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The forbidden, p.22
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       The Forbidden, p.22

           Jodi Ellen Malpas
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  that. My hands immediately begin to shake. My eyes are fixed on the entrance into the gallery where Jack is standing.

  With his wife.

  “Annie!” Stephanie sings, delighted to see me, like I’m her best friend. She grabs a glass of wine from the waiter and literally throws it down her throat before claiming another. “I thought you said you were out with your girlfriends.” She struts over and plants a peck on my cheek, and my skin literally crawls.

  I risk a quick glance at Jack. His face is grave, the twinkle in his eyes dead.

  “I’m not staying for long,” I murmur. “Heading uptown to meet them soon.” The night I’ve been looking forward to for days and days vanishes before my eyes. I’m totally devastated.

  “How lovely.” Stephanie frees me and moves on to Richard, who is eyeing Jack with all the concern he deserves. “Hello, Richard.”

  “Stephanie,” he says, smiling tightly through a nod. “You look stunning as always.”

  Her palm hits her chest, her red lips pouting. “You’re too kind.”

  Yes, he is. She looks like a dog’s dinner, dressed to the nines, her body draped in a long satin dress that’s fit for the opera house, not a gallery. Jack moves in, swallowing hard. “Annie.” He nods formally at me and smiles mildly at Richard, taking what looks like a much-needed drink. I’m desperate to ask him what’s happened. Why is she here? What the hell is going on?

  “Isn’t it wonderful?” Stephanie gushes, stopping another waiter as he passes and exchanging her empty for a full glass. “I mean, really wonderful.” She raises her glass and toasts the air. “To my husband.”

  This is fucking awful. “To Jack.” Richard chinks her glass, and I follow suit, mentally planning my escape.

  “And Annie,” Jack pipes up, making my eyes go all wide. “We only built what she told us to.”

  I feel my spine stiffen. “Thank you.” I swallow and dive back into my champagne. It’s the only thing keeping me going right now.

  “Of course.” Stephanie places her well-manicured hand on Jack’s arm, and my eyes involuntarily fall to it, silently screaming at her to not touch him. “Annie, Jack’s been so impressed with you.”

  I shoot Jack a look, shocked. He’s been talking about me? Is he stupid? “It’s just a job.” I brush it off as best I can.

  “Annie and I are going to make plans for lunch!” Stephanie sings, clearly thrilled. I, however, am the furthest from thrilled that a person could be, and Jack looks plain horrified.

  I’ve got to get out of here. I look past Stephanie’s beaming face, feigning surprise. “Oh, there’s Gerrard.” I pluck a name from nowhere and point to the garden. “Please excuse me; I must say hello.”

  I’m out of there like a shot, walking outside and finding a group of people to muscle in on. The voices in the conversation are a blur of nothing. I try to engage, to listen, just to stop my mind from racing and my eyes from wandering, but no matter how hard I try to focus, my head has other ideas. I glance back casually and see a few more people have joined Jack, Richard, and Stephanie, all engrossed in conversation. Jack’s there, but he isn’t, as Stephanie drapes herself all over him, stroking his arm, smiling up at him every so often, and throwing glass after glass of wine down her throat. I can’t bear it.

  Breaking away from the group, I find my phone and text Lizzy, asking her where they are.

  “I couldn’t get out of it.” Jack’s voice hits the base of my spine and licks its way to the top, making me shiver. But not in the way it usually does, when I get tingles and have to take a breath and contain my need to devour him. He rounds me and puts himself before me, searching my eyes. “I’m sorry.”

  “What happened?” I ask.

  “She insisted on coming. What could I do?”

  I shake my head and move away from him, watchful and wary of our surroundings. “I don’t know,” I admit. “Jack, you have to talk her out of arranging lunch with me.”

  He laughs, low and sarcastically. “How the hell am I going to do that?”

  I wilt when I realize he can’t, and it’s mighty unreasonable for me to expect him to. “I was so looking forward to tonight.” I instantly regret letting my thoughts speak. This isn’t his fault. I shouldn’t be making him feel guilty.

