Authors: Jennifer Peel
Pianos & Promises
Christopher & Jaime
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thank you for not only being a great example, but for instilling in me a love of music. The many hours we spent watching musicals on the stage and on screen are treasured memories.
I was going to miss running my fingers through her silky blonde curls every day, but I knew it was temporary when I agreed to be her nanny a year ago. I stroked her baby-soft cheek and again wished what I had been wishing since I was eleven years old: that her daddy was mine and this was anything but temporary. After twenty years of being in love with my best friend, you would think I’d have given up hope by now. I supposed I had. I wasn’t filled with any delusions that Christopher McKay was ever going to see me, Jaime Seger, as anything more than his faithful sidekick.
Speaking of the devil, I could hear his code being punched in at the front door of his ultra-high-priced urban loft I wasn’t too fond of. But it fit his personality, or at least he thought it did. I missed the boy that ran around cotton fields and tugged on my ponytail. I couldn’t help but love the business suit and tie version, but there was something about the old Christopher I missed.
I looked down at my Allie bug, asleep with her head in my lap, one more time before her daddy joined us. I wasn’t sure how I was going to leave her, but I had to think about my own future, the one Christopher wasn’t part of.
“Sorry I’m late.” He dropped his keys in the art deco bowl near his door. The clink echoed in the space.
“You say that every day.” How he consistently worked twelve-hour days or more, I would never know. It seemed like such a waste of life. I stroked his little girl’s hair and thought about all he had missed, like story and bath time, or when she learned how to count to ten and write an A today. She was a three-year-old genius. At least I thought so.
He settled right next to me and looked down adoringly at his little one before taking my hand. I knew it was nothing more than a friendly gesture from him. We had been holding hands for as long as I could remember us being together, except for the few years he was married. He was fine with it since it was nothing more to him than two platonic friends expressing affection, but it didn’t feel right to me. Maybe because I was foolish enough to hope that each time he did, he would look down at our clasped hands and know we were meant for each other. I needed to give up on that.
I gazed down at our hands and the way he rubbed his thumb across mine. His touch reached far beneath my skin.
“How was your day?” I looked up and caught his tired smile. Why did he have to be so handsome? I loved his ice-blue eyes and his light brown hair that had the perfect amount of curl in it, just like Allie’s. The masculine jawline didn’t hurt, either.
“Long, but successful. I finally got through all the red tape.”
“Congratulations. Does that mean you’re closing on the Addison building?” Christopher worked for the premiere commercial real estate firm in Nashville.
“Everything should go through next week.”
“That’s terrific. Are you hungry?”
He laughed. “It depends.”
I nudged him. “I didn’t make anything foreign tonight. I made boring American-style lasagna.”
“Sounds good to me. What would I do without you?”
I took a deep breath. I knew I should tell him sooner rather than later. I hated to, but my parents were right—I had to think about my own life. I was spinning my wheels and wasting the degrees I had worked so hard for. And the student loans weren’t going anywhere.
“I guess you’re going to find out.”
That declaration stopped him from standing up to warm his dinner. He sat back down, puzzled and perhaps alarmed. “What do you mean, Jaimes?” He always called me “Jaimes” instead of Jaime, even when we were younger. It used to bother me, because “James” was a boy’s name, but he would say, “I’m spelling it with an ‘I’ in my head, so it’s all right.”
I could barely meet his eyes. “Remember that position I interviewed for a few weeks ago in Indiana? They want me to be their intermediate piano and choral teacher. I wouldn’t start until August, so you’d have a few months to hire a new nanny, and maybe a cook,” I teased.
The shock in his tension-lined face made me question whether or not I should accept the offer. I hadn’t yet.
“What about Allie? She loves you.”
“I love her too, but we both knew this was temporary. I can’t keep being your nanny.” I had only done it in the first place last year because his wife, Bianca, had died. Christopher was a wreck and his previous nanny had just quit. Meanwhile, I had been turned down for the fifth time for a local teaching position. Everyone in Nashville came with a musical pedigree and the competition was tough. Christopher needed me, I needed a job, and so I stepped in.
He took my hand up again. “I guess I knew this day would come, but . . .”
He faced me and I could tell from the shift in his eyes that he’d switched from friend mode to all business. “What does this job offer you that I don’t?”
I wasn’t negotiating with him. Negotiating was in his blood, and I would lose. I pulled my hand away. “I need to put Allie in her bed.” I probably should have done that earlier, but I loved when she fell asleep on me. “Go eat. You’re tired and it’s late.”
“I’ll put Allie to bed. You tell me what makes this job worth moving to Indiana, of all places, and leaving your family and friends.”
See how he did that? He worked in all the negatives.
Fine. If he wanted my list, he was going to get it. I had come prepared. “Let’s see, health, dental, better pay, new area, new friends, and it’s only a four- to five-hour drive from here, so I won’t be that far away. You can visit me on the weekends if you can bear to tear yourself away from your job. Oh, and I get to prove to you that my degrees aren’t the token kind.”
He gave me a wry smile. How we ever became and stayed best friends, I will never know. He was Mr. Class President and Type A all the way. I was a go-with-the-flow kind of person. I took my time to travel and get to know myself before I ever finished school. While he was conquering the world, I was playing in it, or doing my best to better it. But I knew I needed to get serious about my future, and I needed to get away from him. I would never have anyone to share my future with if I didn’t.
“I’ll pay you more,” he offered.
I shook my head and stood up with Allie in my arms. She was a dainty little thing, and it took almost no effort. “I’m putting her to bed, and then I’m heading home. I’ll help you find a good replacement. Or maybe you could ask Bianca’s mom to watch Allie.”
