“Bend over,” Geoffrey whispered huskily, his lips pressed against my ear.
“But I thought I’d been a good girl!”
“Oh, you have,” he agreed silkily as his finger continued to stroke the pebbled bud of my nipple. “Such a good girl that you deserve a reward.”
I felt a shiver run through me. I knew exactly what kind of reward he was talking about, and I’d been looking forward to it. I obediently bent over the bed, pushing my ass out toward him.
He immediately rewarded me with a few light, loud slaps.
“Geoffrey!” I protested, giggling.
“Sorry—I can’t help it. It’s just asking to be spanked.”
My pussy quivered. Funny, there was a time when I wouldn’t have thought that the idea of being on the receiving end of a spanking would turn me on. But I’d learned—we both had—and our relationship was better for it.
“Are you ready for me, baby?” he queried as he stroked my asshole.
“Ooh, yes, sir.”
“I’m ready for you.” He took my hand and guided it to his long, hard shaft. “See?”
I gave it a long, loving squeeze. “Mmm, yes, sir.”
“Now, remind me what happens to good girls.”
“They get rewarded, sir.”
“And what happens to the naughty ones?”
“They get spanked, master.”
“And which of those are you, little girl?”
“Um… I’m good at being naughty?”
Geoffrey chuckled and the sound made my belly flip. “That sounds about right. Luckily for you, you have a reward and not a spanking in your near future. At least, not the mean, stinging kind.”
That was good. That kind needed to be avoided at all costs.
I released my hold on Geoffrey’s cock and brought my hand to rest on the bed. Then I waited. I heard the sound of a drawer opening and a bottle being opened. I wanted to look back, but I resisted. It would be better if he surprised me.
And soon enough, I felt the tip of his cock pressing against my tight, puckered hole. I drew my breath in sharply as I tingled with excitement.
“Slow, deep breaths, baby.”
Nodding, I tried to regulate my breathing. As Geoffrey pressed against my virgin hole, I felt pressure and a little pain, but once he entered, I felt relaxed and at home. When he began pumping inside and out, his balls slapping against my ass, I felt downright free.
“How are you doing, honey?”
So good. So good. And to think, not even a year ago, I never would have imagined us ending up here.
Nine months earlier…
I held my hand up to the light, letting the rays wash over the diamonds and making them sparkle. The sight never failed to make me smile, even now. It was a beautiful, two carat ring—certainly prettier than anything I’d ever thought I’d wear on my finger. Then again, I’d never counted on meeting a man like Geoffrey, much less being asked to marry him.
From the moment I’d seen him, meeting his dark, compelling eyes over the counter at the fast-food restaurant where I worked, I’d been intrigued. For one thing, not only did he have breath-hitching, belly-warming good looks, but for another, he was showing off those good looks to full advantage by wearing a three-piece suit. It wasn’t something you saw every day at the local Burger King.
I couldn’t help but stare as he placed his order and it wasn’t just the suit. It was something mesmerizing in the dark depths of his eyes. It was the way he spoke, his voice soft, but captivating just the same. The way he carried himself—he stood tall, as though he was used to being looked up to and respected.
Looking back, there were an endless number of things that I hadn’t been able to name at the time. Hindsight, as they say, is truly twenty-twenty.
He’d ordered a burger with no lettuce, onion or tomato.
“So, no salad?” I’d quipped as I’d selected the options on my touch-screen.
“I’m sorry?” His brow crinkled in a way that I found irresistibly sexy, not to mention distracting.
I dropped my eyes before he realized that I was staring. “No lettuce, no tomato, no onion. So, no salad.”
His deep, long chuckle had two effects on me: the first was that my eyes flew back to his face and the second was that my belly began to twist in slow, sensual knots that made me think of the Kama Sutra book I kept locked in the top drawer of my nightstand.
“Yeah, sounds good.”
I’d quickly typed in the rest of his order, adding double cheese to the burger and an order of onion rings, not fries, before giving him his total. I found myself immensely grateful when he pulled out a crisp twenty—paying with cash meant I’d get to touch him, not once, but twice when I handed back the change.
The feel of his fingers against my palm when he handed me the bill made me shiver. It was the silly reaction of a girl with her first crush, which at twenty-two I was much too old for. But my body tingled with warm currents of awareness that couldn’t be denied, whether I was too old for them or not.
I fumbled with his change, having to count and recount the bills to make sure I’d gotten it correct before I could trust myself to hand them over. He didn’t comment on my prepubescent antics, and I liked him all the more for it.
“What’s your name?”
My hand had been in mid-air, with a fistful of bills and coins, and his question startled me. The coins slid from my palm, clanking against the tile of the counter. “Oh my gosh! I am so sorry!”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said with a smile that made my cheeks flush with something more than embarrassment. He reached over and scooped up the coins. “I’m not.”
“H-here’s your change,” I mumbled softly, holding the bills out toward him.
“Thank you.” He pocketed it quickly, but instead of turning to leave he stared at me expectantly.
“Do you want ketchup or something?” As soon as the words had passed my lips, I fervently prayed for a black hole to open up and suck me in. Perhaps it would deposit me into a realm where offering condiments was an acceptable pick-up line. Not that I held out hope that such a place existed, which pretty much meant I was screwed.
“No.” His dark eyes intent on mine, the corners of his lips lifted. “I want to know your name.”
“Oh, um…” It was stitched right there in the upper right corner of the work-mandated polo that I wore. When I reached up and pulled the corner flat, I wasn’t entirely sure if it was to make sure he could see it, or because I needed the reminder. “Nicole.”
“Nicole,” he repeated. “I like that.”
God, I loved hearing the sound of my name on his lips. Almost as much as that, I appreciated the fact that he was acting as though my inane bumbling was completely normal. With my hands still slightly shaking from his touch and my belly knotting, I felt anything but.
“My name is Geoffrey.”
Ooh, a name just as sexy as he was. That was rare. I was about to say something else—what, I didn’t know—when his order was placed in front of me. Oh. Didn’t that normally take longer?
“Is that mine?”
Oh, boy, here I was, looking like it was my first day on the job. He probably thought I was a total ditz. “Um, yep. Do you need any napkins?” I winced as soon as the words left my mouth. That made two strikes in an attempt at witty conversation, and wasn’t what I wanted to ask him at all.
