By Laurelin Paige
“Test today was negative,” Laynie said as I walked in the office, not bothering with any greeting. “I’m never going to get pregnant, Gwen.”
I dropped my purse on the couch and bit the inside of my cheek before I responded so that I didn’t laugh. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope. It was a big fat minus sign. Which means negative. Not pregnant. No baby. Infertile. Nothing’s growing in this soil.”
I couldn’t help myself—I laughed. “It’s been two months since you started trying. That’s not even long enough to let the Depo run out of your system yet, is it? Have you even had a period?”
Alayna—Laynie—had only gotten married in April to Hudson Pierce, one of the country’s richest men under thirty and the owner of The Sky Launch, the club where we worked together as co-managers. I hadn’t heard a word about her wanting children the whole time they’d been engaged, but by the time she’d come home from the honeymoon, she was in full family-planning mode. Technically my boss, Laynie’s most notable trait was her ability to focus intently on a project until it was completed. In other words, she was a little obsessive.
It was actually a great characteristic when it came to work. She always thought of everything, never missing a detail. Her brain worked on overdrive, and while she liked to talk incessantly about business, her passion and creative ideas made sure the subject never grew old.
An obsessive partner was good for me, really. Besides my family and friendship with Laynie, work was all I had to fill my time. Well, pretty much all I had. And since she and the other two important people in my life—my sister Norma and my brother Ben—had significant others, I spent a lot of time focused on my job. It definitely helped with the loneliness.
But now Laynie was obsessed with having a baby.
God, I knew nothing about babies. Or pregnancy. Or marriage. Or being so in love and committed to a person that I wanted to procreate with him. Somehow the constant talk about it made me feel more alone than ever. And she hadn’t even conceived yet. What the hell would it feel like when she actually had another human to fixate on?
“I have not had a period yet,” Laynie said as I crossed over to my desk, which was set at a perpendicular angle to hers. “And that makes it even harder to guess when I’m supposed to test. But I had all the symptoms of ovulation two weeks ago—the raised temperature, the change in cervical fluid and firmness. That means I should have started today. But since I didn’t, it’s possible I’m still pregnant and the test just didn’t say it yet—right?”
“You’re not really asking me that, are you?” I slumped into my chair and logged into my computer as I spoke. “Because you know I have zero knowledge about anything related to conception.”
“But I just told you everything you need to know on the subject. I should be having a period. I’m not. Test says negative. Those contradict. So I could be pregnant. Right?”
“Sounds like you answered the question on your own.” I could sense she was about to protest, so before she did, I added, “Hey. You’re on your own with this. I can’t give you any insight or opinion. Now if you want to talk about narrowing down the selections for the new chef, I can say plenty.”
She opened her mouth to say something then shut it. When she opened it again, she said, “I’m obsessing, aren’t I?”
I put my thumb and forefinger up and indicated an inch. “Little bit.”
She groaned and dropped her forehead to her desk.
“Aw. Don’t beat yourself up. I know it’s frustrating. You decided you wanted something and now you can’t see anything else.” Man, did I know how that felt. But I also knew that life could go on through waiting. Even when the wait was indefinite.
At least she didn’t have to do the waiting alone.
I stopped myself from saying that, afraid it would come out bitter, and it wasn’t her I was bitter at. “It’s going to take time. Didn’t the doctor say it might be a year before your reproductive system was reset?”
Her head still down, she let out another muffled groan edged with an exaggerated sob.
“I’m not saying it will take that long. Just…be patient.” Easier said then done. I knew that. “Meanwhile, keep trying. Have as much fun as you can being a newlywed.”
She sat up abruptly, her brown hair flying from the movement. “Oh, believe me, we’re trying. All. The. Time.” She waggled her brows and her suddenly upbeat tone suggested she was next going to erupt into a sordid tale from her insanely abundant sex life.
Her stories had only recently begun to induce a streak of envy that blazed hot and fierce inside me, but I refused to let her know. Once they brought to mind vivid memories of my own—of the man I was waiting for, of the way he and I had been whenever we were together. I’d liked those memories. They’d given me something to hold onto. Something to look forward to.
Now they only reminded me of what I didn’t have.
