If you subscribe to my newsletter, you’ll know that I’ve had a bit of stage fright with respect to this new novel.
You will also know that despite my fears, I have decided to go ahead with releasing it to my beta readers by the end of the month. Eek!
As for the rest of you, here are the first three unedited chapters. Hope you enjoy. And please, feel free to leave me feedback in the comments. I do read each and every one of them.
Definitely, Maybe by Megan Carr
Didn’t anyone believe in casual sex anymore?
John rubbed the stubble along his jaw as he pondered the thought, his fingers pausing at his chin as he stared out the office window across the gray Portland skyline. The mid-November rain covered the city almost non-stop now, and the dreary day only added to his foul mood.
Where were all the women he dated in college, women that wanted the same thing he did: sex with a stranger, no strings attached. What had changed over the last three years?
What had changed, he told himself, was that many of those women had husbands now; some even had families.
John turned from the window and sat down at his desk with an exasperated sigh. Reclining against the supple black leather chair, he pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes and tried to block out the look on Sasha’s face as he’d helped her into the cab this morning.
She’d wanted to linger in bed. He could tell she wanted to cuddle or snuggle — the words alone made his skin crawl — or, God forbid, she would bring food and coffee in and laze around, spilling crumbs all over his 600-thread count sheets. No, it was better this way. No strings. No encumbrances. No problems. The last thing he needed, or even wanted, was some lovesick woman looking for anything more than a one, or two-night, stand. He liked things simple and straightforward. Just two healthy consenting adults enjoying a Saturday evening dinner, a few glasses of outstanding Syrah, and a night of passionate sex. What was so difficult about that?
John removed his hands from his face and blinked. That part he would miss. Sasha was fantastic in bed.
He inhaled deeply and sat up straight, leaning forward toward his laptop. He logged in to the inter-office network and sent a note to his secretary, Jessica, giving her instructions to send the standard bouquet of English hybrid roses with a short note to Sasha. He double checked her name and address in his contacts and copied it into the email, clicking send without any further explanation. He wondered at times what Jessica thought of his recurring flower deliveries, but he knew she was too professional to ask and was astute enough to know he’d fire her on the spot if she ever tried.
He liked Jessica. She was older, yes. But she never asked personal questions, she was prompt, efficient, and most importantly, unattractive. She was the perfect secretary, and he hoped she’d never leave. Lord knows he paid her well enough to stay.
John clicked out of the network and glanced at the neatly stacked pile of mail next to his laptop. See? This is exactly what he meant: here it was Saturday morning and Jessica had made arrangements for his weekend mail to be delivered to his office and placed neatly on his desk; letters and catalogs all arranged in a perfect, rectangular stack, with his monogrammed, sterling silver letter opener lying exactly perpendicular to the mail. This small act of organization made the corner of John’s mouth lift. He appreciated a sense of order and respected like-minded individuals, especially employees. As he reached for the stack, he considered the idea of giving Jessica a larger-than-expected Christmas bonus. The holiday was only a month away, after all, and she had definitely earned it.
He picked up the pile and tossed the extra-thick Christmas catalogs into the bin, sorted through the junk mail — a flyer advertising a furniture sale at a store he’d never heard of and an offer for higher-speed internet service — and dealt with the client payment envelopes. As he held the diminishing pile in his hands, a thick, ivory envelope slid out and dropped onto his desk. John held the textured piece in his fingertips and stared at the return address: Mr. and Mrs. Leoh Liu. It was obviously a wedding invitation, and the familiar last name made John’s stomach suddenly turn to water.
Could it be her? He let himself momentarily hang on the possibility it was someone else before acknowledging what he already knew to be true. It had to be her. He closed his eyes for a brief second. Adeline was getting married.
He let the thought sink in as he sat back against his chair, holding the envelope and swiveling to glance out at the traffic crossing the Freemont Bridge. Although the sky was cloudy and dark, the skyscrapers and the bridges still looked attractive, if not somewhat mysterious, and he admired the architecture and the environment. Portland, Oregon: The City of Bridges. The City of Roses. The Pacific Northwest. Known by so many different monikers, John knew it would be difficult to leave this busy, strange city for cold, damp London. But, as he shook his head and glanced back at the envelope in his hands, he knew he was ready to move on. He was wired for business and making money, not settling down and making himself into a husband.
He let the envelope fall to his lap as his thoughts drifted back three years prior.
John and his roommate Robert had just graduated from the University of Portland. Robert’s parents had flown in from Idaho to see their son matriculate, and John remembered, with a twinge of jealousy, how much trouble they’d gone to to make the trip, and how immensely proud they were of Robert.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his own parents. Not that it mattered. His parents divorced when he was young; the elder John Voss found the company of other women preferable to that of his faithful wife, and he harbored no guilt at leaving the mother of his child with relatively nothing. His father’s seemingly limitless money bought the best lawyers, and his pre-nuptial contract bought him his freedom.
John’s mother, working two jobs to support herself and her son, was rarely present in John’s life, and as a result John learned to rely on himself, and himself alone. His relentless drive and early independence earned him a full-ride academic scholarship to University. He’d never had to depend on anyone’s money, and he vowed he never would. He sent his mother a check each month to cover her basic expenses, but it was without emotion — she was just another vendor in his accounting system.
Humanity, John discovered, was a switch. Something he could turn on or off. And most of the time, he preferred it off.
Ah, but the college years…those were indeed fun.
He smiled as he thought of the late school nights with Robert, stumbling out of dark bars and into taxis just as the sun warmed the skyline behind Mt. Hood. The two young men climbing the wide front porch steps to their shared Victorian home off of Burnside, only to catch a few hours’ sleep before groggily waking up for classes.
That life seemed like someone else’s now.
