Free Falling Preview by Ana Simons

Hi everyone,

Today, I’d like to introduce FREE FALLING by Ana Simons to you. She’s a wonderful Romance writer and be sure to check out her work!

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BLURB

Does a man ever forget the first girl he truly loved? 

Brian Anderson can’t get past the anger corroding him inside. Finding out the woman he believed would soon be his wife was having an affair with a family friend, a man he looked up to like a father, left him broken and bitter. With little to no faith in women and relationships, the handsome and enigmatic English architect is now determined to swear off love or any serious entanglements. 

At least, that’s the plan. 

Enter Olivia, the one who got away ten years before, and he soon learns fate has plans of its own. Their unexpected re-encounter will trigger old feelings and send his life into a tailspin. Looking into his own vulnerabilities will be just the beginning. Facing the uphill battle to find a way to her heart, which has been broken too many times, is the challenge that follows… 

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EXCERPT

1 Regrets

 

London

Friday, 24 July 2015

I need air. The large glass door closes behind me and suddenly the impressively ample Florence Hall has become too damn small and I can’t breathe.

She is here.

Though there must be a dining table with my name on it somewhere, I stride across the room and head to the bar instead.

“I’ll have a whisky. Straight.” With a nod, the bartender grabs the bottle. “Make it a double, please.” I clench my jaw to stifle the emotions, the anger I feel pumping through my veins like deadly poison.

A burst of cheering and applause fills the hall, vibrating within me like the rumble of an approaching thunder. I turn and scan the crowded room until my gaze rests on her, talking to a woman I’ve never seen before.

Damn, she’s beautiful! Utterly elegant, with a touch of sophistication. The off-the-shoulder champagne dress against fair skin. The perfectly etched features. The long blond hair cascading down her back. The amazing sapphire eyes. The slightly parted red lips. An almost ethereal beauty.

Too bad she’s a talented cheating liar, the voice of reason screams inside my head.

I observe them for a moment, the woman who once meant so much and the man I looked up to like a father. Their intimate glances and knowing smiles. His hand running up and down her back in slow, gentle strokes, tracing the shape of her. The confident expression on his face as he proudly displays her, his latest accomplishment. But my downfall.

Shaking my head in disgust, I clench the glass in my hand, my throat aching from suppressing the anger. I turn and stare at the amber liquid in front of me before I gulp it down in one swallow. It’s but a futile attempt to wash away the restlessness inside.

Here’s the bare truth about deception: it’s happened to us all, one time or another. You’ve put your trust in someone only to find out later they were lying to your face, and you were being played according to their very own fucked up agenda. It may knock you down and consume you until you crawl onto your feet again. And when you do, your mind may still occasionally wander back and let it eat at you.

And that’s exactly what’s happening today. Since she showed up uninvited at my doorstep wanting to talk.

Except we didn’t talk much.

I know! I should have told her to leave immediately when she came up with that nonsense, saying she missed me, that she was sorry and wanted back into my life. But I didn’t. I said nothing, only swiped everything off the granite surface and kissed her. Right there on the kitchen island. Furiously. Hands roaming her body like they did many times before. Out of longing? Out of raw lust? Out of pure anger?

I have no idea. My mind was a blur, flooded with the desire to hear all those low moans escape her throat. And with the need to punish her. To take revenge on both of them. Some kind of wild justice to make them pay for what they’d done to me. For hurting everyone I care about.

You’ve got five minutes to get the hell out of my house.” I grabbed my jacket, slamming the door behind me, leaving her sitting on the countertop, flushed, trying to catch her breath.

“Goddamn fool,” I mutter under my breath, clunking the empty glass on the counter, cursing myself for allowing it to happen. The consciousness of regret is an all-consuming beast and, worse still, I’m old enough to have known better.

Raising my hand, I ask for a refill and check my phone, which is buzzing for the hundredth time this evening. It’s my sister again, sitting across the room, certainly dying to tell me off and ask me where the hell I’ve been. It’s almost nine-thirty. I not only missed dinner but also half of the ceremony.

“…and these are the six outstanding projects that made it to this year’s shortlist, all of them brilliant examples of excellence and significant contribution to both architecture and regional development…”

A deep and enthusiastic voice cuts through my thoughts, and I let my eyes travel to the event host and the images projected on the screen—photographs of the six projects selected by the jury, the Harrow Community Centre I worked so hard on being one of them.

I make an effort to focus on the man’s introduction but fail miserably at it. In my head, his words keep colliding against her rough, ragged words urging me to continue.

Draining my second glass, I find myself secretly hoping it’s not my name they announce in a few seconds, ultimately acknowledging I must be a bloody fool indeed.

“Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I’m now proud to announce that due to its inspiring clarity and vision, originality, innovation, and sustainability the 2015 Wren Prize goes to… John Anderson Architects, represented here by the young and talented Brian Anderson. Congratulations!”

It feels like a tidal wave hitting when the thunder of applause invades the room, the loud sound thudding in my ears and jolting through my body. I need to take a deep, steadying breath to keep my nerves under control.

Winning an award as prestigious as this one is quite shocking in itself; it’s one of the most coveted prizes, one every professional in their right mind dreams of. Winning it today, however, after this afternoon, when I had already buried it all, feels particularly overwhelming.

Several heads turn to the vacant seat at my table, raising a slight commotion that quickly turns into another ovation as I traverse the hall towards the beaming host and the representative of the sponsoring organisation.

After receiving a handshake and a hearty slap on the back given as a token of congratulation, I accept my trophy with a serious countenance and turn to the audience, my sister the first person I thank wordlessly, with a subtle nod. Sue frowns and shoots me a reproachful glance first, but then her face breaks into a warm smile, one that is full of pride and joy.

Then our eyes meet for a moment. Mary’s and mine.

She’s sitting only two tables away, but the chair next to her is empty. Inadvertently, my eyes dart around the room and find him walking towards the bar, probably a strategic manoeuvre to avoid me. Better so. Had he kept his hands off her, he’d be one of the first people I’d thank and dedicate this award to tonight.

Forcing the feelings of discomfort away, I lean one hand against the podium to steady myself and let my eyes fall to the beautiful crystal piece I’m holding, taking a brief instant to read the inscription. But then our eyes lock again, flashes of today’s events zipping through my brain, the turmoil inside making it almost impossible to think and summon the words.

“Congratulations,” Mary mouths, a trace of a nervous smile appearing on her face. I don’t react in any way and she steers her gaze down, my cold and distant demeanour obviously affecting her.

Glancing up at the audience, I stare at them blankly for a short moment. Eventually, I clear my throat and force the words out, “On behalf of everyone involved in this project, I’d like to thank you for this recognition. I’m honoured to be here tonight, and very grateful to be the recipient of this award… Thank you, again, and good night to you all.”

