- Bared to You
The next morning dawned with an odd surreality. I made it to work, and then through most of my prelunch day in a kind of chilly fog. I couldn't get warm enough, despite wearing a cardigan over my blouse and a scarf that didn't match either one. It took me a few minutes longer to process requests than it should have, and I couldn't shake a feeling of dread.
Gideon made no contact with me whatsoever.
Nothing on my smartphone or e-mail after my text last night. Nothing in my e-mail inbox. No interoffice note.
The silence was excruciating. Especially when the day's Google alert hit my inbox and I saw the photos and phone videos of me and Gideon in Bryant Park. Seeing how we looked together - the passion and need, the painful longing on our faces, and the gratefulness of reconciliation - was bittersweet.
Pain twisted in my chest. Gideon.
If we couldn't work this out, would I ever stop thinking about him and wishing we had?
I struggled to pull myself together. Mark was meeting with Gideon today. Maybe that's why Gideon hadn't felt pressed to contact me. Or maybe he was just really busy. I knew he had to be, considering his business calendar. And as far as I knew, we still had plans to go to the gym after work. I exhaled in a rush and told myself that things would straighten out somehow. They just had to.
It was quarter to noon when my desk phone rang. Seeing from the readout that the call was coming from reception, I sighed with disappointment and answered.
"Hey, Eva," Megumi said cheerily. "You have a Magdalene Perez here to see you."
"Do I?" I stared at my monitor, confused and irritated. Had the Bryant Park photos lured Magdalene out from under whatever troll bridge she called home?
Regardless of the reason, I had no interest in talking to her. "Keep her up there for me, will you? I have to take care of something first."
"Sure. I'll tell her to have a seat."
I hung up, then pulled out my smartphone and scrolled through the contact list until I found the number to Gideon's office. I dialed and was relieved when Scott answered.
"Hey, Scott. It's Eva Tramell."
"Hi, Eva. Would you like to speak to Mr. Cross? He's in a meeting at the moment, but I can buzz him."
"No. No, don't bother him."
"It's a standing order. He won't mind."
It soothed me immensely to hear that. "I hate to throw this in your lap, but I have a request for you."
"Anything you need. That's also a standing order." The amusement in his voice relaxed me further.
"Magdalene Perez is down here on the twentieth floor. Frankly, the only thing she and I have in common is Gideon, and that's not a good thing. If she has something to say, it's your boss she should be talking to. Could you please have someone escort her up?"
"Absolutely. I'll take care of it now."
"Thanks, Scott. I appreciate you."
"It's my pleasure, Eva."
I hung up the phone and sagged back in my seat, feeling better already and proud of myself for not letting jealousy get the better of me. While I still really hated the idea of her having any of Gideon's time, I hadn't lied when I'd said I trusted him. I believed he had strong, deep feelings for me. I just didn't know if they were enough to override his survival instinct.
Megumi called me again.
"Oh my God," she said, laughing. "You should've seen her face when whoever that was came to get her."
"Good." I grinned. "I figured she was up to no good. Is she gone, then?"
"Thanks." I crossed the narrow strip of hallway to Mark's door and poked my head in to see if he wanted me to pick him up some lunch.
He frowned, thinking about it. "No, thanks. I'll be too nervous to eat until after the presentation with Cross. By then whatever you pick up will be hours old."
"How about a protein smoothie, then? It'll give you some easy fuel until you can eat."
"That'd be great." His smile lit up his dark eyes. "Something that goes good with vodka, just to get me in the mood."
"Anything you don't like? Any allergies?"
"Okay. See you in an hour." I knew just the place to go. The deli I had in mind was a couple blocks up and offered smoothies, salads, and a variety of made-to-order paninis with quick service.
I headed downstairs and tried not to think about Gideon's radio silence. I'd kind of expected to hear something after the Magdalene incident. Getting no reaction had me worrying all over again. I pushed out to the street through the revolving door and scarcely paid any attention to the man who climbed out of the back of a town car at the curb until he called my name.
Turning, I found myself facing Christopher Vidal.
"Oh...Hi," I greeted him. "How are you?"
"Better, now that I've seen you. You look fantastic."
"Thanks. I can say the same to you."
