It was a night full of very little sleep. A night I would happily do again. Everything seems near perfect when I wake up, feeling the weight of Jay’s arm on my bare waist. I’m about to turn to face him when his arm tightens, and he pulls me closer to him. His lips caress my spin, sending shivers throughout my body. “Good morning.” His voice is raspy, and I can hear his smile in it.
“Good morning.” I reply.
“I could lay here all day.”
“Let’s do it, I don’t have any plans.”
“What did you make plans for?” I finally turn around to face him, his eyes sleepily travel down my naked torso before a smile break across his face. “Jay?” His eyes finally meet mine and gives me a quick kiss.
“Just have some homework to do. But let’s go on a date tonight.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Anything that will make you happy.” His hand moves a strand of hair from my face then rests it on my cheek, gently running his thumb across my cheekbone.
“As long as I’m with you, I don’t care what we do.”
“I love you.”
“Say it again.”
“I love you Alia.” My eyes water at those words. The ones I’ve been waiting to hear for so long. He kisses me again, a tender and lingering kiss.
“I’ve missed you so much…”
“I know. I’ve missed you too.” I move closer to him, resting my forehead against his chest.
“I feel like I’m going to wake up any minute and this has just been a long and cruel dream.”
“I promise you, it’s not. But it’s getting late into the morning. Why don’t you sleep some more and I’ll go back home to get my homework done. Then I’ll be back here around seven?”
“I can do six.”
“Okay, I’ll sleep some more and see you at six. And it won’t be a dream.”
“I hope not…” He kisses the top of my head, then reluctantly slides out from under the covers. I watch him get dressed, wishing we could have just stayed in bed.
“I’ll be back, Alia. I promise.”
“I love you, Jay.”
“I love you too. Get some rest.” I nod my head, close my eyes, and listen as he leaves the apartment. It’s not long before I fall back asleep.
When I wake up again, I have a text message from Min.
Min: Jay came in with an awfully big smile on his face. Did you have a good night?
Me: We didn’t do a lot of sleeping.
Min: I can’t say I’m surprised. Are you going to tell him about the deal you made with your mom?
Me: Not until we find out the results.
Min: I understand. Enjoy your date, you’re going to have a wonderful night.
Me: How do you know?
Min: Because I’ve been helping him plan the date. He wanted to know what you were into now.
Min: He really loves you, Alia. He wants you to have an amazing night.
Me: Is it bad I can’t wait to see him already?
Min: Not at all!
I take my time getting ready for the date, not sure what to expect, but I settle on a cute red dress, black heels, neutral makeup, and curled my hair. Shortly after 5:00 there’s a knock on the door and when I look through the peephole, I see Jay. He’s dressed in a pair of jeans, a maroon shirt, and a grey cardigan. “I thought you said six.” I say when I open the door. He smiles widely at me, taking in my appearance.
“I got impatient.”
“Have you seen yourself?” He sweeps me up into his arms, sending the butterflies in stomach into a frenzy. I kiss him long and hard, glad I hadn’t put on any lipstick.
“Did Min tell you what I was wearing?” I ask as he gently sets me back down on the ground.
“Yeah, did I go over the top?” He looks down at his shirt, questioning his decision to wear it.
“No, I love it. Makes me happy that we’re matching.”
“Min told me you liked that kind of stuff.”
“I thought you had homework to do, but she told me you just planned the date.”
“That was my homework. I wanted to make sure you’d have a wonderful night.”
“And what do you have planned?”
“First, we’re going to that museum you’ve been begging Min about. Then we’re going to have dinner at your favorite place. And then I thought we would end the night stargazing?”
“It sounds like a beautiful evening.”
Hours later we’re laying on a blanket in the park, looking up at the night sky that is filled with stars. Jay holds my hand to his chest, giving it a tender squeeze every few minutes. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to enjoy the stars.” I say.
“Me too… I stopped going to the rooftop after you left.”
“What happened during that time? Letty said you closed up… Wouldn’t talk to anyone the entire Christmas break.” He lets out a deep sigh, the memory of that time period swirling in his eyes.
“I was processing. Fighting with the urge to succumb to the pills. Telling myself that this was my fault. I was letting myself fall apart…”
“But you came back to school like nothing happened?”
“Micah came over. On New Year’s. He gave me the present you had gotten me. Told me that there was a reason you left. I had to believe that there was a reason because you loved us… I held onto that. It was the only way to get through the grief. So, when I returned to school, I wouldn’t talk about you because it would unravel me.”
“And when the news articles came out?”
