Chosen by a Stranger (Craved Series #5) (5 page)

BOOK: Chosen by a Stranger (Craved Series #5)
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Chapter
9: Jack

 

I'd never been in her new house, but it looked nice from the
outside. Very modern, even for Cali.

 

Her car was in the driveway next to a pickup truck. I assumed it
was her latest boyfriend's. I furrowed my brow trying to remember his name but
came up short.

I tipped the cab driver and slung my duffel bag over my shoulder,
taking my time up the driveway.

 

Soon after ringing the doorbell, I heard footsteps.

 

"Hello," a fit man in his forties said when he opened
the door. He was wearing basketball shorts and a few grey hairs poked through
the stubble around his chin.

 

"Hi," I said, momentarily confused. "I'm looking
for Ariel Quinn."

 

The man narrowed his eyes on me. "What's this about?"

"I'm her son."

His face relaxed instantly. "Why didn't you say so?" He
stuck his hand out and shook mine enthusiastically. "I'm Travis."

I smiled.

"Ariel's boyfriend."

Right. "Nice to meet you." I guess my Mom was committed
to being a cougar after all. Frankly, I’d hoped the reiki instructor and the dj
were a fluke, but this guy was at least twenty years her junior.

 

"You, too," he said. "I'm sorry to freeze you out
there. I was just surprised because your Mom didn't tell me you were
coming."

"I hadn’t mentioned it," I said, switching my bag to the
other hand.

"Come in," he said, stepping backwards. Then he turned
his head and yelled up the stairs. "Ari!"

 

My Mom appeared at the top of the stairwell in a breezy dress that
showed her thin, tan arms. Her white blond hair was chopped off in a mature
pixie cut that suited her, and I wondered why she hadn't done it earlier
considering how much she hated having hair in her eyes.

"Jack!" she said, throwing her hands in the air when she
saw me.

"Surprise," I said, putting my bag down and holding my arms
out to my sides.

"Can I get you a drink?" Travis asked as my Mom hurried
down the steps. "Fresh lemonade?"

 

"That would be great, thanks," I said, warming to him
now that I could see how well my Mom looked.

 

She threw her arms around me at the bottom of the stairs,
squeezing me tight and twisting side to side like I was a towel that needed to
be wrung out.

 

"Oh Jacky," she said, stepping back, her thin fingers on
my shoulders. "You look wonderful."

 

"So do you Mom," I said. "And Travis seems
nice."

 

She smiled. “He is nice.”

 

I hoped that meant I was getting points for maturity. Needless to
say, I hadn't always been charitable about her boyfriends in the past.

 

"Come sit down in the kitchen,” she said. “We have so much to
catch up on."

 

I laid my bag beside the door and slipped out of my shoes. If
everyone else was going to walk around barefoot, I wasn't going to miss out.

 

When I followed my Mom in the kitchen, the first thing I noticed
was that Travis had already put a pitcher of lemonade out for us and
disappeared. Then I saw the row of orchids in the corner.

"Those are pretty," I said, pointing towards them.

 

"You wouldn't believe how hard it is to grow them," she
said. "I know you probably take them for granted since they practically
spring out of cracks in the sidewalk in Thailand, but I'm very proud of
them."

 

I pulled out the kitchen chair across from her. Now that I could
see her more closely in the bright kitchen, I noticed that she had a few more
sun spots on her chest and hands than I remembered. But more importantly, the
sparkle in her eye hadn't dulled one bit.

 

"Before I start babbling, can you just confirm that you're
okay?"

 

"I'm fine," I said. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"No reason," she said, leaning forward and taking one of
my hands in hers. "It's just that you don't visit very often, and I've
trained myself to assume that no news is good news so I guess now that you're
here I-"

"I'm fine, Mom. Really."

 

"Plus," she continued as if she hadn't heard me. "I
spoke to your Father yesterday."

 

"You did?"

 

She nodded.

 

"Did he call you?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Is everything okay?" It wasn't like my Dad to call my
Mom. He despised her in that way that you can only hate someone you actually
love.

"I'm hoping it will be," she said, squeezing my hand,
her eyes watering so slightly I might not have noticed if I wasn't studying her
so thoroughly.

 

"What happened?"

"He checked into rehab."

I cocked my head. "Seriously?"

 

"He told me what happened- about the accident."

I swallowed. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you more when I called,
Mom. I just feel like I only ever call you with bad news and that’s not fair
cause it's not your problem. Plus, there was nothing you could've done
about-"

 

"It's okay," she said. "I understand."

"What else did he say?"

 

The last time I saw him I'd laid into him even more harshly than
I'd planned. I started with telling him how much he was fucking up my life on
top of fucking up his. I didn’t stop until I told him what his future was going
to be like if he carried on as he'd been for the last few years.

Of course, he was kind of quiet and sulky and drugged the whole
time so I wasn't sure the message even got through.

