Asking for it, p.15
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       Asking for It, p.15

         Part #1 of Asking for It series by Lilah Pace
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  “But I want my own doctor—” Shay’s voice is so faint. It sounds like she might pass out at any second.

  As they get her into a room and strap a fetal heart monitor around her belly, Arturo clasps her hand. “It’s going to be okay,” he says. “It’s got to be. ”

  Please, I pray to a God I believe in but rarely speak to. Please let Shay be all right. Please let the baby live.

  I’m ushered out just as the OB-GYN runs in, and I hear Arturo say, “Dr. Campbell!” before the door shuts. So her doctor was the one on duty anyway. Maybe that’s proof God’s looking out for the baby after all. Or maybe it’s just dumb luck. Either way, I’ll take it.

  For the next couple of hours, I have two jobs. The first is to sit in the waiting room and try not to cry. The second—and worst—is to call Carmen and tell her what’s happening. Carmen arrives about ten minutes after she hangs up, in the faded jeans and ratty T-shirt I know she only wears when she’s working on her thesis. When she sits beside me, I hug her tightly; now we can only hang on.

  Carmen whispers, “They think I don’t want them to have the baby, and if they lose it—”

  “They’re not going to. And you’re going to be a great Tia Carmen. Wait and see. Hey, you want to help me throw the baby shower? Shay would love that. ”

  Slowly, Carmen nods. So I start talking about presents and party games and cupcakes and everything else I can think of that could possibly be at a baby shower, in the hope that all that pink and yellow and baby blue will erase the memory of dark red blood.

  Finally Arturo walks into the waiting room. He looks exhausted and pale—but not broken. “She’s okay. ”

  “Dios mío. ” Carmen jumps up to embrace her brother, and he hugs her back tightly. “What happened?”

  “Something about the placenta—we have to watch it, but for now it’s okay. Shay can even come home soon. ” His smile is crooked. “And the baby’s just fine. ”

  Carmen starts crying harder, and Arturo starts too. I might be an informally adopted sibling, but I realize sometimes I need to butt out and let them have a minute.

  I walk out into the corridor and catch the attention of the nearest nurse. “Can Shay Gillespie-Ortiz have visitors yet?”

  The answer comes from someone standing behind me, “Not right now. ”

  I turn around to see the obstetrician, a young woman wearing a doctor’s long white coat with the name tag Dr. Rosalind Campbell. She’s smiling, which ought to be the only thing that matters. But it isn’t.

  I’ve seen this woman before. She was wearing white then, too. I saw her the night of the charity gala, first when we complimented each other’s dresses—and then when she left, with Jonah’s arm around her.

  Eighteen

  Page 57

  At first all I can think is, of course she’s a doctor. Rosalind Campbell, the woman in Jonah’s life, is stunningly beautiful, has impeccable taste in clothing, is friendly with strangers, and practices medicine. Couldn’t she at least have a wart or something?

  But concern for Shay and the baby quickly eclipses my pettiness. “Arturo said she had something wrong with her placenta—isn’t that serious? Does she have to stay in the hospital?”

  Rosalind puts her hand on my shoulder for a moment as she begins walking, tactfully leading me farther away from the patient area. “I realize you’re a close friend, but I can’t divulge a patient’s personal information to anyone but her next of kin. However, if you want to know about placenta previa in general—it’s what happens when the placenta is located wholly or primarily in the lower part of the uterus. At this later stage of pregnancy, the placenta can rub against the unfolding uterus, and bleeding can occur. The condition occurs in varying degrees of seriousness, from mothers requiring immediate C-section to those we can monitor on an outpatient basis. ”

  Arturo already said Shay could come home soon, so she must be on the less dangerous end of the scale. I breathe out in relief. “It helps to know that. Thanks so much. ”

  “You’re welcome,” Rosalind says. “And—forgive me, but do I know you? I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve met before. ”

  “Um. Yeah. ” Until very recently I was acting out violent sexual fantasies with your boyfriend. “We ran into each other at the public interest law benefit last weekend. In the restroom. We had mutual dress envy. ”

  Instantly Rosalind’s eyes light up. “That gorgeous green silk. Of course! Do you know, I looked for one like it online? No luck so far. ” Politely she holds out her hand. “Rosalind Campbell. ”

  As we shake hands, I say, “Vivienne Charles. ”

  Rosalind’s smile widens, and her fingers give mine a tiny, conspiratorial squeeze. “Oh! So you’re Jonah’s Vivienne. ”

  She knows who I am. She’s not angry. She called me Jonah’s Vivienne. “Excuse me?”

