"You're the one who wanted to break up, Harper. I never did. Never."
"What...what does that mean?"
"What if you came home for Christmas...and just never went back to New York? What if you stayed here, home, in Amethyst? What if we got married?"
Even hours after the Facebook video chat Harper Marasek had been in, talking to her high school boyfriend about coming home for Christmas, she was reeling. In his usual so-far-out-in-left-field manner, Donnie had decided to drop his bombshell suggestion on her. At the time, she hadn't been sure how to catch her breath, let alone respond to such a crazy suggestion. Donnie doesn't say much, but, boy, when he does...yikes!
She'd accepted Donnie's friend request a few months ago against her better judgment. True, she'd once thought herself madly in love with the bad boy who was a year older than her though still in her grade, and the years they'd been apart had only increased his albeit asymmetrical good looks. Nevertheless, she'd come to accept the truth about why she'd thrown herself so blindly into that ill-advised relationship that lasted about two years when she was a teenager. Because I thought I'd never get over Clay Wooten, a fantasy out of my league, far too old, and the man of my dreams I can never have--then or now. And Donnie was the first guy I felt chemistry with after Clay left Amethyst when I was fifteen. I thought I'd never feel that spark again, and I grabbed hold of it like a lifeline because the other alternative was being stuck forever, wanting what I'd never get, and drying up inside as a consequence.
Which is exactly what's happened.
In the hours after she'd ended the video chat with Donnie on the protest she was confused, needed to think, couldn't answer him right then and she'd contact him, she'd kicked herself for her stupidity in confiding in him. When had Donnie ever been someone she could share her feelings with? While his dense, airhead nature could be as endearing as it was frustrating, she'd learned during their time together that Donnie wasn't one for heart-to-hearts, sharing emotions that weren't purely physical, let alone pouring herself out to. Even after she'd stupidly accepted his friend request and they'd progressed from instant messages to personal emails, then phone calls, and finally video chats, for every hundred words she said to him, he gave up one. He'd listened to her frantic deluge of vulnerable feelings, and maybe that was what she'd needed too badly to realize how foolish it was to confess everything to an old boyfriend whose jealousy and relentless push for sex had been factors in their ultimate breakup. But only in part. The biggest reason was because I'd decided beyond a shadow of a doubt I was going to college in New York right after graduation and I knew Donnie would never leave our hometown, never want to do anything more than live in the apartment above his dad's garage in Amethyst or be anything more than a mechanic who worked for his father.
And New York meant Clay Wooten to me...
Harper blew out a heavy exhale, the word 'marriage' flinging around in her head like a steel ball in a pinball machine. She'd never thought about marriage to Donnie. And he'd certainly never suggested such a thing during their stormy relationship, even after she'd broken up with him--that time in a final way that brooked no reconciliation like the million times prior. I thought about marriage, but only if Clay Wooten was the groom, and those pipe dreams belonged to a silly little girl who was so in love, she wanted to believe that could be a possibility--wanted to believe Clay Wooten could fall in love with someone from a small town in the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin, someone who wore her heart on her sleeve and believed in old-fashioned values, even when she was giving herself over to a relationship that was never going beyond temporary bliss.
Hearing a door slam, Harper got up from her bed and peeked out of her bedroom door. She'd been avoiding her roommate as much as possible in the past month and a half, since the second worst thing Harper could ever imagine happening had ripped her world out from under her. Holding her breath, she listened to total silence and, only after unbroken quiet reigned for more than a few minutes, proving she was alone, did she relax. On any given Sunday afternoon, Maribelle could be counted on to be bored out of her head and looking for excitement.
Stealthily, Harper left her bedroom in their far-from-great apartment and checked each room except Maribelle's to make sure she was really alone. The knot in her chest fully loosened as soon as she verified the apartment was empty.
Still wearing her pajamas with thick knit socks on her feet, her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, she went to the kitchen and made herself a mug of homemade hot chocolate. After knowing her roommate since college, when they'd met and also shared a dorm at Berkeley, Maribelle still cringed a little when she saw Harper slobbing around the house following work and on weekends. Sometimes Harper thought she slept in full makeup...with nothing else on. In Maribelle's world, everything was about keeping up appearances and getting what she wanted in life, whether out of brute force, cunning manipulation, or--only if there was no other way--honest, hard work.
I was so stupid about her. I wanted to believe that deep down, she was more than what I saw. I wanted to trust in the best of her. But, after all the years I thought we were friends, I saw her for who she really is at the beginning of November. I thought my life was going along so well then. I'd been promoted at Wooten & Associates Law Group as a financial officer. Though I have an MBA, I only worked at Wooten's financial department for two years before that promotion. Sure, I was advanced over many who'd been there longer, had more experience, but none of them had a Master's, and I'm good at my job.
