I hit cool down on the treadmill, finally burning away enough of the bad energy to be able to stop running in place. I’ve spent six months harboring so much anger and resentment that it left no room for anything else. But now I’m ready to make way, to find a way to channel those feelings in the ring, but leave them behind at the end of the day. Because at the end of the day, all I want is to go home with Lily.
Tension hangs heavily in the warm late summer night air. We’ve been together every night for the last week. There was never a question we were spending the night, the only unclear fact at the end of each evening seemed to be where…my apartment or his hotel suite. Yet tonight as I lock up the door to the gym after closing, there’s an awkwardness. Jax’s father’s visit obviously still weighs heavily on him. We walk a block in silence, until we reach a fictional fork in the road…my apartment is to the left and his hotel is to the right.
“Can we stay at my hotel tonight? I have my laptop there and I need to send a few emails in the morning,” Jax asks.
“What’s wrong?” He stops in his tracks and turns to me.
“Nothing. It’s just. I wasn’t sure if we were going to stay together tonight.”
“Why wouldn’t we?”
I shrug. There is no real answer. It was more of a feeling. “I don’t know.”
Jax’s eyes search mine and he’s quiet for a moment. He takes my face into his hands and focuses on nothing but our connection. There’s an unmistakable intensity in his eyes, but there’s something more. Something hidden beneath the surface. Hurt? Sadness? Worry? “I’m nothing like him.”
At first the statement is so seemingly out of place, I’m not sure what he’s even talking about. Then realization dawns on me. He’s concerned I might believe what his father said. That he’s like his father. “I know you’re not,” I whisper, my eyes locked to his.
He closes his eyes and nods. When he reopens them, there’s still hurt and pain, but some of the tension seems to be relieved.
Jax was quiet all night and this morning he had to head out for a day of meetings he had planned. He says he’s fine, but I can tell his dad’s visit is still bothering him. So I leave Ralley’s a little earlier than usual and stop at LaPerla on my way home to buy something I think will cheer him up. Spending a few hundred dollars on sexy lingerie isn’t something I do on a regular basis. But I’m excited to see his face when I describe what I have on underneath my clothes during dinner tonight.
I’m just about to hop in the shower when my cell phone buzzes. The name on the screen surprises me and I almost hit REJECT. But in a moment of weakness I answer the call from Caden.
I regret answering it as my trembling finger disconnects the call. My eyes sting as I fight back tears, throwing the phone on the table harshly. The screen shatters but it’s the least of my problems. I stand staring out the bedroom window for a long time, the tumultuous grey sky opening up with a crack of thunder making way for the pelt of heavy rain that follows.
I shouldn’t have answered the phone. I’m not even sure why I did. Maybe because some part of me feels badly for hurting Caden, he wasn’t always a jerk. It was all I could do to breathe after the death of my father, until Caden swooped in to take care of me.
I know what he did to me is wrong, a good man never puts his hands on a woman…no matter what. One of the many life lessons my father taught me growing up surrounded by men who use their hands to survive. There’s no excuse for what he did, yet a pang of guilt still keeps me connected to him somehow. Guilt for not loving him back the way he loved me. So I answered the phone, even though I knew no good would come from it. And I wasn’t wrong. I can only hope he was spewing lies, but there’s a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach that won’t go away no matter how hard I try to tell myself nothing he said was true.
I’ve gone through half a dozen emotions in an hour. Each one changing the speed of my frenzied pacing. I feel nauseous. Anxious. Angry. Confused. Betrayed. But above all I’m scared to death that everything Caden said could possibly be true. I pace faster and faster through my small apartment, checking the clock frantically every thirty seconds.
The sound of the doorbell jolts me still. I’ve been desperate for answers, yet now I’m terrified to ask the questions. It takes every bit of my strength to simply open the door. My heart lurches into my throat when I see him standing before me. He lowers his head to kiss me on the lips, but I don’t kiss him back.
“You okay?” Jax asks, concerned as he takes in the blank look on my face.
I nod. I’m not, but I’m hoping I will be in a few minutes, so I stand to the side offering him entry.
“Am I early?” Jax looks at his watch and then to me. He’s here to pick me up for dinner, yet I’m still wearing the jeans and ponytail I had on this morning. I don’t respond.
Brow furrowed, he reaches down and takes both of my hands into his, pulling one to his mouth. “Hey.”
I don’t look up.
“Look at me, Lily,” he demands quietly.
I look up, his eyes capturing my gaze. “What’s going on? You okay?” There’s a softness to his voice that I long to hear. Something about it reminds me of my dad. The way he was so tough on the exterior, yet I always knew the interior was filled with a tenderness that held my heart.
Panic dawns on me as I realize for the first time that it may be too late. Too late not to give this man my heart if what I dread being true turns out to be a reality I can’t escape. I close my eyes for a long moment, hating to ask, but needing to hear that it’s a lie.