  “I know, Annie. I know. She mentioned you ran into each other.”

  “Outside my apartment,” I confirm. “She was picking your suit up from the dry cleaners.” I motion down his gray three-piece with my wineglass. “Looks nice, by the way.”

  He smiles mildly. “You look beautiful, and I can’t even fucking touch you.” His eyes burn into mine, so much hunger clouding them. “I need to see you later. Tell me I can see you later.”

  “How?” I ask. “You’re with your wife.” I don’t mean to sound resentful, but the truth of it is, I am.

  “I’ll find a way,” he promises.

  “Now’s not the time to become careless, Jack,” I warn. “Richard knows, and if we’re not careful, your wife will soon figure it out, too.”

  “I need to see you,” he grates, daring me to deny him with his hard stare. “Just answer your phone when I call.” He breaks away, slapping a smile on his face.

  “There you are!” Stephanie croons, slipping her arm through Jack’s when she joins us. “Talking boring work?”

  “As always,” Jack confirms, looking down at her glass. It’s empty again.

  “Well, enough of that.” She turns her full body into him and places her lips on his cheek. I vomit in my own mouth, my stomach churning terribly. “You need to show your wife a good time.”

  My phone chimes in my hand, and I rip my eyes away from the unbearable sight of another woman all over the man I love. “Excuse me,” I murmur, heading back into the gallery as I read Lizzy’s text. I’m going to get so drunk.

  I find Colin, thank him and make my excuses, not prepared to allow his evident disappointment make me feel too guilty. He holds on to me, tempting me with more fizz, but I stand firm, not letting him succeed in persuading me to stay a bit longer. Nothing would convince me to.

  I head to the toilet to freshen up my lipstick, and as I enter the ladies’ the first thing I see is myself in the mirror. I look as terrible as I feel. Pale and traumatized. Bracing my hands on the edge of the stone vanity unit, I breathe in, trying to give myself a pep talk.

  Bang!

  My eyes shoot past my reflection to the row of stalls, scanning from side to side, listening carefully. What was that?

  Bang!

  Sounds of shuffles and whispers come from beyond the door of the far stall, and I force myself into stillness, or I try to. My heart isn’t listening to my silent demand to pipe down.

  Then the hushed whispers turn into low moans. My blood freezes, the sounds working their way into my brain and cementing themselves there, making sure I’ll never forget them.

  Stephanie’s moans.

  Moans of ecstasy and pleasure. “Take my dress off,” she pants. “Take it off now, Jack.”

  My stomach convulses and I double over, physically retching over the sink. Then the shouts start. “Oh, Jack! Yes. Take me here. Take me now.”

  “Stephanie,” Jack growls.

  I run out of the ladies’, the combination of heaves from my nausea and body jerks from the instant tears making me stumble and trip as I go. I feel like I could vomit. Panicked and knowing there’s no way I can go back in the ladies’, I fly into the disabled toilet and slam it shut, bracing my hands on the toilet as I try to regulate my breathing. I feel lightheaded and dizzy. I feel sick and betrayed.

  A hopeless sob pours free, and I clench my head to try and crush the tormenting sound that’s looping on repeat in my head. “No,” I sob, falling apart, my body racked with ragged emotions. I have to leave. Now.

  I wrench the door open and run out of the gallery, and I don’t stop until I reach the end of the road. I flag down the first taxi and dive in. I’m going to find the girls and I’m going to drink myself into obli
vion. I hope it’s enough to take me away from this nightmare. I’ve never ventured there. I’ve not allowed my mind to, but when it’s screwing behind a door in front of you, it’s hard to ignore. I feel hurt. Totally devastated. And fury is burning a hole in my sensibility. I can’t stop it.

  Chapter 18

  Here she is!” Lizzy shouts as I wander into the champagne bar, spotting them all perched on tall stools around a bar table. Micky waves me over, pointing to a stool with a glass of wine on the table in front of it. “Good boy, Micky,” I praise him, landing on my seat with a thud.