How stupid can I be?
Clay's parents, Asher and Veronica, owned the law firm, and Harper had been so pleased with herself in catching Mr. Wooten, Sr.'s eye. While he'd insisted she call him Asher that first time, she'd refused then and every time afterward. He'd seemed charmed and a little annoyed by her insistence. She'd assumed he'd seen her work ethic and talent. She'd truly believed she'd distinguished herself and that was why she'd gotten the promotion. It never occurred to me all the rumors about his proclivity for sleeping around with the female temps, law clerks, paralegals, secretaries and receptionists applied to me. I've never fit in in New York. When the men in this city find me attractive, they quickly learn I'm not interested in anything superficial or uncommitted and they go away, thank God. But now I know Mr. Wooten, Sr. only promoted me because he was hoping to sleep with me.
Harper wasn't sure which was worse: How Clay's father had cornered her in her office one night early in November and tried to seduce her, or how she'd come home, weeping and spilled her guts to Maribelle about what'd happened and found out a few weeks later that her roommate had seen an opening to promotion by sleeping with Mr. Wooten, Sr. after Harper confided in her. Maribelle had slept with her boss for a few weeks, he'd dropped her, didn't promote her, oh well. When Maribelle revealed it was all for nothing, she'd also divulged her attempt for the same with Clay when she'd first been hired (upon Harper's request) at Wooten Law. She'd slept with Clay once and he'd had no interest in furthering her career, let alone repeating the dirty deed. Harper had been flabbergasted at this blasé confession. Maribelle well knew how Harper felt about Clay. Harper had left nothing unsaid about that particular subject in the years they'd been friends. How could her friend do something so cruel, so disloyal? Maribelle had shrugged off the treason with an unapologetic lack of concern. Harper had avoided her ever since.
As she sipped the hot chocolate seated at the window seat in the kitchen, looking out toward Prospect Park only a mile away, she remembered how the drink had made her feel better when she was a distraught teenager with boyfriend troubles she could talk about with her best friends. Sighing, Harper conceded that age really could take away the best comforts. I'm twenty-four years old. Even if Clay's father didn't end up firing me eventually, I knew I could never stay there, working in a job I only got on the assumption I'd sleep with the boss. I put my resignation in on Friday, sneaked it under Mr. Wooten, Sr.'s door so I wouldn't have to face him, telling him in writing that I couldn't give him any notice. I can never look at him again after what he did, or tried to do, to me.
Harper laid her head against the cold glass, closing her eyes. I spent so much of my teenage years telling myself I was meant to live in New York. I grew up visiting relatives here, and I loved it. Everything here felt sophisticated and smart while everything in Amethyst seemed stifling and boring. But being closer to Clay Wooten was my drive for coming to live here, attending college, getting a job that I could love. But I know now I don't belong in this place, where friends treat each like stepping stones to walk over if it means reaching some career goal. Where true love isn't a possibility...
Squeezing her burning eyes closed, she berated herself for the billionth time for falling in love with Clay Wooten. He'd showed up in Amethyst, a resort town on Lake Amethyst with a population that exploded into the thousands during the warm months of the year and dwindled to less than a hundred or so lifers in winter, with his younger-by-four-years sister for a few weeks when Harper was fifteen. She'd been working as a waitress in Briar (now her stepmother) Sankey's café. Clay's effortless charm during that time had seduced her completely. She'd lived for those moments when he and his sister came into the restaurant, the times she'd seen him around town, and he'd flirted with her recklessly. But the twelve year age difference between them had been an obstacle, and he'd never crossed any (illegal) lines--much to her dismay. When he and Apollonia left, Harper had been devastated. She'd fallen into a deep depression she'd truly believed she'd never emerge from.
Harper let out a tiny, mirthless laugh at the memory. Even then she'd been making her plans. She hadn't realized it herself, of course. She'd let herself be distracted by Donnie Garner, who'd been asking her out that whole summer when she was fifteen. She'd known her dad would hate him because Donnie already had a reputation as a womanizer around town despite his age. Harper had heard the rumors about him with some older woman cheating on her husband, along with his countless summer flings with college girls--surely just a guy inflating reality to make himself look more experienced than he was. But, when she'd finally agreed to go out with him, she'd been stunned because she hadn't expected to feel anything when he kissed her. She'd assumed her sexuality and ability to love a man had begun and ended with Clay Wooten. That she could respond had thrilled her, and she'd thrown herself body and soul into what became a tumultuous relationship that dominated her remaining years in high school. Even now she felt a little guilty for how uninhibited she'd been in making Donnie the center of her world. Anything to forget Clay and prevent myself from drying up without him.