I didn’t even need to look at him to know he was grimacing. Bianca hadn’t gotten along with her parents. I wasn’t sure why; they were the sweetest people on earth. Maybe that was why—Bianca was anything but. She had always blinded Christopher, but that didn’t matter now. I knew he didn’t like it when I took Allie to visit her grandparents, but they deserved to be a part of her life, and Christopher, as smart as he was, flunked out when it came to women.
“That’s not going to happen.” I could hear the edge in his voice.
“I’ll start getting some references then.” His whole posh building was filled with executives that had nannies.
He pouted off to get dinner while I walked the loveliest thing that had ever happened into her tiny room that had once been her daddy’s office. Bianca and Christopher never planned on having children. Or should I say, Bianca never had. I’ve never seen someone so horrified to find out she was pregnant. She was a corporate attorney, who seemed to talk herself up more than what she ever brought to the table—at least I thought so—but Christopher was smitten. She walked all over him.
In the dark, I surveyed Allie’s room. She was outgrowing it. I kept telling Christopher that they needed to move, but he liked the downtown scene and his office was within walking distance. I know he tried, but I wished he would put Allie first more often. I got that parenthood was thrust upon him without planning or warning, but I knew he had it in him to be the best dad ever, if only he would give himself the chance.
I laid Allie down in her new big girl bed. I pulled her coral ruffled comforter around her and she smiled in her sleep. I knelt down and kissed her cheek. Oh, I was going to miss her. My heart felt like it was going to break, but staying would annihilate it. “I love you,” I whispered.
I turned to find Christopher at the door, observing me. He had loosened his tie, but he was still dressed for the office. His look teetered on frustration and admiration. He wasn’t used to not getting his way. He joined us and knelt beside me. I could tell he loved Allie by the way he looked at her, but he was clueless as to what he should do with her, or for her. He kissed her forehead and lingered.
Our eyes met when his lips left Allie’s head. I did my best to beg him silently to let me go without a fight. I was already questioning my decision. We sat there, staring at each other in the dark for a few moments. Sometimes when I looked at him, I felt like I knew his face better than my own. Several times I caught him trying to say something.
“Please stay. I need you.”
How many times had I heard that over the years? Whether it was some woman breaking his heart, a death of shared loved ones, or even help passing the art class he had to take in college, I always came running. But not this time. I couldn’t.
I stood without answering, or maybe that
my answer. I rushed to leave, but Christopher followed, and before I could make my escape, he grabbed a hold of me. He pulled me in, and I found myself where I longed to be—in his arms. For the smallest second, I let myself try him on. I knew he was the perfect fit, but he was like the dress that hangs in the back of your closet that only comes out on rare occasions. I did myself a favor and put him right back on the hanger.
“I need to get home. I’ll see you Monday.” I tore myself away. Normally, I hung out with him on the weekends even if he didn’t need me to watch Allie, but I needed to start ripping off the Band-Aid. This time I needed to make sure it came off all the way.
“Jaime.” He wrapped me tighter in his capable arms. I felt his breath against my strawberry-blond hair while he rested his chin on top of my head. “Why are you in such a hurry?”
“Chris, you can do this. We’ll find Allie a good nanny.” I hated the thought of anyone taking my place.
“No one can replace you.”
I pushed away. “We’ll find the second-best then.” I marched toward the door, grabbing my bag on the way. He was killing me.
He decided to add some torture before going for the kill. His legs were longer than mine, and he moved in front of the door before I could make my escape. He folded his arms and narrowed his beautiful blue eyes. “What’s wrong?”
I hated that he knew me so well. Or was it that he didn’t know me at all? Was he really so blind to my love? I knew Bianca wasn’t; she did her best to keep us apart when they were married. Not that I would have ever thrown myself at a married man. It was for the best anyway. Chris wasn’t himself with her and I distanced myself as much as he would allow me to, which was never far enough.
“Believe it or not, I have goals.”
He smirked. “Your piano?”
“Among other things.” He always made fun of my piano jar. I’d been saving money to buy my dream piano—a Steinway & Sons, just like his grandma’s—for the last fifteen years. I was only twenty thousand and some change away from purchasing it.
He stepped closer to me and ran his finger down my cheek. “What else, Jaimes?”
I shivered at his touch. I reached up and took his hand. They dropped to our side, our pinky fingers interlocked. “I can’t keep living in my brother’s basement.”
“Move in with me.” He said it with ease, like he had thought it a dozen times.
He gave me a closed-lipped smile and stepped closer. “That’s what I love about you, you’re still old fashioned.”
Chris was not in love with me. “Goodnight.”
He was letting go of my pinky. His smile had a spark in it that I recognized. It was the same smile from when he was fifteen and discovered he had hair on his chest. It was a magical moment in a boy’s life, I guess. Maybe it had been mean of me to pull the one hair out. I did my best not to smile at the memory.
“Marry me, Jaimes.”
I knew I’d heard him wrong. I dropped his hand and faltered backward. “You’re tired and aren’t thinking straight.” I was surprised I could talk or move at all. I’d wanted to hear those words forever, but not like that. Not when he didn’t mean them. I sidestepped him and reached for the door.
He didn’t miss a beat. He blocked my exit and placed his hands on my shoulders. His boyish grin engulfed his face. I even made out his one dimple.
“I’m serious. It makes sense.” He was ready to negotiate, but this was non-negotiable.
“Goodnight, Chris.” I tried to push past him.
“Are you rejecting me?”
“This isn’t funny. Please let me go.”
“You’re right. Marry me.”
I saved my tears for funerals and his wedding, but this brought me to the brink. “No.”
“Because I don’t want a marriage of convenience. Marriage isn’t a joke.”
“Maybe it would be convenient, but we love each other. And doesn’t everyone say you should marry your best friend?”
He tossed around the word
so easily. It was easy for him because he didn’t love me body and soul. Not the way a husband should love a wife. Not the way I loved him.