Authors: Krista Ritchie,Becca Ritchie
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Adult
Slowly, I rotate to face my husband, ten feet separating us—tension entrenched within my solid bones. His eyes are bloodshot from restraining emotion, but he stands tall, all six-foot-four of him. His gaze holds acceptance of our fate that I’ve only just hatefully consumed.
He studies my reaction, the way I rub my hands together and inhale short breaths.
“Lily has been in this situation before…” I remember how the media casted doubt about her relationship with Loren, and then three-way rumors surfaced with Loren, Lily, and Ryke in the center. They made it out of that unscathed. So can we.
“And?” His deadened voice drums against my heart.
My nose flares, and I raise my chin. My efforts to instill confidence in myself feel more like an ill-fitting mask. “What other people think doesn’t matter…because it’s a little rumor.” My voice betrays me, quaking each syllable. “It’s what I told her before…that people can say whatever they want, but you know the truth. You
As the words leave my lips, he closes the space between us, clasping my wrist and pulling me into his chest. Our rigid bodies weld together, and he clutches me in a firm, comforting embrace, but I catch sight of his jaw muscles, constricting. He submerges as many pained sentiments as me.
Very softly, he whispers, “I’m so sorry, Rose.”
I choke out a breath.
Do not cry.
“You shouldn’t apologize for this.” I fist his button-down, my gaze piercing him between the eyes. He stares unflinchingly at me. We need battle armor. We need guns and cannons. We need to hit them like they’ve hit us. Revenge—blood-curdling, soul-screaming
blares in my charred brain.
Connor is more logical.
He values no part of revenge the way I do. We’ll feel better once it happens, doesn’t he see? They’ll pay, whoever betrayed him, and we’ll rise again.
He cups my face, his large hand cloaking me, and his deep blue eyes pour roughly through me like an invisible riptide. “It matters,” he says, shoveling the coldest truth in my direction, and a chill snakes icily across my neck. He’s never been one for false hope, not towards me. “I’m sorry that it does. This isn’t a baseless rumor like the ones with Lily, Loren, and Ryke. The media has actual evidence that discredits us, our marriage and our love, and public perception will be overwhelmingly
us, unlike anything they faced.” His thumb strokes my cheek. “This isn’t close to the same caliber.”
I swallow hard, my nose flaring again.
Do not cry.
“Our companies can handle the blows.” Calloway Couture is now attached to Hale Co. It has an iron-structure that’ll support any crippling movement. Cobalt Inc. is usually sturdy, and previously led by Katarina Cobalt—I bet the board members are just as progressive as she was. Connor shouldn’t be shunned by them.
“It’s not our companies I’m worried about,” he tells me.
I care only about our future together.
Jane…and all the kids we’ve thought to have along the way.
The other kids may be gone now, but we have Jane. It will affect her. I can’t even begin to picture the type of ridicule and judgment she’ll face from her peers. Everyone will believe she was born from a cold, heartless arrangement by robotic, unfeeling parents. I’ll wrap her in my unbending arms, no matter how rigid I may be or how mechanic I may seem, and I’ll shield her from this unjust storm the best I can.
I say to him, “You’re worried about Jane.”
I press a hand to his chest, taking a single step back. “I can handle this,
as you can. We’re equals.”
“No.” He clasps my wrists, stopping me from rubbing my hands again.
“No? What do you mean,
“I don’t want to be equals with you,” he announces, his voice terribly flat.
My lips part, pain clawing at my lungs. “You don’t mean that.”
His eyes redden. “I mean everything I say to you.”
Tears threaten to well.
Do not fucking cry, Rose.
“I want you to be better than me,” he declares, tugging me back to his body by my wrists.
We can handle this. We can handle this. We can handle this.
I’ll repeat it until it becomes a truth and not a mocking sound in my head. He holds my cheek. “Look at me, Rose.”
I’ve been avoiding his clarity, and he tries to pull me towards it.
When I meet his gaze, he says, “This is the worst.”
quote punctures my head:
The worst is not. So long as we can say, “this is the worst.”