But I forced an encouraging smile, preferring her spicy talk to her baby disappointment. “Please, Laynie. Don’t act as if you’re doing it any more than you were when you weren’t trying. You two have sex drives that are insatiable.”
She grinned. “It’s H. He can go forever. This morning, he woke me up before five, and he still was only half dressed when his driver rang the bell at a quarter to eight. The Pierce stamina…I tell you…”
“No, don’t. I can barely look at him with all I know as it is.”
“I’m just saying I bet there’s a cousin or something we could fix you up with.” She winked.
It was my turn to groan. “Please, no.” As for Pierce stamina, I had a feeling it was more Hudson stamina. I certainly hadn’t found my own Pierce lover to be able to go very long. Though, perhaps that was just because of their differences in age.
And that little extracurricular arrangement was not one I was sharing with anyone, least of all my coworker. It was embarrassing and wrong—on so many levels, not just because of the years between he and me. I was sure Laynie and I were close enough friends that she wouldn’t judge or scold, but still. I felt guilty. As I should. I should feel every rotten feeling from shame to disgust to remorse.
Laynie would tell me I was being ridiculous. She’d said before that I couldn’t waste my life away waiting for someone who had obviously flat-out disappeared. And maybe a part of me agreed. Maybe that was why I’d let that other Pierce work his way into my life. Into my bed.
But I hadn’t let him anywhere near my heart, because no matter how much time had passed, it belonged to someone else.
“Fine. No setting you up with Hudson’s family. As soon as you say the word, though, I’m fixing you up with someone. Just let me know when you’re ready.”
I chewed on my bottom lip and gave her a tight, “Mmhmm,” pretending to be distracted with what was on my screen. Thank goodness she couldn’t view it from where she sat or she’d see that I was staring at the desktop. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to discuss the topic, necessarily. I just didn’t know what else to say to her. “Don’t bother, I’m hopeless,” would only urge her to convince me otherwise. And I didn’t want convincing. Because as far as I was concerned, I’d never be ready.
I felt her staring at me for a few seconds before I heard the clickety-click of her fingers on her keyboard. She really was thoughtful to try like she did. It was just still difficult for me to know how to deal with people who cared about me besides Norma and Ben. People like Alayna and Hudson and Boyd—Norma’s boyfriend—and Eric, my brother’s fiancé. It hadn’t been that long since I’d been closed off to everyone, shut up inside, unwilling to let go or let others in, and it was sometimes awkward to respond to the attention. Which was silly, probably. It wasn’t like I’d turned into the captain of the cheerleading squad in terms of social life or anything. But I’d definitely changed. And that took getting used to.
Alayna wasn’t pushing, thankfully. That meant I was off the hook, and I willed my attention to turn to work.
I let out a long breath and opened up the shared folder on my computer labeled Restaurant. While I was mainly in charge of operations and Laynie was in charge of marketing and human resources, we found our best innovative ideas happened together. So even though she primarily worked days and I worked nights, we made sure our hours overlapped several times a week so that we could collaborate and touch base. Friday nights we ran the club together. She wasn’t needed then—we had more than enough qualified managers to cover all the shifts without her having to take a weekend night—but she said it kept her in touch with what made the club thrive. Frankly, I was surprised Hudson let her work when he wasn’t at the office. He was as controlling as she was obsessive. Somehow the two made it work. Perfectly, even.
However they did it, I was grateful that we had shifts together. Besides being a good friend, she was an amazing businesswoman. She had worked at The Sky Launch for several years, but she’d only taken over as manager at about the same time I did. I’d been impressed from day one with her plans for expansion of the nightclub, including her idea to highlight the club’s best feature—the private bubble rooms on the second story that overlooked the dance floor below. We’d focused on bringing in more small parties, partnering with various businesses around town and starting a citywide promotion campaign through one of the best advertising firms in NYC.
Recently we’d moved our focus to her idea of having a restaurant on the premises during the day hours. The last club I’d worked at, Eighty-Eighth Floor, had a similar model of day-to-night presence that we’d tweaked to bring to The Sky Launch. Presently, we were looking at chefs.