“No, thank you. I could use my receipt, though.”
I glanced at the paper that was still hanging at the top of the register. I could feel my cheeks warm with embarrassment. Thankfully, in a minute he’d be on his way and I wouldn’t be able to make myself look like any more of an idiot than I already had. I snatched the paper from the machine and pushed it across the counter toward him.
Without taking his eyes off my face—was I that red?—Geoffrey flipped it over to the back and produced a shiny chrome ballpoint pen, which he offered me. “Would you do me the honor of writing your number? I’d love to take you to dinner sometime.”
That did it. My mouth dropped open, confirming what he’d surely come to suspect during this conversation—that I was a complete and total space case. Maybe that was what he was into. Who was I to judge? All I knew for certain was that I wanted to see him again.
The feeling must have been mutual—much to my shock—as he hadn’t let a full day pass before he’d called, and we’d made plans for that coming Friday night. After a very enjoyable evening, during which I was only slightly less nervous than I’d been the first time we’d met, he’d sent flowers. Then he’d called and asked for another date. Falling in love with Geoffrey had been easy—too easy.
My mama had a saying—it was used often enough by the rest of the world to be well known, but somehow when she said it, she made it uniquely hers: If it looks too good to be true, run like hell. That’s what she said when I’d told her about Geoffrey. Well, not exactly what she said, but what I inferred in the silence that seemed to stretch on forever even though I could still hear her breathing over the phone.
And maybe she’d been right, after all. Maybe I should have run. But I’d been young—hell, I was still young, but nowhere near as naïve as I had been. We’d become engaged five months to the day since we met. When he’d asked me, I’d been so swept up in the fairytale of it all and his good looks that I’d breathlessly agreed, with tears of the happy sort prickling my eyes. That had been twelve months ago, and still, I only wore one ring on my finger.
That might not seem like a lot of time to some people, but I didn’t want a big wedding. All I’d ever wanted was Geoffrey, and the things I saw for myself when I looked into his eyes. We had booked a small church wedding immediately, but he’d postponed it due to some crisis at work that he’d never given me the full details on. I’d been disappointed, of course, but rather than show it or press him for details, I’d thrown myself into planning a wedding for fall instead of spring. He seemed bemused by my enthusiasm, but when he’d ended up asking me to push it back once more, we hadn’t bothered setting another date.
I turned the faucet on and tested the temperature with my fingers. Once I found it suitably cold, I cupped my hands and filled them with the cool water, promptly dunking my face. Then I scrubbed at my skin, trying to get rid of the sleepiness in my eyes. If only I could wipe away the memories as easily.
After patting my skin dry with a plush, monogrammed hand towel, I eyed my reflection critically. I looked okay. I wasn’t wearing any makeup—if I had been, I would have just messed it up, anyway—but my blue eyes were still bright, my high cheekbones rosy. My brows had been plucked recently, the same day I’d had my nails done. I got them done once a month because, as I’d learned, Geoffrey thought women should have pretty nails. I eyed them—a boring French manicure—and sighed, admitting to myself at last that I would miss all the creature comforts that being engaged to a man of means had afforded me.
I’d never thought I would become that girl, but if I couldn’t enjoy marriage to the man himself, I’d at least learned to appreciate the other benefits that came with being his lady. Or so I’d told myself, but it was becoming more and more apparent to me that all the perks in the world just weren’t enough. Being on his Visa account wasn’t the same as being his wife. And as much as I was trying to run from the doubt that was beginning to consume my every waking thought, I couldn’t escape one pressing question: did he still want me to be his wife?
I should have gone to him and asked. The logical part of me knew that. But the other part, the one that didn’t want him to confess that he’d made a mistake in asking me to marry him, couldn’t bear the thought. But I wasn’t happy being his live-in is-she-or-isn’t-she fiancée any longer. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my twenties wondering when, or if, I was going to get married. What had begun as a whirlwind romance had faded away to canceled dates and nights he spent locked inside of his office instead of with me. I was so tired of looking at that big, imposing door he kept closed between us that I’d been having dreams about chopping it up into firewood for longer than I cared to admit.
But there was another truth I guarded even more closely—the fact that I was a coward. While I’d hinted at my unhappiness, I hadn’t been able to give voice to the aching emptiness I was beginning to feel where my relationship with Geoffrey was concerned. I’d let him know that I missed him, that I wished he didn’t work so much, that it disappointed me to miss out on plans I’d been looking forward to. But the fact that it kept me up at night, rethinking the plans for the future that we’d made? The fact that I often thought of just slipping away into the dark of night never to be heard from again? Those were things I’d kept locked up tight and they were eating away at me.
I couldn’t ward them off any longer or shoulder the burden on my own any longer. As much as I’d tried to avoid this moment, it had come nonetheless. I had to tell him it was over. I’d decided that it had to be done over a week ago and I still hadn’t been able to make myself follow through. I’d spent every moment with him since then looking for a sign that things would work out, but there hadn’t been one. Geoffrey had been as preoccupied and distant as he always was. Still, every time I’d tried to talk to him, my lips had stiffened like I’d coated them with cement instead of lipstick.
But today was the day. I’d decided that last night, and I was going to make it happen, no matter what it cost me. The only problem was that I couldn’t seem to make my feet move. Instead, I was rooted to the spot, looking myself over in the mirror. My full lips quirked at me, in a sad, ironic smile. When he’d proposed to me, I’d been so excited. I’d been more than that—I’d been thrilled. I’d certainly never expected that this day would come, and yet, here we were.
It was too early to be thinking about the future—at least, where my love life was concerned—but I let my mind wander, nonetheless. It was some comfort, considering what I had to do. I supposed that I wouldn’t have too hard a time reeling in another fish, as my mother liked to say. A life as an engaged woman hadn’t turned me fat and complacent. In fact, I was in better shape than I’d ever been in my life, but that was probably because I spent many hours at the gym Geoffrey had in his basement. He never used it, but I liked to run off my feelings on the treadmill, something I’d been doing twice a day for months now.
We didn’t have long, leisurely dinners, or hours of watching television while munching popcorn. Geoffrey was always too busy for such things. If there was one thing I’d learned about him in our short time together, it was that he was always busy. If he ever suspected he had a moment of free time, he found a way to fill it and ever since we’d become engaged I rarely seemed to be at the top of his list.
