The meek shall inherit the earth, they say.
Bullshit. Look at me now. What do I have? Nothing.
I thought I wouldn’t get past a second heartbreak. I was wrong. I never should’ve closed myself off in tears when Lucas told me he loved me. I should’ve had faith he wouldn’t betray me.
Regaining his love will mean throwing away my pride, my armor and laying myself completely bare. I have to trust that he won’t crush me at my most vulnerable.
The attempt will leave me bleeding. It might just kill me. But I definitely won’t survive knowing that I didn’t fight for what I wanted: my future.
A future with the only man I ever loved…a man more important than the very air I breathe…
You gotta put yourself out there to get what you want.
I bared my heart to Ava. I begged for her trust, her love.
Instead she shattered my soul.
She’s circling me, her pretty eyes vulnerable. She won’t fool me this time. I’ll never give her another shot. I’ll break her before she breaks me…
Note: The last book in Lucas and Ava’s epic love story! No cliffhanger.
The water runs, hitting the bottom of the white porcelain sink with a hiss. It’s extremely hot, almost scalding. I grit my teeth and scrub. The water has to be hot, or it won’t be effective. I know that from experience.
The cuts from two days ago reopen and bleed, but I slather more soap on my skin. The burn from the water and open wounds blend together, and I smile grimly. Burning means it’s working.
After I’m finished, I wipe my hands on a white towel and study it. It’s damp but pristine. Narrowing my eyes, I examine my hands with care—backs, palms, the tips of the fingers where a lot of people miss, the nails…every line I can see.
But I can’t stop seeing Ava, retreating from me, wiping her hand—the one that I touched—on her jeans as though she couldn’t bear the grime.
I turn the water back on and start washing again. If I’d been more careful, if I’d just been clean, would she have been less aloof? Would she have been more receptive, tried to understand things from my point of view?
Would she have smiled when I told her “I’m in love with you”?
She couldn’t have seen my defect, not the way Mom did. Otherwise she wouldn’t have shared herself with me in the way she did… Never like that.
Despite not sleeping much, two days have given me some clarity and a plan of sorts.
Surely I can fix what’s broken if I just present my case better. And I understand the importance of presentation. Elliot and I would’ve never gotten the funding for our company if we didn’t know how to convince tight-fisted venture capitalists we deserved their money and confidence.
I just have to do the same with Ava…and pray that she never sees how fucked up and undeserving I am. I can probably hide all my flaws with the right props—some charity work, maybe…and spoiling her rotten until she can’t imagine going back to a life that doesn’t have me to pamper her.
But first, I have to be absolutely immaculate.
My hands are red from the hot water, and my skin stings. Still, I don’t feel clean enough.
Unable to help myself, I start the shower and strip everything off. My clothes end up on the bathroom floor in a heap. As soon as I’m naked, I hop under the water, the temperature punishingly hot.
I take soap and scrub myself, my hands rough and impatient and desperate. I have to get all the dirt off me. I have to.
And after I’m really clean, I’m going to try again. I’m going to make Ava see that I did not approach her for some fucking painting.
I keep washing, feeling like a hamster on a wheel. I’m trying so hard, but the effort… I don’t know if I’m getting the result I’m striving for.
Maybe, before I see Ava, I should run Dad’s Wife Number Three over for leaking the family’s deal to the press. It’s the least the bitch deserves for ruining the best thing that’s ever happened to me. A grand gesture like that might please Ava. I think. I hope. I can’t decide anymore. My head is a jumble of ideas about how to fix what’s broken between us.
“Jesus, what the fuck?” Blake’s sharp voice shatters my concentration. “Lucas! What the hell’s going on?”
“Go away,” I say tersely. “I’m washing.” I have to be clean so I can make another run by her place. Maybe I’ll get a glimpse of her this time. I can go see her, ostensibly to give her her Lexus back. I had it detailed and waxed again this morning. It is probably the cleanest car in the state of Virginia, if not the entire country.
“I can see that.” He scowls at me through the other side of the glass stall. “The question is why?”
“Why do people wash, Blake?”
“You tell me, genius.” His lips pull apart in distaste. “Much more scrubbing and you won’t have any skin left.”
He opens the door and reaches inside, getting water all over his expensive cashmere sweater. “Goddamn it. Are you trying to cook yourself?” With an impatiently deft twist of a wrist, he shuts off the water. “Get out.” He tosses me a towel.
When I merely grip the soft cotton in my hands, he takes my wrist and drags me out. “Lucas, focus. You’ve been washing for three days now.”