They had few cares back then, and even fewer responsibilities. Life consisted of sleeping late, biking to class, putting in a few hours at their respectively ridiculous jobs, and then hitting the clubs to prowl for women. It wasn’t a rare occurrence that John would wake in the middle of the night to the sound of rapturous moaning from the room across the hall, or pad out into the kitchen for a late night beer, only to find Robert; a woman in his arms and his tongue in her mouth, sprawled across the living room sofa.
He was no monk himself, and although he tried to be a little more discreet than Robert, he’d had his fair share of loud bed springs and demands to keep it down hollered across the hallway.
John shook his head and chuckled as he thought about how carefree life was back then. How very little either of them had to really worry about, and how much life changed when Adeline arrived.
The first time John and Robert saw her, she was sitting in the bar of a swanky restaurant, thirty floors above the pavement and sidewalks of downtown Portland. The roommates were there to partake in the city’s best happy hour menu, and John noticed her immediately.
Adeline was sitting against a purple velour sofa next to an overweight, slightly balding man in a suit that looked to be two sizes too small. At first glance, John assumed she was only conversing with the man while waiting for someone else, but as he neared the bar, John realized she was actually with him, watching in surprise as the man casually reached over and laid his hand on her knee.
As John placed his martini order, he watched the overweight man began to rub his thumb in circles on Adeline’s leg, inching his fingers higher underneath her deep red dress. Because she made no move to deter his advances, John immediately assumed she was a prostitute — albeit the best-looking hooker he’d ever seen. His interest piqued, he continued to observe the interaction intently and quickly realized there was something about the way her eyes didn’t quite meet the man’s, or maybe it was the way her smile stopped short, that made him reassess his original conclusion.
She looked uncomfortable, and this made John stop and pay attention.
“Hey! Did you hear me, man?” Robert interrupted. “Are you even listening?”
John snapped out of his trance and turned his attention, momentarily, to his friend.
“Sorry, what did you say?” But a moment later he’d returned his gaze to the woman in the red dress.
Just then, Adeline suddenly grabbed her cocktail glass, took a slow, seductive sip of the alcohol, and then abruptly threw the contents (nearly half the glass, John would remember later), into the face and upper chest of her date.
John whistled high through his teeth. “Did you see that?”
“What I’m seeing is a beautiful scene right in front of me. Look at them!” Robert said, swatting John’s bicep with the back of his hand. “I think these two are giving us the green light.”
Confused, John followed Robert’s gaze to two women across the bar. A blonde and a brunette sat on tall bar stools, both swirling their striped straws around the inside of their too-tall cocktail glasses. When the blonde made eye contact, John swallowed hard as she slid her tongue out of her mouth and licked the rim of her glass, never breaking eye contact with him.
Robert could barely contain himself and elbowed John hard.
“Sweet Jesus! Did you see that?” Robert asked, his voice rising several octaves.
But John wasn’t nearly as interested in the blonde as he was the woman in the red dress, who was now standing up and walking away from her obese date. He watched as Adeline strode across the bar, her long black curls sliding across the tops of her shoulders as she wove in between chairs and tables. The way her hair moved and flowed, it reminded John of the bolts of silk fabric his suit maker would lay out for him to inspect. It was as if her hair had a life of its own. He was mesmerized into speechlessness.
But her date was not. And a moment later the bar noise came to a sudden silence as the fat man bellowed obscenities at her from across the room. Adeline stopped mid-stride and froze. She slowly looked around the room, catching the eye of each customer, before turning on her heel and walking intently back to her date. By this time the man had painstakingly gathered himself up from his seat on the couch, crossed his arms as well as he could across his enormous chest, and nodded his head at her.
“Yeah, that’s right. You heard me,” he sneered.
John watched as Adeline lengthened her stride, reaching the man in just a few steps. And just as he opened his mouth to ridicule her again, she drew her hand back and slapped him forcefully across the face, her black hair whipping with the momentum of her movement. The loud thwack seemed to reverberate through the bar as the rest of the patrons mumbled and gasped.
“Call security!” an employee shouted from the back of the room.
“No need,” Adeline replied, her voice as smooth as velvet. “I’m finished here.” And she turned and headed toward the corridor of elevators.
John couldn’t help himself.
He threw a few bills on the bar and hurried toward the elevators, following Adeline into the first one available. By the 15th floor he had her name. When they reached the ground floor, he had her number, and within 24 hours her arm was in his as they strolled the colorful hallways of the Portland Art Museum — a perfect Saturday afternoon first date. Afterward, they took a cab for ice cream and then stayed up all night making out in his bedroom. She tasted of caramel and peaches and a sweet saltiness that caused his blood pressure to burst. She drove him crazy with her mouth and it was all he could do to not rip her clothes off right then and there.
By the end of the week she was in his bed, and by the end of the month he was in love. Hard love. Love like he had never experienced before. Love that scared him.
Love that blinded him.
And six months after they started dating, Adeline suddenly stopped returning his calls. A normally calm, cool and collected John found himself at her apartment, disheveled and irrational, pounding on her door begging her to let him in and explain to him what went wrong. Neighbors finally threatened to call the police if he didn’t leave.
He slept in his car in her parking lot, waiting for her to come home. He stopped shaving, stopped caring about his classes, and missed a week straight of work. His boss threatened to fire him, and his advisor warned he wouldn’t graduate unless he pulled his act together.
It was Robert who finally sat down with him one night and told him the hard truth: she was gone, and she wasn’t coming back, and there really wasn’t anything John could do about it except get his life back together, buckle down in school, and start living like a human again.
From that moment on, John developed the thick skin that would later help drive him to the top. He kept women at arm’s length and focused solely on his classes and building the business that would make him independently wealthy by age twenty-nine. He dated again, of course, but only for sex. He developed his own dating rules: no matter how great she was in bed, after a weekend together, she was history. Period. Don’t get attached and don’t be fooled. After all, a cold heart was better than a broken one.