  “You okay?” he asks, giving me a once-over. I don’t know how good a job I did of fixing my face in the cab, but I’m guessing even with perfect makeup right now, my distress would still be detectable.

  “I’m fine,” I say, holding up a hand to halt Lizzy when she goes to speak. She snaps her mouth shut on a pout and watches as I gulp my wine. “Just fine,” I repeat, slamming my glass down.

  Nat, Micky, and Lizzy all regard me carefully for a moment. “Fine.” I breathe in and out, in and out.

  “She’s fine,” Lizzy says slowly, nodding her head at me. “You sure?”

  I nod back. “Just an arsehole taxi driver.”

  Lizzy rolls her eyes. “So let’s get my news out of the way.” She sits up straight, and everyone else at the table looks at her. She begins to fidget. “Well,” she begins, focusing on her wineglass. “I have something to tell you all, but before I do I want to make it clear that I’ve thought long and hard about it and I’d appreciate your support.”

  We all noticeably sit back on our stools, and I look to each of my friends, trying to figure out their thought processes. They look intrigued, like me.

  “I’m back with Jason,” she blurts out before scooping up her drink and downing the lot, shrinking on her stool.

  Realization dawns on me. “That’s who you were meeting for dinner!” I say. “Jason.” No wonder she’s been so cagey.

  She shrugs. “I agreed to meet him, yes. I didn’t see the point in mentioning it because I thought I’d tell him to be on his way and that would be that. But seeing him again, seeing how guilty he feels… I love him.” She shrugs. “You can’t turn that off.”

  When the atmosphere becomes unbearably awkward, I dive right in and reach across the table, taking her hand. “Do what makes you happy,” I say, wholeheartedly meaning it.

  Tears of relief flood her eyes and her lips press together to the point that they’re white. She can’t speak, bless her, so she nods in return. I feel terrible for her. I saw how cut up she was when she found out about Jason’s affair, and I damned the woman who’d walked uninvited into her life. A woman like me.

  Giving Nat a discreet kick under the table, I sit back and let her do her bit, though it’s plain to see that she’s significantly less enthusiastic about it than me. Poor Micky, however, just watches as us girls do our girlie shit. “I might go meet the lads,” he mumbles, rolling his eyes.

  “In other news.” Nat raises her glass, grinning wickedly, and I wonder for a fleeting moment if she’s perhaps decided to give John a break. Then I remember the chewing gum incident with his kid and dismiss the thought immediately. Her hair has a way to go before it’s back to its former long, luscious glory. “I’ve joined a dating agency.” There are a few funny looks tossed around the table before we all burst into fits of laughter. “What?” Nat asks, disgruntled. “At least I can make it clear what’s acceptable and what’s not.”

  “Like kids?” Lizzy asks, dismayed.

  “Just like kids,” Nat confirms. “Fathers need not apply.”

  “Holy shit,” Micky breathes, exasperated. “Can we talk about football before my balls shrivel to nothing?”

  I laugh and reach over to pinch his cheek. “You’ll fall in love one day.”

  He scoffs, disgusted by the suggestion. “There’s a reason you and I are still friends, and it ain’t because you have photo evidence of me dressed up as He-Man brandishing a rolling pin as a sword.”

  Right. Apparently we’re friends because we’re both allergic to relationships. He’s talking nonsense, obviously. We’re actually friends because we’ve known each other since day one, but that knowledge doesn’t stop me from wilting. I swallow hard and divert my attention away from him, suddenly remembering why I’m clinging to my wineglass like it’s a life jacket. Then I notice it’s empty. I grab the bottle from the middle of the table. Get plastered. Drown the memories in alcohol.

  “He-Man?” Nat chimes in. “You dressed up as He-Man?” She jumps down from her stool and throws an imaginary sword in the air. “I have the power!” she roars, before folding in half in fits of laughter with Lizzy.

  It’s a while before they look at me in question, like why am I not laughing? I shrug. I have nothing to give in the humor department, despite my life being a fucking joke.

