The Forbidden, p.23Jodi Ellen Malpas
call and ignoring his next three attempts to ring back as I get the wine and take it to the table. I wave for Nat and Lizzy’s attention on the dance floor, and both give me a thumbs-up when they spot the bottle in my grasp.
“Is that Annie Ryan?” A male’s voice asks from behind me, pulling my attention around. I find a strapping bloke with a cute smile on his face, leaning against a nearby table. And I see thighs. Thick, rugby player thighs.
“Tom,” I say, trying not to make it sound like a question. This is the last man I slept with before Jack. Jason’s friend of a friend.
“Well done,” he teases. “How have you been?”
“Good, thanks. You?”
“Can’t complain.” He indicates my empty glass. “Drink?”
My blazing fury gets tackled from the side by the unexpected potential opportunity that’s fallen at my feet. I thought alcohol was my only escape. Maybe I was wrong. I disregard the full bottle I’ve just placed on the table. “Why not?” I say, smiling. “Sauvignon, please.”
Tom heads for the bar and orders while I fight back the stupid part of my fucked-up mind that’s telling me not to do something that I’ll regret. It’s not really that hard to disregard it. My only regret right now is putting myself in an affair. I remind myself that I’m technically still single. I’m technically free as a bird to do what I want, when I want. I’m not the married one. If Jack can have his cake and eat it, then so can I. I look across to the dance floor where Lizzy and Nat are throwing themselves around like the drunken fools that they are, and catch their eyes. When Lizzy grins, and Nat gives me double thumbs-up, I know they’ve clocked Tom. They think I’ve been celibate these past four months. They’ll physically put Tom in bed with me if they have to.
I accept my drink with a smile of thanks as I reacquaint my eyes with Tom. He’s handsome but rugged. His nose has clearly been broken a few times, and he has a tidy scar across his brow bone. His hair is short but fixed, and his neck thick. “How have you been?” I ask, getting the conversation started as he perches on Lizzy’s stool.
“Great, actually. I’ve been in Scotland for the last year at a training academy for kids.”
“Sounds good. But you’re back?”
“It was a year-long program at one of the league clubs. We’re starting one here at Twickenham next month.”
I nod. “So you play rugby, then?”
He laughs. “How’d you guess?”
I shrug and place my glass on the table. “Must be the cauliflower ears.”
“Hey!” He reaches over and lightly punches my jaw. “I wear a head guard.”
I smile coyly. “I’m teasing. Sounds like a great job.”
“It is. What do you do, Annie?” He takes a swig of his pint, grinning. “We didn’t exactly talk much last time I saw you.”
I return his grin, remembering the night well. It involved lots of alcohol and laughs, and ended with very drunken sex. “No, but we did a lot of something else.”
“I tried calling you after.” He watches me closely. “Why did you give me your number if you didn’t plan on taking my calls?”
“Work kind of took over my life.”
“I thought maybe you were involved with someone.”
“And are you now?”
I swallow and breathe in deeply. “No,” I say clearly, evenly, and with one hundred percent conviction.
Don’t ask me what I’m doing because I couldn’t tell you. It’s the story of my life these days. All I know is that I’m in agony inside and I’m hurting all the more because deep down I know I have no right to feel betrayed. My mind is a wild mess of questions. I feel deceived. It’s a crazy claim. Maybe this is karma. Maybe the Fates have decided that Annie Ryan doesn’t get to be happy. She doesn’t get to have what she desperately wants because she lied and cheated to try and get it.
I get out of the cab outside my apartment, Tom following closely behind. He slams the door and it echoes in the night air around us. We had a little moment outside the bar, nothing too much, just a look, but it was enough for him to ask if I wanted some company, and enough for me to say yes. As I walk up the path, I question what I’m doing and what good will come from it. I have no answer. I’m retaliating because I’m hurt beyond comprehension and it’s making me self-destructive. I slip my key into the lock, push the door open, and let Tom follow me in.
“Nice place,” he says, shutting the door behind him. “You been here long?”
“Just a few months,” I reply over my shoulder, making my way to the kitchen. “Tea, coffee, alcohol?”
“Whatever you’re having.”
His answer gives me a moment’s pause as I flick my eyes between the kettle and the wineglasses. Seems stupid that something as simple as a choice of drink could pave the way for the rest of the night. “White okay?” I ask, taking down two glasses.
“Sounds good to me.” He strides over to the double doors that lead onto the courtyard. “I love this,” he says, unlocking the door as I pour us drinks. “I’m on the fifth floor of a high-rise. No outside space.”
I gather up the glasses and follow him into my small garden. “Here.” I hand him a glass and he raises it before taking a sip. “Cheers,” I say in response.
He wanders over to the willow tree and pulls back some of the branches, peeking into the hidden space behind. “This is really cool.”
“It’s my peaceful space,” I say, getting an unexpected replay of Stephanie’s tormenting sounds of pleasure in my head. And then Jack’s growl. They’re playing on loop. Over and over, getting louder each time. I wince, closing my eyes, but I’m interrupted from my inner turmoil when Tom speaks. “You never did tell me what you do.”
“I’m an architect.”
