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Monday, June 14, 2010

Kept, by Sally Bradley

KEPT
by
Sally Bradley

Chapter One
I Corinthians 6:11—“And such were some of you...”

Mark was leaving—again.
Miska Tomlinson let the gauzy curtain fall across her window, obscuring the view of Chicago’s
lakefront eighteen stories below. If she’d known a year ago that their relationship would stall like this, she might have thought twice about accepting his drink. That would have saved her this roller coaster of pleasure and pain.
The pain was worth it though. Wasn’t it? The two of them hiding out in her condo three or four days at a time. No one hassling them, no one knowing…
She fingered a curl. Why was he packing his bag a good two hours before he had to be at the ballpark?
“Miska. Baby.” Mark’s voice drifted from the bedroom into the living room. “Have you seen my wallet?”
“Didn’t you put it on the nightstand?”
Something thumped in her room. “Oh, yeah. Found it.”
Right. She smiled at his words. He’d found it. Next he’d be searching for his phone, his keys, his shoes. Maybe even his toothbrush.
He wandered into view, stopping at the end of her bed where his duffel sat, and tucked his shaving kit and toothbrush into it.
All pleasure from the last three days vanished.
She returned to the window. She couldn’t obsess. He probably had a good reason for leaving early. If she just waited…
Miska scanned the view that had convinced her to risk her inheritance and live house poor. Grant Park, Chicago’s version of Central Park, spread below her, treetops finally decked out in vibrant spring green. The washed-out blue of the sky contrasted with Lake Michigan’s cerulean waters, and a handful of white boats dotted Monroe Harbor.
But her favorite part, the jewel of the park, was Buckingham Fountain. The massive fountain of granite and pink marble held court in the park’s center. Any second now the fountain would begin the ten o’clock water show, the first of the year. The center jet would soar a hundred fifty feet into the air, and dozens of other jets would try to catch it.
Someday, maybe, she’d take Mark down there and share it with him, his hand in hers as the music played and the water danced. Someday, when he finally belonged to her.
Mark’s bag zipped shut. His footsteps crossed to the kitchen island behind her, his bag thumping to the floor, then turned her way. “What’re you looking at?”
“Buckingham Fountain. Isn’t it beautiful?”
He wrapped his arms around her and pressed himself to her back. “Mmm. Very.”