And he’d done a pretty good job of living according to his stipulations. He’d graduated at the top of his class from the University of Portland with an undergrad in Business Administration and continued on to earn his MBA with a focus in Finance. It was an impressive resumé that he never needed to show. He had job offers from firms in Portland, Spokane, and Seattle before he even accepted his diploma, and had made enough money in his first two years out of school that he was currently completely debt-free. John single-handedly built his consulting company from the ground up. He was affluent, intelligent, and admired. And he knew it.
He enjoyed his life. He enjoyed his business and the freedom his money gave him. And most of all, he enjoyed the massive brick wall he had so painstakingly built around himself. He didn’t try and deny it. He embraced the wall, and the wall embraced him.
Life was exactly the way he wanted it.
So, it came as a tremendous shock when he slid his letter opener under the oversize flap of the envelope, withdrew the elaborate wedding invitation and read the sleek embossed words:
Mr. and Mrs. Leoh Liu
are pleased to announce the marriage
of their daughter
Adeline Grace Liu
Mr. Robert W. Keller
Saturday, December 16th
Silcox Hut – Historic Timberline Lodge
Government Camp, Oregon 97701
Reception to follow
John lurched forward in his chair and studied the invitation again. He could feel his eyebrows pulling together as he turned it over in his hand, examining the backside as if evidence of the cruel joke was written there.
“What the hell?” he whispered. A small tremor of panic rose in his chest and he inhaled sharply.
He read the words again, this time slower, and his eyes lingered on their names.
Adeline. Robert. Adeline and Robert?
His college roommate and the woman that broke his heart. Getting married.
He whispered their names and swallowed hard; his mouth suddenly dry.
“What in the fucking hell!” he yelled, his voice echoing off the floor-to-ceiling windows in his spacious office.
A moment later his door burst open.
“Mr. Voss?” Jessica asked, a look of bewilderment across her face.
She hadn’t planned on coming in on Saturday and was now wondering why her normally stoic employer was sweeping the entire top of his desk contents onto the floor. Pewter picture frames crashed to the ground as the glass shattered and splintered from the impact. His laptop bounced across the carpet as the screen folded backwards at such an angle that Jessica instantly knew it was irreparable.
Holding her hand over her mouth, Jessica’s widened eyes noticed movement in the space above John’s reddened and furious face. As she looked closer, she realized what it was: tiny pieces of ripped ivory paper twisted, spun, and spiraled down, down, down before finally coming to rest across the pattered wool carpet in the plush office of John Voss, II.
Claire Hollister stood at the kitchen counter holding her favorite mug in one hand — the one that said, “Fucking Great Lawyer” in minuscule typeset letters — and sorted through her mail with the other. The coffee was microwaved, and tasted stale, but she was desperate — she was out of fresh beans and hadn’t had time to go to the store the night before. She could stop at her favorite Starbucks on the way to the office, of course, but the thought of losing five pounds before the office Christmas party next month was enough to make her swallow the acid-laden coffee happily.
She set all the bills and flyers aside and skipped through to the thick fashion magazine at the bottom, grabbing it up and running her hand across the smooth, glossy cover. It was only mid-November in the Pacific Northwest, but the weatherman had been calling for snow all week. Claire hadn’t paid it much attention; the weather in Oregon could never be counted on and gave a foundation to the common saying amongst Oregonians, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.” Despite the temperature outside, the magazine in her hands looked like the picture of spring: a fuchsia logo in bold letters across the top of the cover, a photo of an attractive woman sitting against an art gallery wall, modern canvases surrounding her at odd angles. The model wore a bright yellow dress and a pair of black motorcycle boots. Everything in the photo was at odds with itself. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to it, Claire thought.
She was already dressed, hair and makeup finished, gym bag and lunch packed, so she didn’t feel guilty about easing herself onto a kitchen barstool and savoring the small luxury. She folded down the corners on a few pages; a long, floral dress that reminded her of something from Jane Eyre, and a gauzy cowl neck sweater in black, paired over a strapless, white, one piece swimsuit. How wonderful it would be to be lying on a beach somewhere warm, the oversized brim of my hat blocking the glare of the sun as I soaked up the rays, the soft sand underneath my feet…Claire could almost feel her skin softening with perceived warmth.
The sound of geese flying outside her kitchen window brought Claire back to reality with a start and she roughly flipped the magazine closed; all thoughts of warm sandy beaches evaporating instantly. Maybe some day.
As she turned on the tap to rinse her coffee cup, Claire noticed the return address label on a thick ivory envelope sticking out from under the electric bill. She paused, set the cup under the stream of water, and thought about the name.
It felt like somewhere in the back of her brain a small voice was straining to be heard. She knew the name she saw on the envelope from somewhere. But where? Was it a client? No. She never forgot a client’s name. It was a terrible affliction, really. She could forget telephone numbers as soon as she heard them, addresses and directions would fly immediately from her memory, but names…names Claire never forgot. No, she knew the last name on the envelope: Liu—hardly an unusual name—but God, why couldn’t she place it?
Curiosity getting the best of her, Claire placed her cup in the dishwasher and reached over to pull the envelope from the pile. The calligraphy penned across the front caught her eye and she couldn’t help but admire how her own name looked in the formal style. Without even opening the envelope, Claire knew, with a sinking stomach, she was holding a wedding invitation. Suddenly she felt as though the envelope was laced with anthrax, and she held it away from her body between the tips of her index finger and thumb nails.
