Princess - *Book One*

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I don’t know which pain feels worse – my lungs that burn or my heart that aches. But I know both are from running away from my problems; and I know, too, that I have to stop running now, in every sense of the word.

I come to a stop and take a look around: I somehow ended up in Central Park. I drop down on the nearest bench to catch my breath.

I try to form some coherent thoughts in my head, but all I can think of is how Ben and I are probably over now. He’ll never forgive me for not telling him that I’m still married, even if that doesn’t mean anything to me anymore.

I wipe away the tears that are streaming down my face when a phone rings. It takes me a couple of moments to realize it’s my phone; I forgot I still had it in my pocket.

I answer without checking the caller ID. “Yes?”

“Amy! Finally! Where are you?” It takes me another moment to recognize Aaron’s voice. And while he’s not the one whose voice I long to hear, I relax a little.

“Are you okay?” he asks when I don’t say anything.

“Uhm – yeah – I mean – no,” I murmur as I rub my forehead.

“We’ve been trying to find you for the past hour,” Aaron tells me.

I sit up straight and gasp. “You – what?”

“Ben called and told me you had a meeting with your ex that didn’t go too well. And then you ran off, and everyone is worried about you.”

“Worried? Why?”

“That guy apparently said he was worried you might hurt yourself and that you were emotionally unstable,” he explains.

I snort. “Emotionally unstable. Pah! Who does he think he is? Isn’t it enough that he destroyed my old life? Now he has to destroy everything that I’ve built up here?”

Aaron sighs. “Hey, we don’t care what that scumbag says, but we are worried about you. Now, tell me where you are so I can take you home.”

I grimace. The thought of facing Ben makes my chest feel tight. “What did your brother tell you exactly?”

“Nothing really. I have no idea what the argument was about. But I could hear in Ben’s voice that he’s pissed off.”

I groan. “He has every right to be mad. I’m surprised he still wants to talk to me. There’s a lot I didn’t tell him about my past. I wanted to leave everything behind and forget about it. But then Noah has to show up here and mess everything up before I pluck up the courage to tell Ben.” My eyes fill with new tears, and I sob.

“Hey,” Aaron says in such a soft voice that it surprises me. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

I shift left and right on the bench. “I appreciate your offer, but I think I have to talk to Ben first.”

Aaron takes a deep breath. “Amy, don’t worry so much. Everyone deserves a second chance.”

I sigh. “But he trusted me; he told me everything about his past. I, on the other hand, was too cowardly. I didn’t want to destroy what we had.”

“Sometimes it’s better if you don’t talk about certain things. I’m sure you had your reasons for not telling Ben,” Aaron says in another attempt to reassure me. “You’ve only been together for a few weeks.”

“Thank you for wanting to cheer me up. But I still think I really hurt Ben.”

Aaron sighs deeply. “I’m sure you can talk things out. But in order to be able to solve things, you need to go home first. Now, where are you?”

After Aaron picked me up from Central Park, I stand in front of my apartment. As I stormed off without my keys, I have to knock, but I hesitate because I’m terrified of the conversation Ben and I need to have.

With one more deep breath, I finally knock on my door, and it only takes a second before it swings open, and before I know what’s happening, Lauren throws her arms around my neck. “Amy, finally there you are! I’m so glad you’re okay.” She looks at me from top to bottom. “Well, at least somewhat.”

“I’m sorry you guys were worried about me.” I grimace and enter my apartment with a racing heart. Aaron walks in behind me, and we all enter my living room.

As soon as Ben sees me, he gets up from the couch. But he just stands there, wiping his palms on his jeans. His face shows nothing about his mood when he speaks. “Hey.”

I try to swallow the lump in my throat. I want to throw myself into his strong arms – my favorite place – but I know I can’t. “Hey,” I whisper.

A heavy and unpleasant silence fills the air between us. Ben hides his hands in his pockets, and I wrap my arms around myself. No one says a word until Lauren clears her throat. “Okay, we’ll leave now; you two sure have a lot to talk about.” She hugs me and whispers in my ear, “Call me if you want to talk.”

