Love with an Imperfect Bridegroom

                                        Chapter 1

 

The devil who invented bachelor parties should be strung up by his balls and roasted over a slow fire in the darkest corner of hell. Forever.

The limo slid through the dark glitter of Manhattan like a shark seeking prey. Trapped inside with friends who reeked of liquor and roared at their own bawdy jokes, Easton Lewis glumly turned away. Not that the chaos outside the tinted windows or the inclement weather improved his mood.

He’d quarreled with Audrey, his bride-to-be, earlier in the evening after he’d kissed her and she’d frozen when he suggested he spend the night with her after his bachelor party. She’d declined, saying she would be too exhausted after the rehearsal dinner and that, besides, it was bad luck.

“I need to be alone. I want to be fresh for the ceremony,” she’d said, but as always he’d felt there was more beneath her refusal than she let on. Why, he wondered, was she usually so reticent in bed?

Filled with misgivings of his own, he’d needed to hold her tonight. It annoyed him no end that she’d been so cool to the suggestion. He regretted he hadn’t been patient. Instead, he’d given her a quick peck on her cheek and left in a huff.

Most of the time she was shy, unsure when it came to being touched or held. Nevertheless, she rarely denied him.

Despite the threat of rain and a brisk wind that cut through the thickest wool coats, the streets and sidewalks were jammed with pedestrians and cars. Somewhere close, he heard a siren.

I’m getting married. Other men look at Audrey and envy me my gorgeous, wealthy bride. Why can’t I feel…anything…other than this nothingness?

 The emptiness had only a little to do with her rejection tonight and the things he didn’t understand about her.

East had felt more…once… For another.

Shed been lively, but her dark skin and accent had made her unacceptable to his father, who’d broken them up.

When she’d vanished, East had searched for her to no avail. Then later he’d learned she’d died.

East shut his eyes, not wanting to remember Marisela alive or imagine her lying smashed on a street after having been run over, but he couldn’t stop himself. Her death had compounded all his regrets and guilt about her.

Because he hadn’t been there for her, she was always there…inside him, a wound that refused to heal.

He’d never been good at sharing. Not even when he’d been a spoiled rich kid with more toys than he could play with and no friends.

She’d been brown and tiny. The memory of her dark eyes widening when he’d slammed into his playroom with the frenzied energy of a dervish and caught her playing with the shiny red engine of his new train set while she sang plaintively to herself arose in his mind’s eye. Even then she’d appealed to him.

 Her eager, lilting song had died in her throat. Strangely, he’d missed it.  Bracing himself against the door to bar her escape, he’d crossed his arms over his chest. “You’re not supposed to be here. I told you not to play with my trains, didn’t I? Didn’t I?”

      She set the engine down. Cringing away from him, she began to twist her hands in her lap. “I was just looking at it. I didn’t hurt it. No?”

      “Liar!”

      Her dark brows flew together. “Are you mean—‘cuz you’re rich? Or are you just mean?”

      He frowned. Who was she to accuse him? This was his room, his train! “I’m not mean!”

      She let her expressive eyebrows arch. “Are too. Tu no… You don’t share.”

      “Why should I share with you?”

      Her eyes rose accusingly. “I bet nobody likes you. Ninguno persona. Nadie.” With each word, her voice rose.

      He felt heat rise in his cheeks. How could she know that nobody sat beside him at lunch at school? Or played with him during breaks? Or sent him notes during class? Or whispered confidences to him? Or how those slights hurt him and made him feel lonely, even though he stiffened his chin and stuck his nose in the air and pretended they didn’t? How dare she speak to him in Spanish?

      “Who cares what you think? You’re just a maid’s daughter.”

      Hurt savaged her eyes for a brief second. Then she’d stuck out her tongue.

      “You’re awful!”

      Heat raced through him like a fire out of control. Lunging, he grabbed his red engine and hurled it against the wall. When it rained onto the floor in pieces, she’d screamed. “Oh, no… I’m so sorry.” She rushed over and began to gather up the broken fragments.