My very brief and impassioned thank you speech is met with momentary silence. They were probably expecting me to say some heartfelt words or something to keep the mood light. After all, this is a festive event. But I’m in no mood for pleasantries, let alone for anecdotes or funny lines.

After a short pause, another roar of applause breaks out. A subtle bow and I leave the podium, never looking down and ignoring the light touch of her hand when I pass by, determined to get out of this damn place and far away from her.

Hell no, I won’t allow it. Neither this woman nor anyone else will be given the chance to make a fool out of me, ever again.


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2 Glimpses

Leaning against the handrail, I glance at the reflected image in the mirror. Open shirt and loosened tie. Suit jacket hung over the shoulder, crystal trophy in hand, and an overall grand-bloody-mess impression I refuse to look at any longer. Instead, I tip my head back against the wall and close my eyes, taking a steadying breath, listening to the soft hum of the lift as it ascends to the third floor.

When I finally enter my apartment, I toss my jacket onto the console table and throw myself on the sofa, robotically, the bloody headache pounding inside my skull making it almost impossible to think. Better so.

“Hello, Brian.” A soft voice cuts through the haze in my mind.

“You? What are you doing here?”

It’s my sister, sitting on the swivel couch, holding a steaming cup in her hands.

“Please, grab a seat. Make yourself at home.” I gesture toward her, irony dripping.

“How are you?”

“Aside from a raging headache? Fine, thank you.”

“So, how was last night?” She keeps her voice even, her expression calm. It’s all fake, she’s about to combust.

“Pretty uneventful, I’d say. How was yours?”

She scowls at me defiantly. “You’re such a dick sometimes.”

“You’re mad.”

“Very perceptive of you.” Her sharp, green stare pierces right through me. “What happened? It’s well past midday already. Where have you been?”

I sit upright immediately and check the time myself. “Shit, my flight to New York!” I mutter, the fact I only have a few hours to gather my stuff, say goodbye to the kids and get to Heathrow dawning hard on me.

“Do you know why I am here?”

“To make sure I get my arse on that plane and don’t mess things up?” Before I stand again, I hunch forward and take a minute to hold my head between my hands, the throb against my temples only getting worse.

Sue sweeps her long hair back over her shoulder and tilts her chin upwards, narrowing her inquisitive eyes at me.

“What? That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?”

“No.”

“Oh. In that case, my second guess is… you came to tell me personally how much of a fucking idiot I am?”

“I think you need this.” She hands me her cup of coffee and I take a grateful sip, hoping the caffeine quickly enters my system. I’m in such sore need.

“Do you know what day is today?”

I give a half shrug. No bloody idea.

Sue allows me the time to think more about it, her angry silent scream making my stomach knot as the quiet settles in deeper.

“I’m sorry,” I breathe out after a while. For not knowing what day this is—a miserable one, that is for sure. For not showing up for dinner and leaving her all by herself last night. For ignoring her calls. For disappearing right after the ceremony. Actually, for shutting myself away from everything and everyone lately.

“You can’t just say you’re sorry, Brian!” She finally bursts. “You have to pick yourself up and stop letting people down! For crying out loud, look at yourself! I bet you spent the night with the first trashy whore who swayed her ass in front of you!”

Not exactly, but I lower my gaze. I sure as hell will not discuss any of that with my sister. Or anyone else, for that matter. That’s no one’s bloody business.

“How does it feel, huh? To wake up after a night of rebound sex only to find yourself as empty inside as you were before? Don’t you want to feel something more meaningful in your life? Don’t you crave something that inspires more than an orgasm?” Sue gives me another of her long scrutinising looks.

“What are you? Some kind of an expert now? Planning to apply for some agony aunt position soon?” I can’t contain the snort, a bitter snort to disguise the restlessness inside.

“Don’t get me started, you cocky little shit! I speak fluent sarcasm too! Listen to me. Everyone falls on their asses from time to time, but then they pump up their legs and move on. And that’s what you’ll do too, you hear me? Because I don’t like this new version of you. A cold and arrogant creep. One that doesn’t give a shit about anyone! One that keeps forgetting he has a family who needs him.”

“I really don’t have time for your soul-searching rubbish. You should go now,” I say curtly as I stand up from the sofa. Her words sting more than I care to admit, though. I know she’s right.

Sue puts a restraining hand on my arm. “Damn you, Brian! Don’t bottle it up inside! Talk it out. Or join a gym and punch some shit. Shave your head and join a sect! Whatever. But, please, find a way to keep it together!”

I shake off her hand. “Please leave. I need to shower and get ready.”

“No, you need an attitude adjustment!”

“I guess you know where the door is…” I gesture to the entrance hall.

“You didn’t answer my question: do you even remember what day it is?”

“Bust-My-Balls-Day?” I growl, halfway down the corridor towards my room.

“Josh’s tournament this morning. You signed him up for it. You promised him you’d be there, pulling for him the whole time—but guess what? You were too busy shagging some stranger, drinking to wash your shit away, God only knows what else, and never showed up!”

Sue chokes on a sob and my body goes rigid, the pang of guilt and remorse hitting me violently inside.

“Damn you, Brian! He was searching each face in the crowd looking for you the entire time! And I called you like a hundred times but you didn’t even bother to answer the bloody phone! You should have seen the disappointment in his eyes… How can you do this to my child, you moron? He looks up to you, you’re his fucking hero!” Her voice has risen with each and every word.

“Sue, please.”

“Now, if you don’t want to be part of his life, that’s fine. But don’t make promises you don’t plan to keep, you hear me? Don’t you ever mess with any of my kids again or I’ll…” Her trembling voice trails off.

Dead silence hangs for a moment, but her words keep echoing through my mind, the taste of regret burning inside. I love her children more than anything in the world and Josh is special. He’s my little mate. I can always rely on him to make me smile or laugh. To keep me on my toes. To give me so much more than I’ll ever be able to give to him. I’d never, ever do anything to purposely let him down.

“Oh God…” I inhale deeply, ploughing a hand through my hair as I try to form the words. “I’m so sorry, I truly am. Give me an hour. I’ll go talk to him.”

“That’s not all.” Another pained look crosses Sue’s face.

The dull ache in my gut intensifies. I arch my brows, asking her to continue.

“Jimmy’s been calling you all morning too. It’s Arthur…”

*

 “It’s all good, don’t be so hard on yourself.” Tapping me reassuringly on the leg, Josh’s eyes flare with understanding as he looks up at me. “I get it, I’m a big boy. How could you have made it, if you’re going away and have like a ton of things to prepare?” Seated on one of the benches of the Holland Park playground, he takes another greedy bite of ice-cream.

“Right, you’re a big boy now.” I smile at his innocence, a bitter smile, though. Culpability is eating me up inside. “Three sisters to look after sure is a lot of responsibility. How have you been handling the situation, mate?”

“Going slowly insane. They’re always crying and whining. I’ve been thinking about moving out.”

