The mansion had never looked brighter.
For the first time, I found myself not at ease when I stepped foot inside and didn't delight in seeing the place I had called home for four months, and the second place that I felt safe in.
And now, now my legs felt heavy against the floor, my body shaking and every instinct cried out for me to turn around and leave. I wasn't ready. I wasn't ready to face the man that I loved with all my heart, scared that he could read it in my eyes, in my breathing and in every movement that I made.
He couldn't know the truth, I reminded myself with certainty, but recalling that I would have to live with him, see him and talk to him every day for the next months, I doubted that I could bear any of it. I truly believed that I had enough self-control to stay away from him, but I couldn't be sure that my eyes would not deceive me.
I couldn't be sure they would not tell him 'hey, I love you'.
But what was I to do? I wondered exasperatedly. Knowing the kind of man he was, knowing what I would face would be rejection, and positively sure that everything would be awkward between us after that. And in the path to confess my feelings, I could totally lose his friendship too.
What was I to do? Hope that miraculously, my feelings would not be known. Hope that somewhere deep inside his heart, something was growing for me, and when the time came and he confronted me about his feelings, I would confidently confess mine.
I had considered the options available to a woman in my position and came to the conclusion that unless I didn't set some ground rules to myself, I had only one way of gaining control over my feelings, and that if I didn't want to end up ruining my friendship with Mason, I was going to have to follow some rules.
The rules again?
•Don't make too many eye contact.
•Avoid touching if possible.
•Do not be alone in a room with him for longer than fifteen minutes.
•Stay away from his smile.
•Don't be comfortable with him.
•Don't say you love him.
•Don't say you love him.
•Do not say you love him.
And while I felt safe with those rules that I kept repeating like a mantra, what would happen if he asked why I had changed? Why I was keeping a safe distance from him? I couldn't count on not staring into those gray eyes of his that I loved so much and not blurt out anything. But I could count on the lie I would tell him, could I? That the stress of work was getting to me.
My decision made, I should have felt better. But better meant confessing my feelings and better meant that Mason accepted them. I was conscious of only a black emptiness within myself, and listlessly, I continued to move about the house, not even aware of anything. I was so lost in my thoughts that I didn't hear the door open and shut behind me, and the first indication that I had that I was not alone was when Mason murmured with amusement, "Lost in your thoughts again? Do we need to get you help?"
Startled, I whirled around, my heart slamming in my chest at the sight of the object of my thoughts standing a scant few feet behind me. He was dressed quite casually for this time of the day and being a workaholic, I had expected him to go straight back to work.
And after eight days of not seeing him, the sight of him was too much now.
I had forgotten the devastating effect he could have on me; no, not actually forgotten. It was more than I doubted what I remembered. But I had deceived myself. He was still the most devilishly handsome man I had ever seen, wickedly hot and so much perfection, and I wished that he wasn't.
If he wasn't, it would have made things so much easier.
Mason was dressed in black and gray, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and the open neck gave the tantalizing glimpse of his chest. But it didn't matter what he was wearing. Anything he wore would make him look good. Was his stubble cut and trimmed? Yes. Was that mere curiosity in the brief glance he gave me? Probably not even that.
A crooked smile curved his mouth, and his hair was tousled as if he had run his fingers many times. It was unkempt and sexy. There was a teasing glint in his eyes, and I was almost breathless simply staring at him.
Too much eye contact.
I ducked my head down when my heart kept ramming against my chest and when my arms itched to throw themselves around his neck, pull him into a hug and tell him the hell he had put me through in eight days.
Too much thinking.
Intending to put as much distance as possible between us, I hurried to take several steps back, but before I could do it, he was speaking again.
"You're awfully quiet, Lauren. Thought I would come back to a fully grown dragon. What happened? Was the fire put out before you came here?"
I simply said, "Shut up," in a voice that encouraged no further questions. But Mason was not one who liked to be quieted.
"Don't I get a welcome back?"
My stomach roiled with tension.
"Accept my 'shove it' instead." I had done my very best to strip my voice of any emotion that strived to be dangerous to my truth, but a faint trace still remained.
I knew to try to hide it wouldn't go anywhere. Particularly when I was nervous. And there was no denying that I was nervous indeed.
He stared at me for a moment more before he conceded in a grouchy tone, "I guess I deserve that," he replied softly, still leaning against the door and making no move or had any intention of moving away from it.
Something in the way he said it erupted a chuckle out of me and with a tease, I asked, "Did you grow some common sense in the states? In that case, can you go back and stay there for a whole month?"
"And have the entire government on me because I didn't call you?" He didn't give me time to respond—but I looked so taken aback and embarrassed that I probably wouldn't have been able to say much—and he went on: "Right? That's what you would do."