 

The last thing I said to him was that if he didn't check himself
into rehab, I would never speak to him again.

At the time I was sure Tip thought I was being cruel, but I was
fed up and meant every word of it. And I needed a sober witness who could
remind him how serious I’d been after I left.

 

"He said Tip took him to a facility near Phuket and that he’s
going to stay there until he gets better."

Maybe the accident really had shaken him up. For a moment, I let a
warm feeling of hope fill me before squashing it. I knew better than to leave
my faith in the hands of someone who'd done nothing but let me down for years.

 

"Wow."

 

"I know." She released my hand and took a sip of her
lemonade. "Whatever you said to him must've finally gotten through."

 

I sighed.

 

Her eyes were crinkled at the corners. "Maybe this time he'll
finally pull it off."

 

It was obvious that she wanted this for him as much as I did,
maybe more.

 

I shrugged. "I hope so."

 

She nodded. "I think he might," she said. "The
painkillers he's on from the accident might actually make it easier for him to
make the transition to sobriety."

 

"Fingers crossed."

 

"Tip must be a strong woman to put up with his shit,"
she said. "Stronger than me."

 

"I think she really loves him," I said. "Against
all odds."

"So did I."

 

"What about Travis?" I asked.

 

"What about him?"

 

"Is it serious?"

 

She shrugged. "Travis is a good man. He makes me laugh. He's
considerate, health conscious… all things that are important to me."

I nodded.

"I'd say my relationship with him is about as serious as I'm
ever going to get again."

"You don't want to get married again or-"

 

She shook her head. "No. I couldn't. Or wouldn't rather. I
don't know."

 

I took a sip of lemonade and licked the sweet sugar off my lips.

"I guess I'm a one husband kind of girl," she said.
"But just because I wouldn't get married again doesn't mean I want to be
alone all the time."

"Understandable."

"I have needs, you know."

"Got it."

She rolled her eyes.

"Well, I'm happy if you're happy," I said. "He
seems like a cool guy."

"I'm sure you'd get along great," she said.
"Probably push me right out of the picture."

"I won't be around long enough for that I'm afraid. Not now
anyway." Plus, the fact that he was clearly banging my Mom pretty much
disqualified him from ever having a shot at being my buddy.

 

Her eyes turned down for a second when I mentioned I wouldn't be
staying, but she didn't dwell on it.

"You know I almost forgot," she said.

I rolled my eyes. That’s what my Mom always said before she
mentioned something she never would’ve forgotten in a million years.

 

"What's that?" I asked, playing along.

"He said when he gets out of rehab, he hopes you'll let him
meet her."

 

I raised my eyebrows.

 

"So tell me, Jack. Who's the mystery woman and how did your
Dad come to know about her before I did?"

Chapter
10: Audrey

 

"I don't think it's as simple as all that," I said.

 

"Look," Megan said. "I'm no relationship expert,
but I'm pretty sure it is."

I sighed. If only I had a crystal ball that I could look into that
would tell me if saying yes to Jack was the right thing to do, if we could be
happy together, if we were meant to be.

"Do you love him or not?" Megan asked.

 

"I think I do," I said. "I feel like I do. But I've
never been in love before so how am I supposed to know if that's what I'm
feeling right now?"

"Simple," she said. "You just answer a three point
questionnaire."

"Something tells me you're about to make up some shit on the spot."

 

"Do you want to hear the questions or not?"

I glanced over at his watch on the desk and then lay down on my
back, resting my head on the pillow he used the night before.

"Well?" she asked. "I don’t have all day."

 

"I'm ready," I said, my eyes on the ceiling.
"What's question number one?"

 

"Please describe the feelings you have when you think about
him."

"I was hoping it would be multiple choice."

"I'm afraid not."

 

"How do I feel when I think about him?"

"That's what I said."

"Well, the first words that came to mind are sick and
crazy."

"Please continue," she said.

 

"Is that good or bad?"

 

"Can you just answer the damn questions and wait until the
end to get your results like a normal person?!"

 

"You mean all the normal people that have never taken this
test?"

 

"Do you want my help or not?"

 

"I do."

 

"So how else do you feel when you think about him?"

"I feel stupid."

 

"Stupid?"

 

"Not when I think about him, but about telling you how I
feel."

 

She groaned. "Get over it."

"Okay." I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. "I
feel happy. I feel warm. I feel pretty… and slightly aroused."

"And crazy and sick?"

 

"Yeah. Is that too many things?"

 

"No," she said. "Next question."

 

I pursed my lips.

"It's a two parter."

"Okay."

"How would you feel if I told you Jack was madly in love with
someone else?"

 

"Heartbroken," I said. "Devastated."

"And how difficult is it for you to imagine being with
someone else?"

 

"In what way?"

 

"In a sexually exclusive relationship kind of way."

 

"Really hard," I said, furrowing my brow. "Maybe
even impossible. I'm not sure. I don't think I've even looked at another man
since I met him. Not like that if you know what I mean."

