I’d never lost an erection so fast.
Thank god, since it made it easier to scramble to my feet and distract Jeff Jones so Audrey could clothe herself privately. I was sweating and panicked as I diverted him back to the foyer. Behind me, I could hear the girl giggling.
It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t.
That she was laughing was a splendid example of why our age difference was a big problem. She was obviously not mature enough to handle matters that required adult responsibility. If she hadn’t been so tenacious, so assertive, so beguiling, I wouldn’t have lost control of the situation.
And I had lost control. Really lost it. Almost gone too far, even.
The whole thing had left me flustered, and now there was a real chance I wasn’t going to get this apartment.
“It’s...I’m...this isn’t at all what it looks like,” I explained to the realtor. I ran a hand through my hair, creating a floppy mess if I were to judge by the uneven way it felt on my scalp. “I sincerely apologize. It was inappropriate and discourteous and--”
“Just tell me one thing,” Mr. Jones interrupted. “She’s not really your daughter, is she?”
“No! God, no.” I thought about it after I’d answered, what that must have looked like to the man when he’d walked in on us. It had been bad enough that we’d behaved so badly in an apartment I hadn’t yet leased. The fact that he’d also thought we were father and daughter was…
Well. Maybe it was funny.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why we said that she was.” The grin that had slid onto my face made my latest apology seem insincere.
Fortunately, Jeff Jones was smiling too. “It’s fine. I understand. I’m sure I’d play that game too if I were with a woman so…”
“Young?” Yes, I knew she was too young. He didn’t need to throw it in my face.
“I was going to say willing. But maybe her youth has something to do with it.” He peered over my shoulder, which made me have to glance behind me as well, insuring he wasn’t seeing anything he shouldn’t be seeing.
He wasn’t. Audrey was dressed now and was simply straightening the tie of her wrap.
That didn’t stop Jones from leering at her. “You’re a very lucky man, Mr. Locke.”
“Yes. I am,” I said sternly, subtly enforcing a claim on her that I didn’t have. His leer bothered me. A lot. I probably wouldn’t have responded so possessively otherwise.
His smile faded, and the man looked appropriately cowed. He opened his mouth and closed it twice, as though trying to discern the best way to react.
I put him out of his misery and nodded at the file in his hands. “Are those the papers for the lease? Can I sign them now?”
“Oh! Yes. You may.” He led me to the kitchen island where he spread out the contract in front of me. “Since we had you pre-approved before today, we’ve got all the finance and reference information that we need. You just need to initial the first two pages and put your John Hancock on the last, and I can hand over the keys right now.”
He handed me a pen from inside the breast pocket of his jacket.
“And the terms of the contract are…?”
He used the pen to point to the paragraph answering my question. “Six months or until the unit is sold. If you’re planning to purchase outright--”
“--then you’ll just want to make sure the sale goes through before the lease expires.”
“I’ll do that straight away.” I took the pen and signed where he’d indicated.
When I was finished, Audrey sidled up next to me and clutched onto my arm. “Is it ours now?” she asked coyly.
I narrowed my eyes in her direction but didn’t dispute the pretense that we were buying the apartment together. It didn’t feel necessary to confuse the realtor any further, and, besides, I was quite comfortable with the man believing Audrey was unavailable.
“Not quite yet, my dear, but we do get to have the keys now.” I let the realtor hand one to her so as not to destroy the latest ruse. I pocketed the duplicates. “Mr. Jones is going to put together an offer for us so we can buy the place for real.”
“Sweet!” she exclaimed gazing up at me, and her eyes twinkled so spectacularly that I couldn’t help imagining for a moment that we really were purchasing the place together. The fantasy was “sweet”. Delicious, even.
Too delectable to keep thinking about for too long.
I cleared my throat, forcing the fancy to dissipate from my head. “Do you need anything else from us?”
We briefly discussed an amount to offer the seller and decided the realtor would pull up a few comps and get back to me before we confirmed the final number. I shook hands with him, watched with ire as he kissed the back of Audrey’s hand, and then walked him to the door.
Once he was gone, I turned back to my companion and realized my mistake--I was again alone with Audrey. And this time there would be no one coming back to interrupt us.
Her expression said she’d realized the same thing. She didn’t seem quite as upset about it as I was, though.
