By: Vanessa Waltz

Chapter 1

When the door to my apartment opened, I sat bolt upright in my chair. His loud, booming voice called for me and I was paralyzed with fear. My cheeks were stained with dark pink streaks from crying all day, because I knew what I had to do and desperately did not want to do it.

He didn’t cheat. He revealed something to the media about my best friend, Jessica, and lied to me about it after he promised he wouldn’t say anything to them. How much money did they give him? The evidence of his betrayal was splashed all over TMZ in gaudy headlines:

Billionaire playboy Luke Pardini hires escort to dupe dad

Luke Pardini’s girlfriend’s drug-fueled past

Luke Pardini and blonde escort no more!

The ‘escort’ was my best friend; she was dating a billionaire whose reputation was already fragile. This would destroy both of them. She was out of the apartment, shopping, because doing something was better than sitting around, thinking of how they were no longer together. And the reason why just walked through my front door.

She must hate Ben.

I couldn’t take it. I had to do it now.

I got up from my chair and opened the door. I didn’t want him to corner me in the bedroom, where there would be no escape. My tall, hulking blonde fiancé stood in the kitchen. The crack of his teeth slicing open an apple made me cringe. A tiny bit of anger punctuated the fearful thoughts running through my head. How dare he come in here as if nothing was wrong?

He jumped slightly as he saw me standing there, watching him. “There you are. Gosh, you scared me.”

Ben smiled at me, still without a clue. I trembled as I walked forward, my mouth hanging open helplessly. He would get angry. He would pound the walls with his huge fists and maybe he would cry, and I would feel so guilty for doing that to him, but I needed to do it. Jessica was my best friend.

“Ben, I—”

“Hey, do you want to get dinner tonight at that new Chinese place? We’ve never tried it.”

His eyes shined with excitement and I was halfway towards smiling and agreeing, never mind that Ben knew perfectly well that I never really liked Chinese food. Why do I always want to please him? “Um, Ben, we need to talk.”

“Okay,” he chuckled at my serious voice. “About what?”

The anger dug in like sharp spurs. “I know what you did.” I almost said it apologetically.

Immediately, the painfully obvious look of feigned confusion appeared on his face. His blonde eyebrows knitted down and his eyes wandered the walls of my kitchen. He was stalling to search for a good lie.

“I know you talked to the press about Jessica. Don’t lie.”

He balked at the uncharacteristically harsh tone in my voice. His huge body stood up, as if to remind me how large he was and how much strength it held. Finally, his brows knitted in concern. He was finally noticing.


“Natalie, have you been crying?”

His huge hand cradled my cheek and the unexpected warmth made my anger stumble a bit. No, he’s trying to distract me.

“Ben, stop it. Don’t make this any harder than it has to be.”

My feet took me away from him, but he followed.

“What do you mean?” he asked, almost angrily. “Hey!”

A vortex of energy whirled inside. My legs were trembling and I didn’t want to look at him, didn’t want to shake the incredible resolve I found within myself to get rid of him. I slapped his hand away as he stroked my face, finally letting some of that energy escape.

“You hurt her. How could you do that?”

Now he looked frustrated. “I gave them some details about her, that’s all. I didn’t know what they would do with the information! They gave me three thousand dollars, Natalie. What was I supposed to do? Say no to three thousand bucks?”

Yes, that’s exactly what you were supposed to do.

What did I ever see in him? “You knew that her boyfriend was rich and famous and that you weren’t supposed to say anything about their arrangement.”

“Oh, come on!”

“It’s serious, Ben. She signed a NDA—no one was supposed to talk. I wasn’t even supposed to tell you about it, but I did it anyways because I thought I could trust you. You’ve ruined her relationship and you led the press to those animals that used to abuse her. Seeing them on television almost destroyed her. I don’t want to see you again—I don’t want this!”

I pulled off the engagement ring and slapped it onto his palm. Ben’s fist tightened over it.

“Are you serious?” he exploded. “You’re going to end our six year relationship over this?”