“How did you get here?” I ask numbly.
“Yeah, your assistant? Remember her? She was worried about you. I’m pretty sure she would’ve preferred to have Elizabeth here, but our sister’s a little busy. Not to mention, I don’t know if it’s a good idea for her to see you like this.” He gestures at me. “Dry off, for fuck’s sake. You’re dripping water everywhere.”
I scowl, but run the towel along my body. Dripping water is bad. It makes a mess, and nobody like a mess. I wince at the stinging sensation; it feels like I’ve got a head-to-toe sunburn. “Why not?” I say, referring to our sister. “She always does the delicate work in the family.”
“Because she, against my advice, gave you that information about where your ex was.”
I drop the wet towel in the laundry basket and come to a halt just outside my closet. I’ve been so focused on getting Ava back that I never stopped to consider who sent me the mysterious package that got us together again. “Elizabeth knew about Ava all this time?”
A careless shrug. “Maybe. She has her own ways of finding things out. Never uses Benjamin Clark or any of the other usual PIs, so”—he spreads his hands—“how the hell should I know?”
I narrow my eyes. I don’t know who she uses either, and she won’t share the man’s name…if it even is a man. She guards the person’s identity as though it’s the Hope Diamond. But whoever it is is scarily good.
“I told her to stay out of it. When people don’t stay together, it’s usually for a reason. And I was right as usual. Look at you. Just… What the fuck.”
Blake sounds disgusted, which doesn’t surprise me. Of all my siblings on the Pryce side—three total—Blake fits the image of the old moneyed and influential family the best. Not only does he have the Pryce features—the dark hair, the classic profile their men are famous for, the arrogant tilt of his eyebrows and that insolent gaze that says he’s entitled to whatever he wants—he also has the temperament to match.
“You lied to me about not knowing Ava.” He denied categorically that he and Ava ever met or had words.
He holds up a finger. “I said I didn’t remember who she was. I don’t keep track of people’s love lives. There are better uses for my brain cells. I’m sort of aware that you had an ex you broke up with two years ago, but even that’s only because of Elizabeth. She thought perhaps you’d be more amenable to smoothing things out with the girl and marrying her for a year.”
Damn Elizabeth. I know she wants Grandfather’s portrait of her… “That’s going way too fucking far.” She should’ve at least had the guts to tell me about Ava herself rather than sending an anonymous envelope.
“You should’ve never revealed you aren’t going to marry. It’s making some people very antsy.”
“Are you saying it’s my fault?”
“Yes, because you give away too much. It’s always best to play things close to your chest.”
Fucker. It’s annoying how coolly he speaks, but he isn’t saying anything untrue. Everything’s my fault, and even though I find Blake abrasive at times, I’m glad he’s here to pump some sense into me. There’s no one quite like him to ground a person.
“People who don’t give a shit tend to get what they want,” he adds. “Just look at Dad.”
Point taken. I should’ve never been so needy and pathetic, telling Ava all the things I felt about her. Did she curl her mouth in distaste when I wasn’t watching? I can just imagine…
Blake steps past, goes into my walk-in closet and tosses a blue shirt and some worn jeans my way. “Get dressed, unless you plan to parade around naked. It may thrill your housekeeper, but I’ve seen enough.”
“Good god. She’s in her sixties.” Not to mention, she seems to believe it’s her number one responsibility to mother me. She cleaned up the mess I made in my office even though I told her to not bother.
“So? She’s not dead yet, is she? Where else is she going to see a man in his prime prancing around naked?”
I snort, then my gaze falls on the ugly scars on my left leg, and my mood darkens. Ava caressed them as though they didn’t repulse her. She even ran her cheeks along the white bumpy lines. And for that one moment all the pain and weight I carry just…vanished.
Was she upset about the implied end date to our relationship? The fucking tabloids were thorough—they didn’t forget to add that the fake marriage was to last a year.
She shouldn’t have shut me out. I told her I loved her. Why didn’t she try to negotiate?
Or did I fuck it up by bringing nothing but the pathetic terra-cotta pot? Maybe I should’ve prepared something sparkly and expensive. Diamonds usually work pretty well. Their dazzling display would’ve hidden what’s wrong inside me. Ava might not have even noticed the pot.
I cover my eyes with a hand. They would’ve made a perfect present, and I’m an idiot for not having seen it sooner. But I was foundering in my own thoughts at the time.