“I knew… I knew it wasn’t you. I knew you were miserable. But you never came back… That’s what made me sink back into what I always believed. That I wasn’t anything to you.”
“No, it’s fine… Being angry was the only way I could move on. To get past it all. To keep living my life unhindered but the grief. So I picked up baseball. I played my music again. I started singing. It helped me heal.”
“And when you saw me at the Oakley?”
“I was shocked. After three years, here you were again by utter chance. I couldn’t look at you because the longer I did, the more nervous I became. You were as beautiful and vibrant as ever. And I knew if I tried to say anything to you, the first question would have been ‘do you have a boyfriend’? So I closed down. Reminded myself that you left for a reason, and then I became angry all over again. But the next night, when you thought you were talking to a stranger. I could see it. All the pain and weight you’ve been carrying all these years. My heart broke for you, but I couldn’t let myself believe the truth. If I did, then I would come running back to you like a pathetic love-struck boy. And I couldn’t do that. Three years had gone by and I wasn’t the same person you knew. And the more I learned about you, I realized I didn’t know you at all. I was nervous and thrilled at the same time when we were paired for the competition. But my jackass side came out first. I couldn’t control it. I was afraid if I was too nice you’d know I was still in love with you and nothing you did told me you felt the same way… I needed to find a happy medium. Needed to figure out to be your friend and work with you on this music.”
“How did you find that balance?”
“I didn’t. When I saw that piece of shit drag you out of the bar…” His hold on my hand tightens and he clenches his jaw before taking a deep breath. “After I beat the shit out of him and carried you home, I knew I was still in love with you. I knew nothing would change that. I would be myself around you as best as I could and hope that you felt the same about me.”
Tears cloud my vision, not realizing the turmoil Jay was going through this whole time. “When did you know?”
“When you were sick and asked me to stay. I saw it in your eyes then… Even if it was only a fleeting moment, I knew that you still loved me. But you were restraining yourself. That’s when I decided to talk to you after the competition. If we could just get to the competition, then I could confess to you. I had a whole thing planned, but then I saw those pictures… My heart broke all over again. I knew what that picture of me and Emma must have done to you. When you begged me to let you go… I did because I didn’t think I deserved you at that point, not after everything I’ve done… Min called me, asking why you wanted to leave. I told her and then she said you were planning on leaving for good and I needed to confess my feelings before it was too late. So I ran as fast as I could to you.” He looks over at me as the tears roll down my face. “I wasn’t sure if we would ever be given a second chance, but I think it came at the perfect moment. I wish we had the time that Letty and Emmett did but look at us, Alia. We have grown into amazing people, and I think we needed to be apart to do that. We’re back together now because that’s what’s best for us. And I will always fight for you Alia, you just have to give me the chance to.”
“I won’t leave again. Never. My home is here, with you. With our friends. I cannot bear another day – another moment away from you.” Jay turns over to face me and presses his lips to mine. A sweet and tender kiss. “I’m ready for another night like last night.” I whisper against his lips.
“You don’t have to ask me twice.”
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I reach for Jay but find his spot empty. When I look, I’m in my room alone. Before I can search for him, I notice a notecard sitting against a gift bag. Sitting up, I grab both. Reading the notecard first. “For all the birthdays and Christmas’ I missed.” I pull out a cute coffee mug from the bag, followed by a candle of my favorite scent, a gift card to my favorite store, a turquoise colored sweater, a soft throw blanket, and at the very bottom is an envelope. I pull it out and open the folded paper inside. A puzzle piece falls into my lap – I inspect the piece, realizing it’s the piece Jay took all those years ago. I hold it tightly in my hand and read the note. “I think I knew from the first moment I saw you wearing the necklace again. I knew that this was going to be a hard road to travel down again, but I wasn’t willing to give up. I kept my piece all these years because I knew I would see you again. And I knew we could add those pieces back one day – together. I love you Alia… Now come join me for breakfast.” I put everything back in the bag, a big smile on my face as I race down the hallway. Before Jay can turn around, I wrap my arms around him – squeezing him tight.
“Good morning to you too.” He says with a laugh.
“I’ve missed you.”
“And I’ve missed you.” He sets down the spatula in his hand and turns around to me. “How did you sleep?”
“For the first time in a long while – like a baby.”
“You were out of it.”
“Your fault.” There’s a devilish smile on his face, remembering our joyful night. “Thank you for the gifts. You didn’t have to.”
“I wanted to. There’s more to come.”
“No, not until I buy you something.”
“I have everything I could want right here.” He picks me up into his arms, a laugh escaping me.