I thought quickly. “I shouldn’t suggest this, but--”
“Yes. You should,” she encouraged, stalking slowly toward me.
“Perhaps you’d like to join me somewhere for lunch.”
Her face fell. “Oh. Then you aren’t going to help me out after all?”
Jesus, she was enchanting. Magnificently so. The pout of her mouth, the way her top lip formed a sharp V, the liquid almond of her eyes--it was impossible to deny her. I’d be a liar to say that I could.
“I’m not saying that. I just think this might be a task best suited for a different time. I’m picking up my son this afternoon, and I need to stop by the office to chat Nate and Weston and Donovan about a few things while we’re all in the same place. Then I have to bring my belongings from the hotel to the apartment before then. Surely you have plans with Sabrina.”
She let out a loud sigh, not unlike the teenage sighs I heard often enough from Aaron. “We’re seeing a Broadway show tonight. I’m supposed to meet her at the office around four.”
“Good. That leaves us time for lunch.” I pulled her coat from the closet and helped her put it on. “We can work out an arrangement for the, er, the other thing from there.”
She linked her arm through mine and beamed up at me. “Sounds like a plan, professor.”
My pants tightened at her newest title for me. Daddy? Professor? Did she know she’d hit the bullseye on my hot buttons?
If she didn’t, her naiveté certainly added to her allure.
And if she did know, as I expected she did, I had to wonder--what exactly could she possibly learn from me?
“I knew it would happen one day, honestly. He’s a teenager now. He wants to spend his school breaks on skiing trips with his friends and playing marathon sessions of Fortnight, or whatever the game is he’s into at the moment. He doesn’t want to waste half of his vacations stuck in an airplane traveling to visit his boring old father.” I paused to take a swallow of my champagne. It was early for alcohol, but Audrey had said the finding of my apartment had warranted a celebration, and, as I’d already discovered, it was impossible to deny her whims.
Which was also why I’d spent the last ten minutes waxing on about Aaron. What a boring subject for a young female companion. I knew better than to bring up the topic, but, as soon as the waiter had taken our order, she’d asked.
And she was compelling, that one was. She didn’t have to ask twice.
To her credit, she’d remained engaged throughout my indulgent rant, asking questions, adding commentary. “He’s so young,” she said now--ironically, I thought. “This is just a phase of growing up. I remember feeling the same way at that age--not about my father. He died when I was thirteen. And then Sabrina left school to look after me, and I remember feeling so smothered. Like, I knew she’d sacrificed for me, and that should make me more appreciative, but I was a total pain in her behind. I resented her, for some reason. I didn’t want her around. I mean, I did, but I didn’t act like I did. I grew out of it--mostly. Aaron will too.”
She really was lovely. Giving me advice on my son, who I felt more and more out of touch with as the years went by, was not something I expected at all in exchange for my help with her situation.
No, my reward for that was simply being the man she’d chosen as her tutor.
“He will. I know he will,” I agreed. My stepdaughter had been the same way. At the time it had been hard to distinguish whether it was an age-related behavior or if it had been caused by my intrusion into her life. Amanda and I had gotten along well, but a new stepfather is always an adjustment.
I tapped my finger along the bowl of the champagne glass. “Why do you think children resent the adults caring for them? Is there some secret club that requires that as an initiation into adulthood that I don’t remember?”
She laughed. “Actually, sort of yes. You hit puberty, and your body is suddenly an adult body, which doesn’t mean you make adult choices yet, but you think you do. And here’s this person who--in my case--isn’t much older than you, and she’s in charge of all the rules, and some of them are ridiculous, and you know that she’s wrong about everything, even if she did set her future aside to be there for you, and how can you not resent that? Then you grow up a little more and realize, oh, fudge. She was right about almost everything.”
She ran her tongue over her bottom lip and brought her point back to me. “In your case, you don’t live with Aaron everyday. Yet you still have automatic authority over him, and he has to believe he knows better than you. And maybe he does sometimes, but he can’t possibly realize all the times he doesn’t. All you can do is give him lots of space to express what he feels. And then more space to let him feel it. And all the while you’ll be there, hanging back, but close enough to protect him if he needs it.”
