Thursday, July 30, 2009

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Jon circled the block a few times to blow off some steam, then parked the Aston Martin at the end of Erin’s street. He might be angry, he might have hated everything she told him, and he might have needed to get out of her house and be alone for awhile, but that didn’t mean he didn’t care about her safety. If that creep Max so much as dared to show his face around the neighborhood, he’d regret it instantly.

Jon shut off the headlights and sat back in the driver’s seat, crossing his arms tightly over his chest. His jaw was locked, his eyes hard, as he stared at the dark street in front of him. His head was spinning with thoughts and emotions coming at him from every angle – anger, disbelief, surprise…


He’d been side-blinded and thrown off balance when Erin told him about Max. He’d sat there while she poured out her heart in apology, and tried desperately to absorb the reality of the information while questions raged in his brain. Why is she telling me now? He’d thought. In the middle of the night?

Because the guy had been outside her house. “Watching her. Waiting for her.”

Jon didn’t like that fact one single bit. What was the creep doing watching her in the middle of the night? Why had he taken up stalking her? Was he just a disgruntled ex, or did Erin have some other secrets she wasn’t telling Jon?

He got that was why she called him, he got that she was scared…but the way she dropped all that crap on him, with so much more to the story, really got under his skin. Like she was trying to side-blind him, get him under the pretense of a bigger, more important story than the fact that she’d cheated on him.

Last month. She had been involved with another guy until last month. It was one thing if she and Jon had just met and she’d told him about Max right then…but last month? Three months into their relationship?

Jon cringed as he remembered making love to her, setting up a romantic evening at his house, admitting to her that he loved her….shit. His face burned as he felt insanely foolish; he’d been a blithering idiot. Entirely blind to her two faces, unaware that as he confessed his love to her that night she was hiding a secret relationship with another man. His stomach churned with a mixture of humiliation and fury.

Then again, Jon realized, what if she had told him about Max right away? Or what if she’d been straight with him from that first moment they met on the plane? Everything would have been different. Jon never would have known her. They would have gotten off that plane and gone their separate ways, and she never would have made that impression on him that she did when he had his driver take her home. When he watched her walk up to her door and thought about the inspiration she had given him for a song.

She would have become nothing more than that – a character in some future lyrics.

So what did that all mean? That this was the price of getting to know her after all? That because she simply answered something else to that question on the plane, they’d ended up talking all night, he’d helped her get her luggage back, taken her home, decided to follow her in when he saw her at Starbucks a week later, became instantly wrapped up in the excitement and passion of a new romance, and ended up falling for her. Hard.

It seemed as though everything had transpired because of a lie. And as much as he hated to consider it, Jon couldn’t help but feel as though the whole thing, the whole past four months, had been a lie itself.

But the other part of him knew he was overreacting. It wasn’t as though she’d known that night what was going to happen. She, just like he, was in the middle of a situation that she’d never foreseen – immersed in an atmosphere that lent itself to slight manipulation of the truth. They had been perfect strangers, after all. Thrust together by happenchance. Neither of them even considering the fact – at the time – that they’d ever see each other again.

When he thought of it that way, her lie seemed so insignificant.

But then why, after they’d gotten to know each other, after they’d gotten involved, after they’d gotten physical for Christ’s sake, why hadn’t she told him then?

Despite his eagerness to accuse her, to find fault on her side, Jon knew the answer to that as well. He was only human.

So how could he be angry with her? He was no saint himself, in fact, he was probably the biggest hypocrite in the world for preaching about fidelity.

But damn it, he had never cheated on her. He hadn’t even thought about it.

And strangely enough, Jon realized as he sat there deep in thought, that was the root of this whole problem. Why he was so angry. Because he was in love with Erin. Because she meant enough to him that he wasn’t even interested in other women, because she was amazing and beautiful and intelligent and wonderful enough to finally prove his match. She was worthy of his crazy, stubborn, hotheaded personality and unrelenting lifestyle, and every day she proved to show him something new about herself. About them. Teaching him that he’d never known love from this angle – at this depth.

To finally have found that ultimate match, that one woman who made all the women from his past obsolete, the final destination in that crazy, cosmic search for love…it was terrifying. Was she really “the one”? Jon didn’t know if he was ready for that.

And try as he might to play it off casually, as much as he insisted it wasn’t as big as it felt, he was downright terrified of the hold she had on his heart.

Jon rubbed his face agitatedly. That was what made it so much worse. Maybe he could understand why she hadn’t told him about Max, or Max about him, but the fact that she hadn’t broken things off with Max, the fact that she’d kept things going well into her and Jon’s new relationship…it hurt. More than Jon wanted to admit. It meant that she didn’t feel the same way about him, and if that was true, he was absolutely damned.

Admitting he was under her spell, in love to the point of almost no return was hard enough. But having to accept the fact that it wasn’t reciprocated…Jon suddenly understood the real reason for all of his mixed feelings that night.