As different as he was from Gideon, he was gorgeous in his own way with his mahogany waves, grayish-green eyes, and charming smile. He was dressed in loose-fitting jeans and a cream V-neck sweater, a very sexy look for him.
"Are you here to see your brother?" I asked.
"Yes, and you."
"Heading to lunch? I'll join you and explain."
I was briefly reminded of Gideon's warning to stay away from Christopher, but by now I figured he trusted me. Especially with his brother.
"I'm going to a deli up the street," I said. "If you're game."
We started walking.
"What did you want to see me about?" I asked, too curious to wait.
He reached into one of two large cargo pockets of his jeans and pulled out a formal invitation in a vellum envelope. "I came to invite you to a garden party we're having at my parents' estate on Sunday. A mix of business and pleasure. Many of the artists signed to Vidal Records will be there. I was thinking it'd be great networking for your roommate - he's got the right look for music video."
I brightened. "That would be wonderful!"
Christopher grinned and passed the invite over. "And you'll both have fun. No one throws a party like my mother."
I glanced briefly at the envelope in my hand. Why hadn't Gideon said anything about the event?
"If you're wondering why Gideon didn't tell you about it," he said, seemingly reading my mind, "it's because he won't come. He never does. Even though he's the majority shareholder in the company, I think he finds the music industry and musicians too unpredictable for his tastes. By now, you know how he is."
Dark and intense. Powerfully magnetic and hotly sexual. Yes, I knew how he was. And he preferred to know what he was getting into at all costs.
I gestured at the deli when we reached it, and we stepped inside and got in line.
"This place smells awesome," Christopher said, his gaze on his phone as he typed out a quick text.
"The aroma delivers on its promise, trust me."
He smiled a delightful boyish smile that I was sure knocked most women on their asses. "My parents are really looking forward to meeting you, Eva."
"Seeing the photos of you and Gideon over the last week has been a real surprise. A good surprise," he qualified quickly when I winced. "It's the first time we've seen him really into someone he's dating."
I sighed, thinking he wasn't so into me right now. Had I made a terrible mistake by leaving him alone last night?
When we reached the counter, I ordered a grilled vegetable and cheese panini with two pomegranate smoothies, asking them to hold the one with a protein shot for thirty minutes so I could eat in. Christopher ordered the same, and we managed to find a table in the crowded deli.
We talked about work, laughing over both a recent baby food commercial faux-blooper that had gone viral and some backstage anecdotes about acts Christopher had worked with. The time passed swiftly, and when we parted ways at the entrance of the Crossfire, I said good-bye with genuine affection.
I headed up to the twentieth floor, and found Mark still at his desk. He offered me a quick smile despite his air of concentration.
"If you don't really need me," I said, "I think it'd be good for me to sit this presentation out."
Although he tried to hide it, I saw the lightning quick flash of relief. It didn't offend me. Stress was stress, and my volatile relationship with Gideon was something Mark didn't need to think about while he was working on an important account.
"You're golden, Eva. You know that?"
I smiled and set the drink carrier down in front of him. "Drink your smoothie. It's really good, and the protein will keep you from feeling too hungry for a little bit longer. I'll be at my desk if you need me."
Before I put my purse in the drawer, I texted Cary to ask if he had plans on Sunday or if he'd like to go to a Vidal Records party. Then I got back to work. I'd started organizing Mark's files on the server, tagging them and placing them in directories to make it easier for us to assemble portfolios on the fly.
When Mark left for the meeting with Gideon, my heartbeat quickened and a clutch of anticipation tightened my stomach. I couldn't believe my excitement just from knowing what Gideon was doing at that particular moment, and that he'd have to think of me when he saw Mark. I hoped I'd hear from him after that. My mood picked up at the thought.
For the next hour, I was restless waiting to hear how things had gone. When Mark reappeared with a big grin and a spring in his step, I stood up in my cubicle and applauded him.
He took a gallant, exaggerated bow. "Thank you, Miss Tramell."
"I'm so stoked for you!"
"Cross asked me to give you this." He handed me a sealed manila envelope. "Come to my office and I'll give you all the deets."
The envelope had weight and rattled. I knew from touch what I'd find inside before I opened it, but still the sight of my keys sliding out and into my palm hit me hard. Gasping with a pain more intense than any I could remember, I read the accompanying note card.
