"I love you."
The words had reverberated around his head since Rox had whispered them in his cabin on the Fair Young Maiden. She'd woken him early to make love and he'd been all but collapsed when she leaned over the bed, kissed his shoulder...and strangled him with her unexpected words before she floated away like a stray dream. Just a dream. A perfect dream of my midnight angel. She couldn't have said those words--the very ones she knows best would make me run blind.
Since that pivotal event, Jamie Dubois hadn't stopped to think about what he was doing. He'd made his plans with utmost focus. He'd acknowledged first that he wouldn't be able to break up with Rox if they were together at the time. He'd want her too much to do what needed to be done. Sure, he'd considered cheating on her just to be done with it. But how would she know about it? Without the evidence, she wouldn't accept it. The rumors about his infidelity were constant--he had that kind of reputation. But she'd laughed them all off because there'd been no evidence to support the validity of the rumors. She'd been secure in the knowledge that he was hooked, and rightly so.
So if he pretended to cheat on her, he'd be right back where he started from...where he never should have let himself go in the first place. Because the thought of cheating on her had brought something out of him he was still reeling from acknowledging as much as he was from her unprecedented words before departing that morning. I'm not capable of being with another woman anymore. She's all I want, all I'll ever want again.
His chest tightened like a steel band was compressing it whenever he considered the ramifications of that shocking sentiment. He'd vowed to never stick with one woman longer than a few dates. He had solid reasons for making that vow, too, ones that hadn't changed. So what business did he have getting obsessed with Rox and for so long? The almost six months they'd been together had been the best of his life. Until it was too late, he hadn't realized he was in trouble. No, he'd been too damn happy to think about anything but more of the same for as long as he could get it from her.
Maybe what registered as the worst part was that what they'd shared hadn't been all about sex for him, as if had been with every single one of the countless other women he'd been with in his twenty-eight years. How could it be simple with Roxanne Hart? They'd known each other nearly all their lives. They'd been best friends for most of that time. They'd had each other's backs in every sense of the word. He'd relied on her, opened up to her, more than anyone else in the world, and he wanted her to feel the same way about him. He believed she did.
But his libido had gotten him in trouble again. Even as he'd counted her his one true soul-mate for most of his life, she was the sexiest best friend ever. He'd wanted her sexually all the time they'd been friends--and he'd never failed to try to get some from her. She'd laughed him off.
Until that damn bet--a bet I only agreed to because I knew our friendship means more than anything else to her, as it does to me, and I figured a few months of the hottest sex imaginable couldn't hurt our unshatterable friendship. What actually happened: My soul-mate became my lover, and I've never felt more complete and satisfied in my life. I never wanted it to end.
Hell, why did she have to say those taboo words? Why did she have to penetrate a perfect fantasy with reality?
At some point, a plan formed in his brain and it would do the trick, unfortunately. He would make the scenario look like he'd cheated on her with her roommate and close friend, Diane Hoffman, someone Rox was so protective of, she'd go ballistic when she found out. He had to end this the way he should have long ago, but, in the penthouse apartment Roxanne and Diane shared, all he could hear was the sound of the clock ticking so loud, it might as well have been a bomb. Counting down to my destruction. What am I doing? Maybe I should re-think this...
"It's over. I still can't believe it," he'd told Diane to get in the door, and she'd been so shocked, she'd ushered him inside and let him talk his stream of pre-planned bulls*t. That Diane had a crush on him--despite all the years she'd been in a committed relationship with some dude she worked with who traveled all the time--was something he'd known from the first meet with her in college and every single time afterward. She never quite looked him in the eyes, got all shy when he caught her staring at him like a star-struck fan, and he was about to take advantage of the fact that she never seemed able to think straight in his presence.
"She seemed so happy. I just...I can't believe it," Diane said, looking bewildered and a little ditzy. "But she's never been in a serious relationship. She wouldn't get serious--" Abruptly, she shut up by clapping her hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry, Jamie. I didn't mean..." Her eyes were wide with horror at seemingly betraying her dearest friend.
"Did she tell you that?" he asked, knowing damn well Rox hadn't said anything of the kind. Not after she'd said "I love you".
His gaze went to the clock-bomb in the living room again and he heard the elevator ding in the distance. It was time. Time to seduce Diane, the easy way he'd known how to since practically birth.
"Over," he said softly, while Diane's eyes opened even wider. He leaned closer, touched his mouth to hers, and she was so paralyzed with shock, she couldn't say or do anything to stop him. He'd timed this so perfectly, luckily he didn't need to continue for long. The front door opened and there was Roxanne, witnessing the whole thing just as he'd intended for her to.
