few errands?” “It’s usually something simple: solid color, basic shape, and a V-neckline.” “I see...And how about when you go out on a date?” “It depends...” “Well, how about your last date? What type of dress did you wear? And where was it if you don’t mind me asking.” I blushed just thinking about me and Jonathan’s last date. “It was at a vineyard. Nude colored lace dress with a low cut in the front.” “Right. And you previously mentioned that you prefer the toned down organza skirt, sweetheart neckline, and corset bodice so...” She thumbed through a few hangers and pulled out a dress. “This is your wedding gown. Guarantee it.” “What makes you so sure?” “I’m the best.” She smiled and led me back to my fitting room. “Let me know how it works for you.” I honestly didn’t want to try it on, but I slipped back into my suite and walked right between Helen and my mother. “Could you two help me into this last one please? Then we can all get drinks before
we head back.” “What about the shopping spree?” My mother frowned. “Jonathan promised me I could get whatever I wanted. Don’t you have his credit card with you?” “Yes...” I rolled my eyes. “I’ll just have Greg pick you up tomorrow and bring you back.” I stood still as she and Helen took their time helping me into the long, silk dress. I didn’t bother looking in the mirror as they tugged and smoothed every inch of it. I just wanted to get this over with and go home. I expected them to start arguing over whether they liked it or not, but they were both staring at me in stunned silence. “Is it that bad or that good?” I asked. “It’s absolutely perfect.” Helen’s eyes lit up. “You look beyond beautiful, Claire...” “Would you like to put on the matching veil?” My mother ’s eyes were filled with tears. I nodded and stooped down so they could pull my hair into a knot and guide the veil’s comb onto my head. “Don’t look yet.” Helen smiled. “Let me ask the attendants for some jewelry.” I waited until she returned and tried to be as still as possible as she fastened a Harry Winston wreath around my neck. I tried to sneak a peek of myself, but my mother held my head still and secured a pair of diamond earrings onto my ears. They led me into the main room, where the largest mirror was, and helped me onto another platform. As they stepped back, I could see tears falling down their faces. Out the corner of my eye, I spotted the shop’s attendants whispering and nodding their heads in approval. I couldn’t take the anticipation anymore. “Can I turn around and look in the mirror now?” “Yes.” They said in unison. I slowly spun around and sucked in a breath once I saw my reflection. Oh my god... The dress was flawless. Utter perfection. It was a strapless gown with a sweetheart neckline, a neckline that was embellished with a thin line of sparkling white and silver crystals. The top of the dress fit like a vintage corset and gave way to a long skirt of beautiful organza waves that flowed from my hips to my toes—into a long train that draped off the platform. The veil was simple, but stunning. It had light, lace accents around its edges and its’ ends grazed my lower back. I twirled around and looked over my shoulder, noticing that the jewelry I was wearing perfectly complemented the shimmering beads in the veil’s comb. I didn’t want to cry, but the tears had already begun to fall down my face. Everything suddenly felt more real now; I was actually getting married. “This is it.” There was a lump in my throat. “This is the dress I want.” All of the attendants clapped, and the manager walked over and handed each of us a glass of chilled champagne. “Congratulations, Miss Gracen,” she said. “I’ll bring out our seamstress to check for any necessary alterations.” “Just to be clear, these aren’t really tears in my eyes.” Helen stepped onto the platform and hugged me. “This moment never happened.” I held back a laugh and nodded. “I can’t get over how beautiful you look, Claire. You’re gorgeous...” My mother dabbed her eyes with a Kleenex. “He’s not going to be able to look away from you once you walk down that aisle.”
She put her hand over her chest and cried. “Please don’t fuck this up!”
I smiled as Jonathan’s newest set of flowers were rolled into my office the next day. They were a collection of white, pink, and yellow tulips, with wild orchids evenly placed in between them. I took the envelope that was on top and sliced it open: Five Places Where I’d Love to Fuck You 5. At a crowded concert 4. In a packed movie theater 3. In our bathroom’s sauna 2. On the hood of my Bugatti 1. On my boardroom table... Call me as soon as your last meeting is over. Love, Your Future Husband I laughed and slipped the note into my pocket. “You can send my ten o’ clock back now, Rita.” I buzzed the intercom. I walked over to my door and opened it, expecting to see an elderly man and his wife but instead —Ryan?! “You never struck me as the domestic type, Claire.” He took off his hat and walked right past me. “But I guess when you’re engaged to a billionaire your priorities change. Interior design? Really?” He scoffed. “I bet I can guess what the other “C” in C & C’s Charming Designs means.” “Do you not understand ‘get the fuck out’ and ‘I don’t want you here’? Or did putting your dick in Amanda over the years cause you to lose some of your hearing?” “You always were a smartass. I loved that about you.” “Clearly not enough. Get the fuck out.” He sighed. “Do you know how hard it is to adjust to a new city? How much harder it is when you’re being watched and followed by security guards everywhere you go?” He shook his head. “Are you that threatened by me?” “Get. The. Fuck. Out.” “I’ll leave.” He walked towards me. “But we need to talk first. Sit down.” “I’ll sit down after you leave.” “You can’t give me five seconds?” “I’ve given you more than that already.” I walked over to my door and opened it. “Besides, I don’t speak asshole. I never could master that language.” “You owe me this, Claire. Just please, listen. Out of respect for how you used to feel about me...Out respect for one of our old promises: You never forget your first.” “Unless he knocks up your best friend. People never read the fine print on that one.” “Claire...” “Mr. Hayes.” Greg was suddenly standing next to me. “It would be best if you didn’t utter another word to Miss Gracen. You are not welcome on this property.” Ryan’s eyes dimmed and he shook his head, looking at me as if he was hurt. What the hell is wrong with him?! “You have five seconds to walk out of this door, Mr. Hayes.” Greg narrowed his eyes and Ryan walked out of the office, looking back at me as two other security guards escorted him out. “I’ve notified Mr. Statham about the intrusion.” He sounded disappointed. “Mr. Hayes slipped by our watch today and managed to take a cab here. My sincerest apologies, Miss Gracen. It won’t
happen again. Are you alright?” “I’m fine.” I lied. I hated Ryan with every ounce of my being, but I’d seen that pained look from him twice before, back when we were married: Once, when we were being evicted out of our first apartment because we hadn’t paid the rent in three months. And again when I went into labor with Ashley and Caroline four weeks early. It’s definitely something serious... “Miss Gracen?” Greg snapped me out of my trance. “Yes?” “Mr. Statham asked if he needs to come by now.” He was holding his phone up to his ear. “He wants to know if you want to be taken home early because of this.” I shook my head. “No, tell him I’m okay. I’ll go to his office after my three o’ clock.” He nodded and repeated my message to Jonathan before leaving me alone. Sighing, I walked over to my desk and sank into the chair. I shook my head, hoping that would remove any thoughts of Ryan from my head, but then I spotted a white envelope on my desk. Something that wasn’t there before. I grabbed it and realized that Ryan had probably placed it there before he was escorted out. I knew that I shouldn’t open it, that I should simply shred it and go about my day, but I was curious: Claire, I’ve been sending you photos and letters every day, but last night I realized that you probably haven’t received any of them. So, I thought I would personally drop this one off. I’m not here to cause any trouble in your new life—which seems to be quite wonderful by the way... I moved here six months ago with Amanda and I decided not to tell the girls so I could have the opportunity to talk to you without you shutting down but...It seems as if you’ve already done that. I would like to speak with you over coffee. You can tell me which shop, and I swear I’ll only use a few minutes of your time. (Do you honestly think I would be going through all this trouble if what I had to say wasn’t important? IT IS.) Please call me so we can meet up with each-other. Your first, Ryan PS—You always were beautiful, but you look fucking amazing now :-) PSS—I know a part of you still loves me...
Monday September 1, 2014 Jonathan You can’t help who you fall for... At least that’s what I keep telling myself. I sit down at the end of the boardroom table and try to look like I want to be here. I just got back from having angry sex with Claire and I’m starting to wish I’d stayed with her for the rest of the day —to make sure she sends off those damn invitations. Does it really matter if they’re ivory or white? If they have lace accents or pearl ones? If they have four or five different parts on the inside? I’m beyond restless because she made me stay up all night so I could help her choose between hundreds of envelope styles: “White cream with no border? White cream with a white border? Or ivory and white cream with a slightly shadowed border?” She also spent two hours this morning going over the seals that will be on the back of the envelope—the place where no one fucking looks: “The white seal will give our wedding a more elegant vibe, but the silver one says that it’s going to be an upscale event. Gold is a bit too much I think...But wait, what if we were able to get the seals personalized? Maybe white seals with our initials in silver and gold accents?” She has undoubtedly mastered the art of getting under my skin because I told her that it didn’t matter, and that she better (better...) have those invitations sent off by noon today. But as usual, she has to fulfill her weekly ‘make Jonathan angry’ quota and when I stopped by on her lunch break, she said she was “still deciding what [she] should do about the seals.” “Mr. Statham?” My number one trust advisor—Milton, clears his throat. “Did you hear what I said about my proposal for a new benefits package for all employees?” “Loud and clear.” I smile and he rolls his eyes. Today’s meeting is about spousal benefits for Statham Industries employees, but I know this is a thinly veiled attempt to make me force Claire to sign a pre-nuptial agreement. My board members are nervous because they know that the second I marry her, she’ll automatically be entitled to a twenty six percent share of Statham Industries, which—next to mine is the largest share for any individual person. They don’t trust her because she didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in her mouth, because they think she’ll turn on me once the ink on our marriage papers dries. But I don’t believe that at all. I trust Claire completely. Sure, she tests my nerves like no one has ever tested them before, but she’s real—frustratingly real, and that’s what I love most about her.
Chapter 7 Jonathan “Do you think I won’t fire you because you’re family?” I narrowed my eyes at Hayley and shook my head. She’d been showing up late to meetings, turning in subpar work, and asking my secretary to cover for her almost every day. “I think you won’t fire me because your fiancée won’t let you.” She smiled. “What makes you think Claire has any control over what I do with my company?” “Because she does.” She laughed. “I’m not being lazy, Mr. Statham. I promise. I’m still adjusting to the West Coast and working here...And to be fair, I redid all those reports hours after you marked them up. You’re just being extra hard on me because I’m your sister and you know it.” “Okay.” I shut my folder. “Who’s the guy?” “What guy?” “The guy that turns you into a blubbering idiot at every board meeting. The guy who fed you that bullshit line about me being extra hard on you. I put an eighty thousand dollar bonus clause in your contract just for showing up to work every day. I’m pretty sure that means I’m being the most lenient with you. ” “Did you just call me a blubbering idiot?” “You have forty eight hours to re-do that mess of a presentation you gave this morning. And since you don’t want to tell me who this man is, I’m going to find out and then I’m going to—” “Have a few words with him, i.e. ruin his life. You really have to wonder why I don’t tell you who I’m dating anymore?” “So you are dating someone?” She sighed and stood up. “Is there anything else you need from me today? I have a thirty page presentation to redo per the CEO’s ridiculous request. Word around the office is that he’s an ass.” “He’s also brilliant and extremely sexy.” She rolled her eyes and walked out of my office. I picked up my phone to call Corey so I could get to the bottom of her secret life, but I spotted a strange red envelope on top of my mail stack. I put the phone down and reached for it, noticing that there was no return address—just a simple “To Mr. Statham” written across the front. Is this the Red Ball invite Angela told me about? Did I forget to reserve tickets for me and Claire? I opened the envelope and pulled out the plain white notecard: Mr. Statham, As amused as I am about you feeling “threatened” by my presence in San Francisco, please be advised that I am a lawyer and can press necessary charges against you for the following criminal offenses: Stalking, mail tampering, and being an asshole. Well, that last one isn’t necessarily an offense, but as soon as it becomes one, I’ll be sure to serve you with the proper papers. Since you seem to enjoy hijacking my letters to Claire, I thought I’d send you one of your own so you can feel just as special. Enjoy your day, Ryan Hayes I crumpled his letter into a ball and rolled my eyes as I tossed it into the trash can.
I didn’t feel “threatened” by him at all. Annoyed? Absolutely. Irritated? Definitely. The fact that he was a lawyer didn’t mean shit to me. I had the district attorney’s number on speed dial and a team of high profile lawyers that would make his accomplishments look like a high school student’s. I really hope I get to see this man in person one day...SOON... His pathetic letters to Claire still came like clockwork, although they were a lot shorter now: “Can you join me for just one cup of coffee?” “You can’t give me five minutes? That’s all I’m asking for, Claire...” “I was once your best friend...Remember that.” Before I could call Greg and ask him if there were any new updates, Angela’s voice came over the intercom. “Mr. Statham?” she called. “Yes, Angela?” “Your mother is here. Are you available to speak to her today?” I hesitated. “Sure...” I leaned back in my chair and watched as she stepped into the room with her shoulders slumped. For some reason, she looked sad—an emotion I wasn’t used to seeing from her. “You don’t look too good.” I raised my eyebrow. “What’s wrong with you?” “Besides the fact that my only daughter still won’t acknowledge my existence, and I have to ask my son’s secretary if I have permission to see him every time I show up to his office?” I sighed. “What do you want?” “I um...I was just doing some shopping today at the Farmer ’s Market and I...I was wondering if you wanted to join me for dinner at my place tonight...I’m making your favorite.” “You know what my favorite food is?” “Pasta. Chicken alfredo with extra pepper to be exact.” “I don’t have any memories of you cooking anything when I was younger, so I’m not sure if I’d enjoy it. I appreciate the offer, but Claire and I already have plans for our anniversary. Besides, Thursday is family dinner night.” “Right...Well, that’s...That’s all I came by to ask... Thanks for not turning me away today.” “Wait a minute,” I said before she could turn away. I reached into my desk and sifted through a stack of envelopes. “I spoke to Claire about this and...She wants you to know that she doesn’t harbor any ill feelings about what you did to her last year.” “So, you can officially forgive me for everything now?” “No.” I rolled my eyes and walked around my desk to hand her the envelope. “But I do want you to come to my wedding. It would be nice to have at least one of my birth parents there.” Her eyes lit up and she ran her fingers across the engraved “S” that sat on the edge of the flap. Then she slowly pulled the invitation out and stood still, silently reading it to herself. I expected her to say something negative or ask “how much” we’d spent on the invitations, but she leaned forward and hugged me. Hard. “I’m sorry I was so terrible to you when you were growing up, Jonathan...” She cried. “I really really am...I know it doesn’t mean much to you, but I’m very proud of all you’ve done with your life despite the fucked up start you got...And I’m glad you’re getting married. I’ve never seen you this happy before...” I looked down into her teary eyes, trying not to get sucked into her worn-out apologies. She hugged me one last time and stepped back, pulling a small blue box out of her jacket. “I led a rehab session yesterday and all the women were talking about how much they missed celebrating their kids’ birthdays when they were younger.”
“Stop it.” “No...I know I’ve missed all of your birthdays and important milestones, but...Here.” She pressed the box into my hand and rushed out of my office without looking back. I set the box on my desk and stared at it, unsure of what to do. I was honestly tempted to throw it away and forget that she’d ever stopped by. Yet, as much as I loathed her for things she’d done in the past, I couldn’t deny that she was trying to make things right. I slowly unwrapped the light blue box and hesitated before flipping off the top: A silver Audemar Piguet watch and a small, handwritten note: Jonathan, I’ve been a terrible mother to you throughout your life—even more terrible for what I did to your fiancée last year...I want you to know that I’m fully aware of the mistakes I’ve made and if you ever let me back into your life I won’t make the same mistakes again...In the grand scheme of things, I don’t have much time left to make things right, but I’ll be grateful for any seconds you choose to share with me from this point on... You deserved so much more than what I gave you, Mom Ugh... I felt that soft spot in my heart melting, that spot that wouldn’t let me give up on this woman, no matter how many times she fucked things up. I rushed onto my private elevator and rode it down to the parking lot. I headed over to her car and held the door open before she could shut it. “Would you be opposed to making the pasta at my house tonight?” I sighed. “We can make it together.”
My mom looked around my kitchen, running her fingers against the granite countertops. “You have a very nice home, Jonathan. It suits you well...” “Thank you.” I poured a tall glass of wine and handed it to her. “Are you allowed to drink alcohol yet?” She shook her head. “My mistake.” I set the glass down and walked over to the refrigerator. “Cranberry, orange, or apple?” “Cranberry.” “I’ll have the same then.” I fixed two glasses and sat across from her at the breakfast bar. For the past hour and a half we’d traded recipes and made a huge pot of chicken alfredo. There were only “Oh, I always put extra cheese on the noodles once they’re done boiling,” and “I never use pre-packaged garlic” sentences between us. Nothing personal. Whenever those empty words weren’t being spoken, there was nothing but an awkward silence hanging in the air between us, a silence that revealed we still weren’t comfortable with each other. I took a sip of my juice and decided to give it a try. “How are you liking your new job at the department store? You’re working at Saks Fifth Avenue now, right?” “Oh, no. I quit that after my first day.” She laughed. “What? Why?” “It wasn’t my scene—too many fashion trends to keep up with every week. I work at a salon now. I do make-up and eyebrow waxing.” “You enjoy that?” “A lot.” She smiled. “I know I don’t need the money but I’m really really good at it and I love
seeing the reaction after someone’s been made over...” Her bright smile dimmed. “Claire’s not coming to dinner because I’m here, right?” I looked at my watch. “Actually, she should be home any minute. Her assistant said she was running late. I didn’t get a chance to tell her you were coming.” “Oh...Well, great. Feel free to tell her that my pasta is ten times better than yours when she gets here.” I rolled my eyes and laughed. “Because you use oregano?” “Because it just tastes better and you know it.” I did know it, and I’d written down everything she used so I could copy it for next time. Since Claire still wasn’t home an hour later, I asked my mom to make another batch so I could have it flown to Arizona for Ashley and Caroline. As she and I continued to talk, I realized that for the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed being around her—even if we only discussed the simple things. “Thanks for having me over, Jonathan. This really meant a lot to me.” She stood in front of her car in tears. “I hope this wasn’t the last time...” I stepped forward and hugged her. “It wasn’t. I’ll see you in therapy next week.” She nodded and slipped inside the car, and I waited for her to make it down the long driveway before I went inside. I was putting away the leftover pasta when I happened to look up at the glass clock that hung on the wall. That has to be a mistake...Did we never reset it? I pulled my phone out to double check and realized that our clock was absolutely right. Claire was testing me. Again.
Chapter 8 Claire I pulled into our garage at nine thirty. I had no idea my last consultation would take three hours, and no idea that the second set of flowers that arrived at my office this afternoon had been sent by Ryan. It wasn’t until I was closing that I’d noticed a small pink notecard hanging from the stems and realized that I’d placed his bouquets all over the store with Jonathan’s. Before I left, I’d made sure to toss every last one of his roses into the dumpster and flush his note down the toilet. Still, I couldn’t forget what it read: “Do I have to send you flowers every day like your billionaire fiancée does just to get your attention? You WILL talk to me, Claire...—Ryan.” I shuddered just thinking about him. He literally made my skin crawl. I scrolled through my phone and saw that Jonathan had sent me several texts while I was driving home: ‘Where are you?’ ‘Claire, call me...’ ‘I called your office an hour ago but you weren’t there. Are you okay?’ ‘Why aren’t you answering your phone?’ Today was a Thursday—a family dinner night and our anniversary. He’d been talking about it all week, making love to me every night for hours, and telling me how happy he was that we’d been together so long. I called him. No answer. I texted him ‘Are you at home?’ No answer. I slipped out of the car and looked down the path where he parked his collection, noticing that his Aston Martin was missing. Good... I figured that meant he was gone and I still had time to set up everything. I headed into the house and into the dining room, determined to light a few candles and prepare some champagne for us. But when I hit the light switch nothing happened. I flicked it up and down two more times and there was no effect. Then they suddenly brightened and dimmed. “Good evening, dear.” Jonathan was sitting at the end of the table, smiling. “It’s good to know that you came home at six today like you promised...I was beginning to think you’d forgotten our anniversary.” “You sent me a hundred flowers today. How could I forget?” I looked around the room and noticed that he’d set out champagne and a large tray of strawberries that were drenched in chocolate. There were tall red candles waiting to be lit, and right in front of me—on my side of the table, was a silver box with my name on it. He stood up from his chair and walked over to me, holding me still with his gaze. “You know what I love most about you, Claire?” “There’s only one thing?” “There’s several.” He stepped behind me and kissed the back of my neck, setting my skin on fire. “But the one thing I love most about you, is that you are so sweetly stubborn. You can never stick to what we agree on. I don’t even think you try anymore.”
“Nine thirty is extremely late isn’t it? Can you believe some people actually come home after that? I wonder how they live with themselves...” “You’re the one who suggested six o’ clock.” He pulled out my chair and moved in front of me. “Have a seat.” His voice was firm. “Are you trying to intimidate me, Jonathan? On our anniversary?” “Have a seat, Claire.” I narrowed my eyes and crossed my arms, waiting for him to stop looking at me like he wanted to bend me over. “I’m not intimidated by you right now.” He smiled and pressed his lips against mine. “You should be.” My eyes widened and I sank down into my chair. I watched him light the tall candles that were spread around the room, watched him grab the champagne bottle and glasses and bring them over to me. He kept his eyes on mine as he popped the bottle open and poured each of us a glass. “To the stubborn love of my life.” He leaned against the table and placed a glass in my hand. “Next year we’ll be celebrating our wedding anniversary, but for now, cheers to—” “The first day we said I love you,” I whispered. He kissed my cheek and motioned for me to finish my glass, smiling as he drank every drop. “I made dinner.” He leaned forward and kissed my cheek again. “Would you like to eat now?” “There’s another option?” “There’s always another option.” He reached for my hand and pulled me out of the chair. “But for your sake, I think you should eat first.” “Jonathan... ” I couldn’t read him tonight. There was something going on in his mind—something I desperately wanted to know. I’d told myself to keep it together on my way home, but he’d made me wet as soon as he hit the lights. “Yes, Claire? Were you going to say something?” “Right. I um—I need to change clothes before we eat. I’ll be right back.” “You’re at home. Just take off your rain jacket. You won’t need your clothes for too much longer anyway.” I stepped back. “I just want to get comfortable. It’ll only take me ten seconds.” I tried to walk past him, but he grabbed me by my waist and pulled the jacket off of me, dropping his jaw once it hit the floor. I could literally feel his eyes taking in my scantily clothed body, feel him trying to hold back his shock. He put his hands on my shoulders, looking me up and down. Then he sucked in a breath and narrowed his eyes at me. “Please tell me you took off your real clothes in the garage and no one else saw you wearing this today.” I sighed. I was wearing an all-black lingerie set—a bra that was nearly see-through and lace string panties that had a silk bow on each side. The set also had garters and fishnet stockings that featured a thin, silk seam that traveled up the back of my legs and complemented my shiny red stilettos. “Claire?” He was really trying to control himself. “I need you to answer me. Right now.” “It’s not what you think.” “It better not be.” He looked me up and down again. “Someone did see you in this today?” “Yes, but—” “Who?” “My instructor. I’ve been...I’ve been taking lessons.” “On how to cheat?” “No...Dance classes—erotic dance classes...”
He blinked. “It was Helen’s idea. She said it would help me be more aggressive in telling you what I want...” He was silent for a while, and then his lips curved into a slight smile. “How long have you been taking them?” “Four months...I was going to show you later.” “Show me what?” I blushed. Even though he and I had been intimate—beyond intimate, he still had the power to make me nervous whenever we discussed sex outside of having sex. “You want to dance for me?” He twirled his fingers around my ponytail. “After dinner...I need to change.” “I don’t think so.” He clasped my hand and tugged me into the parlor room. There was a small fire crackling in the fireplace and the lights were dimmed even lower. “Where should I sit?” He looked down at me, grinning. “Are you laughing at me?” “Of course not.” He kissed me. “I’m in awe. Tell me where to sit.” “Over there...” I pointed to the burgundy chair that was in the corner. He walked over to it, still holding my hand. “Am I allowed to touch you while you dance?” I shook my head. “I’m going to anyway.” I let go of his hand and stepped back. “Give me your phone.” He handed it to me and I entered the pass-code, smiling when I saw that he’d changed the wallpaper to another photo of us. I logged into my email and found my performance song, the one the instructor said would work best. I took my time unfastening his tie and placed it around my neck. I slowly undid the buttons of his shirt, moving my head away each time he tried to kiss me. Once I got him out of his shirt, I slid my arms into it, re-buttoning every button, trying to ignore the heated looks he was giving me—the looks that made me want to stop and let him fuck me right now. He sighed and I ran my hands all over his hardened abs—teasing him, pressing my mouth against each pec. “Claire...” He pulled me into his lap, where I could feel his dick hardening in his pants. He cupped my face in his hands and brought my face close to his for a kiss, but I moved back. “You’re not allowed to touch me...” I pressed my finger against his lips and looked into his eyes. “You’re not allowed to talk to me either. All you can do is sit there and watch.” I ran my hand against the huge bulge in his pants. “And when I get done, I might let you fuck me.” He smiled and sat back in his chair with his eyebrow raised, already fucking me with his eyes.