Letting out a laugh, I poke him a little. “Where would you go, kiddo?”

He shrugs, his attention seemingly more focused on the chocolate chips he’s picking out with his fingers rather than on anything else.

I stretch back with hands clasped behind my head, feeling the last rays of sun permeate the skin and warm up my face, the anxiety easing at last.

It’s all quiet now. There were a few endlessly amused kids swaying to and fro on the swings, but they’re gone now. It’s just the two of us and the sound of the leaves in the trees rustling a little.

“How’s the ice-cream?”

He glances up at me, his freckled face smudged with vanilla and chocolate. “It’s not contagious, is it?”

“What? That sticky mess on your face? Hope not.” I hand him a tissue.

He cleans his mouth clumsily and then puts on his thinking face. “What do you think your life will be like when you die?”

I’m taken aback for a moment, not really knowing how to explain the impossibility beyond the question. How do you even approach that inescapable part of life at all with a seven-year-old kid?

“You’ve already heard about Arthur, haven’t you?”

“How long have you known him?”

“As far back as I can remember. Did you know he was the one who taught us, Uncle Jimmy and I, how to ride a four-wheel bike? We were fourteen or fifteen. That was one hell of a summer! I’ll teach you too, someday.”

“Mum says he went to heaven, that everything in heaven is beautiful and perfect.” He pauses with his tongue hanging out, ice-cream dripping onto it. “If it’s such a great place, why was she crying on the phone?”

“Because it’s always sad when we have to say goodbye to people we care about.”

“But is it contagious or not?”

“No! Where did you get that from? Arthur has been very ill for a while now and his heart was too tired and weak to continue to–”

“Oh good, what a relief!” His shoulders sag, on his face a totally deadpan expression. “Because we went to see him last week and I still have a lot to do before I can go to heaven. Like finish primary school. Maybe get a girlfriend. You’re also going to die one day, aren’t you?”

“Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes, a wise man once said.”

He stops licking and crinkles his nose, staring at me with a funny, puzzled expression. “I don’t understand.”

I put my hand on his shoulder and give it a squeeze. “It’s okay. It’s complicated, even for adults. But you should know no one ever really dies. They’ll keep on living in our hearts.”

Josh’s confused expression intensifies. “In our hearts? Wasn’t it in heaven? Where’s heaven anyway?”

Why do such euphemisms always seem so hard to explain?

A quick check to my watch confirms I have one hour before the flight is due to take off. “Come, we’d better get going or I’ll miss that plane.”

He holds my hand as we walk back to the car park. “Ben says they stuck his grandmother inside a coffin until Jesus picked her up.”

“Yes, some people do that.”

“And then they planted her.”

I let out a chuckle. Josh is one of the most thoughtful kids I know. His random connections, quite often little excursions into the absurd, are sometimes as funny as completely and totally insane.

“Are they going to plant Arthur too? I mean, why would they even put people in the ground? It’s filled with bugs and yucky stuff. Unless they’re going to grow into something. Are they? Why doesn’t Jesus come down right away?”

“Jesus comes to pick up your soul, not your body.”

“And why do they put a stone on the top? Ben says is to keep them down there, but where would they go anyway?” He tilts his head and frowns at me, clearly confused. “What’s the soul?”

Oh boy. I suck in a big breath and look up at the oak trees, secretly hoping for some help on this. Quite frankly, I find it confusing too. “Well, your soul… some people believe there’s a part of us that…” I struggle to find words. “It’s sort of an invisible part that exists within us, something that–”

“Hey, it’d be really cool if you could bring me an Arsenal jersey!” He shakes my hand, a cute smug smile peeking from the corners of his mouth.

“Hmm. Not sure I can find those over there. Maybe I can get you something from the New York Knicks instead.” I turn Josh’s cap backwards. “A cap maybe?”

Eyebrows raised, he gives me a thumbs-up sign. “Have I told you Mattie farts a lot? Emma says those are burps coming out of her tiny butt? What’s your view on that?”

“Huh…” Right now I don’t have an answer. I think my brain is hurting.

“This was fun. Can we come back next week again? And try the Smurf ice-cream? Can we bring Emma along? You’ll be back next week, won’t you?”

“I will. I’ll be back on Friday. How about I pick you up from school? And you stay overnight?”

Jumping with excitement, Josh high-fives me before he slides into the backseat and slams the door shut, on his face a beaming smile I can’t get enough of. On the outside, the reflection in the car window is one of a guy who’s smiling too, genuinely wishing there were more moments like this.

*

 “You sure you don’t want to come in?” Josh’s lips set into a little pout.

I check my watch again. We’re on the pavement, right in front of my sister’s front garden. “Sorry, mate. Really need to go.”

“But aren’t you saying goodbye to Mum?”

“I have already. Now go. I’ll wait here till you get inside and wave you all goodbye.”

“All right then.” He grabs my sleeve and pulls me down, to give me a kiss and whisper in my ear, “Don’t forget my cap. And our guys’ night.”

“I won’t. I promise.” I ruffle his hair before he runs to the front door, where Sue is already waiting with Mathilda on her hip.

Standing at the living room window, with her nose pressed against the glass making funny faces, I find Emma, giggling and waving. I wave back.

Shaking my head amused at the whole scene, I walk to the car and open the door, casting one last glance at them all. For a moment my eyes rest on Emma again, who’s blowing me kisses from the palms of her tiny hands. So cute.

But then I freeze, the unexpected glimpse of a silhouette behind the drifting gauzy curtains making my heart thump so hard in my chest. Of a woman rocking Marianne in her arms. A woman I used to know a long time ago. A very long time ago…


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3 Business or pleasure?

 

“Hello? Anyone there?”

No, apparently not.

Odd. I wanted to tell Josh I found the jersey he asked for, here, in one of the duty-free stores, but there’s only silence on the other end of the line.

Should I try again?

No, forget about it.

But after the shit I pulled earlier today, I’m certain it’d put a huge smile on his face.

Sure. If that was the real reason why you’re calling. But it’s not. You want to ask him who was inside – but we already know that, don’t we?

It’s been a while since we don’t talk, a decade maybe, but I do know it was her.  Ten years or not, I’d recognise her in a heartbeat.

And now it’s eating at you. Not knowing whether you’ll be back in time to see more than a fragment in the distance…

Olivia Burke. Once the light of my life, the most amazing girl I’d ever met. Also, the girl who gave me up so easily, who hurt me like no one else ever has.

Don’t be an idiot, and turn off the bloody phone!

Which I do, and then tuck in my jacket pocket. Why am I even losing my time thinking about this?

“Oh dear. He’s going to break the damn thing and we’ll be stuck in here for God-knows-how-long till they fix it,” the passenger sitting next to me mutters under her breath. “What a creep!” With an annoyed huff, she lets her head fall back against the seat headrest.

