The Lover's Promise, страница 1
Copyright © 2015 J.C. Reed
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarities to persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
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Cover art by Larissa Klein
Developmental editing by Shannon Wolfman
Inline editing by Katherine Tomlinson
OTHER BOOKS BY J.C. REED
If you don't fight for what you love and yearn,
Don't mourn what could have been.
In life there are rules; in love no exceptions.
- J.C. Reed
New York City, 3 days earlier.
The past was the past, and the future would be nothing but whatever I made of it. My future was her, our lives interlinked with our hopes and our dreams, and long-forgotten plans. Strange to think that only a few months ago I never thought my life or I would change. I never thought that an encounter with a future employee would result in me actually wanting to take the next step and marry her.
Sitting in the bar, my heart sped up at the thought of what still lay ahead of me. The initial plans had been set in motion. Now it was time to execute them. I was going to do whatever it’d take to distract her, and then in exactly four hours and twenty-five minutes I’d propose to her, after which I’d whisk her away in a private plane for a quick surprise wedding in Las Vegas, leaving my friends to finish the rest of my arrangements and carry out my revenge.
It was supposed to be a simple plan, one I had organized for a long time. Now if only she would say “yes” and play along.
Granted, a marriage proposal came a bit soon in our relationship, maybe too soon, but I had no option—not if my plan was going to work. Soon, he’d find out I’d betrayed him, and he’d try to hurt her to get back at me. The thought of losing her to someone else, of my enemies finding her, made me crazy with rage. For her, to save her from the ones who wanted to hurt her and were after her, I would kill.
Marrying was the least of my problems, not least because I knew deep down that I was ready. Call me foolish, call me desperate. Fuck, call me vengeful, but in my heart I knew what I was doing was the right thing—for her, for us. And while I did not want to control her, I had every intention of doing whatever it might take to make her mine by law. And if by any chance, she wouldn’t accept my proposal, or if she needed more time because I was moving too fast for her, then I’d bend her to my will until she realized we belonged together.
“So, this is your big night, huh?” Tiffany’s voice penetrated the dark haze covering my mind, drawing my attention back to her. Looking up at one of my oldest friends, I frowned and swallowed down a snarky remark. I hated disruptions, and in particular the kind that took me by surprise when I was immersed in my thoughts. But Tiffany had always had my back, and right now, I couldn’t afford to piss her off—not when she was helping me out with my somewhat illegal scheme.
“You could say that.” My gaze met her sharp, blue eyes. “Did you get it?”
Tiffany nodded her head. “Custom-made, specifically designed for her.” She put a black gift bag on the table and pushed it toward me. “Just as you asked.”
My heart fluttered as I pulled a little velvet box out of the bag, my fingers hovering over the soft fabric. For a short moment fear choked me and dark thoughts gathered at the back of my mind. This better not be a mistake. It better be perfect. Of course there was a chance that I might be ruining everything, but as decisions went, I hardly ever backed down on them, so I pushed my dark thoughts away and opened the black case. Relief streamed in waves through me when my eyes caught the ring.
It was a delicate assemblage of gemstones with a two-carat diamond in the middle. Sparkling and gleaming in the soft light of the club, much like Brooke’s eyes, which were the reason I had fallen in love with her, it was more beautiful than I had ever envisioned.
The tiny engraving read:
With no exceptions, my love for you doesn't need reciprocation to exist.
The setting felt delicate and my decision final. I turned it around a few times, wondering how a piece of metal could feel both delicate and grave at the same time. Now my plans felt more real than ever. Brooke would like it, no doubt about that, but would she say “yes?” As if sensing my doubts, Tiffany cleared her throat, her soft voice drawing my attention back to the conversation at hand.
“She’ll love it, Jett. I know it,” she whispered, her eyes on the ring.
I suppressed a smile. “Brooke’s like no other woman I’ve ever met. For all I know, she might just throw it at my head when she finds out what I’m really up to.”
She let out a laugh. “You’re right, I don’t know her. But I know she’d be crazy not to like it, especially after you went all the trouble to get it perfect.” She pointed at the ring. My gaze moved from her to our laser-inscribed names. They looked alien like they didn’t belong to us, and for a moment it all seemed like a strange dream, the past few months eerily surreal. Was that what love was all about? Experiencing a string of events that would all slip away and mold into bittersweet memories?
Forcing my eyes away from the ring, I put it back it into the box and dropped the box back into the gift bag. “Thanks for doing it at such a short notice, Ti. I knew I could count on you to get it done within twenty-four hours.”
