“Our world is changing.”
My father’s voice rang over the crowd, amplified by the microphone in front of him. I suppose he looked powerful, standing there in his pressed suit, his hair perfectly slicked back and a smile on his face. But I was still bored out of my mind.
“New avenues are opening up to us, personally and professionally.” Robert Clearwater pressed a button on the small remote in his hand, and the screen behind him changed from displaying his company’s name, Clearwater Consolidated, to showing a massive photo of Queens, New York. “These avenues could lead us to improving the broken side of our great state.”
He was talking about the Slums. An area that took up most of what used to be Queens and the Bronx, it was filled with criminals now. No one went there unless they were looking for trouble.
“What do you plan to do, Mr. Clearwater?” a reporter asked, shoving his recorder closer to my father’s face.
My father smiled. “We’re a construction company, my friend. We take what we have and we make it better. What we commonly refer to as the Slums has great potential. There’s a lot of space out there, waiting for us to use it.”
“Are you talking about tearing down the Slums?” a woman reporter asked, taking notes in her phone without taking her eyes off of my father.
“We’re talking about building a better community for everyone,” my father said with another smile.
I wished I was with Tanner. Or even at home. Anywhere but at this press conference. I glanced down the stage at my mother, who sat perfectly straight in her chair with a polite smile on her face. Outwardly, she looked like she was taking everything in. But I knew her. She was as un-phased by all of this as I was.
Robert Clearwater was not a man to bring his work home with him. Whenever Clearwater Consolidated (often called “CC) was working on new projects, my mother and I knew nothing about them. Until these press conferences, where he invited every major newspaper to come and marvel at his brilliance.
Stifling a yawn, I flinched as my “public relations” boyfriend, Marc, pinched my leg. I shot him a glare, but he just smiled and pretended to chuckle, covering his mouth with his hand and leaning over to whisper in my ear.
“You coming to my place after the conference?”
I forced a smile, knowing that even though my father was talking, people were watching Marc and I. People were always watching. I mimicked him, covering my mouth with my hand. “Sure. Can we grab something to eat first?”
He nodded and went back to watching my father speak. Unlike my mother and I, he was intrigued by everything CC did. My father was the one who set Marc and I up as a couple. He said it would be good for the press, to see me with such a kind and smart boy. A boy with “potential,” he called him. He’d found Marc in a business study, where high school students were asked to submit plans for making the city better. Impressed by Marc’s work, my father had invited him over for dinner.
Soon after that, Marc and I were “dating.” Sometimes I wondered how long he planned to make us pretend to be together. Other times, I worried he was going to offer me up as a bride just so Marc could inherit his company.
Shivering at the thought, I let go of Marc’s hand and pretended to scratch at my leg. He frowned, tilting his head as if to ask if anything was wrong. I shook my own, smiled, and turned my eyes to my father as he wrapped up his speech and waved to the crowd of reporters one last time.
Marc, my mother and I, as well as the business owners and contributors who were on stage with us, all stood as my father jogged down the steps and into the crowd. He shakes hands, smiles, poses for pictures. It’s always the same thing. Another hour passes before we’re able to squeeze our way out of the building and into the early fall air of Manhattan.
“Are you coming home with us, Mikaela,” Mom asked, drawing her coat tight around her body. Dad had his arm over her shoulders, and Marc mirrored him.
“We’re going to have dinner, then maybe watch a movie at my place. If that’s okay with you, Mr. Clearwater.”
I rolled my eyes, elbowing Marc in the side. “He meant we’re going to dinner and going to watch a movie. You two can have a date night,” I said with a smile.
Mom leaned forward, kissing me on the cheek. Dad shookMarc’s hand, and then the two disappeared into a taxi.
“Why are you so fake around my dad?” I asked as Marc dropped his arm from my shoulders and took a step away from me.
He shoved his hands into his pockets with a shrug. “I want him to like me, Mick. You know that.”
