A House Divided
~ Book 2 of Mind’s Beautiful Prison Series ~
The grass is a bright yellow green, that color which only seems to live in the fleeting first rainy weeks of spring. I can smell it in the air, the sweet freshness of the dew on the ground and the heavy perfume of lilac bushes which have begun blooming down the street. The heady aroma is so much more beautiful when it subtly wafts by, carried on the gusty spring winds that make me pull my open cardigan closed with a shiver.
Other students hurry by me without a glance, jogging from building to building as they rush to meet the assignment deadlines that loom in our final weeks of the semester. New York has none of the beaches or sunshine that I enjoyed during my last years of high school in Miami, but it’s home.
It was Plato who suggested that beauty lay in the eye of the beholder, and I can’t help but agree. Passing by the patchwork buildings and graffiti that sound the stately historic school while absorbing the passing chatter and white noise of the busy city, I’m surrounded by living artwork.
There is an ebb and flow of energy and chaos that seems to move with synchronicity, a symphony of sights and sounds that I can lose myself in for hours at at time. Its peaceful rhythm settles the pounding of my heart and eases the anxiety that threatens to consume my entire morning.
Grateful for the warming morning sun which helps offset the breezy spring chill, I sip my overpriced Venti Americano filled with diabetic inducing volumes of cream and sugar. A girl’s got to survive final semester somehow.
The warm paper cup against my fingers grounds me, and the blessed caffeine gives me necessary fuel to face my classes that morning; not that I will likely hear a damn thing that’s said anyway. As wonderful as this reprieve from my aching heart is, I know that as soon as I step away from my peaceful bench I’ll inevitably be drawn back into the nightmare of my present life.
I finish my last sip with a sigh and toss the empty cup into the bin on my way into the building, heading somberly to corporate finance class. I wish I was headed into the school of Arts where I had originally begged to go. But, in this decision, like every other aspect of my life, my father intervened and forced my hand. New York itself has been a concession, I was allowed to leave Miami and return to New York to complete my degree, but only if I gave up my dream of studying Fine Arts and focused on Business Management. And now, after years of preparing to direct at the helm of Dietrich Industries alongside my father, my own personal nightmare is about to come to life.
Many people I’ve met scoff at me when I share my frustration about the life of privilege that I was born into, but people looking into the fishbowl of my private life have no idea of the harsh reality I live. They see only the money, power, beauty and special treatment that comes with my name and are either terrified of me, or seek to enter my circle of influence. The very circle I desperately long to be free from.
I didn’t grow up sipping lemonade while riding my pony along the countryside. No, this privilege came at a heavy cost. I’ve had few real friends, no privacy, and I grew up without the warmth of parental love. The import, export business dealings overseas has my father involved with unsavory partners; my life and safety has been threatened on multiple occasions. And then there is my father, himself. The master puppeteer who pulls all the strings of my carefully coordinated life. The life that steadily marches in the direction of the great dreams Gunnar Dietrich has for my future, but never my own.
Outside the misery associated with being heir apparent of Dietrich Industries, the pieces of my own personal life are presently careening in a runaway cart travelling at about a hundred miles per hour towards the edge of a cliff.
A little morose, I know, but if you could see past the shiny outer veneer of perfection you’d find out the pieces of my life have been coming apart at the seams for years.
Today I live not one, but two distinct lives. One life follows the careful constructs set for me by my father. In the other one, the life I truly want, I’ve finally found the happiness and sense of belonging I always wanted. In my secret life, I can just be with myself with Alex.
Free will is a fickle illusion to a person with my birthright. I’m pulled between the man I want and have to keep secret and the man my father expects me to marry. If that isn’t enough, I’m now forced into daily encounters with a man who used to be my best friend and was my first love. That was, until he stomped on my heart and nearly destroyed me five years ago. Two I can’t escape and one I will never keep.
Pulling myself wearily through the heavy doors of the lecture hall, I plunk myself into a seat near the back because I prefer to avoid discussions in finance class. This is my least favorite subject next to accounting and I’d rather hang out with my father than sit through these lectures. And believe me, that’s saying something. I look in my bag, wondering if its too early to pull out my flask. Instead, I move my fingers to my tablet with a sigh.
No sooner have I pulled the device from my bag, does my phone sound with a text. I quickly shut off the ringer before the lecture begins. My face warms with a smile at the message lighting my screen.