In the back of her mind the whole time, she'd realized later, was Clay--going to New York to start college and finding some way, any way, to meet up with the man she'd never forgotten for a moment since they met. Unbelievably, she'd found a way. She'd remembered him telling her about his favorite place in the whole world: the Arthur W. Diamond Law Library at the college he'd attended, a specific desk inside that building he'd described in such detail she'd never forget it. That was the place he went when he needed to get away from all the craziness in his life.
She'd had to go there to that specific desk dozens of times before she met up with him, but the pivotal reunion had both been the best and worst of her life. Clay had reacted to seeing her again the way she'd prayed he would. He'd seen she was a grown woman at eighteen, and he'd seemed to like how she'd grown up. He'd kissed her almost as soon as they left his favorite haunt. They'd spent the rest of the day...and night...together. By the time he asked her up to his penthouse apartment that evening, she'd known she couldn't say no to anything he wanted. She'd been that in love, that sure Clay would become everything to her. And he had...but not the way she'd wanted. Not at all.
For the next several years, Clay drifted in and out of her life--always on his terms, and his terms were never confining enough. The opposite, in fact. He'd seemed to want nothing more than to share a few hours, a few days, maybe a week giving and receiving the kind of euphoric pleasure that tormented her viciously in the months that followed when they had little if no contact.
Their last encounter had slammed reality into her so she accepted what her foolish heart hadn't been able to in all the years since they reunited: Clay saw her as little more than a port in the storm when he needed her. Their relationship wasn't about true love or destiny, the way she'd wanted desperately to convince herself because he'd treated her like both whenever they were together. He made love to her so tenderly, sweetly, revering her and making her feel beautiful, like she was the only woman in the world who meant anything to him. He'd said and done everything to make her hold out hope that someday they would get married, start a family, and settle down together.
He told me things I was sure he'd never told another living soul. Unlike Donnie who asked me to marry him but never mentioned being in love with me, though he has in the past when I used a crowbar, Clay had spoken to me freely, unburdening himself and showing me exactly how tortured his life was, the son of law magnates who controlled every aspect of his existence, especially his mother. Veronica involves herself in the law firm, her husband's life, her childrens', and she dominates to the point where they're not allowed to make their own choices. Clay and his sister have lived with that from the moment he was born, and he hates it. He told me I was the only good thing in his life. To cope, he rebels at every turn. While Apollonia throws herself into drugs, alcohol and sex--how often has Clay had to rescue her from herself, as if she's his responsibility?--Clay slept around indiscriminately, deliberately did things that embarrassed his parents and the law firm, and he did those deeds with all his fervor, despising every part of being a puppet while he did.
With this "proof" I convinced myself he really loved me as much as I love him...while, with every issue, the gossip rags devoted paragraphs to his flagrant, cheap and nasty flings and one-night stands. He hides me and every single part of our relationship. God, how stupid am I?
Harper's face and heart burned with irrefutable knowledge she didn't want to have. She didn't belong in New York, the immoral heart of ruthless automatons. She didn't belong with Clay Wooten. She had no friends in this place, no one who gave a fig for her. Everyone only wanted to use her for what they could get.
Dear Lord, I want to go home. I want to go back to Amethyst, where I have family and friends who genuinely love me and want the best for me, who care about what matters to me. People who hold the same honest values I do.
She'd quit her job at Wooten Law. She'd faced facts about Clay when she insanely decided to test for herself if she really meant anything to him a year ago and she'd initiated contact by going to his penthouse apartment so soon after their rapturous trip to Rio. She'd fallen so deeply in love with him during that short week, she couldn't handle the separation from him for a month or two that would inevitably followed, the way she always had--just barely--before. She'd broken his one rule--that he always be the one who initiated contact between them. She'd stupidly assumed he'd been aching for her as much as she had been for him.
His doorman had called up to him and Clay had allowed her to come up, but he hadn't wanted her there. She'd seen that in his eyes when he came to the door wearing a robe, looking like she'd come at the worst possible time...and then that flinty, cold female voice had called from somewhere in his apartment to ask what was going on, how much longer he was going to be. When he'd shouted at her to hold her horses, the woman had walked out, naked as the day she was born, her model-thin-with-huge-fake-boobs body blatantly indicating exactly what she'd been waiting for him to give her. The beautiful model dismissed Harper with a single glance, moving to get herself a drink in the living room. Harper had been in mid-sentence, but she'd shut up on a painful sob. She'd died a million deaths in that moment. Clay had looked panicked, embarrassed beyond anything she'd ever seen broadcasted from him before. Weeping in seconds, she'd fled, but--and the part that still bothered her beyond bearing--Clay had called her name repeatedly. Unbelievably, he'd followed her to the elevator. She'd been excruciatingly aware of the lift attendant, making himself appear to be little more than a statue without the ability to hear, and Clay had acted like they were alone when he'd said under his breath, "Ahh, dream girl, don't go. Don't cry. Let me--"
She hadn't let him finish. She'd thrust herself behind the attendant and reached around him to punch the button for the lobby, turning away from Clay as the doors closed. He'd phoned her a dozen times in the next few weeks, even trying to corner her at work, but she'd anticipated that and made sure he couldn't. Just when she'd softened, asking herself if she could really push Clay Wooten out of her life for good, he'd stopped trying to contact her. She could only conclude he'd realized there was no point to trying to apologize because he didn't feel anything for her and never had. Ending it, even in such a horrific way, was for the best, for both of them.
