Love with an Imperfect Bride

 Lonesome, Texas

Chapter One

 

        Nobody will ever love you.

        Audrey’s skin tightened as the words floated in the back of her brain like darkly remembered fragments from a destroying dream.

        Don’t feel. Don’t care. And you’ll be safe.

         A tiny hammer began to pound inside her temples as she forced herself to push aside her unsettling sense of loss. So what if East wouldn’t be home when she returned to New York? So what if he’d left her and wanted a divorce?

         Her fingers clenched. I don’t care. I’m fine, happier, like he said. This is what I want, what I’ve always wanted.

        Still, at the thought of their big, empty Park Avenue co-op waiting for her, Audrey Lewis gripped the leather armrest in her son-in-law’s truck as she leaned forward.

        “Liam, would you please stop. I’d like to get out and read the names on the white crosses.”

         Hannah whirled. “Mother, no. Next time you come, we’ll do that. If we’re to get to your plane in San Antonio on time, we need to…”

         Audrey shuddered but then covered her true emotions with a smile. “Please, your father sent our jet and two pilots for me. We have a little flexibility.”

         “Yes, but remember, they called less than an hour ago and said wheels up, 4:30 sharp, because there of weather moving in.”

         Audrey nodded. “We’ll make it…even I if take a minute.” She was glad her voice sound smooth and calm. “I’ve wanted to come here see these memorials the whole time I’ve been here.”

          “Then why didn’t you say so before?”

         “I…I should have. I’m sorry.” Audrey felt drained and too exhausted to explain herself. She didn’t know what she wanted anymore. Ever since East had told her he wanted a divorce, she’d lost her focus.

         For six long months she’d been in Texas with Hannah and Liam, trying to wrap her mind around the fact that her husband of thirty years was leaving her. It wasn’t that she wasn’t happy about it. After all she was the one who’d been pressured by her family to stay with him after his betrayal. Now, at last she would be free.

           It wasn’t like she’d loved him. No, she’d long resented being trapped in what she’d believed was a loveless marriage of convenience.

           Fortunately, Liam, Hannah’s new husband, a cowboy, was a man of few words. Without further argument, he stopped the truck on the slight rise above the five white crosses nestled between cacti and long brown grasses.

          Giving Hannah no time to persuade him to change his mind, Audrey opened her door and stepped down onto the hard, packed earth.

          The warm, southeasterly breeze gusting off the Gulf of Mexico that was ten miles to the east blew Audrey’s golden hair back from her face.  Shielding her eyes from the white flashes of sunlight glinting off the brown river beneath them, Audrey caught the faint scent of salt and the sea as she walked toward the crosses nestled in clumps of tall, brown grass. Although it was early summer, the heat was already formidable.

           Careful of her expanding tummy, Hannah slid clumsily out of the front passenger seat and tramped after Audrey.

          When Hannah didn’t fuss, Audrey relaxed a little. Thoughtfully she knelt beside each cross and whispered the names aloud. “Mindy Stark. Charlie Stark. Those two were the most recent?”

           “Poor Liam. I told you how he lost both his wife, Mindy, and his young son, Charlie, in a car accident shortly after he’d returned from the Middle East where he’d been serving his country as a Marine,” Hannah said. “It almost broke him.

           Audrey nodded, understanding loss too well. One second life could seem bright and shining and new, and then a single act could shatter all such illusions.

           Audrey read another name. “And Jack Stark?”

           “Liam’s cousin. He vanished when he was a small boy of five the night his father, Vince Stark, and their dog, died when their car ran off the bridge up ahead as well. Jack has never been found, but neither Liam nor his cousin, Gabe Stark, Jack’s older brother, can give up the search.”

           Audrey knelt in front of little Charlie’s cross. Someone had placed a small Aggie baseball cap on the cross and a brown and white teddy bear at its base. She picked up the teddy bear with the yellowed eyes and wiggled its dusty ear. “How awful…to lose a child.”

            “Liam lost five people, maybe six, who were close to him here,” Hannah said. “So, you can imagine how much he hates this place.”

             “I would have lost you here too the night those truckers chased you and ran you off the road, if Liam hadn’t…”

             “Sensed trouble and followed us,” Hannah finished for her. “Yes, he saved me. Not that I appreciated his doing so at first.”

             Audrey’s eyes grew hot as she remembered those terrible days when Hannah had fled New York, a heartbroken, runaway bride, who refused all phone calls, even her mother’s. Audrey’s lips quivered. If Liam hadn’t acted as he had, there would be another cross with her daughter’s name on it. And no precious, little grandchild on the way. From what Hannah had told her, Liam might have remained a lost soul too.