A funny thing happens when you decide to become a domestic relations attorney, she thought. At first you hope people divorcing come to see you and you can counsel them towards a reconciliation of some sort, perhaps preparing separation documents, and referring them to a trusted therapist; the idea being you can make money by helping them fix their marriage. And even though you are qualified, and well trained, to represent the dissolution of the marriage, you really want to see people happy and succeeding together as marital partners. She sighed as she twisted the small gold ring on her index finger. But then the reality of living and working with unhappy couples, cheating spouses, the eventual divorce, custody modifications, spousal support arguments, and just about every other type of situation that comes up between two married people, starts to wear on you. Pretty soon you start to view the entire institution of marriage as one big sham, a pyramid scheme of the worst possible proportions because it’s your friends convincing you it’s really the greatest thing ever!
But Claire knew better. She knew the truth about marriage and how all those women that said yes with tears of happiness in their eyes, later sat in her office and checked the box that allowed them to legally return to their maiden names.
“Huh-uh,” she declared, and decided then and there to deal with the invitation some other time.
The truth was, most of Claire’s friends from college had either already married, or were in the thick of planning their weddings. She’d been to more bachelorette parties than episodes of the famous show had been written, had purchased more monogrammed sets of napkins from Pottery Barn wedding registries than she cared to think about, and had one too many bridesmaid dresses hanging in the back of her closet. She didn’t even bother to dry clean them any longer. They just went back in the garment bag and were shoved into her guest room closet. Maybe she’d host a dress burning party with some of her divorcee clients. A small smile formed across her lips. Now that would be a holiday party worth attending.
No, she couldn’t think about another wedding this morning. Instead, she pulled herself into her long, charcoal wool coat, dropped the invitation into her leather tote, scooped up her other bags and stepped out into the garage. She pushed the button and the garage door instantly rumbled to life, creaking and grinding upward, while slowly revealing a winter wonderland waiting beyond the warmth of her condo.
“Shit,” she muttered, looking at the frozen ground and the accumulation of snow around her hedges. The weatherman actually called it right for a change.
She climbed into her black Toyota Highlander, mentally patted herself on the back for putting snow tires on the week prior, and started the vehicle. As she buckled her seatbelt she thought about her best friend Lindsey and chuckled. Were it not for the invention of public transportation, Lindsey French would never survive. She had never learned to drive, and never needed to. She’d moved to Portland to attend law school and used friends (mostly Claire), buses, taxis, and later, Uber, to get around. Lindsey and Claire became immediate friends at University and managed to end up clerking, and eventually were hired at, the same firm. Fortunately the office was only a few blocks away from Lindsey’s apartment so she was able to walk almost every day. And it showed, Claire thought. Lindsey’s legs were as long as a Las Vegas showgirl’s and as shapely as a ballerina. She worn heels every day of her life and when she walked into a room, people stopped what they were doing and paid attention. Claire loved her like a sister and couldn’t help but appreciate their unbreakable friendship.
While she waited for the Highlander to warm up, she sent a quick text to Lindsey.
Going to take it slow coming in.
Couple inches here.
Idiots will be out.
Any other partners there yet?
She pressed send and looked at her temperature gauge; the needle still holding steady on the blue snowflake icon. Claire turned the radio on and listened as the news rattled off an alphabetical listing of school closures and finished the broadcast by warning motorists of car accidents and stalled vehicles all over the Portland metro area. She could swear she detected a note of excitement in the reporter’s otherwise monotone voice. These guys seriously live for this stuff!
Digging into her tote for her leather gloves, she caught sight of the ivory envelope again. Sighing, she decided to be thankful for the distraction while her vehicle warmed up and pulled the invitation out of her bag. Claire slid a manicured nail under the flap and steadily ripped the paper across the top seam. Pulling out the invitation, she momentarily studied the design and couldn’t help but critique the style and color: modern and simple, tasteful even. Claire found herself reluctantly impressed. She quickly scanned the text, zeroing in on the center of the invitation for the relevant information. And as she read the names of the soon-to-be betrothed, she gasped and her eyes widened in shock.
Clenching her jaw, Claire immediately threw the invitation across the seat and gripped the steering wheel with both hands. She leaned her forehead onto the hard leather and closed her eyes, her lips pressed into a hard line. Although she would deny it to anyone that asked, tears formed at the corners of her eyes and her throat felt thick with unreleased emotion. Get yourself together, Claire. She took a deep breath and checked her reflection in the rearview mirror. She noted, and then tried to ignore, the beginnings of crows feet at the corners of her eyes, and the small crease in the center of her forehead — both of which made her feel tremendously older than twenty-five.
She smoothed her fingertips across her forehead and lifted her chin, pursing her lips together slightly, before taking a deep breath and sitting back against her seat. Pulling the Highlander into reverse, she accelerated out of her garage and into the morning.
As her tires crunched over the packed snow, she could feel her steely resolve weakening. Already she felt her face pulling into a grimace as she reached up to push the remote garage door opener, and she reminded herself not to cry.
“He must be goddamn kidding me with this!” Claire yelled, beginning to feel heat in her chest. “Do they really think I’d attend this circus? They’ve got some nerve!”
As she came to a stop at the end of her driveway, she glanced at herself once again in the rearview mirror, trying to be more gentle this time, and took a few quick breaths. What did her yoga teacher always say? “Cleansing breath, in through the nose, out through the mouth.” And after a moment she smoothed her hair back around her sleek, high ponytail, and critiqued her makeup once again.
“Well, clearly I’m no Adeline Liu,” Claire said, her anger already dying and being replaced with the sting of tears she knew weren’t far away. She was honest enough to recognize she was no comparison to the bride. She’d only met Adeline once, and once was enough — apparently for Robert as well. They’d been introduced at a party; Adeline was with a significantly older man whom she ignored completely as soon as she shook Robert’s hand. Claire had immediately sensed the two were attracted to each other, but had shrugged it off. At that time she was secure in her relationship with Robert and had no reason to believe he would fall out of love with her…and into love with someone else. But Adeline was a sensuous knockout; extraordinarily tall with long black hair, olive skin, full lips…she was an exotic beauty who seemed like she ordered men up and ate them for breakfast. And Robert seemed famished.
