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PUNISHMENT

By jorasojr All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Adventure

Substrate

Lucas closed the biography of Hannah Arendt he was pretending to read. He was sitting in the narrow armchair he preferred, dressed in a torn yellow tee-shirt and black nylon shorts. Angela, on the leather sofa a few feet away, looked up from her laptop with the frown that was souring her face every day now. Lucas forced a grin and went into the bedroom of their small New York apartment to pack for his week at the monastery. He wanted to do it alone, to start his break from her now, as soon as possible. But she followed him in, looking glum, getting the duffel bags out of the closet.

“How many long sleeve shirts should I pack?” she murmured. Lucas wished she wouldn’t be so annoyed that he was going to a religious retreat. He wished he could convey to her how much he loved her. He had tried, but some of the signals he was sending, such as turning away from her in bed when the lights went out, spelled physical rejection, and obfuscated the affection he felt for her. She was somber and shook her head as she went through his drawers, finding socks that were mismatched, something she had once joked about.

“I don’t know,” he said, not looking at her. “Brother William didn’t say what the weather would be like.” He lumbered around the bedroom, undecided as to what to pack. Lucas wished she would leave him alone. Through the open curtains of the two large windows he saw that the summer evening sun was low, its amber light on the building across the street. A pigeon flew to one of the two windows and perched on the sill. As he counted out the tattered briefs he would need for the week, he could hear the bird’s annoying cooing through the glass as it called for its mate. The threadbare underwear irritated him, suddenly, stirring up his dormant self-hatred. Why didn’t he do as Angie did with her own worn undies, throw them out, buy new ones? He looked at the heap of embarrassing clothes on the bed, pretending to be self-absorbed and unaware of Angie’s presence, although in fact he knew exactly where in the room she was. Her quiet anger was like a shrill siren.

Lucas had contacted the monastery of Saint Augustine a month ago, attracted by its remoteness. It sat on the east slope of a two thousand-foot mountain in the Adirondacks, not far from the Canadian border. He had researched religious communities online, seeking moral justification for the work he was doing: prosecuting drug-related crimes. Lucas was not religious, but Simon, a good friend who had been unsure about law school, had gone to a Buddhist retreat in search of answers. He had returned knowing that he would stay in school, although he also would pursue his artwork. He had at first gone to a therapist, who after months of expensive weekly sessions had pronounced Simon’s fear of failure to be due to his Chinese-American parents’ expectations. “Big deal,” Simon said. “I could have told him that at the first session.”

Lucas was an assistant district attorney in New York, and the job had become pure torture. One recent case, a month ago, had been the last straw. A young black girl, an orphan after the 9/11 attacks, had been tricked into prostitution while scavenging for food on the street. She had subsequently become addicted to drugs and developed AIDS. Lucas had been instrumental in putting her behind bars at the age of twenty-three, when what she really needed, he had known all along, was treatment for addiction and rehabilitation.

His doubts about the morality of what he was doing started soon after he got the job, and this was followed by his sexual indifference to Angie. He saw it therefore as cause and effect, and was convinced that if he could be at peace with his work, his sexual interest in Angie would return. He refused to connect the things he had felt as a teenager with his present sexual apathy. Those memories were indelible, but he did not want to link them to the present. It was the reason why he did not want to see a therapist — he didn’t trust them to focus on his job-related issues, thought a therapist would go off in those very tangents, that ancient adolescent history he didn’t want to explore. All he needed, he believed, was to still his conscience about his job, and he wanted to do it efficiently in the week that he had off.

“Tell me why you want to spend time with us,” Brother William had asked on the phone when Lucas called the monastery.

“I’m having problems at work, and I think it’s affecting my marriage.”

“What kind of work do you do?” Brother William asked.

“I’m an attorney. I work in the New York District Attorney’s office,” Lucas said. “But I’m not sure the work I’m doing is ethical.”

“Hmm.” Brother William paused. “I don’t see an obvious connection. But let’s set up a week in August. There will be plenty of work in the garden, and with our goats. We’ll keep you busy with physical work, which will help clear your mind.”