  “I’m the guilty one who stole him as my date the other night. ” Rosalind shrugs, smiling. “Hope you didn’t mind. What a pity we didn’t run into you together—we could’ve met then, under less stressful circumstances. ”

  Rosalind was Jonah’s date, but she knows Jonah and I have been together, and she doesn’t mind, and I understand exactly zero of this. “We need to talk. Do you have a minute?”

  Although Rosalind seems surprised by my question, she nods. “Sure. ”

  She leads me into a nearby examination room, empty and awaiting its next patient. Rosalind closes the door behind us and—perhaps by habit—I sit on the patient’s table, while she claims the doctor’s chair. It’s like I’ve come to her for a diagnosis.

  “All right,” Rosalind says, “what’s this about? You don’t look like you’re about to tell me where you bought your gown. ”

  “It’s about Jonah—”

  “Oh, no. ” She holds her hands up to ward off my next words. “I don’t give romantic advice to anyone. Never turns out well. ”

  “That’s not what I meant. Just—Jonah obviously told you about me, but he never told me about you. I didn’t see you with him until the two of you left the benefit together, and—I guess I don’t understand your relationship. ”

  Her eyes widen. “Oh, no, no! Jonah and I are friends. That’s all. ”

  “Just friends?” My voice sounds more skeptical than I meant for it to. It’s hard for me to imagine any woman being near Jonah and not wanting to rip his clothes off.

  Rosalind begins to smile. “I happen to be very much in love with one of the best chefs in town—and luckily for me, she’s not the jealous type. ”

  She. Well, that explains why Rosalind doesn’t want to jump Jonah’s bones.

  “Candace and I have lived together for more than a year now,” Rosalind continues. “But the down side of being involved with a chef is that they’re unavailable several evenings a week. Since babies don’t keep to a timetable, my schedule is unpredictable as well. So I often find myself alone on a rare free night when I’d like to see a movie or go to a party, and sometimes I enlist Jonah to come with me. ”

  “Got it,” I say. “And I’m feeling pretty stupid right now. ”

  Rosalind laughs, but not unkindly. “It’s all right. I hope I didn’t start a lover’s quarrel. ”

  Page 58

  “Not exactly. ”

  Maybe I should feel elated. Jonah doesn’t have a girlfriend. He wasn’t using me to cheat, or having sex with somebody else, any of that.

  But Jonah’s behavior isn’t the issue. My jealousy is.

  The envy and fear I felt when I saw Jonah and Rosalind together told me a truth I’d wanted to deny: I want more from Jonah. More than sex, more than this twisted fantasy that imprisons us both. I have no idea what more could mean, for us.

  Nothing, probably. Jonah made it very clear from the very first time he suggested our arrangement that he wasn’t looking for romance.

  And it terrifies me that I feel this way about a man who pretended to rape me.

 
Rosalind says, “I’m not one bit surprised he didn’t get around to telling you about me yet, much less introducing us. Jonah’s one of the most private people I’ve ever met. ”

  I nod as I realize just how strong those steel walls around him truly are.

  “So, if I’ve set your mind at ease, I should get back to work. ” She rises and goes to the door, but pauses with a hand on the knob. “One last thing—”

  “—yeah?”

  “Jonah almost never talks about his personal life. But he talked about you. ”

  My reckless heart aches and warms at the same moment. “What did he say?”

  “Very little. Your name, that you were someone he’d spent time with. He spoke about you just today, actually, when we grabbed a quick dinner—he worried he’d upset you. That’s about it,” Rosalind says. “Which is more information than he’s given me about any other woman in his life in the four years we’ve been friends. Whatever else is going on—you’re important to him. ” Rosalind gives me a crooked smile. “So if I’m what you were upset about, no more worries, all right?”