Not that things had been all bad. No, there had been sweet moments, but they’d been too few and far between.
I looked longingly into the mirror, wondering what Geoffrey saw when he looked at me. When we’d first started dating, he’d showered me with compliments. He’d claimed to love my high cheekbones, my soft features, what he called my “elfin” face. But his favorite feature, he’d said, was my hair. Even I had to admit that it was nice. It was a rich blond caramel that fell just past my breasts. It was as thick and shiny as the models’ in commercials. Maybe, I thought with a rueful smile, I could consider commercials as my next line of work.
For a moment, as I looked at myself I tried to remember what it had felt like back then when I’d believed he loved me. I tried to remember who that girl had been. I felt so different now, so cut off from the person I’d been before and even though I knew it hadn’t quite been two years since we’d begun dating, it might as well have been a lifetime ago. I’d changed so much since then.
I tore my eyes away with reluctance, knowing that it was now or never. The thought of spending even one more night in the same house with him while I was keeping this kind of secret to myself made me ill. Or, slightly more so than I felt already, anyway. The thought of going to him and telling him that I wanted to break up was nauseating enough all on its own.
“Come on, Nicole,” I muttered to myself. “You can do this.” As though my voice had broken some sort of spell, I was finally able to make my feet move. Not one to break the momentum, I power walked out the bathroom. My mind was made up. Best get this over with before I could change it again—or chicken out.
Lucky for me, I knew exactly where to start. Geoffrey was home, for a change. Most weeks he was out of town, traveling for work. It had begun shortly after I’d moved in with him—only for a day or two, at first. Then after a few weeks that had grown into three days, then four, until I was lucky to see him even on the weekends. It hadn’t been long before I rued agreeing to move in with him, something I never would have done if I’d known I would spend most of my time alone. Maybe some women would have loved having a huge house—with more than half a dozen bedrooms and two offices, plus a walk-in attic it was very nearly a mansion—all to themselves, but I wasn’t one of them. I knew that he would have let me do whatever I wanted to the place, but playing interior designer was hardly any fun without him there to pick things out alongside me. The whole point of living together was being a part of the same team—at least, that’s what I’d thought. Had I known it would be a single-player team most of the time, I would have said thanks, but no thanks.
Oh, who was I kidding? It was hard to say no to those gorgeous pools of dark chocolate. But that was what I was going to have to force myself to do right now—corner him and insist that he look up from his computer and give me two minutes of his very precious, coveted time. It shouldn’t take any longer than that to tell him I couldn’t make this work any longer and quietly put his engagement ring on the desk and show myself out. I paused, lifting my hand one last time and staring sadly at the ring that glimmered and shone on my finger. It really was a beauty, but I didn’t have the right to wear it anymore. Besides, no matter how pretty, it wasn’t keeping me warm at night, and it never would.
Filled with renewed purpose, I continued toward Geoffrey’s office. Ever since my feet had come unglued from the floor, I’d been practically racing toward the confrontation that I’d put off for much too long. I had to get on with it while I still had the nerve. I’d already packed my suitcases—the same battered, patched cases I’d brought with me when I’d moved in. Though Geoffrey had replaced them with smart Louis Vuitton cases for our one year anniversary, it didn’t seem right to take them. He could return them and get his money back, because although we’d talked many times about going on a vacation, we’d never managed it. There’d always been some excuse or a promise that “soon” we would find time to get away.
When I rounded the corner and moved toward his office, I saw to my surprise that his door was open. He normally kept it closed, so this unprecedented change caught me off guard. The superglue must have been on my feet all along because the soles of my feet stuck to that carpet with just as much determination as they’d had earlier with the tile. I stood just outside, trying frantically to talk myself into a hasty retreat while simultaneously praying that he didn’t notice me. I’d expected to have to knock on the door and be allowed entry, thereby allowing me a few minutes to rehearse what I was going to say while I did deep, long inhales to calm my nerves. But there was no time to rehearse now, no deep breaths—only quick puffs of panic that expelled from my lungs much too quickly. I was stuck in limbo, unable to move forward and end this relationship that had ceased feeling like one long ago, and just as incapable of following the loud, screeching instinct that told me to flee and save myself.
But since I could do neither I allowed my eyes to wander. Perhaps it was bad judgement on my part, but as I saw him inside his study, his head bent over some paper or another, I allowed myself one last long look at the face I’d come to love. He was studying the papers in front of him with an intensity that, once upon a time, I’d found downright irresistible. It was hard not to let my mind wander back in time when I looked at him. We’d loved each other, once. Or at least, I’d thought so. Maybe I’d never really known the meaning of the word. Still, I’d been just as in love with the dream we’d created together, with the long late-night talks of the life we’d have, and letting it go hit me surprisingly hard right this moment.
I let my eyes linger, roving his face as I tried to memorize his features. Right now, a lock of dark, silky hair had fallen over his forehead, nearly hiding the wrinkle of concentration that marked his brow. His eyes narrowed into slits at he read—I’d said more than once that he should consider getting his eyes checked, but he’d insisted time and again that it was nothing. He’d told me that it was something that happened when he got bad news, but I’d long suspected that he was just too proud to wear glasses. Not for the first time, I considered how he’d look with them. If he’d ever asked my opinion, I would have shared my suspicion that they would only make him look even more sophisticated.
It was rare that I had a moment to drink in his masculine beauty. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done it, and I found myself somehow caught off guard by how handsome he was. It had been a long time since I’d appreciated it. I felt an ache in my heart and a whispered hope that maybe, maybe I could convince him to take some time off. Maybe if I told him how I was feeling…
But in the end, it was that ache that convinced me that I was doing the right thing. How many times had I indulged in that old, familiar wish? How many times had I told myself that if I was more patient, more appealing, sexier/thinner/more interesting that he would want to make more time for me? Those hopes had been empty, and this one, I knew from experience, would be no different.
Yes, I felt a pang of remorse, the sting of self-pity, and untold empathy for how my news would affect him. But that didn’t mean I could turn back now.
To my utter shock and amazement, no sooner had I made my resolution than he looked up and spotted me. I was startled and more than a little embarrassed to have been caught staring.