Lucas was relieved when Brother William agreed to his visit, already feeling welcomed, and had smiled at the phone. “All he said,” he told Angie now in their bedroom, “is that they do farming and that they have a herd of goats. He didn’t mention anything about what clothes to bring.”

“Well, good luck with the goats. They’re smelly animals,” Angela snarled, losing her composure as she folded his torn and stained underwear and stuffed it into the duffel bag. “Are you the same guy who told me last month he didn’t want a cat around because of allergies?”

He was annoyed at this flare-up, getting sick of her temper, but he made himself pause to place a mollifying kiss on her cheek as he dashed to the bathroom to get toiletries. He did not allow the opportunity for their lips to connect, had no interest in that show of affection now. All he wanted was peace. She remained stony after the kiss, didn’t look at him, and he felt another stab of escalating resentment, the third one since getting home from work that afternoon. She took some of his torn underwear, wiped some wetness away from her eyes and nose with it, and threw it in the wastebasket.

That night they were silent as they prepped dinner together in the kitchen. Lucas seasoned chicken thighs with salt and pepper, then stuffed fragrant tarragon leaves under the skins before slathering it all with butter. Angie poured them each a glass of white wine, their nightly routine while they made dinner. Conversation always became more relaxed and animated, no matter the tensions of the day, but tonight they were silent as Angie peeled the potatoes that Lucas would dice and scatter around the chicken in the roasting pan.

Angie flung the potato peeler in the sink and turned to Lucas. “Are you having an affair? Is that why we’re not having sex?”

Lucas was shaken again, the interlude of calm shattered. He stopped himself from raising his voice. “There’s no one else,” he mumbled instead. He stopped slicing the lemon for the chicken and turned to face her. He dropped the knife down on to the counter with a clatter and spoke in a slow monotone. “I’ve already told you I think it’s my job. And I need to give this some thought.”

“You haven’t let me near you for three months,” she said, grabbing the roasting pan with the chicken from him and shoving it in the oven. Her voice was rising. “And give what some thought? Us?”

He closed his eyes for a second, and took a deep breath before opening them again. “No, Angie, not us. You know I love you.”

“Then show it.” She moved to the sink to wash the knives and the peeler.

“I hate this job.” He had said these things a dozen times, but he still got agitated saying them. “I’m up at three every morning thinking about work. The guilt never leaves me.” And then something new, out of nowhere: “Sometimes I wish I could just die and get it over with.” He was immediately sorry he had blurted it out, and he saw the alarm on her face. Angie said nothing but looked down, arms crossed again. How absurd that he was suddenly wishing for death, he who was healthy and had been so happy once. So what was the escape? He had thought about divorce, but no. He loved her, didn’t want to push her out of his life. What if instead, he thought now, something horrible, some catastrophic accident befell them both? Again, this unexpected, intruding thought, and he saw her chin drop down to her chest, eyes closed, moisture at the eyelashes, and saw this as hard evidence of her love for him. He had to suppress his own weeping with a dry swallow. He regretted the fleeting fantasy of some disaster erasing their lives. All he wanted was happiness, or at least harmony, to return to their marriage.

“Do you think,” Angie said after a minute, in a softer tone now, “that other men who aren’t happy at work stop being physically affectionate with their wives?” It sounded like an earnest question, not a rhetorical challenge.

Lucas covered his face with his hands. He didn’t want to cry, didn’t want to make the evening worse than it was, but her change from anger to wanting a truce, to reconnect, made him vulnerable. “I can’t answer for other men,” he managed to say into his palms. “This is just who I am.”

Afterwards, the evening became quieter, gloomier, no matter how much wine she poured. Like ink from an octopus, the tension between them permeated and darkened the space around them.

They ate in silence in the small dining area, which was just an extension of the living room near the kitchen. Angie normally would have said, “Yours is the best roast chicken, ever,” but tonight she kept her eyes down on her plate of food and didn’t finish, a rarity. There was a somber look to her face now, different than the anger earlier in the evening, and he regretted again speaking of his death wish. He didn’t want her sympathy; he wanted her understanding. Lucas kept glancing at her, trying to bridge the schism he felt he was causing, but she remained closed off.