I despised letting him know how worried and affected I had been by his absence, or Mason wouldn't have sounded so arrogant or looked proud that he had emitted those feelings from me. Considering he would act worse than this if he knew about my feelings, keeping it to myself, for now, was the best solution ever, I thought, and until I was so sure he wouldn't make me regret it.
"That would never happen."
In a low voice, he retorted in amusement, "You were mad I didn't call you for eight days, Lauren. I also sensed your worry." What Mason also forgot to sense was my newfound feelings for him.
I blinked, not knowing how to respond, but still managed to, sounding panicked and tense, "I wasn't mad and I wasn't worried."
"I'm afraid there's nothing you can say for me to believe you."
"I wasn't!" I glared at him.
"You're getting defensive and angry. Do you know what that is?" He didn't wait for me to respond, adding, "When someone gets defensive and angry, it means the other person was right about what they were saying."
"You're the most frustrating man."
Leaning against the door with his arms folded across his chest. "You don't know the meaning of frustrating," he replied smoothly. "Or I guess you do." A slow, lazy grin spread across Mason's lips as he steadily changed course. "How was it?"
"How was what?"
"Eight days without me. Did you enjoy it?"
A faint smile touched his lips again as I sucked in a deep, calming breath, looking away from his eyes. "More than you did."
"Who said I did?"
My head snapped up to meet his gaze, and I took a steadying breath and composed myself, determined not to let him see how that had affected me. How much I was resisting the urge to scream or pull him close. So many things I wanted to do but couldn't.
Why was he so confusing? Why do I get that he didn't like me at all sometimes, and why do I get that he had feelings for me as well? The things he did, the things he says all were leading me to believe that he was confused about his feelings, or was just playing mind games with me. Why do I feel like it was the latter though?
He certainly made me feel comfortable with him, made me love him. He wasn't dumb that he wouldn't know what he was doing. Mason might be just smart and he knew what cards to show and what not to show. But when I think about this, I get confused, because what would he gain by making me fall for him?
"Billie is coming over later." At my arched brows, he explained, "I'm having guests over for dinner. A new partner of mine. I would like for you to be there with me."
"A new partner?" I asked in astonishment, the word ringing in my ears. It took five long seconds for me to let the words tumble out again. "You have a partner?"
It was his turn to pause overlong, but then his full lower lip curled up the slightest bit.
"I didn't before, but I do now."
"Why now?" For the short while I had worked for him, Mason didn't have a partner. Something about this seemed off, and this sudden mention of his new partner and the less enthusiasm in it spoke volumes.
"My hands are tied, Lauren." The quiet, tired note in his tone had me frowning again. He looked almost frustrated for the briefest moment; then he smiled, a downright beautiful -looking smile that I liked to call fake. "They're coming over at six."
I wanted to ask him what was going on because I had sensed it. I didn't speak the language of Mason, but I could understand that something was going on. For a while now, I knew. I never got to ask him because I found the spot he had occupied gone, and I wondered when he had left while I was in my thoughts.
He was right. I had to learn not to live in my thoughts.
For the next hours, I didn't see him again and I didn't bother to look for him. A space from him was all that I needed, even though occasionally, I would think about him.
I ended up helping Billie with some of the work. She taught me a few things in the kitchen and I enjoyed talking to her, telling me all about the men she had fallen in love with and funny stories that had me laughing so many times. And when it was fifteen minutes before six, I quickly took a shower.
I didn't dress to impress; just a simple blue casual dress and makeup...if you could count wearing a lipgloss as a makeup. But by the time I was done, it was a little over six. I didn't think Mason would mind that I was ten minutes late to his dinner.
When I entered the dining room, there were about five people; I had expected less. From the place I was standing, I couldn't make out the woman that was sitting in front of my view, but I could see the others; one had her head angled to the other side, making it hard for me to make a face to it, while the other was young...say about fifteen years or tops? She had blonde hair and a small petite frame.
The other person was a guy; a few years younger than me or a few years older than me, I wasn't sure. He looked exactly like the fifteen-year-old girl, so I knew they were siblings. He had something innocent written on his face and he seemed more interested in his phone than what was in front of him.
Lastly was Mason, in his Armani suit and sitting at the head table. I could tell that he had put a guard up. He was also tensed from the way his shoulders were bunched together, from the lines on his forehead and from the way his eyes had lost all spark, and I was just seeing the glimpse of old Mason in front of me; the one who was merciless and rude.
"Sorry, I'm late." I sought his eyes, but they were expressionless as I came nearer to the table. My eyes found brown ones, and I was startled before I glanced at someone else.
My breathing was cut short.
My hands stayed beside me, curled into fists and shaking. My eyes glued to the one person I hated in the world.
