Authors: Ava Claire
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Anthologies, #Contemporary, #New Adult & College, #Collections & Anthologies
Stacia’s eyebrows nearly lurched to the ceiling. “Love?”
I nodded slowly, holding my breath. Waiting for her to tell me that there was no way I could be in love with a man I’d barely known a month. Or that he could love me. But she didn’t say a word. She wielded her knife, the blade gliding through the egg and spilling the creamy yolk over the salmon. I watched her, my appetite forgotten. I just wanted to get the lecture over with.
I waited for her to eat half of it before I broke the silence. “You’re not going to tell me how ridiculous this all is?”
She dabbed at her mouth with her napkin, her eyes finally settling on me. “Your picture plastered all over TMZ and random Internet trolls calling you a slut?
ridiculous. You running off to San Francisco with a billionaire? That’s crazy. But love? Love isn’t supposed to make sense. It’s random and complicated and frustrating and heartbreaking and beautiful. If you guys are in love, I’m happy for you, and sad all at once.” Her voice went shaky, tears drowning her words. “B-because love will rip your heart out if you let it.”
I gripped her hand, not pushing it. Not picking at the wound. She didn’t have to go into it. This had her ex written all over it. I wanted to shake him, to make him see what an amazing woman he had. An amazing woman he kept breaking over and over again.
Stacia forced a smile, giving my hand a squeeze before she steeled herself, flicking her tears away. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. I took the day off, and I want every leg-shaking, pussy-dripping detail.”
walked into the conference room, the usual nostalgia that swept over me confronted with another emotion: dread.
I'd purposefully had the top floor outfitted to accommodate the expansive room we used for board meetings. It was a psychological move. Even though the company was mine, a seedling that I nurtured into the Fortune 500 Company it was today, I still had to answer to a board filled with people that had been cautiously skeptical of my vision—until the profits started rolling in.
They had to come to me. Climb every floor to the place in the sky they didn’t believe I could build.
I'd always felt a sense of accomplishment, of power, when I walked through the door. I was always the first in. Drinking in the long glass table and empty leather chairs. Appreciating the view of the city from the window.
But today, I just walked to my seat at the head of the fragile table and sank into the chair with a sigh. The creeping ache wasn't soothed by the silence; it was magnified. The dread took root and taunted me with everything I had to lose if push came to shove.
With the exception of my mentor, Roman McLeod, I had no friends on the board. They tolerated me, a man half their age calling the shots, because Mason Acquisitions was profitable and heralded as a pioneer in our field. We turned something cutthroat into greater opportunities for everyone, from the account managers to the janitorial staff. We fostered a sense of community: when we all pulled together, we all succeeded.
That wasn't some byline I was told to sell by the PR team. As someone that grew up with very little, I made a point to ensure no one on our staff went without.
It didn't endear me to men who were used to putting their needs, and wallets, first.
I gripped the cup of coffee that was waiting for me, ignoring the tremble in my hands. The brand I'd built was tarnished. It was now synonymous with Delilah and the pregnancy. I worked so hard to separate myself from the herd, but if you followed the headlines, I was just like every other cold, filthy rich douche bag.
I stared into the mug, sinking into the pitch-black nothingness. The color of my heart, if you asked any number of commenters on the articles and blog posts I pretended I didn’t read. They poised rhetorical questions about what kind of man would abandon his child. If they only knew I'd been ready to be there for my little one.
be there. Yes, I could provide for them financially, far beyond the average person's dreams, but I wanted to be more than a bank account. More than a flick of a pen on a birth certificate.
But she took it all away.
Delilah gave me a piece of something I never knew I wanted, then snatched the earth out from under me.
And I would repay the favor.
"Seems great minds think alike."
Roman's thick, Scottish lilt jerked me from the dark. Even though everything had changed for me since I was paired with him in the outreach program in high school, he looked exactly the same. Up until the moment we met, I'd associated suits with church and funerals, but he’d looked like he could move mountains in his. He had an authority when he walked into a room. I sat up straighter. Paid attention to the man with the red hair slicked back from a face that tolerated exactly zero nonsense. Green eyes that seemed to find every shortcoming and challenge me to do better with a single glance.