<Alex> Morning beautiful. Missed u last night. Meet me for lunch today?
I give a quick assessment of my schedule for the day. I’ll need to be careful if I don’t want to be caught. Luca, that backstabbing traitor, has been watching me and reporting back to my father. It’s becoming increasingly harder to see Alex and still keep our relationship hidden from my father.
I quickly glance around the room and wonder if my father’s poorly veiled spy is lurking anywhere. As though my thoughts have summoned him, the devil himself walks into the classroom, unceremoniously plopping himself into the empty seat right beside me. I cut my eyes at him, slapping my phone face down against the desk.
“For fuck’s sake. Don’t you have any friends, Luca?”
Jumping up, I pull my bag from the floor and toss my tablet and phone back inside, moving to quickly find another seat. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I willingly sit through another lecture beside him.
On the other side of the hall, I seat myself in a free space at the end of a row beside another student who glances up at me with a smile. I return the grin and make a quick introduction. “Lily Dietrich,” I say, placing my hand out for a shake.
“Alanna Cooke,” the mousy redhead replies to me, meekly shaking my hand and pushing her glasses up her pointed little nose. “I know who you are,” she mutters shyly, averting her eyes from me.
I give her another brief smile before once again retrieving my tablet and phone until I feel the hairs on my neck stand. I turn to see Luca standing in the aisle beside me, bag in hand, nodding to the girl next to me.
“Hey Red, you mind moving over a seat for me?” he asks her, flashing that panty-dropper smile of his. My eyes roll as I watch little Alanna jump up and move over, flushing a deep red that nearly matches her pretty hair. Like most other women, she can’t seem to resist the compulsion to happily accommodate his request.
Luca hauls himself into the seat which was traitorously abandoned by Alanna. She is definitely not going to make my Christmas list this year. Spreading his long legs apart so his knees won’t touch the seat in front of him, he quickly removes the hoodie he’s wearing and places it behind him, revealing a plain black t shirt underneath. It clings tightly to the girth of his tattooed biceps and bulky, wide shoulders, which I ignore by averting my eyes.
Maybe it isn’t too early to start day drinking, after all.
Much like myself, Luca has followed in his father’s footsteps and developed the build to fit the security team he’s obviously now working with, as demonstrated by his incessant presence around campus. I’ve enjoyed peace and quiet at my own at school for three years, and suddenly Luca is magically transferred to my school on a ‘Scholarship’ during my final year, managing to miraculously match up his entire class schedule with mine in our final semester. I know damned well my father is behind it, though they both deny it.
“Luca, you’ve managed to sit elsewhere for an entire semester and there are like a hundred other seats you could choose. Why the hell are you so determined to sit with me this week?”
I guard my words, but I’m livid. I seriously do not want to be anywhere near him. Nor do I want to see the soft wave of his dark hair, the jade green of his eyes or be forced to smell his woodsy, citrusy cologne for three damned hours. God, he smells good.
Fuck, I hate him.
“I just wanted to be close to you, princess...I missed you. We should really spend more time together,” Luca responds with a smirk and stretches out his arm behind me, coming dangerously close to my shoulder, but never touching me. He’s watching me from the corner of his eye, still sporting that grin on his ridiculously good-looking face.
I really, really, do hate him.
“Whatever, Luca. You can tell Gunnar everything is just peachy, and I’ll be home safe and sound in a couple weeks. And just...leave me the hell alone.”
I turn away and pull out my phone to respond to Alex before class starts and notice another text has come through.
<Alex> Baby please. I miss u
I smile at the words on the screen and carefully turn the phone sideways to avoid Luca’s prying eyes.
<Lily> Yeah at our spot. Have to be careful, Gunnar is watching
The dancing dots on my screen indicate Alex’s immediate response, and I smile again. He’s become the highlight of my daily existence.
<Alex> Can’t wait. Bringing food, don’t eat. x
“Who you talking to?” Luca pipes up beside me with interest, giving me a suspicious look. “Who’s Alex?”
“None of your Gotdamn business, Luca. That’s who,” I answer without so much as a glance in his direction.
Luca probably would have opened his gaping maw to continue our witty repertoire, but the teacher begins class and he remains silent, a contemplative look resting on his face. The next few hours are tedious and uncomfortable, sitting in such painful proximity to the man I hate more than anyone.