If he was surprised to find me standing in the empty hallway, his expression didn’t show it. In fact, the smile he gave me beckoned me closer, but my heart leapt to my throat. Suddenly, I was overcome with all the dreams I’d had for us. The plans we’d made. None of it had come to fruition, but that didn’t make it any less hard to throw it away.
I smiled sadly at hearing my name on his lips. There had been a time when just listening to the sound of his voice, much less hearing him call my name would have had a knee-weakening effect, but no longer. Too much time had passed for that.
“Is everything all right?”
Not by a long shot, I thought wryly, finally stepping toward him. “I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time?” I asked, my voice sounding brusquer than I’d intended.
“Of course. Come on in.”
Usually, such a request would have been met with “just a minute” or “let me finish this one thing”. There had been numerous times when I’d been kept standing in the doorway, waiting for him to finish his “one more thing” before I realized that I’d been forgotten completely. It was such memories, I supposed, that lent a brisk tone to my voice. I wasn’t going to be put off or forgotten this time.
“Have a seat,” he invited with a wave of his hand toward the plush chair facing his desk.
There were two, both upholstered identically in light brown leather. I eyed them as I drew closer to the desk, but shook my head at his invitation to sit. “I won’t be long.” I folded my arms across my chest protectively and tried to ignore the knot that was budding into something big and hard as I stood in his inner sanctum and felt the full weight of his unassuming eyes on me.
“All right. Go ahead, you have my full attention.”
There was a first time for everything. “Um… well, I was just stopping by… I mean, I wanted you to know…”
He arched a black brow, his expression growing more curious with each passing second. “Whatever it is, you can tell me, Nicole.”
Oh, if only he knew. Well, he soon would. Sooner rather than later, if I could make my tongue untie itself. I cleared my throat, determined to get the words out this time. Even so, when I opened my mouth, they refused to come. Fine—if I couldn’t tell him, I could show him. I put my thumb and forefinger together, pinching the engagement ring on my left hand. I pulled at the white-gold band, but it didn’t budge. I yanked harder, but the only result was that the metal bit deeper into my finger.
“Nicole?” Both brows drawn together, he looked truly concerned now.
“Just a minute.” I gave him an odd smile—it felt strange to smile at all, given the circumstances. I pulled, I twisted, I jimmied, but nothing I did made that ring move from its place on my finger. I didn’t think I’d gained weight—at least, I hadn’t, until now. Maybe the damned thing was fused to my skin. Maybe he’d had it made that way so that I’d never be able to leave him. The thought made me giggle. This was the worst break-up attempt in history. That in itself was laughable.
“Is something wrong with your ring?”
“I can’t get it off,” I stated the obvious, panting with the effort.
“Yes, I can see that. Is there any particular reason you want it off?”
“Because I shouldn’t be wearing it.” It came blurting out, just like that. A convoluted, fuzzy truth, but a start, at least.
Geoffrey’s brow clouded and he seemed to have some trouble speaking himself. It pained me to see his handsome, strong features wrinkled in confusion, the flicker of surprise mixed with wariness in his eyes, but I knew I had to grin and bear it. This was a thing that needed doing.
“Can I ask why?” he managed at last.
How could I possibly answer that without arousing more questions? Somehow, I didn’t think ‘Because I wanna’ would cut it, nor was it entirely accurate. I took a deep breath, simultaneously trying to get my jumble of thoughts together in a way that would make sense once verbalized. “I don’t think we should get married.”
“Yes, so I gathered. But that doesn’t give me the slightest idea of why you’ve suddenly changed your mind.”
Now it was my turn to look surprised. I didn’t think I’d ever heard Geoffrey sound so stringent. On the other hand, was he freakin’ kidding? Surely, he knew just as well as I did that we didn’t act like a couple who was going to get married. “I hardly see you.” It was all I had to offer, at the moment, though I knew as soon as the words left my mouth how lame they sounded.
Geoffrey cleared his throat, shifting in his seat. “I’m sorry for that, really, but I do run a business.”
“Oh, I know,” I quipped, rolling my eyes to the ceiling. “How could I not?”
“I don’t think I like your tone, Nicole.”
My eyes were drawn back to his like magnets. I was surprised to see that he wasn’t teasing me. I felt both surprised and irked, because really, if anyone had a right to be pissed here, it was me. I was the one breaking off my engagement, and on top of it, I had swollen fingers. I was the one who got to be mad.
Before I could voice that, however, Geoffrey spoke again, changing to a more conciliatory voice. “But you’re right. We should spend more time together. What do you say we get away this weekend? Just name the place, and we’ll go.”
It was tempting. I knew he’d be good to his word, now that he knew what was at stake. I knew I’d have his full, undivided attention for forty-eight hours, maybe a little longer. But once we were back on home soil, his phone and laptop would have that magic pull that nothing I said or did could match. “No, I don’t think so,” I said, not without regret.
“No?” he parroted, as though he couldn’t quite believe me.
He began rapping his fingers on his desk, his mouth turned down in a line of frustration. “Well, what then, Nicole? What can I do?”
“I don’t think there’s anything you can do.” There, I’d said it: the truth lay between us, spoken softly, sadly, but it was there, a living, breathing thing. He couldn’t ignore it now, and I couldn’t take it back if I’d wanted to.
I wanted nothing more than to turn and flee once I’d finally admitted the truth, but I forced myself to stay. I doubted he’d want to talk—Geoffrey had more than earned his reputation for being a man of few words. He might need some time to take it all in, but if he had questions, I owed him the courtesy of sticking around to answer them.
At first, his expression stayed exactly the same. This didn’t surprise me. Geoffrey had as good a poker face as I’d ever seen. The mystifying thing was watching him go from a little irritated to flat-out shocked. It happened slowly, but as my words sank in, he sat back in his chair with something that sounded like a gasp. His face collapsed into an expression that, despite everything, I found heart wrenching.
I stood there waiting for him to say something for so long that I became embarrassed. Embarrassed to be witnessing him look so vulnerable, so broken. Embarrassed to be the one who’d caused such things to mar his normally composed expression. I had just decided to leave him in peace, and had, in fact, turned on my heel with my back to him, when I heard him speak.
Reluctantly, I turned to face him. “Why what?”
“I…” He cleared his throat, and when he spoke again, his voice was businesslike. “This is unexpected.”