At least that was the story she told herself after Robert left three years ago.
And now he was marrying the woman Claire had always suspected he’d left her for.
She exhaled and began to shake her head back and forth. Focus, Claire. Stop this and focus.
She took a deep breath and swiped at the corners of her eyes. With a quick maneuver, she headed out of her driveway and drove away a little faster than she probably should have.
The office parking lot was nearly empty, even though it was well after nine a.m., and Claire felt a slight annoyance at all the transplanted Oregonians that avoided driving in the snow like the plague. Fine with me, she thought. At least I don’t have far to walk this morning, as she pulled into a premium parking spot. She tip-toed across the silent, snowy lot, trying to keep her new Jimmy Choo black leather heels out of the slush as much as possible, while still keeping her balance and not looking like an idiot. She chastised herself for not grabbing a sensible pair of shoes to wear in the snow before she left her condo, but then reminded herself she was dealing with an emotional blow.
“Too late now,” she mumbled as she slowly made her way to the front of the building.
She reached the main door and stomped her feet twice, smoothed her coat down over her trousers, and adjusted the tote on her shoulder before walking confidently into the building.
Main reception was empty. No Margaret to warmly greet her with a hot cup of coffee and her agenda for the day. No telephones ringing quietly in the background, no office staffers rushing about or clacking away on their keyboards. It was eerily quiet.
Claire paused at the tall reception desk, leaned over and cocked her head to the side to look down the silent hallway to her left. No one seemed to be in the suite yet.
Where was everyone?
The sound of shuffling papers in the distance brought Claire upright again. She tossed her ponytail back over her shoulder, turned on her heel, and set off toward her office.
Eh, doesn’t matter. No receptionist equals no phone calls. And no phone calls means no interruptions. I can finally get caught up on that damn Rettler case.
As she rounded the corner at the end of the hallway, lost in thought about the intricacies of her client’s 401(k) and the likelihood her soon-to-be ex-husband wouldn’t give up wanting half, she nearly walked right into Lindsey.
“Oh! Claire, you scared the devil straight out of me!” Lindsey cried, holding her cup of coffee away from her ivory silk blouse and looking at Claire with intense dislike.
“Sorry Lindz, my fault. I wasn’t paying attention. Did you spill?”
“Nah. I drank half of it before I even walked out here,” Lindsey said, relaxing her hunched shoulders. “Hey, I thought your text said you were going to be awhile?”
“Yeah, I thought I was too. But there wasn’t anyone on the roads. I stayed off the main highway and just used side streets…ghost town out there.”
“Same. In fact, I think you and I are the only ones here today.” Lindsey’s eyes widened and a small smile began to curve from one corner of her mouth.
“No senior partners?” Claire whispered. Suddenly all thoughts of the Rettler file disappeared from her brain.
“Nope. All the office doors are closed and the lights are off.”
“What about Margaret?”
“Haven’t heard a word from her yet,” Lindsey said, her smile growing larger. Claire’s gaze fell on the small space revealed between Lindsey’s two front teeth. She admired this unique quality about Lindsey and the fact that she owned this trait so damn well. Most women would rush off to have it fixed, but Lindsey was proud of it and smiled all the more for it.
Claire paused for a moment, wondering if Lindsey shared her quickly-forming idea. “You still have that Kahlua in your drawer, Lindz?”
“Am I still your best friend?” Lindsey replied rhetorically, and fell into step with Claire, their heels clicking in unison as they headed toward Lindsey’s office.
“And she actually sent me an invitation!” Claire said, slapping her hand down hard on the arm of the plush upholstered chair.
Whereas Claire savored home decorating advice from the weekly Cost Plus World Market ad in the Sunday paper, Lindsey always had an eye for tasteful decor; and her office was no exception. The large naturally-lit room was decorated in grays and off-whites with splashes of bright turquoise and blush scattered throughout. Claire instantly felt relaxed whenever she entered Lindsey’s office.
Lindsey sipped her second coffee and Kahlua and shook her head in disbelief before replying.
“I can’t believe it, Claire. I seriously cannot believe it. How long ago was this again?”
“What, our relationship? Well, I mean,” she dropped her gaze to her knee and pulled a non-existent piece of lint from the fabric. “It was, well, it was three years ago now. But I …”
“No, no, I’m in your corner, one-hundred-percent. I just can’t believe either of them thought it would be a good idea to send you an invitation. Does she really want you to be there, or do you think this is just a stab at you? It’s only a month away, after all. This seems like an afterthought to me,” she said and then paused. “God, I can’t believe he would want you to be there? I mean—”
“—I know. And that’s what I wish I understood. I can’t imagine either of them really want me there, but if not, then why the invitation? Oh. Wait a minute. Of course.”
“What?” Lindsey leaned forward across her desk and stared intently at Claire.
“Because,” Claire said, pulling her chin up and narrowing her eyes. “Because she must know I’m not on social media — Robert told her, I’m sure — and she wants me to know about the wedding.”
Lindsey’s eyes turned to slits, mirroring that of her friend’s. “Okay. So she’s an immature brat. But still, why would she rub it in like that though Claire?”
Claire shrugged. “I dunno. People do crazy things in the name of love. You and I, of all people, should know this.”
“True. And cheers to that, counselor. May the mistakes keep on keepin’ on.” Lindsey laughed and sipped her drink, winking at Claire over the rim of the glass coffee mug.