“You miss it.” He kisses me quickly before setting me back down on the ground and finishing up with our breakfast. I sit down at the table and open up my laptop, hoping I have the result from one of my finals I took already. “Did you see we have an email from Riverton?”
“No.” I say, my heart dropping.
“I wanted to wait until we could look together.” He removes the eggs from the stove and walks over to me, looking over my shoulder as I pull up my email. It doesn’t take long to see that we didn’t win. We lost by two votes. Two votes that kept us from our dreams… My heart falters, remembering my deal with my mom and how this is far from over.
“Second place. I’m not disappointed in that. Only two votes separated us. That’s a win in my book.”
“Jay…” He looks at me, his face turning to sudden worry at my tone. My throat feels dry, and I know I should have told him… Long before the competition. I should have told him the second I made that stupid deal.
“I-I made a deal with my mom…”
“What kind of deal?”
“If we won, then she had no say in my life anymore. She would leave you all alone.”
“And if we lost?”
“I’d go back to England… For the rest of my life. I’d never step foot back into the United States for as long as she lived.” He falls into the chair next to me, hurt written over his face as he processes this news.
“W-why would you make a deal like that?”
“I was suffocating. I didn’t want to stay either way… I didn’t think you would love me back – after everything I did. I don’t want to leave Jay…” My voice breaks, tears filling my eyes, and the feeling of hopelessness washing over me. “I don’t want to leave you. Not again. Not ever… I was so happy yesterday I didn’t think about the deal. I was so caught up in you, in us, in the prospect of our future.”
“I can’t lose you again… I refuse to ever lose you again Alia…”
“I’ll figure it out. I’ll call Brian, see what he can do for us. I’ll-” As if reading my mind, my phone lights up – Brian’s name flashing across the screen. We both stare at it for a long moment until I finally pick up.
“Hello.” I say quietly.
“I just saw the news about the competition. I am so sorry, Alia. I haven’t alerted your mother yet, but I’m sure she’ll know soon enough. After today, I’m quitting. I think a part of me has stayed all these years to act as a buffer between you and your mother. And now I can leave, knowing you have a chance. I have sent you an email containing everything you’ll need to free yourself from her if that’s what you choose. I know you think you’re like your mother, but you have chosen your friend's happiness over your own for so long. She would never do that. Not even for her own daughter. And your friends, they love and cherish you like you have always deserved. I want you to be happy, Alia. I want you to have a chance with Jay because if he can love you after three years, can still look at you the same way he did all those years ago… He’s going to love you for the rest of his life. I don’t doubt his ability to make you happy. Good luck, Alia. I wish you all the happiness the world can offer.” The line goes quiet and our call disconnects. I look at Jay, shocked by everything that was said.
“What is it?” Asks Jay.
“He’s sending me something.” We both look at my laptop as two emails from Brian appear. The first one says, Open First. I do and see a folder full of pictures and videos. All the pictures I took with Letty and the boys in North Isles. A cry escapes me as I see the first picture Letty and I ever took; We’re in the auditorium, I’m rolling my eyes, but her smile is big and vibrant. The first picture I took with Jay was on the rooftop and the look he’s giving me shows just how much he loved me. “She made Brian delete them.” I explain to Jay. “As soon as I left North Isles, he took all these pictures and videos from me. I lost these memories. I thought they were gone…” I wipe away my tears, not expecting that Brian saved them all these years. That Brian has always been on my side the best way he could. I go to the next email and pull up the attachment. The files contained are long and detailed, but they proved everything I have believed of my mother. That she is an awful human being.
My mother was never innocent. She and Stuart were always working together to steal from the company. He just had the good sense to try and put it all on her first.
If she wasn’t able to clear her name and return to Westbrook, she would leave me in North Isles without ever telling me.
She hired the two men to break into my apartment and ‘scare’ me. Then she had them come back for my phone to see if I had told anyone my suspicions of her because I had always been a ‘nosey bitch’. When Jay thwarted that plan, she had them kidnap me.
She planned the phone call.
She planned them pretending to shoot me.
She planned it all. I was supposed to give up any information I knew willingly after the phone call, but again Jay ruined her plans.
She sent Brian to spy on me. To learn about who I was associated with and all their sins. This research led to the realization that Jay is the son of that ‘whore’ my dad cheated with a couple of years before he left my mother. She didn’t want me around Jay – she hated his mother and could only tolerate his dad when it was convenient for her.
When Jay was offered a scholarship to come to my college, she knew she had to send me away. She didn’t want me anywhere near Jay. So she sent me to England.
