Chosen by a Stranger (Craved Series #5) (7 page)

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

I put my bag down in my Mom's guestroom and sat on the bed. The
mattress was nice and soft. Maybe too soft. I was worried I might not be able
to sleep since I'd become accustomed to firm Thai beds.

But
it wasn't just the mattress I was worried about. It was Audrey's absence from
it that disturbed me most. Sleeping with her last night had been such a welcome
change.

 

I
loved the subtle movements of her eyelids, the little sighs she let out when
she was dreaming, and the fact that she felt comfortable enough with me to
sleep so deeply.

Fortunately, it would be hours before I had to lie without her.
Travis and my Mom insisted on taking me to dinner at some cocktail hustling
bistro, and I knew myself well enough to know I'd probably be all too eager to
try and drown the anxiety I was feeling.

But I had to hand it to my Mom. She hadn't dwelled. Once her
interrogation was over, she changed the subject, promptly filling my head with
neighborhood gossip, stories about the last people who mentioned my book to
her, and a play by play of the trip to New England she and Travis took two
months ago.

 

Which made me happy and sad at the same time.

On one hand, it was great to catch up and hear how well she was
doing in person instead of over the phone. She seemed genuinely carefree in a
way that suited her age and personality. How much Travis had to do with that I
don't know.

If I had to guess, I'd say the responsibility was shared equally
between him, her book club, and her part time job at the local college, but the
source of her happiness wasn't as important as the fact that she seemed secure
in it.

Yet her cheerful update made me feel incredibly guilty. How many
similar updates and exciting milestones had I missed since I fucked off to
Thailand? I guess the only way to say it is that, as much as I constantly told
myself I didn't, I missed my Mom.

 

And it was obvious she missed me, too. I could tell because of how
often her eyes watered when she was talking to me, like it required physical
energy to push the thought of my expatriation out of her mind.

 

Meanwhile, I couldn’t stop thinking that I'd get to see a lot more
of her if I moved back home, and that knowledge gave me a nagging lump in my
throat that I kept trying in vain to swallow while she talked.

 

Eventually, I felt the need to excuse myself under the premise
that I could use a shower before we went out. Of course, when Travis came in
with groceries and slipped his hands around my Mom's waist from behind, it was
easy enough to make my exit.

 

Still, despite the fact that my Mom hadn't dwelled on the Audrey
situation- probably because she could sense that the whole thing was making me sick-
there was one thing she said that I couldn't get out of my head.

 

"Would you rather get an answer or get the girl?"

 

Obviously, I wanted Audrey. In fact, the more time I spent away
from her the more every part of me ached for her.

 

But I was worried.

 

As I replayed the morning in my mind, it seemed like I may have created
a condition that might make it harder for us to move forward, not easier.

 

I still didn't regret asking her to marry me, but I couldn’t help
but feel that I'd accidentally manipulated the situation so that it would be
awkward to spend time together until she had an answer.

 

And the truth was if she wasn't ready, I would wait for her.

 

I wanted to pretend I was harder than that, but I knew I was too sprung
to walk away. I would wait as long as she needed me to.

 

A
nd if she wouldn't have me then I would move on with my life, but
I wouldn't move on with women. There would be no point. Anyone else would be
incomparable.

 

But I couldn't go back and take it slow. Not only was I lousy at
taking things slow in the first place, but I couldn't unsay the words I'd said
to her. I couldn't unfeel those feelings.

 

And I had no choice at this point but to tell myself that it was
better she knew where I stood than if I'd played down my feelings just to avoid
overwhelming her.

 

After all, the truth was that I was overwhelmed, too… by the way
my bones felt when she was close to me, by the way her lower back dipped just above
her ass, by how hungry I was for the sound of her laugh when it hadn't even
been a day since I last heard it.

 

But it was for the best. Because no matter how much I was aching,
she had the information she needed, and the ball was in her court.

All I could do
was wait.

 

But I wasn't going to stick around and pace the floor of my
Mother's guest room until I had an answer. The best thing for me to do was go
back to Thailand, teach my class at the end of the week, and give her the time
she so adamantly demanded.