“Meh…it would have been fun to go, actually, just so I could get raging drunk and ruin the entire, absurd ordeal.” Claire said, dissolving into a fit of giggles. She could feel the affects of the alcohol in her bloodstream and it took the sting out of the whole awful situation.
Lindsey’s enthusiastic smile quickly faded and turned instead into a hard line across her mouth.
“Claire,” she said. “Claire, what if you did go? What if we went? What if we went to the wedding and just made it awful? Could we do that? Would you do that?”
Claire stared at Lindsey in disbelief, her laughter abruptly coming to a halt. “Wait. What? Are you crazy? I wouldn’t be seen anywhere near that mess of a lovesick playground. Are you out of your mind?”
“No. Not at all. Just think about it for a second, hon. This could be just what you need to finally hammer the last nail in the coffin of your relationship. Even though it ended three years ago—”
“Just being honest.” Lindsey snorted, and rolled her eyes toward the ceiling.
“Um, I have zero desire to attend yet another wedding anytime soon, let alone that of my ex-boyfriend and the woman he most likely left me for! It’s one-hundred-percent ridiculous!”
“Yes, but still, that’s exactly the response they — I mean she — expects from you. Won’t it feel good to show up looking like a million bucks and proudly demonstrate that you absolutely can watch them get married?”
Claire considered this idea and took another sip of her coffee. “Maybe? Maybe I could pull it off?”
“That’s the spirit. You can totally pull this off. A new, gorgeous dress and some heels, and you’ll have no trouble. And after what he did to you? You should show your face proudly. After all…you were invited.”
Claire poured herself another cup of coffee and stirred in two shots of Kahlua, focusing her gaze on the impossibly thin red stir straw. “It’s been a long time, you know? Three years is a decent amount of time. But…it still hurts when I think about it. I was so naive, Lindsey. I was so blinded by what I thought was love for him,” Claire paused. The edges of her brain felt foggy. She noted, and then dismissed, the idea she should probably switch to water. “Eh…it doesn’t matter now. I just…I mean, this was a pretty cruel trick, don’t you think? One last slap in the face from the man that stole my heart and the woman that most likely replaced me.”
“It’s not the amount of time that passes that suddenly renders you immune to the pain, girl. You had your heart ripped out by him. By both of them. Of course it still hurts. Normal human beings do not behave in that way. I am actually shocked they both agreed to send you an invitation.”
“But they did, didn’t they.”
“Yes. Yes, they did. And judging by the look on your face, I don’t envy them the hurricane of hell you’ll be bringing as a wedding gift.”
“It’s up at Timberline, Lindsey. Just before Christmas. Ugh. Can I just vomit right now and get it over with?”
Lindsey laughed and shook her head. “Not in my office, woman. Do you know how much this goddamn carpet cost?”
“Yes,” said Claire. “I do. Unfortunately, more than I make in six months’ salary. Remind me again how you managed to afford this?”
“I could tell you. But then—”
“—you’d have to kill me. I know, I know. You always use that super-spy bullshit with me every time we talk about money. One of these days, I’m going to find out who you really are, Clark Kent.”
“I can assure you, hon, it ain’t Superman.”
“Yeah, well, I could sure use some super powers right about now,” Claire said, her voice dropping.
She glanced out the window to her left; the Portland skyline a blinding gray-white, the snow swirling and dancing against the pale sky, sliding down and fluttering off the floor-to-ceiling glass panes. After a moment, she nodded her head and looked back across the sleek oversize desk. “We’ve got a month, Lindsey. One month to remind him he made the wrong choice, one month to make this the worst wedding on the face of the earth.”
Lindsey raised her mug to Claire’s and held it in the air. “Here’s to some serious sinister planning, baby.”
John’s drink had begun to sweat in his hand. A small bead of condensation slid its way down the side of the glass and pooled against his thumb. He pulled his eyes away from the glass and looked up at Dylan from under his eyebrows. He noted, with more annoyance than he would have liked to admit, that his older brother was aging better than he, and made a mental note to double his efforts at the gym.
He picked up a cocktail napkin from the bar, wiped the bottom of his glass and took a sip from the side, bypassing the tiny straw altogether. It was still early in the evening and he didn’t feel like getting serious about drinking. The gin was an easy, refreshing choice.
“It was a hell of a long time ago, John. I’m sure Adeline and Robert met well after you two dated. It’s just a bad case of coincidence is all.”
John snickered under his breath. “Seems pretty obvious to me, Dylan. For all I know, she was seeing him at the same time she was sleeping with me. Happens every day, big brother,”
“Yeah, I know, but he was your best friend. You two lived together. You would have known if they were dating,” Dylan said. “Look, I’m not saying she wasn’t seeing someone else, in fact, I’m pretty certain she was,“ he glanced quickly at John before continuing on, “but I don’t think it was Robert. How could it have been? You would have seen them together. You would have known.”
“Unless they were always at her place,” John mumbled, and took another sip of his drink before setting the glass down hard on the bar. “You know what? It doesn’t matter. I haven’t talked to Robert since we graduated and I have no interest in watching either of them get married. Next subject.” John’s attention wandered to the windows facing the street just over Dylan’s shoulder.
It was dark outside already, even though it was only just after six p.m. The small bar was beginning to fill up with young millennials coming in after work, their hair and coats dusted with snow. John glanced toward the door and scowled. These men, boys really, with their skinny jeans, man buns, and Patagonia vests, coming in with women who looked as if they just woke up…these people were getting under his skin. Once again, he mentally patted himself on the back. London would be an upgrade over the borderline slobbery of Portland, for certain.
London — the place where people actually dressed up to go to work. Hell, they dressed up to walk their terriers. John appreciated the seemingly unwritten societal law of England that proclaimed — reminded, really — that people generally behaved with more respect and dignity for themselves and others, when they dressed in a way that made them look and feel professional. The expansion of his business into London was nearly finished, and John couldn’t wait to immerse himself into a culture that seemed to operate on a level he could identify with. For all intents and purposes, February could not arrive soon enough.
