The Rose Collection (18+)

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11 | earn it (A)

Except from my upcoming paranormal romance novel: "Crimson Lace"
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I sat on the edge of my bed in my bath towel tapping my foot a mile a minute, trying to figure out how I got into this mess. I joined Ace of Hearts Matchmaking in the hopes of avoiding men I didn't want to date. Now I'd been deliberately set up behind my back with a man I didn't want to date, and by the person I was supposed to trust no less.

Screw you, Cupid.

In my mind, the never ending war of whether I was going on this dat- outing with James was becoming more and more frustrating by the second. But I knew that if I didn't see him tonight, I would never find out why he hurt me and moved three cities away. With that being my motivation, I pushed myself onto my feet and got dressed.

I hadn't seen James since high school-which was four years ago- and if I was going to face him after so long, I was going to look damn good. After I moisturized my skin with my favorite vanilla bean body lotion, I swiped the dress Dana bought me from my closet.

I carefully slid the delicate piece of fabric onto my body. My own breath was taken away. The sequined rose gold dress stopped a little above my knees. It clung to my petite curves as if it was tailored for me. My chest was accentuated by the V neck without being raunchy, and the vibrant color made my honey brown skin pop. I let my curled hair fall down the center of my back. I'd never felt so beautiful in my life.

I hoped James' heart would sink when he saw me.

"Speaking of the devil..." I muttered to myself.

My phone began vibrating against the wooden surface of my bedside table. When I checked the caller ID, the number was unfamiliar, but I knew it was him. I picked up my phone.

"James?"

"Yeah, it's me. I'm parked outside your apartment."

Once upon a time, hearing his British accent would have made me smile to myself. But tonight it was just a dull sound.

"I'll be down in a minute," I told him.

I hadn't put on my shoes, so I quickly walked to my closet and pulled out a pair of neutral ankle tie heels. Once I had them on, I grabbed my black clutch off my bed before dropping my phone and a few loose bills at the bottom.

When I walked out into the hall, I looked up at the clock on the wall next to the bathroom and it read 7:40. I told James to pick me up at 8 o'clock and he was early.

Huh. He played his part very well.

When I walked outside there was a white Lexus parked along the curb. James stepped out dressed in an all black suit and his hair styled in a neat quiff. A thick layer of stubble adorned his face and chin and those mysterious green eyes bore into mine as he took me in. But no way was I going to let him get to me. I held his gaze, challenging him until he admitted defeat and averted his eyes.

He offered to open my door, but I politely declined and seated myself.

~*~

The drive was nothing short of awkward. Every now and then James would clear his throat as if he was going to speak but ultimately decided against it. Thankfully it wasn't long before we reached our destination for the night.

We pulled up at Sorriso, one of the most expensive, lavish restaurants in town which caught me off guard. I'd only been here once and that was with my coworkers to celebrate a promotion. Why James chose Sorriso out of all places, I don't know? But I let it go.

James handed his keys to the eager valet and we were escorted by the hostess to a secluded table in the back. When we took our seats, there was a rather long silence. Not minding it, I took my digital menu -yes, my digital menu- and clicked on the pasta category.

There were quite a few selections, but I was only looking for one thing: pasta carbonara. I submitted my order to the chef and then I looked up at James who had undone the first button of his shirt. He caught my eye and gave me a rigid smile.

"H-how are you?" he asked.

"I'm fine," I replied coolly.

"You look beautiful tonight."

"Don't I know it."

At my sharp reply, he swallowed thickly. I didn't even wait for him to key in his order, I was ready for him to start talking for real.

"James, why are you here?" I asked, straightening myself in my chair.

"What do you me-"

"You left New York years ago, and without an apology might I add. Now you're back in town asking me how I'm doing? I just don't get it."

His shoulders slumped at my words and he brought his hands to his face, mashing his cheeks.

"Wait, I know why you're here. You feel guilty and you're only with me right now to make yourself feel like less of a jerk."

"I didn't w-"

"I guess whatever helps you sleep at night, right?"

"Harper, please."

There was a raw edge to his voice. It made my ever growing annoyance dissipate, but not completely. I momentarily clamped my mouth shut and listened to what he had to say.

"I'm here because I want a second chance."

For a few moments, my heart stopped beating. He couldn't have meant that. There was no way he could be implying that he had or has feelings for me. If he did, he wouldn't have toyed with me. He wouldn't have kissed me... touched me the way he did before doing a complete 180, pulverizing my heart.

"I'm sorry for luring you into that trap all those years ago. I'm sorry about those pictures being plastered all over the school, and I'm sorry I left you the way I did, but you have to believe that's not how I wanted things to end."

All I could do was repeatedly shake my head in denial.

"Wha- what do you want me to say? That I accept your apology? T-that I forgive you? Because it isn't that easy."