“Nice. Designed anything I might know?”
“Like the Shard or something equally iconic?” I ask on a teasing smile.
Tom laughs. “Now, I know the bloke who designed the Shard was some Italian dude. You’re not Italian, and you are definitely not a dude.” He winks cheekily, prompting me to laugh.
“His name is Renzo Piano. Sadly, I’m nowhere near his league, but maybe one day.” I shrug.
Tom smiles and takes one step forward, closing the distance between us to only a foot or so. I look up at him, finding soft, searching eyes. “I’m hoping I haven’t read this wrong.”
He moves in and I hold my breath, waiting for his lips to meet mine, and when they do, I exhale and relax, accepting his kiss. His lips are soft and tender, his mouth working slowly over mine. My mind empties. It’s a relief. It’s a reprieve. I can’t pass up the opportunity to free myself from the mental chains I’ve locked myself in. Even if it’s only temporarily.
With my wineglass in one hand, I use my free arm to reach up and rest over his broad shoulders, responding to his kiss. My willingness forces the pace up a few notches. I expect this to take me further away from my pain, but I’m proven wrong when my darkness is suddenly hijacked with images of Jack. I try to push his beautiful face to the side, feeling Tom slip my dress from my shoulders, exposing my bra straps. The bra Jack bought for me. I persevere, taking our kiss up another level in the hopes of getting past my momentary lapse in fortitude, but a loud crash brings the moment to a screeching halt and Tom pulls away fast, looking toward the doors.
“What was that?” he asks, a little dazed.
“I don’t know.” I start toward the flat to investigate, and just make it into the kitchen when Jack comes crashing through from the lounge. I skid to a stop, shocked by the sight of him. He looks manic, his eyes wild. He stares at me, his chest puffing under his jacket, his shirt hanging from his trousers, his waistcoat undone and the knot of his tie halfway down his torso. He looks a wreck, and when his focus moves and centers on something behind me, his jaw tensing to snapping point, I know he’s seen I have company.
I fear J
I turn to Tom. “I’m sorry; I think it’s best you leave.” I take his wineglass from his hand and set it to the side, not liking the scowl he has pointed at Jack.
“Who’s this?” Tom asks, keeping his eyes on the deranged-looking man in the doorway of my kitchen. I hear Jack draw breath and wait for him to say something, but nothing comes. What can he say? That he’s the married man who’s fucking me?
“A friend,” I say, taking Tom’s arm. “I’ll see you out.” Leading him toward the kitchen door, I look at Jack, my jaw as tight as his. He moves from our path, his nostrils flaring aggressively as we pass. I can see it’s taking everything in him not to lunge at Tom and beat the shit out of him.
“I’m not sure I’m cool with leaving you alone with him,” Tom says as we reach the front door. It’s open, with splinters of wood hanging off around the lock.
I shake my head to myself. “He’s not that type,” I mumble meekly, trying to smile.
“I don’t think your front door would agree.” Tom points at the mangled wood with a frown.
I’m feeling so remorseful for putting him in this position. “I’m so sorry about this.”
“An ex?” Tom asks, eyebrow high, and I just nod, because what the hell else can I say? “I don’t think he’s over you,” he laughs. “I hope you sort it out.” His sincerity triples my remorse. Leaning down, he gives me a peck on the cheek. “Bear me in mind if you don’t, though, yeah?”
I reach up and give his arm a squeeze. “Thanks for the drinks and the chat.”
“No problem. See ya, Annie.”
I push the door closed repeatedly, but the latch won’t click into place. The damage is extensive: chunks of wood missing, some on the floor. He kicked the door in? He actually kicked the door in and steamrolled through my house like he had some right to stake a claim on me?
I march back to the kitchen and find him leaning against the wall, his head back, his breathing still heavy, his fists clenching. When he hears me enter, he pushes himself away and looks at me, a definite twist to his lip.
“Where’s Stephanie?” I ask, matching his threatening stance.
“I don’t give a fucking shit!” he bellows, knocking me back a few paces as he straightens and points at me. “I don’t care how unreasonable it sounds, you will not see other men! How the fuck could you do this to me?”
How could I do this to him? How could I do this to him? “You selfish arsehole!” I swipe the wineglass off the worktop, sending it sailing across the kitchen and crashing into the wall. The shattering of glass rings through the air, echoing forever. “Do you think I enjoyed listening to you and her earlier?”
Jack’s neck retracts on his shoulders, his eyes wide and wary. “You listened to us?”
“In the toilets at the gallery!” I scream. “You couldn’t even wait until you got home to fuck her!” I have to cover my ears to try to ease the recurring sounds in my head. I feel Jack’s hands wrap around my wrists, trying to pull my hands away. “Don’t touch me!” I fight him, disturbed and hysterical, crying uncontrollably.
“Annie, for fuck’s sake!” His attempts to calm me become more forceful as he flings me around and locks my hands behind my back, thrusting my front into the wall. He presses his body into me to hold me in place, his breathing shot like mine. “Calm down.”
His tall frame pressing me into the wall might be stopping me from escaping, but it doesn’t stop me from shaking uncontrollably, rivers of tears streaming down my cheeks. “Go,” I sob. “Just go.”