She flicked her hand. “Don’t mention it. Being friends with the owner of the shop has its perks.” She smiled softly and leaned forward. “Whatever you need, just call me and it’s a done deal.” For a short moment, silence ensued between us during which she stirred her coffee with a teaspoon. “So, when does it start?”
“Tonight at dinner. Everything’s finished.” I returned her smile in a weak moment of excitement rushing through me.
“Have you told her about Nate yet?”
My smile died like a blown-out candle. “About my brother being let out of prison today?” I raised my eyebrows and snorted. “You’re kidding, right?”
“What about you visiting with him the past few weeks? Another secret you’ll be taking to the grave?”
“Now’s not the time.” I shook my head, more at myself than at Tiffany. Would there ever be a right moment?
“Seriously?” She stared at me for a few seconds, her face suddenly devoid of any emotion, and then her lips parted slowly, as
“No, Ti. Not happening,” I said with as much conviction as I could. “Brooke can’t know about it.”
“All right,” she whispered under her breath and took a sip of her coffee. Running her hand through her black hair, she leaned back, regarding me with curiosity. “You sure this is what you want, Jett?” She inclined her head toward the black gift bag, a strange smile playing on her lips. I knew she was referring to the marriage part because she had tried to broach the subject a few times—without much success.
“I’m sure. I’ve been waiting for this day for a while now and to be honest, I wouldn’t know a better time.”
“Because she doesn’t suspect.” It was more a statement than a question.
“Yes,” I said slowly, ignoring the way her eyes seemed to pierce through me, as if there was something she knew and I didn’t. Watching her, I was reminded once more that there was something different about her. Not the hair she wore dyed black now, nor the weight she had lost; her entire demeanor had changed. Ever since I had returned to the gang, she seemed different, almost unrecognizable. The past years had been hard on her; her alcohol addiction had turned her into a shell of her former radiant self; her once carefree attitude replaced with weariness and aloofness.
“Do you remember last year?” The question came suddenly, taking me by surprise.
I frowned at her, unsure where she was heading.
Last year? I hadn’t known Brooke back then. As much as my first impulse demanded that I ask what the fuck she was talking about, I didn’t. I sensed she was treading onto personal terrain that had nothing to do with my brother, Nate, nor with Brooke and my decision to marry her.
It was only when Tiffany leaned forward, cocking her head to the side with a soft smile on her lips, that it dawned on me.
“You and me?” she prompted. “Don’t even tell me you never miss it, Jett.”
I stared at her, then cringed inwardly. Tiffany was talking about our past. Not any past, but ours. The one before Brooke and lots of other women. Faces I couldn’t remember, let alone put a name to them. A part of me wanted to stop Tiffany’s words from flowing, but it was too late.
“I know you better than anyone out there, Jett,” she whispered and touched my arm gently. “Look at me and tell me in all honesty. Can you really say to my face that you don’t miss it?”
It was a question I had dreaded for years. A question that still made me feel uncomfortable to the point of wanting to leave and never look back. A question I thought she’d never dare ask because, surely, deep inside she knew the truth. I hadn’t expected it now, hours before I’d get down on one knee in front of another woman and ask her to build with me the kind of family I never had. Tiffany and I hadn’t talked about the past in a long time, and that was just the way I liked it. Everything before Brooke wasn’t worth mentioning or remembering. In retrospect, I realized I should never have asked Tiffany to meet with me. It had been a stupid move. But Tiffany and I had been friends so long, that I thought she had moved on a long time ago.
Catching the way she was looking at me with a glimmer of hope in her eyes, a look I had seen so many times after meaningless dates, something else dawned on me. Tiffany might be one of my oldest friends and dating Brian, but as a woman she was like each and every one of my past lovers: weak. She wasn’t over our breakup. Fuck, she might even be in love with me, and there wasn’t shit I could do about it.
“All the things we did? All the fun we had?” she prompted when I remained silent.
“It’s over, Ti. You know that,” I said as softly as I could, ignoring the touch of her fingertips on my arm.
She shook her head, and the smile on her lips widened.
“You said the exact same thing last time, but you forget that I know you, Jett. The real you.” She moved closer to me, until I could smell the scent of her perfume, sweet and dark—just like she was. “You aren’t the kind of man who’s happy with just one woman in his life. You admitted that when you left me after two years. You said success and winning mean everything to you, that you always want more.”