It’s not just that, a tiny voice inside me said. I wasn’t brave enough to admit that to him—yet. How could I tell him that I was at sea—drifting away like the wreckage of a ship? For the past year, I felt pieces of me floating away as he spent more and more time at the law firm. I did not want a husband who was married to his job.

Please stop following me. I wanted to curl up on the couch without his poisonous embrace, making me sick with his comforting warmth. His weight sank the couch down and he pulled me into his arms, imprisoning me. I shook my head and cried noisy tears.

“Natalie, let’s talk about this.”

“No, I don’t want to.”

“Natalie,” he said a little desperately. “Come on!”

“Please go!” I cried. “Just leave me alone!”

“I’m not leaving until we talk about this.”

Talking wouldn’t change my mind; it would only weaken my resolve. The fear jumped inside me again. The fear of being alone. I did not want his hands on me, or his lips kissing my head, or any part of him. He repulsed me. My body twisted in his grasp and we fought. He kept pulling me backwards when I tried to jump out of his arms.

“Let me go!”

In the flailing limbs, I somehow slapped him hard against his cheek. His hold loosened on me and I jumped from his lap, breathing deeply. Deep satisfaction rolled through me as the red mark seared on his face. Something broke between us.

I pointed to the door, still shaking. “Go.”

Ben raised himself and looked down on me like he quite wanted to hit me back for the humiliation he suffered. “Fine,” he said coldly.

He turned around and left my apartment, slamming the door in his wake. I ran to the door and locked it, as if it was some kind of safeguard against him in case he came back. Ben had a key and could come and go as he pleased.

The half-eaten apple lay on the kitchen table. I took it gingerly, as if it had a contagious disease, and threw it in the trashcan. Then I sprayed the wooden table with Windex and cleaned any remnants of his filth. I wasn’t supposed to use Windex because it would damage the wood, but the table was shit anyways and it was all I had on hand. I couldn’t stand the idea of his essence clinging to anything in this apartment. Thinking of my bed sheets, I wanted to vomit.

My heart still pounded. I never broke up with anyone before. I tried to search myself for what I felt, for how I managed to do something so—brave. Was it the right thing to do? Don’t I love Ben?

A panicky series of images flashed through my mind. At every important event in my life, Ben was always there. I met him in college; he was a big, goofy Norwegian guy who swept me off my feet. He was my world. I fit into his chest like a glove. He was there when I graduated from college, when I celebrated my first job as a graphic designer. Every birthday and Christmas since I was twenty years old. My gentle giant was always there for me when I needed him.

What the hell have I done?

* * *

The lights in the mall seemed entirely too bright. Jessica’s blonde head bobbed in and out of view as she disappeared behind the dress racks in the petite section. I felt like a zombie as I walked towards her, rifling through the dresses and feeling absolutely nothing but indifference for the styles.

Too flashy. Too many sequins. What is this, prom? I hate baby doll dresses; they make me look like a child. No, no, no.

Jessica dragged me out to the mall to go shopping with her, because apparently there was this party at her boyfriend’s house that I had to go to. They made up months ago. Ben and I were still over.

You’ve seen the Facebook photos. He’s moving on.

Less than a month after we broke up, I woke up to a splash of photos of my ex with another woman on Facebook: Ben sipping drinks with his coworkers in a flashy lounge, with his arm wrapped around a leggy brunette, her clea**vage almost spilling from her dress. Seeing those hands that I knew so well wrapped around another woman made me feel gutted. It was like he deliberately reached in and grabbed a fistful of my innards—and yanked. He made me feel worthless, and that was probably his intention.

It was eight months since Ben and I broke up.

Eight months of Facebook stalking and crying into tissues and my whole body shaking with sobs that absolutely exhausted me and left me so tired in the morning that I could barely function. Eight months of that horrible, empty feeling in my chest. Jealousy when I glanced at my roommate’s gorgeous boyfriend. Anger at the ruin they left me in. I missed him. I loved him. I hated him. Rinse and repeat.

You broke up with him. I reminded myself of that ten times a day, at least.

I ripped aside another dress with a little more force than I needed, and Jessica raised an eyebrow at me.

“What do you think about this?”

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