Authors: Mia Caldwell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #African American, #Women's Fiction, #Romance, #Multicultural, #New Adult & College, #Multicultural & Interracial
He beamed at her. “Excellent. Thank you, Angelina. Just keep the ring on for now, and we’ll figure out all the details of our implosion later. For now, we’ll just play along, right?”
She seemed perturbed, but she nodded. There was a hint of wary resignation about her when she waved to the door. “Fine, now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to go to bed. It’s been a long and strange day, and I don’t even want to think about what I just agreed to.”
It was unusual for a woman to rush him out of her house. Usually, she was busy rushing him in the opposite direction, toward her bedroom, but of course it wouldn’t be that way with Angelina. They were business associates, and perhaps they might form a tenuous friendship during their shared trial, but it wasn’t anything more to it than that.
There couldn’t possibly be, could there? Of course not. He was nowhere near ready to settle down, and she had the kind of responsibilities he didn’t want to think about. This was a short-term business deal for both of them, and though he hoped to retain her as assistant when it ended, he would sacrifice that relationship if necessary to keep his father’s health stable.
He was feeling considerably lighter—though he knew he wasn’t as close to a solution as he had presented to her—as he left Angelina’s house a few minutes later and got behind the wheel of his car to drive away. He’d made it seem cut and dried, basically a simple matter of staging a relationship that didn’t exist and turning it into a breakup from hell, with her cast as the villain, and that leading to his father easing up on the demand for marriage.
He had a feeling William wouldn’t be so easy to fool, and it wouldn’t be quite so easy to break up their fake relationship, but he wasn’t going to reveal that to Angelina until he absolutely had to. Why make things more complicated sooner than he had to?
Could things get more complicated? Despite her tiredness from a long day—which had been a rough one for Kevin, meaning it was a rough day for her—followed by the continuous shocks that had started from the moment she answered her boss’s call, she couldn’t seem to fall asleep.
Instead, she tossed and turned while fretting about the agreement she had reached with Connor, knowing it was wrong on so many levels, but also unable to coolly and firmly tell him no and refuse to help him. She tried to tell herself it was for his father’s sake, but she couldn’t fully embrace that lie, since she had barely known William Blackwell all of two hours, and they certainly hadn’t found time for a chat—a fact for which she was grateful.
She let out a small groan as she realized they would have to create the story of how their relationship had progressed at her next meeting with Connor. She was certain her grandmother would have been rolling in her grave right about then.
If Yvonne had still been alive, she wouldn’t have hesitated to show her disapproval of the arrangement, because she wasn’t a woman who had suffered dishonesty gladly. She had raised Angelina to be truthful, and it felt natural to her now to do so. It was completely against everything ingrained in her to carry on this kind of deception, particularly at this scale, but she couldn’t see much of an alternative, especially not after she had agreed to go through with it for another week or two.
It was obvious to her, at least, that she couldn’t maintain a working relationship with Connor after the events of the evening. If she refused to maintain the charade, he would fire her, or things would be strained between them, and his family would wonder why he kept her in his employment if she’d suddenly broken up with him.
That same outcome would occur in a week or two when they staged their breakup, but at least she would have the cushion of a large bonus to fall back on—a cushion she needed to ensure the best future for Kevin and herself. It was completely avaricious, but she could either resign now and force Connor to deal with the mess on his own, ending up with a fraction of what she could get if she maintained the charade a bit longer, or hang in a bit longer and get enough to live on after the disaster.
She hated regarding it in such a coldblooded and calculating manner, but she had to be practical. Without a job, she wouldn’t be able to keep a roof over their head for long. It was difficult to find a job she could do from home, and there was absolutely no way she could leave Kevin alone all day, especially in his current state. Without a well-paying job, she couldn’t afford to place him in even a public institution, let alone the nice facility surrounded by nature that his doctor recommended. An at-home aide was out, since the last time she had tried a companion, he had injured the other woman in one of his fits.
The kind of money Connor was talking about, the number he had whispered to her on his way out the door, was the kind that could potentially change her life. It would allow her to enroll her brother into the program while setting up a trust for Kevin’s care, and she could take time to find another job. She could even finish bachelor’s degree and do something different from personal assistant work.