“Sage advice.” I meant it too. She was as wise as she was dear, it appeared. “I hope that’s exactly what I’m doing with buying the apartment. I don’t want to force him to be with me, but I still want to be near him, when I can. I’ll come for Christmas and spring break, and I’ll spend as much of the summer as I can over here. It’s only five years until he graduates from high school, and if he decides he really wants to go to NYU like he says he wants to, then he’ll have a place to live that isn’t with his mother. It would be cruel to expect him to live with that monster a minute longer than he has to.”
Usually I wasn’t that awful about Ellen to other people, particularly people who were practically strangers, but Audrey was a good listener, and I was not on the best terms with my ex as of late.
Audrey’s eyebrows rose. “A monster? So she’s the awful creature that poisoned you into believing you had to be a pessimist to survive the world.”
“I’m not a pessimist--I’m a realist. I’m sure it’s difficult to tell the difference when you’re as unrealistically optimistic as you are--”
I smiled to let her know I was teasing. Mostly. “But I promise you that the glasses I’m looking through are quite clear. There was no poison except truth.”
“The worst poison of all.” Her cheeks were pink and her eyes bright, and I suspected she was yanking my chain, but it was hard to care. Her attention was pleasant enough to make up for any mocking.
She must have felt guilty for it, though, because she grew serious then. “I’m sorry. I don’t know her at all. Or your situation. She’s probably a terrible beast. I can’t imagine any other reason a woman wouldn’t get along with you.”
And now I felt guilty.
“No, she wasn’t a terrible beast. Not really.” Even with her affairs, even though she’d stopped loving me long before I’d stopped loving her. “She was broken and in grief, and it’s easier to believe that she was a shitty human being rather than facing the fact that I couldn’t make things better for her. That I wasn’t a strong enough anchor to hold onto her. That I hadn’t loved her enough to replace the things she’d lost.”
I’d never said that before. Not out loud. Not really to myself, even, except in the wake of consuming several glasses of bourbon.
Audrey blinked at me sympathetically. “Wow. That’s heavy. Does it feel good to be able to admit that?”
“No.” It didn’t feel good. It felt extremely shitty, but it did feel authentic, and that felt meaningful. “I’m glad I said it, though.” I threw back the rest of my champagne, hoping to cover up the awkward after taste of my confession.
When that didn’t work, I deflected. “And now it seems you know the source of my bitterness, what’s the source of you’re not bitterness?”
“My parents,” she said quickly.
This surprised me, mostly because I hadn’t expected she’d have an answer at all.
“My father, actually,” she corrected herself. “I was only nine when my mother died, so memories of her and them together is a bit hazy, but what I do remember is how much he loved her. How he doted on her and took care of her and adored her, even after her death. He had such respect and devotion for her ghost that it almost felt like she was still there when she’d gone. He kept her present. He didn’t date after her, and he had every reason to be sad and miserable without her--raising two girls on his own, especially--but his love for her kept him happy and upbeat right up until he passed himself.”
I scrutinized her as I carefully framed what I wanted to say in my head. “You don’t think that you could be romanticizing their relationship? As you said, thirteen is awfully young…” I knew it came out patronizing even when I’d intended it not to.
Or, perhaps that’s what I’d exactly intended. Whether her parents had actually had a magical marriage or not, she obviously believed that it was the ultimate goal. She didn’t realize those relationships were not typical, and that she could love and dote and devote herself to the man of her dreams, and he would still shit all over her.
She needed saving from her fairytale notions.
And wasn’t I the hero for being the asshole who exposed the reality of her sweet memories?
She didn’t fall for it for a minute.
“There he is!” She pointed at me while giving me a toothy grin. “There’s the man I met last night. You’ve been almost likable all afternoon. I was beginning to wonder if your curmudgeon behavior had all been an act.” She clapped her hands together suddenly. “You know what it is? I’m good for you. I bring out the best in you. How lucky you met me!”
How lucky I met her? “Humbug,” I said. But it was impossible not to smile.
And as long as I was being authentic, as long as I was being honest, she did bring out the best in me. She reminded me of that pure, passion I’d felt for life so long ago. It was nice to remember that man I’d once been, even if it wasn’t a man I ever wanted to be again.
But she was wrong on one point--it wasn’t good for me. She wasn’t good for me. To believe she was would be an absolute lie.
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Sweet Liar will be published in full in ebook, paperback and audio in February of 2019. It will end without a cliffhanger, but there WILL be a part two, Sweet Fate, released in March of 2019 for those who want to continue with the story.