Slipping out of my seat a few minutes before the class ends, I ignore the rude looks from the students I’ve disturbed and jet out the doorway before Luca has the chance to follow me.
Continuing at a light jog, I mentally thank myself for wearing running shoes today, and finally reach the tiny community garden a few blocks from campus where Alex and I planned to meet. It’s a peaceful little spot with comfortable benches tucked back from the street. It offers a bit of privacy and a peace that I sometimes crave as a reprieve from the pace and noise of the city.
I’ve been scrolling through my phone for about five minutes when I feel arms slide around me from behind and a chin resting against my shoulder. Looking back with a smile, I meet the face who lights up my every day. I tilt my head and meet his lips for a soft kiss, warming in his strong arms.
Alex quickly jumps over the bench and sits beside me, placing an arm on the bench behind my head. He doesn’t lose a moment drawing me into another kiss, this one more heated as he curls his fingers into the back of my hair. “Mmm, I could do that all day,” he smiles brightly at me.
I laugh at his remark, but I feel the same. My fingers lift to his face, lightly lined with the dark stubble that frames his chiseled jaw and striking features. Big, sapphire eyes sparkle as he grins, his thick, dark hair shining in the afternoon sunshine. His long, callused fingers run down the length of my arm and I shiver under his gentle caress, enjoying the touch I’ve been craving all morning.
“Well...we only have an hour, so we better eat, huh?” He pulls away and my arm is left cold as he reaches into the bag he brought with him.
"Mmm...Sal’s! I haven’t had any since last time we went together,” I groan in happy anticipation. We both dig into the greasy pepperoni slices and soda, stopping every few minutes to wipe the mess from our faces, laughing as we drip sauce and pepperoni grease all over ourselves.
I love that I can stuff my face with pizza and cover myself in greasy, saucy mess and Alex still looks at me like I’ve hung the moon. Everything about our time is a treasure to me. Sadly, our stolen moments together will be coming to an end very soon. And so, I’ve committed myself to enjoying each minute we have left to the fullest.
The hour seems to pass in mere moments as Alex shares the antics of his morning. He is in the program I missed out on, a fine arts major who is beyond talented. We met at a gallery event that had showcased student work in the community. His soulful abstract landscapes drew me in before I even met the beautiful artist behind them, and when he approached me to discuss his pieces, we connected like people who had known each other a lifetime instead of mere moments. Our conversation continued into the late hours during the drinks he charmed me into having right after the show. We spent a full, perfect week together before we ever discovered we were meant to be enemies.
Alexi is an Ivanov, and I, of course, am a Dietrich. Our families once had strong business ties associated with our European exports market, dealing primarily in arms. Alex’s Russian family had been involved in our arms exports; but something serious had happened, severing the relationship more than twenty years ago. Some rivalry came between the families that neither would discuss, and essentially all communications had been cut between both parties, resulting a division in trade and territories. Alex can’t disclose his relationship with me to his family any more than I can to my father.
We have stolen every free moment possible together for the past five months, but our time together is quickly drawing to a close and we both know it, though we both stubbornly avoid any discussion of the topic.
“Can you take a break from your papers on Friday night for me? I want to take you out on a proper date before the semester is over...do something special,” he whispers teasingly against my ear as we steal lingering kisses at the edge of the garden where we’re saying goodbye.
“I have two papers due on Monday...” I groan against his neck.
“Pleeeease, baby...” he groans against my cheek, and lifts his head to meet my eyes. His expression changes to something sad, pleading. I know his thoughts are filled with the same fearful contemplation I’m now struggling with. His eyes say what neither of us can express. We don’t have much time left.
Fuck it. I smile and nod my head in agreement, and his eyes light up as he presses another soft kiss to my lips, filling me with fire all over again.
“I gotta run, but I’ll call you later, okay?” He pushes away, regret in his eyes and I wave as I head in the opposite direction. I have just exited the garden onto the sidewalk when I collide with a hard chest.
“Oh, excuse me,” I mutter and push away, not bothering to even look up until a hand catches my arm. I meet a set of hard jade eyes that angrily stare me down.
“Come with me,” Luca demands, pulling me back towards the school with an iron grip on my arm.
I know from his expression that he has seen me with Alex, and he most definitely is not happy.
To those of you who are continuing this journey, I appreciate you more than words can express <3 <3 <3