The fountain’s center jet leaped high into the air. Smiling, she relaxed against him as the rest of the jets sprayed high then low, splashing to a song she couldn’t hear.
He said nothing while the fountain played, just held her. When the hundred-plus jets fell back to their usual height, she turned in his arms and slid her palms across his defined chest. Her gaze trailed over his full mouth and his square jaw, all so tempting.
But she couldn’t bring herself to meet his eyes. “Your bag’s packed?”
“Yep.” He cleared his throat, then ran a hand through his thick blond hair until it stood on end. “It’s too beautiful to stay inside. We should go out for breakfast—or brunch. For something.”
Out? In public? She held still. “You want to go somewhere? Together?”
“If you’re not comfortable with it, we don’t have to.”
“No, I’d love that.” Of course she was comfortable with it. Her smile morphed into a grin. He matched it, and she stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek, just a peck so he didn’t get any new ideas. “Where should we go?”
“There’s a great diner a few blocks from here. Best hash browns and French toast anywhere.”
“Sounds perfect, except I’ll have to run twice today.”
He followed her to the kitchen island where her Kate Spade bag—the last purse Mom had bought—lay beside his keys, phone, and baseball cap. He picked up the worn hat. “Wish I could run with you.”
He could, if he really wanted to. “Next time you’re in town.”
A thud sounded in the hallway outside her condo. Then another, followed by deep muffled voices. She ignored it as she slipped her purse strap onto her shoulder, but Mark, filling his pockets, glanced toward her front door. “What’s going on out there?”
“The condo next door sold. Someone’s moving in.”
He tugged the hat’s curved brim low. Bag over his shoulder, he followed her to her front door where he held up a hand and listened.
Silence.
Miska opened the door and stepped into the empty hallway. Mark locked the deadbolt with his key. “Ready?” he asked with that aw-shucks grin that had won her over.
So ready. This changed everything. She grabbed his hand and tugged him forward, flashing him a flirtatious look. “Let’s go.”
His fingers tightened around hers, pulling her to a stop just steps from her door. That longing smile hinted around his mouth. What would he do? They were in public, after all, even if the hallway was empty.
Mark didn’t do public.
He stepped up against her and slipped an arm around her waist. His head lowered, and she closed her eyes with him, already warm from a barely-begun kiss in a silent hallway where anyone could walk out—
A doorknob clicked. Miska opened her eyes. A tall, dark-haired man burst out of the door beside Mark and plowed into him. Mark’s weight fell against her, and she backpedaled into the wall, the back of her head smacking it. Mark crashed beside her.
Tall-Dark-and-Klutzy stared at them, his mouth hanging open. “Oh, man, I’m sorry.” He offered his hand to Miska where she half sat, half leaned against the wall. “Are you okay?”
She grabbed his hand, all knuckles and long fingers, and let him pull her up. He was incredibly tall—well over six feet, maybe closer to seven. She scanned his lean face and the scruff he hadn’t shaved that morning, pausing on his nice brown eyes. “I’m fine.”
“I didn’t realize anybody was out here.” He looked at Mark. “You all right?”
Mark tugged the hat over his forehead. “We’re good.”
The guy towered over Mark’s six-three height, staring as Mark reached down for the duffel bag. The man’s lips parted. His eyebrows rose.
Great. He’d recognized Mark.
Behind the gawker, another man—not as tall but similar enough in looks that they had to be related—stepped out of the condo and started to laugh. He smacked the giant’s back. “Dude, why couldn’t you run over Mark Scheider yesterday? Before he shut out the Cubs?” He shot Mark a grin. “Sorry about my brother. You’d have thought he’d grow into those feet by now.” He shrugged as if it were a lost cause. “I’m Garrett Foster. This is my brother Dillan. Could we get an autograph?”
His brother closed his eyes, his head lolling back a bit.
“Why not.” Mark held out a hand for paper and pen, the gesture friendly but irritation clear in his voice. “Then we have to go.”
As Garrett searched his pockets, he looked at Miska as if seeing her for the first time. “Oh. Right. Didn’t mean to hold you up. Or knock you down.” He grinned and elbowed his brother.
Miska mashed her lips together.
“Dude, I don’t have any paper. And none in the condo. We’re moving in. Guess it’ll have to be next time. You have a place here, I take it?”
Klutzy brother glanced her way as if he knew all about them.
How could he? “Mark’s just visiting. Actually, we’ve got to run. We’re meeting someone.”
Garrett nodded. “Of course. It was nice meeting you, Mark and...”
Mark grabbed her elbow, sending the men a clipped nod. “Let’s go.”
“No name?” Garrett turned to his silent brother as they passed. “Did I hear that right?”
Mark mumbled beneath his breath.