But like all her other plans, nothing went the way she expected. I came back home; I reconnected with Jay and the others. She couldn’t stand to see me happy, so she hired a random guy to drug me at the bar. His orders were to leave me in a ditch somewhere with my clothes torn. It was okay if he made me bleed a little. I just needed to be scared enough to not want to stay. But again. Jay intervened.
I bring my hands up to my face, trying to process the information laid out before. I knew my mother was a horrible human being, but this – this isn’t even comprehendible. “What kind of mother does this?” My voice trembles, fighting to stay in control.
“I don’t know Alia… She’s not a mother. She’s not even a decent human being. She had no business bringing you into the world.”
“She said it was okay to make me bleed a little… What does that even mean? What if he had raped me? Even if he hadn’t… The amount of damage that the whole incident could have caused. She doesn’t care about me. She doesn’t care about the damage she has repeatedly caused me over the years. Jay,” I look up at him and see the worry in his eyes. “I barely survived the month spent with her. She belittled me. Made me believe I was nothing. Made me believe that you never loved me… That I could never be loved because I wasn't worth it.” Jay leaves his seat and kneels down before me, holding my hands as tears continue to stream down my face. The pain I feel in my chest is almost as bad as when I left North Isles.
“Alia, she said those things and made you feel that way because she knew that she would never know what it was like to have people who love her like I love you. How Min, Micah, Letty, Emmett, and Vance love you. Your mother will never know or understand that, and she needed someone just as miserable as her. That’s all that was. She wanted you to be just like her. To believe you were no better. But Alia, you are magnificent. You are centuries ahead of her. And you are not broken. You are far from it.” I try to smile, but the sadness I feel crushes it immediately. “I love you, Alia. Whatever you decide to do with this information, I’ll support you a hundred percent.”
“It’s the only way to my freedom.” My voice is quiet but steady. “I’ll use it against her. But I need everyone here. I need Vance to draft an agreement for my mother and me to sign. Have they gone back home yet?”
“I don’t think so, I’ll call real quick and ask for them to come over?”
“Please?” He nods his head, stands up, and picks up his phone off the counter. I turn back to my computer and print seven copies of this document.
“Hey Micah, you haven’t left yet, have you?... Oh good. Look, something happened and we need everyone over here in a few hours if you can manage it?... Sounds good. Thanks.” Jay hangs up and comes back over to me. “They’ll be over around noon, is that okay?”
“That’s good. I’m going to print them all copies to read and keep. It’s time we’re all on the same page. No more lies. Secrets. Nothing. Because I’m going to need you all for this.” He cups the side of my face and I lean into it, feeling like I could break any moment.
“Why don’t we, cuddle up on the couch and put this aside for now until our friends are here?” I nod my head, knowing that I’ll just obsess about everything in these documents until our friends are here and I’m too tired to worry about it right now.
Shortly after noon, Micah, Emmett, Min, Letty, and Vance are all piled on the couch while Jay and I stand before them. I hold the stack of papers in my hand so tightly that they’re beginning to wrinkle. As if sensing my nerves, Jay places a hand on my back and rubs softly. I smile up at him, strength returning to me as I look back at our friends. “I’ve been lying to you all.” I receive various looks of surprise, but they wait for me to explain. “I made a deal with my mother. A stupid and selfish deal that I now regret. If we won the competition she would stay out of my life. If we lost, I would go back to England and never return.”
Emmett is the first one to show the betrayal on his face. “Why would you make a deal like that?”
“I didn’t want to stay. I was going to leave either way.”
“Why?” Asks Vance. “I thought everything has been good between us all.”
“They have but… there’s a million reasons, guys. I was afraid. That’s the biggest one. Afraid that this was too good to be true. Afraid I would have to watch Jay date other girls. Afraid that my mother would find some way to ruin my happiness. None of these reasons were good enough. I know that. And I’m sorry. I really am sorry. I’ve been so stupid these last few months and I think it's time to go back to therapy to work out my issues. But that aside, Brian called me this morning, and he sent me the leverage I need to grant me my freedom from my mother.” I hand each of them a packet of the documents and watch as they read through it, their faces show different levels of disgust as they make their way through it. Jay reaches for my hand, entangling his fingers through mine, and squeezes tightly. Soon, they look up, one by one.
“I don’t even know where to start.” Says Letty.
“She did all that to you? I didn’t even know about the kidnapping.” Adds Min.
“Everything that happened to you in North Isles, was because of her?” I nod my head to Emmett, but his mind can’t grasp something so horrible.
“You’re going to blackmail her?” Says Micah.
“That can be tricky.” Vance sighs.