Thank you, Eva. For everything.
A Dear Jane brush-off. It had to be. Otherwise, he would've given me the keys after work on the way to the gym.
There was a dull roaring in my ears. I felt dizzy. Disoriented. I was frightened and agonized. Furious.
I was also at work.
Closing my eyes and clenching my fists, I pulled myself together and fought off the driving urge to go upstairs and call Gideon a coward. He probably saw me as a threat, someone who'd come in, unwanted and uninvited, and shook up his orderly world. Someone who'd demanded more from him than just his hot body and hefty bank account.
I shut my emotions behind a glass wall where I was aware of them waiting in the background, but I was able to get through the rest of my workday. By the time I clocked out and headed downstairs, I still hadn't heard from Gideon. I was such an emotional disaster at that point I felt only a single, sharp twinge of despair as I exited the Crossfire.
I made it to the gym. I shut my brain off and ran full-bore on the treadmill, fleeing the anguish that would hit me soon enough. I ran until sweat coursed in rivulets down my face and body, and rubber legs forced me to stop.
Feeling battered and exhausted, I hit the showers. Then I called my mother and asked her to send Clancy to the gym to pick me up for our appointment with Dr. Petersen. As I put my work clothes back on, I mustered the energy to get through that last task before I could go home and collapse on my bed.
I waited for the town car at the curb, feeling separate and apart from the city teeming around me. When Clancy pulled up and hopped out to open the back door for me, I was startled to see my mom already inside. It was early yet. I'd expected to be driven solo to the apartment she shared with Stanton and wait on her twenty minutes or so. That was our usual routine.
"Hey, Mom," I said wearily, settling on the seat beside her.
"How could you, Eva?" She was crying into a monogrammed handkerchief, her face beautiful even while reddened and wet with tears. "Why?"
Jolted out of my torment by her misery, I frowned and asked, "What did I do now?"
The new cell phone, if she'd somehow found about it, wouldn't trigger this much drama. And it was too soon after the fact for her to know about my breakup with Gideon.
"You told Gideon Cross about...what happened to you." Her lower lip trembled with distress.
My head jerked back in shock. How could she know that? My God...Had she bugged my new place? My purse...? "What?"
"Don't act clueless!"
"How do you know I told him?" My voice was a pained whisper. "We just talked last night."
"He went to see Richard about it today."
I tried to picture Stanton's face during that conversation. I couldn't imagine my stepfather taking it well. "Why would he do that?"
"He wanted to know what's been done to prevent information leaks. And he wanted to know where Nathan is - " She sobbed. "He wanted to know everything."
My breath hissed out between my teeth. I wasn't sure what Gideon's motivation was, but the possibility that he'd dumped me over Nathan and was now making sure that he was safe from scandal hurt worse than anything. I twisted in pain, my spine arching away from the seatback. I'd thought it was his past that drove a wedge between us, but it made more sense that it was mine.
For once I was grateful for my mother's self-absorption, which kept her from seeing how devastated I was.
"He had a right to know," I managed in a voice so raw it sounded nothing like my own. "And he has a right to try and protect himself from any blowback."
"You've never told any of your other boyfriends."
"I've never dated anyone who makes national headlines by sneezing, either." I stared out the car window at the traffic that boxed us in. "Gideon Cross and Cross Industries are global news, Mother. He's light-years away from the guys I dated in college."
She spoke more, but I didn't hear her. I shut down for self-protection, cutting off the reality that was suddenly too painful to be endured.
Dr. Petersen's office was exactly as I remembered. Decorated in soothing neutrals, it was both professional and comfortable. Dr. Petersen was the same - a handsome man with gray hair and gentle, intelligent blue eyes.
He welcomed us into his office with a wide smile, commenting on how lovely my mother looked and how like her I was. He said he was happy to see me again and that I looked well, but I could tell he spoke for my mother's benefit. He was too trained an observer to miss the raging emotions I suppressed.
"So," he began, settling into his chair across from the sofa my mother and I sat on. "What brings you both in today?"