In a way, she was lying to Connor’s family to benefit her family, and it was partially to benefit Connor’s as well. They were sure to be disappointed when they realized the relationship was over, but perhaps it would settle William’s need to see his son married off. She trusted Connor’s judgment on that, because he knew the other man and she didn’t.
Not exactly satisfied with her decision, she had at least settled the worst of her ethical dilemmas with her self-rationalization. As she finally drifted off to sleep, she assured herself continuing the farce had absolutely nothing to do with helping Connor himself, or being unable to resist his pleading gaze.
She dreamed about their wedding.
The first thing she did the next morning was try to remove the ring, which stubbornly still refused to come off. It wasn’t uncomfortable or cutting off her circulation, so she reluctantly left it on.
The second thing she did was arrange an appointment with the Henderson Center at eleven a.m., wanting to tour the facility that she had only seen through brochures before committing to the idea of sending Kevin there to live. After that, she made a stop by the bank and had just returned home from depositing the fat stack of cash for last night’s charade, which would enable her to pay the exorbitant fees for Kevin’s facility if she signed the paperwork, when Connor showed up on her doorstep with an unfamiliar black woman in tow.
“Good morning, love.” He greeted her with a hug and a kiss that wasn’t…entirely unpleasant.
“‘Morning,” she muttered. “I didn’t know you were coming back already,” she added a touch too sweetly.
“I promised to bring Carly by for introductions.” He put a hand on the other woman’s arm in a casual way that shouldn’t have inspired any feelings of jealousy in even a real fiancée.
So why did she have the irrational urge to scratch out the other woman’s eyes? It was mystifying, and she forced herself to ignore the reaction as she extended a hand to take the proffered one from the Carly woman.
“I’m Carly Winters, and I’ll be coordinating your wedding.”
“Oh.” She was afraid she sounded sour, judging from the other woman’s startled expression, so she made an effort to sound more enthusiastic. “How lovely.”
Angelina led them to the kitchen, offering tea and busying herself preparing it. As she did so, she did her best to respond appropriately to Carly’s questions, though she had little interest in planning a wedding that was never taking place. She was surprised that Connor stayed, taking a seat at the table as well, and accepting a cup of tea from her a few minutes later with a nod of thanks.
She sat down across from him at the round surface, aware of the time ticking by as Carly seemed to ask a never-ending stream of questions. Her patience was growing frayed the closer it crept to ten a.m. She needed to be on the road by then in order to make it to her eleven o’clock appointment. The facility was located farther upstate, which meant she had to drive and wanted to allow plenty of time to reach her destination.
When Carly was just getting around to asking her preference for hors d’oeuvres, she started drumming her fingers on the table. “I’m sorry to cut in, but I have an urgent meeting for which I can’t be late. We’ll have to pick this up another time.” For her part, another time could be never, and she’d be perfectly satisfied. She was tempted to tell the wedding coordinator that she didn’t care what she did, because it wasn’t going to happen anyway, but the reminder of the deposit she had made just that morning, with the promise of more to follow, kept her silent.
“Of course, Miss Walsh,” said Carly with perfect manners, looking not at all offended or put out that she had been interrupted in mid-hors d’oeuvres survey. “I’ll leave my card, and you can call me to set up a time that’s more convenient for you in the next few days. We just have a lot to accomplish if we’re going to put the wedding together in a month.”
She nodded, taking the card and slipping it into her pocket as she walked them to the door. She was surprised to find Connor lingering and not stepping out with the wedding coordinator. She looked pointedly at him. “Doesn’t she need a ride somewhere?”
He shrugged. “She brought her own car, and I grabbed a cab since it was more convenient.”
“Well, as I said, I have to leave, and Mrs. Kearney from next-door is watching Kevin for me this morning.”
“I’ll come with you. That will give us a chance to get better acquainted, and we can suss out more of the details about where we met, and how our relationship evolved.”
She let out an annoyed sigh. “I don’t want you to come with me, Connor. I have to drive upstate to tour of facility for Kevin. It’s really not the sort of thing I could impose upon you to accompany me for.”