“What are you looking for?” Angela asked him after dinner when they were in the kitchen cleaning up. Her tone had changed for the whole evening. There wasn’t a trace of accusation. It was the same question Brother William had asked him on the telephone. When he said he was hoping that meditation might lead to inner peace about his job, Angela shook her head and said, “But a religious retreat, Lucas? You don’t even believe in God. What’s going on?” She opened the dishwasher. “Really. What’s going on?”

He closed his eyes before answering, partly from mental exhaustion, but he also wanted to close the door on her and on this repeating discussion. “I’m trying to understand myself more, what I want out of my professional life.” He turned away and went on loading the dishwasher, not having the energy to rehash it all now, anticipating that the getaway would be a break from this tension. It would be a relief to be away from her.

She dropped her chin in frustration, her curly dark hair flopping forward on her brow. She looked like a sorrowful child. Remorseful that he had even fantasized of some disastrous event that would relieve him of her, he embraced her. His wide frame engulfed her small figure, his ochre hair on her auburn curls. It was the first embrace in many days, and a year ago it might have led to the bedroom. He kissed the top of her head, still scented of her pear shampoo since this morning’s shower, and continued holding her without making another move. She freed herself from his arms and went back to the living room, and he finished the cleaning up alone.

At bedtime, they each read, Angie a carnage by Stephen King, and Lucas Our Lady of the Flowers, by Jean Genet. Tonight it was Angie who without looking at him closed her book, turned out her bedside lamp, and murmured “Good-night” as she turned away from him.

Lucas considered touching her shoulder now, he felt such love for her, and felt an oppressive guilt about being the cause of her unhappiness, about wishing death for himself, for her. But he knew that even if she responded to his overture, he would probably not become aroused enough to engage in sex with her, at least not the intensity of sex he knew she expected. He had learned years ago that trying to please her sexually without penetration was futile and led to immediate resentment, and an angry distance the next morning. He chose to withhold his show affection rather than risk another round of her feeling rejected.

He tried to remember the last time he had a good erection. It had been this morning, actually, as it was most mornings. In those first minutes of wakefulness, the images in his brain, perhaps leftovers from his dreams, were of his years in the football team, the horseplay with his teammates. But he was sure to lose the erection if he started foreplay with Angie.

How did things deteriorate like this? Their first years together in college, right after he gave up football, were sensuous and fun. He remembered their first few months together, how sexual, how spontaneous they were at Vassar College, and how much fun they had decorating this, their first apartment together, after graduation. They had moved to New York immediately after college, she for work, he for law school. Nightly they would pour wine and talk about the day, plans for vacation, who they’d see on the weekend. After their marriage, while he was still in law school, their eroticism cooled somewhat, but there was enough affection and physicality so that there were no difficulties.

Things worsened significantly after he began this job, a plum position Angie’s father, a law professor, orchestrated for him. It seemed at first like a great opportunity, but he wondered if that was part of the problem. The job was like a gift from a man he didn’t like, and who only just tolerated him. As he fell asleep, he fantasized about getting a transfer to another department in the District Attorney’s Office, although he already had been told, several months ago, that it was not going to happen. Jobs had been reassigned and frozen after 9/11, and the budget had been cut.

When he awoke, the thought of going to the office, in the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse all the way downtown, made him queasy. He considered calling in sick, but it was Friday, and he’d be leaving for the monastery the next day. He didn’t think taking an extra day off before a scheduled vacation would be a good idea.

*

Brock Stone, the Assistant District Attorney he reported to, had approached him last week, wanting to talk to him, but Lucas had been in court most of the week, and had not had the time. Lucas would find the time today. Brock was a heavy-set black man in his late forties, already a grandfather, and Lucas had always liked him for his no-nonsense yet affable manner. The sleeves of Brock’s dress shirts were perpetually rolled up, even when he put on his suit jacket to go to court.

Lucas unlocked the door to his office and walked into his cramped, windowless space, with shelves full of law books and stacks of papers on the floor, and sat down at his desk. He left the door open to air out the paper mustiness. Within minutes Brock knocked on the door frame. “Can I come in a second, Luke?” he asked.

Lucas closed his laptop. “Sure,” he said, pushing his chair away from the desk.