I told him about the way my mom had been tracking my movements via my cell phone signal and how violated I felt. Mom told him about my interest in Krav Maga and how she took it as a sign that I wasn't feeling safe. I told him about how they'd pretty much taken over Parker's studio, which made me feel suffocated and claustrophobic. She told him I'd betrayed her trust by divulging deeply personal matters to strangers, which made her feel naked and painfully exposed.
Through it all, Dr. Petersen listened attentively, took notes and spoke rarely, until we'd purged everything.
Once we'd quieted, he asked, "Monica, why didn't you tell me about tracking Eva's cell phone?"
The angle of her chin altered, a familiar defensive posture. "I didn't see anything wrong with it. Many parents track their children through their cell phones."
"Underage children," I shot back. "I'm an adult. My personal time is exactly that."
"If you were to envision yourself in her place, Monica," Dr. Petersen interjected, "would it be possible that you might feel as she does? What if you discovered someone was monitoring your movements without your knowledge or permission?"
"Not if the someone was my mother and I knew it gave her peace of mind," she argued.
"And have you considered how your actions affect Eva's peace of mind?" he queried gently. "Your need to protect her is understandable, but you should discuss the steps you wish to take openly with her. It's important to gain her input - and expect cooperation only when she chooses to give it. You have to honor her prerogative to set limits that may not be as broad as you'd like them to be."
My mother sputtered indignantly.
"Eva needs her boundaries, Monica," he continued, "and a sense of control over her own life. Those things were taken from her for a long time and we have to respect her right to establish them now in the manner that best suits her."
"Oh." My mother twisted her handkerchief around her fingers. "I hadn't thought of it that way."
I reached out for my mother's hand when her lower lip trembled violently. "Nothing could've stopped me from talking to Gideon about my past. But I could have forewarned you. I'm sorry I didn't think of it."
"You're much stronger than I ever was," my mother said, "but I can't help worrying."
"My suggestion," Dr. Petersen said, "would be for you to take some time, Monica, and really think about what sorts of events and situations cause you anxiety. Then write them down."
My mother nodded.
"When you have what will surely not be an exhaustive list but a strong start," he went on, "you can sit down with Eva and discuss strategies for addressing those concerns - strategies you can both live with comfortably. For example, if not hearing from Eva for a few days troubles you, perhaps a text message or an e-mail will alleviate that."
"If you like, we can go over the list together."
The back-and-forth between the two made me want to scream. It was insult to injury. I hadn't expected Dr. Petersen to smack some sense into my mom, but I'd hoped he would at least take a harder line - God knew someone needed to, someone whose authority she respected.
When the hour ended and we were on our way out, I asked my mom to wait a moment so I could ask Dr. Petersen one last personal and private question.
"Yes, Eva?" He stood in front of me, looking infinitely patient and wise.
"I just wondered..." I paused, needing to swallow past a lump in my throat. "Is it possible for two abuse survivors to have a functional romantic relationship?"
"Absolutely." His immediate, unequivocal answer forced the trapped air from my lungs.
I shook his hand. "Thank you."
When I got home, I unlocked my door with the keys Gideon had returned to me and I went straight to my room, offering a lame wave to Cary, who was practicing yoga in the living room to a DVD.
I stripped off my clothes as I crossed the distance from my closed bedroom door to the bed, finally crawling between the cool sheets in just my underwear. I hugged a pillow and closed my eyes, so tired and drained I had nothing left.
The door opened at my back and a moment later Cary sat beside me.
He brushed my hair back from my tear-streaked face. "What's the matter, baby girl?"
"I got kicked to the curb today. Courtesy of a fucking note card."
He sighed. "You know the drill, Eva. He's going to keep pushing you away, because he's expecting you to fail him like everyone else has."
"And I keep proving him right." I recognized myself in the description Cary had just given. I ran when the going got tough, because I was so sure it was all going to end badly. The only control I had was to be the one who left, instead of the one who was left behind.
"Because you're fighting to protect your own recovery." He lay down and spooned against my back, wrapping one leanly muscular arm around me and tucking me tight against him.
I snuggled into the physical affection I hadn't realized I needed. "He might've dumped me because of my past, not his."
"If that's true, it's good it's over. But I think you two will find each other eventually. At least I'm hoping you will." His sigh was soft on my neck. "I want there to be happily-ever-afters for the fucked-up crowd. Show me the way, Eva honey. Make me believe."