       Zulema, her mother, came running just in time to catch her with the shattered bits. Seizing his chance, he’d pointed at her hand accusingly.

          “Look what she did!”

          “Mentiroso! Liar!”

           Not that he’d felt any satisfaction when Zulema stared in horror at Marisela, who dropped what was left of the train on the floor.

   “Niña!”

          Promising to buy him a new one, Zulema dragged the tearful, matchstick-thin girl in her worn dress away.

          Alone, with no one to offend him in his palatial playroom, he found the silence was soon so heavy, it deafened him. Feeling crazed, he picked up his favorite toy caboose and flung it against the wall too.

          The next morning he found the girl in a kitchen corner. Again, she was singing softly to herself. He stopped, trying to understand the words of her haunting melody, but he must have made a sound because she looked up. When she scowled and broke off her singing, he felt an uncomfortable twinge.

          He went up to her and knelt.

          She lowered her eyes. Turning her head, she pressed her lips tightly together. “Go away,” she said after a moment.

          “I like it when you sing.”

          “Cállate. Shut up.”

          “You have a nice voice,” he persisted.

          “I said go away.”

           “I feel it here.” He laid his hand over his heart. “My chest feels tight.”

           She stared at him but didn’t argue.

          “I brought you something,” he said.

         What was he doing, trying to make amends to this silly girl? He never apologized.

           When he laid the shiny red engine Zulema had bought to replace the one he had destroyed in front of her, the girl hugged herself and squeezed her eyes even tighter so she wouldn’t be tempted by it.

           Unaccustomed to feeling shame, he pushed the train toward her. “You can play with it if you want to.”

           She shook her head fiercely. “I don’t want to.”

           He was pleased when her dark lashes fluttered, and she snuck a peek at the train.

           “Take it,” he said. “You can have it. I don’t want it.”

          Her eyelashes lifted a little. Biting her lip, she studied him. “Mama said I had to stay in this corner till I went upstairs and said I was sorry. Only I’m not sorry, so I won’t lie the way you did and say I am.”

        “You’re kinda stubborn, aren’t you? Like me?”

        “I’m nothing like you! No!”

        “What if I said sorry first?” he offered.

       Why was he so set on pleasing her?

       She stiffened.

       “Sorry,” he muttered, annoyed because she was being so difficult.

       “Sorry,” she repeated in an almost inaudible tone.

       “Apology accepted,” he said before she could take it back.

       Her eyes were huge. The color of chocolate. But deep and bright. Her dusky lashes were as thick as fans. She was very pretty.

       A beat passed. Then without looking at him, she sulkily picked up the engine.

       He let out a long breath that he hadn’t known he was holding.

       Toys hadn’t been the only thing he’d been unable to share before he’d met her. He’d never had a real friend or anyone to talk to. But she, who’d come from a boisterous, chaotic world on a crowded street in Queens, had been so lively and demanding, she’d forced him to confide.

           Why was he thinking of her tonight or of how spoiled and pitiable he’d been before he’d become friends with an overly assertive maid’s daughter, a friendship that had incensed his controlling father as soon as he’d discovered it?

           You’ve got to ask yourself—what’s in it for me? What can a girl like her do for you?

           “She makes me happy.”

          “You’re a fool.”

           The adult Easton Lewis was handsome, brilliant, accomplished, rich, and well connected.

           Richly blessed, his religious friends said. And what did they know, anyway? Moneyed and connected or not, he had almost no power over his life.

           Ten years. Plus, the finality of her death. He should be over Marisela Cortez, who’d written songs especially for him, many of them in Spanish, Marisela, who’d rescued injured animals her mother couldn’t afford to keep. Because of Marisela he’d wanted to help people and had become a doctor, despite his father’s objections. Because of her he’d begun to see and try to understand people who weren’t as privileged as he’d been.

          A New Yorker by birth, East had inherited his brains and robust sexual appetite from his shrewd father and his looks and sensitivity from his mother. He was tall and dark, although not nearly as dark as Marisela had been. With his blue eyes and strong chin, he’d been told he was as lethally attractive as a movie star.