I just nod and wave goodbye to her and Aaron, and once they’re gone, Ben and I stare at each other silently again.

The awkward tension becomes almost unbearable for me, but all I can do is stand here rooted to the spot without moving a single muscle when all I want is scream and cry and pace back and forth. I open my mouth to say something – anything – but Ben is the first to speak. “Are you all right?”

I stare at him open-mouthed for a moment because I didn’t expect him to say something like that. “No,” I croak. “I’m not all right.” I take a step toward him, but I don’t dare come too close. “I feel so terrible you had to find out this way. I should have told you about Noah much earlier.”

Ben draws in a long, slow breath. “I’m here now and willing to listen.”

I narrow my eyes at him. I didn’t expect a calm answer like that. “Okay,” I say. “But that won’t be pretty.”

Ben laughs humorlessly. “I don’t think it can get much worse.” He sits down on the couch and points to the seat next to him.

I sit down too and take another deep breath. “Okay – Noah – we met during high school. I had a crush on him from the start, which he didn’t know of course, much less returned. After school, we both went our separate ways, but a few years later, our paths crossed again. I thought he was the love of my life and that it was fate that we met again. And suddenly, he noticed me too. We started dating, and within one year, we were married. I thought it was my fairytale come true. I realized only slowly that it was my worst nightmare.”

I pause because by now, I’m sobbing uncontrollably. Ben just sits next to me and doesn’t move or speak, which is about to kill me. I wish he’d show some sign of any emotion, but all I get from him is indifference.

I take a deep breath to stop sobbing and continue. “At some point, I noticed he was acting differently. He spent a lot of time at work. At least that was his excuse. I talked to him about it a few times, but he always appeased me – dismissed my concerns as ridiculous. And then–” Again I have to stop talking. I get up to get new handkerchiefs. I blow my nose and pace up and down my living room.

“Then I got pregnant,” I go on. “I thought that would bring us closer together again. He was so happy, and for a while, things got better. But suddenly, he was gone more often. On business trips, as he said. A short time later, I found out he was cheating on me with my best friend. Such a fucking cliché! I confronted him, and in the end, he admitted it. I was heartbroken and so angry. I moved out of our house and stayed with my parents for a while. That’s when this thing with his brother happened.” I look at Ben, trying to read what this information does to him.

He runs his hand over his face and sighs. And finally, he gives me a reaction, even if it’s a frown. “You really slept with his brother then?”

I nod. “I wish I could at least call it a drunken mistake, but I was stone-cold sober – just an emotional wreck. And David, Noah’s brother, was there to pick up the pieces; I was desperate for comfort, and he offered it. I hate myself for letting this happen.”

With everything that’s going on with Aaron, I’m worried that Ben thinks this could happen again – me going after his brother. But he shakes his head when he sees the troubled look on my face. “Amy, I hope you’re not thinking I’m drawing a comparison to our situation.”

I sob. “I don’t know.”

He keeps his eyes fixed on me but doesn’t get up to come over and wrap his arms around me like I desperately want him to. I guess that’s asking too much right now.

“So what happened next?” he asks instead.

I’m surprised he puts off my remark like that, and when he doesn’t say any more, I continue. “After a few weeks, Noah came crawling back to me, asking for forgiveness. He told me he had ended things with Rachel. He wanted to be with me. He wanted that baby. I told him what had happened between David and me, but he didn’t care. He said he would forgive me. After all, what he did to me was much worse. He wanted to make it up to me. And being the idiot that I was, I believed him. I wanted my own little family too. But then, when I was six months pregnant–” I have to stop talking because my sobs are getting worse. I sink to the floor and bury my face in my hands. I thought I had already cried so much that I couldn’t shed any more tears, but there’s much more.

Suddenly, I feel Ben’s arms around me. He presses my head against his chest and gently strokes my hair. “You don’t have to go on if you don’t want to right now,” he whispers.

