I take a deep breath as I watch them lift the antique in the air. The last piece of furniture in this townhouse. And the last moment left before we’re free from the reality show.
But I realize that I’ll never be free from Scott Van Wright.
He stamped himself all over me.
And distributed it to the world.
[ 50 ]
“I’m sorry,” I apologize to my mother almost immediately as I walk into her office, a city-view of Philadelphia covering a whole wall. Her office is minimal. A couple black bookshelves and a clean desk. No pictures of her family. Everything personal and private is kept out of sight.
“Shut the door,” she says stiffly.
I close it behind me. The blinds are already snapped shut on all the windows that peer into the hallway. We’re alone.
I take a seat in the chair across from her desk. I wait for her to say something about the sex tape, but she stares at her computer, clicking her mouse for an extra minute. Leaving me to my own f**king thoughts.
I always protected my reputation. It meant everything to me. But I don’t even care anymore. I have what I want: a job at Cobalt Inc. and my girlfriend. Besides Rose’s well-being, the only thing I worry about is how I’ve hurt this company.
Scott can collect his cash.
I have the girl. Now I just need to secure my position here.
I wait for my mother to say, “You’re fired.” To strip me of my standing as interim CEO. To hand everything I’ve worked for to Steve Balm. I could lose something important to me, something that I’ve spent years toiling over, in five minutes or less.
“I’m willing to make this right,” I say. “Whatever you need me to do.” It’s a lofty statement, and I’m not sure I’m prepared to pay. But I f**king make it, and I wait for her response.
She finally swivels in her chair, facing me. And she says absolutely nothing. She just stares at me, testing me, maybe. She wears a face I can barely even read.
“Did you watch the tape?” I ask, internally cringing at the idea of my mother seeing me screw my girlfriend.
“No,” she says flatly. “I’ve read about your situation with Rose online. You have the lawyers involved, I hope?”
She exhales loudly and nods a few times before leaning back in her chair. “Connor,” she starts. “I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, but…I’m really proud of you.”
Wait. I repeat her words over again in my head. “Are we talking about the same situation…?”
She smiles. She actually smiles. “You have a sex tape. And I’m not proud of you for that, although, I really want to talk to Rose at the wedding. To clarify. I was in a bad place when we met at the restaurant, and I was projecting. I mistook your relationship with her as somewhat distant and contrived. Really, that was what I had with your father.”
“My father.” She never talks of Jim. I never talk of Jim. He’s nothing more than a name on a birth certificate.
“We were rarely intimate.” Why is she telling me this? “When we were, it was to have children. And then I couldn’t have any more after the twins…” She clears her throat, and lines wrinkle her forehead in hurt. She lets me see it.
Sweat gathers underneath my white button-down. My whole body heats at her unfamiliar sincerity. I feel like I’m on fire. It’s my only feeling in this moment. I don’t understand my reaction. I can’t understand anything. I just listen and try to let my mind reconnect to my body.
“Hearing about you and Rose…I think you’re going to make it for the long run.”
My mother just approved of my relationship after a sex tape circulated online. What world do I f**king live in?
“Like I was saying,” she says, “I’m proud of you.” She straightens up and rests her hands on her desk, shifting papers nervously. She shows me that emotion as well. And then her dark blue eyes meet mine. “You’re incredibly intelligent, and you will do great things in life, Richard… Connor… Cobalt.” She smiles at my full name, as though she remembers when she chose it for me. “I have no doubt about this.” Her eyes tighten in pain the longer she stares in my direction. I don’t know how much time passes. Maybe a minute before she says, “And I’m so very sorry for things that I have done to you.”
“What are you talking about?” I shake my head. She’s put a weight on my chest that I can’t release.
“I made you feel like you didn’t need a father in your life—that it was so unimportant that you could live without one.” She takes a sip from a glass of water. “It’s taken some therapy to come to terms with this, but I have…” She pauses. “You didn’t need Jim. And you didn’t need me. I gave you necessary tools to thrive on your own, but I never gave you the ones that every child deserves.” She wipes a tear before it falls. “I never showed you love. And I’m so sorry for that. I hope…I hope that Rose can do what I’ve neglected for so many years.”
I open my mouth, but she cuts me off with a raised hand.
“Let me finish. There’s something else.” She grabs a tissue, sniffs, and walks around her desk.
She sits in the chair next to me.
And just by the serious, tortured look on her face—I know there’s no way to prepare for her words. I can’t anticipate anything she’s going to say.
So I grip the armrest, I clench my teeth, and I brace myself.
I don’t want to fall.
I never have before.
* * *
I feel blindsided.
My whole life I always made sure I knew every possible path, every probability and what if so that I wasn’t ever assaulted by this feeling. And today, I wake up and there it is.
The path I never saw coming.
I left Cobalt Inc. with this insane thing ripping through my chest. I thought about calling Frederick, but there’s only one person I want to see. And it’s not my therapist.
The Calloway Couture loft is crammed with people and boxes, bustling around with fervent urgency. A dramatic change from months ago. Her company is still in flux. She won’t know how the sex tape will impact it until a few weeks pass.
I find Rose in her glass-walled office in the back. She subconsciously touches the bruise on her cheek, concealed with makeup, as she scans her computer screen. I enter quickly and shut the door.