“John, are you listening?” Dylan interrupted John’s daydream about silk ties and heeled women in power suits.
“Sorry. No, I’m not.”
Dylan eyed his brother pointedly. “I was explaining why it would be a very good idea for you to attend this wedding,” he replied, annoyance clipping at his words.
“Oh? And why would that be?”
“Well, as I was saying, first and foremost, witnessing their wedding will bring you closure. Now wait, calm down…let me finish.” Dylan held his hands out in front of John, attempting to block his brother’s finger that was pointed directly in his face. “I only meant, I know you fell hard for her, John. I remember it very well. You can’t deny that. But you also can’t deny that she did a number on you. She essentially provided you with the manpower to build a brick wall so high around yourself, you couldn’t even see the all the people trying to get inside.” Dylan took a swig of his beer before continuing. “All I’m saying is that I know you haven’t opened yourself up to anyone since Adeline. I know, I know. You’re busy running your company, and getting ready to move to London, but the truth is the truth, man. She broke your heart and you haven’t gotten over her yet. You, my friend,” he tipped his beer bottle at John, “have a fear of intimacy.”
John slid to the end of his seat and brought his index finger within inches of his brother’s left eye. “Now you listen to —
“—I know, I know what you’re going to say, so let me save you some time. I think attending this wedding will force you to realize that she is moving on and starting a new life with someone else. Yeah, it just happens to be your old roommate, but so what. This town is pretty small, really. Look, you don’t have to stay for the entire weekend, okay? And I’ll go with you. John, I promise you: after this wedding, your life will change for the better. And besides, you’re moving to another continent soon enough. You need this closure. Trust me.”
John forcefully exhaled the breath he’d been about to expel in the form of multiple expletives at his brother. He was quiet for a moment while he stared at Dylan. He wasn’t sure whether to punch him in the face, or shake his hand. After some contemplation, he relaxed his shoulders and sat down once again.
“I don’t know,” he sighed. “I’m not sure I can. See her again, that is. And, more importantly, I don’t want to see the friend that stole her from me.”
“I hate to break it to you Sherlock, but you don’t know that was the case at all, John.”
“I don’t have proof, if that’s what you mean, but I know it’s true. I can feel it. Robert and I haven’t talked, really talked, since she left. He can’t face me.”
“Maybe. But let’s not forget: you and Robert live in different states now. Granted, Washington is just over the river, but still. You’ve been working your ass off for the last three years, and I’m sure he’s been busy too.”
“Oh he’s been busy all right,” John interjected. He couldn’t help the sarcasm that dripped from his voice and he immediately wished he’d kept his mouth shut.
“Touché. However, I’m sticking to my guns here. I don’t think he was dating Adeline when you two were seeing each other, or even afterward. He wasn’t like that. Not from what I remember, anyway. It’s just a very unusual, untimely coincidence that the two of them got together. Besides, it’s not like you and Robert had a falling out, you just…I don’t know, grew in different directions, that’s all.” Dylan paused to swig his beer. “Look, just because you haven’t seen him in years doesn’t mean he has something to hide. Hell, I barely see you, and I’m your CPA and your brother. Does that automatically mean I’ve been dating one of your ex’s, too?”
“Hey, help yourself,” John grumbled. “I don’t get involved any more, remember? No strings.”
“You’re missing my point.”
John drained the rest of his drink and gave his glass a little shake, the ice cubes tumbling together in tiny percussion. “Look, what happened, happened. It’s in the past. And frankly, I’m glad I didn’t end up with her. You think I’d be where I’m at now?” John gave a quick, forced laugh. “Hardly. Most likely I’d be saddled with a complaining wife and two bratty kids, working at a job I hate, and drinking myself to sleep every night. That life is not for me. I’ll take the bachelor life — making and spending my own money any damn well way I please — over that suburbia nightmare any day.” John stood up and pushed his glass toward the opposite side of the bar. “I appreciate your offer and I everything you’ve said and done for me over the years, but I’m adamant: there is no way I’m going to this wedding.”
“—No. I don’t have time to think about this nonsense any longer. Thanks for meeting me,” he stood up and checked his wristwatch; a Rolex he’d purchased two years’ prior. “Look, let’s move forward with that stock transfer right away. I want to remind Jerrod he made a good choice in trusting me with this London partnership.”
Dylan nodded. “Jerrod is impressed already. But yes, the transfer needs to be done. As your CPA, I want you in a good position at the end of the year.”
“Which,” John tapped his index finger on Dylan’s shoulder and smirked “is just a month away.”
“Shit, don’t remind me. I’ve got a ton of work to do before then.”
The two shook hands and John pulled a fifty dollar bill out of his wallet and laid it on the bar. “I’ve got this one,” he said, pulling on his overcoat and clapping Dylan on the shoulder as he headed toward the door.
“Everything okay with John?” the bartender asked as he approached Dylan’s chair and collected the empty glass and money.
“Yep. Everything’s fine. Just trying to work some sense into my little brother is all,” he said, smirking as he finished his beer. He set the empty bottle on the bar and reached for his coat behind him. “The problem is, he won’t admit he’s still in love with the only woman that ever broke his heart.” He slid an arm through his coat sleeve.
“And he doesn’t want to talk about it?” the bartender replied, swirling a damp towel across the bar.
“Not exactly, my friend.” Dylan shrugged on the rest of his coat and leaned his forearms across the top of the barstool. “This woman, she’s getting married next month…to John’s best friend and roommate from college.”
The bartender whistled high through his teeth and shook his head. “Well, you guys know where to find me.”