I shake my head as if I could chase away the bad thoughts. “No, I do. I must. You need to know everything.” I breathe a sigh of relief because I’m so happy to feel the soothing warmth of his touch, which gives me the strength to go on. “I lost the baby. One day, I was suddenly bleeding heavily. The doctor said afterward that something was wrong with the baby so that I stopped torturing myself. Noah, on the other hand, didn’t have to say anything, I knew he was blaming me. So I finally decided to leave him. There was no point in trying to fix it. It was only after my decision to end things that I learned he had never ended his affair. I hated myself so much for letting him fool me that I didn’t treat myself well anymore. I didn’t eat and injured myself. Just some small cuts here and there, so I wouldn’t scar and nobody would notice what was wrong with me. But my parents quickly started to worry. And soon, I found myself in psychiatric treatment for about seven months. I moved back into my parents’ house, filed for divorce, and slowly got my old life back, the one before Noah. And then I decided to start over new here in New York. Far away from everything.”

Wow, I did it; I told him. And even though I still don’t know how Ben feels about me – about us – I feel relieved of a heavy burden because he finally knows the truth.

After a moment of heavy silence, Ben sighs. “Thank you for telling me all this; I know that wasn’t easy.”

I release from our embrace and look at him. “I could understand if you wanted to leave me now.”

When he hears my words, his face finally shows some emotion. His eyes, which were cold and hard a moment ago, now look at me tenderly. The corners of his mouth even lift a tiny bit. “But I don’t want to leave you,” he whispers.

A tingling warmth spreads within me, and I sink deeper into his arms. A new wave of relief washes through me, bringing more tears with it – happy tears. Ben cups my face with his hand and wipes my cheek with his thumb. “I admit,” he says as he gently rocks me back and forth. “It bothers me a little that you kept all this from me, but I understand why you did it.”

Ben holds me while I let my tears fall, giving me the comfort I need, and again, I realize how much he means to me and that right here in his arms is where I feel at home.

When I’ve calmed down enough to speak again, I pull back and sit up facing him. “I was terrified I would lose you because of all of this, which made everything worse. You have become the most important person in my life within such a short time.”

Ben sighs and wipes another tear off my cheek with his thumb. “It breaks my heart when I think about what happened to you. I never would’ve guessed that you lost a baby, or that you are married to someone else. But that doesn’t make me want to leave you. On the contrary, I want to be with you, now more than ever. I want to keep you safe so that the wounds can finally heal.” He takes my hands in his and looks deep into my eyes. “I love you, Amy.”

Adrenaline rushes through my veins, making my heart pound in my chest and all my nerve-endings tingle. My thoughts and emotions are all over the place, and I’m a total mess. Hearing those words has never felt like this, not even with Noah.

A huge smile spreads on my face when I finally manage to say, “I love you too, Ben!”

He returns my smile and gets up from the floor, pulling me with him. “I’m glad we cleared that up,” he says before he puts his hands around my face and places a soft and tender kiss on my lips.

Still smiling, I wipe away the remaining tears and look at Ben. “Tell me, what happened here after I left?”

Ben chuckles. “You should have seen Lauren. She was ready to take him down. If you think he had to be afraid of me, you don’t know her, but I honestly didn’t either. He disappeared pretty fast before things got rough. And believe me – I would have loved to beat him up.”

I grimace. “I have no clue why I thought this was even a remotely good idea. It was bound to escalate.” I shake my head and sigh. “I have to contact him soon though. After all, he’s right – we are still legally married.”

Ben tilts his head. “Does that mean your last name isn’t Franklin?”

“Franklin is my maiden name. My married name is Jones. But fortunately, no one asked any questions.”

Ben laughs. “Does that mean I’ve been having an affair with a married woman? Aaron will be so jealous.” He winks at me, and I can’t help but laugh. A new lightness takes hold of me, and even though I know we still have lots of talking to do, I feel happy and calm in Ben’s arms – my safe haven.

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