“You’ve been looking pretty miserable lately, Luke,” Brock said, pulling the only other chair from a corner and bringing it closer to Lucas. “Everything OK with you?”

“Well, mostly, yes,” Lucas said. This was going to be the conversation he had thought about last night before falling asleep.

“Everything OK at home?” Brock paused and raised his eyebrows. “I have to wonder, because your productivity has taken a dive the past three months.”

Lucas wasn’t expecting this. He moved his chair closer to Brock. “Actually, no. Things at home are not good. As a matter of fact, the work I’m doing here seems to be getting in the way of my home life.”

“I don’t understand.” Brock’s voice had inched up. “You’ve let some cases drag on forever the past few months. How is your work here impacting on your home life? I would think it’s the other way around, that something at home is affecting your performance here.”

“Brock, everything I read about drug abuse and addiction, the crimes I’m charged with prosecuting, tells me it’s a disease. These people should be getting medical help, not being put in jail.”

Brock shook his head. “If it’s a crime, we have a job to do, Luke.”

Lucas leaned back in his chair. “I can’t help my conscience, Brock.”

“You’re telling me that because drug addicts and dealers, criminals with the worst, basest behavior, are in need of medical treatment, they should get a break?

“You should see the nitty-gritty of some of these cases, Brock. It’s heart-breaking, sometimes.”

“I’ve seen the nitty-gritty. For twenty-two years I’ve been looking at nitty-gritty. They break the law, we have an obligation to the social order, Luke.”

Lucas put his forehead in his palms, and dug the heels of his hands into his eyes. He shook his head, wanting to be rid of the memory of the young black woman. He went to his desk and got out an affidavit the social worker on the case had filed on behalf of the young woman, and gave it to Brock.

Department of Social Services

City of New York

June 22, 2011

Affidavit of Contact

Subject: Dorothy Spare

Interviewer: Jennifer Constanza, MSW

Subject (Dorothy) being interviewed three days after arrest for drug possession and prostitution. Perceived by appointed defense attorney and presiding judge to have possible mental/cognitive impairment during initial hearing of the case.

Dorothy states she has no family or next of kin. Her grandmother…

I be livin’ with my grannie Lucretia since I be five, ‘cos my momma dead, and my father long gone. I had two brothers, but they gone too. I never knew my daddy. My momma dead from drinkin’ and using. Probly crack. So it was my grannie and me in her apartment in the Bronx. I slept on a maroon couch, no sheets if I be too tired to put them on. My grannie went to bed early ’cos she go cook breakfast at the twin towers, you know. There be a restaurant at the top. She chop onions and peppers for omelets, and she made biscuits, so she left ’fore I was up.

When the attacks happen I be in math class in school, and Miss Ruiz be tryin’ teach us some’n ’bout a square root, which didn’t make no kind of sense ‘cos ever’body know roots be long and roun’. That’s when Mr. Porter from the principal office come into the classroom wifout knocking. I liked him ’cos he the only black person in the principal office, ‘though he lighter than me, but that day he look like he seen a ghost, eyes poppin’ outa his head. So he talk to Miss Ruiz, an’ her eyes poppin’ too, even though they Chinese-like, but she be Spanish from somewhere. So Mr. Porter say, “Boys ‘n girls, they been terrible accident at the World Trade Center, an’ we have to send you home.” So ever’body askin’ wha’ happen, wha’s goin’ on, an’ he says, “Two planes done crash into the towers, an’ they be on fire.”

I start screamin’, ‘cos my grannie there, you know, an’ some of the boys are hootin’ and hollerin’ ‘cos we goin’ home, they be so stupid. I didn’t wait for no school bus, I walk home, an’ when I got there I turn on the TV an’ I see bofe towers down on the ground, but they keep playin’ the tape of people jumpin’ outa windows n’ smoke n’ flames from the top, and I prayed my gran be able get out and maybe she on her way home. I keep lookin’ out the window at the sidewalk downstairs to see if she coming. That’s when I notice the answerin’ machine light blinkin’, like there’s a message, and when I play it, it’s my grannie’s voice, an’ she sound short a breath, and she sayin’ they seen a plane fly into the building, and they be a big ’splosion, and nobody can git out ‘cos the elevators ain’t workin’, an’ the stairs full a smoke, an’ they be fire downstairs, too. Then she says for me not to go out no more today, stay in, an’ then she says smoke comin’ into the kitchen where she at, and I hear her coughin’ and chokin’, an’ the phone go dead.