I blinked in surprise. Was that really all he had to say?
“You’ve never said anything to give me the impression that you’re unhappy.”
Never said anything? I’d said plenty. Whole sonnets of discontent, in fact. I’d told him I wished we saw each other more, I wished he worked less, I wished we could take a vacation. He always dismissed every complaint with a patient smile and an understanding, “I know. When the summer comes, I promise.” But in the summer, business was just as hectic, and we never found the time. We hadn’t been on a vacation since the cruise he’d taken me on when he’d proposed! And that had been over a year ago!
But why bother going through that all over again? It wouldn’t make a difference because as far as I was concerned, it was over and done and there was no changing it.
“I’m sorry,” he added, leaning forward with a finger to his chin. “I’m just a little caught off guard, that’s all.”
“That’s understandable,” I said gently.
“I’m not sure what to say.”
I offered a little smile. “Me either. I just… I thought you should know.”
It felt very strange to be thanked for breaking up with him, but trained since birth, I offered an equally out of place, “You’re welcome.” I gave the ring one last tug and winced when it refused once more to budge. “I’ll… I’ll get that to you later.”
This time, when I turned to walk away, he didn’t try to stop me. I expected to be breathing a sigh of relief, but instead there was a strange tightness in my chest that I hadn’t felt before. As I tried to analyze its sudden appearance, I told myself that it was only because the whole conversation had been so surreal. It was too neat and tidy, too smooth to be real. But then, that was Geoffrey. He was polite—a gentleman. What had I expected? An uproar? Passionate declarations of love? If I had, even subconsciously, then I’d been fooling myself. He’d never been like that—our relationship had always been calm and relaxed. So why should I expect anything new, particularly when it was ending? Plenty of women would kill for the amicable reaction I’d just received. And it had been done early before there was any need to involve lawyers and get messy. So really, it was a win-win for us both. I should have felt happy, or at the very least like a burden had been lifted. Instead, my confrontation with him had left me feeling hollow inside, logic be damned.
I could scarcely think once Nicole had left my study. I’d been surprised to see her waiting to speak to me—she hardly ever came to this part of the house anymore. I’d been surprised, yes, but delighted by the visit until I’d realized that something was wrong. It was in the way her normally lively blue eyes had been flat, in the way her body seemed coiled around some secret angst.
Not that I ever would have guessed the source of the angst. Now I was left wondering if I’d been a fool not to know that she was leaving me. It was odd, how hearing those words had immobilized me. After they’d registered, everything else she said—not that it had been much—made me feel as though I was hearing them from under water. My limbs felt paralyzed and my brain seemed stuck on that one sentence, the way her voice had shaken when she’d said we shouldn’t get married. My hand was shaking in the same way, every time I thought about it.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl as I tried to process her shocking announcement. I sat, frozen, staring at the space where she’d been standing, my mind spinning as I tried to figure out what to do next, yet so foggy and clouded that the same sentence reverberated through my mind over and over again: I can’t believe this.
I felt almost like I’d slipped into an odd, dreamless sleep. When I finally climbed out of it, nearly forty minutes had passed. Then, before I even knew what I was doing, I was picking up the phone and dialing. It was an old rotary phone, the same kind my grandmother had owned, that I had to wait all week long to use when I called my parents to report on my summer vacation. Normally, I grew nostalgic every time I picked it up. This time, I dialed without thinking, my brain on autopilot.
My mother answered on the third ring. “Hello?”
Just to hear her answer the phone, anyone would know that she was well-bred. She had the voice of those select few who leisured on a daily basis. My mother had the wealth and security to do whatever she wished, whenever she pleased and she took full advantage of it by taking weekly spa treatments and hiring a housekeeper and cook. I would have been glad to provide the same kind of life for my fiancée, but Nicole didn’t seem interested in the spa, or luncheons. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d so much as gotten out of the house to go shopping, or something equally frivolous, now that I thought about it. I couldn’t say that the realization thrilled me.
“Geoffrey. How wonderful of you to call, darling. How are you?”
I leaned back in my chair—it was plush but sturdy, just the sort I liked. It was also upholstered in soft, golden brown leather. Nicole had given it to me for my thirty-fifth birthday two months after we’d gotten engaged. Caressing the armchair now, I remembered how proud she’d looked when she’d presented it to me. She’d been biting down on her lip, something she only did when she was embarrassed, or extremely excited. On that day, if I recalled correctly, she had seemed to be a little bit of both.
She’d bought it with her own money, the money she’d saved from working at Burger King. Once we’d become engaged, I’d been more than happy to pay for anything she needed. I hadn’t understood why she’d wanted to keep her waitressing job, but I hadn’t said anything against it. It turned out that she’d kept working so that she could buy me a nice gift all on her own for my birthday. She had put in her two-weeks’ notice the very next day. How long had it been since I’d thought about that? Too long, and remembering it now made my heart pang.
“I’m not doing too well,” I admitted.
“Oh? Well, whatever is the matter?”
“I see.” That was it—nothing more. I waited on the other end to see if she would offer more, but she didn’t.
“She’s calling off the wedding.”
“Oh, dear. What happened, Geoffrey?”
The sweet, concerned quality to her voice made the vise around my heart loosen the slightest bit. If anyone could tell me where to go from here, it was my mother. She was wise beyond her years, and though she tended to be overprotective of her only child, she had liked Nicole the few times they’d met. More importantly, she knew that I’d never felt this way about another girl before and she’d waited a long time for me to find someone and settle down.
“I don’t know, mom. I think I blew it.”
“That doesn’t tell me anything,” she tsked. “What did she say, dear?”
“That I work too much.”
“Well, you do work too much.”
“You’re not helping, mom.” My fingers went back to rapping on the polished surface of my desk as my leg jigged impatiently. The longer I had to digest Nicole’s revelation, the more certain I became that I didn’t like it. I had to do something, but I didn’t know what, or how.
“Oh, you want my help. I see. You should have said so—I’ll do anything I can to help you. What can I do?”
“Never mind,” I sighed. “I don’t even know why I’m telling you.”
“No, none of that now. You called me for a reason. Let’s figure this out. Have you tried to talk to her?”
“She just gave me the news a few minutes ago.”
“I see. Well, you’ll want to talk to her again, of course, but don’t try to engage in a conversation until you’re certain what you want the outcome to be.”