Two rows behind us, a bulky bloke in an expensive suit is forcing his carry-on into the overhead, which quite obviously will never fit in there. One of the flight attendants is trying to reason with him but it looks like a nasty argument is about to break out.

“They should throw them both into the aircraft hold. The bag and the idiot who owns it,” she adds dryly.

I’m tempted to agree, but for once I don’t feel like making small talk with anyone. I do cast a sideways glance, though, and observe her for a moment.

Her closed eyes are highlighted with long lashes and a generous amount of makeup. Smooth, brown skin and perfect oval face, framed by thick brown hair. Full sensuous lips, glistening with a nude gloss.

I hear her take another deep breath, and I smile to myself. What are the odds, the woman I’m going to share an armrest with for the next eight hours is actually a beautiful, attractive woman?

Preferring to enjoy my solitude, I put on my earbuds, the universal sign you’re in a no-talking mood. Mary’s antics and yesterday’s monumental slip, letting Josh down like that, my sister’s words this morning rumbling in my head – it’s all nagging at me, consuming me from the inside out. The only thing I want is to slam my seat back and shut down. A few hours of uninterrupted sleep, without phone calls or meetings, project descriptions or architectural plans. Or time to think about how fucked up my life is…

*

 “Dear passengers, this is your captain speaking. We have now reached our cruising altitude. Please feel free to move around the aircraft…”

“But please stay inside until we land. Because it’s a bit chilly outside.” The words come with a gentle tap on my arm.

I give my seat neighbour a polite social smile before I close my eyes and go back to being mad at the world.

“Excuse me. May I?” She gestures to the lavatory.

“Oh. Yes, of course.” I unbuckle and step into the aisle to let her past, making use of the opportunity to get my iPad out of the overhead bin. And to watch the sway of her hips as she heads down to the toilet, her tall, elegant figure, the dark skinny jeans that hug every curve of her long, shapely legs.

Taking the moment to stretch my legs, I lean against the side of the seat and turn the device on while waiting for her to return.

Two minutes later she’s back, an easy smile playing on her lips. Out of the corner of my eye, I follow the contour of her chin, the delicate neckline, her shoulders… until I force myself not to look any further down.

What do we have here? A free spirit?

No, there’s no bra under the loose-fitting top, only nipples poking through and all kinds of images rushing into my head. Despite my sour mood, I grin inwardly at her laidback, confident attitude. Go au naturel. Why not?

“Thank you.” Big brown eyes meet mine, and she leans forward a little, lingering at my chest for an instant before slipping back into the middle seat, the sweet, spicy scent of her perfume staying behind with me.

“You’re welcome.” I give her a curt nod.

“What?” She asks out of nowhere moments later, peeking at the iPad screen.

“Didn’t say anything.”

“Are those your kids?”

On the background image, a picture of Josh and Emma making silly faces. “Nephew and niece.” I swipe at the screen to unlock it, not elaborating any further.

“Is it business or pleasure?”

“Sorry?”

“Are you travelling for work?”

“Yes.” I turn the iPad toward her, on the screen some calculations on a spreadsheet. With any luck, she gets the hint I’m not up for self-serving friends, on-flight flirting or whatever she has in mind, and pops some sleeping pill, saving us both from more awkward silences.

“Me too. Covering a fashion event. Photographer. How well do you know the city?”

“Not that well, I’m afraid.” I lie. After four years studying at NYIT, I know it like the back of my hand.

“Oh, I just love New York! You can actually travel the world without leaving Brooklyn, how amazing is that? It has this special vibe you don’t find anywhere else. And do you know where the best pizza in the world is? In Old Fulton Street. Best Beer? East Village,” she goes on, brimming with enthusiasm, gesturing her hands dramatically to emphasise her views. “And let’s not forget, Spider-Man and Jay-Z live in New York. So basically, before you can say ‘Bob’s your uncle’ you’re already hooked on it, trust me!”

Hey, when we land, would you be up for a threesome? I almost ask her – usually there’s no quicker way to get walked out on – but in the end, I restrain myself. She does have a cute smile and a sparkle in her eyes I find both intriguing and entertaining.

“What’s your name again?”

“Josephine. Friends call me Jo.” She reaches out and clasps my hand in a firm handshake, her brown, curious eyes penetrating mine.

“Brian. It’s an absolute pleasure.”

*

I wake up at 2 a.m. to adjust my pillow. The armrest is up and Josephine is leaning up against me, her head on my shoulder. Smiling to myself, I set her straight and adjust the blanket around her neck.

She’s an interesting girl indeed. She can babble profusely about anything for hours, but still be funny. She seems smart and exudes such positive energy. Or just plain craziness, hard to tell.

Anyway, the brown-eyed beauty here has already asked me if I was up for a drink one of these nights, but I gave myself a severe mental shake and said no. Back in London, maybe.

Sure, I probably hold the distinction of being the only stupid bloke who’d refuse such a generous offer, but I honestly prefer to sit alone with a bottle of red than see my career go up in flames as well.


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4 Comforting lies

 

One month later…

Naked, she slips out of bed in the dark and strides towards the glass wall. Looking out in silence at the New York skyline, the reflection of her beautiful, perfectly shaped body is framed by a million specks of light coming from the surrounding office towers. The image is breath-taking.

From among clothes scattered on the floor, I pick up her scarf and follow, circle her from behind and hold her tight against my chest, a familiar floral scent clinging to my nostrils, carrying me away.

‘I want you,’ I whisper against her face, one hand gliding along the curve of her waist, grazing the sides of her breasts.

Heated eyes land on the reflected figures as black silk traces a line down her neck, over the collarbone. A caress over the hardened nipples and she leans her head back, gasping at the sensations, breathing out my name in a fading murmur. It makes me feel feverish.

I cover her eyes with the soft fabric and tie it gently, taking only a moment to stare at us, at her body gathered into my arms, my skin pressed against her skin. At her chest, rising and falling in an uneven cadence. At the parted lips, demanding to be captured.

She moves to turn, but I hold her in place. “Don’t!”

Her breathing deepens in anticipation as my hand slides down her neck and serpentines around her full breasts, down her stomach, her inner thighs. Which I spread gently, cautious fingers delving into moist flesh, each steady movement making her body squirm against me.

“Brian. I want you…” she trails off into a murmur.

“To continue?” I search for an answer in the mirrored surface.

She’s biting her lower lip, the arm looped around my neck pulling me closer, her whole body falling apart with pleasure.

“Say it.” I intensify the rhythm of my touch.

She arches her back and another whimper escapes her lips, sending a violent shiver through my body. I feel maddened, unable to contain the wave of craving rising inside me.

Turning her, I pin her against the cold wall and kiss her. A dark, possessive kiss. Relentless fury combined with unyielding passion.