Everything should have moved fast then, but he was stuck in a timeless moment, realizing he hadn't had any intentions for the past almost six months. During that time, his relationship with Roxanne had become something so much more than he'd ever intended, considered, consciously or unconsciously wanted. He'd been consumed with her--everything, every part. She was so potent, his every waking and sleeping thought had come down to her. Whether they were laughing, talking about anything and everything, fighting like cats and dogs, or making soul-deep love to the exclusion of the rest of the world, she'd become his whole life.
I've been living for her. Until she spoke the words--the only words that could have broken this spell I've been under--I've been oblivious to the reality of how far down I've fallen from my own resolute decision to go through life never letting myself become tied down to anyone or anything, whether to a career or a woman. My parents' relationship taught me that commitment was a four-letter word, one that led straight to hell, and had to be avoided at any cost.
True to his vow, Jamie had graduated college footloose and fancy free with a Masters' degree in the liberal arts, same as Rox had, though she'd taken hers with honors. He'd enjoyed bouts as a musician, a songwriter, a masseuse, a mechanic, a magician, a mason, the manager of a magazine for a short time, an interim math teacher, and even a minister. And those were only the "M" listings of things he'd done in his life. He'd never held a job down for longer than a few years--in every case except as a rock star, never longer than a handful of months. He'd gotten bored and restless in every area he'd dabbled. Roxanne had never bothered to hide her distaste for his inability "to commit to anything longer than it took to finish a tube of toothpaste". They'd fought about that more than anything else.
Now I've been sharing my toothpaste. With Roxanne. During all this time I've been obsessed, we've fought more than we ever have in our lives together, in-between intense bouts of loving. And I never wanted it to end. I don't want it to end even now. What have I done?
The glass-bottle moment he was trapped in shattered at the sight of Roxanne at the door, staring in shock at them. With a cry of dismay, Diane jumped away from him. In the silence destined not to last, Jamie saw his future stretched out in front of him, barren and lonely and miserable without Roxanne. Vow or no vow, he didn't have a choice about this. He couldn't live without Roxanne Hart. That was all. Nothing else mattered to him. But he recalled her words that led to their bet: "It's all or nothing from this moment on." He'd agreed to her conditions, not caring about anything but getting what he wanted.
I got more than I thought I wanted. Our relationship was nuclear from start to finish. What a way to go.
She stalked across the room with an expression on her face that all but decimated him. Her strength was clearly fueled by extreme adrenaline as she pushed him out the door and down the hall to the elevator, where she shoved him inside. "I won," she said triumphantly, her hazel-green eyes like fire.
"Won?" he managed, flabbergasted by her attitude. She wasn't acting like she was mad now. More like she's bragging. Because she knew this was going to happen.
"The bet. The bet that got us into this whole thing. The bet six months ago. Actually, to be exact, it was five months and twenty-nine days ago."
She actually smiled at him, confusing him even more. But his brain went to work, remembering they'd been at some boring party, and every other woman there paled compared to her. He'd come on to her, wrapping his arms around her waist, pushing aside the shiny, waist-length mane of hair (it'd been blond then, though sometimes other shades) that had been part of what made her one of the most beautiful woman in the world. Literally. She'd been modeling since college.
"What are you doing, Dubois?" she'd asked that night, shaking her head but not dislodging him while he kissed her neck.
"Coming on to you. What does it look like?"
"Not interested in being a casualty," she'd said breezily. She'd been fighting off his attempts to seduce her for most of their lives. Their friends believed he'd succeeded, too--that they'd shared an on-again, off-again sexual relationship. Neither of them had dislodged the assumption. But, up until five months and twenty-nine days ago, that'd never been the case. Not even once. "Our friendship is too important. Isn't it to you?"
"Doesn't have to be that way. We can be friends and lovers. No one has to get hurt."
She'd shaken her head. "Monogamy, Jamie. You and I both know you're not capable of that. You can't go a full six months staying faithful to one woman."
"I can. I can with you." He'd been desperate to convince her. But he hadn't been thinking about monogamy. He'd been thinking about seventy-two straight hours of transcendentally mind-blowing sex. Finally having this gorgeous, perfect body belong to him, even if not permanently. He'd told himself he hadn't wanted permanent anyway.
She'd all but laughed in his face when she'd turned to him. "I bet we wouldn't make it past the weekend, and you know it."
He'd yanked her close to him until not an inch separated them. "I'll take that bet, Hart. Put your money where your mouth is. Take the bet. Make both our dreams come true."
She easily could have laughed again, but she'd looked confused instead. "Let's get this straight: You'll willingly enter a monogamous relationship with me. You do know what the meaning of that is, don't you? Monogamy? As in, the practice or condition of having a single sexual partner during a long period of time? No touching anyone else, not even looking at another woman? Committed. Long-term."