Blake grabs a fresh shirt from his small suitcase and changes out of the wet sweater. Once we’re both dressed, my brother drags me to the living room. It has a couple of plushy mahogany-colored leather armchairs and two matching love seats. A few coffee table hardbacks on Monticello and Jefferson’s legacy lie on the low wooden table in the center. Rachel had the place decorated, and whoever she hired did well.
Gail comes out from the kitchen, wiping her thin hands on a paper towel. Her hair is gray, and her eyes a murky green although still perceptive behind a pair of glasses. She’s put on a UVA shirt—her children went to the University of Virginia—and jeans and a pair of those sensible white sneakers.
She takes one look at me and nods. “Good to see you finally rejoining the ranks of the living.”
“It wasn’t that long.”
“Three days is plenty. Demolishing pictures in your office? Jogging three times a day? Washing before and after you go out? My lord. I thought you’d lost your mind!” Gail presses her lips together until they practically vanish. “I do confess you had me worried. Wasn’t sure what to do.”
That explains why Rachel called for reinforcements.
I go to Gail and squeeze her weathered hand. “I’m sorry. Really. It won’t happen again.”
Blake sits back in an armchair, doing what people are starting to call manspreading. “That’s right. I won’t let it.”
“Good. Now, would you like something to eat?”
“Something warm. And maybe a sandwich?” Blake asks hopefully.
“I can manage that.” She points at the other armchair. “Sit down, Lucas. You’re making me nervous.” She waits until I actually take the seat and then disappears into the kitchen.
“‘I won’t let it.’” I snort. “Smug SOB, aren’t you? You can’t stay here forever to keep an eye on things.”
He shrugs. “You can’t stay here for too long either.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Don’t you remember your rather open-ended promise to Nate Sterling?”
Obscenely wealthy and well connected, Nate Sterling is a relative—through marriage—on the Pryce side of the family. Although he and I are friends, I can’t imagine making a blank promise to him. I absolutely hate owing anyone anything. “What promise?”
Blake shakes his head. “I knew it. I even told Nate you probably forgot, since you’re no liar.”
I inhale sharply as a fresh wave of pain cuts through me. My asshole brother thinks I’m not a liar…but not the woman I love.
Not just a liar, but a greedy, greedy bastard.
Just like the way I was a greedy fetus.
I rub my hands together, feeling grimy.
Blake’s flat tone pulls me out of my headspace. “You told him you’d help in any way you could if he ever opened a clinic for the poor.”
Finally, I remember. When I learned how much Ava and her mother had suffered growing up, a clinic for people who fell through the cracks was something I wanted to do, and Nate seemed like the perfect partner for that type of venture. “And? Don’t tell me he’s going to build one now.” I no longer have the drive or the proper state of mind for a project as ambitious as this.
“He has, and it’s already open. The Sterling Medical Center in L.A. Well, ‘open’… He’ll make it official in about a week or two, I imagine.”
“Then he doesn’t need me.”
“Wrong. He wants you to help with fundraisers.”
What the hell? “That’s not my area. Why doesn’t he ask Elizabeth?” There’s no wallet she can’t crack with that smile of hers.
“She told him she was too busy. It’s not like she has nothing to do with her time.”
“And it’s not like there’s anything keeping you here.”
But there is.
I didn’t go jogging three times a day for shits and giggles. No matter how convoluted a route I took, I always made sure to pass Darcy and Ray’s house…which I guess makes me a stalker. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Ava’s taken out a restraining order. I’ve been behaving like some of the psychos who’ve harassed my sister.
If I were a better man, I would’ve accepted Ava’s decision—no, that’s not right. If I were a better man, she wouldn’t have rejected me in the first place.
But…I’m not. So I kept going by her place to see if she was all right without me. To see if she’d found someone else.
I wish she were a tenth as miserable as I am, so she’d want me back to make the hurt go away. But I haven’t seen her at the house and she hasn’t called. Wanting her—missing her—has become a tangible thing that wraps around and squeezes until I feel like I’m about to burst.
The only bright spot is that she doesn’t seem to be dating anyone new.
Blake as usual sees a bit too much. “It’s that girl, isn’t it?”
I merely stare at him.
He steeples his fingers. “Stop rubbing your hands together and tell me what happened.”
Currently, she shares a condo overlooking a small river and sakura trees in Japan with her husband and son. When she’s not writing, she can be found reading books by her favorite authors or planning another trip.
Stay in touch with her via her website, http://www.nadialee.net, or her blog www.nadialee.net/blog/