Cause I couldn't stay away from her and be this close. It would be
easier if I put some distance between us for the time being. I needed to do
whatever it took to make sure I survived long enough to hear her answer,
whatever it was. And when she was ready to get in touch, Megan had all my
contact details.

 

As soon as she called, I could be by her side in no time. So my
best bet was to carry on with my life while she figured out how- and if- she
wanted to move forward.

But I hoped it wouldn't be too long.

 

She either loved me or she didn't, right?

And then it hit me.

I didn't know if she loved me. She'd never said. Not once. I
wracked my brain, squeezing my eyes shut and going over our conversations with
as fine a comb as my memory would allow.

 

Had
she just forgotten to say it?

Or was I a fool?

 

I didn't usually misread women, and I certainly couldn't have
misread her body's reaction to me. That was as real a thing as anything I ever
felt in my life.

But had I confused her behavior with her feelings?

 

Had I proposed to a woman that didn't love me back?

I felt a pit in the corner of my stomach like a dark gnawing hole,
growing like it had every intention of swallowing me up.

This was ridiculous.

 

Of course she loved me.

I'd pulled out all the stops, been on my best behavior, and
professed my love to her in more ways that words could describe. I'd made her
laugh, made her come, made her light up more times than I could count, even in
the limited time I'd known her.

 

So if I wasn't the guy she wanted- everything she wanted- if I'd
completely misread the signs because I was carried away by my own desires then-

 

No.

It couldn't be.

Surely she loved me back.

She had to.

Right?

Chapter
14: Audrey

The doorbell shocked me so much I forgot to move.

 

But when the buzzer sounded again, I ran to the door, hoping it
was him.

 

Before I even reached the peephole I knew how I would throw my
arms around him, how he would lift my waist so my toes left the ground for a
moment, how he would push me up against the wall and kiss me the way I'd been
craving all day.

But it wasn't him.

 

It was some pimply teenager with a red jacket that matched his
backwards hat.

 

I was just about to tell him I didn’t order a pizza when I noticed
the white box he was holding was the wrong shape and had a bow on it.

 

"Hello," I said, feeling the sharp pain in my chest I
always got when I recognized someone else whose teenage nights were haunted by
headgear.

"Audrey Cordelia Lawrence?" he asked, glancing at his
clipboard.

 

"Yes," I said, doing my best to ignore how weird it was
to hear this kid calling me by my full name. "That's me."

"Special delivery," he said, setting the box at his
feet. "Could you sign here?" he asked, shoving the clipboard in my
direction. "So my boss knows I got here without dropping it?"

 

I furrowed my brow and signed my name, minus the Cordelia part.

 

The kid reached down and handed the box to me.

I took it with both hands.

"Have a nice day," he said, shoving his hands in his
pockets and turning back towards the elevator.

 

I watched him walk away for a second and then disappeared into my
apartment with the large box. It was too big to set on my entryway table so I
brought it to the kitchen where the fading evening light was still flooding the
small space.

The rectangular box had a fat lavender ribbon around it, and as
soon as I went to untie the bow, I saw a small square envelope tucked
underneath it with my full name written on it.

Something about the handwriting made my insides stir, and I
unstuck it from the box, slipping a finger along the edge so it flapped open
and I could pull out the card.

"Time is standing still without you xx Jack."

 

I smiled, remembering his watch on my bedside table where I'd been
childishly pretending it lived since I found it.

If he knew he left it here, why not come back for it?

 

But I knew the answer.

My insistence on needing time had driven him away in the first
place, and it didn't feel like a stretch to conclude that it was probably what
was keeping him away.

 

But where the hell had he gone?

I shook the question from my head and laid the card down so I
could untie the ribbon. And as I lifted the lid, a smile spread across my face.

It was a vase, a big fancy crystal one large enough to fit the
flowers he bought me. I squinted. The only time he could've seen my makeshift
popcorn bowl vase was when he came in the kitchen last night to get booze for
our bath.

Which meant he bought it today.

 

I glanced at the gold embossed address on the inside of the box.
It was from the florist in the hotel, the same hotel where he was supposed to
be but wasn't.

I sighed.