“He already likes you. If he didn’t, you wouldn’t still be hanging around my house all the time.” I pulled my gloves from my jacket pocket, slipping them onto my hands as Marc and I began to walk. When we were in a press conference, he couldn’t take his hands off me. He always had a hand resting on my knee or my thigh or holding one of mine. And once we got to the restaurant, he’d insist on sitting on the same side as me.
But out here? On the street? Where everyone was too busy rushing about, holiday shopping and generally not paying any attention to what was around them, he was perfectly happy having his own space. And so was I, for that matter.
“Where do you want to eat?” Marc asked, pulling me from my thoughts. “I picked last time. Your turn.” He gave me his signature grin, a full smile that showed all of his teeth and made his eyes crinkle.
“How about that new sandwich shoppe that just opened on Main Street? It always smells amazing when I walk by.”
Marc nodded, and we walked the rest of the way in silence.
That was one of the things I loved about living in New York. I had a car, but I mainly used it for school and for when I hung out with my best friend, Tanner. She wasn’t a walker. But when I was with Marc, or on my own, I walked everywhere. I loved the air and the sounds, the smells and just the feeling of being alive that the city brought. It wasn’t exactly peaceful. There were too many people for that. But it was nice, all the same.
The walk to the sandwich shoppe took about fifteen minutes. Once we were inside, Marc flashed a smile at the hostess and got us a spot at a window. Luckily for me, it was a two-seater table, and he was forced to sit across from me.
I propped my bag against the window, digging through it until I found my phone. Setting the phone on the table to my left, I folded my hands in my lap and turned to Marc. He was studying his menu, one elbow on the table, his head resting on top of his fist as he lazily flipped pages. I supposed he was handsome enough, with his caramel curls and hazel eyes. He was perfectly proportioned and slightly toned, tan all year round and average height. But he wasn’t for me. Despite what my father thought, looks weren’t everything. Underneath it all, he was brilliantly minded but extremely shallow.
“You know what you want?” he asked, glancing up with a smirk, “or do you intend to stare at me forever?”
Frowning, I turned my attention to my own menu. “Don’t flatter yourself, Marc. This is still a business relationship. And that’s it.”
Marc stood, pushing his chair back and leaning over the table. He cupped my chin in one hand, pressing the other hand into the table to steady himself as he kissed me. I kept my own hands on my menu, smiling as he sat back down. People were staring. And no matter how I felt about Marc, I had to keep up appearances for my father’s sake.
“I’m okay with that, as long as I get to kiss you whenever I want.” His smirk remained as he closed his menu, folding his hands on top of it.
Our waitress returned and took our order, giving Marc his water and me my coffee. I wrapped my hands around the cup, sighing as its warmth spread down my fingers and across my palms. More often than not, I ordered regular coffee simply to warm my hands, and not so much to drink. There was just something about having something warm to hold in cold weather.
“Have you figured out where you’re going to college yet?” Marc asked, sipping from his water.
I sighed, shaking my head. “No.”
He raised a brow. “No? That’s all you have to say? You must have options? Favorite choices? Where have you applied?”
“The same places I’d applied the last time we had this conversation.” I took a small sip of my coffee, staring out the window at the traffic. I hated this conversation. I’d had it with my counselors at school, with my parents, with Marc. It seemed everyone was interested in my future. Everyone except for me.
“Mick, you can’t keep putting this off. Graduation is seven months away.”
I shook my head, not meeting his eyes. “I’m not putting anything off. I just haven’t made up my mind.”
“That’s the same thing,” Marc said with a chuckle. “You could always go to Duke with me.”
“Why would I go away to college with you? If you leave, our deal is done and I’m free to actually date someone.” I smiled at our waitress as she dropped off our sandwiches, finally looking at Marc. He looked less than pleased, his mouth turned down in a frown.
“Why do you hate me, Mick? Why don’t you try with me?”
I shrugged, taking a bite of my sandwich. I really wasn’t up for trying to explain things to Marc that, despite his brilliance, he would never understand. I couldn’t make myself feel for him in a romantic way. And I’d tried. I really had, at first. But it’d been almost a year that we’d been together, and there were still no sparks when he kissed me, no butterflies when he held my hand or ran his fingers along the back of my neck. Those weren’t things you could force.