And as he sat in the silent car, staring out at the darkened street, the lyrics from a song he’d written long ago stung at his heart…

If you don’t love me, lie to me
‘Cause baby you’re the one thing I believe
Let it all fall down around us, if that’s what meant to be
Right now, if you don’t love me, baby
Lie to me…

Monday, July 27, 2009

Chapter Twenty-Six

Jon got to Erin’s house faster than she expected him to. Despite the anxiety over what she was about to tell him, she couldn’t help but feel a wave of relief when he pulled up outside. The sight of him as he walked up the path calmed her nerves, and when she opened the door and fell into his strong arms, she felt uncannily safe and protected.

“Thanks for coming,” she said into his chest.

Jon smoothed her hair away from her face and lifted her chin to look at him. “Baby, what’s wrong?”

Erin breathed deeply, then took his hand and led him into the living room. “I need to talk to you,” she said as nonchalantly as she could. She tried to tell herself it wouldn’t be a big deal, that Jon wouldn’t care when he learned there was another man involved – however involved he was now – in Erin’s life. That he’d shrug it off, pull her into a hug, and tell her it was okay.

God, she wished it would play out like that.

She sat down on the sofa opposite Jon, and willed herself to be completely honest. “Jon, when I got home tonight, someone was outside my house.”

Jon raised an eyebrow, confused. “Outside your house? As in, walking by on the sidewalk?”

“No,” Erin said carefully. “As in, sitting inside a parked car. Waiting for me. Watching me.”

Jon’s face steeled so fast Erin thought it would freeze that way. He was silent for a moment, but a tick pulsed strongly in his cheek. “What are you talking about?”

“I know it sounds ominous, and it was,” Erin continued steadily. “I was really scared, and I hurried inside the house and locked the door. But I watched the car from inside, and then I saw the person leave…” she faltered, suddenly aware of how melodramatic she was being. Get to the point, Erin. “The thing is, I know who it was.”

If Jon was angry about the idea of someone watching her, he seemed even more confused about where she was going with the whole thing. His expression shifted slightly, and he furrowed his brow. “Erin, what are you talking about? Who was it?”

“You don’t know him,” she said gently. “His name’s Max. Max Gerber. He’s…actually my ex.”

Jon’s eyes widened and Erin corrected herself. “Boyfriend,” she said quickly. “Ex-boyfriend. But we were together for awhile…about six months.”

The baby blues masked the calculations that Erin could almost see going on behind them, as Jon figured the timing out. “Six months? Here in Jersey, you mean, right? Or is he from California?”

“No, he’s from Jersey,” Erin said. “We met here.”

“But you barely moved here a year ago,” Jon said pointedly. “When exactly were these six months up?”

Trying desperately to avoid as much confrontation and argument as possible, Erin seemed to shrink into herself. “Last month,” she said quietly, hardly able to look at him.

Jon’s face changed yet again to steel, hardened and rigid in a way Erin had never seen before. Anger and hurt began seeping through his expression, and she jumped into an explanation before he could speak.

“Jon, I know this sounds bad. But I swear, it was over long before that. Even before I left for San Diego, Max was already driving me crazy. I never saw myself with him long-term, I was distancing myself from him for a long time. I just never really did anything about it until…well, until…” Erin stopped.

Until you came into my life.

How the bloody hell could she honestly say that to him and make it sound good? Even in her head it sounded stupid. She’d make Jon sound like he was entirely disposable. Replaceable, like the rest of the men in her life. But that wasn’t it at all.

She looked up and cringed at the look Jon had fixated on her. Fierce and demanding of a better explanation, that much she could tell. And damn it, she knew she owed him one. But she just didn’t have a good enough one.

“Jon,” she said gently. “I am so sorry. I never meant to hurt you. This wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I don’t know what I was thinking, and I am the one entirely at fault here. I was stupid, I know. And I can never undo it. Things got out of control…” she faltered, discouraged by the unrelenting look Jon maintained. “But you have to believe me when I say I never cheated on you. After I met you, Max and I never did anything. In fact, we hardly even saw each other. We spoke on the phone a few times and that was it. I kept avoiding him because I didn’t want to tell him about you –”

“And why’s that?” Jon interrupted her, his voice clipped. Erin shut her eyes and shook her head. That had come out all wrong.

“No, that’s not what I meant, I just –”

“Then what exactly did you mean?”

Erin hesitated, growing more terrified of Jon’s expression and feeling more anxious by the minute. This was not going the right way at all. She rubbed her face, frustrated with herself for not explaining it better.

“I didn’t tell him about you because I didn’t think…”

“You didn’t think we were going to work out?” Jon snapped. “And when we didn’t, you could finish screwing around with him?”

“No!” Erin retorted, shocked at his accusation. “No, that’s not it at all!”

“Then tell me, Erin! Why didn’t you tell this guy about me?”

“For the same reason I didn’t tell you about him – I was scared!” Erin stood up, feeling suddenly suffocated by the tension in the room. “Because THIS is the kind of conversation I wanted to avoid. Because I was afraid of confrontation.”

“This conversation would have gone a lot differently if you’d told me about him when we had just met, Erin,” Jon said poisonously. “But no, you choose to tell me three months into our relationship!”

“I wasn’t going to tell you about him at all, Jon, but as I found out he’s been stalking me, I figured I’d better now!”