"You'll satisfy me completely, baby. I know it."
"You understand if you cheat, we stop being lovers. For all time. If you cheat, our friendship is over, too. Because I refuse to have anything but the dictionary definition of monogamy with you. It's all or nothing from this moment on between us, Jamie. Either we're friends and lovers, or we're nothing." She'd taken a deep breath. "I don't give it six months."
Maybe if he'd been in a sober state of mind, he would have considered that he'd never seen this confident woman look more nervous than she did at this moment.
"That's the bet then. We can make this last six months. We both get everything we want. Deal?"
She'd shaken his hand, whispering, "Deal."
Everything he'd fantasized about for most of his life had come true that night. He hadn't considered he'd get bored, feel strangled and bail, but that certainty had been there in the back of his mind nevertheless. She had to know it, too. Yet she'd gone through with their bet. Risked their friendship on a wager. He'd wondered occasionally why she'd done it, but he stopped caring. About her reasons. About the bet in general. Each time they were together, he'd understood the appeal of the ball and chain. He hadn't looked at a single other woman, hadn't cared to. Oddly, he'd found he was insanely jealous of all the attention she got from the males she inevitably and without fail attracted everywhere they went. Never before had he wanted a woman to belong exclusively to him, the way he did her.
She had belonged to him. That was the headiest part.
She planned this from the start, Jamie realized, staggering inside the elevator. If they stayed together anywhere near the six months of that stupid bet, she must have figured she'd test him at five months and twenty-nine days. She'd tell him she loved him, anticipating his reaction from start to finish as if she'd written him a script. Those soft, whispered words this morning had slipped beneath his vulnerable defenses, after she'd loved him until he was all but boneless. She's said the only words that would wake him up and send him panicking--doing exactly what she'd known he would in reaction to them.
"You knew what I'd do when you said that this morning," he said, his mouth so dry, he could hardly get the words out.
She shrugged, her smile lethal. "I knew you'd do something like it."
She never trusted me. She knew I'd forget to ask a million times why she went through with our bet, knowing it would destroy our friendship, that I'd disappoint her in the end. "God... Rox, I panicked. I--"
He started to reach for her, as natural as breath, the way it'd been between them for almost six perfect months. But she backed away shaking her head and showing a vulnerability that went against her cold and calculated plan. "No, Jamie, I knew you'd do something like this, but it never occurred to me you'd involved Diane. Diane! Seriously? She's fragile as glass. How dare you involve her in this?"
He closed his eyes, wondering how it was he'd never considered how stupid this plan was until it was too late. "Nothing happened," he offered, knowing his defense wasn't the point. He'd only needed Roxanne to see a kiss that never would have gone any further. Diane had been the means to an end, and he knew that was unforgiveable in Roxanne's mind. She treated Diane like she was fragile as glass. Jamie wasn't convinced she actually was.
Roxanne Hart, stubborn and as unyielding as a diamond, will never forgive. She'll never forget this...
But he had to try and again he reached for her. "Listen to me, baby, I was reeling when you said those words."
"'I love you'? Yes, the most violent, dangerous words on the planet."
He couldn't help it. He flinched when she spoke the three words again, but he also accepted that he'd never wanted to hear them from someone, never wanted so badly for this particular someone to mean them.
"I was reacting in shock. That's all I've been doing since you said that, Rox."
"You must have been pretty damn sure of what you had to do to get me out of your life, Jamie. Think about that."
"Yes. The past few months have been the best of my life."
"No. This wasn't real for you. This wasn't anything more than some blind fog. You haven't changed at all. For me...I haven't changed either. Not in all these years, not since I was kid, growing up with my aunt. You know best what bothered me most about her. It's because of the way she lived her life that I knew I could never give myself to anyone--not even superficially. Yeah, I know that's not my reputation. Sex meant nothing to me, ever. I didn't want it. I didn't have sexual needs until we were together. I was a virgin our first time--I didn't bleed because you were too aggressive, like you assumed. It's because I was a virgin. I wanted everyone to think the opposite of what's true. That I was a prowler like you. I planned it that way. I didn't want anyone to know the truth."
Jamie wasn't in any state of mind to understand the complex thing she was talking about, yet his first thought was, Especially me? You didn't want anyone to know the truth about your reputation? Especially me?
And then nothing made sense. Roxanne did have a reputation for being as much of a prowler as Jamie had been all his life. For the first time, he considered that it didn't make any sense for her to be sexually loose. She'd spent her life adamant that she wouldn't end up like the aunt who raised her. If Jamie had heard it once, he'd heard it a billion times how Aaliyah had pretended to be in love every ten minutes to justify her voracious sexual appetite.