He gave her a small grin. “It’s not imposing on your fiancé at all.”
Out of tactful ways to make it clear she didn’t want his presence, she let out a heavy sigh and accepted that he was either thickheaded or stubborn as a mule and deliberately refusing to accept her subtle rejection of his presence. She supposed to she should just get it over with, since it would allow them to safely plot their history and agree on minor details without the fear of someone interrupting them. “
Well, come on then,” she said less than graciously as she reached for her purse and keys by the door, ensuring he was out on the porch before she slammed it behind her and locked the deadbolt. They lived in a fairly safe neighborhood, considering it was the Lower East Side, but she was still cautious.
It felt strange to get the car out of the garage, since it hadn’t been driven in a few years. Yvonne had been the last one to drive it, and she taken great pride in her old Ford Granada, so the car looked almost as new as it had been when it was purchased in 1975. Most of the time, it was far more hassle than it was worth to drive a car in the city, so other than being started on a regular basis, the car had set forlornly in the garage/storage area behind their condo.
Reflecting its continued maintenance, the ugly green car started with the first attempt, and she re-familiarized herself with the feel of being behind the wheel for a moment before cautiously backing out and finally merging into traffic. The streets were busy, and when Connor started to speak, she shot him a brief look. “Not now. Wait until I’m on the freeway. I can’t talk and navigate the road at the same time.”
He fell silent, as requested—or ordered, depending on one’s point-of-view and interpretation of her tone—until she was safely on the freeway. Once she had merged into traffic that was thick, but far easier to navigate since they were all going the same direction without random stops and fewer idiots crossing lanes dangerously, she let out a rough sigh and nodded her head in his direction. “Okay, what are you saying?” To make up for the way she’d snapped at him while ago, she made an effort to sound pleasant that time.
“I was just going to ask if you had any thoughts on how our relationship developed?”
“Since I’m the bad guy, I really don’t care how you spin it. Just tell me what happens, and I’ll play along.”
He was silent for another moment, and when he began to speak, his tone was faintly husky, almost seductive, and she was surprised to find herself enthralled by his words.
“I wanted you from the day I met you, of course. How could I not? You were so beautiful, and clearly nervous, when we met at the hotel bar for the interview. I could tell I’d unsettled you that day by insisting we meet for a drink instead of in an office.”
She nodded, keeping her gaze firmly on the road both as a necessity and as a way to avoid looking at him when he was speaking to her that way. It didn’t matter that it was fake, because it sounded really good and almost made her wish his words were true. “I expected an office, not realizing at the time you didn’t have one.”
“I wanted to ask you out then, but I knew I’d be traveling too much, and I didn’t want to risk our working relationship. However, as the months passed, and the more I talked to you, the more I wanted to. Whenever I saw your face on Skype, it made me want to see the real thing in person instead.”
“Your voice was in my mind all the time,” she whispered softly, hoping he would believe it was just part of the narrative they were creating together. “When I started dreaming about you, I knew there was more to it than attraction or simple infatuation.”
“It got to the point where I couldn’t stand it anymore, so the next time I was in the city, I had to ask you out. I was as nervous as I was the first time I ever asked out a girl, and I was certain you would turn me down, but instead, you said yes.”
“I was afraid I’d lose my job if I didn’t,” she said with a hint of bite in her voice, trying to counteract the mesmeric effect of his words on her libido.
He laughed, but ignored her contribution otherwise. “I was thrilled you said yes, and I know you expected something different for me, perhaps the whole fancy restaurant and dinner in a limo, but I wanted to make it plain from the start that this was something different. Something special, and something I’d never felt before.”
“What did you do?” she asked, reluctantly drawn into the fiction and wondering what he would have done that was different from the expectation for their first date—if there had actually been a first date, of course.
“You seemed surprised when I took you to a Knicks game, where we stuffed ourselves stupid on hot dogs and drank too much beer.”
She grimaced, shaking her head. “I should tell you, I would have hated a date like that.”
He looked crestfallen. “You’re not a Knicks fan?”
She gave him a quick look of disdain. “I’m not even sure if they play football or basketball, if that answers your question. I’m not a sports fan, though I do like hot dogs, and I’ve been known to drink the occasional beer.”