Chapter 9 Jonathan I watched as Claire stepped away from me, as she pulled the band from around her ponytail and tossed her hair back. Within seconds, the song she’d selected began to play and soft, vibrating bass sounds filled the room. She slowly lifted my tie over her head and seductively moved her hips. Then she brought the tie in front of her chest, twisting it between her hands, keeping her eyes locked on mine. She struck the floor with it, biting her lip. “Is it hard for you to let me be in control for a change?” “You’re not in control.” I smiled. She put a hand on her hip and strutted over to me, leaning forward and whispering in my ear. “That question was rhetorical, Jonathan...Do I need to get you a dictionary so you can learn what that word means?” I reached out to bend her over my lap, but she moved behind me and started massaging my shoulders—blowing kisses against my neck as her hands found their way down to my chest. Just as I was starting to get used to her soft rhythm, she moved her hands away and sashayed around me, slowly unbuttoning the white dress shirt. When she reached the last button, she playfully opened the shirt to show off the black ‘fuck-me’ lingerie, then she closed it again. She repeated this at least six times, until she finally slid the shirt off her body and tossed it across the room. As the song reached the second verse, she dropped down to the floor, and stretched her legs up to the ceiling, spreading them into a wide “V.” Then she brought her legs together again and bent them, bringing them close to her chest before she flipped her whole body over. Seductively smiling, she sat up on her knees and ran her hands across her breasts—squeezing them and shutting her eyes. I was trying my hardest not to get up and grab her, desperately trying to keep my hands at my sides as she continued to smirk at me and move across the floor. “Something wrong, Jonathan?” She stood up and dragged one of the bar ’s chairs a few feet across from me. “You’re not usually this quiet...” She sat on the chair with her back facing me and rolled her head around, tossing her hair all over. Then she bent all the way backwards, using her hands to brace the floor, and before I knew it she’d flipped over and was crawling up into my lap. I caressed her hips with my hands, but she grabbed them and moved them away as she started to grind her hips against me—purposely rolling against my dick. “I thought about you today at work...” she whispered into my ear. I was losing it. She was too fucking good at this. She leaned back and spread her legs wider. “I thought to myself—I wonder how he’ll fuck me after I’m done...Will it be with him on top?” She moaned as she gyrated against me even harder. “Against the wall? In his lap?” I’m going to fuck you like you’ve never been fucked before...
She brought her lips close to mine like she was going to kiss me, but she quickly moved away and stood up, walking over to the wall. She pressed her back against it and stretched her arms up high, twisting and turning her hips to the beat, knowing damn well she was getting to me. I leaned forward and reached out for her, but she kicked my hand away. “I’m not finished.” She narrowed her eyes at me and turned around, bending over so her ass was in my face. I can’t take this shit anymore... I stood up and pulled her against me, but she broke free and pushed me back down into my chair. Before I could tell her that this dance was over and push her up against the bar, she bent down between my legs and unzipped my pants. The song was repeating itself for the third time, but she didn’t make a move to change it. She simply unzipped my pants and removed them before pulling something out of her bra—a bottle of some type. She poured whatever it was all over my dick and rubbed her hands all over it, making me shut my eyes and groan. The next thing I felt were her wet lips touching my tip, her soft tongue slowly swirling around. “God, Claire...” I ran my fingers through her hair as she took me deeper and deeper into her mouth, as she brought me to the verge of a climax. Before I could cum, I pulled her up and looked into her eyes, in complete and total fucking awe. Kissing her lips, I picked her up and carried her to the other side of the room. I laid her across the bar and spread her legs apart, tearing her lace panties off. She moaned as I pressed kisses up and down her thighs, as I grabbed her by the ankles and tossed her legs over my shoulders. Before she could take another breath, I gently sucked her clit into my mouth and ran my tongue along her folds, teasing her with every lick. “Ahhh...Ahhh...Jonathannn...” She was squirming, trying to sit up, but I pushed her back down. I kissed her swollen wet lips like I was kissing her mouth—pushing my tongue further and further, rolling it around relentlessly. Each time she screamed, I caressed her clit with softer kisses, never moving my mouth away from her. Her hips started to shake and she started breathing heavily, saying my name as she got closer and closer to her orgasm. I felt her legs trembling—quivering, and I knew she was seconds away from coming so I lifted my head up and stepped back. Smiling, I joined her on top of the bar ’s counter and snapped her bra off. She sat up and looked at me in confusion. “Why...Why did you...Why did you stop?” She panted. I blinked and spun her around, positioning her on all fours. I skimmed my hands against her sides and pulled her hair back. Then I pounded into her with no mercy, listening to the cries of pleasure that were coming from her mouth. “Fuckkkkk....Jonathannnn...” “You are so fucking sexy, Claire...” I kissed the back of her shoulder and I tugged on her hair even harder. “And mine...” I moved my hands to her breasts and squeezed them, harshly twisting her nipples as I pounded into her again and again. She screamed louder and started to slump forward—nearly collapsing, so I drew back and flipped her over. I slid into her again and gazed into her eyes. “I love you...” I felt her tightening around me as she reached up and wrapped her arms around my neck.
“Say it back.” I slowly thrust in and out of her, watching as she started to lose control. “Say it back, Claire.” “I...I love...I love you too...” She cried out and held onto me as we came at the same time. Her chest was heaving fast and she was breathing heavily. I leaned down and pressed my lips against hers, muffling most of her murmurs. I kissed every inch of her face and placed a long, warm kiss against her neck. When her breathing finally slowed down, I slid out of her and pulled her into my lap. “Are you okay?” I brushed her damp hair away from her forehead. She nodded. “You should’ve told me you were taking classes. I wouldn’t have been upset about you coming home late because of that.” “I...I wanted to surprise you...Did you like it?” “I loved it...” I kissed her lips again and positioned her in my lap. “And I’m going to love fucking you in every position you mentioned for the rest of the night.”
I woke up alone and rolled over in bed, reaching for Claire, but she’d disappeared. Just as I was about to get up and look for her, she walked into the room holding a breakfast tray. “Are you ever going to tell me how breakfast is always magically fixed and waiting for us every morning?” She set the tray on the nightstand. “No.” “You have a contract with a caterer don’t you?” She picked up a piece of toast. “That’s why you never cook breakfast—only lunch and dinner...” “Was that supposed to be a question?” “Do you plan on answering it?” I pulled her back into the bed and kissed her lips. “I’ll tell you one day.” She tried to get up, but I pinned her down and kissed my way to her neck. “Wait...We need to talk...” she murmured. “About what?” I continued kissing her. “I’m getting my tubes untied next week. I want to try and have another baby—your baby.” “Excuse me?” I sat up and narrowed my eyes at her. “What did you just say?” She burst into laughter. “I wanted to make sure you were paying attention. It was a joke.” “Please don’t tell another one.” She propped her head on a pillow. “I don’t want to have sex again until after we’re married. I was thinking about it the other day and...” My mind hadn’t processed anything beyond that first sentence. I saw her lips moving, caught a few more of her words—“intimate” “special” “genuine”—but that first sentence had blown my mind. “What do you think?” was the next thing I heard her say. “What do I think about what?” “About being abstinent until we get married.” “It’s not happening.” “Why not?” “Because it doesn’t make any damn sense. Because I didn’t ask you to be my wife so I could not fuck you. It’s. Not. Happening.” She sighed. “I want our first time as a married couple to be special...” “It will be special.” I ran my hand across her thigh. “Very special.”
“I want it to be like our first time...” “I fucked you in a kitchen our first time. What are you saying, Claire?” “You know exactly what I’m saying.” She sat up and kissed me. Then she spoke very slowly. “I don’t want to have sex again until we’re actually married. I think it’ll be good for us—it’ll test our commitment to one another.” I was silent. Shocked. After the amazing night we’d had, I couldn’t believe she was saying these words to me, that she was even asking me to do something like this. I shook my head. “I can’t...” “You can’t or you won’t?” “Both.” “Jonathan...” I pulled her into my arms, close enough that we were lip to lip and our eyes were perfectly aligned. “I’m addicted to you, Claire,” I whispered against her mouth. “Fucking addicted. Not one second goes by that you’re not on my mind. Not. One. Second. When deals are coming across my desk, I’m wondering how your day is going at your shop, wondering if you’ll laugh or smile at the note I sent with your flowers. You have no idea how hard it is for me to stay in my office when you text me about going on your lunch break, no idea how much I have to restrain myself when you’re not home by six and hosting another late night meeting.” She sucked in a breath and I ran my fingers through her hair, whispering again. “I go through withdrawal every time we go our separate ways because being without you for one second is damn near unbearable. So, if I’m being completely fucking honest about what you’re asking me to do—I can’t.” There was a thick silence hanging in the air between us, and before she opened her mouth to break it, I knew exactly what she was going to say. “It would make me happy if you would do this for me—if you would at least try... I’ve been thinking about it for a while and it’s something I really want us to do...” “Claire...” I shook my head and sighed, wishing I could find the asshole who’d filled her head with this nonsense. “If I agree to this, if I fully commit to this absolutely ridiculous idea, I want you to know that I will not give in until after we’re married.” “I’m so very honored.” “No matter how much you beg—and you will beg because I know you better than you know yourself, I will not have sex with you until after we’ve said I do.” “Thank you very much.” She smiled and kissed me, and I had to prevent myself from pulling her into my lap. “Since we’re going to have a pretty boring afternoon...” I picked a silver box up from the nightstand and handed it to her. “You didn’t get a chance to open your anniversary present yesterday.” “You didn’t get the rest of yours either.” She pointed to a strange white patch on her left foot. “Peel this off.” I raised my eyebrow and slowly peeled back two layers of gauze and tape. There was nothing underneath it, nothing but—I stopped. “I had my freedom date tattoo removed. I’ve been getting pieces of it etched away for months...” she whispered. “I don’t want any part of my past in our future...” I looked at her bare foot, running my fingers against where her divorce date used to be. Then I looked into her eyes, not saying anything—hoping she could simply see how much that meant to me. Sighing, I pulled her closer. “Open the box.”
She smiled and gently pulled at the silver ribbon, purposely taking her time. Then she popped the top off and read the small handwritten note aloud: “I loved you the first time I saw you, I loved you the first time I met you, and I’ll love you for the rest of my life—Jonathan...” She ran her finger against those words a few more times, and gasped as she pulled the sparkling silver necklace out of the box. I’d thought long and hard about what to get her for our first anniversary since we’d come so far from where we used to be: She no longer questioned our age difference or had any hesitation about other people knowing she was mine. In fact, she was the happiest I’d ever seen her and she talked about our “forever” more than I did. “How much did you pay for this?” she whispered. “It doesn’t matter. You’re more than worth it.” I took the necklace from her hands—a glittering diamond strand with an infiniti charm and the word “love” etched within its loops. “I’m adding the same charm to your other necklace next week. I want to add a new one to it every year.” She smiled, and then she shook her head. “I never said it back that day, Jonathan...Why is this our anniversary when I never said it back?” “What are you talking about?” “The first day you told me that you loved me last year—when we were in the Jacuzzi together, I never said ‘I love you’ back...I didn’t tell you until months later at that conference...” I sighed and pulled her close. “You said it in your sleep that night. More than once...You say it in your sleep now...” She blushed. “Where are your friends taking you for your bachelorette party? Is there a reason I didn’t get an invite?” “Because you’re not invited.” She laughed. “They haven’t told me where, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to Vegas. Helen keeps talking about getting lucky. Where’s yours?” “Vegas.” “That doesn’t mean you’ll be seeing me while you’re there.” “I’m pretty sure it does.” I smiled. “How long will you be gone?” “A week. I have to meet them at the airport tonight.” “You’re flying on a commercial plane? With other passengers that you don’t know?” She nodded. “Interesting.” I pushed her down onto the bed. “Well, since we can’t have sex anymore, there’s one thing I need to do to you before you leave...”
Chapter 10 Claire I was sitting in the back of the town car, smiling and running my fingers across my newest necklace. All I could think about was last night—the way Jonathan looked at me while I was dancing, the way he kissed me once I was finished. “Is there a reason you’ve been holding that smile for half an hour?” Helen raised her eyebrow. “What smile?” “The ‘I’ve been thoroughly-well-fucked’ smile.” She rolled her eyes. “I know it all too well. And are those fucking hickeys?” She leaned over and touched the bright red marks on my neck. “Hickeys?” “That asshole marked you on purpose didn’t he? Because you’re going away for a week and he wants every man to know you’re unavailable, right? He’s so ridiculous!” I laughed and looked out the window as we approached the airstrip—reading the huge pink banner that was draped across the entryway of the plane: “Claire’s Last Weekend of Freedom” Helen told me that she’d originally bought first class tickets for the flight, but Jonathan had called her hours ago and insisted that we use his jet. “Do you have your passport, Claire?” Helen looked at me as Greg opened the backdoor. “Why would I need my passport?” “Because we’re going out of the country and you need a passport to get in and out of the states. Please tell me you have it.” “Out of the country? I thought we were going to Vegas.” “Vegas? Seriously, Claire? I went there last year—been there, done that. We’re going to Costa Rica!” “What?!” “Why do you think I’ve been making such a huge deal about this? I want you to experience ultimate bliss. Let’s go.” She tugged me towards the plane. “But I told Jonathan we were going to Vegas.” “You’re not supposed to tell Jonathan anything. This is a bachelorette party, Claire. Whatever happens in Costa Rica, stays in Costa Rica—unless he has an American VISA and I want to bring him back for a week or two.” She winked and gestured for me to get on the plane. I stepped aboard and took a deep breath, squeezing my way past two carts of alcohol. On the very first seat was a huge bouquet of white lilies and a card: Dear Future Wife & Exotic Dancer, I’m not thrilled about the next few weeks of torture, but I do hope that you enjoy your bachelorette party. (Just not too much.) I’ll be in the penthouse suite at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas this week if you need anything. Your Future Husband & Awed Fan, Jonathan PS—I love you. I smiled and noticed that there was something else in the envelope—a small packet with four red pills and another note: “To help you sleep on the way there and back—Jonathan”
“Welcome aboard, ladies!” I heard Helen say as high pitched laughter filled the cabin. I turned around and found myself face to face with Helen’s other set of best friends—Kimberly and Bobbie Jo. They looked like they’d stepped right out of a magazine—perfect makeup and hair as usual, which was fitting since they were both former supermodels. She’d met the two of them years before she met me, and she always bragged about how she helped them to sue Maybelline for millions of dollars. I still remembered the first time I’d met them, the time they dared me to do a body shot with a complete stranger and encouraged me to “gently brush up against his dick...just to see if it’s as big as it looks...” They’d claimed that that was step one to getting over Ryan, step one in showing him who was better off. I can’t be left alone with the three of them for A WEEK...Where the hell is Sandra?! “Nice seeing you again, ladies. I’ll be right back.” I smiled and slipped away to the restroom. I immediately pulled out my phone and called Sandra. It rang six times before she picked up. “Hello?” She was whispering. “Are you on your way to the airstrip? The flight leaves in thirty minutes.” “Ohhhh, no. I am so sorry, Claire...” “You’re not coming to my bachelorette party? Are you serious?” “It wasn’t intentional. I was packed and ready to go this morning but...I’m engaged now!” She squealed. “Michael popped the question and he’s taking me to France tomorrow! Can you believe that?” There was a man’s voice in the background. “Wait, wait. It’s Claire. Give me ten more seconds.” “Ten more seconds?” “I really am sorry, Claire. I’ll make this up to you, I promise. I’ll take you out for drinks and a night on the town the second I get back.” “You can’t leave me with Helen and her friends...It’s one or the other—I can’t deal with all of them.” “They’re your friends too, Claire.” She was rolling her eyes—I could tell. “Maybe hanging out with them more often will stop you from being so uptight.” “You think I’m uptight?” The line went dead. Ugh...I shook my head and the door opened. “Phone sex?” Bobbie Jo stepped inside and flipped her long, honey colored tresses over her shoulder. “Is that what you’re doing?” “The door was closed, Bobbie Jo.” She shrugged. “I used to have phone sex all the time—back when I was doing shows overseas and no one around me spoke any English. I would call home just so I could get fucked over the phone.” “I wasn’t having phone sex. I was talking to Sandra.” “No need to explain. If I was engaged to Jonathan Statham, I would have sex with him any way I could—any time I could. I bet he fucks like a champion.” Oh, god... “Claire? Bobbie Jo?!” Helen called out from the cabin. “We’re about to take the first shots of the night!” I stood up and followed Bobbie Jo out of the restroom, silently reminding myself that this trip was only a week and that even though they were all wild, I wouldn’t let them talk me into doing anything that would make Jonathan upset.
“Here you go, Claire.” Kim handed me two shot glasses. “You look a lot happier since I saw you last year. You’re glowing.” “Thank you.” “If I was having sex with a billionaire every day I’d probably be glowing too...” Helen picked up a bottle of vodka and filled our glasses. “Speaking of which, is his friend Corey single?” I rolled my eyes and tossed back both shots. I had the sudden feeling I was going to need to be drunk all weekend. Helen quickly refilled my glasses before holding her own drinks up high. “To men with huge dicks, never-ending sex, and to Claire’s last days as a single woman!” We all laughed and tossed back the drinks seconds before the flight attendant asked us to take our seats. I sat down and sent Jonathan one last text—“Going to Costa Rica for the week, Love you,” and swallowed two of the pills he’d given me. Before I knew it, I was staring at the back of my eyelids.
“How do you pronounce the name of this place again?” Kim sighed. “Peninsula Papagayo.” Bobbie Jo enunciated each syllable. “The Gayo rhymes with I-yo.” “I’ll just keep saying Costa Rica...” I rolled over on my beach blanket and looked off into the distance. Peninsula Papagayo was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever explored: The waters that surrounded its coast were as blue as its sky, the lush greenery that stood behind the resort stretched for miles and miles, and pure, white sand covered all of its beaches. We’d only been here for three days, but it’d been way more relaxed and laid-back than I thought it would be. When we’d first arrived and checked into our private estate—an opulent six bedroom, four bathroom villa that sat right on the waters, Helen had given me a travel brochure and told me to choose whatever I wanted to do. I was shocked that she’d even asked for my suggestions, but per my request we’d gone sailing, bungee jumping, and taken a five mile hike on a wildlife trail. In between snorkeling, kayaking, and sight-seeing, we’d relaxed on the beach and downed countless umbrella drinks to pass the time; I honestly hoped the rest of the week would be the same. Bobbie Jo tapped my shoulder. “Are you relaxed enough to finally have some fun now? Or do we need to do another recreational activity? More tropical bird watching perhaps?” “It was a wildlife hike. Those birds were beautiful.” “They were also boring!” She rolled her eyes. “We’re going out every night for the rest of the week because I refuse to do anymore touristy-bullshit. Starting tonight, you’re going to dress like you’re single, dance like you’re single, and since you aren’t married yet—you’re going to act like you’re single.” “Agreed.” Kim stood up and covered me with her shadow. “No more lame outdoor shit, no more beach-napping, and no more late night calls to Jonathan.” “I haven’t called Jonathan...” They both crossed their arms and gave me blank stares. “I only call him once a day.” “He’s in Vegas right now!” Kim practically screamed. “Vegas! He’s enjoying himself to the max and you should be too!” “I am having fun...” The two of them pulled me up and walked me towards the shoreline, slipping their arms around
me like they were holding me up. Then they pushed me into an oncoming wave. “We’re going to keep doing that until you wake up and realize where the fuck you are.” Kim laughed. “No more calling Jonathan. Okay? Helen has been planning this trip for weeks and she really wants you to have a good, sexy time. That’s why she went back to the room for the afternoon—she’s planning what we’re going to do tonight.” “She went back to the room with a half-naked bartender...” They both burst into laughter and joined me in the water. “Okay, so maybe she got bored from doing outdoor activities for three days straight.” Bobbie Jo shrugged. “But tonight, all of that changes. Got it?”
Later that night, Helen slipped into a sundress and smiled. “I am now an official member of the thoroughly well-fucked club! Today’s romp goes down in my top ten fucks of all time.” “I thought you didn’t keep count.” “I don’t keep count. I do rank though.” She laughed and handed me a huge strawberry margarita. “Are you ready to finally start your bachelorette party?” “It’s not going to be anything crazy, right?” “Of course it is.” She rolled her eyes. “Hurry up and drink that so I can get you to the first surprise.” “Wait...Are Bobbie Jo and Kim coming with us? Why did they ditch me after the beach?” “Drink the damn drink, Claire.” I sighed and downed the drink in three huge gulps—wincing at the incredible amount of alcohol that was mixed in. “Okay now, here...” She pulled me up and secured a blindfold around my eyes. “Step forward...Watch your step...Step up a little bit...Okay now keep moving forward...” I didn’t know where the hell she was taking me, but half an hour later she was still leading me around. “Thank you sir,” she said to someone as she pushed me forward. A cool blast of air hit my face and I could feel the smooth floors of an indoor building. I kept following her directions until she suddenly grabbed my shoulders and held me still. Clearing her throat, she removed my blindfold and I realized I was standing in the middle of a massive spa and salon. There was no one else around except Bobbie Jo and Kim, and they were standing on the other side of the room, waving at me. “Before we can get the real party started, Kim and Bobbie Jo are going to give you a much needed makeover.” “What? I don’t want a makeover.” I waved my ring in front of her face. “And I clearly don’t need one.” “Sweet, naïve, and foolish Claire...” She shook her head. “You’re making married woman mistake number one and you’re not even married yet. No man wants to come home to the same woman month after month. You have to switch it up every now and then. Keep him interested, make him remember why you’re the—yeah...Feel free to fill in all the shit I don’t believe in right there.” She laughed. “I personally love your style and your hair, but you’ve been wearing it the same way for four and half years so it’s time for a change. Besides, I highly doubt two supermodels will screw you over.” “Are you going to stick around and watch?” I noticed her stepping backwards. “Claire, there’s a vaginal steaming spa right down the hall. The treatment is supposed to tighten my walls and make sex ten times more pleasurable. Where do you think I’m going to be?” “You’re a terrible friend.”
“I love you too.” She walked me over to Kim and Bobbie Jo. “Please don’t scare Claire too much. She’s practically innocent.” They laughed and shooed her away. “Sit down here.” Bobbie Jo helped me into a salon chair. “You have very good symmetry, Claire. I’m not sure if I ever told you that before.” “Thank you very much.” “No, no, no. I was talking about you, not to you. This is business.” She grabbed a tweezer and plucked one of my eyebrows. “Look at this, Kim. These brows aren’t in line with her natural shape. We need to fix that now so they’ll be shaped perfectly when she gets married.” “You’re right...What about her hair? I’m not really feeling this color.” I cleared my throat. “No. I like my red hair.” Kim raised her hand and gave me a look. “We know beauty, Claire. We’ve worked with the best, dated the best, and we’ve fucked the best. We know exactly what we’re doing.” “The red can stay, but it needs more volume—way more volume.” Bobbie Jo looked at me like I was an impossible project. “I’m thinking auburn highlights and a blowout.” “And a deep mask facial...” “And a mud bath...” “And a major exfoliating process... ” The two of them kept listing treatment after treatment, talking about me as if I wasn’t sitting right in front of them. A waiter appeared out of nowhere and held out a tray of champagne glasses. I took two and sipped them as fast as I could. “Claire?” Bobbie Jo tapped her chin. “We’re trying to figure out what color we should paint your lips...Tell me something, after you get done giving Jonathan head do you spit or swallow?” I spluttered my champagne into the air. “Excuse me?” “She swallows.” Kim laughed and helped me stand up. “Good for you, Claire! Spitters are quitters!” Jesus... Bobbie Jo tossed her head back and laughed. “Sinful red for you it is!” They led me over to the shampoo bowl and for the next hour, I lay back and let them do at least ten different protein treatments. When they were done, they took turns brushing soft, autumn colored highlights into my hair, promising me that Jonathan “would fuck [me] on the spot” once he saw the ‘new and improved’ me. I’d given up on protesting any of their suggestions; I’d accepted their “We know what we’re doing” and “You’re dealing with the best” mantras. Even when they insisted that I let them place some type of sea-food inspired gunk on my face, I didn’t bother telling them that I hated seafood. I just held my breath and got it over with. “Okay, now relax...” Kim pulled a steaming hot blow dryer through my hair. “This is the most important part. This is where we make you look fuckable.” As she teased, combed, and curled my hair, Bobbie Jo hummed and applied makeup to my face, demanding that I purse my lips every few seconds. I suddenly felt my phone vibrating and pulled it out of my pocket. I was hoping it was Jonathan, but it was a number I didn’t recognize. A text. “Heard you’re on vacation in Costa Rica—must be nice...We need to speak as soon as you get back. I’m not taking no for an answer so be ready to TALK—Ryan.” “Is it Jonathan?” Kim sighed.
“Um, no.” I deleted the message. “It’s not Jonathan. Just someone with the wrong number.” I shut my eyes and sat still as they continued to work, trying not to think about Ryan and whatever the hell he wanted to talk about. How did he get my new number? “Okay, we’re all done.” Kim sounded happy. “Now it’s time to help you into the right dress.” She put the blindfold over my eyes again and led me into another room. For what felt like another hour, she and Bobbie Jo literally dressed and undressed me until they finally agreed on what I should wear. “Turn around, sexy.” Bobbie Jo took off my blindfold and spun me around. “What do you think?” Wow... I didn’t recognize myself. My hair was now a much deeper and shinier red—with hints of dark blond and hazel brown, and it was styled into an up-do of loose and wavy curls—a style I was considering for the wedding. My eyes veered down towards the thin white dress they’d picked and I felt naked, exposed—like there was no point in me wearing a dress at all. Bobbie Jo raised her eyebrow. “Something wrong with the dress?” “No, it’s just...It’s a bit...” “A bit what?” I shook my head at the hemline that barely grazed my thigh, at the crisscrossed fabric in the front that exposed the skin underneath my breasts. “Slutty.” “It is not slutty!” Kim scoffed. “This is HOT! All the men are going to be looking at you tonight!” “I’m getting married.” “But you don’t have to look married.” Bobbie Jo rolled her eyes. “This is a night you’re going to look back on and cherish years from now, and we’re going to make damn sure that you never forget it...”