“Did you confirm with Fuschia MacDonahough for tomorrow?” I asked, looking at our To-Do List. For months, we’d met every Thursday for dinner at the penthouse she had with Hudson. It was our chance to hang out in a non-work setting, though for the last couple of weeks, we’d added a bit of the job to the routine by bringing in one of the chefs on our short list of potential hires to prepare the meal so we could audition their cooking.
The recurring date had strengthened our friendship. Norma, my sister, sometimes joined us, and every now and then Ben and Eric as well. We’d become a family of sorts, pieces of broken people coming together like a patchwork quilt. It was a night that I looked forward to with as much intensity as I dreaded the loneliness of the Wednesday night that preceded it.
“Yep. Then next week we’ve got Jordan Chase confirmed. After that we’re going to have to make a decision.”
Her brow wrinkled, and I prayed she didn’t go where I sensed she was going.
“Jordan Chase,” she said again. “That could be what JC stands for.”
And there she’d gone.
“JC wasn’t a cook.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’m sure.” And the C likely stood for a middle name, definitely not his last. Of the few things he’d told me, one had been his last name—Bruzzo. I’d kept that information to myself like most of what he’d told me that final time I’d seen him.
“His name could still be Jordan.” Good old Laynie. Obsessing again. “I kind of like that. It has a nice ring.”
If I had the strength, I’d let her ramble on and not react.
But I had no strength when it came to JC, and Alayna knew it.
I twisted my seat toward her and glared.
She was staring out into space though and missed my evil eye. “Gwen and Jordan. Jordan and Gwen. I like that. Real catchy.” Finally, she looked at me. “What?”
“One minute you want to fix me up with someone, the next you’re bringing up JC. Do you want me with him or not?”
“I don’t want either. I mean, I want you happy. And from what you’ve said about this guy, I think he makes you happy. So I wish he would come the fuck back from wherever he disappeared to and do that.”
I didn’t want to go down this road tonight. I nodded and hoped she’d take my cue when I swiveled back toward my screen.
She didn’t. “But if he’s not going to come back…”
“Then you think I should move on. I know, I know.” She’d told me enough times in enough ways for me to feel like I understood her position on the matter.
She surprised me, though, saying, “I’m torn, Gwen. He sounds amazing. Perfect for you. And after everything Hudson and I went through, I believe that love can overcome incredible obstacles.”
Nice sentiment. I wanted to believe it too. “But our only obstacle is that he isn’t here.” Well, that and he’d gotten married to someone else in Vegas while he was too drunk to know what he was doing. That was another thing I hadn’t told Alayna.
“Exactly. He has to be here. And he’s not. So you need to make a decision about how long you’re going to wait for him. How much of your life is worth letting pass by while you wait for him to show up? What if he never shows up?”
It was the question I asked myself every day.
The answer was, I’d be lost. I was lost. Because of him, I was open and looser and closer to happy than I’d been for most of my life. But the heart of me—the part that believed in love and ever after and sweet kisses and romance—that part of me was lost.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure that I’d ever completely found it. I’d glimpsed it, though. Seen pieces of myself that had hinted it was inside me. If it really was there, I knew without a doubt I wouldn’t find it for real without him. Without JC.
But Alayna had a point. How long could I wait before at least pretending to move on?
“I don’t know,” I said with raw sincerity.
Laynie was silent for a moment, and I could hear the wheels in her head turning. “I get you,” she said finally, “I do. I’ve wasted so much time on less promising relationships than yours, and the ways I coped were far less healthy than you simply taking yourself off the market. But Lauren, my favorite therapist, used to say that sometimes we aren’t even interested in the thing we’re after anymore. We’ve just gotten in the habit of focusing on it.”
Was that what JC had become for me? Merely a habit?
I didn’t want to think that was all he was. But if he’d taught me anything, it was that living in the past was not living at all.
I’d never struggled with addiction, yet now I felt like I had a smidgeon of an idea of what it must have been like for Alayna when she’d had to face her obsessive tendencies over men. How hard it must have been to finally try to “quit.” It was why my father had never been able to put down the bottle and why he’d turned to heroin—because it was that hard to give up the thing that you lived for.