             Her thoughts on Hannah’s newfound happiness, Audrey replaced the teddy bear. She shut her eyes to block the crosses out. They represented death…finality… The end. They made her feel helpless and vulnerable and out of control.

         She remembered that last wild night with East before she, too had fled New York. Determined to stay strong, she squared her shoulders. She couldn’t think about that night.

        Had she been fair to blame East for everything wrong in their marriage?

        “Are you okay?” Hannah whispered.

        Audrey’s hands shook, so she clasped them together. “I’m fine.”

        “You seem unsure. Don’t you want to go home?”

        Turning, Audrey flashed her bright automatic smile. “Of course. I can’t stay here forever. I’ve been here too long.”

         “That’s not what I meant.”

         “Six months… You’re newlyweds. You and Liam have been wonderful and patient to have me.”

         Hannah clasped Audrey’s hand. “Why…you’re trembling.”

         “I’m fine,” Audrey said.

        “Okay. You didn’t lose me. And you have Liam now. And soon you will have this new little person to love.”

         “Yes.” But I won’t have East.

         When Hannah placed Audrey’s hand on her belly, the baby kicked—hard.

         Forcing a smile, Audrey told herself to stop dwelling on East. He belonged to the past. Their marriage had been dead for years.

         She lived in a grand co-op on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Despite her age, she was still youthful, even beautiful if the fashion editors who wrote about her were to be believed. Not that, deep down, she believed them or cared. She had wealth, the freedom to do whatever she wanted, a father who was a senator no less, and a husband, who was an exceedingly popular celebrity doctor.

          A soon to be ex-husband.

          Her perfect life, the life she’d worked so hard to achieve, felt like a façade now. She found no joy in it. In the dead of the night she wept. She shook. She’d lost her appetite. She couldn’t sleep, and when she did, she had nightmares. A friend had suggested she try meditation, but calming her mind was impossible.

         She was fine. She was going through a passage from which she would emerge stronger. As soon as she got home, she would be happier than ever, just like East had predicted.

         But until she did, she would soldier on, doing what she was so good at—pretending her glamorous life was the glorious, happy affair everyone believed it to be.

        

 

 

Manhattan, New York

 

Chapter Two

 

The funereal sweetness of a thousand, hothouse roses had Audrey Lewis flinching on her green marble landing as she eyed her rosily lit foyer. Without East at her side, his strong fingers reassuringly touching her waist, she felt disoriented.

The smothering scent slammed her back into that awful beige hospital room where she’d felt imprisoned during her recuperation after the car accident when she’d been thirteen. Flowers had been crammed onto every flat surface, expensive blossoms bursting from every niche. They hadn’t really been for her. She’d only received them because of her famous and all-powerful father—Senator Marshall Warner.

The last thing she wanted to think about was her father or her childhood. Determined to regain her focus, she forced a radiant smile.

The co-op had to be perfect. She’d spent a week with teams of professionals getting her home ready so she could host her annual fundraiser for Healing Hearts, the foundation she’d created ten years ago to help victims of sexual abuse.

“Victims,” her father, had scoffed in a sharp tone when he’d dropped by earlier with his check. “Sexual abuse?” He’d taken an impatient breath as he’d placed the envelope that held his donation in her hand. “Whiners. Losers. Why do you bother? That lot has gotten way too much power. Lately, it’s men who are at risk of being falsely accused.”

“Women’s rights, remember? It’s a cause you embrace publicly as a senator,” Audrey had purred as she took the envelope and then instinctively backed away.

His mouth thinned. When he’d moved nearer, she’d edged even further away. He was over six foot three. She was barely five-five. For as long as she could remember, his size had intimidated her. Why? And why must she always put on a show of false bravado and goad him whenever she was around him?

Frowning, her mother, who was thin and elegant, had rushed to close the gap between them. “Your father is so strong, it’s difficult for him to imagine weakness in others.”

Her mother, a cancer survivor, spoke from experience. As a child Audrey had been terrified of losing her.

“As always, you are his fiercest champion,” she said smoothly although the compliment had her heart beating too fast.

“I should hope. I’m his wife. He’s not always tough, you know.” Her mother’s smile was tremulous.

Thankful her parents had a prior political engagement and couldn’t come, Audrey sighed, hating that she couldn’t ever relax when she was with them.