I take only a second to come up for air, both of us breathing heavily, before my mouth plunges into hers again, for another hungry kiss, our tongues intertwining in a frenetic, desperate motion.

“Tell me that you’re mine,” I breathe into her mouth before my teeth nip her lower lip not so gently.

She smothers a cry, pleasure and pain mixing as one. Another swift movement and I have her facing the city again, hands splayed against the glass, the flicker of the city lights pouring into the darkness inside and reflecting on her skin.

“I’m yours.” Her breath comes in fevered gasps, every stroke of my hand fondling her breasts and running down her back making her quiver.

“Spread your legs for me,” I whisper against her temple, the tone raw and commanding, my hand on her nape lowering her gently down.

She does as I say. Claiming her as mine, only mine, I thrust into her. A single and long thrust. Firm and deep, steady hands holding her waist, the feel of skin slipping on skin and walls pulsing around me absolutely intoxicating.

“Tell me you’re mine again.”

“I am…” Her breathing is coming in shallow, ragged pants, each ever more determined movement pushing her higher and closer… 

…until a hard shudder racks my body and I push up her against my chest. “So why the fuck did you leave me?” In a blaze of anger, I yank the blindfold from her face and turn her around. “Tell me, Olivia! Why did you leave me like that?” I demand, gripping her upper arms with both hands, shaking her.

The same deep green eyes that have haunted my sleep other times before stare back at me, scared, and I wake up frantic, in a cold sweat, my heart beating so fast it feels it might just burst.

Jesus! What in the bloody hell was that?

Seven in the morning, I check on my phone with half-closed, heavy eyes, and sit upright for a few moments, forcing my breathing to calm down.

“Is it time already?” A sleepy, rough female voice comes from under the messy sheets and I need do a brief resetting exercise to figure out how she ended up here.

“No, Jo. All good, go back to sleep.”

Rolling over, she hums something I don’t even bother to understand and snuggles back down into the bed.

Struggling against the drowsiness, I drag myself out of the bed and pad into the bathroom. My mouth is dry, I need something to drink. After a few swallows straight from the faucet and several splashes of cold water on my face, I scowl at myself in the mirror.

Shit, last night’s dinner!

The moment Charles Burke mentioned his daughter wasn’t coming to Jimmy’s wedding today, something tore open inside me. I acted nonchalant, of course, as if I wasn’t even paying attention to the conversation, but for some stupid reason it stirred me up, it made me so restless.

Olivia got stuck at work or something, I don’t know. I don’t care. Giving it too much importance now would be like opening myself up to a fucking Pandora’s box. And I don’t really need any of that right now.

Shit, my head. It’s thudding like a fucking drum, the pain only getting worse when I return to the bedroom and my eyes fall on the woman lying on my bed.

No, I didn’t call her at bloody near two in the morning to talk. This past month she’s become my regular go-to. Nothing serious, but she knows that. It’s more like a fuck-friend arrangement of sorts that serves us both, considering I’m the one who usually gets the invite to come on over.

Last night was different. I didn’t pick her up and take her out to dinner. I didn’t even offer her a glass of wine or chat her up. In fact, I couldn’t care less about what she possibly has to say. Truth is, she’s been kind of a fix for something and I don’t even know what it is.

And maybe it’s better to leave it at that, I conclude, as my weary body falls back on the bed. I’m not ready for any brutal truths. I guess for now I’d rather stick with the comforting lies…

*

What a bummer, two minutes too late and they’re all gone!

Well, all except Robert.

Jimmy’s guests were supposed to gather here before the ceremony, at the Burke’s home, for a brief cocktail reception and photos. Turns out I only managed to drag myself out of bed some forty minutes ago – to a bursting headache and a massive fog of red wine and anger.

Robert isn’t looking any better. With head tilted back as if soaking up the sun, he’s sitting on the garden bench, tie loosened and jacket off, a packet of fags in one hand, a glass of Scotch in the other. In the background, the catering team, back and forth clearing tables and cleaning up the back garden.

“If you hurry, you might still be able to catch up with them,” he says, raising his glass without changing his sullen demeanour, his voice slightly slurred.

“Morning. Need a ride to the church?”

“Oh, thank you. That’d be really kind of you.” He doesn’t move a single inch, though.

“Then come.”

“I’m almost done here.” He takes a long, slow swig and jerks his head toward a half-empty bottle standing on the nearby table, which he holds only to pour himself a three-fingers width. “Come and join me.”

Jesus, my dark mood and morning-after hangover can’t deal with this kind of shit right now! I take his glass and set it on the table. “I’d love to, but we need to go. The wedding starts in less than one hour.”

“Whatever! Those never start on time anyway.” He waves a dismissive hand before he tries to reach for his glass again, which I immediately slide further away.

“Rob, what is this you’re doing? Getting pissed on your cousin’s wedding day? Have you bloody well lost your mind?”

He relaxes his stance and lets out a short, rough laugh. “Son, two things a man cannot hide, can he? That he’s drunk, and that he’s in love.”

“Right, you’re a real poet. Come, let’s go inside and get you a coffee.” I pull him by his elbow and try to make him stand, but he shrugs me off.

“Give me my glass back, I’ve got a hangover the size of an elephant’s arse.”

“I’ve got one too, and this shit you’re pulling isn’t helping,” I snarl. “Where’s Betty?”

“Son.” He grabs my hand and looks intently into my eyes, shaking his head in strong disapproval, his tongue clicking. “Coffee, raw eggs, whatever-crap-they-say-it-helps? None of that works! And aspirin? Steer clear from that shit, it’ll burst your liver!” He stands at last. “Drinking the bloody bastard off, that’s what helps! Who the fuck is Betty?”

“Please, stop talking rubbish. Where’s your wife?”

“Don’t have one. Who’s that?”

“I don’t know—the woman sitting next to you last night? The mother of your three kids? Who’s been putting up with you for… thirty years?”

“Oh, that one! I remember her.”

“Brilliant…” I pinch the bridge of my nose, my patience wearing thinner by the minute. “Maybe it’s indeed better if you stay here–”

“She told me to pack my things and leave, can you believe it? Last night. A divorce, she wants, the bloody old nag!” he blurts out, just when I’m about to turn and leave.

Oh, sod. I stare at him for a moment, in silence, pondering my reaction. What in the world are you supposed to tell someone who’s just been dumped?

“You seem surprised.”

“I’m so sorry, mate. What happened? Have you tried to talk to her?”

Robert offers a half-shrug, on his face something that resembles a No, obviously not.

“So what did you do then?”

“Went to Billy’s Old Tavern, had a few pints and got all frisky with Pippa. Didn’t end up well, I’m afraid.” Again he reaches for his glass. Again I stop him. “It seems I tried to slide my hand up the gal’s skirt and she punched me right in the fucking nose.”

“Serves you right, don’t you think?”

He nods, wincing at the memory. “And then Billy, that arrogant gobshite, kicked me out. Quite loudly. Everyone was laughing.”

