Authors: Ginger Voight
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Family Saga, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Sagas
By the end of the week, everyone in the house became fast friends, and Jonathan and Becca were practically betrothed. He was crushed as he waited for his mother to pick him up that Friday afternoon. The Gilberts were flying back to Texas the following day, and he wanted to spend every last minute he could with them. But Elise had agreed to his week with us on the condition that he go away with her and Derek for a “family” vacation. I would have filled the days of his absence with Alex, but he was headed to England to purchase another horse for the stables from his grandparents and their English relatives. They were all dying to see Max, so he planned to take his son with him. He invited me, but I had no passport. “Next time,” I promised with a kiss.
Likewise Millicent was flying with them, so she could take a side journey to see her relatives in France.
By that following Monday I was in that big mansion all by myself, and I had never felt lonelier. I went from the chaos of a full house to moping around by myself, trying to find anything I could do to keep my mind off of the sad emptiness that had crept into the place.
I ended up cleaning the place nearly top to bottom and reading at least five books start to finish.
And that only got me to Wednesday.
The weather was warmer, so I spent some time by the pool that afternoon. I stared into the pristine clear water, recalling how I had conquered my crippling phobia with Alex’s help. How proud would he be if, by the time he returned to the states, I had faced my fears completely and could swim without his assistance.
I headed into town, to purchase my first swimsuit in more than a decade. I got something sexy, because that’s how I felt. Alex made me feel like the most beautiful woman in the world, and I thrived under his constant praise. So I picked a flirty swim dress in navy blue, with a low-cut halter top detailed with a bright white iris in the design.
It was dark when I returned to the house. The minute I walked through the door, I knew something was wrong. My hair stood on end as I walked through the brightly lit home, but I saw nothing out of place.
I chalked it up to the loneliness that had haunted me all week. I went upstairs to my bedroom to change into the bathing suit, and then made my way out to the pool twenty minutes later. I was nervous as I approached. I thought about my near catastrophe, when Alex had pulled me right out of the clutches of death and brought me back to life again. I was petrified to be there so near the pool that had nearly claimed my life without my hero nearby.
But I was never one to wait to be saved. My legs shook as I stepped down into the shallow end of the pool, but I didn’t stop until I was waist-deep in the refreshingly cold water. I gasped as I dared to sink lower, and allowed myself to submerge entirely. I thought my lungs might burst, or my heart my stop, as the water swallowed me, swirling above my head as I dunked myself. I just closed my eyes and pictured Alex. I counted to ten before I allowed myself to break the surface, where I gulped precious breaths of air as I wiped my wet hair from my face.
I glanced toward the other end of the pool. The thought of swimming there and back petrified me, so I gave myself permission to go as far as I dared. I made it to the five-foot depth before I turned back. On the second lap, I made it to six. As I returned back to where I started, I remained underwater until I reached the tiled wall. I burst from the water triumphantly as I grabbed the cement with both hands. I couldn’t believe it. I had been so scared for so long, and yet there I was, doing what I once thought was unthinkable.
Just as I turned to start lap three, another surprise swimmer burst out of the water in front of me. A scream locked in my throat until I realized it was Drew.
Of course it was Drew.
“What are you doing here?” I squeaked as I covered myself instinctively.
He walked closer, ultimately backing me toward the wall on the opposite side of the steps. “I came to see you,” he said simply as he shook the excess water from his dark hair. He stopped a foot in front of me, and I glanced down between us. He was completely nude, which terrified me much more than jumping into the deep end of the pool.
began to suspect that I had slipped back into the deep end from the first moment I had allowed Drew to touch me.
I sputtered and he smirked. “Sorry. I didn’t have swim trunks. And it’s not like I have anything you haven’t seen before,” he added with that glint his eye. His voice dropped. “Or touched, or tasted.”
“Drew,” I pleaded softly as I tried to move away, but he pinned me with an arm on either side of me as he braced against the wall.
“You just conquered your biggest phobia,” he pointed out. “Why be scared of me?”