Forcing myself to keep eye contact, I ask, my voice barely more than a whisper, “Are you the investor buying Joe’s half of Ralley’s Gyms?”
We look at each other for the longest time. It’s so quiet in the room, I can hear my heart pounding in my chest. Each beat gets louder and louder with anticipation. Regret shadows over his beautiful blue eyes and I watch in despair as they close, taking the last bit of my hopes away. My stomach twists. Heart clenches. Sadness rips through me.
I slip my hands from his. A lone tear falls from my eye just as he opens his. “Yes. I’m sorry. I know I should’ve told you sooner. I was waiting until after the deal went through to tell you. I didn’t want our relationship to influence yours and Joe’s decision. “
“You really thought we’d have a relationship after you destroy everything my father worked for by forcing me into bankruptcy?”
“What are you talking about? I’m not destroying anything or forcing you into bankruptcy.”
I laugh. “What did you think having the bank cut off our line of credit without warning would do? You know our cash is tight!”
“The bank cut your line of credit?” he asks, having the audacity to look shocked.
“You know they did!” I scream, feeling the room grow smaller.
“I didn’t have the bank do anything.”
“Caden told me everything, Jax.”
“Caden?” he questions, his jaw clenching. “What are you talking about?”
“You invest in Ralley’s just as the bank cuts off our line of credit. You’re the financial wizard, you know how it works. Without that line, we’ll be out of cash in less than two months. Then you swoop in and buy the rest for pennies on the dollar.”
He closes his eyes. His hands rake through his hair, tugging harshly. Stress creases his forehead and he has the gall to sound appalled when he speaks. “I didn’t have anything to do with the bank cutting…”
I interrupt his lies. “So they just decided to pull my line of credit on their own?” I laughingly suggest.
“I had nothing to do with it.”
“You’re a liar!”
“I’ve never lied to you.”
“No?” I laugh sardonically. “You just don’t offer the truth.”
At least he has the decency to flinch. “I’m sorry. I should have told you I was the investor sooner.” He bows his head. “But I would never do anything to ruin your business.” He reaches for my hand. I pull it away as if he’s the hot coil on the top of the stove that just burned my skin.
“Get out,” I say eerily calm.
“Lily, you need to believe me. I’m crazy about you. I had nothing to do with the bank pulling your line of credit,” He takes a step closer to me, I take two steps back.
“Just get out.” My voice grows louder.
Jax searches my eyes, neither of us saying anything for a long moment. “I..,” he begins to say something, but I’ve lost my mind.
“Get out!” This time I scream. Jax closes his eyes and nods. He opens the door and is half way through when I add my final thoughts. He turns looking hopeful when he hears me speak calmly again. “Tell me, Jackson. Do you specifically target businesses that were built by the blood and sweat of fathers, since you hate your own so much?”
His jaw flexes. I know deep down it’s a low blow, but I don’t give a shit. I want to hurt him as much as he hurt me. He turns back and walks out the door without another word.
There’s a strong urge inside of me to go after him and comfort him. How messed up is that? I walk to the door and lean my forehead against it. My apartment is so quiet. I hold in my tears until I hear the door to the stairwell close behind him. Then they come, uncontrollable sobs and tears bleed from a cut so deep in my heart, I feel as though I might drown. I cry for hours. Eventually, emotionally exhausted, every ounce of energy depleted from my wrenched body, I cry myself to sleep.
I’ve been wearing the same clothes for two days. For two days, I alternated between feeling sorry for myself that Dad’s dream was about to be sucked down the drain and feeling the hollow in my chest from missing Jax. Sure, I could have just picked up the phone on one of the dozen occasions it rang and I found Jax’s name flashing on the screen, but that wouldn’t have helped matters at all. No, it would only have made things worse. Aside from grieving my double loss, I’m also struggling with guilt because I feel worse about losing what I thought I had with Jax than possibly losing the business.
When Reed let himself in I was still lying in the bed, curled into the fetal position.
“Rise and shine, my little princess,” Reed says in a happy voice that only makes me dig in deeper, clinging to my own sadness. I pull my legs tighter to my chest and try to ignore him.
He rips the blanket from my body. “I just want to be left alone!” I yell, selfishly uncaring I’m taking it out on my best friend.
“Ugh,” I groan, knowing exactly how Reed can be when he decides he knows best.
“Can’t I just stay in bed?”
“For starters, you look like hell.”
“And we have plans.”
“Why? Why can’t I just be left alone?”
“Because I love you.”
Digging my face in the pillow, I attempt to protest, “Can’t we have movie day and eat buckets of ice cream and stay in bed for two days?”
“You already stayed in bed for two days?”
“Two days is the limit to stay in bed.”
“I just did. Now get in the shower before I carry you in.” He reaches over to the bed and swats my ass playfully, although I’m in no mood.
I groan as I get out of bed, knowing Reed totally would throw me in if I didn’t do it myself. Dragging my feet, I pad to the bathroom and turn, sticking my tongue out at him before slamming the door shut.