           His father had determined, as his father had before him, that his only son would make the family proud. His father never tired of telling him the quest for extreme wealth had been the family’s sole goal for leaving the brooding, tangled forests of Eastern Europe, the sole reason behind every sacrifice his grandfather and father had made, including the sums they’d spent sending East to Harvard Medical School.

           “We did it for you. For the family. So, you’ll be more than we were.”

          East’s father’s larger-than-life, relentless ambition had dominated his childhood. “Make up your mind what you want, and there’s nothing and no one who can stop you. You can be rich…famous…anything,” his father had said.

           “Maybe that’s true for you. I wanted Marisela, but you stopped me. You crushed her. So, let’s be clear. You’re not interested in what I want. You only care about what you want.” 

         “Some day you will thank me. She was the daughter of our maid.”

         “A maid you slept with!”

         “So? I never once let a piece of ass derail me. If you think I’m going to stand by and let someone as pathetic as Marisela lure my son into destroying his life, you don’t know me.”

        Why was he thinking of Marisela? Tonight? Marisela, the dark, fairy tale princess of his childhood dreams, whose shy charms and sweet integrity had stolen his heart? The girl with the incredible voice, who’d sung a love song she’d written especially for him right after they’d made love the first time? The girl whose death had only intensified his guilt and longing.

        Were memories of Marisela’s warmth giving him second doubts about the wisdom of marrying a woman as cool and controlled as Audrey?

         East remembered returning with coffee and doughnuts to the hotel room where he’d spent the most glorious hours of his life in bed with Marisela after her senior prom. He’d been determined to tell his father he was grown and that he was through being told what he could do and not do with his life. But he’d found his father there instead of her, his father, who’d informed him he’d paid her off and had convinced her to leave town.

        Five hundred dollars is a lot to pay for an uninitiated whore.

        “She’s not a whore!”

        His father had grabbed a doughnut and a cup of coffee and roared with laughter.

        “She was using you—to get to me. I won’t have it.”

        He’d stood up to his father until his father had made it clear he would use his considerable connections to destroy Marisela if East chose to be “foolish.”

        Two years later his father had sent him a newspaper clipping that contained a story about a taxi driver killing a young woman identified as Marisela Cortez.

        What was the use of remembering when he was helpless to change the past? He had failed Marisela, failed himself, and he would have to live with it.

           The limo braked in front of the flashing neon sign of the gentlemen’s club that was to be the final venue of East’s bachelor party.

          “La Cheetah Lounge.” The chauffeur leapt out and opened the door.

          Trevor Bainbridge III, or “Third” as he was called by everyone in their circle, giggled. “I don’t get strip clubs. It’s like having somebody hand you a juicy steak and say, ‘Down, boy. You can look, but you’d better not chomp down on it.’ But hey, if you pay twenty dollars, you can lick.”

           Wainright, who’d had too much to drink at the last bar, guffawed. “This is East’s bachelor party. It’s his night to lick the steaks.”

           “Hell, he can have his fun. I got over the need to have plastic women rub their cold fake body parts on my face a long time ago,” Third said.

         “Nothin’ fake or cold about La Cheetah’s lead girl. We’ve got a private room and she’s going to entertain us. She’s bought and paid for…thanks to East’s old man.”

         Everybody except East, who has many friends and usually enjoyed them, laughed. The last thing East wanted was to lust after a half-naked woman on a seedy stage the night before he married Audrey or endure a lap dance while his friends, who might report to his father tomorrow, leered.

        Frowning, East—make that the newly graduated Dr. Easton Lewis—stepped out of the limo, straightened the lapels of his custom-made jacket, and tightened his tie.

        One more hour and he was done.

        He had a long day tomorrow. Then in the evening he was going to marry Audrey Warner of the Upper East Side. If she were too cool for his tastes at times like tonight, she was old money and a true blueblood and had connections that pleased his father. She was also exquisitely elegant, blond, and slim. She was an editor at a prestigious literary press. At the rehearsal dinner her legions of admirers had told him that she was the most beautiful young woman in Manhattan and that he was the luckiest man alive to have won her.