They walked down the hallway and turned the corner into the floor’s lobby where the elevator doors waited. Mark pressed the call button and stepped back, his face and neck flushed. He adjusted the hat again and glued his gaze to the floor.
“You okay?” she asked. “Did that guy hurt you?”
He let a huge rush of air escape, his shoulders slumping. “I’m fine.”
Really? The way he kept staring at the floor? She slipped an arm around his waist just as the Foster brothers walked around the corner.
Mark pushed her arm down.
Garrett flashed her a smile she wasn’t beginning to buy. “Off to bring up more boxes. Dillan says you’re our neighbor.” He stuck out his hand. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Miska Tomlinson.” She shook his hand, feeling Mark seethe beside her. Easy for him to be rude. He didn’t have to live next door to these guys. “Nice to meet you both.”
A ding announced the arrival of an elevator.
As the doors opened, Mark held her back. “I think I left my phone at your place.” He glanced at the brothers as he pulled her toward the hallway. “Have a nice day.”
“Same to you, man,” Garrett called to their backs. “See you later.”
Miska followed Mark down the hall. What was he doing? Just regrouping? Or...
At her door, he fumbled with his keys. She gave him a moment before pulling out her keys and unlocking the door. Their first time in public, and they hadn’t even made it to the street.
Mark shoved his way inside. She followed and eased the heavy door closed, leaning against it while he emptied his pockets, phone included, onto the island. He dropped his bag by the barstools and walked past her dining room table and white leather couch until the wall of windows stopped him. He stood there, hands on hips, staring toward the lake.
So. No breakfast date. No taking that first step in front of the world. Her jaw clenched. If only they hadn’t run into those men.
In the kitchen she opened the refrigerator and grabbed eggs and milk. She could still make pancakes, still finish their days together on a good note. But next time he was in town, she’d make really bad French toast and they’d—
His phone buzzed. Out of habit, Miska glanced at it. Darcie flashed across the screen.
The name numbed her brain, freezing her where she stood.
Again the phone buzzed. Miska couldn’t move, couldn’t take her eyes off it, even though Mark’s footsteps approached. He snagged the phone and walked away before answering. “Hey, babe,” she heard as he entered her bedroom.
Hey, babe.
Her bedroom door banged shut.
Silence swarmed her.
Somehow she managed to swallow. The motion freed her body but not her mind. She set the milk down and opened the egg carton. Scrambled eggs sounded good. Or maybe sunny-side up. She cracked an egg against the counter, then threw the whole thing into the sink.
Mark could get his own breakfast.
She eyed her door. What were they talking about?
Wiping her hands on a dishtowel, she tiptoed toward the bedroom. She really shouldn’t listen. But she was already there, waiting for her pounding heart to quiet, her ears straining.
“Aw, babe. I’m sorry.”
Amazing how he sounded sorry and loving, as if whatever Darcie was going through was his pain too. But she knew what he thought of Darcie. He’d told her.
He sighed. “I know, I know. We’ll keep trying, okay?”
Keep trying?
“Darcie, hon, it’s not your fault. It’s just one of those things…”
Oh. Her throat tightened. So he was lying to her and Darcie.
“Look, I don’t blame you.”
She needed breakfast. Eggs. Pancakes. She marched back to the island. Hash browns and bacon. Maybe she’d hunt down that diner herself. See what kind of company hung out there. She passed his duffel bag and kicked it.
Kicked it again.
She rested her elbows on the island and buried her face in her hands. Maybe she should call Darcie and tell her how her husband had hit on her last spring. How he’d pretended to be single long enough for her to lose her heart to him. If only she knew how Darcie would react—and whether or not Mark would return.
He had to return. No, he had to leave Darcie. She couldn’t live like this forever. He had to make a choice. It was long past time for that.
Her door clacked open, and Mark’s footsteps sounded. Miska pulled herself up, wiped her cheeks just in case. She faced him, fighting the tension in her jaw. “How’s Darcie?”
He studied his phone. “She’s fine.”
“Not pregnant again, huh?”
He met her eyes.
“But you’ll keep trying, right? That’s good.”
“Miska—”
She smacked the granite. “It’s been a year, Mark. A year of you waffling on whether you’re going to commit to me or not. To your wife or not. You need to decide.”
He pulled the cap off and eyed it, mouth tight. “Is this an ultimatum?”
“No.” Of course he loved her. He would choose her over Darcie once he thought it through. “Nothing’s keeping you with Darcie except your wedding band. If she were your girlfriend, you’d have been done with her as soon as you found out she’d cheated.”
He said nothing, just watched her.
He would choose her, wouldn’t he? He and Darcie—he’d said they were done. “Mark, we can’t even go outside these four walls without you freaking out over being seen together. How do you expect—”