I pulled the tissue paper off the vase and went to the sink to
fill it up. Then I set it down beside the popcorn bowl and lifted the bouquet
straight up, letting it drip over the bowl for a moment before lowering it into
my new vase.

 

"What a guy," I said to myself. "What. A.
Guy."

 

I pulled out a kitchen chair and sat facing the vase.

It was nice of Jack to get it for me. Considerate. But I was
starting to think he was just that kind of guy and not just on his best
behavior. In fact, with every minute that passed, I became further convinced
that I knew him better than I thought.

 

After all, when we were together, we were so in sync. The
conversation flowed effortlessly and the quiet moments weren't uncomfortable in
the slightest. I could genuinely imagine the rest of my life being one long
conversation with him.

 

And it was a comforting feeling.

 

But just because I said I needed time didn't mean I should wait
around like a sitting duck.

Besides, he was probably waiting for me to get back to him.

 

After all, when I replayed the morning in my head, it was clear
that he'd left to give me time and space, and I hadn't said how much I needed
of either.

 

Because I didn't know.

 

I still didn't.

 

But I knew something else even more important which was that I
couldn't figure it out on my own. The only way I could move forward was with
him, and everything made more sense when he was around.

 

Plus, I hated being apart from him when I first left Thailand. It
was terrible trying to convince myself that I would never see him again. And by
some miracle he'd walked back into my life and proved it wasn't just about sex
or the chase by dropping to his knees and asking me to be his.

 

Suddenly, I knew what I had to do.

 

It was time to stop letting life happen to me and go after what I
wanted.

 

And I wanted Jack more than anything. And the more I thought about
how much he meant to me, the more I believed that everything else would fall
into place.

 

We could make it work.

Because all you need is love.

And if The Beatles were wrong, at least I would find out for myself
and not have to take anyone else's word for it.

 

I stood up from my chair like a soldier, full of new resolve and
galvanized by my plan.

 

As my questionable luck would have it, the phone rang before I
could build up any momentum.

 

"Hi Mom," I said, leaning in the doorway of my bedroom.

 

"Hi Honey," she said. "I was just calling to check
in."

 

"Oh."

"How are things?"

 

My Mom was lousy at small talk. Never once had she called to check
in and had it not turn into some kind of informal, one sided therapy session.

 

"Things are good," I said, feeling like it was the first
time I hadn't had to lie to her in years.

"How's work?"

"Nothing full time yet, but I'm getting lots of freelance
gigs." So I won't have to ask to borrow money if that's what you're
asking.

 

"That's good news."

 

"How are you?" I asked, knowing the sooner we got to the
heart of the matter, the sooner the call would be over. Plus, I wasn't sure yet
if I wanted to tell her about Jack. Not yet. Not until I told him what I needed
to say and felt his arms around me.

 

"I'm fine," she said. "Just back from another
session with the therapist.

"Did you go on your own or-"

 

"No," she said. "I went with your Father."

 

"And?" I asked, sitting on the edge of my bed.

 

"I think he's making progress," she said. "Or at
least everything he says isn't something about what a life sucking bitch I am
so that's progress enough for me."

 

I sighed. "That's something, I guess."

 

"Anyway, the therapist still thinks it would be good for you
to join us. She thinks it would mean a lot to your Dad if he could hear what
you had to say in a controlled setting."

It was hard not to burst out laughing at the idea that anywhere
both my parents were present could possibly be considered a controlled setting.
And for a moment, I wondered what that would mean in terms of a wedding…

 

"Yeah, sure," I said. "I told you I'm not opposed
to doing what I can to help." Though I prefer a more hands off type of
support that creates the illusion that I have my own life.

 

"How about next Tuesday?" she asked. "She even said
she could see us in the evenings so it wouldn't interfere with your work
schedule."

 

"Ooooh," I said. "I can't."

 

"You can't or you won't?"

"I can't."

 

"Why can't you?"

 

"Cause I'm going to be out of town."

 

"But you just went out of town."

 

"I know, but this is different."

 

"Where are you going this time?" she asked.

 

"I can't tell you, Mom," I said, catching my smiling
face in the mirror.

"You can't tell me?!"

I shook my head. "No.

 

“Why the hell not?"

 

“Cause,” I said. “It's a surprise."

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