He can’t fix this.
can’t fix this.
“No.” I try to push him off, but he holds me tighter, my wrist aching from one of his hands.
,” he forces. “There is nothing we can do but bear it.”
“I’ll defend my love for you,” I retort, fire scorching my heart.
“How?” he asks.
I think about
Princesses of Philly
, how the reality show helped justify Loren and Lily’s romance. They needed a way to showcase and validate their relationship. The plan worked perfectly. The public fawned over them after
Princesses of Philly
aired. People rooted for them and championed their affection. Their desire was painstakingly clear within each frame.
Loren would pin my little sister against the kitchen counter, kissing as though breathing life into each other. She’d cling desperately to him, like she’d fall if not for his existence, and when she cried, he’d cling desperately to her—bracing her soul together while she braced his.
Their love is emotional.
Their love is outward and apparent.
I think of our time during
Princesses of Philly
. Connor wasn’t well-received by fans. More people liked me with Scott Van Wright—a man I despised—than they did with the man I loved.
Our love is inward and intellectual.
It’s of the mind and spirit.
Who else can see this but me?
I’ve never had to defend my relationship on this grand, massive scale, and Connor is repeatedly telling me that it’s impossible. I recount the past four months. If we act like Lily and Loren, increasing our PDA again—we’re faking it.
If we act like ourselves—we’re stiff and detached.
So we just bear the criticism then. Let it roll off our backs, no matter how much it burns and scars us? “When a volcano erupts, we don’t stand beneath it, Connor.”
“Where do you suggest we go?”
I don’t know. I shake my head a few times.
I’m terrified of what our future looks like. My breathing staggers, and I hold up a finger, so he’ll give me a minute. My smothered emotions threaten to rise and take hold of me. “I’ll be right back,” I whisper. “I need to change…into something better.” I smooth my dress.
“Rose,” he says my name with worry, but I leave him and head for the closet. I just need a minute. I’ll be okay afterwards. I’ll withstand anything, just like him.
I walk quickly and tensely to the closet, and he stays behind, searching the room for something. Once inside, I shut the door and leave the lights off. In the pitch-black, I use my memory to find my fur coat, unhanging the soft garment.
My legs buckle the moment I clutch the coat to my body. My knees dig into the carpet, my chest tight and lungs bound. I can hear the television suddenly through the walls, the volume escalating. Connor must’ve been looking for the remote.
“…they have a child together, but a source close to the Calloway family believes that Rose had a child
I scream into the coat, the violent, excruciating sounds muffled. My body vibrates in agony, at the invalidation of my love and now
daughter, who I carried for nine months. Who I love more than anyone else can possibly see or know or even realize.
I scream again, my throat raw and enflamed.
“…there are multiple accounts on
Princesses of Philly
where Rose states point-blank that she hates children. She’s
liked kids, and her old friends from Dalton Academy have attested to this and spoken to GBA News.”
People can change. People can grow. People can realize that the idea of something is more frightening than the reality.
Am I not allowed all of that? Am I just supposed to be identical to myself at eighteen and at twenty-two and twenty-six? Can I never decide differently or think in a new way? Why must I be the same?
An onslaught of maddened tears squeezes from my eyes, and I scream into a cry that originates in my core. I sense a crease of light in the closet, but it darkens to blackness once more, the door opening and gently shutting.
I can’t cease the waterworks, even if I tried. I purge my emotions, the television faint in the background, and I feel Connor kneel behind me. His strong chest melds against my back, leaning forward along my curved spine to whisper, “Vous êtes en sécurité avec moi.”
You’re safe with me.
His arms slide around my hips, holding me with care that no one else will ever see, these moments kept in dark closets. I scream one last time, every gaping wound tearing open and tunneling through me.
His chest rises and falls deeper, and he clutches me tighter. I tremble, my throat burning, and he turns me towards his body. Our limbs lost in the pitch-black. I simply feel him pulling me onto his lap, my legs splayed to the side, one of his hands resting on my thighs. He guides my head to the crook of his shoulder, my silent tears dampening his shirt.