“Maybe I need you to choose. Either take me like this or don’t take me at all.”
She shook her head, her voice locked in her throat. He couldn’t mean it. “You said—” She pressed her fingers against her mouth. “When I found out about Darcie, you said the marriage was dead already. That you’d give it a few months.” But twelve months wasn’t a few. What an idiot she was to let it drag on this long.
She turned her back to him. Did he really expect her to keep waiting? For what? To see if his wife got pregnant? What kind of disgusting relationship was this?
Mark’s hands settled on her shoulders.
Miska flinched, but he said nothing, did nothing. She swallowed, the weight of his hands increasing. What kind of a woman was she? Her arms circled herself, her hands sliding up to her shoulders and knocking his fingers away. He turned her, and she folded into herself, nose tucked into the crook of her elbow.
“Miska. Baby.”
A tear slipped free and vanished down her arm. She squeezed her eyes shut. This wasn’t what she’d planned to be—or do. This was not who she was.
Mark tugged her arms free and pulled her close. She pressed her face against the soft cotton T-shirt and took him in—his faint cologne, his broad chest, the feel of his arms tight around her. His cheek rested on top of her head, and he toyed with the ends of her curls. Was she strong enough to risk losing him? Could she survive without him?
“Miska, you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“Then stay.”
“I need more time. I promise. Just a few more months.”
She pulled back enough to see his eyes. “When?”
“A few—”
When, Mark?”
“Will you trust me?”
“Haven’t I?” Even after he’d lied? “Give me an end date. July? August? When?”
He searched her face, eyes softening. His mouth worked, and finally he spoke. “The end of August. By then...” He shook his head.
Four months of waiting and wondering. So many days home with Darcie. So few here with her. But she’d take it. “I’ll wait through August. And not a day more.”
He nodded, releasing her.
She took a step back, arms wrapped around her middle. He adjusted his hat and tucked his phone, wallet, and keys into his pockets.
So he was still leaving early.
He picked up his duffel bag and settled the strap onto his shoulder. He pushed the bag behind his back, then stood beside the island and fingered the counter’s edge.
When he looked up, his smile heartbreakingly tender. “You know if I could do things over...”
He’d have married her. That’s what he’d said when she’d confronted him about the wife he’d failed to mention. His words had melted her. She’d known he’d choose her soon.
But he hadn’t.
If she could go back to that day, she’d throw him out of her condo before her heart was too far gone to think straight, before he kept her a prisoner in this messed-up relationship.
But it was too late for that. She was vested in Mark, in the beauty he brought her each time his team came to Chicago. There had never been anyone like him before, and there could never be anyone like him again.
As she walked him to the door and whispered good-bye, she vowed to do everything in her power to make Mark choose her. Everything.
Darcie had her chance.
Now it was Miska’s turn.
###
As the doors closed, Dillan Foster heard his brother’s head thump against the elevator’s paneled interior. Garrett chuckled. “Wow, that was fun.”
Dillan shot him a look. “If by fun, you mean awkward.”
“Come on, dude. It’s not every day you find your neighbor’s messing around with a pro athlete. He wasn’t happy about being seen here, was he?”
“Can you blame him?”
“I don’t know—she’s pretty hot. I wouldn’t complain.”
Typical Garrett. “You do remember that you’re engaged, right?”
“Uh, yeah. But the eyes still work, you know?”
Yes, he knew. And Garrett was right. The woman was hot. Stunning. Long black curls, silky skin, the perfect shape—
Dillan glanced at his brother.
Garrett grinned back. “Good to see your eyes still work. I wonder sometimes.”
“He’s married—and not to her.”
“How do you know?”
“Remember last spring when he threw that perfect game? Remember his wife was there afterward and you said she looked just like Tracy?”
“Oh, right.” Garrett straightened. “She was something. That guy knows how to pick ’em.”
The doors dinged open. Dillan grunted and walked out.
The last pile of boxes sat at the end of six bronzed Art Deco elevators. Tracy, Garrett’s fiancée, leaned against the wall, safeguarding boxes while she messed with her phone.
Garrett spread his arms. “Tracy, my love.”
She smiled and looked up. Garrett wrapped her in his arms, and Dillan looked away.
At least Garrett had picked his fiancée right. A guy couldn’t do much better—unless a quieter version was out there, because for the next five months he’d get an up-close view of their relationship. He ran a hand over his hair. Garrett’s suggestion that Dillan move in with him until the wedding, rent free, had seemed perfect at the time. He could handle anything for five months, right? And by the time he moved out and Tracy moved in, he’d have enough to buy a fixer-upper of his own. How bad could it be?