She springs to her feet in an instant upon seeing me. “What’s wrong?” Her fingers touch the corners of my eyes, as if she needs to feel my tears to know they’re real. I don’t blame her. I did the same f**king thing.
I don’t remember the last time I cried. But it was probably over something trivial. A grade. An accomplishment I didn’t fully succeed. The things that used to matter to me. I never cried over a person until now.
“Hold on,” Rose chokes, worry coating her voice. She moves swiftly, drawing cream curtains closed so that her employees can’t see into her office.
I take a seat on her white couch, another breathtaking view through the window. This time New York City. And then Rose sinks down on the cushion, turning her body towards mine.
She rubs my leg. “Connor…”
I take her hand in mine, lacing our fingers together slowly. I try to speak, to let it out, but I shake my head and pinch my eyes as they outflow. Why is this so hard? Why do real emotions have to be so devastating? Why do they have to cripple me?
“It’s okay. You don’t have to say anything.”
But I do. I need to f**king say it. “I hate her…” I start. The first thing that comes out of my mouth is impudent and juvenile. I can’t take it back. I just keep going. “I hate that she has continued to blind me. No matter how wide I open my eyes, there’s been a haze that only she could clear. And she made me believe that I was walking in the f**king clear sky.” I pinch my eyes again, and I actually scream, one that burns my throat. “I am so—”
“Don’t you dare say stupid,” she snaps. “You’re not stupid, Richard.”
“I feel like an idiot,” I tell her. “I was fooled by my own mother for two f**king years, Rose. Two years, and she couldn’t find it in her heart to tell her only son that she has breast cancer? That she’s dying?” My throat swells as the truth bears down on me. “She made me believe I’d be taking over Cobalt Inc. in five years, maybe ten. And this whole time, she knew I’d be taking it in two months.”
Rose’s mouth falls. “Two…months?”
“Two months. That’s how long she has left.” I extend my arms. “And she didn’t think it was important to tell me.”
Not until now. She was scared. I saw the fear in her eyes at her office. It’s why she’s been regretting and remembering the past. And yet, I can’t pity her. I can’t wish her farewell.
I only hate that it took death for her to see her mistakes.
And I hate that it’s taken me the same to see mine.
I unlace my fingers from Rose, and I hold her one hand in between two of mine, just staring at them for a while. I call her stubborn, but in the past year and a half, I’ve been worse.
I meet those fierce yellow-green eyes. Even in the wake of my pain, she has this resilience that’s more beautiful than words can describe. It’s fire to my water. And I want her to burn me alive.
“You’re the only one who has ever loved me,” I confess, my chest heavy. “Not a mother. Not a father. Not a friend. Just you, Rose.” All these years, I never thought I’d need anyone but me to survive. My mother thought the same.
I was wrong.
“I don’t want to be sixty years old and wishing I opened myself up to the people I care about. I don’t want to look back and regret that I wasn’t a better friend or a better man to the woman I adore.”
She’s already crying. I haven’t even said it yet.
Tears fall down her cheeks, matching mine.
“And I can’t tell you how long I’ve been fighting the truth, but it’s been awhile,” I say.
The next words come from the core of my chest. Each word is like taking on water and breathing in oxygen—a paradox that I enjoy very much.
“I am so deeply in love with you, Rose.” I wipe her cheeks with my thumb.
She tries to smile but every time she does, more tears fall. I can tell they’re from a place of joy by the way her eyes light. And then she says, “Ca vous a pris pas mal de temps.” It took you long enough.
I said the same thing to her once. “How long do we have left?”
She finally smiles through the tears. “Forever.”
I draw her to my chest and kiss her strongly, not letting go.
I realize, in this very moment, that love was the only thing missing from my life.
And it’s the only thing that matters to me.
I can live with that.
As stupid as it may seem.
[ 51 ]
Connor reties the halter on my bridesmaid’s dress in the limo while I read an article to him off my phone. When I finish I say, “Well?”
“You shouldn’t fixate on a gossip columnist.”
“It’s not a gossip site. This is a news article, Richard,” I snap. “Did you not hear what they said?” I’m about to reread the part of the article where they condemn him for not being a real dominant in a dominant/submissive relationship. I didn’t even know there were standards that had to be met.
“There aren’t rules,” he says calmly. “We do what works for us, and if no one on the internet likes it, then they’re free to watch another p*rn that doesn’t star us.” He grins. “Although, they won’t be as good…”
I turn around and smack his chest. “I’m serious.”
“So am I,” he says, staring down at me with an intense gaze, like he’d love to consume all of me.
I smile. Yes, he loves me.
That never gets old.
“You need to stop reading all of these articles that dissect the sex videos,” he says in a low, husky voice. “It’ll spin your mind.”
“Maybe I like my mind to be spun.”
“I can find a much healthier way to do that.” His lips rise, and he leans close to kiss me, but the limo bumps down the cobblestone street, tearing my attention to the outside.
“We’re here,” I say, filled with a flurry of emotions.
Our limo ditches the rabid media behind the entry, and I roll down my window, hearing the helicopters buzzing in the air. I ignore them and focus on the palace looming ahead, taking in the stunning architecture and massive size. This really is a wedding fit for a queen.
I hope Lily is more excited than anxious today. I feel like I’m carrying nerves for the both of us. I’m not sure what to expect. Connor has taken the reins of the wedding, which means every detail is a surprise. He’s already confessed to changing the venue, no longer a church in the heart of Paris.