Chapter 11 Claire I leaned on Kim’s shoulder as we left the third club of the night. My feet were completely numb from dancing so much, and my throat was aching from the amount of alcohol they’d forced me to drink. We hadn’t been on “the list” for any of the clubs we’d been to, but Bobbie Jo and Kim had turned on their charm—i.e. rubbed their breasts against the bouncers and flirted with the security guards, so that we could skip everyone and get in for free. “Is this the last club, Helen?” I slurred, noticing that we were stopping in front of an all-black building where there was no line. “I’m...I’m not sure if I can...If I can take any more tonight...” She rolled her eyes. “Yes this is the last club. Well, it’s not really a club. It’s...” She put her hands on my shoulders to steady me. “This is what I’ve been putting together ever since you told me you were engaged. I honestly hate to lose any friend to the married life, but since you want to go that route, I kept that sentiment in mind while I was planning every moment of this...” Why is she acting like this is the greatest shit she’s ever accomplished? “This is how I want your single life to come to an end.” She pretended to wipe a tear from her eye. “So, please do me a favor and try to let yourself go for the rest of the night. No judging, no worries, nothing. Can you please promise me that?” I nodded. “Say it like you mean it, Claire.” “I promise.” “Great!” She opened the door and ushered us all inside. We walked through two dimly lit hallways, where I could hear the thumping bass of music coming from another room. The air was getting thicker and thicker with each step I took and I was starting to sweat. As we rounded a corner, a buff body guard stood up and crossed his arms—blocking the silver door that was behind him. “Name,” he said flatly. “Claire Statham.” The three of them said in unison. He looked all of us over, as if he were questioning why we were there, and then he opened the door. “Have a nice night ladies.” I felt myself being pushed inside the room, and once my eyes realized what the hell they were seeing, my jaw hit the floor. Jonathan is going to kill me... The room was massive. I couldn’t make out where the “walls” were because there was red smoke seeping from the floors and the ceilings. However, I could clearly see half naked men everywhere. And by ‘half naked,’ I meant that they were only wearing tight white briefs and a smile. And since they were sweating, I could see everything. There was a huge black stage on the far end of the room where a few male and female dancers were writhing against one another as if they were having sex. There were even people standing right below the stage, tossing dollar bills and panties at them.
The bar that was on my right was made of all glass and it extended all the way across the room to a wall I couldn’t see. The words “Cum Shots” were flashing in neon red letters behind it, and a long line of bartenders was frantically mixing drinks. I was about to ask where the hell we were, but a man who was built like a Greek god stepped in front of me and handed each of us a small velvet bag. “Welcome to Club Sin, ladies.” He smiled and Bobbie Jo reached out and cupped his dick. “He’s not stuffing.” She winked at me. “No one here is.” He smiled even wider. “Follow me to your table. You have a reserved space in VIP.” I shook my head and turned away to leave, but they pushed me forward and made me follow him across the room and up a flight of steps. Our table was directly above the dance floor and right in front of the stage. The Greek god took a pen out of—somewhere, and waited for us to take our seats. “It should feel a little cooler up here than downstairs,” he said. “But if you get too hot, there’s a cooling station behind that door.” He pointed to a sign below that read ‘Cool after You Cum.’ “What type of drinks can I start you ladies off with tonight?” “I’ll have a water.” I said. “In a bottle...” “Ignore her.” Kim covered my mouth. “We’ll all have cum shots to start.” “And a round of Sex on the Beach.” Helen looked him up and down. “With two bottles of your best vodka and a pitcher of orange juice to share.” He wrote it all down and turned to walk away, but not before Bobbie Jo slapped his ass, laughing. “I am so bringing someone back to the suite tonight.” I shook my head and opened the velvet bag he’d given us at the door: Condoms, Blow-pops that read “For your blowing pleasure,” a mini vibrator, handcuffs, a blindfold, and lube. Lots and lots of lube. What the fuck?! I dropped the bag under the table and squinted at the scene that was playing below me on the dance floor. One of the half-naked men was giving a woman one hell of a lap dance and it looked like she was enjoying it a little too much. She was grabbing onto his back and panting, crying out like he was actually— OH.MY. GOD! I stood up. “I can’t be here, Helen! What the fuck is this place?” “Club Sin. Did you not hear the man say that when we got here? Just relax, Claire. Every person in this place knows you’re about to be Mrs. Statham and that you’re off limits. Your lap-dance will be a lot tamer.” “I don’t want a lap-dance.” She rolled her eyes as our drinks were placed on the table. “Ladies and gentlemen.” A deep voice came over the speakers—drowning out the high frenzied techno music. “The dance floor will shut down in two hours for our scheduled ‘All Eyes’ performance. Please take advantage of it before we close off that section.” “Okay wait!” Kim slid all four cum shots towards me. “I think you need to toss back all of these for yourself. We need you good and drunk way before the show starts.” “What type of show is it?” “It’s a scene show. They show off different sex positions and I really need some new ones to add to my sex bucket list.” “Your fuck-et list.” Bobbie Jo corrected. “Toss back the drinks so we can dance, Claire. Now.” I sighed and tossed back the first one to loud cheers, wincing at how bitter it was.
“Two! Three! Four!” They clapped and thrust another drink into my hand as soon as I finished the last cum shot. I took a few sips and before I knew it, I was being pulled onto the dance floor. The room was spinning and everything was blurring together—so much so that I wasn’t sure if what my eyes were showing me was true: A half-naked police officer was rubbing against me, swaying my hips to the beat as I struggled to keep my balance. Helen was grinding against two men at the same time, and Bobbie Jo and Kim were sandwiching another Greek god, rubbing him all over. Out the corner of my eye I saw people lining up at a different type of bar. There were no alcohol bottles or glasses hanging behind its wall: There were chains, ropes, whips, and lots of metal things I didn’t recognize. I watched a couple buy a long silver chain, and raised my eyebrow as they were led out of the room and through the smoke by a bouncer—to somewhere I was sure I didn’t want to know about. Dizzy and confused, I slowly freed myself from the stranger ’s sweaty embrace and headed back to our section in VIP. I looked at my phone and realized I had a text. Jonathan: “Your new makeover is so fucking sexy. Can’t wait to see it in person. Call me as soon as you get back to your room.” I was too dazed and disoriented to even think about talking to him tonight. I didn’t want to slip up and tell him anything about this club. Ever. “Are you alright, Claire?” Kim put her hand on my forehead. “I saw you dancing with that cop. I’m proud of you! You’re learning!” She sat down and handed me a bottle of water. “Helen wasn’t lying to me, right? This really is the last club?” “Yeah...It may be just you and I walking back though.” She pointed to the corner where Bobbie Jo currently had her hand down a fireman’s briefs and Helen was grinding against a different set of men. I shook my head and took slow sips of water, savoring every cold drop. Just as I was finally cooling down, a butt-naked sheriff took the bottle out of my hand and positioned himself over my lap. “Oh my god—no...NO....NO...” I slurred. “Why is your dick out?! I don’t...I don’t want—Could you at least put your briefs on?!” “Don’t worry.” He smiled. “Your friends told me to be extra gentle.” “What?!” I shut my eyes as he “danced” against me. He was grunting and using my shoulders to brace himself, saying, “I bet your fiancée doesn’t give it to you like this.” When I finally opened my eyes again, he was gone and everyone was back in the VIP booth. The lights in the club were dimming, and the words “scene show” were flashing in white lights across the stage. “I think I’ve had enough for one night.” I stood up. “This has been really fun, but I think I should head back.” Helen pulled me back down. “Sit still, Claire. We have four more hours left and we’re using every last second! Besides, the DJ just announced that the dance troupe is going to twerk before the show even starts.” “Twerk? Do I even want to know what that means?” Bobbie Jo stood up and bent over slightly, placing her ass in my face. Then she braced the floor with her hands and proceeded to bounce her ass up and down, moving closer and closer to me. “Smack itttt...” She danced a few more seconds before laughing and standing upright. “Now, imagine men doing that with hard dicks and tight briefs and ahhhh...Heaven...” “Sounds thrilling.” I rolled my eyes and poured myself a large glass of vodka. No orange juice. I tossed it back and clenched my jaw as the burning sensations rolled down my throat. As I was pouring myself another one, a group of men took the stage in black briefs—briefs that perfectly highlighted their huge dicks, and they began to dance to a loud techno beat.
They were in sync with one another, bending over just like Bobbie Jo had done. But instead of shaking their asses, they were shaking their dicks—making them touch the floor with every lowered move. They rubbed their hands all over their sweaty and chiseled chests, winking at the various women in the crowd. And then one by one they began to “twerk” solo, and slowly removed their briefs. “Oh. My. God...” We all said in unison. I was sure my mouth was hanging wide open at the sheer perfection of their bodies—at the delectable sweat, at the hugeness, at the— I shook those thoughts away and tapped Helen’s shoulder. “Do we really need to stay for the sex show?” “Of course we do, we’re—Oh, god!” She looked at her watch. “You haven’t gotten your massage yet. You need to get it before the parlor closes. That was included in the package.” She waved over to the bar. “A massage? Seriously, Helen? Are you not aware what the phrase ‘I’m-getting-married’ means? It means that I can’t act like you. And who the hell picked this club?” “Do you hear something, Bobbie Jo?” She ignored me. “How about you, Kim? I could’ve sworn we all discussed someone letting herself go before we stepped through that door tonight.” Bobbie Jo shook her head. “Nope, I don’t hear anything. But do you see that man at the edge of the stage?” She licked her lips. “God, I would love to lick his nipple piercing...and his chest...and his...everything.” Kim and Helen shot her blank stares. “Anyway...” I sighed. “Jonathan wouldn’t like me being touched by another man—especially not a half-naked one—professional massage or not...” “Claire...” Helen rolled her eyes. “I would never, ever suggest anything that would make your crazy, jealous, and overbearing fiancée upset with you. All you’ve done tonight is dance, drink to excess, and experience the lamest lap-dance in the world.” “He was naked.” “He barely touched you. And you know something else?” “Good evening, ladies.” A perfectly sun tanned god stepped into our booth. “Who’s getting the massage tonight?” I couldn’t find any words to say. He was utter perfection—even more attractive than the men we’d seen on stage. Helen eye fucked him for a few seconds before looking at me again. “As perfect as this man is...I specifically made it clear that A) Your masseuse must be gay. And B) It must be a steam massage, so once again, he’ll barely touch you. Trust me, he doesn’t want you. At All...And it’s a damn shame.” I blinked and looked up at Mr. Perfection again. “I have a boyfriend.” He shrugged and reached for my hand. “I won’t hurt you. Besides, it’s only fifteen minutes.” I tossed back another shot and reluctantly took his hand. He introduced himself to me as Sean and led me down two dark hallways, into a room that scared the living shit out of me: There were whips and chains hanging from the ceiling, slow burning red candles that nearly covered the entire floor, and countless metal contraptions that jutted out from the walls. I looked around for the massage table and spotted it in the corner. “This is the best room available for a massage?” I asked. “Is there a problem?”
“No, just...People actually come here to do this stuff?” I tugged on a pair of handcuffs that hung from the wall. “This is a sex club?” “You’re just now figuring that out?” He led me over to the table. “But to answer your question, yes. My ex used to get a real kick out of this. He loved it.” “Pain?” “Don’t be closed minded.” He sounded offended. “It’s the thin line between pleasure and pain that turns people on. Look, come here.” He pulled my arms up over my head and secured a rope around them. “I’ll show you a few things that you can take back home to your fiancée. Does this hurt?” “No.” He tightened the rope and the bristles started to rub into my skin. “How about now?” “Yes.” “Okay, good.” “Good?” He nodded and took a few steps back. “So, right now your arms are suspended in the air and you don’t have full control of yourself. You’re submitting that remaining power to your significant other.” “I’m sure he would love that...” I mumbled. “Hmmm...How about adding this too?” He hoisted my body up from the floor by a few inches. Then he spread my legs wide and clamped each of my ankles to heavy weights. “How do you feel now?” “I drank a whole lot of alcohol tonight...I’m honestly not sure if this is really happening or not...” He laughed and walked over to a table, unwrapping a black box. “We sell pleasure kits at the gift shop upstairs, but seeing as though you’re almost Mrs. Statham, I’ll make sure you get a bunch of them for free.” He brought the box over to me and showed me a state of the art vibrator with several smaller pleasure toys. “Do you think you’d be willing to try some of the more daring things at home?” Sean shut the box and gestured to the other things in the room. “Are my eyes red? Do they look puffy to you?” He smiled and pinched my cheek. “I think you’ll warm up to it one day. I’ll go get the steamer and some bottled water from next door. I’ll untie you the second I get back. Hopefully ten more seconds like this will convince you to try it, right?” I laughed at his enthusiasm and shook my head as he walked away. I looked around the room again, wondering why I’d ever doubted Helen when she promised an “over the top” party. She’d truly outdone herself and the week wasn’t even over. I tried to move my legs and get down, but it was no use. It’d only been a few seconds, but it felt like they were falling asleep. With the amount of alcohol that was coursing through my veins, I knew I was about to pass out if I didn’t get down soon. I’m going to have one hell of a hangover tomorrow... My eyes were struggling to stay open and the heat from the candles was making me sweat. I wished he’d at least tied me up closer to the door—or at least let me face it, so I could be closer to the air vents. “Sean!” I called out. I heard the door opening and I sighed, relieved. “Look, Sean. You don’t need to give me a massage. Just cut me down from this and I’ll lie and say everything was great. I’m starting to feel a bit —” “Is this the type of shit that turns you on, Claire?” The sound of Jonathan’s voice made my heart race ten times faster.
“Jonathan?!” I felt him kissing the back of my neck. “What the hell are you doing here?” He pressed another kiss against my skin, ignoring my question. He ran his hands up and down my sides and I could sense him smiling. “So, there was some truth in what you told our therapist about our intimacy problems? You aren’t satisfied with our regular sex?” “Traditional sex.” I fired back and heard him laugh. “I’m learning so many new things about you lately, Future Wife...First, you take exotic classes after work, and now you’re into bondage...Are there any more secrets you want to tell me about before we tie the knot? Do you strip for extra money on the weekends?” I rolled my eyes. “Could you hurry up and untie me please?” “Untie you? Why would I do that?” He planted kisses down the exposed groove of my back. Then he secured the ropes even tighter around my wrists. “What are you doing?!” He stepped around to face me. “Were you about to let that man touch you?” “You’re really not going to untie me?” “It looks like you were about to let him touch what’s mine...” He stepped forward and kissed my lips, slipping his hands underneath the fabric of my dress. “Is this how you normally dress behind my back? This dress shows everything...You might as well be naked...” “Untie me. Right now, Jonathan.” “I don’t think so.” He kissed me again, whispering, “I don’t know who you are anymore, Claire...” I let out a sigh, but I didn’t get a chance to say anything further because he clamped my lips shut with his fingers. Glaring at me, he wrapped his other arm around my waist. “I don’t give a damn if he is gay. No other man massages you. Ever. Are we clear?” I nodded. “Say it.” “We’re clear.” He stared at me a few more seconds before letting me go. He walked over to the table and grabbed the box Sean had opened. Then he set it behind me and muttered something to himself I couldn’t hear. I tried to turn around and see what he was doing, but it was no use. I couldn’t move my legs, and the bristles from the rope were really starting to hurt. I suddenly felt him pressing kisses against the back of my shoulders, reaching around me and squeezing my breasts. “Have you enjoyed being abstinent this week?” He sounded amused. “It’s been the best week of my life.” “Is that so?” “Yes. It’s been so much fun that I don’t think I want to have sex ever again.” He let out a low laugh and gently pulled my head back with my hair—until I was looking up at him. “I think the last few nights have been the worst nights of your life...” I didn’t say anything. I kept the slight smirk on my face and looked into his eyes. “I think you’ve tossed and turned in your sleep—wishing I was here, so I could help relieve that longing ache between your thighs.” He lowered his voice. “And I know you’ve woken up every morning, reaching for me...” He pulled my hair a little more and pressed his lips against mine for an upside down kiss. “Because I’ve reached for you...” My heart fluttered and I lifted my head forward. “Please untie me...” He didn’t answer so I repeated myself. Nothing.
”Jonathan?” I called his name again and tried to tilt my head back, but I felt him pressing a buzzing vibrator against me. “Did you pack one of these in your suitcase?” he whispered into my ear. Yes...“No.” “Are you sure?” He held me steady with his other hand. “The infamous purple one was missing from your closet the other day...” “Were you planning to use it on yourself while I was gone? Patiently awaiting the opportunity?” He trailed the vibrator around to my stomach and pulled me back against him, letting me feel his hardened dick against my skin. “I thought we agreed on no self-pleasure either...” He softly bit my shoulder. “You’re cheating on me with a vibrator?” My voice caught in my throat as he trailed his other hand against my sides and up to my bound wrists. He started to rub his palm against the rope, chafing my skin. “Jonathan...That hurts...” He continued rubbing against it, forcing the bristles to slowly tear into my flesh, and he suddenly stopped. I heard a clanking noise above me—the harsh sound of metal grinding against metal. Then I felt my body slowly tilting to my right—turning and turning until I was upside down with my entangled fingertips grazing the floor. I looked up and saw Jonathan standing in between my legs, and I swallowed. “What are you doing?” He snatched my panties off and slipped his tongue in between my legs, making me cry out. Ignoring my moans, he held a strange bottle over me and squeezed it—letting the warm liquid drizzle all over me. I shut my eyes as blood rushed to my head, as he dipped his head low again and teasingly slid his tongue into me. I started to relax as he established a torturous rhythm: probing his tongue in and out of me, swirling it against my clit, French kissing my lips... I felt my insides quivering, begging for more, but he stopped. I looked up at him in confusion—longing for him to continue, but he laughed and grabbed something off the table. Before I could say anything, he smacked my ass with a leather whip. Hard. I screamed out and he smacked it again. And again. “This is what you honestly like?” He placed the tip of the whip between my legs, tapping it against my swollen lower lips. “I’m not going to turn you right side up unless you tell me the truth...Is this what you like?” I didn’t answer. I just moaned as he dropped the whip to the floor and positioned his dick against me. I braced myself for the much needed sex—using what little control I had to flex my hips, but he grabbed my waist and held me still. “Do you know how hard it is not to fuck you right now, Claire?” He rubbed his dick against me— back and forth, again and again—but not entering me. I scraped my nails against the floor to deflect some of the pleasure, and tried not to cry out in utter frustration. I failed. “Please, Jonathannnn...” He slipped two fingers inside of me, groaning once he felt how wet I was. He slowly slid them in and out, making both of us moan with each deep stroke.
I shook my head and bit my lip, begging him to stand me up and fuck me, but he answered each of my pleas with a tender kiss against my thighs. He continued to torture me with his fingers, and my thoughts became hazy; I started to feel familiar tremors traveling up and down my body. “Ohhhh, god...” I started shaking—convulsing, getting ready to let go. But he didn’t let me cum. He flipped me right side up in seconds and looked into my eyes. Holding the vibrator against my clit, he brought his face close to mine and whispered. “How would you like me to finish this?” By fucking me... “I can’t read your mind.” He lied, smiling. “How would you like me to finish this?” “By fucking me...” “With my mouth?” “With your dick...Now please.” “I don’t think it would be special if we had sex right now...” He moved the vibrator away and my insides continued to throb in tortured pleasure. “It wouldn’t make us feel intimate...” “Please...” I pleaded with my eyes and I could tell he was about to give in. I tried to push myself forward so I could kiss his lips, so I could convince him that I needed this, but he stepped back. “After we’re married.” He kissed the tip of my nose and pulled his pants back up, leaving me panting and utterly lost. He freed my legs from the weights and slowly untied the rope from around my hands. I fell into him and told him to take me back to my suite, but he lifted me up and laid me on the table, flat on my stomach. I didn’t even bother asking why. I was too frustrated. I shut my eyes and vowed not to speak to him for a while, but I suddenly felt him placing warm stones down the center of my back. “Talk to me...” he whispered. “About what? Sexual frustration?” “If that’s what you want...” I sighed. “Did my friends see you? Do they know that you’re here?” “No.” He kneaded his hands against my sides. “They were way too drunk to pay attention to anything. I had Greg take them back to your villa so they wouldn’t pass out in that so-called club.” “How thoughtful of you...” He added a few more warm stones against my back. “Thank you.” “What happened to your Vegas party? Was it that boring that you felt the need to come and ruin mine?” “I didn’t ruin your party.” He kissed my hair. “I was having a pretty good time in Vegas, but I received a distractingly sexy ‘makeover ’ picture from my fiancée while I was at a club.” “I don’t remember typing ‘come crash my party’ at the bottom of it.” “It was implied.” He pushed my new swooped bangs away from my face. “I didn’t want to wait until you came home to see you like this.” “Really? Because I think it’s because you can’t go more than three days without touching me.” “Four. I do have some restraint.” I rolled my eyes and felt him removing the stones. “I’m never drinking that much again...I can’t even remember how many shots I had...Oh, and just so there are no secrets between us: I danced with a lot of men, tonight. And you know what? I loved it, just like Helen said I would...” “Shhhh.” He sighed as he began pressing his hands into my back. “Be quiet, Claire.” “No...You said you wanted me to talk.” I shut my eyes. “If you can crash my party and deny me sex, you can listen to...” I yawned. “You can let me tell you...” His hands felt too good to be true. “All about...”
Everything went black.
I woke up and realized I was in my suite. The sun was slowly rising outside my window and Jonathan was standing over me, fully dressed and fluffing my pillow. On the nightstand to my left he’d placed three bottles of orange juice, a bottle of Tylenol, and a note: “Enjoy the rest of your week in Costa Rica, Future Wife.” “You’re leaving?” My throat was dry. He nodded and kissed my forehead. “Your friends will be waking up soon. I’m sure you’ll want to rehash last night with them. Tell Helen to send me the receipt for the villa and anything she and your friends bought this week. I’ll reimburse whatever she spent.” “Okay...Can you take a shower with me before you go?” “Of course.” He smiled and slid his arms beneath me to pick me up. He carried me into the bathroom and quickly removed my slip. As he placed me inside the shower and turned on the water, I thought about how I was going to seduce him and make him give me some damn sex. He’d been right hours ago. The last few nights had been horrible. My body craved his body every night; it ached for his touch like it wouldn’t survive without it. I can’t believe I asked him to be abstinent! What the hell was I thinking?! He joined me underneath the steamy water and ran his fingers through my damp bangs. “I really love what they did to your hair. Are they doing it for our wedding?” I nodded. “In exchange for throwing a party on one of your yachts this winter. I already told them they could.” “What if I say no?” “I’m a co-owner. It doesn’t matter what you say.” He smiled and I didn’t bother wasting another second. I pressed my lips against his and kissed him deeply, using my hands to massage his dick. Before he could tell me to stop, I bent down and took him into my mouth—moving him in and out until he was rock hard. I looked up at him as I slid my tongue around and he seemed surprised, but he pulled me up and kissed me. As the water continued to fall over us, he kept his lips attached to mine and wrapped his arms around my waist. I felt his dick pressing against my stomach and murmured, “Please...” but he continued his deep and passionate kiss. He rolled his tongue around mine and bit my bottom lip whenever I tried to pull away from him. I was completely breathless when he released me and spun me around to face the wall. He gripped my hips and adjusted my stance—slowly tilting me forward for easy access. I moaned as he reached around and caressed my breasts, as he placed a wet kiss against the groove of my back. “Are you sure you want this?” he whispered. “Yes...” He gripped my hips even tighter and pressed his dick against me. Then he slid his hand between my legs and groaned as he touched my swollen clit. “I want to fuck you so badly, Claire...” he whispered. “You have no idea...Enjoy the rest of your trip.” He suddenly let me go and stepped out of the shower. I gasped and braced the wall. “What?!”
More frustrated than ever, I turned the water off and wrapped myself in a towel. I walked back into my room and crossed my arms once I saw that he was putting his clothes back on. “You’re leaving?” He smirked and zipped up his pants. “You’re not going to have sex with me?” “Of course I am.” He walked over and kissed my cheek. “After we’re married.” I opened my mouth to speak, but he pressed his finger against my lips. “I’ll pick you up from the airstrip the second you get back. I want to take you on a date after you settle back into your job.” He planted a kiss on my forehead. “I love you, Claire.” I rolled my eyes. “Say it back.” “Make me...” I gave him my best seductive look. He smiled and pulled me close. “Once I commit to doing something—whatever that something may be, I never back down from it. You can keep trying to tempt me—you’re very good by the way, but I made a promise and I never break my promises...Now, say it back.” “I love you too.” He kissed me one last time and I watched him leave through my side door. He looked over his shoulder every few seconds and smiled at me, so I waited until he was no longer in my sight. I immediately rushed over to my suitcase and searched for my vibrator so I could end this frustration myself. I pulled the flap open where I knew I’d placed it, but it wasn’t there. Instead, there was a folded napkin with a note: “No cheating, Future Wife. You’ll get it back AFTER the wedding :-)” I cursed under my breath and headed for the kitchen, where Bobbie Jo, Kim, and Helen were all staring at me with looks of horror on their faces. “You brought someone home with you from the club last night? And don’t you dare lie because we all heard voices this morning.” Helen practically lost it. “That’s not like you at all, Claire! What the hell were you thinking?!” “What? You think I cheated on Jonathan?” “It doesn’t matter what we think.” Bobbie Jo stood up and paced the floor. “It’s okay. We can definitely fix this...I know we told you to let go, but you weren’t supposed to completely let go...You’re marrying Jonathan-fucking-Statham! You don’t need to experience any other man, ever!” Helen shook her head in disagreement at that last line, but she kept the look of worry on her face. “No more clubbing this week.” Kim clasped her hands together. “We’ll still drink tons, but we’ll stick to the lame ass activities we were doing before. We’ll even take you shopping for a whole new wardrobe today...Jonathan will never find out about this. Your secret is safe with us...”