“I’m going nowhere,” he vows, moving his hold of my wrists and locking them in one of his hands. I close my eyes, looking for the darkness to match my world, but I can’t prevent the bawls of despair from ripping through me. Jack waits for my sobs to subside before he speaks, keeping me restrained. “I took her in there to calm down, Annie. She was falling all over the place, getting louder and louder, more offensive and rude.”
“I heard her moaning and you fucking growling. She was telling you to take her dress off. Did you? Did you take her fucking dress off, Jack?”
He spins me around, keeping my hands behind my back with his, pressed into the wall. The scruff on his jaw is rolling in waves of anger. “She was trying to get my clothes off. She was drunk, Annie. All I did was fight her the fuck off of me. I wasn’t growling, I was whispering because I could hear someone had come in the fucking ladies’!”
I push the back of my head into the wall, trying to escape the bullets of fury shooting from his angry eyes.
“Are you hearing me?” he roars in my face. “Are you fucking listening to what I’m telling you?”
I nod, my chin trembling, my face stinging.
“If you had been in that bathroom a few more minutes, you would have heard the row. You would have seen me storm out of there. You would have seen Stephanie slap a waitress for apparently staring at my arse.”
I gulp down my horror, unable to be relieved or grateful. “What?”
He laughs sardonically. “Oh yes, she put on an epic performance tonight.”
“You should have told me,” I whisper.
“You didn’t give me the chance.” Jack closes his eyes, his body going lax against me, and then he moves away, pulling his shirt up, turning away from me. My hand covers my mouth when I see the state of his back: red, raw, and throbbing. I’m horrified.
“Every time I look at her, Annie,” he says quietly, “I see the threat in her eyes. She knows I’ve already left her in my head.” His teeth audibly grind as he drops his shirt and turns to face me, his gray eyes opening and boring into my wide ones. “She’s not going to make this easy for me, even without knowing about you.”
I sniffle, feeling crippling guilt. He’s going through this alone—being faced with Stephanie and her manipulation every day, and I’ve buried my head in the sand.
“You’re the only thing that’s keeping me going while I try to figure this shit out. Don’t give up now, baby. Please.” Jack’s gaze drops to my shoulder, and I watch as the hollows in his relaxed jaw start to pulse again. His hand comes up and lightly traces over the strap of my bra. He’s not being affectionate.
I realize what’s forcing him to keep hold of his temper the moment he turns disgusted gray eyes onto me. “You’re wearing my underwear,” he breathes. He’s trying to swallow down some calm. He’s failing terribly. Taking the tops of my arms, he holds me in place. “You have my underwear on and you were going to let another man have you?”
I shake my head meekly.
He recoils. “Did you kiss him? Tell me you didn’t kiss him.”
I fly into defense mode. “I’ve been here for months accepting that you get into bed with her every night. Not me. Her.” A fresh batch of tears tumble free. “It should be me.” I cough on a sob, looking away.
Jack hisses and releases me, backing away. “This is poisonous,” he mumbles, raking a frustrated hand through his hair.
Without him holding me up, my knees give and I slide down the wall to my arse. He takes his knuckles to his eye sockets and rubs harshly, letting his head fall back once he’s done.
“I know you’re scared of the repercussions, Annie,” he says, this time calmly. “Trust me, so am I, but I’m done with it.”
My heart pounds in my chest as he drops heavily to his knees in front of me, taking my hands and shuffling forward to get close. “Annie, listen to me.” He squeezes my hands, his face deadly serious. “If I stay in that hell any longer, there will be nothing left of me.” He drops my hands and grabs my cheeks, holding my face as my tears continue to pour. “I’m madly in love with you, woman, and I’m hating my screwed-up situation for keeping me from you. I don’t care about the consequences. I can’t let her manipulate me anymore. And I don’t care what people will think of me when I leave her.” He kisses my forehead, holding his mouth there, and my hands go to his shoulders and hold onto him. “We’ve been walking
I break down in his arms, feeling like everything is coming to a head. The pain and the devastation on the horizon are at the forefront of my mind, but I know it’s going to be worse than I ever imagined it could be. “I don’t want to lose you,” I murmur weakly, aware that Stephanie has the ability to manipulate Jack, make him feel guilty and influence his decision. How can she be happy knowing how unhappy he is?
“You won’t lose me, I swear to God.” He breathes in as he pulls his lips away from my forehead and brings his face to mine, making sure he has my eyes. “It’s not going to be easy, but as long as I have you at the end of it, I can get through it.” Jack’s voice quavers, his bottom lip trembling. “I’m terrified that you’re going to decide I’m not worth the heartache and walk away from me.”
“No!” I cry, grabbing his hands on my face. “I could never walk away from you. I love you too much.” I hate how relieved he looks, as if he doubted it. I might not have told him with words, but I’ve told him in every other way. I would never have put myself in this situation for anything less than powerful love. The kind that keeps you going. The kind that gives you breath and life. Jack’s my life. He’s my pulse. He’s everything.
The Forbidden by Jodi Ellen Malpas / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on52 votes