I glared at him. “I’m not scared of you.”
He leaned closer. My breath caught in my throat as his mouth hovered inches above mine. “Bullshit,” he whispered.
“It’s completely inappropriate for you to be here,” I snapped. “You know I’m with Alex now.”
He chuckled. “So it’s not me you’re afraid of,” he decided. “It’s what might happen with me without your new lover around to play defense.”
I tried to move his arm, but he was too strong. “Let me go, Drew.”
His face hovered near my ear, his lips parted,
his eyes piercing mine. “Such hostility,” he crooned. “Don’t you have a hug for me? We are family, after all.”
“You’re sick,” I hissed as I pushed my hands against his chest. He caught each balled fist effortlessly and spun my arms around my back, forcing me against his hard, commanding body.
“I’m right,” he corrected. “You left because you were mad. You were hurt. But you haven’t stop wanting me, Rachel. I see it in your eyes.” His eyes fluttered shut as he held me closer. “I feel it in your body.” I struggled, but it was useless. His lips brushed my ear. “No one is here,” he whispered. “It could be our little secret.”
“Bullshit,” I snapped. “You’d shove it right in Alex’s face the minute got back. You don’t want me, Drew. You want revenge.
That’s why you chose me, right? It was never about me. You wanted to wave me around in front of your brother, reminding him of his dead wife. The ultimate revenge for his sleeping with Elise.”
“Initially,” he admitted. His eyes hardened. “When Elise came to me and told me what happened, she took great joy in watching me squirm over every detail. She told me what he did… how he felt. This woman, who had sworn herself to me, destroyed our marriage by fucking the one man she knew would hurt me the most. At
first I thought maybe it was another lie. Maybe… just maybe… he wouldn’t go that far. I confronted him. Not only did he not deny it, he never even apologized. He couldn’t have his family, so he decided to torpedo mine. He takes everything that means anything to me and he steals it like the cowering little thief that he is. This is the man you chose.”
“You’re wrong, Drew,” I told him softly. “He is sorry for what happened with Elise.”
With a growl Drew pushed away from me, turning his back on me to brace himself against the edge of the pool. I knew he didn’t want to hear what I had to say. His anger had been so safe for so long, no doubt as far back as the beatings he endured to spare his younger, “weaker” brother the pain. But someone needed to say it. If Alex wouldn’t, then I sure as hell would.
“I know this is hard to accept, but what happened with Elise had nothing to do with you.”
He swung around to face me, his face distorted with his rage. “He fucked my wife!”
“He reached out to a friend because he was in pain. He was lost. He was lonely. He ached in a way you will never understand. A moment of comfort turned to something more. In that moment, they were clinging to each other for their own reasons. You didn’t factor into it at all.”
He laughed humorlessly. “You know, there was a time I thought you were much too smart to fall for his line of bull. But you’re just like the others, aren’t you?”
“Funny. He used to say the very same thing when I defended you.” Drew glared at me. “The difference is that he had evidence to prove I was a fool. The reason you
need to believe he slept with your wife to hurt you is because you’d be willing to sleep with me to hurt him. You don’t want me, Drew. You never did. You don’t now.”
“You have no idea what I want,” he
said softly. “Or why.”
“Then tell me,” I challenged. “
When you dove into the water, naked, ready to seduce me… were you thinking about how much you wanted to be with me, how much you burned for me, how much you needed me? Or were you thinking about how you were going to finally stick it to your brother?”
He drew closer. “Why don’t you come into my arms and we’ll find out?”
“Answer the question,” I said softly. “Face it, Drew. I’m replaceable. Just like Elise before me. Just like Olivia now. When is the wedding, by the way?”
December 31,” he answered without hesitation or apology. “Saying ‘I do’ at the stroke of midnight. It was Olivia’s idea, really. We sent out five hundred invitations and no one coming knows they’re coming to see a wedding. They think it’s just another New Year’s gala.” He chuckled. “We’re already receiving R.S.V.P.s.” He scanned my face for any hint of bitterness. “I even booked the honeymoon. Ten days on our own private island, with a bedroom that opens right out onto the sand. The only variable, as I see it, is who ultimately meets me at the altar.” I shook my head and tried to move away, but he grasped my wrist in his hand. “I still have your ring. Everything can go along as planned. You know it’s what’s right, Rachel. Why fight it?”