The lump in my throat thickened. I swallowed hard, almost choking on it.
She was right, of course. Those were my exact words. I used to be the kind of man who was never happy with just one woman. Fuck, I was the motherfucking asshole who shied away from any sort of commitment that went beyond settling a time for a next date that would end in bed. But worse than that, I left her with no apology, no explanation, and I never broke it off—not officially anyway—because there was nothing to be broken off in the first place.
The truth was we, Tiffany and I, had never been exclusive. I had always assumed she understood what that meant. After all, we had agreed to date whomever who wanted. And we had. Or maybe, to be more precisely, my dick had. One woman a night. Not one single second chance. Not a single second date. I had so many I lost count. There was no doubt ours had been an open relationship, a friendship with benefits. Tiffany had seen many of those women come and go.
“Last year was a mistake. It was my birthday, and I was drunk,” I muttered under my breath.
Actually, Tiffany had gotten me drunk. The way I remembered it, she stayed at my place, reaching for bottle after bottle, insisting that I drank for the both of us.
“What about the other times?” she whispered. “The times before that? Were those a mistake, too?”
I had no answer, and she nodded as if that confirmed her suspicion.
“I miss the times when we were young,” Tiffany continued, her voice gaining in confidence and more emotion than I cared for. “We were so in love. We had that amazing chemistry. I know we haven’t talked about this in a long time, but…” She paused and brushed her fingers to remove the moisture trailing down her cheek. “Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had kept the baby; if things might have taken a different turn.”
I clenched my fist under the table. Brooke and I were expecting our first child. Of course it would remind Tiffany of her own child. Her pain was etched in her eyes, but as much as I wanted to say something to take it all away, I couldn’t find the right words. I had never been good in dealing with women’s emotions.
Fuck, I didn’t think I was ever any good in dealing with any of my exes. Even my buddies joked that the way I usually dumped them would scar them for life and spoil their trust in the male population forever.
“Ti.” I took a deep breath, ready to say anything to stop her from talking, but the words didn’t come out. Even looking at her, feeling the guilt, was hard. I took another deep breath, but the words remained lodged in my throat.
What was I supposed to say to someone who had encountered her fair share of suffering? Someone who had confided in me like I had done so many times in her? Someone who thought I reciprocated her feelings when that couldn’t be further from the truth?
“Our room is ready for us. It’s the same we used last time.” She was standing in front of me now, and the traces of pain in her eyes were replaced by something else, something I feared even more than her reminiscing about the past. It was the look of renewed hope, the kind of look that past lovers have in their eyes when they show up at one’s doorstep, hoping for more to the point of being desperate.
“There’s always a new beginning, Jett,” she continued in a more hopeful tone, oblivious to my thoughts, absorbed in her own world. “You wanted to see me, and that’s all that matters. Deep down, I knew we were never over. That you’d come back to me someday.”
Her fingers wrapped behind my neck, forcing me to look up, her sinfully red lips coming so close I was instantly reminded of the countless times she had taken
I pressed my lips into a tight line.
There was no doubt that Tiffany had seen our sexual relationship as special, but to admit the truth, which was that I never really cared for her more than as a friend would be too hard a blow. I couldn’t hurt her more than I had already, but I had to. If only it were easy. If only she and Brian weren’t two of my best friends, and the only family I’d ever known It would have been so much easier if she were a mere acquaintance, a random stranger I could walk away from.
Seeing her feelings reflected in her blue eyes, I had no idea how to start. I inhaled a sharp breath and let it out slowly as I made up my mind. Things—no matter how painful—had to be said.
Her kiss came suddenly, catching me off-guard. Her tongue slid into my mouth, eager and hungry. For a second, I was too stunned to act, overwhelmed by memories of old times intermingled with the distant ringing bell and a faint awareness that Tiffany was in a relationship with the one guy whose trust I couldn’t betray.
Something stirred inside me, but it wasn’t pleasure. It was pity.
Pity that I didn’t feel the same for her as she did for me.
Pity that I didn’t want her anymore.
Pity that whatever had happened in the past was long over, that I had moved on from my old me. We had both evolved—in different directions at different speeds.
I grabbed her shoulder and pushed her away more roughly than I intended.
“Ti.” I breathed out, struggling for words. “What the fuck!”
I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, as if the motion could remove the marks of her lipstick and the taste of her lips. As if I could undo my mistakes. It did nothing to lessen the feeling of disgust at her behavior. “What the fuck were you thinking?”