Did Roxanne set up the impression she was sleeping around all the time so I wouldn't know our friendship wasn't just friendship for her? Why? Why in hell would she do that?
But the answer to that question came as easily as breathing. Because I'm too immature, too unwilling to give anything of myself but whatever I require to get what I need at the moment. I'm too scarred by my parents' insane marriage and divorce. Rox knew our relationship would never be about her--it was always about me. She knew me better than I know myself. She protected herself as long as she could.
That conclusion led to all kinds of new questions. She'd been the one to set the condition of their bet: All or nothing. Friends and lovers, or nothing, forever. Why make that rule with him? If Roxanne didn't love him the way she'd claimed that morning and had only said the words to jar him out of the blind fog he was in, only said them to win the bet...
No, that's not logical. The only way those words this morning make sense is if they're true. She really does love me. Maybe she always has. And she didn't want me to know it because she knew I could never do "all or nothing". She risked our friendship for love, but she had to realize the whole time I would screw it up. That's all I'm capable of.
"I kept thinking maybe someday you'd grow up, Jamie, and realize you felt the same about me. But seeing your reaction... Tonight's the last straw. You never had any reason to make that life-vow, you know. You think freedom is happiness, but it's the opposite. You think anyone or anything holding you down will bring you pain. The kind of pleasure you're seeking won't last and it'll make you empty eventually. The only things that could save you were the very things you've run away from all your life: love and loyalty. I've given you both. You don't want either. I should have known that, but I didn't want to believe it."
Instinctively, Jamie tensed, waiting to hear her tell him he was wasting his life instead of exploring it fully, the way he always claimed he was doing to justify being a vagabond.
"I saw your reaction this morning, tonight, and just now, Jamie. You got exactly what you wanted. Nothing more, nothing less. That's the story of your life. I hope it was worth it."
Roxanne Hart loves me. She has for far longer and in deeper ways than I've ever let myself consider. She's given me everything. What did she get out of this beyond being right about me? I'm not sure she considers that a victory.
"It's not worth it, babe. I reacted. I was stupid. But I have changed. You changed me. I don't want this to end. I want to be your lover, but if you don't allow that...don't withhold your friendship, Rox. We've been best friends all our lives. That's too precious to lose. You wouldn't let that go."
She was shaking her head even as he stepped into her personal space and attempted to slip under her defenses. He kissed her and, for a long minute, he thought she'd allow it. That she'd give in the way she had without fail during these perfect moments they'd had together.
He recognized the instant she stopped giving in. She wouldn't forgive him. He'd crossed the line that seemed so black and white now but never had been before. I risked our friendship--I didn't consider that iron bond capable of being broken, but she warned me. I can't say she didn't warn me.
"I love you, Roxanne." Funny how those words didn't choke or strangle him, the way he'd always assumed they would--in word and deed. They felt real, right. Too little, too late. "I don't know why I didn't realize it until now, but I've loved you all along. When you said them, I woke up to the truth. Isn't that what you wanted? That's why you said them this morning, isn't it? Say them again. Now. I won't push you away. I'll never let you go again."
"So easy to say that now, isn't it, Jamie? Because you don't want it to end. But give it five minutes. You'll change your mind. You'll want out. And where will that leave me? No. I gave you the condition and you accepted it then. All or nothing. You chose nothing."
He clenched his hands as she turned away from him. What was pride? An impediment to getting her back. He felt desperate to do that, even if it meant using her feelings to do it. "You love me," he said loudly. "You said it yourself, Rox. Was that what the bet was about? Is that why you went to the same college I did? Because you wanted to keep our friendship going? Because it meant something to you? Because you love me and you have practically all our lives?"
How unfair those words are. To her, the one person I've counted on to be there for me as long as I can remember. She's always been loyal to me, always been there for me when I need a friend. Need more. She takes care of me. She makes the world right when everything looks like s*t, everything but her. She's all that matters. And everything will change now.
"Even if I did love you, Jamie, now I hate you just as much."
"I've changed. I can change."
"So can chameleons."
"I have changed. Tell me you haven't seen it. Everyone we know has seen it. Give me a chance."
"I did. I gave you a chance. Do you have any idea how hard it was for me to take that risk? Because deep down I've never doubted you would do this and that our friendship would end. I knew once I gave myself to you, it would be all or nothing for me. I took a risk and lost everything in order to give you a chance to prove me wrong. Now I can't go back because this will always, always be between us. Enjoy your freedom."
He didn't miss the tears in her eyes or the fact that the best thing that had ever happened to him was now lost to him just when he'd realized she was the heart and soul of his life.
What's left beyond emptiness I no longer know how to fill?