I never been so scared in all my life. I gone to our neighbor next door, Julia, an’ knock, but nobody home, so I gone back an’ lock the door an’ sat by the window until dark, prayin’ hard to Jesus my gran come home, but it was no use. That night I woke up all the time, thinkin’ I’m hearing the door open, like she be home, but I be dreaming. Next day I gone to all the neighbors I knew in the buildin’, but nobody knew nothing about my grannie, or what to do. One a them said she goin’ to call the police to come get me if my gran hadn’t made it, ‘cos I be too young to live alone, and they goin’ put me in a safe place for children with no family.

That’s when I gone to my friend Rowena’s apartment, next block over? an’ I ax if I can stay a few days so the police don’t find me, but I don’t say the police part, an’ she say OK, ‘cos her brother done gone in the Army and they have some room now. So after five days I gone home again n’ just waited. I don’t know what I waitin’ for. I guess my grannie.

After a few days I run out of food. The fridge be empty ‘cept for some pickles an’ mustard an’ ketchup, so I make tomato soup wif ketchup an’ hot water like I seen on TV? I didn’t have no money to buy nothin’. I started goin’ to the A&P store an’ takin’ lil’ things when nobody lookin’ n’ put them in my pockets or under my shirt, but the cashiers those bitches saw me leavin’ ever’ day wifout nothin’ to pay for, an’ next day a man from the store follow me roun’ ’til I left. I tried ‘nother supermarket but it be too small an’ I couldn’t take nothin’.

After three days I be so hungry I gone to MacDonald an’ tried to git a job, but they say I be too young, only thirteen. I sat on they tables an’ saw they took the French fries sittin’ on the hot shelf an’ threw ’em out after a while, so I ax ’em if I could have ‘em an’ they say no, I have to pay for ‘em. That’s when I got the idea to go in back, where they keep the garbage, but a man come out and say go away or he’ll call the police. I gone back after eleven that night, after they close, but they be rats an’ I was too afraid, they don’t run off when they seen me. So I gone back befo’ six nex’ mornin’, when they open, an’ got me some stale fries and buns an’ even half a burger somebody don’t finish. I be so hungry.

A few days later a car stop by the MacDonald when I lookin’ through the garbage. It be early, five-thirty, an’ the man drivin’ come out of the car and axes what I’m doin’, so I tole him, and he say, look here, don’t you have no mama and no papa? An’ I say no, I be all alone, my grannie dead two weeks, I ain’t got nobody else, an’ I’m hungry. I was prayin’ he wasn’t goin’ to call the police, but this man he be smilin’, dressed real nice, an’ he smells good, an’ the car is a big fancy car, an’ he say, here, an’ he give me a small pipe, like Popeye smoke? an’ he say if I suck on it, it make me happy and forgit I’m so lonely. An’ now I know this be crack, but then I forgit everythin’ bad, everythin’ look good, an’ I be happy again. So he say if I go wif’im he give me plenty a food an’ I always be happy. He had me suck on the pipe again, an’ I gone wif’im.

I wish I not done that, go wif’im I mean. I wish I hadn’t been so stupid an’ so lonely, an’ that my gran hadn’t died. I was so afraid an’ so hungry.

I don’t wanna talk about what Rudy, that be his name, did to me. But it was sex, you know. But he give me crack to smoke first to make it easier, so it don’t hurt. He didn’t let me leave the house at first. He brung other men in the house, a big brick house not far from my grannie’s apartment, an’ I had to do them too, you know, an’ I saw they pay him.

Later, he send me out on the street to look for men on my own after school hour’ so nobody git suspicious. I thought I could git away, you know, go back to my grannie’s apartment. I still had the keys. But I gone n’ they change the locks, somebody else there, an’ anyways I need the crack, so I had to go back to Rudy.