“I want us to stay together. I want to get married.”
“Does Nicole know that?”
I opened my mouth to reply but closed it again because I felt close to losing my temper. Only when I’d composed myself did I answer. “Of course she does, mother. I proposed to her; that, in itself, says I want to marry her.”
“That’s how a man sees it. Women are not so easily cut-and-dry, I’m afraid. Didn’t you two already have a date set?” she prodded gently.
“Yes, we did,” I sighed. “But stuff came up at work and we had to postpone.”
“Postpone until when?”
I leaned back in my chair and pressed my left hand to my temple. “We haven’t set a date yet.”
“I see. And you can’t see why maybe Nicole thinks you don’t want to marry her?” When I didn’t answer, she pressed on. “Just talk to her, dear. She needs you to reassure her that the fears in her head are just that—in her head.”
“What if she won’t talk to me? What if she won’t give me another chance?” These were my worst fears spoken aloud, and suddenly, I regretted not having shut the door before I’d made the phone call.
“She will—she loves you. But maybe you could offer her some incentive. Give her a carrot, so to speak.”
“She’s not a rabbit, mother.”
“Yes, well, carrots come in many different forms. Now I’m running late for my appointment to the salon. I could cancel if—”
“No, mom. You’ve done enough. Go to your appointment.”
“It will work out the way it’s meant to, honey. I know that’s not comforting sometimes, but it will. Love you.”
I echoed the sentiment and set the phone back in the cradle, deep in thought. Trying to understand what she had told me was like trying to decode a message written in invisible ink. What did she mean, a carrot? What did I have that Nicole could possibly want? I’d thought that she’d wanted to marry me, but I wasn’t so sure any longer.
I picked up my heavy Mount Blanc and began drumming it on the edge of my desk, something I often did when I was agitated. My brain was slowly emerging from the fog—my mother had said to decide what I wanted. I knew without question that I wanted Nicole. I always had, ever since I’d first laid eyes on her, and I was choosy. I knew she was the right one, so the question was, what had I done to make her think otherwise? And was there anything I could do to rectify it?
My eyes strayed to one of the pictures I’d had framed for my desk. Nicole had wanted to set up a shoot to take engagement photos and I’d happily gone along with whatever she wanted. This picture was just of her—in the frame she was waving her hand at the camera, engagement ring on full display and her smile bright. I felt a pang in my chest as I leaned forward and picked it up to bring it closer. She looked back at me, her blue eyes glowing with a radiant excitement that showed in every line of her lovely face. Her smile was wide and luminous, showing off the dimple in her left cheek. Her honey-colored hair was down, flowing freely over her shoulders, the halo capping off a beautiful face. She had the most captivating, soft features. Her body was equally lovely. She was short, at 5’4, but I loved the feeling of towering over her. To hear her tell it, she didn’t have a chest to speak of, but I thought her breasts were plenty full, and they were certainly perky. She had a straight figure, with small, slightly protruding hips, and a surprisingly curvaceous behind. I’d seen her stand in front of the mirror many a time, turned at an angle to bemoan a figure that I found enticing.
When, I wondered, had I last told Nicole how beautiful she was? It had been too long, I knew. Hell, a woman like that shouldn’t go an hour without hearing those words. I had done her a great disservice. My heart was heavy as I relinquished the photograph to its spot of honor on my desk.
The more I thought it over, the more I had to admit that I’d made plenty of mistakes when it came to our relationship, short as it had been. The question was, what could I do? Did I even have any choice in the matter? She’d seemed like her mind was made up.
Frowning, I thought about all the things that would change if she left as she intended. Things wouldn’t change much for me, at least not to the outside eye. But Nicole… when I’d proposed to her, I’d been fully prepared and willing to take care of her in every way possible for the rest of her life. My family was fairly wealthy, and I had a very successful business that had raked in its fair share in the short years it had been open. I was financially able to support her, but her leaving would mean she would have to fall back on waitressing, or some equally unsavory hard labor just to pay rent. Just the thought made my stomach clench. I couldn’t have that.
On its heels, another thought struck me. A devious, terrible thought, but one I couldn’t help but entertain nonetheless. Slowly, the beginnings of a plan began to take shape. It wasn’t one that I was necessarily proud of, but I was also beginning to understand that pride was going to have to go by the wayside if I was going to be able to keep the woman I loved.
“Mom?” My voice quavered, despite my best intentions to contain in my emotions.
“Nicole?” I could feel the warmth radiating from her even a thousand-plus-miles away. “Are you okay, sweetie?”
No, I definitely was not, but I didn’t know how I was going to break the news. After my conversation with Geoffrey, I’d retreated to the guest room I’d been using for the last several weeks so that I could call her. I was almost as nervous about telling her as I had been about breaking the news to Geoffrey. The truth was, my mother had loved him from the start, despite my tender age of twenty-two, despite the fact that I’d never had a real boyfriend before. She’d been just as charmed as I was by his polite manners, just as taken in by the warmth and brightness of his smile. Like mother, like daughter.
Of course, it hadn’t hurt matters any that he was rich. I’d never said so, and she’d never asked, but my mother seemed to innately know such things. She could spot money from miles away, finding clues that such people tried to bury when they were trying to go incognito. She’d once pointed out a man on the subway that she swore to me in hushed whispers was a millionaire. I’d given him a quick once-over, not seeing anything noteworthy. Later, she’d told me she’d known it the moment she saw his tennis shoes.
“His tennis shoes?” I’d asked, my brow crinkled. They’d been new and pristine, but so what?
My mother had just given me a small, secret smile, the one she gave when she knew she was right about something but refused to argue about it.
It wasn’t two months later that I was flipping through Forbes magazines and found him listed among the top five-hundred most eligible bachelors. My mother had been understandably nonchalant.
I never asked how she knew—whether it was Geoffrey’s watch, or his tie, or the way he pronounced “sugar”. While it was true that he never went to any lengths to disguise his wealth, she would have also known if he was trying too hard to seem something that he wasn’t. And I knew, without her ever saying so, that it was one of the reasons that she overlooked my youth and the short amount of time we’d been together and gave us her blessing.