I narrow my eyes at him, the what-were-you-expecting-you-moron expression on my face hitting him like a fist to the stomach.

Holding his head in his hands, fingers rubbing on the temples as though he’s got a roaring headache, which he probably has, he concludes, “Oh the irony, the day my marriage ends, I have to go to a sodding wedding… I fucking hate weddings!”

“Join the club then. But now come, let’s drive around and sober you up a bit.”

“All right. But let’s bring the bottle. Just in case.”

Casting a stern, defying stare, I grab his arm firmly. “Down! Put. It. Back. Down!”

*

After a few good gulps of fresh air and a lot of rambling about how awful his wife is, we’re both sitting on the entrance steps of the building across from Holy Trinity Church, just off Sloane Square. Getting impatient, I check my watch and turn to glance at the commotion of another group of guests arriving. No sign of the bride yet. In any case, I should definitely get going, I think to myself as I cast another look at my companion.

Leaning forward, supporting his head with his hands, elbows on his knees, he’s been silent for a while now, on his face an absorbed, introspective expression.

“Like I said, she must have some strong reason to want to chuck thirty years out of the window, man.  Thirty years – that’s a feat! You can’t just walk away and not try to talk it over. You have to go after her.”

He still doesn’t react.

“Robert?”

“What the hell are you babbling about?” he snarls dismissively. “You of all people? With your disgraceful track record with women, haven’t you learned anything? You should know better by now: they’re cruel, whiny manipulative beasts, capable of making your life a living hell! So fuck no, you don’t go after them, you pathetic sap!”

Seriously? Pissed or not, what makes you think you can dig up my story now?

“Fine, then. Do what you think is best,” I tell him, my voice tight. As I really don’t have to listen to any of his crap, I guess it’s time for me to go – before I let my temper run away from me and tell him things I’ll surely regret later.

Robert grabs hold of my hand just as I am getting up. “That I don’t listen to her, she told me. That I don’t look at her the way I used to. That she feels taken for granted and we’re mere roommates dealing with logistics… Bloody hell, if we could only hack their minds! What the fuck does that even mean?” he asks, staring vacantly into the busy street. “I’ve always been faithful to her, I provided for our family, I did my best to make it all work – even on those days she wouldn’t stop bitching at me!” He lets out a pained chuckle. “Turns out in the end that’s not enough and now she wants to put herself first again and enjoy life. Her words. Go figure.”

In silence, I let it sink in, ultimately acknowledging the female mind is indeed a bizarre territory none of us will ever truly understand. With a sympathetic shrug, I tell him I truly don’t know what I could possibly add to make him feel better. Life’s complicated, women and relationships even more so.

He studies me with narrow eyes for a moment, his face contorted in a grimace. “You know what? That cheating tart pulled that stunt on you, but you’re way better off without her. Without any woman, for that matter. All those mind games they play, making your life miserable until you give them what they want – even when they don’t know themselves what the fuck they want! So, if you want to live long and sane, take an old man’s advice and don’t let yourself be sucked into it!” he scoffs with anger, pointing a finger at me. “You stay away from trouble, you hear me? Shag as many as you can, but don’t fall for it, stay single. Because if you don’t, one day you’ll wake up only to find out you’re in the middle of a sodding nightmare.”

Though musing over his words, which are probably right and about to take me to an unpleasant place I’d rather not visit again today, I try to take it lightly and laugh at his piece of advice.

“Thanks for the enlightenment, mate.” Giving him a friendly tap on the back, I stand. “I’d better go now and see what the views in the church have to offer. See you around. And… hey?” I fix him with a stare.  “You stay away from trouble. You hear me?”

“Yeah, off you go. I think I’ll hang out here a little longer…”

Snaking across the street between cars, I reach the church and glance up at John Sedding’s impressive work of architecture, at the neo-gothic, red-brick façade with its stunning stained-glass window. Because I need a moment to take a deep breath. And then gulp down the frustration welling up within me since last night. Since it dawned on me I’d been more eager to see a certain woman than I was willing to admit…


Diapositivo7

5 Surprises

 

Among a cacophony of whispered voices, melodic tunes and kids’ giggles spinning through my head like the roar of a migraine, I glance around, looking for my family.

Off to the right, I spot my sister, her gaze already searching my face. Sue shakes her head and I can feel her disapproval all the way over here. I’m not only late, I probably also look like I was thrown under a bus. Bloody hangover!

Looking up the church towards the altar, I find my father shaking hands and exchanging a few words with Pete and Jimmy.

All dressed up for the occasion and with a freshly shaven face, but with the same blank stare we’ve all gotten used to lately, Pete is looking as he actually feels, at a very low ebb. His wife left him a few months ago, on his thirtieth birthday. Took everything but the kitchen sink and a dog that pees all over the place. Poor chap.

Surprisingly, Jimmy isn’t looking much better. In his custom-tailored dark suit and fancy white tie, he’s pacing back and forth like he’s going mental, either looking at his watch or at the front door, barely able to hold himself together.

“I give it a year. Two, maybe,” Robert mutters behind me.

“I thought you wanted to stay outside.”

“If you want to know my opinion…”

I don’t.

A flash of irrational hope surges through me, and I scan the church looking for Olivia’s face. Imagining that possibility seems to ease the dull ache in my gut just a little.

Nothing.

All I see was a blur of faces, the realisation all too unsettling.

“They’re getting off to a pretty lousy start. Look at him, he’s a nervous wreck. And where’s the loving, sweet bride? Probably instagramming her dress, the bouquet or the bloody lace garters, who the fuck knows!”

I briefly look over my shoulder. “Linda is a nice girl, you know?”

“Sure, she’s nice. They’re all nice. Right before they lay their hands on us and become our all-knowing wives, having our balls in a jar and making us into bumbling, inept screw-ups. And after two dozen full-blown PMS fits of rage? Everyone is jaded, hurt and resentful.”

Why don’t you shut the fuck up, I growl to myself, the frustration and incomprehensible voices around me running rampant in my mind.

“And you know what else? This I-want-to-spend-the-rest-of-my-life-with-you fucking fairy tale? It’s all a load of rubbish! In fact, it should come with some sort of ‘choking hazard’ warning or something.”

I take a deep breath, debating what to do. It’s pointless to try to reason with a drunk man, everyone knows that, much less when he just got served with divorce papers.

“Enough!” I snarl under my breath as I tighten my fingers around his arm and pull him down, to the chair.

He frowns, looking confused, then afraid.

“Maybe you’re right, maybe Jimmy’s getting right through hell’s gate in front of all his nearest and dearest.” I pause, before adding in a threatening tone, “But this is their day. So you’re going to sit here in the back and be still. Don’t make no fuss. Or I’ll break that ugly nose of yours, you hear me?”