  I want to believe her. I want it too much. Right now I might make myself believe anything if it meant going back to Jonah.

  More lightly, Rosalind says, “Good-bye, Vivienne. I’m sure we’ll see each other around, one way or another. ”

  Then she’s gone, and I sit alone in the examination room for a few long minutes, feeling a kind of pain no medicine can cure.

  Once I’ve pulled myself together, I go back to the waiting room. Arturo and Carmen are still in tears, but after some more hugging and lots of Kleenex, Arturo returns to Shay’s side. Carmen and I make an emergency Target run.

  “She’ll want socks,” Carmen says, pushing the red shopping cart toward the women’s section. “Soft fuzzy socks, so her feet won’t be cold. And could we get her a maternity nightgown, or does she have to wear that stupid hospital one the entire time? I bet she does. Well, would she want any pillows? Maybe the ones in the hospital suck. Anyway, everybody likes extra pillows. ”

  “Calm down, okay?” If I don’t stop her, she’s likely to walk out of here with half the store’s merchandise. “Shay only asked for some snacks and something new to read. Let’s just grab that and get back to her before visiting hours are over. ”

  Carmen looks like she might start crying again. “I just want to take care of her. ”

  “I know. And Shay knows that too, okay?” I give Carmen a quick hug around the shoulders.

  She isn’t convinced. “I dug myself a pretty deep hole. ”

  “Well—yeah. But you can’t shop your way out of it. Let’s listen to Shay and Arturo for a while. Take your cues from them. ”

  Finally Carmen nods. “But I still think the socks are a good idea. ”

  “They are, aren’t they?” So we pick up some of those, too.

  Our visit to Shay’s bedside is necessarily brief—visiting hours are ending, and she’s clearly tired and emotional. Carmen babbles on about the stuff we bought, while I set the granola bars and cups of applesauce nearby, where she can reach them. Arturo keeps his hand in Shay’s the entire time.

  As I drive home that night, I keep thinking about the way Arturo and Shay held hands. Today they faced unbelievable pain and fear, together. Arturo kept himself together for Shay’s sake even when he must have been on the verge of panic—and in the hospital room afterward, even as she lay on the brink of exhaustion, Shay somehow summoned the strength to comfort Arturo too.

  Their ages don’t matter. Whatever it is that binds people together through a lifetime—the kind of love that allows them to transcend themselves for the sake of someone else—Shay and Arturo have it.

  As for me? I have complicated feelings for a complicated man. Rosalind says some of those feelings might be returned—but all Jonah told her was my name.

  Page 59

  When I walk through my front door, I breathe a heavy sigh of relief. Even the silence sounds sweet. My little home has never felt more like a cozy shelter from the rest of the world. I ought to prep next week’s lectures, but forget doing any constructive work tonight. Every nerve I have is fried. I’m going to change into a T-shirt and leggings, warm up some soup for dinner, and spend the next couple of hours curled on the sofa rereading an Agatha Christie. Maybe then I can fall asleep.

  I wiggle into my leggings and throw on the tee before I realize how long it’s been since I checked my phone. Right now I couldn’t care less about answering any work e-mails—but I ought to turn the ringer back on, in case Carmen or Arturo calls during the night. So I do that and quickly scan through the e-mail to see if there’s anything I should answer.

  And there’s a note from Jonah.

  The subject line reads only, On my wall.

  What’s that supposed to mean? I open the e-mail—which has a file attached—and the first line reads, Take a look.

  I can’t imagine what Jonah might have sent me. My first thought is that he broke his word—that he secretly recorded us having sex after all—but no. He wouldn’t do that. Then what? Jonah’s not the dick pic type, thank goodness.

  So I click on the attachment, and gasp.

  There, hanging on an exposed brick wall, is the etching I donated to the charity benefit. It’s already been framed in simple dark pewter that highlights the lines and shades of the etching itself. The strong hands cradle the little dove tenderly, brutish power devoted to the safety and protection of a fragile thing.

  I liked the etching before. Obviously, since I made it. But seeing it in Jonah’s possession moves me on a level I would never have expected. The image means even more to me than it did before—because it has revealed something inside Jonah’s heart.