I tipped my head as I looked up at him. “Do you love me, Drew?”
His eyes swept over my face. “Love is for fools,” he said softly. “What has it ever done for you?”
I arched an eyebrow. “It made me believe in you for a time.”
He hovered over me, his eyes swallowing me whole. “That was your mistake,” he breathed as he took my face in his strong hand. His head descended and his lips parted over mine, forcing my mouth open with his commanding tongue. I allowed the kiss, but didn’t respond.
When he finally pulled away, I whispered, “You’re right, Drew. That was my mistake. And I won’t be making it again.” I pulled from his grip. “You know your way home,” I said before I pushed off to swim toward the deep end.
Now that I had resisted Drew, ten feet of water was a piece of cake.
After Jonathan’s vacation with Elise,
Drew took him to New York – which no doubt included some time with Drew’s good friends, the De Havillands. Alex didn’t say much, but I could tell every single time I looked at him that it was driving him crazy. He wanted to keep Jonathan as far away from the good senator as possible, but Drew only got deeper and deeper involved.
He also got deeper and deeper involved with Olivia. There had been no word on their engagement in the press, but then again, there wouldn’t be. He made it clear that no one would know they planned to wed until the party was well underway that New Year’s Eve. We received the invitation, but I told Alex in no uncertain terms I did not wish to attend. I never mentioned Drew showing up at the house that night. It would have hurt him unnecessarily, and in my mind I had handled the situation myself.
Why toss any more gasoline onto that fiery family feud if I didn’t need to?
In fact, over the following weeks, Alex and I spoke as little about Drew as possible. I had my hands full eno
ugh with Jonathan, whose mood darkened by the day. Apparently Olivia had silently moved in with Drew, so their time together always included the woman who was poised to be his new stepmother. Olivia was young, just having turned twenty-four, so she had no real experience with heading a family or dealing with kids. This often led to painfully awkward encounters.
“Everything’s changed,” he finally admitted to me one September afternoon as we rode across the property. “She bosses Cleo and Harrison around like some drill sergeant. And her personal assistant is just as pushy and rude, like she looks down on them in some way for being household staff. It’s not like when you were there, and you treated them like family.”
“That’s because I was part of the household staff myself,” I reminded.
He shook his head. “No. You don’t treat people like that, no matter what your status is.” I didn’t respond, so he kept going. “The judge
is going to split custody soon, since everything is going so well.”
He didn’t look happy about it. Frankly, neither was I.
Alex and I had discussed what would happen once they awarded joint custody to Drew. We knew that he would immediately move my services from the ranch back to his house in Beverly Hills, and I had no desire whatsoever to return there. “You know he’s going to make it as miserable as possible,” I mumbled as I lay against Alex’s chest one night, trailing my finger around his heart.
“Or he’s going to make it as wonderful as possible,” he said quietly as he twirled his finger in my hair.
“What could he possibly have to gain by doing that?”
“If you think Drew has given up on you, you are sadly mistaken. There’s a reason he’s keeping it so low key in the press about Olivia. He’s banking you’ll change your mind. Fifty-fifty custody is not his end game, and he knows his best chance to win back custody is by moving you back into the house. If he can’t boss you, he’ll do his best to beguile you.”
“Been there, done that,” I said. “It won’t work a second time.” Alex didn’t respond right away, so I glanced up at him. “It won’t,” I insisted.
He gave me a brave smile as he gathered me tighter into his arms. I didn’t know how to reassure him, but the one thing I did know for sure was that I couldn’t risk going back into that house. Alex was right. Drew had made it clear when he surprised me in the pool that he did want me back for the very reason Alex had pointed out. It was all to get full custody of Jonathan.