Chapter 12 Claire I sat in the middle of Starbucks, sporting a brand new tan and a light grey dress the girls had picked out for me on the last day of the trip. It was short with a deep V-neckline and it hugged all my curves perfectly. It was the type of dress that Jonathan would love, at least I hoped he would when he saw me later tonight for our date. He’d told me he wanted to take me somewhere special as soon as he picked me up from the airstrip the other day. He’d left little reminder notes in my closet, in my purse, even in my car: “Tonight will be the best date you and I have ever had.” “No...I’m not shutting down the Golden Gate Bridge again...but I can if you want me to.” “I’m looking forward to seeing you later. You are always the best part of my day.” “Miss Gracen?” My high profile client cleared her throat, snapping me out of my trance. “Is that all? Do I need to sign anything else?” “I’m sorry. I’ll have my secretary forward you a copy of the contract tomorrow morning. Do you have any other questions for me, Lisa? I mean, Miss Kane?” “Not at all.” She stood up. “Thanks for treating me to coffee today. This was... different.” I laughed and watched her walk out of the store. Thanks to my employees—who had failed to shut off the air conditioning the entire week I was gone, my store’s ventilation system had crashed and I’d had to reschedule all of today’s appointments outside of the office. I looked through my planner to make sure I didn’t have any more meetings for the day, and suddenly heard my phone ringing. Ashley. “Hello, Ashley.” “This is Caroline.” She scoffed. “You’re using Ashley’s phone, Caroline. How am I supposed to know it’s you?” I could practically see her shrugging her shoulders and rolling her eyes. “Ashley and I would like to know why we weren’t invited to your bachelorette party. We are in the wedding, your maids of honor at that.” “Because you can’t take off a week from school and my friends didn’t think it was appropriate for you two to come. And after going there, I’m completely sure they made the right choice.” “Right...Anyway, I’m just calling to let you know that we got your email. We love it and we think Jonathan will love it too.” “You didn’t tell him anything did you?” “No...” She sighed. “Although we are finding it a bit strange that we hear from him more than we hear from you these days.” “What? That’s not true!” “It is true. He calls or texts us every day.” “And he sends us care packages every Monday!” Ashley yelled in the background. “I’m sorry...” I realized that they were right. Lately I’d only been checking in on them once or twice a week, but I thought that was what they wanted. “I’ll do better. I promise. I’ll start calling you
more often.” “No, no, no.” Caroline clucked her teeth. “Just send us some care packages. Actually, now that we’re on the subject of care packages... Jonathan gives us three hundred dollars a week in his boxes, in addition to a bunch of other nice gifts. Now, we both know you don’t make as much as he does, but we know you make enough to give us two hundred a week without breaking a sweat. So, we’re thinking—” I hung up and sent them both an ‘I love you’ text. Laughing, I started to put my things away. I felt something brush against my table, and when I looked up I saw Ryan sitting in front of me with a smug expression on his face. “Busy day, huh?” he asked. “You’ve met with lots of clients...” “Fuck off.” I stood up to leave, but he grabbed my elbow. “Please, Claire. Two minutes...That’s it.” I looked into his eyes—those familiar green and grey irises that I used to love, and saw a world full of pain. I wanted to walk away—knew I should’ve walked away, but the look in his eyes made me feel sorry for him. “Two minutes. That’s it.” “Thank you...” He waited for me to sit down and slid a cup of coffee towards me. “Does Jonathan Statham make you happy?” “He doesn’t make me cry.” I rolled my eyes. “I didn’t give you two minutes for a discussion.” “You’re still incapable of small talk?” “With my philandering ex-husband?” He sighed. “Fair enough, Claire...I’ve been trying to get your attention for the past few weeks because...Amanda’s ill...” “So?” I shrugged. “So?” “Yes. So. As in, what does that have to do with me?” “It’s fatal, Claire.” It looked like it hurt him to say those words, and for a half second I felt bad for her—for both of them. “She wants to talk to you...” What?! “Why?” “Because you were her best friend...Her only friend...” “We had other mutual friends. Why doesn’t she want to talk to them?” “Is your head really stuck that far up your ass now?” I stood up to leave again, but he grabbed my arm and cleared his throat. “Please, Claire. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to say that...” He looked as if he wanted me to sit back down, but I remained standing. “All of the mutual friends were on your side.” “Really? I wonder why...” “I’m not asking for you and her to watch chick flicks together and cry, and I’m not asking for you to be BFFs again. I’m just asking on behalf of my wife—” “Your wife? I still can’t believe you can say that without a shred of guilt crossing over your face. It’s disgusting.” “I’m just asking for you to see her. Maybe even grab some lunch together next week? It’s one of her dying wishes and I’m doing my best to fulfill all of them.” “What?! Are you out of your fucking mind?” I scoffed and left him sitting at the table. I couldn’t believe his nerve—to act as if I owed him or Amanda a damn thing, to have the audacity to even ask me to do anything for their benefit. I stepped outside of the shop and opened my umbrella, walking over to my car in the pouring rain. As I unlocked the door, I felt strong hands on my shoulders—someone spinning me around.
“Spare me this stupid ass act and stop being so fucking childish, Claire.” Ryan stood underneath my umbrella and gripped my arms. “Excuse me?” My eyes widened. He wasn’t behaving anything like the Ryan I knew years ago— that Ryan would never grab me like this. “Ryan...I—” “You owe me twenty seconds.” He hissed. “Twenty fucking seconds and I’m going to use every last one of them. You honestly think marrying a billionaire means you don’t have to care about anything? You think it makes you a better person now? It doesn’t.” “I guess being a lying philanderer does though, huh? Get the fuck off of me.” I raised my knee up, fully intending to kick him in his balls, but he grabbed my leg and moved it around his waist, holding it stiffly. “Seriously, Claire? Were you trying to do what I think you were trying to do?” “Save the human race from more bastard offspring?” “When did you become such a bitch?” His eyes darkened. “Are you still that bitter about what happened between us? Five years ago? You clearly came out alright.” He glanced at my engagement ring. “Get your hands off of me, Ryan.” He didn’t move back. Instead he tightened his grip on my arm and leg and spoke slowly. “Listen to me, Claire.” I considered spitting in his face, but for some reason I couldn’t muster enough saliva in my mouth. “Amanda and I moved here so we could commute back and forth to St. Francis.” The hospital? He nodded as if he’d heard my thought. “She’s been working at that catering shop part time to keep her mind off of her upcoming treatment...” He sighed. “She has another brain tumor—a malignant one. We came here to get a second opinion and to try a new procedure because none of the doctors at home will touch it...” His voice cracked. “She just...She just wants to see you again, just in case—just...You never gave her a chance to say all she had to say.” “She was fucking you behind my back! There was nothing left to say!” I tried to wriggle free again, but his grip was too tight. “Look. I honestly don’t wish her any ill-will, and as a human being I do hope whatever treatment she’s here for goes well. However, personally, you two don’t exist in my world anymore and her sickness has nothing to do with me. So, if you could please let me go and get back to whatever life you’ve built with Amanda that would be great. I’ve given you more than twenty seconds and I’m not giving you anymore.” “She was your best fucking friend.” “Was—just like I was your wife. Funny how one three-lettered word says so much, huh?” His face turned red and it looked like he was about to really lose it, but he leaned in closer so that we were nose to nose— lip to lip. “Stop pretending like you don’t care, Claire. You do. I can see it in your eyes.” “Are you sick too? Please tell me St Francis has you scheduled for a few nights in their psych ward—I’ve heard they give out Jell-O now. Is cherry still your favorite?” “All you have to do is talk to her for five minutes. It won’t kill you.” “Yes, it will. Now, please—” I heard the shattering of glass to my right—heard it echoing through the wind and cutting through the sound of pelting raindrops. I looked over and saw Jonathan standing underneath a black umbrella, holding onto a single white lily—the only one that hadn’t fallen to the ground.
I moved my leg from around Ryan’s waist, but he was still gripping my arm and pinning me against my car. I tried to catch my breath and find the right words to say to Jonathan, the words that would tell him that what he was seeing was just a huge misunderstanding. But the way he was looking at me told me that he wouldn’t believe a single word I said. The look on his face was one of anger, confusion, hurt. He looked over my fitted dress, at Ryan’s stance, at the small sliver of distance that was between the two of us. “Get your fucking hands off of her. Right now.” His voice was colder than I’d ever heard it before. Ryan immediately moved his hands and smiled an evil smile at me. It looked like he was about to say something rude, but Jonathan spoke first. “If you value your life, Hayes—I suggest you get the fuck out of my sight before I take it away.” Ryan looked at Jonathan and rolled his eyes, slowly backing away from underneath my umbrella, stepping out into the rain. I watched him fade into the rush of umbrella holders that were now rushing out into the parking lot. I turned to face Jonathan again and realized he was still staring at me, looking as if I’d just broken his heart. He bent down to pick up the white envelope that was on top of the shattered vase and flowers. Then he slowly strolled over to me and placed the single lily he was holding and that card on top of my car. He narrowed his eyes at me and opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. “Jonathan...” I could see the hurt in his eyes. “Let me explain...You know exactly how I feel about —” He walked away before I could finish my sentence.
I rushed over to Jonathan’s office and stopped at Angela’s desk. I’d tried to run after him in the parking lot minutes ago, but he’d slipped away. “Miss Gracen?” She looked up at me. “Are you okay? Would you like me to have someone bring you a set of dry clothes? A cup of hot coffee perhaps?” I shook my head. I was drenched from head to toe, but I was too distressed to feel anything. “I need to speak to Jonathan.” She sighed and looked down at her hands. “He’s not accepting any unscheduled appointments.” “Bullshit, Angela. He’s back there and you know it. Tell him I’m here. Now.” She picked up her phone. “Mr. Statham? I...Yes sir...” She put the phone down. “He told me to tell you to go home.” I swallowed and pulled my phone out of my pocket, calling him for the tenth time since I’d left Starbucks. It didn’t even ring twice. He hit ignore. “Angela, please...” I knew she had the only other key to his door. “Could you just let me in and I’ll deal with whatever he says?” “I’m sorry, Miss Gracen. I can’t afford to lose this job. He made the orders very clear.” She pulled a notepad and an envelope from her drawer. “I can make sure he gets your message though. I’ll make sure he reads it.” I felt tears falling down my face and nodded to say ‘Thank you.’ I scribbled down my message, signing it with an ‘I love you’ and then I slowly drove myself home. Alone. And I kept driving myself to the same empty house for the rest of the week...
Thursday September 18, 2014 Jonathan I don’t have shit to say.
Chapter 13 Jonathan I stared out my office window, watching heavy sheets of rain fall over the city. As hard as I tried to rationalize what I’d seen in that parking lot, I couldn’t help but feel hurt. My heart damn near broke at the sight of seeing her with someone else, but once I realized it was him—her ex-husband, it practically shattered. Why didn’t she call me? I knew there had to be a logical explanation—some type of reason, so I picked up my phone to call her, but there was already a call waiting. “Hello?” “Mr. Statham?” It was a high pitched voice. Miss Corwin. “Good afternoon, Miss Corwin. Can I help you with something?” “Yes, I um...I’ve been leaving messages with your fiancée, but she hasn’t gotten back to me. I’ll be staying in town for the next few weeks, so would you mind leaving me a wedding invitation with your secretary? I asked Miss Gracen to mail me one, but she probably forgot.” “When was this?” “When was what?” “When did you ask her to mail you the invitation?” I knew damn well we’d made her one. In fact, we’d made her ten, just in case she wanted to incorporate them into the reception space somehow. “Um...Well, I asked her that night you came to L.A., remember? And I called her two weeks ago about it.” “And you never received it?” “No...” Her voice was soft. “I’m sorry if I’m causing you any trouble...” “It’s no trouble. I’ll have it delivered to you personally.” “Thank you...” I hung up and called Milton. “I’m on my way to your office, Jonathan.” He picked up on the first ring. “No need to act like you actually give a damn about my financial reports today.” “That’s not why I’m calling.” “Of course it isn’t. What do you want?” “Have you received my wedding invitation in the mail yet?” There was a sudden knock on my door and I walked over to answer it. “Would you like me to keep talking into the phone?” Milton walked into my office. “It wouldn’t surprise me if you did.” “Did you receive a wedding invitation?” He shrugged. “No.” “Are you sure?” “I’m pretty sure, but I don’t need one of those to be there if that’s why you’re asking...” I shook my head. “No...I’m just...I’m just wondering.” He asked me to give him a few minutes to get his files organized and I took a seat at my desk. I sent out a text to five people, five people who I knew I had personally told Claire to invite—addresses
and all, and waited for them to tell me if they had received their invitation in the mail. Their responses came back instantly: “No.” “No...” “No.” “I need an invitation to get in?” “No.” What the fuck?! I prepared to text Angela to get to the bottom of it, but I accidentally hit my email app and saw a message labeled: URGENT. It was from our cake designer: To: Statham, Jonathan From: Elegant Cakes, Inc. Mr. Statham, My name is Jacqueline Russell and I am the manager of Elegant Cakes. Per my conversation with your fiancée two weeks ago, I wanted to make sure that you were canceling your complete order which includes: One five tiered wedding cake, two three tiered dream cakes, and the customized frozen anniversary cake. Since your name is on the contract and we have your signature on file, we’ll need you to verify that this information is correct. We’re sorry we won’t be able to work with you on your special day, Sincerely, Jacqueline R. My mind was officially blown. I couldn’t believe this shit. “Jonathan? Jonathan?” Milton cleared his throat. “Are you there?” I shook my head and sighed. “Go ahead...” “Okay...” Milton handed me a folder. “Inside that folder, you’ll see that I’ve outlined your current assets, totaled your domestic and foreign bank accounts, and appraised the company’s future earnings. As you can clearly see, the future Mrs. Statham’s name is nowhere to be found because well...She did not contribute to you gaining any of these things so...” “I thought this was a strategy meeting.” I rolled my eyes. “It is. Angela informed me that you’ve cancelled all your appointments with the marital attorney as of this morning. Is that true?” “Yes.” “Well, maybe you’re not thinking straight... Let me help you out: Your net worth as of this quarter is nine point eight billion. Your net worth. We live in California, a fifty-fifty split state.” “Milton...” “That means that if you should ever get a divorce, your-ex-wife will automatically be entitled to over four billion dollars. If you last for more than ten years and your earnings continue to grow like they have in the past, you’re looking at handing over seven to eight billion easily. Do you understand that?” “I do.” “Glad to hear that. I’ll arrange for the attorney to come back.” “There’s not going to be a pre-nup, Milton.” His jaw dropped. “I thought you just said you agreed with me.” “There can’t be a pre-nup if I’m not getting married...” “What?” He gasped. “You two were just here weeks ago telling me about the wedding venue...It’s over?” I didn’t answer him. “Jonathan?” I sighed. “I’ll call you later tonight to go over that mistake in the master file you mentioned at this morning’s meeting. I have a feeling we’ll need more than one accounting team to sort that out.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but then he shook his head. He took his folder back and patted me on my shoulder before leaving my office. As soon as the door closed, I leaned back in my chair and shut my eyes. I can’t believe this shit...What the fuck is Claire thinking? I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions about the wedding, about marrying Claire, but invitation and cake bullshit aside—what she’d pulled last week had rocked me to my core. At first, I didn’t want to believe that I’d seen her and Ryan inside of Starbucks when I drove by. I refused to believe it. So, I’d driven around the parking lot, telling myself that Claire—my Claire, would have called me the second Ryan showed up anywhere near her. Like she promised. I’d decided that my eyes were playing tricks on me so I simply parked my car. With flowers in tow, I’d headed towards the Starbucks, but then I saw her again—with Ryan, pressed up against her car with her fucking leg around his waist, with her lips inches away from his mouth. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get that image out of my mind... I hadn’t been home in a week, and I had no plans to return any time soon. I was too damn angry to be anywhere near her. When she’d broken up with me last year and went her separate way for three fucking months, I was livid. Infuriated. Inconsolable. But this recent stunt of hers was—there were no words for this shit. What part of ‘I don’t share’ does she not understand? What part of ‘Call me ASAP if Ryan shows up’ is difficult to comprehend? She’d been sending me numerous text messages to apologize, trying to explain her side of the story and beg me to come home, but I never answered. And I sent each and every one of her hourly calls directly to voicemail. I didn’t want to talk to her right now. I didn’t want to talk to her ever. “Mr. Statham?” Angela’s voice suddenly came over the intercom. “Yes?” “Miss Gracen is—” “I’m not here.” “Sir, she’s standing right outside your door.” “I’m. Not. Here.” I gritted my teeth. “Are we clear?” “Yes sir...” I waited for an hour, until I was sure Claire was gone, and then I stepped outside. I walked around the corner and stood at Angela’s desk. “Did my—” I stopped myself. I’d almost said my wife. “Did Miss Gracen leave another note?” “Yes sir.” She handed me a folded sheet of white paper and I took it into my office. I debated whether or not I should toss it into the trash with all her other ones, but I decided to open it: Jonathan, I know you’re very angry with me, but please give me a chance to explain what you saw last Friday...I’m sorry I ever allowed it to happen, and it’s not what you think. I promise. I love you and only you, and I wish you would come back home... Yours, Claire I crumpled her letter into a ball and tossed it into the trash. I took a deep breath and shook my head, trying to think about what I needed to do to get this off my mind. I called Angela back. “Yes, Mr. Statham?” “Is the security team meeting still going on right now?”
“Yes sir.” I sighed. “Write this down: I want last Monday’s interior and exterior security video footage from the Powell Avenue Starbucks—everything between the hours of four o’ clock pm to seven o’ clock pm. And I want audio. The very second that Corey gets out of his meeting, ask him to put his best team on it.” “I will sir. Is that all?” “No.” I balled my fists. “I want them to hack into Smith & Hayes Associates in Pittsburgh and get me Mr. Hayes’ full client list. I want the name of every client he worked with before he made partner, even the clients he worked for when he was a fucking intern. I also need a list of every single law firm in Pittsburgh—big, small, independent, commercial, every last one of them.” “I’ll make sure it gets done. Um...Are you still sending flowers to Miss Gracen this week? The order has to be put in within the next half hour if you still want to send something.” I was silent. “Mr. Statham? Is that a yes or a no?” I shut my eyes and tried to block out this past week. I’d never missed a day sending Claire flowers. Even when she was in Costa Rica, I’d called a local flower shop and made sure she woke up to a new set of blooms every morning. Not sending them felt wrong—hurtful, and even though she’d damn near made me cry last Friday, I couldn’t bring myself to say no. I sighed. “It’s a yes, Angela...But no note—just the flowers...”
Chapter 14 Jonathan “You don’t look too good.” Hayley slid a bottle of water across my desk. “And you barely spoke at this morning’s meeting. Are you okay?” “No.” “Are you living in your office now? I haven’t seen your car move all week and you didn’t come over with Claire for dinner last night...” I didn’t answer. She sighed and walked around to my side of the desk. “Look, I know it’s none of my business...” “It isn’t. Did you break up with your secret boyfriend yet? I’ve noticed that your work has improved from terrible to average.” “I’ll take that as a compliment.” I rolled my eyes and opened the water bottle. “Mr. Statham?” Angela called over the intercom. “Corey’s here for your three o’clock meeting. Should I tell him your meeting with Hayley is running over?” “No, we’re finished here. Send him in.” Hayley gave me a hug and smiled. “I didn’t spend six hours trying on bridesmaids’ dresses for nothing, Jonathan. You better talk to her and fix whatever it is. Claire loves you and you know it.” “Goodbye, Hayley.” “I love you too.” She jumped up and headed for the door as Corey came in. Then I looked up and saw it. Plain and clear. The way Hayley’s eyes lit up as he held the door open for her, the way he almost leaned down to kiss her good bye, but held back and smiled instead. What. The. Fuck. I waited until he closed the door, until he took a seat at my desk—directly in front of me. “So...” He cleared his throat. “About the Meyer ’s account. I was thinking we could investigate their background a little more before we fully commit. What do you think?” “Are you fucking my little sister?” “What? What are you talking about?” “It’s a yes or no question. Are. You. Fucking. My. Little. Sister?” “I...It’s not like that.” “Yes or no.” He sighed. “No...Not—” “Yet? You plan on fucking my little sister?” “Johnathan, man...It’s not what you think it is.” “For your sake I would hope not.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “When the fuck were you going to tell me about this shit?” “I wanted to tell you weeks ago, but I knew how you would react to this...What I have with Hayley is nothing like what I’ve had with all those women in the past. And if you would just listen to me for a second I can explain.” I couldn’t hear anything he was saying. The only thing I could focus on was breaking every single bone in his face, pushing him out the window, and watching him fall to an early death.
I didn’t care how long this shit had been going on or why. He wasn’t worthy of Hayley as far as I was concerned—best friend or not; especially not the same best friend whose body count was more than quadruple mine. “I would never hurt her,” he said. “I swear.” “Get the fuck out of my office.” “Don’t do this, man. Just—” “I can only deal with so much bad shit at a time, so excuse me if I don’t want to talk to the man who is days away from fucking my little sister and hanging her heart out to dry. Just get the fuck out.” I turned around in my chair and waited until I heard the door close. Is this shit really happening? I picked up my phone and called Angela. “Yes, Mr. Statham?” “Did Miss Gracen send out a memo to every person in my life and tell them to make me as fucking miserable as possible this week?” “Um... No sir. Not that I’m aware of.” “Can you please check?” “Yes sir...Are you still meeting with the ring designer this afternoon?” “No. Cancel that please.” I hung up and sighed. I’d called Miss Valenti yesterday to ask if Claire had ever stopped by to design my ring and—surprise, surprise, she hadn’t. I knew I’d previously joked with her about not knowing who she was anymore when she revealed that she’d been taking erotic classes, and when I found her in that bondage room at her bachelorette party. But with our wedding falling apart at the seams and her ex-husband slipping into her life again, I could honestly say that I didn’t know who she was right now. She wasn’t acting like the Claire I loved...
I rolled over in my bed, reaching for Claire—cursing at myself for even doing that. It’d been a week and a half since we’d last spoke and her phone calls to me still came every hour on the hour. I was still staying in my executive suite at the office, collecting the notes she dropped off and actually reading the more recent ones. The one she’d sent yesterday read, “You are the only love of my life. Please hear me out—Claire.” And the one she’d sent today read, “I missed when you used to send notes with the flowers...That’s what made them special...” I could practically picture her face as she received my note-less flowers, could literally see her shaking her head and trying not to cry. As much as it hurt me to know that she was in pain, I couldn’t bring myself to console her because I was hurting too... I sighed and looked at my watch: 2:58. Even though I was still hurt—beyond hurt, I figured that when she called this time, I would try to pick up. At exactly three o’ clock, my phone rang and I held it up to my ear. “Hello?” I tried to hide the pain in my voice. “Hey, Jonathan.” It was Caroline. “Caroline? Hey, how are you?” “I’m okay. Me and Ashley want to come home this weekend and eat dinner with you and mom if that’s okay...We’re kinda tired of campus food.” “That’d be fine. I’ll...I’ll set that up. Is that all?” “Almost...Do you think me and Ash are identical-identical or just identical?” “What do you mean?” “Like, how long did it take you to figure out who was who after we’d met you for the first time?”
“A week.” I laughed. “Why?” “Good enough. I’m going to ask Ashley to take the rest of my tests for Strategy Physics.” “Excuse me?” I heard her gasp and I knew she hadn’t meant to say that last sentence out loud. “You’re going to risk expulsion? Is that what you just said, Caroline?” “What?! No...” “You have ten seconds to tell me what the hell is going on. Don’t you dare bullshit me.” She sighed. “I missed the first two weeks of classes because I overslept...I went out partying every night and—I mean it’s Physics, like my best subject. Or so I thought...I can’t get into the flight program with less than a B minus...” “And?” “This isn’t like regular physics...It’s a strategic level course. It’s not about how many you get right, it’s about which ones you get right. Apparently the problems I pick to solve are the ones only worth two points...” Her voice cracked. “There are only four tests this semester and I already failed the first one. Terribly. I need to make an A on every single one to get the B minus average...” “I take it that Ashley isn’t failing?” “Ha! Are you kidding me?” She scoffed. “Of course not. Strategy is her best asset. She has the highest score in the class...I tried to get her to help to me, but I just don’t get it...” I sighed and shook my head, telling her how disappointed I was that she would even think to ask Ashley to cheat for her, and that I was upset because she wasn’t taking college seriously. I told her that I would hire a private tutor for her, but she’d have to commit to twenty hours’ worth of sessions a week—at night, during party hours. I knew that was the only way she’d take it seriously. She sounded like she was trying not to cry, but I could tell that she was. “When will I start the tutoring?” “Tonight. I’ll have Greg fly out to get you. I’ll help you with some of it here.” “Okay...Thank you...” She sniffled one more time before hanging up. Claire’s four o’ clock call came across my phone and I wanted to pick it up, but I couldn’t. Instead, I ordered two kettles of Caroline’s favorite hot chocolate and had a local candy store set up a small sweets bar in my office. I figured that a long night of physics problems would keep me from thinking about Claire. It was a little after eight o’ clock when I heard knocking at my door. “One second.” I set a few calculators down on my desk and opened it. It was Claire. And Caroline. And Ashley. “Hello ladies.” I avoided looking directly at Claire. I knew she’d been crying by the way she’d done her makeup, by the way she’d brushed her hair over her face, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to her. “Just because I have an A in the class doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be whisked away in the private jet, Jonathan.” Ashley grabbed a chocolate stick from the candy bar. “I’m offended that I didn’t get a call. Don’t you love me too?” I rolled my eyes and showed them over to my desk. “Let’s get started, shall we?” While Caroline took out her books, I let my eyes follow Claire over to the couch where she was placing her head on a pillow. As I went over problems with the girls, she lay curled up in a ball, watching us without saying a word. As usual, Ashley and Caroline were great learners. They watched every equation I broke down, and asked questions whenever they didn’t understand. It took a while—five hours, for Caroline to finally grasp what she was doing wrong, but I gave her problem after problem to make sure she wouldn’t forget anytime soon.