Unable to utter a single word, he lowers his gaze and sags down into his seat.

With that, I adjust my cufflinks and begin my walk down the aisle.

“Brian, my boy!” Jimmy’s grandmother smiles tenderly when I hug her from behind, interrupting her slow march towards the seats in the front.

“Oh my god, you look so gorgeous. Leave that husband of yours, that miserable old git. Let’s run away together.”

“You silly lad!” She nudges me with her elbow, enjoying the banter.

“The foxiest lady in all East Sussex is turning me down.” I shake my head, feigning sadness. “Damn, you just broke my heart.”

Her gentle wrinkled hand cups my face. “How have you been, son?” She studies me, a long searching look. “Are you feeling all right?” Genuine concern and a trace of pity hide her usually warm smile.

“Sure, of course. Everything’s good.” I lie.

“Son, remember to keep your head up…” And move on because looking back into the past won’t make it any better, she says without words, only with her narrow, piercing gaze. There’s a profound mutual understanding in the glances we exchange; her sorrowful expression and the moment of silence that follows sends a chill down my spine.

“I know, Tammy, I know.” Bobbing my head, I swallow the lump in my throat.

“I’m so sorry,” she says softly, almost in a murmur, squeezing my hand in a comforting gesture.

*

Apparently, the bride has arrived. A slight commotion at the back of the church and Jimmy’s face breaks into a smile, a smile of anticipation. Or relief maybe. He was about to go into complete panic mode.

Everyone’s attention flickers to me, though, as the shrill sound of One Way or Another rises from within my jacket and echo throughout the entire church, interrupting the violin notes that cascade upon us.

What the hell? Last time I checked that was definitely not my ringtone and if it is now, I have no bloody idea of the screwed-up moment I set it up. Last night is one big blur.

Jimmy’s mum immediately frowns and throws me a familiar disapproving glare. The same glance she’d shoot us every time we were caught messing around back in our teenage days.

“Sorry…” I mouth, giving an apologetic, embarrassed shrug. All of a sudden, I find myself surprisingly relieved Linda hasn’t made her entrance on time.

Scanning the audience for their reaction, I quickly dig into my inside pocket to pull out the phone and check the incoming call. Josephine? What could she possibly want? Half the church is shaking their heads and rolling their eyes; the same half who’s looking at me with condescending eyes. Good thing the other half is already too old and deaf, though, as nobody seems to care, I comfort myself.

I put my mobile on mute and slip it back into the pocket of my jacket, making a mental note to call her after the ceremony.

So I guess we are all set, good to go. I look at Jimmy again feeling proud of him, at the smile of contentment lighting up his whole face, at the tears of joy threatening to erupt any moment.

“Oh, shut the front door, don’t be a sissy!” I give him a tight embrace and two slaps on the back.

“Fuck you, asshole,” he mumbles, returning the back-smacking hug.

The first notes of Con te Partiró begin to float in the air, and Jimmy and I turn to look all the way to the end of the church, where there’s already an alignment of smiling flower girls. I give Emma a wink, and she waves at me, twitching her eyes and giggling.

Only a few moments later, Linda walks down the aisle on the arm of her father, pacing to the rhythm of the gentle music that embraces us all. I take a good look at her. She’s beaming, happy as can be, and she sure looks phenomenal in that dress.

I swiftly scan the crowd. Everyone is smiling and gasping, they’re all obviously engulfed by the light-hearted romantic atmosphere. And then I look at Jimmy, fidgeting and nervously pulling at his tie.

I can’t help the small chuckle that escapes me.

As soon as the choir finishes the entrance song, everyone rises and the minister begins the ceremony. “Good morning ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the Holy Trinity for the marriage of James Burke and Linda O’Connell. This place in which we are now met has been–”

“Pardon me, is this seat taken?” A long-legged blonde bends down to ask, giving me a full view of her cleavage.

It takes me a couple of seconds to decode the question. “No. Please, go ahead.”

“Thank you,” she mouths, smiling, as she takes the empty seat next to mine.

“This ceremony will unite Jimmy and Linda in marriage. We are here to celebrate their union and to honour their commitment to each other–”

I take a surreptitious glance at the woman sitting so upright next to me. Blondie crosses her legs in a very feminine way, left over right, and slightly turns her body sideways towards me, her already tiny dress riding up to mid-thigh.

Delicate, fine-boned fingers adjust the golden bracelet on her wrist before she folds her hands in her lap. Inevitably my gaze lingers over the generous chest as it rises with a long intake of breath, which she releases slowly. Eventually, she turns her face towards me and offers a smile.

I nod, in acknowledgement.

She has a gorgeous smile, with dimples on both sides. Cute.

“If any person present knows of any lawful impediment to this marriage they should declare it now,” the minister’s projected voice pulls me from my wandering thoughts.

Lawful impediments?

I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t the stupidest line there is. Come on, we’re two hundred souls here, people came from all over the country, from Spain even, for this. The wedding wish list is all covered and the insanely expensive reception venue is already paid for—so isn’t it a bit too late for the bloody question?

A pause for the choir’s second performance. Schubert’s Ave Maria. I close my eyes and listen, they’re magnificent.

“We haven’t met before, have we?” Blondie asks, leaning over me, with a smile peeking across her lips.

“Don’t think so.” I shake my head, lips pulled into a thin line.

“Gracie McClelland.” She extends her hands in greeting. “A cousin of the bride.” She lets out a muffled giggle before pursing her lips in a strange, awkward fashion.

For fuck’s sake, is that a pout? What an instant buzzkill. Almost as annoying as baby talk and dumb acting.

“Brian, a friend of the groom.” I straighten up in my seat, focusing on the altar.

“Marriage joins two people in the circle of its love. It is a commitment to life, the best that two people can find and bring out in each other. It offers opportunities for learning and growth that no other opportunity can equal. It is both a physical and emotional joining that is promised for a lifetime–”

My eyes wander to Pete, sitting on my other side. Lifetime my ass, he’s probably thinking. They dated for eight years—and that’s almost a lifetime—but it only took them eight months to find out there were irreconcilable differences they were unable to overcome.

“Jimmy, do you take Linda to be your lawful wedded wife, to be loving, faithful and loyal to her for the rest of your life together?”

Jimmy nods enthusiastically. “I do.”

“Linda, do you take Jimmy to be your lawful wedded husband, to be loving, faithful and loyal to him for the rest of your life together?”

Linda gives Jimmy a warm, heartfelt smile. “I do.”

You’d better. Or you’ll have to deal with me!

“It now gives me great pleasure to tell you both that you are now legally Husband and Wife. Congratulations,” the minister finally announces and a roar of applause engulfs the church.

That’s it, my friend. Game over. A spontaneous grin breaks across my face.

*

My father pulls Jimmy in for a tight hug and gives him a friendly, paternal pat on the back of the head. “Son, remember this: there are only two rules to make a marriage work. Simple as that.”