“The easiest way to sabotage his plan is to go public with our relationship,” I said softly as I reached for a kiss.
He indulged me only for a moment. As we pulled apart, his sad eyes met mine. “I love you, Rachel. I’m not going to pervert that just by playing defense on what Drew will or won’t do. Besides, we can’t risk upsetting Jonathan even more than he already is. We finally got him back on track. Imagine
what’s going to happen when he realizes that the most perfect family dynamic he knew is never going to happen. I’m not ready to break his heart. Are you?”
I already knew that day was quickly approaching. Worse, I knew Drew would have no qualms about springing it on Jonathan at the very last minute, just like everyone else. The only thing I could do was fortify my relationship with Jonathan so that he could have at least one friend he could count on when his world imploded around him, yet again. Alex was right, Jonathan would see our relationship as a betrayal…
and neither of us was willing to risk that.
By mid-September, Judge Schultz decided to grant joint custody to Drew, allowing Jonathan to stay two weeks out of every month at his father’s home. Drew agreed with the judge that Jonathan would benefit from remaining my student, but he would not agree to Jonathan spending
weeks solid at the ranch. He squashed any plan that removed Jonathan from his care for days at a time, and I squashed any suggestion to move back into Drew’s house.
Likewise Elise decided if she only got two weeks with her son, she didn’t want to give most of that time to me. Nothing had warmed our relationship, so I really didn’t want to hang around her house eight hours a day, trying to teach her son and ultimately punished for how much he preferred me.
“Maybe you should get a place of your own,” Alex suggested. “Something in the city, centrally located between the two of them.”
I shook my head. The last th
ing I wanted was to move away from the ranch. It was my home. And Millicent, Max and Alex were my family. After all these weeks, Alex had woven himself under my skin. I couldn’t imagine going a week without seeing him, and I said as much to him. He rewarded me with a hungry kiss.
“Think about it this way,” he said as he toyed with my lips. “In your own place, we don’t have to hide anything.” His hand slipped under the covers and along my body, which reached immediately towards his fingers.
I gasped as his fingers traveled between my legs. “No more sneaking around. No more stifling your screams into a pillow. We could actually date,” he pointed out. “Like normal people.”
I laughed as I pulled him on top of me. “Normal? What does that look like?”
He ground himself between my legs. “Not sure. I hear it’s lovely, though. Want to give it a try?”
I wrapped my arms around his neck. “As long as you’re part of it.”
He kissed me sweet and slow. “I’m here for as long as you want me to be.”
“Is forever okay?” I asked with an innocent bat of my eye.
He growled with that sexy, sexy smirk. “Sounds good to me.”
Within two short weeks
following this conversation, everything had changed. Every little detail had fallen effortlessly into place, like the cosmos was clearing the path for this new stage of my life. That it promised to keep confrontations with Drew at a minimum, I felt cautiously optimistic.
Max, who had thrived from having Jonathan around week after week, decided he wanted to go to a “real” school with
other kids, so he was enrolled in a private school developed especially for children who had special educational needs. He made friends instantly, bonding with these children who shared many of his same challenges and triumphs. We presented to the court that, since I no longer “worked” at the ranch, I could provide private instruction from a place of my own during the day, rather than stay in either Elise’s or Drew’s private residences.
I found a two-bedroom apartment in
Brentwood, about halfway between Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, right on Wilshire Boulevard. Since I took ownership of Yoda, I picked a pet-friendly place in walking distance to a park, just so my little four legged friend who had the run of the place on a ranch wouldn’t feel so cramped and crowded back in the city.
Nor, I hoped, would I.
I was just down the 405 freeway from the Getty Museum, and a little over two miles to the beach. This made up for the smaller living space and much smaller office in which we would work. I changed the spare bedroom into our work space, with two fully equipped desks on either side of the windows that afforded us ocean views from my high rise apartment.
I went a little overboard decorating the place. It was the first time since I picked out my last house with Zach that I bothered to convert my living space into an actual home. At first it had been about
money, but even when I returned to Texas earlier that year and had the funds to do it right, I still couldn’t muster much enthusiasm to properly nest.