       Still smarting from her rejection, East had nodded and said nothing even though he was beginning to sense his fiancée wasn’t as poised or self-confident as she pretended. Who was the woman beneath the mask?

      His father, who was all about winning, agreed with her admirers. After all, Audrey was the daughter of one of the richest and most respected men in the city. Not only that, Marshall Warner was a U.S. senator.

      Audrey and East had grown up together, gone to school together. Not that he’d paid much attention to her back then until she’d lied for him and gotten him out of jam with his father. She’d been quiet and shy, keeping to herself. She’d been known as the “Ice Maiden” in high school mainly because she’d been shy and had refused to date the boys who’d asked her out.

       Her body was warm and lovely, but she hadn’t been a virgin their first time. Not that East had ever seen her naked. Either she was excessively modest or ashamed of her body, he wasn’t sure which, because she always undressed in the bathroom and slipped in and out of bed in the dark. If she never asked for sex, or demanded it as Marisela had the night of her prom, she rarely refused him. If she was only rarely passionate and eager, she was accommodating. But he never felt connected to her during sex. It was almost as if she went somewhere else. Then after they made love she always ran to the bathroom as fast as possible, where she showered and dressed in a fresh silky pajama set that covered her from head to toe.

       Not that she wasn’t incredibly sweet when she slid back into bed beside him and he pulled her close. It was only then, when he didn’t try to undress her or touch her sexually, when he held her close, sometimes for hours because he’d liked sinking into the bliss of their mutual warmth, that she seemed to finally relax and surrender some vital part of herself to him. Sometimes he wondered if she dreaded sex itself and was always waiting for it to end so he would hold her.

       Several times he’d asked her if there was anything she especially wanted him to do to her in bed that would add to her pleasure. She always blushed guiltily and murmured that he was a wonderful lover and that she didn’t want to talk about it.

      Was her reticence due to her shyness, or due to something else? When they attended movies, she curled her hands into fists and shut her eyes during the sex scenes.

      Unlike him, other than her friend, Ellen, she didn’t have many friends, and he couldn’t very well ask Ellen if she knew why Audrey was reticent about sex. No way could he ask either of her parents around whom she never seemed easy.

      Nevertheless, their romance had proceeded smoothly, pursuing a course that had led him to fall on his knees before her in the garden of her townhouse and take her slim hand in his. In a voice devoid of passion, she’d said yes as calmly as she endured his lovemaking.

      Sometimes he thought he had no idea what she’d felt or thought and that she was equally clueless about him, but that hadn’t stopped them from kissing to seal their bargain or from setting a date. How cool her soft lips had felt against his when she’d pledged herself to him. He’d cupped her face in his hands. She hadn’t touched him. Or said she loved him. But she’d said yes.

      From that moment, he’d felt trapped.

      Once when she’d stiffened and eyed him so frantically before they were about to make love, he’d asked her if something was wrong. She’d shaken her head and kissed him and had stroked him so skillfully that she’d brought him to climax. Then she’d asked him to tie her up and to do things to her that both excited and repelled him until her passion had escalated into something so wild and ferocious he’d forgotten his question.

      Afterward, she’d lain beside him woodenly. When he heard her sniffle he realized she was crying.

      “What’s wrong?”

      “Do you hate me?”

      “No. Of course not.”

      She was experienced. He definitely hadn’t been the first. But she never spoke of other lovers in her past, not even when he’d tried to draw her out.

      “If there were others…before me…that would be okay,” he’d said gently. “If they taught you things, things you like and want to do with me, that would be okay too.”

      She’d nodded but had said nothing.

      Was she afraid of something? Was she performing some secret duty to her parents as he was? Or was she marrying him for some other reason? He only knew that he did not know her and that perhaps even if he married her, he never would. He recalled her nickname in high school—the Ice Maiden.

           She would freeze when she and he ate dinner with her parents. While obedient and polite, she replied only when spoken to and then, she was as brief as possible. Her mother was always nervous and would never quite meet Audrey’s eyes. Her father would stare at her sternly, saying nothing. Blushing, she would look away, and East would wonder why she was always so uncomfortable around him.