Not that my mother was a gold-digger—far from it. My father had barely had two cents to rub together when they’d married, and he’d left her in much the same state when he’d died shortly after my high school graduation. Rather, since she’d suffered through poverty her entire life, she liked the idea of a man who could provide for me. The first time I’d introduced them, I’d watched her look from Geoffrey and back to me, a palpable relief filling her face and seeming to erase a few wrinkles along the way.
And now I was going to have to tell her that her dreams for me—the security she’d wished for me, the ability to live without having to worry about money, was about to evaporate. It pained me more than giving the news to my own fiancé.
“Did you hear already?” she asked, and I could practically hear her anxiously biting her nails at the other end.
“Nothing. It’s nothing. Just, I have some news.”
“Oh. Well, as a matter of fact, so do I.”
“You go first.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, but I just wasn’t ready yet. “No, you go ahead.”
“All right. Well… are you sitting down, honey?”
My brow furrowed in surprise. Why did I need to be sitting down? Had she lost her job at Walmart? They’d had layoffs a few months ago, but my mother’s job had been spared. Or was she going to tell me that things between her and Morris were getting serious? They’d met at work—he brought all the stock to the store to be unloaded—and had been dating for well over a year now. If she thought I’d be shocked or dismayed by the news she’d be surprised on both counts.
“Yes, mom. I’m sitting down.”
“Okay. Here goes then.” I heard the deep intake of breath on the other end and almost found myself smiling. She could get worked up about the simplest of things sometimes. “I had my yearly physical with Dr. Moody. And it turned out that he needed to run more tests. He called in a favor from a specialist, because these things can take time, but as it turns out… I’ve got cancer in my hip.”
I’d lied. I hadn’t been sitting down. When my feet gave way beneath me, I toppled to the ground and the phone slid from my hand, skidding across the floor in a scene that would have been comedic if it hadn’t been so horrifying.
“Nicole? Hon, are you there?”
I could still hear her voice, concerned and anxious, coming from across the room. I knew that she was worried on my account rather than her own. Mom always took care of me before herself. She’d made a life out of it. I crawled across the floor on my hands and knees, scooping up the phone as soon as it was in reach.
“Yeah, mom, I’m here,” I said, trying to keep the shock and devastation from my voice as best I could.
“I don’t want you to worry. The doctors are taking good care of me.”
“I’m sure they are.” I hated that she was trying to put on such a brave face. I hated that she felt like she had to do that, but I was still too shaken to encourage her to open up on any fear she might feel. There would be time for that when I had my head wrapped around my own.
“Now then, what was your news?”
My brain was in such a fog after what she’d said, it took me a minute even to remember why I’d called. When I did, my heart sank all the way down to my stomach. There was no way I could tell her now. “Oh, I just called to tell you… to let you know that I’m coming for a visit soon.”
“You are?” she practically squealed, the pitch of excitement in her voice belying her nearly fifty years. “When?”
“Soon.” I kept my answer succinct. “In the next couple of weeks.”
“How long are you staying?”
I nibbled my lower lip. This was the tricky one. “Nothing’s set in stone just yet, but I’m planning on a long visit.”
“That’s wonderful, honey! I’m not going to complain if you want to come for a visit, believe me, but I hope my news didn’t…”
“No, not at all. I’d already planned on it.”
“Well, good, I know Geoffrey will miss you and I don’t want to be the cause.”
“Don’t be silly.” I’d been about to say more, but just then the door to the guest room I’d been using cracked open and my as-of-a-few-minutes-ago-ex poked his head in. His ears must have been burning, I thought. “I’ve got to go.”
“Okay. And, Nicole… promise me you won’t worry.”
“I’ll do my best. Love you.”
I clicked the off button and turned to Geoffrey expectantly. “Yes?”
“I heard a noise and wanted to check on you. Are you all right?”
“Yes,” I said, turning away just in case he might be able to discern the truth on my face. “I’m fine. I just dropped the phone.” I could picture him in my mind’s eye, arching his black brows, something he did to call me a liar without being so crass as to say it aloud. I could feel his eyes burning a hole through the soft cotton of my t-shirt, but I wasn’t brave enough to face him.
“Nicole, I was hoping we could talk.”
Oh, I so did not want to. Not right now. “Actually, this really isn’t the best time.”
“I’ll only take a minute or two, I promise.”
It was clear from his tone that he wasn’t going to take no for an answer, and it was his house, after all. What else could I do? “I’m listening.”
“Could you face me, please?”
Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have sighed so loudly, but I really didn’t think I could do this after the conversation I’d just had. “What is it?” I wouldn’t have normally sounded so sharp or surly either, but he’d known I wasn’t in the mood to talk, so I was allowing myself the luxury and refusing to feel guilty about it.
His brow furrowed as he looked at me, and God help me if I didn’t find it sexy. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Fine.” My voice was clipped, trying to tell him plainly that he wasn’t going to get anything more out of me.
“I’ve been thinking.”
Have you now. I wasn’t usually so cynical either, but one big announcement was about all I could take for one day. Now, after talking to my mom, I was at my limit.
“I’ve come up with a proposal that I think is mutually beneficial.”
I almost snorted, but stopped myself just in time. I couldn’t even be surprised—that was Geoffrey for you. He was first and foremost a businessman. Of course he would think that he could solve the problems in our relationship—or the fragments that remained—with a well-laid out flow chart. It had never failed him before. The only thing that surprised me was the fact that he’d cared enough to bother. Why? It wasn’t like we’d tied the knot yet. He wouldn’t lose any assets, and he could blame me to save face, if that was what he wanted. I didn’t even care anymore.
“Tomorrow’s Friday,” he continued in the wake of my silence. “I’ve been thinking, it’s been a long time since we’ve gotten away, just the two of us.”
“You’re always too busy.” I shrugged, because it no longer mattered. I ignored the all-too familiar flutter of hurt in my chest.
“You’re not wrong. And I realize that that’s been unfair to you. So what I am proposing is this: I want to go away for a vacation of sorts.”
“I’m sorry, Geoffrey.” My tone softened slightly. “But I think the time for that sort of thing has passed.”
“Let me finish, please.” Was it my imagination, or was there a hint of steel behind the words? “I was thinking that we’d get away for a week. Now, I know that this isn’t your ideal vacation, considering, but if you agree to accompany me, I promise you’ll find it worth your while.”