The cops, they got me several times. Rudy always got me out somehow, after bein’ in a big buildin’ for bad kids, like a warehouse, then seein’ a judge in court. He done always got me out, tole ‘em I be his niece an’ ever’body else dead. I had no one else to live wif, so I never tole the truth about Rudy being no relation, until today here wif you. An’ I got AIDS now, too.

Dorothy is now twenty-three years old. She admits to being arrested several times for prostitution and for having crack cocaine and other drugs on her person before this current arrest. She expresses herself in simple language, but she’s intelligent. She wept several times during the interview, and we had to stop for her to compose herself.

By my signature below I affirm this is an accurate account from the subject.

Jennifer Constanza, MSW

Brock had started shaking his head before he had even finished reading. “It’s a sad story, for sure,” he said. “But she was still a criminal. It’s our job to prosecute these cases. Otherwise, what?” he said, getting up. “They keep using, killing themselves, dealing in it?” He started moving towards the door. “You just have to do your job, Luke. Let the system change how society handles the bigger problems.” He opened the door but stood at the threshold and looked at Lucas. “Until that happens, we do our job. Consider this a warning.” He left and closed the door.

Lucas went back to his desk, opened the laptop, but found he couldn’t concentrate. He was preparing a brief for a court case in which a drug-dealer, a repeat offender who had stabbed a competitor, would be serving a long sentence. It was of the few cases in the past year he felt good about, and he needed to focus, but Brock’s visit and his threat had shaken him, and he needed to resolve this.

He closed his laptop and went in search of Brock, whose secretary, Michelle, looked up from her typing when he approached her desk. “What’s up, stranger?” She was around his age and divorced. She had a wide pug nose that Lucas thought made her look like a cartoon of a pig, despite her shiny brown hair and big breasts, cantaloupes in mesh bags. “I don’t see you around any more.”

“Is he in there?” He pointed to Brock’s door.

“Nope. Said he had to step out for some fresh air.” She looked at him with unblinking blue eyes. “You want me to let you know when he gets back?”

“Please.” He started to walk back to his office.

“Hey, counselor,” Michelle said to his back, and he turned around. “You’re looking kind of stressed out lately. If you ever want to talk about work or anything,” she said, smiling. “You know, blow off steam.” She widened her smile and shrugged. “We can go out for a drink or something.”

“Thanks,” Lucas said, and turned away. “Let me know when he gets back.”

Twenty minutes later Michelle buzzed his line. “Hey,” she said, “Brock’s back. I told him you wanted to see him. He’s ready for you.”

Brock was at his desk, and Lucas sat down opposite him in the only extra chair in the room, making sure to close the door first.

“Look, Brock,” Lucas said, “I really have been trying here, but I can’t do this forever.”

“Forever? You’ve been here only a year,” said Brock from behind his desk. Lucas noticed that he did not move his chair to be closer to him. “Hardly forever. You know how long I was in my first position in this office, going after delinquent traffic violators? Six years. Six long years of crappy work.”

“It’s a moral issue with me, Brock. I know you’ve already said no, but if there was another department I could transfer to I’d be OK,” he said. He leaned forward in his chair, wiping his sweaty upper lip. “I mean, it doesn’t seem fair that I’m seeking punishment for these poor jerks, while other guys are working on the aftermath of 9/11, prosecuting terrorists.”

Brock leaned back in his chair. “They’re bored and frustrated too,” he said. He was frowning now, close to a scowl.

“You can’t be serious. The two jobs don’t have the same importance.”

“Luke, the job of a janitor in a school is not as prestigious as that of the principal, but he’s there to keep the whole system going, without which the principal wouldn’t have a decent place to take a leak and flush. Just do your job,” Brock almost shouted. “I’ve told you before, there are no other positions available at this time.” He paused and looked hard at Lucas. “Or you can leave.”

“Look,” Lucas said, his forehead pouring sweat, soaking his eyebrows, “you know I’m off next week. I’m going on a retreat, hoping to figure things out. If I’m able to reconcile my work here with my conscience, I’ll stay on. If that doesn’t happen, I’ll start looking for another position.”

Lucas saw that Brock was nodding and that his lips were held in a tight line. Brock stood up and opened the door, indicating the meeting was over. “You’re a smart, talented lawyer, Luke. But this is maybe the wrong job for you.”

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