There was one difference though—his smiles were a rarity back then, but these days, they created permanent wrinkles beside his eyes. The one he wore today had a hint of sadness and melancholy. I pretended that I wasn't the one behind that sadness. That I hadn't been the one to disappoint him.
I unbuttoned my jacket, rising to shake his hand. Neither one of us wasted time talking about emotions. It was one of the things I respected most about him as my mentor. He didn't try to save me, he just pointed out my potential and laid out the roadmap. It was my job to make the journey.
But this handshake wasn't a quick, abrupt, business-like transaction like the other countless times. He held onto my hand, enclosing it between his.
"You okay, son?"
Hearing him use that word was like he'd slugged me. I yanked my hand from his grasp, taking two steps away from him, toward the head of the table. I was in control of my emotions. I would not break down here of all places.
"Everything is fine, Roman," I said, ironing the discomfort from my voice. After I took a breath, it came out as indifferent and starched as the shirt beneath my jacket. "And how are Lucia and the girls?"
"You know Lucia," he chuckled, pulling out the chair beside mine. "Out to save the world, one charity luncheon at a time. The girls are in London on a school trip." He leaned back, the chair whining as he swiveled toward me. "You haven't answered my question."
My hands shook, so I stuffed them in my pockets. It wasn't lost on me that I had a similar pose when he and I met. I remedied it, leaving one safely out of view. The other shook with the telltale sign that I was struggling to keep my brave face on.
"I'm perfectly fine, Roman." I added a smile to drill the point home. "I'm glad you could make the meeting this morning. They were ready to hang me out to dry a month ago, even via video."
He stared at me intently, not giving me a break from his silent interrogation until the secretary brought him a coffee. He took a stoic gulp, then let out a sigh like it was the best coffee he'd ever had. "I'd love to find a pound of this to take home."
I leapt at the subject change, reaching for the control panel that would alert the secretary. "I could have some packed up for you-"
"That's quite alright-"
"It's really no trouble," I insisted. "Moira, can you call down to the cafe-"
I looked up from the panel, noting the slight shake of his head. "Cancel that, Moira. Thanks." My nostrils flared, the unspoken scolding almost as unpleasant as airing my dirty laundry.
"There's the stubborn little snot I met at Greenwood High," Roman commented softly. If I didn't know better, I'd say he sounded almost wistful.
"Jesus," I groaned, raking my hand through my hair with annoyance. "First all this talk about feelings, now we’re waxing lyrical about the past? Maybe we should swap friendship bracelets and braid each other's hair."
"I know you use humor to deflect, but it doesn't change the fact that you are not fine." Roman waited for me to answer, to give in. When I didn't say a word, he dug deeper. "There is no weakness in talking about your life, especially when your life has a direct impact on your work."
"Sounds like someone on the board has been bending your ear," I spat defensively.
"Not your board. Your secretary, Amanda. And I have two eyes. Suit or no suit, you're wearing this whole torrid affair all over your face. You always had a problem controlling your anger. Over a decade later, and it's still crippling you."
"That's where you're incorrect," I said coldly. "Back then, when someone wronged me, I didn't rest until they paid in bruises and blood."
"There may be no outward marks, but I can see the bruises and blood, Logan. They're all over you."
"What would you have me do?" I roared, the eruption spewing forth lava and vitriol. Melting away my facade of calm. "I let my dick do the thinking and this is the result: an ex lover who won't rest until I'm ruined."
"But there's someone else."
My heart pulsed with love. My cock stirred with lust. That's what she did to me. It didn't matter if we were in the same room; the mere thought of her was enough to make me come undone.