Anxious that this evening’s event go smoothly, Audrey had a dozen checklists in a kitchen drawer. Not only was Healing Hearts a cause dear to her heart, but tonight would be her first appearance as a single woman. She was determined to appear confident and at ease.

Not wanting to think about East, she tightened her grip on the railing and resumed her descent down the curving staircase that led to the sparkling vestibule and grand ballroom of her magnificent Park Avenue residence.

 At the sound of distant laughter, fresh loneliness and feelings of inadequacy welled up inside her. She’d been depressed ever since she’d left dear pregnant Hannah in South Texas and returned alone to the city. Without her precious daughter and the constant buzz of excitement living with a celebrity doc, who had his own show, she'd been lonely.

When East was home the phone rang constantly. The calls were always for him or because of him. All their friends were his really. Losing him was like losing a club. Without him, nights in the co-op were as silent as a tomb.

Chin up. Smile. Daughters were supposed to grow up. And weren’t most husbands unreliable? Except for those few brief, shining months at the beginning of her marriage before East had confessed his betrayal, their marriage had been a chilly affair.

 If you didn’t count the sex…and the dirty, damning things she begged him to do to her when she crept to his room in the dead of the night.

 And yet, true to his word, her popular, famous husband had stayed with her, a constant fixture in her life through the good times and the bad. The social duties she’d had to perform as his wife had steadied her.

Until he’d told her he wanted out, she’d been clueless as to how much she relied on him or what a comfort his presence and the presence of all those who adored him in her life had been. She realized now she’d found satisfaction in feeling like he and she were a team, even if they didn’t love each other.

“Deep breath,” Audrey murmured as she backed into the shadows.

The door buzzed. At the bottom of her dazzling, green marble staircase Clayton, her elderly, rail-thin butler, threw back the door with his white-gloved hand and announced East’s name in a booming, English accent.

“Easton Lewis.”

As always the co-op buzzed with excitement at his arrival.

East? Here? Tonight?

Stunned, she gasped when her husband, as tall and darkly handsome as ever, despite his fifty-odd years and the wings of gray lighting his temples, strode inside with the confidence of a man who believed himself master of their palatial residence and beloved by all inside, the one exception being his wife.

As always, he wore an impeccably cut black suit and his signature red tie.

She let out a little cry, and then fearful he’d heard her, cupped her mouth with her fingers and backed even further into the shadows.

One glimpse of his straight, broad shoulders was like a stake plunged into her heart.

Oh, God… How could she still find this man, this most unsatisfactory of husbands, this man who’d betrayed her and had broken her heart into a million pieces when she’d been a young bride, so devastatingly attractive? It wasn’t fair that he’d aged so well or that he had so much confidence when she had none.

When her gaze riveted to the knot of his tie, she remembered how hungrily she, elegant, cool Audrey Warner Lewis, had ripped it loose the last time she’d seen him.

Keep smiling. Pretend you don’t remember that night or care.

Beads of perspiration broke out above her upper lip as she recalled placing it in his hands and begging him to do all those unspeakable things to her. Tie me…please…

She felt cold and hot and filled with shame when she remembered how fierce her needs had been that final night.

He was usually so thoughtful. Why hadn’t he called to warn her he was coming?

Even as she fought to regain her bearings, he sensed her and looked up.

When their gazes locked, fresh shock rippled through her. It was as if he’d reached out and caressed her naked skin in intimate possession with a brazen fingertip and defied her not to care for him. Her breath stopped.

His white smile grew bold and so disturbingly warm, her blood heated like lava in a subterranean tunnel.

A man who wanted a divorce shouldn’t look at his estranged wife like that.

A wife who’d never loved her soon-to-be-ex-husband shouldn’t feel such visceral excitement that he was here, devouring her with his eyes, or such desolate loss because he wanted to be rid of her.

Was he remembering how she’d tasted that last time when he’d cupped her breasts and licked her nipples? How her skin had grown hot beneath his palms as he’d slid them over her body?

She closed her eyes, willing the memories of the feral tingling in her body to stop. She couldn’t still want him. She had to stay strong.

“Punish me,” she’d begged after he’d tied her. 

           He hadn’t wanted to. He never wanted to hurt or punish her. He wanted a normal relationship. Whatever that was.

          “Do it,” she’d insisted in a shameful frenzy.

           Some insane part of her was so glad to see him she wanted to fly down the stairs into his arms.

But she couldn’t. She wouldn’t humiliate herself.

If six months without him had seemed like an eternity what would the rest of her life without him feel like?