He was silent for a moment, as though thinking, before he started speaking again. “In that case, let me rewrite our first date. I picked you up at your house, and we went for a walk in Central Park. We stopped for hotdogs, and then lay on the grass and just talked for a while. After that, I showed you my plans for the prototype that was in construction, and then I took you home and gave you a very sweet good night kiss.”
“Just a kiss?” she asked as she started looking for the appropriate exit for the Henderson Center.
“Of course. Even an uncouth man-whore like me can tell that you’re not a woman who would let me get away with more than that on the first date. Of course I wanted more, but I was happy just to have that single kiss, and I relived that moment for weeks on end.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that she might make an exception for him, but she bit back the impulse. That would be carrying their fiction too far, into the realms of an area she didn’t want to even begin to discuss. No one was likely to ask about their sex life together. They didn’t have to establish fictional parameters for that, so it was best to shy away from that entirely. Still, feeling like she was flirting with danger, she dared to ask, “You didn’t get handsy at all?”
He chuckled softly. “I wanted to, but I respect you too much to rush you, Angelina.”
The exit was approaching, and she merged smoothly over to take it, her heart thumping erratically in her chest as she did so. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but he sounded so sincere when he spoke those words that she wasn’t entirely certain whether they were part of the fiction he was creating, or if they were really the truth. Did he truly respect her, or was it just a way to manipulate her? She had no idea and was no closer to determining his motivations when they drew up to the facility a few minutes later.
After signing in for visitor passes, they had made their way into the sparkling clean facility, and she had been pleased to note there were a variety of people mingling on the lawn once they passed the high walls and gated entrance. No one appeared to be wandering aimlessly, and from what she could observe, there were enough staff to patients to ensure everyone remained safe.
They had met with the director shortly thereafter, and Karen Winwood had showed them the facility, taking them on a complete tour of the grounds and the dormitories.
If she chose to enroll Kevin in the facility, he would be in the dorm of single apartments, which would allow him a small level of autonomy, since he didn’t respond well to strangers.
He wouldn’t have done well with a roommate with whom he was unfamiliar, and the rooms appeared to be safe and surprisingly spacious. There were no hot plates or any other devices that could lead to Kevin injuring himself, and she was pleased to find out he was assigned a coach for the first few weeks, someone who would remain by his side until he settled in and grew familiar with the routine and found his own groove.
As she toured the grounds, she was certain this was the place for Kevin. It reminded her so much of their summer camping trips in the Adirondacks, when Kevin had blossomed, seeming at peace and sometimes even openly communicative, amid the natural beauty around him. By the time the tour had concluded, she was ready to fill out the papers and left a sizable check to secure Kevin’s spot.
There was an opening in less than a week, and she knew it would leave her just enough time to prepare him and gather his things. There was a hitch in her chest at the idea of leaving him behind the next time she drove through the gates, knowing he would be separated from her for the first time since he was born, but she knew it was also the right thing for him. She couldn’t give Kevin everything he needed, but she had a good feeling about the Henderson Center and was certain they could.
She was surprised when Connor reached over and put a hand on her thigh, squeezing reassuringly. She looked over at him with surprise, briefly taking her gaze from the road ahead.
“It seemed like a really nice place, though I’m certain you’re having a difficult time with the idea. I remember how angry I was when my father sent Lizzie off to boarding school. She called and begged me not to let him make her go, but I couldn’t do anything to stop him. She was a late baby, a total surprise for Dad and Mom, and after Mom died, Dad wasn’t really in a position to take care of her.”
He sighed, running a hand through his hair. “I guess I wasn’t either, and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my racing career to take care of her, but I felt guilty about it. I still do, but I know Lizzie is happy where she is now. Dad asked her if she wanted to come back home to stay a couple years ago, but she told him she wanted to finish school and graduate from her boarding school with her friends.”
The peek into him was a bit unsettling, and she tried to mask her discomfort. “That must have been tough.” Not tough enough for him to give up his dream, but she couldn’t really fault him for that. It was a difficult situation to end up being the guardian of a sibling, when he was only a few years younger than yourself, but who needed you for everything.