“You tell me, Mr Anderson.” Shrugging his shoulders, amused, Jimmy plays along. He knows my father too damn well, he knows he’s about to tell one of his usual jokes.

Father puts on a crooked smile and gives away his infallible recipe. “Rule number one: your wife is always right. Rule number two: when you think she’s wrong, you slap yourself and think of rule number one again!”

We all laugh.

“Wiser words have never been spoken, John.” There’s a glow of profound happiness on Linda’s face.

“Right: a happy wife, a happy life.” Smiling, Jimmy waves his hand at someone approaching from behind.

Swivelling my head slightly, I get a brief glimpse of the woman smiling back at him, walking against the stream of guests already heading outside.

Olivia?

Certain my mind is playing tricks on me, I turn to confirm it’s really her. It is. Something inside me breaks and a sudden dizzying sensation jolts through my entire body.

My eyes search hers in the middle of the half-crowded church and when they lock, she smiles. A small nervous smile.

Surprised and confused, I’m unable to offer more than a nod. With my heart threatening to hammer out of my chest, I keep my gaze riveted on her as she walks towards us with confident steps, her deep green eyes smiling, a distracted hand running through the long hair that tumbles over her shoulders, her hips swaying in a delicately sensual undulation.

I give myself a mental shake and step back, allowing for her to congratulate Jimmy and his bride. According to their conversation, she arrived early this morning on a direct flight from Barcelona.

Giving in to the urge, I keep watching her, observing her. The natural friendliness and gentle expression from ten—eleven already?—years ago hasn’t changed. As for the rest, let’s just say I can’t bring myself to stop gazing at her. She’s a naturally striking woman, beyond beautiful. And damn, she’s sexy as hell, with curves in all the right places.

I close my eyes for brief seconds, to cool off, and a whole host of memories invades my mind. For some reason, I stumble upon the recollection of a young girl with an easy smile and positive attitude, her cute face sprinkled with freckles and her long hair held back in a ponytail, still wearing braces, always so full of energy and making me laugh like no one else has ever done.

And now she’s just so… drop-dead gorgeous?

I drag in a long breath, feeling so helpless. With my mouth hanging open like this, I’m certainly looking like a first-class idiot here, so thank you God for all your mercy, for everyone is busy and not paying attention.

She’s wearing a one-shouldered, flowing long dress with light flying skirt, sort of Greek goddess style or whatever the thing is. A stunning deep red gown that’s gracious and elegant, and damn sexy all at the same time. And her shoulder. I just can’t take my eyes off her naked shoulder.

I guess less is indeed more. The less a woman reveals, the more a guy wonders, and right now I’m imagining her long, shapely legs beneath the loose, draped skirt. Her thin waist. The most beautiful breasts.

Before I know it, fragments of a distant dream invade my mind. The reflection of her perfect body against the New York skyline. Her mouth gasping at the sensations and murmuring my name. Her lips demanding my lips, her fingers digging into my skin, pulling me closer. Her body arching towards mine, her fevered breaths begging me to take her. Deeper. Harder.

Inevitably, my body reacts, forcing me to take a steadying breath. Anderson, get a grip, will you? And damn it, why is she taking so long?

Raking an impatient hand through my hair, I raise my eyes to study her face. Her long, golden-brown hair is falling in subtle waves down her shoulders, framing her beautiful face. Her features are still as delicate as I remember them: smooth fair skin, amazing green eyes, always so full of life and intensity, and perfectly outlined full lips. Damn, her lips.  Those must have turned many heads over the years, surely, the thought making my jaw clench as an irrational surge of jealousy ripples through me.

“Now go. There’s someone there waiting for you.” Jimmy jerks his head towards me, the corners of his mouth turning into a mocking smirk—as though the bastard knows the effect she still has on me, which he probably does.

Finally, she turns to me, smiling. Looking perfect, absolutely perfect.

“Brian.” She extends her hand to greet me, which feels weird, to say the least.

“Liv. How are you doing?” I take her hand. After a brief hesitation, I pull her for a loose hug, which she returns.  Much to my surprise, she also leaves a gentle kiss on my cheek.

“It’s all so beautiful. And it was such a wonderful ceremony, wasn’t it?” Casting a glance around, she takes in the magnificent setting and vibrant mood that reigns in the church. “It’s so good to see you.”

Is it me or am I sensing a certain uneasiness, a hint of nervousness? There’s a sad expression washing over her face as she fixes her gaze on the altar. Is she avoiding looking at me?

“Good to see you too, Olivia.”  I catch her eyes with my gaze and smile, trying to break the lingering tension. “You’re looking fabulous… It’s been quite a long time. I’d say?”

“Eleven years. Eleven too-damn-long years!” She steps back and assesses me from head to toe. “But you’re not looking too bad yourself… Ketchupito,” she mouths the last word and lets out a little chuckle. Immediately my whole body goes tense. “In fact, you’re looking way better than that clumsy, tall and lanky boy I used to know.”

Ketchupito? What is this now? I’m a grown-up man, a respected architect. Who the hell does she think she is to speak to me like this?

For some strange reason, probably just to mess with me, our friends used to call me that sometimes. But I really hated it, apparently still do, and the idea she still remembers the stupid jest grates on my nerves.

“It’s Brian,” I tell her, putting emphasis on my name, my face certainly unamused. “Just in case you’ve forgotten.”

“Don’t be silly, of course I haven’t,” she says softly, gently laying her hand on my arm. “Hey, don’t look so serious. I was just–”

“Oh, my God, look who’s here!”

“Uncle Will!”

He hugs her effusively. “How are you, my dear? We thought you weren’t coming! What a lovely surprise!”

What a surprise indeed.

“I’m fine. Yourself? And how very handsome you look!” She adjusts his bow tie in an endearing gesture. “Where’s Aunt Amelia?”

“She’s right over there! Come, she’ll be so thrilled to see you.” He grabs her hand in excitement.

“No, Uncle Will, wait. I’m talking to–”

Me.

But he doesn’t seem to care. He practically drags her across the church, she only has time to look back and ask, “We’ll catch up during the reception?”

Yes. Please. Let’s do that, I want to tell her, but the words get caught in my throat.

“Fine, then,” Olivia answers herself while wagging a scolding finger. “Now, don’t you even think of hiding another eleven years, will you, Brian Anderson?” She gives me a playful wink.

And then she’s gone.

I don’t even have the chance to tell her yes. That I’m really looking forward to it, to knowing what she’s been up to in the last decade.

Actually, since the night she left me standing all by myself, with my heart broken to pieces on a deserted beach, desperately waiting to talk to her and say goodbye, before flying back to London the next morning.

And suddenly I feel this inner conflict growing within me, part eagerness, part passionate despair.

END OF THE PREVIEW

 

Click here to read the complete novel.

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