He picked up his boxes of books and called an elevator. Today he had a really sick feeling he’d find out.
“One last trip up, some unpacking, and we can eat.” Garrett filled Tracy’s arms and then his own with boxes. “Or maybe we can knock over the celebrity couple again. What do you think, Dill?”
“What couple?” An elevator opened, and Tracy followed Garrett inside, Dillan on her heels. Tracy flashed him a grin. “Do we have famous neighbors?”
He elbowed number eighteen. “Just a ballplayer having a fling with our neighbor.”
“Oh.” Tracy’s face fell. “Poor thing. I can’t imagine how she must feel.”
Poor thing—right. “Her name’s Miska.” He focused on the elevator’s buttons. Why had he volunteered that?
“Miska? That’s different. But pretty. What’s she like?”
Different. Pretty. He replayed their meeting. Felt the woman’s soft hand in his, remembered her big dark eyes with all that makeup women wore. Saw her hair around her shoulders, her toned arms bare beside the snug white shirt—
“Dillan?”
He could see how Scheider could get lost in a woman like her, a woman so opposite the blonde beauty at home. But he couldn’t remember anything past how she looked. Had she been angry they’d been caught? Ashamed?
Did she even care?
As the elevator slowed, he banished the mental picture. “Didn’t have time to tell.”
“Well, I can’t wait to meet her. Maybe you guys are next door to her for a reason. Wouldn’t that be something?”
Garrett followed her off the elevator, shaking his head.
For once Dillan agreed with him. She was just a neighbor—a neighbor he’d never see again five months from now and probably wouldn’t see much in between. What reason could there be for living next door to her? Because clearly she was a temptress, a woman who made men lose their minds and souls. Mark Scheider had to know all about that.
Inside the condo, Garrett and Tracy carried their boxes to the living room while Dillan entered the smallest bedroom by the front door, the room that would be his office until the church addition was finished. Next time he moved his not-so-small library, he’d get a dolly.
He lowered the boxes and let them go inches above the ground.
They caught his big toe.
The instant he closed his eyes against the pain, the exotic beauty of the woman next door filled his vision. He jerked his foot from beneath the boxes and grabbed his toes with one hand while he leaned against the wall with the other. Great. Too late. She was already in his mind.
God, help.
Garrett would laugh at him, roll his eyes, make some snide remark. But Dillan had seen where his brother’s life had taken him. He remembered perfectly the shock and anger they’d all felt, remembered Mom’s tears and Dad’s stony grief. Saw firsthand the pitiful looks people at church sent his parents’ backs—and probably his—before Garrett returned from the East Coast in shame. He had no idea how deeply his choices had affected them. But Dillan did. He’d lived through the nightmare of wondering if Garrett would be arrested or not.
Of course to hear Garrett tell it, he was a different man.
Nope. Not after that elevator conversation. Not with the way he talked lately, full of innuendos and double meanings. With each one Dillan found himself stiffening, then catching the glance his parents shot each other. They had to feel like he did, that the old Garrett, the one he said he’d left back in New England, had followed him home and lingered just outside their vision, waiting for the right moment to mess with them again.
Dillan lowered his foot and wiggled his toes. Then again, why would someone like Tracy fall for him if he hadn’t changed? That had to mean something.
From the other end of the condo, Garrett’s muffled voice floated into the room. Tracy laughed. Dillan dug into the top box, pulling out commentaries and youth curriculum. He stacked them on his desk, ignoring the sudden quiet.
That woman’s figure flashed before him.
He popped open the bottom of the empty box and flattened it. The ripped packing tape clung to his hand, and he yanked it loose and flung the box at his doorway. It banged against the thick white molding and flopped to the ground.
“Dude. Don’t be damaging my walls.”
Dillan closed his eyes.
He loved his brother. Really, he did. In a distant, hope-things-work-out-for-you-knucklehead kind of way. Right now, though, all he wanted was to escape to Grant Park and explore the lakefront and brand-spanking-new greenery. Anything to get away from Garrett.
Garrett, who had it all.

6 comments:

Connie Almony said...

Oh yes! I smell a winner here!!!

Jennifer Rodewald said...

Wow, Sally! This is so good, I can't wait to read all of it! Gritty, real and a story I could absolutely get lost in. Congrats, girl!

Lillian Humphries said...

Loved it, I see how you caught me from the beginning.

Danielle Huddleston said...

Loved getting to read some of your book! So awesome!

Rebecca Bowman said...

Sally, this is so good!! I can't wait to read it all!

D. A. Featherling said...

Excellent job, Sally. I predict a huge success!