Harper had seen herself as she was in reality on that worst night of her entire life. She'd seen that she was pathetically and blindly in love with a man who didn't want to love her, only wanted her love if it meant she put out when they were together and make herself scarce when he didn't want her. Bottom line, Clay didn't desire any woman for longer than it took to get what his body required. Clay's ex-wife--someone Harper knew well because she lived in Amethyst after having married one of the lifers there--had made it clear to her closest friends in town when Clay showed up in Amethyst with his sister all those years ago that he was incapable of love and she was glad to be rid of him. I should have taken the hint then. But I couldn't. I was already too much in love to see reason.
Reason. Even after all this time since she and Clay had stopped seeing each other cold turkey, she wondered if she was capable of reason where he was concerned. If he came around again, what would I do? There was no point to asking such a question. She knew herself, knew her own helpless reaction to the man. She'd never been able to say no to anything Clay suggested. Never, not a single thing. And, if he wanted to start up again, wanted a sexual relationship that satisfied him whenever he needed her, she would agree to it because he'd easily make her believe temporarily he was satisfying her needs as well.
I'm not that kind of girl...am I? I don't want to believe I am or ever could be. I have morals. My dad and stepmom taught me things that I live and die with as my credence. How can I prove my virtue when I'm putty in Clay's shrewd, pleasure-giving hands?
The answer came to her so she felt kicked in the gut with the simple brilliance of it. She'd already quit her job. She'd planned to go home for the Christmas holidays as she did every single year. Months ago, one of her best friends that she'd grown up with in Amethyst had told her her dad was retiring and wanted to sell his accounting business. Bast had single-handedly done all the accounting and tax returns for everyone in town and what business he could get from the outside for all the years Harper had been alive. Christie had also mentioned he'd be willing to give his clients over to Harper if she ever came back to Amethyst and stayed. She was well-known in town and there was no question everyone would give her their business.
So I have a job lined up. I can return to the place I belong and spend the rest of my life happy there. And... Her throat closed up unexpectedly and she gulped, trying to clear the blockade. Donnie and I had chemistry. I believed I loved him for years, and maybe I did. Maybe I could have loved him wholeheartedly if not for my aspirations with Clay--ones that have been murdered ruthlessly. Maybe I can marry Donnie. Maybe we can be happy together.
Harper felt her cheeks burning when she couldn't stop the wayward question of What will Clay do when he finds out I'm moving back to Amethyst and marrying my old boyfriend? from going around in her head. Why not find out?
She found herself moving, rinsing her mug and the saucepan she'd made it in quickly, before she was even aware she'd made a final decision. As she showered and did everything in her power to make herself so potently attractive Clay couldn't be unmoved by her, she castigated herself. What was she doing? Why was she doing it? Wasn't this just another way to try to get Clay to fall for her? Did she really want to show up on his doorstep and see a naked parade of sin again?
She bundled up, taking a few minutes to write a note she'd been putting off for Maribelle, telling her she was moving back to Amethyst and she'd need to find herself a new roommate. On her way out of the building, she talked with the building superintendent to inform him of her intention to move out in a few weeks. Feeling overcharged and utterly fragile, she walked to the subway station fifteen minutes away and from there, headed to Clay's classy apartment building. Over the next forty-five minutes, she tried to no avail to talk herself out going through with her ridiculous plan of informing Clay of what she intended to do.
The stupid girl inside her who'd ruled her since she met Clay insisted she was the one being rational. I have to do this. It's the only way I'll ever get over him. If he's not alone, then that'll make this easy for me. Ha! I'll tell him I quit my job, that I'm marrying Donnie (though I have no intention of telling Donnie that, not yet, not until we've seen each other and dated awhile, and I'm sure I can love him), and that I'm moving back home. I don't ever want to come back to New York for any other reason beyond visiting my relatives. I'll insist that this is our final farewell. I'll be strong and decisive. One way or the other, I'll get the closure I need to move on with my life.