“That we do, Pete. That we do.”
He didn’t feel like staying out any longer, and after leaving his brother on the east side, John decided instead to head across the river and back home to the quiet of his high-rise apartment. Driving through the city was easy at this hour; the commuter traffic had cleared out, most of the mass transit lines were slowing down, and the taxis and Ubers weren’t circling the blocks. He made it across the Ross Island bridge in only a few minutes, and maneuvered quickly down Kelly Avenue, crossing to Hood Street and into the South Waterfront district in less than fifteen minutes.
He loved his quiet, upscale neighborhood filled with luxury condominiums and apartments. Trendy new restaurants flanked each block with swanky wine bars and art galleries sprinkled throughout. The sculptural facade of his building never ceased to provide a source of visual pleasure to John, and he admired it again as he deposited his gleaming M5 BMW into the capable hands of the building’s valet.
Inside the mirrored elevator, John removed his links and unfastened the tortoise shell buttons of his monogrammed cuffs. As the elevator rushed to the twenty-seventh floor, he stretched his neck to the right and loosened his tie, already looking forward to relaxing as he prepared his meal. His life was hectic, and work consumed him, but he couldn’t deny how much he truly loved it all.
After throwing together a quick dinner of scallops risotto and a green salad topped with balsamic, John selected a bottle of Domaine Drouhin Chardonnay and sank down into his brushed white suede sofa to enjoy his meal. He rarely ate in his living room, but decided he deserved a moment of rule-breaking. He finished his meal and then reclined back against a cushion, his thoughts swirling around the edges of his brain like the wine in his glass. He watched the impressive legs of the drink slowly taper down the inside of the crystal as he considered his thought. He knew he would be inflicting self-harm but he reached forward anyway and pulled out the sterling silver case of photographs from the bottom of the coffee table.
The wine tasted like grapefruit and apple and the tension in his shoulders slowly began to fade as he flipped through the photos in his hand. His vintage Crosley turntable, retrofitted to wireless audio, played a Van Morrison album in the background, and nostalgia began to fill his mind. Hungry for Your Love hummed softly in the background as John slowly studied each photo. None of his friends even owned physical photographs any longer; everyone just pulled out their smartphones and began swiping left as onlookers looked over shoulders and squinted to see the details in each picture. But John loved the classic touches in life; loved the slowness that seemed to accompany the pre-internet lifestyle, and he made a point to incorporate as much as possible of the bygone way of living into his own, fast-paced life.
The pictures of his years in college were comical; too many dim and blurry shots of parties, he and Robert dressed up in themed costumes, each holding a beer, wide grins filling their faces. Those years were careless and free, and John looked back on them now with a sense of longing, noting how dramatically life had changed in the years since. He slid a photo off the stack in his hand, wove it into the back of the pile, and stared at the next one looking up at him. It was Adeline. Even though he expected to find a photo of her in the pile, it took his breath away, nonetheless.
She was sitting on the grass at Waterfront Park facing the river. He remembered the day perfectly. He was returning from the corner coffee shop, a cappuccino for Adeline in his hand, and as he approached he’d noticed her profile and how stunning she looked. The midday sun was in her face, a slight breeze in the air ruffling a strand of her hair. He’d stopped right there, set the coffee down and taken her picture, wanting to capture the moment forever.
He’d fallen in love with her right then. He knew it as soon as he put the camera away.
When she turned toward him, no expression on her face — she didn’t recognize him from afar — and then all at once had broken into a smile, oh how his knees weakened and his legs instantly turned to putty. And when she reached for the offered coffee, he leaned down instead and kissed her softly, her warm lips heating his mouth, and his heart.
As he sat, glass of wine in hand, staring at the photo and remembering the day he took the picture, an ache began to form in his chest and slowly spread upward, wrapping its tendrils around his lungs, winding around his heart, and squeezing relentlessly.
John threw the stack of pictures down on the cushion beside him and slammed his glass down on the table.
“What was I thinking?” he mumbled, leaning his head back and pressing his palms into his eyes. He sighed and sat there, staring up at the brushed aluminum chandelier above his head, trying to alleviate the pain in his chest. He hadn’t thought about her in years, but just like that the memories flooded back, carrying with them a wave of emotional pain he clearly wasn’t yet ready to face.
He took a deep breath and sat up, his forearms resting across his knees. His tie lay loose around his neck, his white shirtsleeves rolled just below his elbows. He needed something to clear his mind. He needed a distraction.
And he knew just whom to call.
Twenty minutes later a knock at his door brought John from the kitchen, an open bottle of wine in one hand and a half-full glass in the other.
“Hello John,” she purred as she stepped past him, taking the offered glass of wine and bringing it to her crimson-stained lips. He appreciated the lipstick because it would deter him from kissing her mouth; an act he refused to allow.
“It’s nice to see you again, Maya,” he said, closing the door softly behind him and looking her over from head to toe. Her heeled black boots accentuated her long, slender legs, and as she walked past him into the room, she slipped an arm out of her oversized trench, switched her glass to her other hand and slid out of the coat completely, letting it pool at her feet. The absence of the coat revealed the black thigh high stockings she wore underneath, which were, in fact, the only article of clothings she saw fit to wear. And as her heels tapped a slow cadence across the slate floor, John stared at the tight curves of her naked ass and knew he’d made the right choice.
This was exactly what he needed.
No strings. No regrets. No emotional attachment.
Maya turned slightly and glanced over her shoulder at John, the swell of her breast and taut nipple momentarily visible. She smiled seductively and beckoned him with a curved finger, and as John obeyed, setting the bottle of wine down on the foyer table and slowly following behind her, all thoughts of Adeline evaporated from his mind.
If all goes well, Definitely, Maybe should be out mid December. Please watch for it to be announced on my social media channels:
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