“Finally! It took you long enough to figure that one out!” Ashley smiled at Caroline’s paper. “I think we should do this again next weekend. Do you know how many pictures I put up on Twitter of the two of us in your jet? Wait until people see that we can do that anytime we want...” “Your modesty never ceases to amaze me.” I shook my head at her and stood up. “Do you think you have a better handle on it now, Caroline?” She nodded. “Yes, thank you so much...” “Anytime. I’ll have a tutor for you tomorrow night. Greg is waiting downstairs to take you back to the airstrip.” They both hugged me and Claire before walking out of my office and I felt my heart swelling. I was still getting used to having a family, but I liked it. A lot. As soon as I heard the ping of the elevators, I turned around and looked at Claire. I narrowed my eyes at her and tried to walk over, but I couldn’t do it. I still didn’t have anything to say. I walked into my executive suite and lay across my bed. I’d hoped she would simply fall asleep on the couch and let me talk whenever I was ready, but I felt her slipping into bed next to me. “Please let me explain,” she whispered. I didn’t say anything. “I was leaving Starbucks when he showed up... He sat down at my table and asked me to give him two minutes to talk. I didn’t want to, and I swear I wasn’t going to, but there was this look in his eyes.” “Is there a point coming?” She took a deep breath. “I told him to say whatever he had to say and when he told me Amanda was terminally ill...I felt bad, but I left anyway...Then he followed me to my car and we started arguing...I tried to fight him off, but he—” “Do you still have feelings for him, Claire?” I finally turned around to face her. “Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. Tell me the fucking truth. Even though he ripped your heart to the point where I had to fight you every inch of the way to put it back together, even though he cheated on you with your best fucking friend and left you miserable for years, do you still have feelings for him?” “No! No, I promise. There’s nothing there.” “Are you sure? Is there a reason why you still haven’t designed my wedding band? Why the invitations I could’ve sworn you sent out weeks ago, have still not arrived in any of my friends’ mailboxes? Or better yet, can you please explain why the cakes we both agreed on were canceled as of two weeks ago and you chose not to tell me?” “Jonathan—” “What the fuck is the problem, Claire? Why are you self-sabotaging the wedding you begged me to have?” “I’m not sabotaging anything—I would never...It’s just...I can’t explain it right now, but as far as Ryan goes, you can’t possibly think that I—” “The moment he sat down at your table at Starbucks, or the moment you decided to have a chat with him—however it happened, you should’ve called me immediately. Period. You don’t belong to him anymore. You have no obligation to him and you don’t owe him a fucking thing. You are mine and this is the last time that I’m going to re-iterate that fact to you, Claire. Mine. Not his. Not anyone else’s.” I clenched my jaw. “Do you still not understand what that means?” “Yes...” she murmured. I rolled my eyes and got out of the bed. “I have some work to do. Do you need Greg to take you home when he gets back?” “No...I want to stay here with you...” “Fine.” I pulled a blanket over her and tucked her in. Then I handed her the remote. “Good night.”
I walked into my office and took out a bottle of scotch. I poured myself a glass, downed it, and then quickly poured another. Why is she so fucking infuriating? Why does she still have the power to get to me like this? I sat down at my desk and started going over my latest product’s numbers. I turned on my laptop and spotted the video that the security team had made for me from Starbucks, the video I still couldn’t bring myself to watch. “Jonathan...” Claire’s soft voice made me look up. “Yes, Claire?” “Are you going to sit out here and stay mad at me all night?” Her voice cracked. “Or are we going to talk about everything so we can fix this?” I didn’t answer. I just stared at her. “Fine.” She shrugged as tears fell down her face. “I’m going to check into the Fairmont hotel for the rest of the week because I can’t take living in our house alone anymore. If you want to talk to me, that’s exactly where I’ll be...And if you want to cancel the wedding because you honestly think I would choose my piece of shit ex-husband over you or that I would purposely try to ruin our special day, then—” She couldn’t even finish her sentence. She looked at me in utter pain and it took a lot for me not to stand up and comfort her, for me not to wrap her in my arms and tell her to stay the night with me. Yet, my heart was a mess and she hadn’t answered any of my questions about the invitation and cake issues. Nodding her head slowly, she said, “I hope I’ll see you in my room soon” before walking out of my office in tears.
Chapter 15 Claire I woke up in the middle of the night and reached for Jonathan—turning over to see if he’d finally come to the hotel, but he wasn’t there. I dragged myself out of bed and into the living room, hoping to see him waiting in the living room, but the only thing new was a note from the front desk: “Thank you for allowing us to be your temporary home, Mrs. Statham. We hope that you keep us in mind for future stays.” I sighed. I’d been too miserable to realize that I’d never formally “checked in.” As soon as I’d arrived, valet helped me out of the car and the manager had personally walked me up to my room. No questions asked. He can call the hotel but he can’t call me? I looked into the small foyer and saw that he’d sent another bouquet of flowers for me today—like he’d been doing all week, but there was no note. Nothing. I headed for the bathroom and immediately turned on the hot water. I was going to need one hell of a bubble bath to get back to sleep. Tossing my robe off, I stepped into the tub and let the water rise over me as I sat there. Stunned. While he had every reason to think that the wedding arrangements were odd, he had to know that I would never give Ryan the time of day again, that I would never allow him to walk back into my life for any reason whatsoever. Then again, every time I thought about how the two of us must have looked in that parking lot, my heart sank a little. Son of a bitch... A part of me wanted to find out what room Amanda was staying in so I could finish off her life for her and give Ryan something else to focus on, but I didn’t want to face any part of my past again; Ryan had already done enough. As the hot water rose up to my chest and grazed the necklace he’d given me, I stretched my foot out to switch off the lever. And before I knew it, I was crying. Hard. The entire week that he hadn’t been at home had been the worst week I’d had in years. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and each time he hit ignore on my phone calls, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. He was my everything and the very thought of him not trusting me –him not talking to me, was too painful to think about. It hurt even more when Ashley and Caroline called me to tell me about the latest care packages he’d sent, how they’d spoken to him every day last week. “He told us your first date was on the Golden Gate Bridge! Why didn’t you tell us that back then?” “We reminisced for hours, you should’ve heard us!” “He’s being pretty tight lipped about the wedding lately...He probably has a surprise for you...” “Could you tell him to call us via video chat tomorrow night? And tell him we said we love him since we’re going to be out of range for the rest of the day?” I scrubbed a loofah all over my body and decided to cut my bubble bath short. I needed to go for a run. Now. I slipped back into my robe and picked up the room phone. “Fairmont Front Desk,” a woman answered. “How may I help you Mrs. Statham?” “It’s Miss Gracen.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Gracen. How may I help you today?” “Do you all have a gift or a clothing shop downstairs?” “We do ma’am. Our gift shop features city collectibles and snacks, and our clothing shop is a mix of swimwear and light season gear at the moment. Would you like us to shut the shop down so you can shop privately?” “Oh...No, that’s okay. I was just wondering if someone could bring me a tracksuit in a medium size. Just place it on my room tab.” “Right away, Miss Gracen.” She waited for me to hang up first. I pulled my hair into a messy knot and splashed my face with cold water to get some of the redness out of my eyes. If it wasn’t for the way they looked, I could’ve passed as perfectly happy right now. Before I could begin my next series of cold-water face shots, there was a knock at my door. I made sure my robe was secured and rushed over to open it. “Good evening, Miss Gracen.” The bellman handed me five black wardrobe bags. “We weren’t sure what color you would like so we brought each one.” “Thank you very much.” I handed him a tip. “There’s an indoor runners’ park two miles down. Would you like one of our drivers to escort you there since it’s raining?” “No, that’s okay...I’m just going to go for a short walk...I have an umbrella. Thank you very much though.” I smiled as I shut the door. I didn’t care that it was raining. I needed to be outside with fresh air. Besides, I didn’t feel like being around other people. I wanted to be alone. I slipped into the tracksuit and put on the tennis shoes Greg had brought me earlier in the week. I grabbed my favorite umbrella and my music and looked around for my room key. Suddenly there was another knock at my door. Deep down I wished it was Jonathan, but I knew the front desk was probably delivering another set of flowers late, so I dragged myself to the door and opened it. Ryan?! “Claire, can we please talk?” I slammed the door in his face and turned away. I realized the door must have bounced back because I suddenly felt him walking behind me. “What the fuck are you doing?” I snapped. “Please listen to me...” There were tears in his voice. “Claire, can we...Can we please be civil for five minutes?” “We’ve gone from five seconds to five minutes? Please.” I tried to walk past him, but he put his hands on my shoulders. “She doesn’t want to die knowing that you still hate her...” He narrowed his eyes at me. “You don’t have to mean it...You could just say you forgive her.” “All bullshit aside, Ryan.” I gave him the meanest look I could manage. “Five years ago, I would’ve wanted to die happily married to you. But we don’t always get what we want, do we? Tell her to suck that shit up, or better yet, why don’t you have one of her friends suck you off and then she can feel exactly how I feel.” I left him seething in the living room and rushed into the adjoining room —where another door to the hallway was. I unlocked the chain at the top of the door and pulled it open. I ran towards the elevators and texted Greg the number “9”—code for emergency. I pressed the down button frantically, hoping a car would come before Ryan found me. “You were never this mean, Claire.” He rounded the corner. “What happened to you?”
“I guess some people bring out the worst in you. Is it really surprising that a low-life cheating fuck would make me behave like a bitch?” He narrowed his eyes at me and strolled over, pushing me against the wall by my shoulders. “If you want to be a cold-hearted bitch for the rest of your life, and if you want to marry that asshole of a man you call your fiancé—that’s fine. But what you’re not going to do is disrespect me. I’ve had you —before him, and I know who the fuck you are. You’re coming with me to see Amanda whether you like it or not. Now.” I tried to fight him off of me—beating my fists against his chest and trying to knee him, but he held me still and changed the tone of his voice. “Claire...Please just—” “Stop fucking talking to me, Ryan!” I was crying angrily. “You’ve done enough!” “Five minutes...You can’t give her that?” “NO!” I took a few deep breaths and tried not to scream. “I have a brand new life now and I don’t need you or Amanda in it for any longer than you’ve already been. You are both fucking scum and her being in surgery doesn’t change shit about what you two did to me. Just lie to her and say I forgave her, just like you lied to me. It shouldn’t be that hard for you.” “Listen...” He suddenly released his grip. “I know you don’t honestly feel like that.” I slid past him and ran towards the emergency stairwell, hoping that he would just give up and leave me alone. I made it through the door and was halfway down a flight of stairs when I felt him grabbing my arm—twisting it harshly. “Help! Helpppp!” I screamed as loud as I could, but he didn’t seem fazed at all. Instead he squeezed my arm even harder and pulled me close to him. “I’ve changed a lot in the past few years...” He looked possessed, and he was really hurting me. “In ways you can’t even begin to imagine, Claire. We can do this the easy way or the hard way, but—” I brought my other arm up and slapped the shit out of him. His eyes darkened and he hissed. Shocked, he let me go and pushed me away from him—hard. I tried to brace myself against the wall, but I couldn’t. I lost my footing and felt myself quickly tumbling, tumbling, tumbling—until I felt sharp pains all over, until everything went black.
Chapter 16 Claire “Miss Gracen?” A soft voice said. “Miss Gracen? Can you hear me?” I groaned and slightly opened my eyes, shutting them once a bright light seeped in. “Do you know where you are?” I kept my eyes shut. I couldn’t speak. “Could someone get me a fresh IV?” “Leave the monitor alone please.” “Did she have a cell phone when she was brought in? Anything else besides her ID?” There were clicking sounds and annoying beeping noises that seemed to get louder and louder with each second. I felt a sharp piercing pain in my right arm and forced my eyes open to see a nurse pushing a needle into my skin. The soft voice that had spoken before, spoke again. “You’re at St. Francis, in an intensive care unit. Okay honey?” She asked me more questions—something about how I was feeling and if I was seeing in color, but all I could do was wonder about what the fuck had happened. The last thing I heard her ask was “Can you feel this?” before everything around me went black.
“Miss Gracen?” That familiar soft voice woke me up. I nodded and opened my eyes. This time I was able to keep them open and actually see the woman I was speaking to: A petite brunette with a bright red headband and a matching nametag with hearts around it—Doctor Phillips. “Can you feel anything right now?” She touched my forehead. I tried to shake my head, but there was something holding my neck in place. “No...” I murmured. “Well, good. I’m going to keep you on the morphine drip for a day or two, and then I’ll have to prescribe some pain medication for you to take home. You’re very lucky that you only have a concussion and a few severe sprains.” “What?” I croaked. She raised her eyebrow and removed a clipboard from underneath her arms. “You’ve sprained both your ankles, you have a dislocated shoulder—your left one, interior bruising on your back, a severe neck sprain, and a concussion. Not bad for falling down ten flights of steps. Like I said, very lucky.” I blinked. I was too numb to say something smart to her right now. She walked around the bedside—where I couldn’t turn my neck to see her, and then she stepped back into my sight and handed me my cell phone. “I had to put it on silent because it kept ringing. Is there any one you would like me to call for you and let them know you’re here? Your fiancée maybe?” She looked at my engagement ring. I took my time tapping my screen, typing the words “My daughters...Ashley and Caroline” before holding out the phone to her.
“Okay. I’ll do that right now...” She smiled and scrolled through my contacts. “Hello may I speak to Ashley please? No, this is...No, I...Your mom is in the hospital, hun. She can’t speak right now but she wants you to know she’s okay...Calm down, calm down...Well, yes... She wanted me to call you and your sister to let you know...St Francis Hospital, room fifty thirty, east wing. Okay sweetheart. Goodbye.” She adjusted my pillow and handed the phone back to me. “Anyone else?” I typed my mother and she called and left a voicemail. After that, I asked her to call Rita—typing “take over for me this week” as the message I wanted to give. And after I had her call Greg—who apparently had been in the waiting room since I arrived last night, I managed a smile to let her know that was it. “You don’t want me to call your fiancée?” She cleared her throat. I looked down at my phone and scrolled through my missed calls: Greg, Greg, Greg, Ryan, Greg, Greg, Greg, Ryan. There were a few calls from my business, but not a single call from Jonathan. I typed “NO” onto my screen and held it up to her. “Okay then...Well, I’ll be back to check on you shortly, Miss Gracen. If you can think of anything else you may want, just hit the blue call button on the remote and one of the nurses will see that you get it.” I smiled again and she left the room. I’d heard her list all my injuries, but it seemed so surreal, especially since I couldn’t “feel” anything. My body was so numb I could barely feel my tongue licking my lips. Confused, I slowly lifted my right hand in front of my face and stared at the mini gray remote they’d secured in the middle of my palm. There were four buttons: “Call Nurse” “Television” “Volume” “Lights” I hit the television button and held the lights button until the room went completely dark. As luck would have it, the TV was already set on HGTV and a marathon of one of my favorite shows—Yard Crashers was on. I lay there in bed for hours, watching them remodel yard after yard, until I couldn’t hold my eyes open anymore.
“Do you think she wants that Jell-O?” “Probably not...She’s never really liked Jell-O.” “Do you think she wants that chicken?” “We could just ask the nurse to bring her some more...” I opened my eyes and saw Ashley and Caroline taking spoonfuls of my green Jell-O. I tried to sit up, but Caroline shook her head and gasped. “Stop. You’re only going to hurt yourself. They told us you’re not supposed to move.” Sighing, I nodded and cleared my throat. “When did you get here?” “Last night. Jonathan flew us in right after we talked to the nurse.” “He got us a room at the Marriott across the street.” So he knows I’m here and he’s not by my side? “Oh...” My throat hurt. “Well, that’s great.” They exchanged glances, and as if they could read my mind, Ashley poured me a glass of water and Caroline adjusted my pillow so I could sit up and drink. “Grandma’s on her way over too.” Ashley said. “We all came by earlier today but you wouldn’t wake up...Are you in pain?” “No...” “They told us you’re going to have to stay here for a few more days and that you’ll have to wear a sling for a couple weeks.” “They say you’ll be healed in time to walk down the aisle...”
I’m not walking down the aisle... “They told me that too...” “They did?” Caroline smiled. “Well, when you get a chance maybe you can explain that to Jonathan. He seems to think they’re lying. He wants them to run every test they have.” I wanted to laugh, but even that was too hard. And there was nothing funny about Jonathan Statham right now. “We’re going to run down to the cafeteria.” Ashley looked into my eyes. “Can we get you anything? Soup maybe?” “No thank you.” “I think we should get her some anyway.” “Me too, she’s probably too tired to realize that’s what she wants.” I rolled my eyes as they walked out of the room, and before I could turn the lights off, I saw Jonathan standing in the doorway. I looked away and stared straight ahead, pressing the TV button on my mini remote. I would have rather watched the paint mixing show than talk to him right now. “Claire...” His voice was low. I didn’t answer. I couldn’t believe he’d ignored all my calls for two weeks, couldn’t believe he hadn’t called after not hearing from me in almost two days. “Claire, how are you feeling today?” His voice was hoarse. I turned the volume up. “You’re not talking to me?” “I’ve been calling you for two weeks.” I kept my eyes glued to the TV. “I’ve clearly been trying to talk to you.” I heard him walking closer to me, felt him brushing a hand against my cheek. “I’ve been calling you as well. I called as soon as you didn’t call me on the hour like you’ve been doing... You didn’t answer.” “No. You didn’t.” I rolled my eyes. “You don’t have to lie. Just admit that you’re fucking selfish and you wanted to continue making me suffer.” “Excuse me?” “You heard me.” I ignored the pain in my throat. “I can understand you being mad about me talking to Ryan, really I can. And I am so sorry that I hurt your feelings by talking to him at all. It was a mistake on my part and I shouldn’t have given him a second of my time, but that was last week and you haven’t called me at all this week. What the fuck is wrong with you?” “Claire...” “Even Ryan has called me since I’ve been here—fucking Ryan! And apparently he’s the reason why I’m in here!” I noticed his eyes were blazing. “I haven’t called him back and I’m never going to, but...You haven’t called me since I got here—here in the fucking hospital, Jonathan. I’ve been here for two days and...” I tried not to cry. “You just...Didn’t you think something was wrong when all my phone calls suddenly stopped? Huh? Or are you that self-absorbed to where you can only focus on your anger? Even when your so-called fiancée is in the hospital?” He sighed and opened his mouth to speak, but I cut him off. “How long were you going to let me stay at that hotel by myself? How long were you going to keep sending me note-less flowers and ignoring my fucking calls?” “Claire...” “You want to know why no one got their wedding invitations in the fucking mail?” I didn’t care that he was narrowing his eyes at me. “It’s because I didn’t like the goddamn paper invitations, Jonathan. They weren’t us, so I thought I would do something different. I called everyone we invited and told them the date and venue information. I said we weren’t sending out formal invitations, and
that they would get something a few weeks before the wedding...I told them not to say anything to you about it because I wanted it to be a surprise...” “I’m aware of that now, Claire. Just listen to me.” “No...Do you know how much time it took for me to design five hundred sea hooks? Five hundred sea hooks that’ll form together as one huge sea hook with our initials across the front? Do you know? Do you?” He sighed. “As far as our cake goes...” I wasn’t backing down. “I don’t know what the hell happened with that, because I only meant to cancel one of them...And do you honestly think I would wait until the last minute to design your wedding band? Really? I didn’t want to use Valenti’s—I wanted to find a place on my own. But you—you wouldn’t even listen to me. You didn’t even give me a chance...” My voice cracked. “I can’t believe that you’re so selfish...As a matter of fact, I don’t want you here right now. Get out...Tell Greg to come in so I can thank him for being here for me. He’s been in the waiting room since I got here, where you should’ve been.” There was hurt in his eyes as he tucked me underneath the covers. “Get out, Jonathan. I only want to be around people that care right now...” “I made it to the hospital before you did, Claire. “ His voice was low. “I was waiting on you to get here...” What? I tried not to look shocked, but I could tell he’d read my mind. “I was on my way to the Fairmont to talk to you so we could make-up because being without you —whether I’m mad at you or not, is still unbearable...I was twenty minutes away when I got a call from my security team telling me that you’d been pushed down the steps.” “I don’t have any missed calls from you.” I said flatly. “I was using Greg’s phone. He smashed mine.” “By accident?” “Greg never does anything by accident.” He rolled his eyes. “I was trying to call a few special people that would beat the shit out of Ryan and dump his body in the sea. He ran off once the medics came, after he told them that he didn’t mean to do it—that it was an accident...” “I slapped him...I shouldn’t have done that.” He pressed his fingers against my lips. “I’ve been sitting right over there since you’ve been in this room.” He pointed to the corner, but I still couldn’t move my neck. “I told them I wasn’t leaving unless you were coming with me.” “You saw me tell the nurse not to call you?” He nodded and narrowed his eyes at me. “Why didn’t you say something?” “I was in shock.” He looked hurt. “I couldn’t believe you’d said that—that you didn’t want to call me first.” “I’m sorry.” “You shouldn’t be...” He brushed his thumb against my cheek, whispering, “I deserved it...I’m so sorry, Claire. This should’ve never happened...” We stared into each other ’s eyes, not saying anything further. Then I remembered something he’d said earlier. “How did your security team know that I’d fallen down the steps that soon?” I asked. “You had them watching me?” “Not watching you. Protecting you.” He held my hand. “Apparently they were on a coffee break when Ryan came to see you...” “Are they always watching me?”
He didn’t answer. He simply ran his fingers against the sling on my left arm and shook his head. “I’m sorry they weren’t able to prevent this...They should’ve never let Ryan get that close to you...” “You fired them?” “On the spot.” He kissed my forehead. “We’ll talk about everything later. Just rest.” “Could you ask the doctors how much longer I’m going to be here? The numbness is starting to wear off. ” “A few more days.” He looked saddened. “But let’s not focus on that. I’d rather know why you didn’t show up for our meeting with the wedding planner on Wednesday.” “I thought the wedding was off.” “Why would you think that?” “I got a call about you canceling our meeting with the marital attorney, and since you didn’t show up for the final tour of the venue the other day...” “I canceled the marital attorney appointment because he wanted me to sign a pre-nup, not because I don’t want to marry you.” He shook his head. “And I did show up to the venue—on time. You must have been late because I waited for you for over an hour...” He smiled. “I made a promise to you, and whether I’m upset with you or not, you’re still the stubborn love of my life... Do you still want to marry me, Claire?” “Yes...” He bent down and kissed my cheek. “Would you like to push the wedding back?” He looked over my body. “Until you feel better?” “No.” He raised his eyebrow. “I don’t want to wait any longer—four weeks is long enough.” He smiled and kissed my forehead. “You didn’t change anything in that last meeting with Miss Corwin did you?” “I did actually.” He smirked. “Quite a few things.” I was alert now. “A few things like what?” “Like the way the room will be set up, the dance floor inscription, the lighting...” “So, you pretty much changed everything?” “I guess so.” He kissed my cheek. “I didn’t have much help that day.” “Jonathan, you said I could choose everything. I had the perfect ideas for the reception, and for you to go and...I can’t believe you. You just have to control something don’t you?” I groaned and he walked over to turn the TV off. “I wasn’t done watching that, and I’m not done talking to you about our wedding reception. Can you get her on the phone so she can explain what you changed and I can make sure it all matches?” “No.” He hit the lights. “Can you at least tell me the specifics then? It’s not that I don’t trust your taste but—” I felt his lips covering mine—softly, tenderly, as if he wanted to be as careful as possible. “Go to sleep, Claire.”
Chapter 17 Claire Two weeks later... I slowly walked across the room, ignoring the faint pain in my right foot, pleading with my body to keep moving. So close....so close... I took five more steps and collapsed onto the sofa once I made it to the other side. My specialist clapped and handed me a cup of water. “Very good, Miss Gracen!” She was beaming. “That was two hours of walking! You are going to be strolling down that aisle with ease! Has your fiancée been letting you do a little more on your own now when you’re at home?” No... I told her yes, but Jonathan hadn’t let me do much of anything. He’d taken an extended vacation from his company so he could tend to my every need. He even had a replica of our bedroom built downstairs so I could get to it—via the wheelchair I didn’t really need to use. I’d tried to convince him that the pain wasn’t that bad and that I really didn’t need physical therapy, but he refused to listen and he refused to let me go to work. He had my staff come over during the day time and we all worked in various rooms. And whenever I had an appointment with a client, I hosted it outside by the pool. As far as the recommended exercises I was supposed to do at home, he was always ready to help me complete them. Even when it took me an hour to walk across the room without wincing, or when I cried for half a day because I couldn’t do the shoulder routine right, he was patient and encouraging. “How long do you honestly think it’ll be until I can run again? And can you please write a note telling Mr. Statham that I’m fully capable of getting around without that damn wheelchair? I’m not taking it home with me today...” She smiled and pulled a pad out of her pocket. “Of course. You can probably jog in four months...Running?” She shook her head. “We’ll talk about that when I see you again. I’ll be right back with your progress chart.” My cellphone rang and I held it up to my ear without looking at it. Jonathan always called right after my session was over. “I need a few more minutes.” I said. “I’m waiting for my progress chart.” “Claire...” It was Ryan. I hung up. My phone rang again and I answered it, thinking it was Jonathan. “Please don’t hang up, Claire.” It was the asshole again. “I’m...I’m so sorry that I pushed you—I never meant to hurt you like that...Please believe me.” “I don’t. And I really hope you’re out of town because there are lots of people looking for you right now.” He sighed. “I just want to let you know that Amanda is recovering from her surgery very well.” He paused. “Phase two was a week ago and it was risky, but it actually worked.” “Well, good for her and good for you. Try not to push her out of the window. Goodbye.” I hung up.
He called back but I didn’t answer. Then he called two more times before I finally put my phone on silent. I was about to call Jonathan and tell him I’d be outside, but Ryan sent me a text: “One of your employees mentioned you being at St. Francis...She’s in the same place...Room 2323...I won’t be there so you won’t have to talk to me—or see me...Just tell her hello. That’s all I’m asking...”