In the same way, it was nearly impossible for me to think about giving up JC, even when he’d only become a memory.
And with that clarity, I realized that was exactly what I had to do—give him up. Because I didn’t want to be anything like my father.
Laynie was right. I had to check in to JC Anonymous. I had to quit. Tentatively I asked, “What would this Dr. Lauren of yours say is the way to stop?”
“Well.” She was just as tentative in her answer, all too aware of the difficulty it took for me to even think about “quitting.” “She’d suggest setting a date. A date that you plan to quit waiting, or in my case, obsessing, and then on that date, you stop. Like a job. Hand in your notice today and know that this is all the time you have left before you move on.”
“So I should pick a date to be over JC? That sounds a little simplistic, doesn’t it?”
“It does. But it works.” She thought for a second then corrected herself. “Or it helps anyway. Nothing really works except not giving up.”
I twisted my lips, considering what she’d said. It would be easy to apply her words to reasons to not quit JC. If I truly believed we could be together then I shouldn’t give up.
But it had been almost a year since he’d left me. Almost twelve months since he’d told me that he was the key witness in a murder. That he had to go into protection until the trial. I had no way of knowing when the trial would end, and when it did, he was the one who had to find me. Which could prove difficult since I’d left every part of my old life in my own need for protection. In my case, protection from my father.
I had faith that he could find me. But would he look? Because, yes, I still had feelings for him, but really, when I thought about it logically, it was ridiculous that I did. Because in the seven months I’d known him before he left, our relationship really only added up to a total of two weeks time together. Ninety-five percent of that had been just sex. So what was it I was actually waiting around for? A man who had openly loved me for the space of…what? A day and a half? That and good sex. Amazingly good sex.
It wasn’t enough to justify being stuck for so long.
And if he actually did love me like he’d said he did, I had a feeling he’d say the same thing.
There was only one smart thing to do.
I looked down at the keyboard where my fingers were absentmindedly tapping over and over on the same two letters—J and C.
No. I couldn’t live like this forever.
I pulled my hands into my lap and sat back in my chair. “The Fourth.”
I’d been silent long enough that Laynie took a moment to register my meaning. “Of July?”
I swallowed. “Yeah. Independence Day. Sounds like a good day to let someone go.”
She nodded, her expression somber, her eyes both compassionate and hopeful. “It sounds perfect,” she said. “A total celebration. We’re all going to be on Hudson’s boat for the night. We’ll watch the fireworks and everyone will think they’re going off for this big patriotic holiday thing, and only we will know they’re really just for you.”
The year before, I’d spent the holiday watching the fireworks alone, missing JC with every fiber of my being. Yet somehow this year’s celebration sounded even lonelier.
“Perfect,” I said. I’d expected to feel a weight lifted from me, but instead, it felt almost suffocating to commit to this new plan. Felt like something inside of me was tightening and constricting, making it hard to breathe. Like my lungs were full of sand and my heart that had once been open was starting to close.
Gwen Anders came to The Sky Launch to begin fresh, away from the horrors of her past. She fit in quickly, becoming good friends with her co-manager, Alayna Withers and the owner of the club, Hudson Pierce. Though the circumstances that brought her here were not the best, she's never felt more at home.
But starting a new life means letting go. And there are some things she doesn't want to leave behind - like JC, the man who taught her how to let loose. The man she wasn't supposed to fall in love with. The man she doesn't want to lose.
Now, with the reason she ran still a threat, Gwen fears she'll never be able to move on completely. And if she does, can she still hold out hope that JC loves her enough to come and find her?
FIND ME is the HIGHLY ANTICIPATED sequel to FREE ME and the Conclusion of Gwen and JC's Story and will be available on August 25th!
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Haven’t read this series yet, check out FREE ME for
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About the Author:
NY Times & USA Today Bestselling author Laurelin Paige is a sucker for a good romance and gets giddy anytime there’s kissing, much to the embarrassment of her three daughters. Her husband doesn’t seem to complain, however. When she isn’t reading or writing sexy stories, she’s probably singing, watching Mad Men and the Walking Dead, or dreaming of Adam Levine. She is represented by Bob Diforio of D4EO Literary Agency.