Sitting perfectly well, with a glass in her hand, ready to tilt it to her lips that were curled into a smile. Her eyes so like mine gazed up on me. My body shuddered as if I had been punched in every angle, breath seized and held, fighting shock and disbelief.
This can't be real.
I whirled around to look at Mason, my eyes demanding what my mouth couldn't say, but when he didn't speak and just stared at me with no emotion in his eyes, I took another punch; this one hurt more than anything. And I glanced around the table, at the two strangers and that girl who claimed to be my sister.
I felt dizzy. The room suddenly felt small and all oxygen seemed to be sucked away.
No one said anything.
"Sit down, Lauren." There was a hard edge to Mason's voice that cut me. But it wasn't as painful as the stab of betrayal I had gotten from him.
I didn't sit, just stared straight ahead, immobilized.
"Lauren," It was Ginny's voice this time around; familiar, it sounded, but it was such a tone I was not accustomed to. "Sit down, will you?"
I shot her a look I didn't know I was able to express; so full of hate and anger in one stare. "Don't talk to me like you have the right to, Ginny," I stated icily, looking away from her to Mason, just as a fit of hot and seething anger burned inside me. "What is she doing here?"
"I told you I have a new–"
I found myself shaking my head before he could finish, keeping the hot tears at bay. He let the woman that had abandoned me inside the house I was living in. He made the woman that had caused me pain my entire life his new partner, invited her to dine with us, and for what? To hurt me?
A moment passed where I tried to search for the reasons why Mason would do this to me, but all I could find where the moments I had felt safe with him, the tenderness he had shown me, the trust that had begun to grow—it was all gone now, and I had never felt more heartbroken.
"Please, can I talk to you alone?" I pleaded, clenching my dress to stop myself from screaming and my desperate eyes searched for his.
If we were alone, he would tell me the whole truth. He would tell me he didn't make Ginny his partner, that he wouldn't invite pain and distrust into our lives. If we were alone, he would laugh and tell me he was just playing with my mother, some revenge he had promised to take from my hands into his. I wanted him to say all of these things.
But from the way he was looking at me, I didn't think he would ever say those words to me.
"If you have anything to say to me, Lauren, we can discuss it later. Right now, I'm trying to get to know my new partner and her family—which by the way, I completely failed to introduce you to."
I seemed to make an incredible effort to keep from screaming, or maybe from scratching his eyes out. I breathed deeply with my eyes closed, and only after a few moments did I reopen them. The look on my face, which was unusually determined, indicated that it was not an introduction that I wished to discuss.
"This is Garrett," Mason ignored all my desperate pleas and panicked stare, pointing at the guy sitting opposite him, who was staring at me sheepishly. "And this is Maisie." The fifteen-year-old girl waved a little, and lastly, he looked at the other woman that I had met at his ball. "That's Freya."
I didn't care to know their names. I didn't care about them, so why couldn't he see what I was trying to say? Why was my cry left unheard?
"Her step-kids," he added in the end.
Ginny remarried? Not that I cared in the slightest. So, Freya wasn't her real daughter? Also, didn't care at all.
"I don't care," I found myself saying. "These people are no one to me.
Ginny gasped. "Lauren! I'm your mother."
A hateful look from me fell on Ginny, and I pointed a shaky finger toward her. "If you say that word ever again, Ginny, you would know the extent I would go to to show you how much I hate you. If you speak again, I would not hold myself back from strangling you." There was no doubt that I would do it. Clouded with hate and anger, I was capable of doing anything.
"Lauren," Mason warned.
"Psycho alert," Freya said with a snort, raising her brows and inquiring, "Is that what your father taught you? To speak like that about your mother?"
I was sure my eyes had blackened at the mention of my dad, the poor man who had loved and cared for me, who was there in every step of the way to protect me and keep me away from bad things, and for his upbringing to be questioned, I felt immense anger.
"Don't bloody speak about my dad with your filthy mouth."
"Or you will what? Strangle me too?" Freya's lips quirked up into a smirk.
"Enough," Mason interrupted coldly, enough to shut Freya up and enough to get a hateful glare from me. He met my stare icily and ordered, "Sit down, Lauren. I do not care what had transpired between you two in the past, but you would not speak like that about my partner and her family. In this house, we give every guest of mine respect, do you understand?"
I stumbled back in shock.
"What did you just say?" I asked quietly and in a heartbreaking tone, shocked to the core that he was able to say that despite knowing how hurtful it was.
A raw of emotion flashed in his gray eyes just before it vanished. When he didn't say anything more, and when I felt the sob at my throat, I turned around and marched right out of the dining room, running upstairs so fast that I was afraid I would slip anytime.
I fought to keep the tears from falling but failed. Why would Mason betray me? If he wanted to hurt me, why would he choose this way? My mother...he knew what she did to me and yet, he brought her in front of me. Defended her against me. Embarrassed and belittle me.