As soon as she said it, she regretted it. One look at Jon’s face and she knew she’d just ruined any chance of redeeming herself.

“Well that makes it better, doesn’t it,” Jon said in a voice of deadly calm. “You hide this from me the whole time we’re together, then drop it on me out of nowhere because suddenly things aren’t going your way. You figure I’d have found out eventually now that he’s following you, so you come to me first and look like the bigger person. Aren’t you a saint.”

The words stung Erin like a thousand needles, and she gaped at him, at a loss for words.

Jon stood up from the sofa slowly, looking suddenly much taller and intimidating. “You told me on the plane from San Diego that you were unattached. That is the only reason I pursued you the way I did. I don’t understand that connection we had on that flight any more than you do, but it stuck with me. And I wasn’t going to – I couldn’t – ignore it. Damn it, Erin, you affected me more than any woman has in a long time. And to find out that all this time you’ve been lying to me…”

Erin swallowed hard, fighting back the sting of tears that threatened to spill over.

Jon looked at her, his blue eyes darkened and hard. Any trace of their normal twinkle was gone, replaced with hurt and fury. “I don’t care if you say nothing happened with this guy after we met. The fact remains that you didn’t tell me about him, or him about me. You strung us both along like puppets.”

“No I didn’t,” Erin said weakly, hurt by the way he was talking to her. Her faults seemed a hundred times worse when Jon pointed them out.

“Yes, you did,” he continued. “You say this all ended last month? Did you break things off? Tell me you at least were the one to break it off.”

“Yes,” Erin said more strongly, glad to have done something right. Sort of. “I told him it was over, and I haven’t seen him since. Well, except for tonight.”

“But you didn’t tell him things were over because there was another guy, did you?” Jon’s mouth was set in a thin line.

Erin shrank even more. “No,” she said angrily, furious with herself. “I told him things weren’t working out anymore.”

“Right,” Jon said bluntly. “And once again, you took the easy way out. You figure the dude still doesn’t know about me, I don’t know about him, but you break things off and now he has no reason or excuse to come around again, so you can continue dating me in peace, and neither one of us is the wiser for it.”

“Jon,” Erin said exasperatedly. “I didn’t mean it that way!”

“But that’s how you did it, Erin! Shit! Don’t you see? You’ve manipulated this whole fucking thing!” Jon threw his hands up in the air. “I don’t believe this. I don’t believe you. How can I ever trust you again? You’ve put me in the worst fucking position, you know that?”

“How is that?” Erin snapped back, furious with herself and upset that Jon was lashing out so much.

“Jesus, Erin, what am I supposed to do now? You call me in the middle of the night to come protect you, but won’t tell me why…then drop this all on me when I get here. This guy is now stalking you – God knows why – and I find out he’s not only your ex, but you were still with him when we started dating! Shit…” Jon turned away from her and walked the length of the living room, running his hands through his hair. “But I can’t very well just leave when you have a stalker, now, can I?”

Erin hadn’t thought of it that way. She hadn’t meant to put him in that position, but of course it was a shitty one. If he stayed with her, he had to pretend everything was fine, which it obviously wasn’t. If he left, he was the asshole for leaving her vulnerable to someone who might or might not be a very real danger.

She couldn’t help it, the tears slid down her face before she could stop them. “I am so sorry,” she sobbed. “Jon, I am so sorry. I truly never meant to hurt you. I never meant to put you in this position. Everything you said is true, I know that now. I did those things, I acted that way. I wasn’t doing it intentionally, and if I had known how bad it looked, I never would have gotten into this mess,” she gasped for breath in between sobs. “I didn’t think. I was stupid. I should have handled it better, and if I could, I’d go back and redo this whole thing. But I was scared, Jon. I was scared of losing you. And I know that’s no excuse, but it’s the truth,” she paused, wiping her eyes defeatedly.

Jon looked at her silently. Despite his anger, despite all the wrong she had done him tonight, he still cared about her deeply. Her dark green eyes were clouded over with tears, her face shrouded in defeat and sorrow, guilt lurking around every corner and unafraid to admit it. He could tell she was truly apologetic, he knew she was sincere. It might be entirely the wrong time to be so, but she was. He knew that. And it helped.

But it didn’t make it okay. He was still hurt, still angry, still disbelieving that she had betrayed him like that. He needed time to be alone – to think. Not knowing what else to do except stay here and prolong an argument that didn’t need to continue, he walked over to the sofa. Without saying a word, he picked up his coat and keys, headed toward the door, and stepped out onto the porch.

“Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight,” he said without turning around. “No one will be outside your house. You’ll be safe.”

And with that he turned and headed down the sidewalk. Erin watched as he got into his car and drove away, the roar of the engine deafening as it sped down the otherwise silent street.

Erin shut the door and bolted it, then slowly returned to the living room, sank into the sofa, and cried.

She knew she had been wrong. And she knew things would go the way they did tonight. That was why she had avoided it for as long as she did, but she knew she had to eventually do the right thing, even though it hurt. And this was the right thing to do.

Wasn’t it?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

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