Marc sighed, and we ate in silence. It was becoming a habit for us. Our small talk normally led to fights if we were alone somewhere. Our small talk in public was just that: small talk. How anyone thought we were actually a couple was beyond me.
When we’d finished eating, Marc paid our bill and we began the trek to his apartment. He was already eighteen, and his parents were paying for an apartment for him on (such and such a street). It was fully furnished and lavish and way more than any eighteen year old boy really needed.
He took my coat as we entered, laying it across a small bench just inside the door. I slipped out of my heels, lining them up against the wall, and set my gloves on top of my coat. The apartment was cozy, made even more so when Marc stepped into the living room and turned on his electric fireplace. He sat on his black leather sofa, patting the spot beside him.
I crossed the room and dropped onto the sofa, two cushions over. Sighing, Marc slid across until our thighs were touching, putting an arm around my shoulders and pulling me against him. I turned my head as he tried to kiss me, but he wasn’t deterred. His lips found my neck, kissing and sucking lightly. He knew better than to leave a mark.
I put my hands on his chest, trying to push him away. “Marc, come on. Let’s just watch a movie. We don’t have to pretend here.”
“The difference between you and I, Mick, is that I’m not pretending. When I kiss you, it’s because I want to, not because I feel some odd sense of obligation to your father.” He continued his path down my neck, pushing aside the collar of my dress and nipping at my collar bone.
Pushing harder, I pulled my legs up between us, hoping to use my knees to get him away. “Yeah, well, I am pretending when I’m in public, but I’m not pretending right now. Stop!” My heart beat furiously in my chest as Marc grabbed my legs, lifting himself up and pulling until I was under him. He settled himself on top of me, successfully trapping me.
“Well, just stop fighting. Let yourself feel, Mick. Quit trying to push me away. Just because your father set us up, that doesn’t mean you have to hate me.” He connected our lips, pushing his tongue into my mouth as I writhed beneath him.
I bit down. Marc cursed as he pulled away, sitting back so that he was sitting on my thighs. I sat up, pulling my legs out from under him and ran to the door. I grabbed my coat and shoved my feet into my heels, but before I could grab my gloves, Marc gripped my elbow and spun me around, pushing me back against the door.
“What the hell, Mick?” he asked, blood dripping down his chin. “What is wrong with you?”
“Wrong with me?” My voice cracked on the word. “You’re the one trying to force yourself on me! Now let me go. I’m leaving.” I struggled against his hold, but his grip tightened, squeezing my forearms hard enough to leave bruises.
“Forcing myself? We’ve been together for over a year, Mick! It’s about time I got something out of it, isn’t it?”
My eyes widened at his words. So that was it? Now I was a prude? “I’m sorry that you don’t understand we aren’t actually dating. I don’t owe you anything!”
Marc laughed, leaning down until his face was inches from mine. “So that’s how it’s going to be? You make out with me in public but shun me when we’re alone? Pretend we’re a happy couple in front of your parents but give me nothing but trouble?” He laughed again, then leaned down and kissed me roughly, shoving his tongue into my mouth but pulling it out too quick for me to bite. “You gave it to Tyler in five months. What makes me different?”
My breath caught in my throat. “How dare you?” I’d wanted the words to come out harsh. I’d wanted to yell at him, to beat on his chest and tell him what happened with Tyler was none of his damn business. But I was too hurt. Only three people knew about that night. Me, Tanner, and Tyler. And Tanner would never have told anyone. Which meant—
“That’s right. Tyler told all of us. Said you were good, for a virgin.” He smirked, grabbing my chin and pulling my face up to his. “So don’t act like you’re this perfect little princess, Mikaela. You aren’t fooling anyone.”
I shoved out of his grip, and slapped him as hard as I could. Abandoning my gloves, I reached behind me and swung the door open. Then I ran.