"Harper, I care about you. I always have, just allow me the chance to show you that."

"Tell me why you did it."

This was the moment I thought about for so long. I was finally going to get my answer.

"I was being threatened."

My eyes narrowed as I stared back at him.

"Threatened? By who? F-for what reason?? What consequence were you so afraid to face that you had to go and screw me over, huh?"

I was beginning to raise my voice, but I didn't care.

He sighed audibly before he began.

"It was a few weeks before midterm exams started. A few of my mates on the football team were planning to look around for answer keys after school hours. I had been in the gym training for a while. Being new to the team, I had a lot to prove. I was determined to change the minds of those who thought I wasn't good enough. Not only that, but football was my life and it was also my ticket to college."

James took a deep breath before continuing.

"Anyway, I went out into the hallway to refill my water bottle and that's when I saw the guys headed in my direction. They had found the answer keys for the math and history exam. I told them I didn't need either, that I could do well on my own. On my way back to the gym, my buddy Don stopped me. Donavan always liked antagonizing people, egging them on. He questioned why-"

"I'm sorry, but how does this story concern me?"

"I was getting there. I let you talk, so I'd appreciate it if you did the same for me," he replied sternly.

This time I was the uncomfortable one, feeling warmth rise to my cheeks.

"You're right, I'm sorry," I said. He nodded once.

"We didn't know Vice Principal Saunders was still at the school. So here he comes, down the hall where we all are. We panicked and ran. I was the only one who wasn't seen," James said. With shaky hands, he took a sip of water before going on.

"Donny and Matt were expelled. I thought that was the end of it but then they show up in the parking lot, after practice let out, and they threatened me saying I was a part of the whole thing. They didn't have proof, but they were definitely more powerful than me on my own. I was scared and..."

He shook his head, with a grimace on his face. He seemed to be having an internal battle of whether to continue on or not.

"Matt liked you." He spat the word out.

"He said he'd leave me alone if I helped him get closer to you."

I unconsciously wrapped my arms tight around my body. Hearing James say that Matt liked me made my body wrack with chills of unease. I didn't know Matt on a personal level, but I knew he wasn't a nice guy. Nothing good could come out of being involved with him. That's when the gears began turning in my head.

"He wanted-" James started.

"He wanted pictures of me," I said, cocking my head to the side.

"Did Matt take those pictures himself, or did you have someone else do it?"

"Matt was there," he answered, looking anywhere else but my eyes.

"Where?"

"He was... he was hiding in the trap door in the corner of the basement."

"So let me get this straight," I said. "You destroyed my life to save your own? Yes or no?"

"...yes, but I didn't think things would go as far as they did," he said.

"And what, you think that makes it better?! You were only thinking of yourself when you conspired with that pig. Do you have any idea what it was like for me walking back into the school?!"

My eyes brimmed with tears, and I was fighting extremely hard to keep them at bay. The last thing I wanted was for him to see me cry, but I felt the armor I'd spent years building begin to crack.

"Seeing my face...my half naked body taped over lockers in the school hallways- it was the most horrific thing I've ever had to go through. But of course you wouldn't know because you skipped town right after it happened."

"Harp..."

"My name is Harper, and Harper isn't done talking." I said, squaring my shoulders.

"I bothered no one. But after that I was bullied to no fucking end. My mother had to take me out of school because of it. I cried myself to sleep every night for months and got ready for my days with my back to the mirror. I was disgusted with the girl who looked back at me."

The laugh that crept its way up my throat was humorless and bitter. "God, I was such a fool. And even more of a fool for agreeing to this dinner."

I pushed backward in my seat and grabbed my clutch from the table, leaving James in stunned silence.

"Harper!" James called out.

He was my ride home from the restaurant but I didn't care at that point. I wanted to be as far away from him as possible. I needed to think. I'd have walked back to my apartment if that's what had to happen.

"Wait. Please!"

A strong hand encircled my wrist, tugging me backward. I turned around and snatched my hand away as if I'd been burned.

"I'm sorry..."

He looked up toward the pitch dark sky as if to summon an otherworldly courage.

"I'm a fucking idiot, and I'm sorry."

His eyes never left mine as he took a step toward me. I instinctively took one back but my knees almost buckled when I bumped into a car. He had me caged and I couldn't turn away from the fierce look in his eyes. It was almost too much.

I could tell that the James I talked to earlier in the night was long gone. The man in front of me was unflinching and quite irked. The muscles in his jaw were taut.

"For the last four years I've thought about you... almost every day. I've dreamt about you, about what I did to you," he shook his head, eyebrows forming a remorseful frown.

"I know apologies only mean so much without action, Harper. And I won't stop trying until you know well that what I'm saying is the truth."

I had to hold back a grin. James was right where I wanted him — desperate, begging to be forgiven... and boy was I going to make him earn it.
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