  “Twats. All of you.” Micky jumps down from his stool, looking to the door. “The lads are here. I’m off to find my She-Ra.” He lopes off on a grin, leaving the girls to be girls, which currently involves Nat and Lizzy laughing their tits off.

  * * *

  It could be an hour later, or it might be two. I’m not sure. All I know is that I’m tipsy and my mind is numbing more with each sip of wine I have. It’s respite. I turn on my stool and find Nat on her own on the dance floor, her wineglass in the air, her head dropped, swaying out of time to Hotchip’s “Boy from School.” I keep my eyes on her as I blindly reach for Lizzy to get her attention, the sight too amusing not to share. “Look at that.”

  “Jesus, no man will entertain that, kid or no kid,” Lizzy quips, sliding off her stool. She strolls over to Nat and gently coaxes her from the dance floor, helping her walk as she staggers and trips her way back to us. Steadying her on the seat, Lizzy takes a stool beside her and moves in close enough to catch her if she slips in her drunken stupor. “I have to ask,” Nat slurs, looking up at Lizzy with one eye closed. “Why would you even dream of taking Jason back?”

  I sag on an audible sigh. “Nat, it’s Lizzy’s decision. We should respect that.”

  “I know, but we’re all thinking it.” She slaps a hand down but totally misses the table, forcing Lizzy to catch her before she topples from the stool. “What about the other woman?”

  “That’s none of our business,” I pipe up, eager to halt the direction of the conversation dead in its tracks.

  “It’s fine,” Lizzy appeases me. “We need to get this part out of the way.”

  “Yeah,” Nat slurs, feeling around the table for her wineglass. Lizzy moves it away and pushes a glass of water toward her, and Nat grabs it, waving the highball at Lizzy. “What kind of woman sniffs around a taken man? Not even I would stoop to that level.”

  My throat closes up on me, leaving me silent at the table while the topic I’ve dreaded for months steamrolls forward, threatening to make my night even worse.

  “Men think with their dicks!” Nat rocks back on her stool. “Their brains are in their balls!”

  I die on the inside. Part of me knows it’s wise to keep my trap shut, and part of me wants to give another angle for Nat to consider. Yet I don’t. I can’t. I have no other option but to sit back and listen while they slam into said other woman, calling her every name under the sun, surmising what a nasty piece of work she is and generally ripping her to shreds. Brutally. Harshly.

  Justifiably.

  I shrink further and further, my head starting to hurt, my heart starting to ache. I’m a fool if I think for a minute that anyone will understand me. The tiny scrap of hope I had of support from my friends just died. I can’t take this anymore. I grab my purse, jump down from my stool and rush to the ladies’, forgetting to declare my need for the loo in my desperation to escape the slaying session. I can feel tears stinging the backs of my eyes and I can’t let my friends see them.

  I lock myself in a stall until my churning stomach eases off, my mind slowly settling. I wasn’t prepared for that. It’s easy for m
e to bully my conscience into a certain way of thinking, but I can’t control how other people think. For the first time since I embarked on this affair, I feel so alone. Where’s Jack? Where is he to hold me and tell me everything is going to be okay? Anger simmers in my gut, kick-starting the churning again. He’s with his wife, fucking in the toilet at the gallery. My phone chimes, and though I know it’ll send my anger into frightening realms, I still open his message.

  Where did you go?

  My lip curls in disdain as I delete his worthless words from my screen. It didn’t sound like he was missing me. I leave the toilet and head straight for the bar, ordering more alcohol. My phone rings this time, and I psych myself up to answer it. “Hello.”

  “Where are you?” he asks in a whisper that I’m struggling to hear over the music. He’s found a quiet corner to call me, away from her. “Annie?”

  “I’m busy.” I hang up, but before I collect our drinks, it rings again. “What?” I snap when I answer.

  “What’s the matter with you?”

  “Nothing. Get back to your wife, Jack,” I spit, cutting the
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JODI ELLEN MALPAS SERIES:

One Night
This Man

 

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