"I know this probably sounds insane," I murmured. My words weren’t like before. Hitting the wall, writhing on the inside. Forced to stay in the darkness. These words were too right, too good to be hidden away. "I've never felt this way before. I've said I love you before, but it seems foolish now. This woman feels like forever to me. I can't picture a life that doesn't have her in it." I looked at my mentor, putting it all on the line for him to see. "She makes me want to be the best version of myself." The moment in the sun didn't last. It couldn't. Delilah and the baby crept back in. "She's the part of me that's saying I should let the anger go."
Roman cracked a smile that told me he knew exactly where I was coming from. I stopped holding onto the importance of keeping this mask on. Of checking my emotions at the door. Melissa was one of the very few people I let in. That I trusted enough to open up to. But if there was anyone else that had proven they could be counted on in the midst of this shit, it was Roman.
"You're in love.” His voice was a mixture of pride and concern. "But you have one foot in the past and one in the future." He let out a gruff sigh and I followed suit. I might be new at this love stuff, but I was catching on. I knew what he'd say next. The words my heart knew were true but my pride, my need for vengeance, couldn't accept.
"You can be bitter about the hand you were dealt with your ex, or you can accept it and move on."
He’d given his impartial advice. He'd never steered me wrong. But I felt like I was back on that ledge. Teetering with nothing but darkness to catch me.
"You don't know what she's done," I said vehemently. I took the easy route, slipping back into the familiar. I was the ferocious businessman who fought for everything he had. Everything that was falling apart, crumbling in my fingers, was because of a lie. All that was left was the kid I was before. The kid who felt unworthy of anything. All I had was the anger. "One lie, and she has ruined me. I can't let that stand."
"I know that's what it feels like. Your good name is all you have, right? Why you've worked so hard to build something."
"But what about her?" Roman urged. “What about Melissa?”
"It's not that simple-"
"Logan, everything else is complicated. This mess with the actress. The restless, knee-jerk prone board. But deep down, you know what's right. You know what you should do if you want to be the man that deserves her. The man that I know you are."
His words knocked me out flat. He thought I was a good man.
Emotion wreaked havoc on me.
I rolled my shoulders back, silencing it. I’d be damned if I let him or anyone else see me cry.
We shared a solitary nod of certainty, our conversation tabled as the room slowly filled with other members of the board. I gritted my teeth and answered their questions, soothed their concerns, showed them that despite the Delilah scandal, our profits were holding steady. I told them everything was going to be okay.
But inside, I wasn't so sure.
If letting go was so right, so easy, then why did it feel like the hardest thing I'd ever done? Why was it impossible to suffocate this raging anger inside me?
The meeting concluded, each one of them shuffling out like a funeral procession. They were hoping this was their chance to oust me, to prove they'd been right about me from the start. Their deflated expressions brought me a special kind of joy.
What expression would be smeared across Delilah's face when she realized she'd finally crossed the wrong person? Would I finally be able to breathe? To be able to start over with Melissa?
I looked at Roman, and for the first time since we had known each other, I lied. "I know you're right. I can't change what's been done. I need to let it go."
I felt guilty as relief washed over him. It was like all these years he was teaching me this one lesson, and I'd finally passed the test.
I would let it go—right after I showed the world just who Delilah James really was.
tacia: Let me know what he says about me stopping by. I'd like to meet the elusive billionaire. And see how the other half lives of course. ;)
The elevator raced to the top floor. I couldn't stop smiling. I didn't comprehend the true weight of keeping all this to myself. Logan was the best thing that had ever happened to me. Recounting all the ways I loved him and skimming over the delicious things he did to my body (despite Stacia's pouting) reminded me just how lucky I was to have found him. I almost wished that paparazzo had been waiting for me when Stacia and I finally emerged from Cafe de la Fleur. I had nothing to be ashamed of—and I wouldn't be bullied by him or anyone else. And if he didn't like it, he could take his camera and go straight to hell.
The only thing that would make everything perfect was if Stacia and Logan got along when they met. And maybe if my dad would finally show concern for me and not the way my actions reflected on him and Kaleidoscope.