When I brought it up to Nancy on one of our weekly video chats, she suggested that maybe I was too afraid to plant roots. If I planted roots, it meant I was happy, and I was much too afraid to allow myself to be after what had happened with Jason.
I supposed there was some merit to that.
Even though my love affair with Alex grew stronger by the day
, I felt empowered moving into a place of my own. My entire California experiences thus far had put me in the midst of their environment, to try to adjust and fit in where I could.
In my new place, I got to decide what furniture to buy, what knickknack went where,
even what drawer in which to put the silverware. I relished every minor detail, including what sheets to buy, what soaps to use and even what plants I could grow on my very own private balcony.
I spent the last weekend of September in my new place to finish the special bookshelves I had planned for one of my bare, living room walls. I used wooden square shelves and organized them in a spiraling, flower shape, to make my truest passion in life – my books – the focal point in my new place.
I was covered in dust when Alex came bearing homecoming gifts that Sunday afternoon. He offered a bottle of wine and a special drawing from Max to put on my refrigerator, then he picked me up and carried me off to the bed so we could properly christen the new apartment.
He had been right. Having a private space where we didn’t have to hide our romance was the best part of all. We lounged naked on the living room sofa, took a long bath together in the oversized tub, and fed each other between luxuriously long kisses that didn’t require looking over our shoulder so we wouldn’t get caught.
The only thing that sucked was saying goodbye that evening, when he headed back to the ranch. He was still a father, and Max was his priority.
It only made me love him more.
Jonathan showed up bright and early that Monday morning, and it was clear he approved heartily of the new digs. “It’s you,” he said as he walked through the apartment. “It’s kind of small, though.”
“I couldn’t afford anything bigger,” I infor
med him with a wry smile. I nearly had to have a medic on standby when I wrote out a check for the first month’s rent and the deposit. I thought my nine-hundred-square foot apartment in Texas had been dinky, until I signed a lease on a thousand-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment for more than triple the rent.
Jonathan didn’t understand such concerns. He didn’t know about budgeting and living within one’s means
, or the limitations that might set for real-life questions on where and how to live. It was yet another reason moving out on my own had been such a good, and timely, idea. I could introduce him to the reality for most people who had to work to survive. These would be his employees one day, and I never wanted him to lose sight of their struggles and their needs.
We spent that afternoon at the local market, working on a grocery budget for the week.
He was also responsible with walking Yoda during the day, and cleaning up after him as he did so. Elise picked him up by four in the afternoon, which gave me a lot of free time I hadn’t really had before. I missed Alex like crazy, but unfortunately my free time was also Max’s free time, and he needed time with his father more than I did. Instead I got sexy late night calls and video chats, which kept us in constant contact without infringing on Alex’s family commitments.
It was actually kind of hot. By the end of the week, when Alex had carved out some time to spend Friday night with me, we were all over each other. We ordered food in, and had ravaged each other before the driver came knocking on my door to drop off our Kung
The following Friday we went to a local theater production after a sunset dinner date at the shore.
Things were trundling along well until the morning that Drew dropped Jonathan off at my apartment mid-October.
Unlike Jonathan, Drew was not all that impressed with my place. He waited until Jonathan was out of earshot to let me know it. “I suppose this is the best one can do on a teacher’s salary,” he
commented as he did a dust check on my spotless kitchen counter. “It doesn’t have to be like this, you know.”
“Yes, it does,” I informed him. “And contrary to what you might think, I’m very happy here.”
He glanced around my tight quarters. “All by your lonesome?” he asked, as though he couldn’t believe it. “Or does Alex sneak into town for some clandestine nooky on his way back to the happy homestead?”
I smiled sweetly. “Alex stays at the ranch during the week. His focus is on his son, where it should be.”
He was unmoved by my comment. “Or maybe he’s just tired of you, the same way he tired of Elise. He got what he wanted, for his own purposes, and then moved on.”