  The rest of Jonah’s e-mail reads:

  This caught my eye at the auction even before I walked over to make a bid. Imagine how I felt when I searched for the artist’s name and saw yours there. I put in a bid large enough to discourage any further competition—with success, as you can see.

  You’re exceptionally talented, Vivienne. This is a side of you I never got to see. Every time I look at this etching, I’m reminded of how much I never learned about you.

  I won’t ask you to resume our arrangement. I’ve always agreed that the moment you said stop, it would all end, and I intend to keep my word. You’re safe from me, Vivienne. You always were, but I wanted to say it again.

  If you ever want to talk, you know how to contact me.

  —Jonah

  If I talk to him even once more, we’ll start over. It won’t be a week before he has me back in his thrall. In my mind, his ragged voice whispers, Next time I’m going to come in your mouth.

  He still wants that. He’s still thinking about that. He can write this, look at this tender image, and still daydream about forcing a woman to her knees and raping her mouth.

  How can those two parts of him coexist? How can I yearn for Jonah while I continue to fear the darkness inside him?

  Doreen would ask why I’m even reading this e-mail. Common sense would too. I walked away with my dignity—or whatever’s left of it after I let Jonah fuck me senseless in his car. Everything is clear between us. No hurt feelings. No further complications.

  The best move is not to answer him, now or ever.

  I click reply.

  Nineteen

  One of my favorite restaurants in town is the Elizabeth Street Cafe. Technically it serves Vietnamese cuisine, but the mood of the place is far more eclectic than that. The waitresses all wear floral cotton dresses as they serve up classics like pho ga, or local variations on traditional dishes, like the rice noodle bowl with ranch flank steak.

  It’s a good place to eat. More to the point—they have tables outside, reasonably far apart. If you want to have a private conversation over dinner without being overheard, this setup is ideal.

  Which is why I asked Jonah to meet me here.

  I get there
a little early; he gets there a couple minutes late. Although we both smile as he joins me at the table, the moment feels undeniably awkward. I know how to negotiate with this man. I know how to surrender to him. Now I have to figure out how to talk to him like a normal person. That might be the hardest part.

  The picnic table I chose is at the far end of Elizabeth’s outdoor section, so we’ll have as much privacy as possible. We look like any other patrons—both of us in jeans and long-sleeved T-shirts, mine white, his black. Normally Jonah’s cheeks bear some stubble, but he’s completely clean-shaven tonight. I realize he did that for me.

  Page 60

  “I’m glad you e-mailed,” he says, instead of hello.

  “Same here. ” It was Jonah’s e-mail that changed things. I want to tell him that, but words don’t come. He doesn’t speak either, though he looks completely cool and at ease. I bet I don’t. The silence stretches between us until, embarrassed, I try to laugh. “It’s so hard to know how to begin. ”

  “We haven’t had much opportunity for small talk. ”

  I laugh again, for real, and am rewarded with a small smile. “No. We haven’t. ” Okay, we’ve got to begin somewhere, so we might as well plunge in. “I’m glad you like the etching. ”

  “It’s extraordinary. ” Jonah doesn’t say it like he’s trying to suck up to me. He sounds like he’s describing artwork in a museum. As if this were objective fact instead of his opinion. “It’s . . . precise. Complicated. I can only imagine the hours of work it took. Yet the image doesn’t feel stiff or unnatural. Instead it’s like—like you captured a moment in time. ”

  People have praised me more effusively, including guys trying to get into my pants. None of them made me feel as flattered as Jonah just did. “Thank you,” I say, tucking a loose strand of hair behind my ear. “You really bid on it before you saw I was the artist?”

  “Technically, no, because I read the label before I wrote my bid down. But I intended to bid from the first moment I saw it across the room. ” Even in a more casual setting, his smile remains fierce. “I might have bid sooner, if I hadn’t seen you first. After that I was . . . distracted. ”

  The two of us locked together, hidden from the world by red velvet, Jonah buried inside me up to the hilt—the memories bring a flush to my cheeks. It would be easy to let myself get distracted, to start planning the next time.

 
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