 

"I do."

 

"Okay," I said. "So what's the last question?"

 

"The last question is, how do your feelings for him change if
you picture him wrinkly and old and slightly overweight with a hunchback and a
cane."

 

I laughed out loud.

"Well?"

 

"Is that really the third question?"

"Yeah."

 

"I guess they don't really change. I mean, it's hard to
picture him falling apart like that-"

 

"Aging."

"Whatever. But I'd still rather he was rocking in his chair
toothless next to me than some other old bitty."

"I see."

"So what does it all mean?" I asked. "What are the
results of your fool proof true love questionnaire?"

 

"It sounds to me like you're in love with him."

"And?"

 

"And what?"

 

"Is that it?" I asked, sitting straight up again.

 

"Yeah," she said. "I never said it was a perfect
test. I only said it was simple."

I shook my head.

"I don't know what your hang up is here, Audrey. If I
remember correctly, you've been completely smitten with him since the day he
carried you like a princess through the hotel after rescuing you from the
sea."

I smiled at the memory.

 

"Maybe that doesn’t mean anything, but if fairy tales are
real then you're pretty much destined to be together," she said.
"That's just my opinion, of course, and I can only compare my impression
of Jack to the other suitors of yours I've met in the past-"

 

"Don't be a bitch."

"I'm not," she said. "I'm just trying to figure out
what your problem is."

 

"I think it's just that logically I haven't known him that
long."

"True," she said. "But logic doesn't have anything
to do with love."

 

I pursed my lips.

 

"In
fact, I’m pretty sure love trumps logic every time."

"Yeah?"

"Of course. As it should. Otherwise we'd just be a bunch of
dispassionate robots and online dating would be the answer to everyone’s
relationship woes."

 

"It’s not just that."

 

"I'm listening."

 

"I think part of me still finds the whole thing- I don't
know- a bit unbelievable."

 

"What do you mean?"

 

"I still don’t get why someone like Jack would go for someone
like me."

 

"What?"

 

"I'm not trying to have a pity party for myself or anything,
but I'm not exactly trophy wife material. And he's a super hot, super
successful guy. Why would he want to marry me when he could literally have any
woman on the planet?"

 

"Oh Audrey."

 

"What?"

"You're not as big of a loser as you think you are."

"Thanks?"

"I meant that as a compliment."

"I was hoping."

"Look, I know you grew up feeling like this nerdy girl who
preferred drawing to normal social interaction. And based on what you've told
me, things didn't get easier for you when you grew those big breasts and
suffered a particularly pimply puberty, but you're not that girl anymore."

"Of course I am. I’ll always be that girl."

"But you're not just that girl. You're more than that."

 

I swallowed.

"You're smart and funny and strong," she said.
"You've got a big personality and the fact that you're pretty is just
icing on the cake."

 

I glanced at myself in the mirror, trying to see myself the way
she did, the way Jack obviously did.

 

"You need to get it out of your head that there are guys who
are out of your league. If anything, those doubts are the reason you've dated
so many assholes. Cause they can sniff out the fact that you have those
insecurities."

 

"Then why would Jack be attracted to me when he's not an
asshole?"

 

"Cause he's not a fool. And he might be a lot of things- a
little too spontaneous for one-"

 

"Unpredictable."

 

"Definitley."

 

"But he's not a fool."

 

"No. I suppose he’s not."

 

"And I'm sure he was charmed by the fact that you're
infinitely nicer and more easy going than most women who are as pretty as you
are. Because you didn't grow up cashing in on your looks."

 

"I want to believe what you're saying."

"So believe it," she said. "You're just as entitled
to have your pick of the fish in the sea as Jack is. The only difference
between you is that he already knows that about himself, and you're still
unconvinced about what a good catch you are."

 

"Well, you've certainly given me something to think
about."

 

"I'm not going to tell you that you should get in touch with
him immediately and say you've taken the time you need and that yes of course
you'll marry him-"

 

"But that's what you think I should do?"

"It's not my business to say one way or the other-"

 

"That's never stopped you from voicing your opinion
before."

 

"All I'm saying is that he's the first guy who's ever been
good enough for you. And that's how you need to look at it. Not like you got
lucky that he noticed you, but rather that he's the lucky one for having a
chance with you."

I sighed and thought back to his proposal.

 

"And my guess is that he already knows that which is why he
jumped at the chance to come after you. Because you're worth chasing."

 

I
felt kind of pathetic that my best friend was tooting my horn so hard, but she
was actually starting to convince me that maybe I wasn’t seeing the situation
for what it really was.

"So basically you think I'm just sabotaging my own
happiness," I said.

"Yes," she said. "Because of bullshit insecurities
that aren't real."

"And you think I should say yes?"

"I think you should follow your heart."

"I've never done that before," I said, wrapping my free
hand around the back of my neck.

"Yeah, well," she said. "Maybe it's about time you
start."

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