Clapping a hand over my mouth, I held back a painful sob that wrenched from my lips and slipped down to my knees, burying my face in my lap. Alone in the large room, I felt physically ill, and as I sat on my knees, fighting down the sob and waves of nausea, I blamed myself.
I should have seen it coming.
I should have confronted him when I first saw my mother at his charity event. I should not have ignored Beth's warning when she expressed her concern.
The door flung open and the evil strode in.
I was on my feet instantly, turning around to face him with my reddened eyes and hateful stare. I hated him at the moment. Unless he gave me a proper reason for doing what he did, I would still hate him tomorrow.
He watched me, his stare was grim and unsmiling.
"You invited Ginny to your charity event on purpose. You made me come face to face with her." My words were heated and biting. "You didn't stop there. You made her your partner and invited her to your house. Why would you do that? Despite knowing she ruined mine and my dad's lives."
His expression was granite hard.
"I told you, not once but so many times, I told you that I hated her because she hurt me and my dad. I told you I didn't want to face her again, Mason." Though my lips trembled, I made no effort to conceal the bitter bite from my tone. "How could you do that to me? Why would you do that? At what point did you think it was okay to hurt me like this?"
His gaze, cool and remote, rested upon my upturned face. "You just don't understand," he murmured, not making any move to step closer to me.
"Then make me understand. Help me understand why you would defend her against me. Why you would say all of those things like I'm no one?"
"I wish I could tell you what you want to hear, but I can't. Ginny is my new partner and there's nothing that can change that."
The very mention of her name made my skin crawl. Yet in that instant, I hated Mason far more, hated him for not caring about my feelings and for what he had done. Most of all, I hated him for still having my heart in a chokehold.
I didn't want to cry again.
"If you want a partner, choose someone else. It doesn't have to be her, Mason, please...anyone but her." I made a choked sound low in my throat, a plea of desperation.
"Her husband died leaving all his assets and company to her. I need her, Lauren."
"So, this is all that it's about? Money? When would you stop caring about money and start realizing that you hurt people in the process of making you richer?"
For an instant, I thought he would not reply. Then he said slowly, "It's already done. I made her my partner, with contract and all."
"If you walk out now, just know that I'm going to leave."
"What do you mean by that?"
"It means I can't stay with someone who doesn't care about my feelings or state of mind."
The merest hint of a smile graced his mouth, but his eyes were cold. "You can't walk away from me," he declared, half amused and half annoyed.
"Why? Because no one has been able to? Because you will stop me?"
"You're bound by a contract."
"The contract doesn't say that we have to live in the same house. I would know because I read every word and every page."
His anger was growing by the second.
"You can't just leave, Lauren. You're my wife–"
For an instant, I could only regard him in stunned incredulity. But fast on its heels came a raging fury. "It doesn't mean anything! It's just a word that has no meaning to us. Yes, we are married, but it's a meaningless marriage that has an expiration date."
"You're not just married to anyone. People would notice that–"
"I don't care! If you don't care about what I'm saying to you, why should I care about what you say? If you're selfish, why can't I be selfish?" My rhetorical question was met with a glare, and I found myself chuckling humorlessly. "That's your problem, Mason. You think everyone is just a robot that you can command anytime you want. Well, I'm not going to listen to you."
He stalked confidently across the room toward me and all at once, the air came alive with a seething tension. He wrapped my hair around his fist so that I was forced to tip my head back. And when I did, I was caught fast in his hard stare.
"You're not leaving." His eyes were no longer icy cold, but heated and searing.
I stared back through eyes that wanted to cry because even though I hated him right now, I still loved him. The love I had for him still roared in my chest, like a living breathing dragon he claimed to live inside me.
"Let go of me."
His hands came down on my shoulders, warm and strong. "Stop being bloody stubborn, Lauren!" he snapped. "You just don't...you don't know anything." He cut himself off to grit his teeth. "Don't make any decision without knowing the facts."
I pushed him away and he lets go of me.
"I don't care. I don't want to stay," I tersely replied. I would not be manipulated. "I want to leave." As fast as I could, away from him. As much as it would hurt me, I had to. I couldn't stay here any longer knowing what I knew.
Knowing that he was hurting me intentionally.
Unless he dropped Ginny, there was no way I was going to stay.
I couldn't open my eyes and find myself in his home, the man I had trusted, turned out to be just like my mother. Though he hadn't abandoned me, he had betrayed me.
My trust in him was lost.
I could never look at him the same way again.
Why can't you let go of my mother and hold on to me instead?
"Eight months is just around the corner," I told him softly. "I don't want to speak to you and I hope you would accept my decision."
Then I left.
And he let me go.