         One night East dreamed he took her ice-skating on a frozen lake. When she skated out too far, the ice began to crack around her. Beneath the ice, water boiled and steam rose through the cracks. Laughing hysterically, she told him to skate to shore, to leave her, that she wasn’t worth saving. But he couldn’t leave her. When he reached her, the ice groaned, but when it cracked beneath him and they began to fall together, he woke up as she whispered, “Don’t risk your life to save me. I’m not worth it.”

           What was wrong with him? Why did he feel that he might never realize what he truly hungered for if he married Audrey, precious, vulnerable Audrey, who was as sweet and perfect as a woman could be? Or at least she seemed to be on the surface. Why did he sense she was hiding something? Why did the thought of his impending marriage to this elegant, but mysterious young woman make him feel that he was trapped in a black tunnel that led into a deep and endless darkness? What was he missing?

        After all, his friends said he was rich, blessed, and her friends thought he was the luckiest man in Manhattan to have won her.

 

                               Chapter Two

 

       The edgy atmosphere inside La Cheetah Lounge reeked of liquor and cigarettes and lust. East barely glanced at the dancers pumping their pelvises against golden poles or at the hard men watching them, who held perspiring beer bottles against their lips while they watched the women’s provocative gymnastics. Instead, he went to a phone booth at the corner of the room, shut the door, and dialed Audrey to apologize.

       When she didn’t answer, he left the booth and followed his friends and the scantily clad cocktail waitress, who led them down a long, dark hall to the private room they’d rented.

       “Sit on the sofa, my man.” Third slapped a red cushion as soon as the cocktail waitress took their drink orders.

       Pacing to the heavy beat of the music, his friends prowled the surprisingly opulent room like caged tigers in search of a female in heat. Finally, each of them picked a gold-trimmed, velvet chair beneath the stage and threw themselves down. No sooner had they done so than colored spotlights blinked above them. A door opened, and a feminine shape was framed in the doorway. Instantly, his friends began to make apelike whooping sounds.

       The music increased its tempo, and a dark, young woman, who was dressed like a Vegas showgirl, sprang onto the stage and wrapped her lithe body around the golden pole, where she began to bump and writhe beneath a crimson spotlight. When she began to sing, his friends’ hooting intensified.

         She wore a tight black satin skirt, a see-through white shirt, a revealing white camisole that barely covered her thrusting nipples. Layers of makeup and copious amounts of sparkly body glitter made her look like an oversexed female from some exotic planet. But her voice was like an angel’s, and as always it spoke to his soul.

           The tension in the room grew electric. When she shimmied out of her shirt and threw it at East, he caught it and sat up straighter. His friends began to scream. One glance into her gypsy dark eyes, lined thickly with kohl, had his heart pounding.

         She was dead. Ten years dead. Crushed beneath the wheels of a taxi that had spun out of control on ice.  

         But that voice made his heart speed up. He would have known that raspy sound anywhere.

         Marisela? How?  “No…no…” His mouth went dry. His muscles tightened.

        Springing forward, he stared up at her in shock. She had lush curves and thick dark curls that fell to her waist.

         “Marisela?”

         For two years, he’d searched for her. He’d walked the densely packed streets in her old neighborhood in Queens block by block, questioning her neighbors.

       I think La Migra, they get her. Maybe she in Mexico.

       Where, damn it?

       Quizás Durango.

        “Marisela?”

       At the sound of the name, the girl’s dark eyes flamed and went dark before she tore her gaze away.

       Did he only imagine that her lips quivered as the little girl’s had when he’d caught her playing with his train?

       It couldn’t be! Not Marisela! Not after all these years! She was dead.

       A terrible doubt began to eat at his heart. Had his well-connected father connived to have that article written because his son had refused to stop searching for her?

       As if drawn, her black eyes returned to East’s face. Her eyes widened. When she began to sing again, he felt a sizzling shock of mutual recognition.

       Every cell in his body screamed in recognition. He couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.

       Her fingers gripped the pole. The hot color drained from her face.