I wasn’t sure what made me change my mind, but there I was in line for a visitation pass, considering coming face to face with the woman who’d drastically altered my life. The bright lights and taupe walls were triggering memories of years past, years when Amanda would be bedridden for the entire summer, when I would bring her teddy bears and catch her up on all the gossip she’d missed from the first week of high school classes. It always used to pain me to see her body connected to numerous tubes, but I’d never let my concern show on my face. I always told her that “This time is the last time. You’ll never be in this room again.” And after we graduated high school together I’d believed those words were true. “Next!” The woman at the security desk motioned for me to step forward. “I need your license and your parking ticket from the garage for verification. If you caught the bus, I need a separate form of ID.” I handed her my license and my therapy card. “Who are you here to see, Miss Gracen?” “Amanda Meadows. Oncology.” “Amanda Meadows?” She shook her head at her screen. “I’m sorry.” I cleared my throat. “Amanda Hayes. She married...” She nodded and filled out a green ID badge before handing it over to me. “Visiting hours are over at nine unless you’re given special permission by the doctors on that floor. Keep your ID badge on at all times. You’ll get your license back once you return it. She’s on level twenty three. Next!” I slid my purse over my shoulder and slowly walked over to the elevators, taking a deep breath. Why am I doing this? I don’t owe her anything... Before I could talk myself out of seeing her, the elevator doors sprung open and I forced myself to step inside. It took several minutes before I reached the twenty third floor; the cart seemed to stop on every level and everyone who stepped on was pre-occupied with whatever conversation they were having on their cell phone. “Twenty. Three.” The elevator system’s speaker droned out and I pushed my way to the front to step off. I looked down on my ID badge where Amanda’s room number was written and headed to the left. Each room I passed had cards and ‘Get Well Soon’ messages taped onto the door frames. Room 2323.... I stopped directly in front of the door, forcing myself not to wince as her name—Amanda Hayes, stared me right in the face in red writing. I knocked four times but there was no answer. I shrugged and decided to walk away, but I heard a faint “Come in.” I hesitated, wondering if I should face her or not. I twisted the handle and stepped inside. When I rounded the corner, her eyes immediately met mine. I stood there completely frozen, taken aback by her ghastly appearance. Her skin was pale, her eyes seemed yellowed, and all of her hair had been shaved off. She didn’t look anything like the woman I’d seen in the catering store.
I looked next to her bed and spotted a full, brown wig hanging off the nightstand. “Claire?” She croaked as she slowly sat up. “I didn’t think you would actually come to see me...” “Me either.” I kept my distance. “I heard your surgery went well.” She nodded. “Yeah. It did.” “Well, good for you...” My eyes veered towards the flower arrangements that were sitting on her window sill. They were all red roses—polo style. The exact same ones Ryan used to give to me when we were married. “Would you like to take a seat?” She cleared her throat. “If you’re not too busy that is...” “Actually, I am.” I took a step back. “I’m not even sure why I came here in the first place...I wish you well with everything and—good to know you’ll be well in the years to come...Goodbye, Amanda...” I turned around to walk away, but she mustered a throaty “Wait!” from her lungs. I paused and barely looked over my shoulder. “Please, listen...If you find a small—however small it may be, part in your heart that would forgive me for what I did to you, what I did to us and our friendship...I would really appreciate it. I’m trying to really fix my life and work on being more positive so I...I would just like a clean slate...” “A clean slate?” I slowly turned back around. “Is that what you said?” She gave a weak nod. “I don’t want this to weigh down on my conscience anymore...There are some days that the very thought of what I did...It makes me so sick that I can’t stomach it and I literally vomit or cry myself to sleep...It’s been years and I still can’t get over it. I want you to know that I really am sorry, Claire—for everything I put you through.” She paused. “I know we can’t be friends again—and as much as I wish that that wasn’t true, I just...I just want to be able to have a clear conscience again—to go a full year without waking up in the middle of the night thinking about what happened... ” I took a deep breath and tried to swallow down the bitterness that I’d felt for years, that disgusting taste of betrayal. But it was still there—sour as ever, and sick or not, she was still a bitch. I strolled over to her bedside and looked her right in her eyes, tempted to squeeze her oxygen bag until she begged me to stop. “It should weigh down on your conscience every day.” I hissed. “Every. Fucking. Day. Every time you look into his eyes—the ones I used to tell you about, remember? How they look gray in the summer time and green in the fall? Every time he’s lying on top of you and you have to look at that tattoo on his chest—the one that reads “Claire” but can’t be removed because that small keloid is right underneath it, you should feel like shit. You don’t deserve a clear conscience, Amanda, and you’ll never get a clean slate from me. Ever.” “Claire—” “No.” I didn’t give her a chance for a rebuttal. “I want you to know that I am engaged to the man of my dreams—the man of my fucking dreams. He is everything I could ever want in a man and so much more than Ryan could ever be. And even though I had to lose Ryan to find him, I didn’t need to lose him the way that I did—the way you took him from me.” “I’m sorry...” “You ruined my happily ever after, Amanda. And it wasn’t a one-time thing either. This was going on for months! Behind my back! How could you even live with yourself back then? How could you smile at me and hang out with me knowing damn well that you...” I couldn’t look at her without getting angry, and I suddenly felt my hand twitching. “You let me hang out with you with no fucking remorse whatsoever—you just let me go about my life as if nothing was going on. But the whole time you knew! You knew what the fuck was going on and you just—” Before I could complete the bitch-slap of the century, I felt someone grabbing my wrist from behind and holding it still. Jonathan.
I saw Amanda squinting her eyes shut as if she were still waiting for my hand to connect with her cheek, then I slowly turned around to face Jonathan. His eyebrow was raised and the look on his face was one of confusion, uncertainty— disappointment. “Step outside, Claire.” He wiped a tear away from my face. “Now.” I didn’t even bother looking back at Amanda. I wanted to remember her face how it was seconds ago for the rest of my life. Cowardly bitch.... I stepped outside and headed into the ladies’ restroom that was next door. Frustrated, I leaned over the sink and splashed my face with water over and over again. “I really didn’t mean to push you...” Ryan cleared his throat, startling me and forcing me to turn around. “Stay the hell away from me, Ryan. I’m not in the mood for any more of your bullshit and you’ve caused enough trouble. Go comfort your wife.” I strolled past him, but he grabbed my elbow and pressed me against the wall. “Listen...” There were tears in his eyes. “I didn’t expect you to come see her, but thank you. Regardless of if you forgave her or not, I think you coming here meant a lot to her. And to me.” “You really do need professional help...” I tried to move away, but he was pinning me against the door. “For the record, it was just lust, Claire—what she and I had. It eventually grew into love, but...” “I honestly don’t give a fuck about you or her. I don’t know how many ways I can possibly say it, but if you could just...” I looked at his arms and darted my eyes to the door. “Just let me go so I can leave.” “Not until you listen to me.” I sighed. If my legs weren’t so stiff, I would’ve attempted to break free and run for the door, but I knew there was no way I’d get past him. “Ryan...” I sighed again for emphasis. “There are priests all over this city who are willing to listen to your problems for free. Find one of them because I don’t have the time.” “I would like a second chance with you, Claire.” The earth fell away at my feet and I lost the ability to speak. I was shocked. Blown Away. Disgusted. “You heard me...” He brought his face close to mine. “A second chance. You and me. It can be calm and easy again. I know it because that’s who we were.” “The moment I lost you I felt empty,” he continued. “I had no idea that you would pack up and leave the way you did. I mean, just because I said that I’d always had feelings for Amanda, didn’t mean that I didn’t have any left for you. I was just...in a tough spot in my life. I thought you would at least reconsider the divorce, but you just...You filed the very next day. I wasn’t expecting that...” “Ryan...” I barely managed. “Stop it...Stop it right now.” “Everything happened so fast...Months later you moved all the way out here and you just cut me off like I was—” “Worthless? Pathetic? Full of shit?” “You were just angry.” He pressed his thumb over my lips. “And you had every right to be...But people make mistakes Claire...I tried making it work with Amanda—I did the right thing and I married her but...All we ever did the first year and a half was talk about how guilty we felt over what we did to you.” I tried my hardest to block him out. I didn’t want to hear the rest of this shit. I didn’t care.
“You know I never meant to push you down those steps...” he said as he cupped my chin. “And even though your new fiancée got me fired and blacklisted me from every single firm in Pittsburgh...I think that you and I could rebuild what we had again. I have enough saved up and I really believe that. Amanda is talking about divorce for the fifth time and I think she finally means it...Can’t you see? Our lives weren’t worth much without you in it—which is exactly why you should take me back. I know how badly you’ve missed me, because I’ve missed you too.” I felt my eyes widening as far as they could go. This was a painful sight to see, but for some reason I couldn’t look away. “What the two of us had was special...” He caressed my cheek with the back side of his palm. “It was something I’ve never felt before. All these years I’ve wished that I could go back in time and change what I—” The next thing I saw was a fist connecting with his jaw. It took me several seconds to realize that it was Jonathan and he was punching the shit out of him, so hard that I heard his bones cracking. Ryan tried to fight back, swinging his fists in the air, but Jonathan sent a fist straight into his eye— knocking him against the wall. I thought he would leave him alone—that he would allow him to suffer with a bloodied eye and a cracked jaw. But he stepped closer and jabbed Ryan in the ribs again and again—until he slid down to the floor, murmuring—pleading for him to stop. Unconvinced, Jonathan stood over him and punched his face repeatedly, until he couldn’t utter another word. I clutched my chest and gasped at the ugly sight in front of me: Ryan was curled up into a ball with his eyes swollen shut, bleeding all over the floor. Calm as ever, Jonathan walked over to the sink and rolled up his sleeves, taking all the time in the world to wash his hands. When he was done, he reached for a paper towel and dried them as if he hadn’t just beat someone to near death. He looked into my eyes as he took out his cell phone. “Greg? Yes. I’m on the twenty third floor. Women’s restroom. Could you get someone up here to help Mr. Hayes down to the ER please? He’s in desperate need of assistance.” He paused. “I’m taking Claire down to return her ID badge and we’ll meet you in the garage. Have Sean take my car home. Thank you.” He hung up and slipped his arm around my waist, walking me out of the room. There were no words between us, no glances either. I wasn’t sure how I made it downstairs, or how long it took to get my license back, but the next thing I knew I was sitting in the back seat of the town car, watching the streets rush past in the window. As we were approaching the expressway, I turned to face Jonathan. “You almost killed him...” “He put his hands on you.” He narrowed his eyes. “He’s lucky I didn’t.” I swallowed and sat silently by his side, still in shock at the scene that had unfolded in that bathroom. I had no idea he was capable of beating someone that terribly. He’d been so possessed, so obsessed with beating him within an inch of his life. “Did you really have him fired...And blacklisted at every firm in Pittsburgh?” I whispered. “No...Every firm in the country.” Silence. “You didn’t hit Amanda...” My voice was shaking. “Did you?” “I’ve never hit a woman, Claire.” He looked into my eyes. “And I never will...I told her that you weren’t interested in being contacted by either of them again, and that I didn’t want my future wife to have any more sleepless nights due to their interference.” He lifted my hand and circled his thumb around my knuckles. “I paid for her surgery since it might be a little harder for them to afford since Ryan isn’t working, and I’ll have the hospital bill me for his injuries as well.”
I was sure there was still fear in my eyes, because he cupped my face in his hands and pressed his lips against mine. “I’ll hurt anyone who hurts you, Claire. Anyone.” I nodded and he pulled me up against his chest, stroking my back with his fingertips. “You’ll never have to worry about either of them ever again.”
Chapter 18 Jonathan “Is there a reason why I just received a call about you assaulting a man in a hospital bathroom?” Milton walked into my office. “Please tell me that’s a joke.” “I didn’t mean to break his nose. Only his jaw.” “Well, thank god you broke his ribs and his clavicle bone too. I’m sure they were feeling quite neglected in the brawl.” “I already paid his hospital bill, and that includes post-therapy treatment. It’s been over a week. Is he trying to sue?” “Damn right he’s trying to sue, Jonathan! He’s a lawyer! What the fuck did you think was going to happen?!” I shrugged. “I’ll take care of it. Is there anything interesting you want to talk about today?” He rolled his eyes and handed me a folder. “Here are the stock options that will be changed over to your wife’s name. I’ve already added her as an accessor to all of your personal accounts and she’ll gain full access the day your marriage license is approved...Full access...to all of your money...All of your—” “Anything else?” “Yes.” He pulled a small box out of his pocket and handed it to me. “Congratulations. It’s a rare pen—just in case you change your mind over the next few days...There’s also a real gift in there for your wife to be. I like her more than I like you.” “Thank you very much. I’ll see you at the wedding.” I laughed as he walked out of my office. Just as I was getting ready to follow suit, Corey came in and slammed the door shut, narrowing his eyes at me. “Yes?” I narrowed my eyes right back. “Is there a problem, Mr. Walters?” “Yes. There is a fucking problem.” “That’s a very loaded sentence, don’t you think?” “Greg is not going to be the best man at your wedding, Jonathan. I am. And if you have a problem with that—” “I do have a problem with that.” “Greg isn’t your best friend.” “Greg isn’t sleeping with my little sister.” “Neither am I.” His eyes turned to slits. “I like Hayley—a lot. Hell, I might even love her—I don’t fucking know yet because I don’t even know what that word means, but it’s different with her. She’s not like the other women I’ve been with.” “Other women you’ve been with total or other women you’ve been with this year? You’ve fucked over fifty women in the past nine months.” “I know that.” “Does she?” He didn’t answer, but the look in his eyes said it all. “I’m not Hayley’s guardian anymore.” I shook my head. “I can’t tell her what to do or who not to date, but you’ve known her for years. You protected her right there with me some of those years and
now you...Surely you can see why I would have a problem with her entertaining the man who previously promised to A) never commit to one woman B) Fuck as many women as possible and C) Live life with no attachments. Forever. You want me to believe that you’ve changed overnight? Because of a few heart to heart conversations with my sister? Because she didn’t hop in bed with you right away like all the other women did?” “Jonathan...” He looked sincere. “I’ve never not told you about a woman I was with because I didn’t care. I’ve never cared about any of them or their feelings. I care about Hayley. I always have...” A thick silence hung in the air between us, and as much as I wanted to beat him like I’d beat Ryan, I couldn't do it. I didn’t want to admit it, but I had seen a change in Hayley and she was the one that mattered most in this equation. Sure, she was still a terrible employee—always had been, but she seemed happier now. And she wasn’t fake laughing and smiling like she usually did just to get me to leave her alone. Her happiness seemed genuine for a change. I still can’t believe this shit... “Corey...” I kept my voice firm. “If you break my little sister ’s heart, if you are responsible for one fucking tear that comes out of her eyes, I will have you murdered. And then I’ll really go to work on you...” He blinked. Then he smiled. “How long have you been working on that speech?” “All week. Too strong of an emphasis on the ‘really’?” “No, that part was good.” He sounded impressed. “It was the last clause that threw me off. Say it a little slower next time so it sounds more threatening. It was a little too fast for me.” “I was serious about having you murdered.” He nodded and walked over to me, shaking my hand. “I won’t hurt her. Now, where is the best man’s box for this weekend?” “It should be at your house already. Angela had it delivered this morning.”
Claire and I walked around the hotel’s outdoor garden, hand in hand. It was the day before our wedding, and even though we'd been with each other all day, we’d hardly said a word. Earlier that morning we’d sampled the final sweets selection from Stella’s, listened to a few short songs from the full orchestra we’d hired, and driven around the newly built wedding venue. She’d wanted to go inside and take a look at the reception room—to see how they were setting it up, but I wouldn’t let her; I wanted that to be a surprise. “Do you think they’re going to remember what I said about the flower petals? How I want them to look on the aisle?” she asked. “I’m pretty sure they’ll remember.” I pulled her close to me. “And what about the chair sashes? I specifically showed them how I wanted them to be tied, but it looked like they weren’t paying attention to me.” “That’s probably because it was your tenth time telling them. They’re professionals.” She sighed. “I just want it to be a perfect wedding...” “It will be.” I bent down to kiss her lips, but she was suddenly yanked away from me. “That’s enough.” Helen scoffed. “God, you two kill me. You’ll see each other at the wedding. And then you’ll have all eternity. It’s time for your spa treatments, Claire.” “Right now?” She blinked. “Yes. Now.” Helen tugged her away from me and she blew me a kiss. I smiled and blew one back at her before turning away in the other direction—impatiently waiting for tomorrow.
Chapter 19 Claire I couldn't sleep. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and even though the air vents in the room were blasting heavily, I was sweating. I couldn’t stop thinking—smiling, about what lay ahead in the morning, about how my life would change when I became Mrs. Statham. Nervous, I slipped out of bed and headed into the bathroom. I held a towel under cold water and pressed it against my face, being careful not to touch the strange white patches Bobbie Jo and Kim had placed over my eyebrows. The spa treatments they’d put me through earlier were more extensive than the ones in Costa Rica, and they hadn’t allowed me to say a single word about any of them. They didn’t even let me see Jonathan when he showed up to my suite with flowers, claiming that seeing the groom the night before the wedding was bad luck. I looked at myself in the mirror and sighed. Sleeping without Jonathan by my side was never comfortable. I decided to take a few swigs of wine to get through the night, but I heard a soft tapping at my door. I slipped into my robe and looked through the peephole. Jonathan? I cracked the door open, whispering, “What are you doing?” “I need to talk to you.” “Are you calling the wedding off?” “No.” “Then you shouldn’t be here. Go away.” He rolled his eyes. “Come go for a ride with me.” I shook my head. “You’re not supposed to see me until the wedding.” He pulled a pair of shades and a folded baseball cap out of his pocket. “Then I won’t see you. We need to talk...” I slid the glasses over my eyes and pulled the cap over my head before stepping out of the room. He took my hand in his and led me down the hall and onto the elevator, keeping his gaze straight ahead. When we made it to the lobby, valet pulled his car around and held the doors open. “Where are we going?” I asked. “To our wedding venue.” “Why?” “Because we need to see everything together before tomorrow.” He waited for me to buckle my seatbelt before speeding off into the night. Half an hour later, he pulled his car into the cobblestoned turnaround and helped me out. Slipping an arm around my waist, he walked me inside where Miss Corwin and her staff were busy decorating away—making last minute adjustments. She raised her eyebrow when we stepped in front of her. “Shouldn’t you two be in bed?” She smiled. “Separately?” Jonathan kissed my cheek. “We wanted to take one final tour together if that’s okay.”
She nodded and directed us down the hall, where her other staff was fiddling with ten foot tall flower arrangements. “The ceremony lawn is right through those doors, remember? And the reception room is down two halls and to the right. Actually...” She pulled a slip of paper from her pocket. “This is a scaled down blueprint of everything. Knock yourselves out, but I’m going to have to force you to leave in forty five minutes. I don’t want the photographers to have to edit baggy eyes from your pictures.” We laughed and made our way down the hall. I tried to steer us toward the reception room, to get a glimpse of the changes he’d asked her to make, but he held me close and sighed. “You’ll see it tomorrow.” As we stepped outside and into the darkness, I could see hundreds of stark white chairs with ivory sashes, blush and pastel aisle markers, and a beautiful white gazebo that stood near the edge of the newly sodded grass. “Come here.” Jonathan tugged me down the aisle and under the gazebo. He motioned for me to sit down on a bench and sighed. “I want you to look at this before I give it to you tomorrow—because after tomorrow, I don’t want you to ever take it off.” I watched as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring box, holding it out to me. Shaking my head, I pushed it back. “It’s bad luck...Look at yours first.” I reached into my robe and placed the box on his thigh. He stared at it awhile, then he popped it open and—stopped. He pulled me close and held the ring into the light, sucking in a breath as he read the inscription aloud. “My last. My soul. My everything.” He smiled and rolled the ring around in his hands; it was a platinum band with two thin strips of crushed diamonds, with “C” and “J” etched and entwined against a centered sea hook. “This is beautiful, Claire...” His voice was hoarse. “I’m so sorry that I ever thought you didn’t design it...” He shook his head and gently placed the ring back into the box. “Open yours.” I flipped the box open and gasped at the stones that glittered against the night. Slowly prying it from its box, I ran my fingers along the white and blue diamonds that were shaped in a design of waves. The words “Mr. & Mrs. Statham” floated in between them, and on the inside of the band he’d etched “Forever Yours, Always Mine.” I felt tears falling down my face and he reached under my sunglasses to wipe them away. “I want to read my vows to you.” He pressed a kiss against my wet cheek. “I thought we agreed that we weren’t writing vows...” “These are only for you to hear. They’re not appropriate to say in public.” He smiled and wiped a tear away from my cheek. “Why are you crying?” “I’m not...” “You’ll always be a terrible liar.” He wiped another stream of my tears away and leaned forward like he was going to kiss me, but he held back. “Claire Gracen...The first time I fucked you—” “Seriously?” “Of course not. I’m just making sure that you’re listening.” He smiled. “The first time I met you and you turned me down, I honestly thought you were out of your mind, that there was no way you didn’t want to go out with me. I thought you were just playing hard to get, but then you turned me down again at work....When I finally got a chance to take you out—on a short run, no less, and we barely talked...I knew that there was something special about you.” “And the more time I spent with you—outside of the amazing sex we had, I couldn’t help but fall for you...I know you didn’t believe in having a second chance at love and that our age gap bothered you, but I want you to know that I never thought about our age gap for a single second, and I never will...If something tragic happens between now and our wedding tomorrow, please believe me when I say that I didn’t know what love was before you, and you are—without a doubt, the love of my life.”
My bottom lip was quivering and I’d given up on trying to hold back the tears. “You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met and I can’t wait until you’re officially mine —forever...” He trailed his finger against my lips. “I’ll never hurt you, betray you, or allow anyone else to.” “Jonathan...” I was crying now. He was too much. “I’m going to continue to send you flowers every day because you deserve them, because there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you...And I promise to love, cherish, and fuck the shit out of you for the rest of our lives.” I sniffled and let out a laugh. “Those vows were beautiful... Especially that last line.” “That was the hardest one to write.” He kissed my forehead. “I love you, Claire.” “I love you too.” I leaned in to kiss him, but he held my shoulders still and whispered. “Tomorrow.” I sighed. “Are you going to tell me where we’re going for our honeymoon?” He shook his head and stood up, reaching for my hand. Then he slipped his other arm around my waist and walked me around the rose gardens he’d had imported from the South. We didn’t say a word to one another. We simply slipped into that familiar quiet that easily enveloped us so often. After we stared up at the sky together, wishing on separate stars, he planted a kiss on my forehead and drove me back to the hotel. When we boarded the elevator, he smiled at me and peered beneath my sunglasses. The second the doors opened, he ushered me off and walked me back to my suite. “I’ll see you tomorrow...” I stood on my toes and brought his head down to mine. I was dying for him to kiss my lips. Just once. “Tomorrow, future wife,” he said softly and kissed my hand. “You should probably get inside your room before I drag you into mine and forget all about the wedding.” I laughed kissed him on the cheek. “Goodnight, future husband.”
I woke up to loud knocking at my door. “I’m coming! I’m coming!” I threw a robe on over my pajamas and opened the door. It was Helen and Sandra. “You’re late for your makeup.” Sandra shook her head. “Bobbie Jo and Kim have been calling your phone for the past two hours. Did you stay up late?” I shook my head. “Are you having second thoughts?” Helen raised her eyebrow. “What? Of course not.” “Good.” She dragged me over to a chair and pushed me into it. “Since you’re late, I’ll just have the girls meet us here to do everything. Sandra, could you call room service and have them bring Claire some breakfast? We don’t want her getting sick on her big day.” Sandra nodded and disappeared into the bedroom. The next few hours were a dizzying blur: Bobbie Jo and Kim did my hair and make-up to perfection; my eyes were layered in a soft glittering eye shadow and my hair was pulled into a beautiful chignon with loose ringlets that grazed my shoulder. Hayley came and presented me with the garter she’d personally designed, my mother and daughters fiddled with my dress until they thought it was perfect, and a huge white bouquet of flowers was brought into the room. I was reaching for the silver card that was attached to their stems, but Sandra snatched it away
from me. “Let’s see what Mr. Billionaire has to say to his fiancée on her wedding day.” She flipped the card open and cleared her throat as if she was going to read it aloud, but then she burst into tears. “Ugh.” Helen rolled her eyes. “Give me that...To my future wife: Today is the first day of the rest of our lives. With the exception of the first day that I met you—the day you came into my life, no other day will ever mean as much to me as today. You are the reason behind my happiness and you hold the keys to my soul. I love you, Claire...Hurry up and get here :-)” Everyone in the room let out a collective “Awww” and wiped tears away from their eyes—even Helen. As they were passing around Kleenex, I slipped away to answer the knocking at the door. Jonathan’s mother. “Hi...” I eyed the dark red wine she held in her hand, hoping that she wouldn’t do what I thought she was here to do. She noticed me staring at the glass and quickly tossed it back. “I’m sorry...It’s juice, not wine—and I would never...” She paused. “Do you have something borrowed, Claire?” My eyes widened and I panicked. “No...No, I don’t. Oh my god—that’s really bad luck...I can’t believe I don’t have it.” I clutched my chest. “Here.” She pulled a gorgeous pearl and ivory pin from her hair. “My mother wore it at her wedding and I wore it at mine. I thought I would...I thought I would give it to you, so you could...You know...” Her eyes were sincere but she looked as if she were bracing for me to shun her away. “Thank you, Mrs. Statham.” I reached out to take the pin from her, but she slowly drew it back. “Allow me,” she said and motioned for me to stoop down. “You make my son really happy, Claire...After all he’s been through, he deserves to be happy and I’m glad you brought that out of him.” I felt the pin sliding into my hair, and when I was sure she was done, I stood up again. I looked at her a long time, fully aware that all my friends were staring at us—ready and waiting to pounce on her should she attempt to do something crazy. Instead of dismissing her, I smiled and wrapped my arms around her—hugging her tightly. “Thank you for the something borrowed. I look forward to us starting over in the future.” She sniffled as she hugged me back. “Me too, Claire. I mean, Mrs. Statham.” “Are we ready?” Sandra cleared her throat. “The limo is downstairs and the groomsmen are already at the venue according to the director. Let’s go!”