This time, I did laugh. I slapped my hand over my mouth, but a disbelieving giggle had already escaped, doing its damage.
“I know how it sounds, but I assure you that I am completely serious.”
“I’m sure you are,” I said, doing my best to restrain my laughter. “But you have to know that one trip isn’t going to fix everything between us.”
“I suspected as much, but I’d like us to get away, nonetheless. I realize that I’ve had a tendency to neglect you in the past—”
“You think?” The words popped out before I could swallow them and let them join the laughter.
“And I am deeply sorry for it,” he continued. “I would like a chance to prove that to you. Then, if you still want to go through with your plans to leave, I won’t try to stop you.”
Despite myself, I hesitated. A spark of hope that I hadn’t even known existed ignited its tiny, weak flame. It was the only thing stopping me from telling him to stuff his useless vacation plans. I was still angry, too angry to consider going away with him, but even as the realization occurred to me another followed at its heels: that the anger was fueled by pain. I couldn’t afford to give him another opportunity to disappoint me.
I sighed as I raked my hand through my long, blond hair, my decision made. “I’m sorry. Really, I am, but I can’t. I just don’t think it will make a difference.”
“You’ll never know until you try.”
True, but I’d made a career out of trying, and I was tired of being a rejection junkie.
And as I mentioned, if you’ll agree I’ll make it worth your while.”
My lips curved despite myself. Business was his native language, so he played “Let’s Make a Deal” even with his own fiancée. “Is that so?”
“It is,” he replied, ever-so-serious.
I was more amused than curious when I asked, “What are you talking about?”
Geoffrey reached for his back pocket and thrust a folded document at me. When I only eyed it but didn’t take it, he cleared his throat. “Do you recall the pre-nup you signed shortly after we got engaged?”
I nodded wordlessly. I didn’t see what that had to do with anything.
As you know, had we married, in the event of a divorce you would have received a million dollars and a yearly stipend of sixty thousand a year.”
Another bored nod. I couldn’t see where he was going with this. We had never married—his choice, though I didn’t feel like reminding him of that fact. I wasn’t spoiling for a fight. After the news I’d just heard on top of what I’d already gone through today, I felt drained and limp. All I wanted was to crawl under the fresh, cool sheets and cry myself to sleep.
“The point, please, Geoffrey.”
“The point is that leaving now entitles you to nothing.”
“I don’t care about your money,” I told him, wounded that he’d think otherwise.
“I know, but all the same, it would have made things easier on you. Are you planning on moving back in with your mother? Getting a place of your own? Either way, I assume you’ll need a job.”
Having these questions I’d barely considered hurled at me when I was in no frame of mind to deal with them made me feel nauseous. I pressed two fingers to my temple and began to massage in an attempt to ward off the migraine I could feel looming. “You don’t need to worry about me. I’m not your problem anymore.” It came out sounding sharper than I’d intended.
“I never considered you my problem, Nicole. And I will worry, regardless.” There was no mistaking it now. That was definitely steel lacing his words. “I’m proposing to make the transition easier for you.”
I raised my tired eyes to his, interested despite myself. “How’s that?”
I will give you the money that would have been yours if we’d indeed married and divorced.”
My brow furrowed. I wasn’t sure I was following him. If he was saying what I thought he was, that would mean…
“I’ll transfer a million dollars into your bank account, and sixty-thousand annually, on a date of your choosing.”
When the meaning of his words registered, I nearly choked on nothing but the air that filled my lungs. He’d what? “That’s very kind, Geoffrey, but…”
“It’s not kind,” he countered, his tone pragmatic. “It’s business.”
I was shaking my head no, but even as I was nonverbally refusing his offer, I was doing the math in my head. A million dollars… I could hardly imagine it, other than in some cartoonish image in my brain where it disappeared the minute I tried to touch it. And that wouldn’t be all—sixty thousand dollars a year. That alone was more than I’d ever made for a year’s work, and I’d earn it doing whatever I wanted. I could spend my time Netflix binging and eating brownie batter, which I’d be able to buy plenty of, and it would roll in nonetheless, handed to me, just like that. It was absolutely mind-boggling. Was this how Geoffrey felt when he logged into his accounts every morning and saw that he had more money than he could ever spend? I’d never asked him, but I suddenly found myself curious.
I’d be able to do whatever I wanted. I could find a job I loved, whether that was volunteering at soup kitchens or pet-sitting. I would have the luxury of time to decide what I wanted to do, without having to worry about the size of my paycheck. Or, I could live frugally and never have to work again. Geoffrey was a man of his word. I knew that if I agreed to accept the money in exchange for whatever string was attached—because we both knew there was one, a mighty long one, from the sound of what he was offering in return—that he would keep it and I’d become, if not a rich woman, then one who was very well-off.
It was almost comical, because in the year and a half since we’d met, all I’d thought about was becoming Geoffrey’s wife. Now, it looked like he’d be needing to find someone else to fill that position. Would he take out an ad, I wondered, a smile curving my lips. Did rich people sign up for accounts on Match.com and the like, or was there some secret signal? A dollar sign that flashed in the night sky alerting all the eligible bachelorettes? I doubted I’d ever know.
Even as I played it over and over again in my head, I knew it was too good to be true. And my mama always said run like hell, advice I’d ignored when I’d fallen for the handsome man with perfect hair and a Hollywood smile. As it turned out, she’d been right and I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. I would have loved to run and never look back, right then and there, but common sense stopped me. What he was offering was also too good to pass up without hearing the full scope of what he wanted.
Geoffrey was looking back at me stoically without a single muscle betraying how he felt about waiting for my answer. He had a good poker face.
“What’s the catch?”
“The catch?” he echoed, as though the phrase was foreign to him.
But I wasn’t buying it. “Yes, the catch. I go on a week-long vacation with you and suddenly you’re moved to give me a crap-ton of money and pay me to eat, sleep and breathe?” I let my arched brows say the rest—that I wasn’t born yesterday, thank you very much.
Once more, he pushed the paper toward me. Once more, I let it stay folded and clenched between his fingers.
“It’s a contract.”
My brows arched higher, even though I tried to let my cool tone belie my curiosity. “What does it say?”
“Well, it outlines the catch, as you called it, which is that for the entire week—seven days and seven nights—you’ll do exactly as I say, word for word, or suffer the consequences.”