Our heavy breaths fill the quiet.
He kisses my forehead, his lips brushing my cheek. “I wouldn’t trade our love for any other.”
A tremor passes through my body, and I reach up and feel for him, my palm skimming his neck, his jaw…
He clasps his hand over mine, lifting my fingers higher to his cheek, where I want to be. I raise my head off his chest, sensing my lips nearing his in the dark.
I whisper, “I can hear our hearts breaking.”
A tear wets my fingertips, his tears, and his other hand encases my face, the way mine does him. His lips nearly skim mine. “I’ll shield your ears from the sound of heartbreak.”
My chest swells. “And what happens when I ache to hear your voice?”
“I’ll whisper beyond every anguished sound.” He closes his lips over mine, once, before murmuring, “Tu m’entendras toujours, où que je sois.”
You will always hear me, no matter where I am.
He has shaped my life, shaped
, so entirely, and I think about him in every action, in every extraordinary or commonplace thought. I wonder what he would do or what he would say. I’m independent, self-sufficient, and singular—I’m all of those things while carrying and feeling and living out love.
“And can you still hear me?” I wonder, a breath between our lips.
I brush the wetness on his cheek, the rarest tears my fingertips have ever felt, hidden in the confines of the dark. “I’m here for you,” I remind him. “I will stand beside you, whatever you want to say to the press.” It’s his sexuality, his choice, and if he’d rather lie about his past or if he’d rather try to explain the truth—I’d support him equally and with wholehearted vigor.
He’s quiet for a long moment, his thumb caressing my tear-streaked face. I worry that he thinks it’d be better to let me go. To disentangle himself from Jane and me and fight this alone.
The darkness conceals the answers in the creases of his face. I can only feel him against me, his muscles firm and his eyes wet.
So I ask, “Would you choose to drown with me beneath a river or burn with me in flames?”
“Neither,” he whispers.
We’re together in those choices, no matter which way we fail—we’re together. I don’t understand… “You have to choose one.” A heavy, cold pain weighs against me.
His fingers disappear into my hair, clutching my face, his lips so very close. “I will die with you when we are old and withered and gray, and I’ll live with you every day until then.
is what I’ll always choose.”
I nod, my shoulders relaxing, even if he can’t see it. “You’ll die
then,” I breathe. It’s a Shakespearean tragedy at its finest, and I can almost feel his lips rise, just by a fraction, in thought of this.
“Yes, darling. I will die with you.” And he kisses me, powerfully and forcefully. He draws back to whisper, “But not today.”
Still, I think we both recognize that this media uproar has begun to hurt us, much greater than anything has before.
[ 36 ]
“Don’t blink,” Rose says, squirting drops in my eyes while I sit on our bed. I’d do it myself, but Jane is fast asleep in my arms, and every time I set her down, she wakes and cries.
“You’re enjoying this,” I mention, referring to her towering above me.
Her red lips never pull upward. “I’m not.”
I reach out and hold her by the waist, her body molded in a sleek black dress, her yellow-green eyes accentuated with mascara and liner. No one would expect that Rose cried an hour earlier—that my eyes have burned and leaked in accompaniment. Or that an uncomfortable, foreign pain still gnaws at me.
“Blink,” she says.
I do, a few times, the drops soothing my raw eyes, and I rise with Jane in arm.
Rose touches Jane’s tiny, delicate fingers, our daughter’s lips parted with deep breaths. Her fragility, her purity, reminds me that we’re the only ones who can protect her during this time.
I never thought about sheltering a child from the pangs of reality. My mother never sheltered me in my early adolescence.
You’re smarter for it
, she said. I learned to shut out my feelings. I lost all empathy for anyone other than myself. I needed Frederick to remind me that I’m human.
I’d rather Jane believe in fairies and magic than follow in my footsteps, I’ve realized. I’d rather she become more like her mother than like me.