My heart was in my throat. Everything about our venue was perfect. Absolutely perfect. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the ten foot archways that were made entirely of white and yellow roses stood tall and elegant on the lawn. The bridesmaids’ dresses—long and airy champagne gowns, perfectly matched the sparkling chandeliers I’d seen hanging in the hallway. As our mothers walked down the aisle, I felt my bouquet slipping through my hands. It nearly fell to the ground as I watched Sandra and Helen walk out. Then it was Ashley and Caroline’s turn. Miss Corwin reached into her pocket and dabbed my eyes with a Kleenex. “Don’t cry yet, Miss Gracen....Take several deep breaths.” She waited for me to follow her instructions. “It’s almost time...” A deep voice said, “Please stand for the bride...” and I heard the rustling of chairs. The first few notes of Robin Thicke’s “Angels” began to play and my heart nearly tumbled out of my chest. I took one step forward and froze. Breathe, Claire....Breathe...
I was shaking. I was way too nervous. The song reached the middle of the first verse and I still hadn’t taken another step. “Miss Gracen?” Miss Corwin’s eyes widened. “Miss Gracen?” “I can’t breathe...” She said a few words into the mic that was tucked into her sleeve, and the music suddenly faded. She put her hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes. “Miss Gracen, this is going to be the happiest day of your life.” “I know that...” “You’re marrying the man of your dreams...Actually, you’re marrying the man of every woman’s dreams.” I let out a nervous laugh. “You can do this...” She lowered her voice. “And you better do this because he told me he’s coming after you if you take longer than three minutes to come down the aisle.” I burst into uncontrollable laughter and she spoke into her sleeve again. “We’re ready now.” She pulled a tube of lip gloss out of her pocket and applied one last coat to my lips. Robin Thicke’s “Angels” began to play once more and she gave me a light shove. I swallowed and took several slow steps forward, trying to focus on the piano keys of the melody. As the song neared the chorus, I approached the final floral arch and saw the audience standing to their feet. Taking one last deep breath, I made my way to the edge of the aisle runner—where hundreds of white, yellow, and pink petals were perfectly swirled in series of the letter “S.” I caught fragments of whispers from the crowd: “Pretty...Stunning...Beautiful...” and looked straight ahead. I started counting my steps—one, two, three, four—but as soon as Jonathan’s eyes met mine, nothing else mattered; no one else was relevant. He briefly took his eyes off mine and looked me up and down as I neared the middle of the aisle I could’ve sworn I saw him mouth, “You’re so fucking beautiful...” He stepped down from the gazebo, and it looked like he was going to come down the aisle for me, but Corey grabbed his shoulder and held him back. Smiling, I locked my eyes on his again, and took my last few steps to the altar. As soon as I was within his grasp, he reached for my hands and helped me onto the platform. For the next few seconds, everything around us disappeared and it felt like we were the only people in the world. I wanted to whisper “I love you” and I could tell he wanted to say it too, but we simply stood still staring into each other ’s eyes—letting the silence say it all. “You may now be seated.” The pastor ’s voice broke us out of the spell. He hesitated a couple minutes before speaking again. “Dearly beloved—” Jonathan slipped an arm around my waist and pulled me close, kissing me senseless. The pastor cleared his throat and tapped him on the shoulder. “Mr. Statham?” The audience was laughing. “We haven’t arrived at that part yet...” He whispered, “I don’t care” against my mouth, and slowly pulled away, taking my hands in his again. “Let’s try this again...” The pastor joked. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to witness...” I wasn’t listening to a single word he was saying. I was too busy getting lost in Jonathan’s incredible blue eyes, trying my hardest to stand still and wait for the part when we would finally be “allowed” to kiss. I suddenly felt Ashley giving me a slight nudge in my back and looked over my shoulder.
“The ring...” She handed it to me and I turned back around. The pastor instructed for us to exchange rings and then he asked Jonathan to repeat his every word. “I, Jonathan Statham.” Jonathan held me captive with his gaze. “Take you Claire Gracen to have and to hold from this day forward...” “For better or for worse,” the pastor said. “For richer or for poorer...” “For better or for worse, for richer or for richer.” The pastor rolled his eyes. “...To love and to cherish...” He wiped his brow. “Jonathan Carter Statham, do you take Claire Alicia Gracen to be your lawfully wedded wife?” “I do.” When it was Jonathan’s turn to listen to me repeat the words, I felt tears slipping down my cheeks. He leaned forward and wiped them away as they fell, watching me intently as I followed the pastor ’s lead. “Claire Alicia Gracen, do you take Jonathan Carter Statham to be your lawfully wedded husband?” I looked directly at Jonathan, noticing that he was looking as if he was nervous that I would say anything other than the right words. “I do.” The pastor smiled and shut his book. “By the power vested in me—” Jonathan cupped my face in his hands and kissed me like he’d never kissed me before—tenderly tracing my tongue with his as if we were alone. “Mr. and Mrs. Statham.” The pastor didn’t even try to interrupt us this time. There was roaring applause and deafening cheering, but he didn’t let my lips go. He pulled me even closer and whispered, “I love you, Claire Statham. I always will.” He took my breath away with another swoon-worthy kiss and then he finally let me go. Before I could tell him that I loved him too, he scooped me into his arms and carried me down the aisle. The photographers captured his every step, telling us to look their way, but we couldn’t take our eyes off one another. We approached the building and Miss Corwin stepped in front of us. “Time for pictures! Mr. Statham, put Mrs. Statham down please.” He blinked. “Mr. Statham...” She crossed her arms. “You both agreed to take pictures directly after the ceremony. You’ll want these to look back on. Trust me.” He sighed and gently placed me on the ground. For the next half hour, we took several staged photos with the wedding party—me amidst the champagne colored dresses, and him amidst the black tuxedos. We were also forced to take a series of shots together, and Miss Corwin had to practically tear Jonathan away from me when it was time to take my solo frames. “Okay, lovebirds...” Miss Corwin walked us into the custom Sweetheart Suite. “Take a quick breather before dinner. Cocktail hour is already underway...How long do you think you’ll need to get ready for the reception?” Jonathan looked me up and down. “Two hours.” “What? You can’t let people wait that long!” “Two. Hours.” “Yes sir...I’ll um...I’ll figure something out...” She left the room and he immediately locked the door. He walked over to me and backed me against the wall.
“Jonathan—” “Shhhhh...” He looked deep into my eyes and tilted my chin up to reach his lips. “The things I’ve been wanting to do to you, Mrs. Statham...” He kissed me so thoroughly that my knees went weak, that every nerve in my body instantly came to life. “I want to go to the reception, Jonathan...” I said breathlessly. “After.” He reached behind me and unzipped the back of my dress. “I’ve waited way too long for this...” I stood still as he slowly peeled me out of my dress, leaving it in a fluffy white puddle on the floor. He ran his hands along my satin corset, slowly untying every string—unclasping every hook. When it fell to the floor, he bent down at my waist and took the bow of my panties between his teeth, tugging at it until it unraveled and joined my dress on the floor. He stood up and looked into my eyes, silently telling me to undress him. Compliant, I slid his jacket off his shoulders and unbuttoned his pants, seeing that he was beyond ready to make love to me. I slowly unbuttoned his shirt, and pushed it off his shoulders. As soon as it hit the floor, he picked me up and carried me over to the leather chaise, gently laying me on my back. He covered my body with his, and even though he’d been waiting for this moment forever, he hesitated. Then he gently brushed his lips against mine and gazed into my eyes. “Mine, Claire...” he whispered. “Tell me you’re mine...” “I’m yours...” He threaded his hands in mine and held them over my head as he slowly slid his dick into me, pushing every thick inch further and further until he was completely buried inside. We lay like that for several seconds, simply staring at one another as our bodies molded together for the first time in weeks. I couldn’t believe how good he felt inside of me, how I’d ever gone so long without having him. I gasped as he started to thrust in and out of me, as he pressed warm kisses against my chest and made me squirm beneath him. “Be still, Claire.” “I can’t...” I let go of his hands and wrapped my arms around his back, scraping my nails across his skin as he sped up his thrusts. “I’ve missed this so much...” His mouth connected with mine again and he rewarded each of my moans with a deeper kiss. “So much...” He rocked into me over and over again, caressing my face with his hands—never breaking eye contact with me. “I’m going to...I’m going to—” I shut my eyes and screamed out as wave after wave of pleasure rolled through my body. I shuddered and shook as he came inside of me and softly collapsed onto my chest. He slipped his hands to my hips and rolled us over so I was laying on top of him. As I struggled to catch my breath, he rubbed his palms against my bare back and sighed. “Was the wedding everything you wanted it to be?” “Yes...” I murmured. “Are you sure? We can do it all over again until it’s perfect if you like.” “It was perfect...” “You were so beautiful coming down the aisle...It took a lot out of me not to pull you down into the grass in front of everyone.” “You wouldn’t dare.” I sat up. He raised his eyebrow and I didn’t even know why I doubted him. He would’ve.
“Can we go to the reception now?” “No.” He skimmed his hands against my stomach. “Why not?” “Because we haven’t had sex in weeks and we have another hour that we’re going to take full advantage of.” He pulled me back down.
When we finally made it into the reception room—after Jonathan had his way with me three more times, there were tears in my eyes. I’d always envisioned our reception in all white with subtle pops of color, but he’d changed it— for the better: The tables were draped in light ivory, with pastel yellow and pink centerpieces that perfectly complemented the sparkling lights that hung from the ceiling. Our name—“Mr. & Mrs. Statham” was etched in large black cursive in the center of the glass dance floor, and the beautiful sweets bar I’d been so adamant about having, was larger than I’d envisioned. It was a series of huge spiral stepped-displays, and it took up an entire wall. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the newly wedded Mr. and Mrs. Statham!” The DJ bellowed. I looked over at Jonathan—who was standing on the other side of the grand steps, and slowly made my way down to the dance floor. He didn’t let me make it down the last few steps alone. He walked over to my side and reached for my hand, insistent on leading me to the dance floor himself. He wrapped his arms around my waist and held me close, telling me he loved me again and again. The lights in the room began to dim and a soft spotlight shone over us. As I wrapped my arms around his neck, the orchestra began to play—striking chords to a song I didn’t recognize. “You changed the song?” I whispered. “Yes.” “What is it?” I was trying to place where I’d heard this melody before. He said nothing. He simply smiled and moved me to the music. I lay my head against his chest and listened to the strings sing softer and softer. “At last...” Jonathan sang into my ear in perfect pitch. “My love has come along...” My heart started racing all over again once I realized what the song was—Etta James’ “At Last.” “The night I looked at you...” His voice was beautiful. “You told me you didn’t know how to sing...” I looked up at him in tears. “I told you I didn’t sing.” He kissed me. “I never said that I couldn’t.” He pressed my head back against his chest and continued singing the entire song to me, kissing me deeply as soon as he sang the last note. When the lights brightened again, I leaned in and asked if we could just leave for the honeymoon now, but he shook his head. “You wanted a perfect wedding, Claire. We have to do all the ‘perfect wedding’ things.” He led me around the room and we greeted each and every guest. We posed for pictures with our friends and family, laughed as we cut the three tiered cake together, and tried not to get carried away when it was time for him to remove my garter. As the DJ began to play the upbeat music for dancing, Jonathan pulled me out onto the open balcony where a small table was waiting. He pulled out my chair, and the dinner we’d missed earlier was served to us in three short courses. We ate in complete silence, simply looking up at one another and smiling each time our eyes met. The second I finished my dessert, he helped me up and pulled me close. “Are you ready to leave?”
“Yes...” He nodded and signaled to someone I couldn’t see. He led me back into the reception room, and the DJ announced that we were leaving. “Do we really need to have the rice thrown on us as we leave?” “That’s a ‘perfect wedding’ thing...” “Okay.” He kissed me, and we waited for Miss Corwin to lead all of the guests outside. “Mr. and Mrs. Statham?” She motioned to us. “Follow me please.” We followed her down the hall and to the entry way of the venue, holding hands. When she gave the signal, we ran outside and down the long white carpet, dodging a heavy rain of rice and cheers. Greg opened the door to the limo and Jonathan picked me up and placed me inside. As soon as the door shut, his lips were on mine and his hands were all over me. I leaned forward and started tearing off his shirt, murmuring as he slid his hand behind the back of my dress. I was tossing his shirt across the seat when I heard a series of loud popping noises outside. I immediately stopped. “What’s that?” “What’s what?” He was still kissing me. “That sound...It’s like gunfire.” He let my lips go and smiled. “Fireworks.” As if he could read my mind, he pulled me into his lap and placed his jacket over me. Then he rolled the window down and we watched as our names were spelled out in colorful sparks across the night sky: “Claire...” “Jonathan...” “Mr...” “Mrs...” “Statham...” “Together...” “Forever...” “Until...” “The Very...” “End...” “Do I even want to know how much that costs?” I whispered, entranced. “Probably not.” He smiled and ran his fingers through my now-tousled hair. We watched the fireworks until they ended, until the only thing left in the sky was the stars, and by that time we’d made it to his plane. He re-adjusted my dress and opened the door, but I grabbed his shoulder. “Wait...Can you please tell me where we’re going? I need to make sure my staff has some of type of idea over the next two weeks...Just in case there’s an emergency and they need to contact me...I know you said we’re not supposed to do any work but—” “First of all, we’re going to be gone for four weeks, not two.” He held my face in his hands and narrowed his eyes at me. “Second, your staff will not be allowed to contact you. At all. Neither of us is doing any work and if there is an emergency, you’ll find out about it when we get back. Third, we’re going to eight different countries and you’ll find out what they are when we get there. And fourth, since you’ve always wanted to go...We’ll take a yacht through the Panama Canal on the way back.” I cut him off with a kiss and cried. “Come on...” He led me out of the car and up the plane’s steps. I didn’t wince when the plane roared down the runway, and I didn’t shut my eyes when we ascended into the air. I kept my gaze locked on his and smiled until the pilot said the newest set of secure words, “All clear, Mrs. Statham.” As the flight attendant served us a bottle of champagne, Jonathan took my hand in his. “So, Mrs. Statham...Was our first time as a married couple special to you?” “Yes...All four...” “Hmmm.” “You know sex doesn’t happen as often after marriage right? That after the first six months or so, the honeymoon phase ends and you’re so busy that you have to schedule sex sometimes...” He smiled and unbuckled my seatbelt with his other hand. “Claire Statham...” He pulled me into his lap. “What makes you think you and I will ever have that problem?”
“It’s natural. That’s just how it works. Now that we’re married, we don’t have to do it so much.” “I’m going to fuck you every day.” “No, listen—” “Every. Day.” I smiled. “You are so charming when you talk like that...” “I’m well aware.” He smiled and eased me out of his lap before standing up. “My wife loves when I talk dirty to her, but she won’t admit it.” “She sounds like she’s too classy for you.” He rolled his eyes and led me into the private bedroom at the back of plane. Locking the door, he pressed his lips against mine. “For the record, Mrs. Statham, our ‘honeymoon phase’ will never end.” “You don’t know that for sure.” “Shhh.” He kissed me. “It was torture not being able to make love to you for weeks, Claire...You damn near broke me...You don’t even understand how badly I wanted you at your bachelorette party, how much it hurt to lie in bed next to you without being allowed to have you...But now that I know what it feels like to be with you again, I can fucking guarantee that I will never go a day without making love to you.” “Is that another one of your agreements?” “No.” He smiled and pulled me over to the bed, unzipping the back of my dress. “It’s a promise.”
Epilogue Claire One year later... I stood in front of the bathroom mirror with a pair of scissors poised high above my head. I made sure to hold the strands taut, and then I counted. One....Two... “What are you doing, Claire?” Jonathan walked into the room with his eyebrow raised. “I spotted two gray hairs today.” “And?” “And I want to get rid of them.” He rolled his eyes and took the scissors out of my hand, placing them back into the drawer. He wrapped his arm around my waist and led me out into our living room. “Every man in my family started graying at thirty five.” He smiled. “You should leave your hair alone so we can match.” “You’re just saying that to make me feel better...” “It’s true. My mom’s side of the family started graying at thirty. I’m sure it’ll happen to me soon.” “I’m not sure if gray hair will look sexy on you, Jonathan.” “Everything looks sexy on me.” I laughed as he handed me a box of tree ornaments. Since we’d spent last Christmas overseas, we were hosting the holidays at home this year per his request. He’d never had a “real Christmas” before so he insisted on having his mom and Hayley over so they could all share their first one together. “Hey mom?” Ashley walked into the room with a pan of burnt black brownies. “I followed the directions and everything...I even used the right pan. What the hell is up with these things?” I stepped over and looked into the pan, sighing. “You make straight A’s in college?” “Yeah, so?” I shook my head. “What temperature did you put them on?” “Six hundred.” “Six hundred?! I thought you said you followed the directions?” “Caroline’s casserole needed to be baked ASAP, so I just halved the time. Thirty minutes at three hundred degrees equals fifteen minutes at six hundred. That’s basic math. You of all people should know that.” She shook her head at me and shrugged at Jonathan. “This was clearly an expired box of batter...I’m going to go buy some more.” I opened my mouth to say something, but Jonathan pulled me into his arms and kissed me. “She’ll learn. My mom is going to help them with everything tonight.” I sighed and kissed him back. I hooked a few more ornaments onto the tree and could literally feel Caroline walking into the room. “Yes, Caroline?” I looked over my shoulder. “I just got me and Ashley’s final placement scores from the FAA practice-test. Our demonstration flights are in May. May fourteenth to be exact.”
“Okay?” “I’m telling you now because we have to book a time slot in your schedule six months in advance if we want you to be there. You’re always working.” “What? That’s not true!” “I’m not complaining.” She smiled. “I’m just saying that—Wait, why am I even telling you? I’ll call both your secretaries and make sure they put it into your schedules.” She pulled her phone out of her pocket and left the room. I shook my head and let out a sigh. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, she was right: C and C’s Charming Designs was still making a name for itself, but it’d been growing beyond my wildest dreams—so fast that I was opening a new store overseas in a year. Statham Industries was now worth more than Jonathan’s largest competitors combined, and he’d been considering taking an extended leave of absence—just to spend more time with me. In fact, every morning when we woke up for work, he’d kiss me and whisper, “Say the word,” waiting to see if I would ask him to step down, practically begging me to. On the one hand, I wasn’t completely sure if I wanted him to do that—even if it was “only six months.” He was excited about the changes his company was making—all the new products they were releasing next year, and I didn’t want him to think I hadn’t noticed that. On the other, even though our sex life was fucking incredible—I couldn’t think of a single day when we didn’t have sex at least once, we didn’t see each other that much. Unless Ashley and Caroline came home for a visit or we threw a party, we both worked extremely hard during the week and we only got to share small parts of the weekend with one another. Don’t get me wrong, he always did small things to let me know I was on his mind—endless flowers, beautiful gifts, and home cooked dinners that I could never master, but I spent more time at work than I did with him and it hurt me sometimes... “What are you thinking about?” Jonathan tilted my face towards him. “Nothing...Can I ask you something?” “Always.” “Are you ever going to tell me what happened to that lawsuit Ryan filed against you?” “Are you going to tell me why you’re thinking about your ex-husband?” I rolled my eyes. “You never told me...” He pressed a kiss against my forehead and smiled. “He pressed charges against me for assault and battery.” “And?” “And I have the best lawyers in the world.” He smirked. “Jonathan!” He sighed. “They sent him a copy of the security tape that shows him pushing you down the steps...” He clenched his jaw. “With a note telling him to drop the charges or we would press counter charges...So he dropped his claims...And then I pressed charges anyway.” My eyes widened. “What? Why?” “Because he could’ve killed you...” He ran his fingers through my hair. “We settled out of court under our own terms. You’ll never see him again.” The tone of his voice told me not to ask anything further about that subject. I didn’t even want to know. He clasped my hand and led me over to the couch. “Tell me what you were really thinking about.” “You stepping down for six months...” “Do you really want me to do that, Claire?” He looked into my eyes. “I will.”
I glanced at the fire that was blazing in the heath, at the bright red stockings that hung over the bricks, and at our huge family portrait that hung high above our massive Christmas tree. I realized that I wanted these family events to happen more often, and I didn’t want it to have to be a holiday for him and I to get alone time. “Yes...” “You have to take off too...I refuse to share.” I nodded and kissed him back. “I’ll take off for six months, but you have to take off for a year.” “A year? Why is that?” “Someone has to stay home and take care of the baby.” “What?” He narrowed his eyes at me. “What baby?” “Our baby.” “That joke wasn’t funny the first time.” He looked at my stomach. “Your tubes are tied.” “Are they?” “Claire...” “Jonathan...” I mocked him. “We both agreed that we didn’t want kids, that even if we did want kids—which we don’t, it was too high of a risk for you to get pregnant.” “So?” “So, I need you to be completely fucking honest with me right now because I’m three seconds away from calling my doctor and having her run the damn test on Christmas morning. Are you pregnant?” “What do you think?” “I think you need to answer me. Now.” “And if I don’t?” “Don’t test me, Claire.” He looked deep into my eyes, pleading for me to answer him. “Tell me...” I leaned close and kissed him. Then I stood up. “We need to finish this tree before your mom gets here.” “You’re not going to answer me?” “Is there a reason why we have five Christmas trees around the house? Don’t you think that’s a little excessive?” He stood up and walked over to me, wrapping his arms around my waist and locking me in his embrace. “You have two seconds to tell me the truth.” I blinked and he shook his head. “Claire Statham...” He slowly released me, but before I could make a dash for the kitchen he picked me up and tossed me over his shoulder. “You and I both know that I’m going to get the truth out of you. Why are you making this difficult?” “I’m not making anything difficult. I’m fulfilling my ‘I must frustrate the shit out of Jonathan’ quota for the day.” He laughed and carried me upstairs to our bedroom. Then he tossed me onto the bed. “I’m going to give you one last chance to answer my question, Claire.” “And what question was that? I think I forgot.” He lips curved into a wry smile and he covered his body with mine. “Trust me...By the time I get done with you, I’m sure you’ll remember...”
Twisted Love Excerpt Prologue: Hayley For as long as I can remember, my older brother has been my protector. My guardian. My only friend. Ever since I was three years old, he took care of me and shielded me from the ugliness of the world —even though he was just a child himself. Whenever the neighborhood boys called me “white trash,” “fugly hick” and “meth baby,” he would walk me to school the next day and beat them to a pulp. And whenever I cried about not being able to dress like “the other girls,” he would find a way to get me new clothes... He did his best to raise me on his own—teaching me how to read, how to know right from wrong, how to survive. I always prayed that he would turn eighteen overnight, so he could take me away from our despicable parents—from the people who didn’t care whether we lived or died. But he was only twelve when my hopes were permanently shattered... We were separated and put in different foster homes—with parents who were even worse than what we had before. While he was “lucky” enough to remain with the same family, I was moved in and out of four different homes and they all treated me like I was nothing. While I could still call my brother and cry to him about how terrible my life was, that wasn’t enough. All of his “You’re so smart and pretty, Hayley. Remember that,” “I love you, Hayley,” and “I’ll come get you as soon as I turn eighteen” promises fell flat in the face of the horrors I was dealing with... By the time he turned eighteen, he did come and get me, but it was too late. I was damaged. Broken. And after everything I’d been through, there was little he could do or say to put me back together again. I was perpetually screwed. Hopelessly twisted.
Chapter 1 Corey I need to fuck someone...Tonight... I take a long swig of my beer and survey the party again. It’s one of those art deco events that bring out the city’s elite. Everyone here is either rich, filthy rich, or a gold-digger looking to land another victim. I’ve slept with more than half of the women here and none of them were memorable. Still, it’s been a week since I’ve had sex and that’s the longest I’ve been abstinent in the past six years. Out the corner of my eye I see an unfamiliar woman—a woman dressed in a skintight purple dress with her hair in a high blond bun. I’m not sure if we’ve met, but before I can make my way over and see if I have a chance for tonight she slowly turns around. Hayley? It is Hayley. As in my best friend’s little sister Hayley. I shake my head as I look her over again and again, because it’s been years since I’ve seen her. She’s always been beautiful, but tonight she’s a fucking vision. Her bright blue eyes are sparkling against the night, her deep red lips are full and plump, and the way that long sleeved dress clings to her body is lethal. I watch as she charms the circle of people around her, as the men eye her up and down and slip their business cards into her hand. “Hey, Corey.” She walks over to me and smiles. “Hello, Hayley.” She doesn’t say anything back. Instead, she stands a little too close to me and starts to rub my shoulder in a non-friend way—unless I’ve had one too many beers and am just imagining this. “What are you doing here?” I clear my throat. “Where’s Jonathan?” “He decided to take Claire to the Virgin Islands for the weekend, so I’m here to put in bids for him...I don’t know why he even bothers bidding. They always let him see the work days before and let him buy whatever he wants.” “Very true.” I laugh. “Where are your girlfriends?” She gives me a faint smile. “You and I both know I don’t have any of those...” I do know that and I feel like shit for even asking her. I stick to the safe questions—asking her about her Scrabble tournaments, her new position at Statham Industries, and fail to mention the fact that she’s still rubbing my shoulder in a very inappropriate way. “How have you been?” She slides her hand around my neck and I picture her doing that as I wrap her legs around my waist, as I make her scream my name. Shit... “Fine.” I move her hand away. “I’ve been doing fine. I’ll um—it was nice seeing you again, Hayley.” “You’re leaving?” “Yeah. I need to get—” The hell away from you... “I need to get back home.” “Oh.” She looks disappointed, but she forces a smile. “Well, I’ll see you around? Maybe in your office? Tomorrow?”