“I’ll need your help, Vance. I need a document written up that we can sign and notarize that covers our agreement. I won’t release the blackmail so long as she stays out of my life. I’m willing to give up the money, my trust fund, everything that’s tainted by her. As long as she doesn’t come near me or any of you.”
“This road you’re about to walk down…” Micah looks at the packet in his hand and shakes his head. “You know what, no. Do it. If you’re sure, do it. Get away from her. We’ll support you every step of the way.”
“I agree with Micah. Do what you have to do to get away from your mother.” Says Letty.
“When do you need me to draft this document?” Asks Vance.
“By tomorrow?” I look over to Jay, “I thought we could drive down there after our finals.”
“I’ll be right by your side as you tell her.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Aww, so when’s the wedding?”
“Shut it!” I say, but smile at Letty’s remark. Wondering if a wedding is in mine and Jay’s future. For the first time in my life, I have no idea what my future will hold and I’m ecstatic.
═════════════════ ∘◦ ❉ ◦∘ ══════════════════
Jay pulls into the driveway of my Westbrook home and puts the car into park. “I just have to ask… Are you sure you want to give this up?”
“I’ll give up anything to have a chance with you.”
“I hope you don’t regret that…”
“I know I won’t. Because you’re always going to do whatever you can to make me happy. And we’re always going to have our friends there to give us advice and keep us from driving each other crazy. Now, are you ready to have a future with me Jay, or do we need to turn this car around?”
“Not a chance. I’m ready for our future.” I take a deep breath then step out of the car, Jay closely behind me as we enter the house. There’s no Brian in sight, and I wonder if he truly did quit. I hope he did… He needs to start living his own life. Jay and I walk down the narrow hallway to her office. I give a light knock on the doorframe to alert her of our presence, but she doesn’t look up, just says, “I trust you have your things packed.”
“No, I have something else in mind.” Her head snaps up at this, her anger quickly contorts to disgust when she sees Jay.
“You brought him into my house.”
“It’s not his fault that dad likes his mom. They weren’t having an affair before Jay and I were born, right?”
“No.” She says angrily. “It happened after you two were born.”
“Thank goodness.” I say. “I came here to tell you I’m not going to England. Not now. Not ever.”
“You’re going to break our deal, for him?” Jay doesn’t flinch at her abhorrent look towards him, and I want nothing more than to smile at him. But I keep my eyes on the snake before me.
“In light of recent news, our deal is void.” I toss a packet onto her desk and it only takes one quick glance before she knocks it off her desk and into the trash. “I have more.”
“I didn’t raise a stupid child. At least I didn’t think I did.” That last sentence is pointed at Jay and although I want nothing more than to rip into her, I refrain from doing so.
“If you stay out of my life. Stay away from Jay and my friends, I won’t release this information. I’ll keep it tucked away for the rest of my life and not think about you ever again.”
“If this is what you want, you won’t get my money. You won't have your trust. You’ll be written out of the will.”
“I’m fully aware and I’m okay with this.”
“You’re willing to give all of this up for trash like him?”
“What is your problem with Jay? Because dad and his mother had a fling? Quite frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if dad was cheating on you from day one.”
“You’re awfully bold with him here.”
“Because he has never made me feel small and I feel bad that you’ll never have the kind of love that Jay has shown me.”
“No. Beauty fades. Love is something you always work on. But you wouldn’t understand that because you don’t have a heart. I just want you out of my life. Can we agree to go our separate ways?”
“If that’s truly what you want.”
“It is.” I walk closer, putting the document Vance drafted in front of her. “Please review, sign if you’re happy with the terms, and I’ll send you a notarized copy.” She pulls her reading glasses out, scans over the documents, signs, and slides it back over.
“You’re no longer my daughter if you walk out that door.”
“I have never been your daughter. Not from the moment I was born. I have always been your punching bag. And I’m done. I hope you realize how selfish and horrible you have been all these years, but I doubt it.” I take the paper, take Jay’s hand, and we walk out. As soon as we’re in the car, I let an excited shriek escape from me.
“How do you feel?” Jay’s smile is equal to my own, and I have never felt so brave in front of my mother before.
“Incredible… Did that really just happen?”
“Jay, I’m free. For the first time in my life… I can make my own decisions.”
“And what will your first decision be?”
“I want to go to North Isles. Visit the restaurant, walk down our old paths. Maybe go to the rooftop?”
“Let’s go.” All the pressure on my chest has been lifted and I have never felt such exuberance before. I have my friends. I have the love of my life. I have a music career I can finally delve into. My life is falling into place and I have a list of things I plan on accomplishing.