Okay, I’ve got to be tipsy...There’s no way she’s flirting with me right now... “Sure.” I slowly walk away and decide that I need to find a way to fuck her out of my mind. Forever. I walk around the pool and charm up a few of the women I’ve had before, feeding them the same bullshit that’s worked in the past. Low key billionaire. Minimalist. Biker. That’s it. That’s all it takes. I slip my business card into a few of their purses and tell them to call me whenever they’re ready to leave. I’ll open my bed up to whoever calls me first. No preference. Before I leave, I pull out my tablet and hack into the auctioneer ’s database. The picture I meant to bid on has already been sold, but I re-route that money back to bidder and place my name into the slot instead. I’ll send him my regards... An hour later, I crash into my bed and hear my phone buzzing. A text. “Hey Corey. Hannah. I’m downtown right now. Be there in thirty.” Ugh... I don’t want Hannah to come, but I can’t say no because she’s the first one to hit me up. I turn my phone off to ignore any other texts that may come later, and go into the kitchen to uncork her favorite wine—Moscato. I always keep my cellar stuffed with all my regulars’ favorites. They think it’s because I care— because I “remember”, but it’s really because I don’t want to have to leave to go get it. The quicker we can get to the sex, the better. Thirty minutes pass by and she still hasn’t arrived—her normal M.O. She always takes two hours, no matter how close she claims to be. I re-program my surveillance system to keep an eye out for her arrival, letting it know that it can unlock the gate for the next car and say “The door is unlocked” once she pulls into the carport. Frustrated, I fall back onto my mattress and shut my eyes—waiting for the much needed release. I grab my remote and hit the lights, knowing that she’ll wake me up with a mean blow job the second she gets here. Hurry up... I shut my eyes and sigh. I’m slowly drifting into sleep when I feel her finally crawling on top of me. “Did you get lost?” I feel her kissing my lips. “Not at all.” “Do you know what thirty minutes means?” She laughs and straddles me. “Is that all you have left in you tonight?” “Funny.” I run my fingers through her hair. “Do you want the lights on?” “I’m fine.” I slip my hands down to the hem of her dress and pull it over her head. Before she can lean down and kiss me, I unsnap her bra and palm her breasts in my hands. “Did you get a boob job?” I ask. “Seriously? Is this your idea of sex talk?” “You had C-cups last month...These are clearly Ds...” She gasps as I take one of her nipples into my mouth and softly bite it. She isn’t normally so responsive to my touch, so I figure she’s drunk. I guess I need to take this slow...
I pull her head down to mine and press my lips against hers, raising my eyebrow when she seems hesitant, when she barely opens her mouth to let me kiss her. Maybe we should sleep first...Ugh... “Do you want to finish this in the morning?” I caress her breasts again. “I think you’re a little too drunk...” “I’m not drunk.” She leans back, unzips my pants, and pulls out my hardened dick. “Whatever you say, sweetheart.” I pull her back towards me, trying to kiss her again. Once again, she’s hesitant—nervous, so I run my hands against her arms to reassure her— stopping once I feel the abrasive lines. Hannah doesn’t have any cuts and she damn sure didn’t have any scars when I saw her a few hours ago. The woman on top of me stiffens and I push her off of me and jump out of the bed. Stumbling, I hit the lights to find out who the fuck this woman is. “Hayley?!” My jaw drops. “What the hell are you doing? And how did you—Why would you....Why the hell are you here?” She looks stunned. Hurt. “I...” “Yes?” “I wanted my first time to be with someone I actually knew.” “Your first time?” She nods and covers her breasts with her hands. Holy shit... “Okay, babe. This is what’s going to happen: You’re going to put your fucking clothes back on, I’m going to drive you home, and the two of us are going to act like this shit never happened. Got it?” She doesn’t answer. “Got it?” “Don’t bother. I can drive myself home.” “Nice try, but I would never let you drive home alone this late at night. Put your goddamn clothes on. Now.” She looks away from me and pulls her dress over her head. I sigh and soften my tone. “You know I would never sleep with you, Hayley...” “Because of Jonathan?” “Because of a lot of things.” She blinks and veers her eyes towards my pants. “You were clearly aroused...” “I was aroused because I thought you were a slut who wanted to get fucked, but I—I don’t have to explain myself to you. Let’s go.” **End of excerpt** Dear Reader, Get ready for a new type of New Adult :-) I love you, Whit’
Acknowledgments Where do I even begin with this one? Up until this past summer I had no idea what ARCs, blog tours, and cover reveals were. I didn’t even have an author Facebook page. Seriously. But some type of way, readers found me without them and then I discovered what all those strange things were and gained more readers than I could ever imagine. (I also realized that book bloggers run the world! :-) ) Tamisha Draper and Tiffany Neal, can we PLEASE pretend that I didn’t drive you batshit crazy about this book? Pretty please? No? Is it because I’m already driving you crazy with the next three? Yeah...I am, huh? LOL Tamisha, thank you for reading this time and time again (print out after print out) and for putting up with the craziness that comes with beta-reading for me: Phone calls, never ending email threads, chapters I decide to change minutes after you’ve read them, having to literally force me to sit down and write a sex scene because I’m “too nervous” to write it LOL, etc. etc...It’s definitely not for the faint of heart and I truly treasure your beautiful friendship and support. Tiffany, once again thank you for being the mediator between the overly dramatic (me) and the secretly dramatic but she won’t admit it (Tamisha). I can’t thank you enough for reading this countless times, hanging up in my face when I asked too many questions (LOL), and suggesting changes that made this story a whole lot better. You and Tamisha are amazing and I love you. I know the rest of this year and 2014 is going to be CRAZY with the release line-up that’s planned, and I truly hope you’ll continue to be there with me every step of the way. (Yes Tiff, Beyleigh has to be there too!) Bobbie Jo Malone Kirby and Kim Kimball (Two Crazy Girls with a Passion for Books)... So, this is going to sound like a HUGE hour-long gush-fest, but it must be said: I love you two SO MUCH! You are the first bloggers who reached out to me and I owe much of Mid Life Love's success to you! Ever since you spotlighted me on your blog (Spotlight Week! YESSS!), I have fallen head over heels in love with your craziness, your obsession with hot guys who have *cough cough* interesting things LOL, and amazing books! (I’m pretty sure most of the newest books on my kindle are from your recommendations) I honestly don't think At Last would have been possible without the two of you (Well, it wouldn't have existed at all because you MADE me write it...Like, I still can’t believe you convinced me to write this book!), and I really can't thank you enough for being my shoulder to cry on when the editing got rough and for telling me to follow my heart :-) Thank you Bobbie Jo for the fucking amazing title and for the much needed phone call that changed "the accident" for the better. When are we meeting up in the mountains? No wait...Nashville :) Thank you Kim for the unwavering support, for reading this more than once, and for your endless Gandy pics that always make me smile. I loveeee you both!!! Now, if only we could meet up somewhere and toss back the much needed shots...Costa Rica, anyone? To the BBE group. Oh god, how your edits can bring someone to their knees! Repeatedly! Nonetheless, thank you so much for "editing the shit" out of this and never allowing me to publish a
story that is anything short of amazing! PS—I would like to take this time to remind you that I received the only A (A plus actually lol) in our summer writing course years ago LOLOL :-) I had to! Long live the amazing anonymous duo! Love y’all to pieces! Jacqueline Russell (Jacqueline’s Reads)... First of all, thank you for taking a chance on Mid Life Love and sticking with me through all the crazy release date changes for At Last! (I know you say I’m not difficult, but I know I am, so THANK YOU for putting up with me anyway!) I appreciate you so much for giving me your no-holds-barred opinion on earlier drafts and helping me with the pacing. I'm honored that you're hosting the blog tour for this book and even more honored that you read the unedited AND edited versions.(**You are one brave soul for that because with your mile-long TBR list? Yeah...Not many would even dare read an unedited piece—more than once. LOL) I will definitely take your advice and "kink it up" in the next book and, no wait—I'll just...Just—No, but I—See what I did there? *Laughing* (Don’t forget to tell your husband I said thank you for pointing out the DVD/VHS thing...Honestly, who else would've noticed something like that? :-) ) Stephanie Locke at Rude Girl Book Blog thank you for all the wonderful advice you’ve given me along the way! I really really appreciate it and will probably be asking you for more soon! Lisa Kane at Three Chicks and Their Books, thank you for sharing my books and reading them (at the speed of light)! Kristine and Kristy at Book Addict Mumma, Jennifer Mitchell at Two Sassy Chicks, Nicole Blanchard at Miss Construed Reviews, Debra at the Book-Enthusiast, and all the ladies at The Dirty Hoes Book Blog—THANK YOU!!! I’m effin honored to be on your radar and even more honored for the support you’ve given me. To every. single. book. blogger. who has ever read my work (whether you loved it or hated it)— THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! I am forever indebted to you and I'm thinking of a grand way to pay you all back! (Seriously. Something must be done.) Jennifer Williams. You’re still the best sister in the world and always will be. I thank you for believing in everything I write. [“How many times do we have to have this conversation?!” :-)] Jay Williams and William Ray Edwards II—Thank you for respecting “my zone” again and randomly interrupting it with your impressions of Bane from The Dark Knight Rises. To my parents. LaFrancine and William Edwards...Thank you once again for believing in me! It means more than you’ll ever know! To my friends that I admire from afar: Alonna Grigsby, Nadira Williams, Aster Teclay, Ashley Warren, Tanisha Hill, Sherbrina Shepherd, Christina Royster, Courtney Johnson, Angelica Harris, Vince Cunningham, and Karleic Ellison. To fellow Memphian Justin Timberlake. Once again The 20/20 Experience helped me write this book! You’re amazing! To Colleen Hoover, Jamie McGuire, Abbi Glines, Arianne Richmonde, Theresa Ragan, Mimi Strong, Shanora Williams, Abria Mattina, Alice Tribue, Laura Babcock Dunaway, and many more indie authors whom I admire and look up to. I stalk you all religiously and learn more and more from you every day...Yes, I’m borderline creepy, but whatevs :-) Last and NEVER least, THANK YOU to all the incredible readers who are reading this book to the very end! I hope you enjoyed the rest of Claire and Jonathan's story and that they'll continue to hold a very special place in your heart. You are the best readers a girl could ever ask for! Love, Whit PS—I dare you to ask me about a trilogy...I dare you. LOL
Dear Incredible Reader, Thank you so much for taking time out of your life to read this book! I hope you were thoroughly entertained and enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you have any extra time, PLEASE leave a review on amazon.com, B&N.com, goodreads.com, OR send me an email ([email protected]) so I can personally thank you :-) If you hated it, well....keep that shit to yourself! LOL (Just kidding. Feel free to let me know how I can improve next time!) I’m forever grateful for you and your time, and I hope to be re-invited to your bookshelf with my next release. Love, Whitney Gracia Williams
More works by Whitney Gracia Williams: Twisted Love (2014) Wasted Love (Winter 2013-2014) Mid-Life Love (June 2013) Final Take: A Romantic Comedy (JBS) (Winter 2013) Take Three: A Romantic Comedy (JBS) (December 2012) Take Two: A Romantic Comedy (JBS) (September 2012) Captain of My Soul: A Memoir (July 2009) You can keep up with Whitney and the travels of her non-matching socks at http://www.whitneygracia.com To be a part of the mailing list and be notified of release dates and special offers, email [email protected] with “Mailing List” in the subject heading.
A Preview of Desperation of Love by Alice Tribue Now available in Amazon’s Kindle Store and B&N’s Nook Store Blurb: To the outside world, Jordan Burke appears to have the perfect life. A fulfilling career, family and great friends, but looks can be deceiving. Events from her childhood, and a painful secret, keep Jordan isolated and unwilling to commit to any man. For her, every relationship comes with its own expiration date. Alex Garza has lived in the shadow of his brother ’s fame for most of his life. He's an outcast in his own family and never able to put his own needs first. When his brother gives up his career to settle down, Alex is forced to reevaluate his life plans too. Over the past year, his friendship with Jordan has developed into a source of comfort. Now that he has the time to devote to a relationship, can he convince her to take a chance on love or will their painful pasts and a tragic event destroy their future?
Prologue*** I don’t want to open my eyes this morning. To face the day after the beauty of the night before seems almost cruel. Keeping my eyes firmly closed, I try to shut out the memories of my past. They always seem to surface at times like these, overshadowing the moments of joy. Being the product of divorced parents is never easy, but when you spend the majority of your childhood being used like a pawn in a vicious chess game, it’s kind of hard not be at least a little screwed up. On top of that, add the feelings of abandonment that I’ve struggled with for years and now I’m nothing but a mess. Here I am, 32 years old, and you’d think that I’d be over it by now. You’d assume that I’d be smart enough to understand that I shouldn’t let my issues and my parents’ ugly relationship affect me. Well, I’m not that smart, and for as long as I can remember, I have single-handedly sabotaged every relationship I’ve ever had with a man. It’s not that I don’t long for something more, for the kind of love that could last a lifetime, I do. But the paralyzing fear of ending up broken and alone is enough of a motivator to keep me rooted in solitude. My need for self-preservation has become greater than my need for love. It’s not even that I’m afraid to date, I date all the time. I take what I can for as long as I can get it and then I move on. I dated Mark for seven months. That is a new record for me. But when he started pressuring me for more of a commitment, I began to push him away. He knew what I was doing and thought that the best way to combat my commitment issues was for us to move in together. Dumb suggestion on his part. That was the last nail in the coffin for me. Much like my best friend, Elle, I made a decision to close the door on romantic relationships. She had endured a traumatic experience that resulted in many physical and emotional scars. That’s why it was so gratifying to see her walk down the aisle toward Victor last night. Her path to love gives me hope that maybe I can get out of my own way long enough that I might be able to experience it one day. I sincerely doubt it, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to hope.
When I finally decide to open my eyes and face the day, I’m blinded by the sun shining through my drapes. The bright rays are doing nothing to ease my hangover. I partied with reckless abandon last night and I have the headache to prove it. I turn my back toward the window, trying to block the potent morning rays and what I encounter sobers me up pretty quickly. In all honesty, I’m stunned to find the figure of a man lying next to me. A man that with one look can send me spiraling out of control. I knew from the moment I met Alex Garza that, given the opportunity, he would cause nothing but trouble for my heart. I fought a good fight but ultimately he’s gotten his way and somehow has ended up in my bed. Fuck!
Chapter 1*** Four months later. I haven’t seen him since the morning after Victor and Elle’s wedding when I found him in my bed. The sad part is that I can’t even remember the events of that night. I know I partied and got drunk, well wasted, really, but the moments that led up to me waking with Alex are all a blur. And I sure as hell don’t want to ask him what happened. So, I did what any self- respecting woman would have done in my situation. I snuck out...of my own house. I did the walk of shame out my front door, slid into my car, and drove to my friend’s house, where I hid out for the remainder of the day. He called me several times that day but I let every call go to voicemail. I just couldn’t face him, and I made sure to avoid him over the last few months. He eventually gave up trying to contact me, but I knew my luck wouldn’t last forever and now he’s back. Victor and Elle finally found a house that they love, right on the beach, and moved in last weekend. This left Elle’s little cottage empty, and since Alex is Victor ’s only brother and they are going into business together, opening up a recording studio, it only makes sense for Alex to move into it. He gave up his apartment in New York and is moving to town this weekend. I’d been hoping to stay far away from him, but Elle insisted that the four of us go out to dinner tonight to welcome him to town. She basically backed me into a corner. If I decline, I’m afraid that she might suspect that there’s something going on between me and Alex. I also don’t want Alex to think I can’t sit through a meal with him especially when he’s done nothing wrong. That leads me to now, sitting in my car, in the parking lot of the restaurant where we’re all supposed to meet up. Elle sent a text a few minutes ago, letting me know that the three of them are waiting for me inside, yet I can’t move. I’d never admit this to anyone but the thought of seeing Alex again is attacking my system with an overload of emotions. A part of me is actually excited to see him because I’m very attracted to him, but I’m also cautious because I don’t want him to know how he affects me. More importantly, I’m just plain embarrassed for getting trashed, bringing him home to do God knows what, and then bailing immediately afterwards. It wasn’t one of my better plans. Under normal circumstances, I would have no issue with a one night stand. I might’ve even embraced it. But this is different. This is my best friend’s brother-in-law, and it’s all just a little too close for comfort. I’m going to have to see this guy and be around him for years to come, and it’s best to just put that night behind us. Stalling for time, I pull down the car visor and check my makeup in the small mirror. I wore my hair down tonight, in loose waves cascading down my back and framing my face. My make-up is minimal, with only a light coating of bronzer, nude lip gloss, a bit of mascara, and a light brown eye shadow, which makes my blue eyes a little more vibrant. Confidence is definitely not something I’ve ever been lacking. I may not be a supermodel, but I can stare in a mirror and be pleased with the reflection staring back at me. Maybe my assurance comes from the fact that I’m an only child. My parents struggled for years to have a baby, trying everything from holistic medicine to in vitro fertilization. When they finally had me, they were so ecstatic that they spoiled me rotten. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a brat or anything, but my parents never let a day go by without telling me how beautiful I was. They always said how proud they were, and there was little that I wanted that I didn’t eventually get. When my luck ran out, it was a hard lesson that I learned. The one thing I really wanted as a child didn’t happen. I wanted my parents to stay together, but no matter how much I begged, cried and fought, nothing would save their marriage. When they went down, they did so in a blaze of glory, dragging me down with them and putting me through a horrific custody battle. The sound of an incoming text message brings me back to the present. I pull my phone from the center console and see that it’s from Elle. Our table is ready. Are you almost here?
I guess it’s now or never. I can’t keep them waiting all night. I quickly type out a reply. In the parking lot, be right in. Exiting the car, I straighten out my black and white shift dress. It hits just above the knee and, paired with my black heels, it makes me look taller than my normal five feet four inches. The sound of my shoes clacking on the pavement matches the increased rhythm of my heart. I don’t know why I’m so nervous. I’ve hung out with Alex on several occasions, up until the night of the wedding. We even made out a couple times. In fact, the night we met at Elle’s house, we had a hot and heavy make out session on her couch, not that I would ever admit that to her or anyone else. And when I was a complete and total wreck while Elle was hospitalized after being brutally beaten by her low life exboyfriend, Alex was there to comfort me. And I let him. I’ve never been one to show weakness. I learned early on that the only way to survive in this world is by exuding nothing but strength. That’s why I lift my head up, straighten out my back, and square my shoulders as I enter the restaurant. I look around for Elle but I don’t see her in the small waiting area. I open my purse and pull out my phone to call her. A feather light touch at my waist sends a shiver down my spine. I don’t need to turn around to know who it is. I recognize his familiar scent, a mixture of soap and his usual cologne, a combination that always intoxicates me. He inches closer, the feel of his gentle breath on my neck makes my eyes close. “I’d almost forgotten just how beautiful you are.” The deep timbre of his voice makes my breath catch. I open my eyes and turn around so that we’re face to face. One look at him and my heart goes into overdrive. Clearly, I’ve forgotten just how handsome he is. He’s tall, at least 6’ 2”, and I have to tilt my head up to meet his gaze. I do my best to look composed and unaffected, even though my body is betraying me. His light olive skin and honey brown eyes are warm and inviting and his full lips, which I’ve had the pleasure of tasting a time or two, make my imagination run wild. His brown hair is shorter than I remember, the top is spiked up a bit and the sides are shaved close. It’s a different look for him but he carries it very well. His dark green Henley is fitted just tight enough to hint at how ripped his muscles are, while his dark jeans fit like they were tailor-made. Simply put, Alex Garza is as mouthwateringly sexy as they come. “Hi, Alex,” I say. He smiles and it radiates through me. It’s infectious and immediately calms my nerves. I can’t help but smile back. “Ahh, there she is! You do remember me, huh?” He goads me and pulls me into a sweet embrace. If there’s one thing I can say about Alex, it’s that he’s always been kind to me. He’s the type of person that people just naturally gravitate to. I hug him back and say, “Of course. How could I forget you?” There’s only a hint of sarcasm in my voice. He tilts his head and grins at me. “Do you want me to answer that?” I’m really hoping we can get through this evening without reliving that unfortunate incident. “Not particularly, no,” I say, shaking my head. I immediately realize that in order to avoid an uncomfortable conversation, I’m going to need a buffer between us. “Where are Elle and Victor?” “Elle’s in the bathroom. You know, baby on the bladder and all that, and Victor is paying the bar tab.” “Nope, I’m right here. Hey, Shorty,” Victor calls, walking up to us. He’s taken to calling me Shorty lately since he’s so much taller than me. He looks every bit of the superstar that he is. His black shirt and jeans just scream designer. While Alex’s hair could be called messy, Victor ’s is styled to perfection. Alex is ripped, Victor is toned. Victor is just a tad shorter than Alex, and his complexion is just a bit darker, but the fact that they are siblings is undeniable. “Hi,” I say, giving him a hug. “How’s our girl?”
“Uncomfortable, but beautiful as ever.” He grins at me and I can see the excitement and happiness written all over his face. Elle is in her seventh month of pregnancy and every time I see her and Victor together, I know that this baby is going to be so loved. Victor somehow managed to bring Elle out of her shell, showing her the kind of happiness that she never thought was possible. Even though he was able to heal all of her emotional scars, she’s given him just as much in return. Love, peace, simplicity, and above all, a normal life and a family. “It’ll be worth it in the end,” I say. Elle is at Victor ’s side before I can finish my sentence. “Say that when you’re eight thousand weeks pregnant and swollen.” She’s semi joking but more irritated than anything else. “No one is happier about this baby than me, trust me, but good God I’m ready for this to be over.” We all smile, carefully biting back laughter because she’s just too cute. Even swollen and uncomfortable, Elle is probably the prettiest pregnant woman I’ve ever seen. Her adorable baby bump gets a little bigger every time I see her. She can complain all she wants but the truth of the matter is that she’s glowing and clearly happy. Victor pulls her to his side and kisses the top of her head, soothing her in a way that only he can. “It’s okay, love, there’s not much longer to go now.” She wraps her arms around his waist and melts into him. As sickening as they are, seeing them together always does something to me. A pang in my chest is filled with both joy for them and a hint of envy. The feeling of being in love is something I’ve purposefully never experienced. “Alright, enough with the mushiness. Can we have dinner or what?” I say, eager to get this meal over with. The quicker I can escape Alex, the better I’ll be. Dinner isn’t as uncomfortable as I thought it would be. Alex sits next to me and, thankfully, he seems normal, totally unphased by our hookup. Once the check is taken care of, I say my goodbyes to everyone and promise Elle to have dinner with her later in the week. “Come on. I’ll walk you to your car.” Alex is standing right beside me. I’d rather he didn’t walk me anywhere. Being alone with him always seems to get me in to trouble but denying him would cause suspicion, and I’m not ready to admit to anyone what an idiot I am. Reluctantly, I agree. “Alright, thanks.” He follows me out of the restaurant and as soon as we’re out of view, he grabs my hand, linking his fingers with mine. I look down at our joined hands, unsure of what to make of the gesture. It seems bigger than what we are, almost too intimate for us. Once at my car, I let go of his hand and open the door. I turn to face him but keep the door between us, using it as a shield. His eyes are dark, focused, like he’s trying hard to read my thoughts. I’m unsure of what comes next and slightly uncomfortable by the intensity of his stare, making me feel vulnerable. Needing to break the moment, I finally speak. “Thanks for walking me. Goodnight, Alex.” His eyes never leave mine as he runs a hand through his hair. “I think you and I need to talk.” “About what?” He maneuvers around the car door and places his hands on the frame, effectively blocking me in. “About why you left me alone in your house the morning after the wedding and about why you’ve ignored me ever since.” I bring my hands up to his chest and give a slight push. He doesn’t budge. I shake my head. “No. I think some things are better left unsaid, don’t you?” “Jordan.” The sound of my name coming from his mouth feels like a warning. With one word, he’s letting me know that he’s not moving until he gets what he wants. The smartass in me gears up for battle. “Alex,” I return, mimicking his tone. He leans in closer, our chests practically touching now. I start to feel lightheaded, and I’m not sure if it’s because of the line of questioning or the fact that he’s so close to me.
“What happened?” He’s persistent, not going to let this go and I know that I need to put some distance between us. I don’t like how he manages me. He creeps under my skin. It’s unwelcome and unfamiliar. I’m good at holding people at bay, keeping my emotions on lockdown. But he gets to me in a way that no one has before. I figure the best line of defense is to give him something. “Fine! I was embarrassed, alright,” I say, rolling my eyes. “I’m not exactly thrilled that you had to see me all sloppy drunk.” He picks up a strand of my hair and gives it a gentle tug. “You weren’t sloppy.” “I was trashed,” I reply with another roll of my eyes. “You don’t have to make it sound better than what it was.” “It doesn’t matter.” He chuckles. “I’m sorry that I left you there. It was childish.” He looks away, just for a moment, like he’s trying to carefully choose what he wants to say next. He looks back at me with a hint of a smile tugging at his lips. “You can make it up to me.” “How?” I question, dragging out the word and squinting my eyes at him. “Breakfast.” “Breakfast?” I ask, sounding confused. “Yes. Tomorrow morning, nine o’ clock, Laura’s Café.” I can tell by the tone in his voice that it’s not a request, but I try to get out of it anyway. “I don’t know.” “You don’t have a choice.” I knew that was coming. Alex doesn’t strike me as the type to just walk away when he wants something and, evidently, breakfast with me is what he currently wants. “I’ll see you there, princess.” He leans in, placing a kiss on my forehead before walking away and leaving me to wonder what the hell just happened.