To Hold Page 1

CHAPTER 1

“Jennifer?” I look at my new ID dubiously.

Is there a problem? Drew asks dryly.

I frown, trying to decide upon an answer to his question. “I don’t know. I just never really pictured myself as a Jennifer.” Jennifers play tennis, like pink, and draw hearts in notebooks. I have already spent twenty-six years straddled with the girly disaster that was Candy. If I am going to get a new name, I want it to be strong, with a backbone. Like Alexis. Or Jinx. Shit. I’ve obviously spent too much time in a strip club. “Do I get a choice?”

“No.” He smiles thinly, his grin all sharp teeth, no humor in its grimace.

I sigh. “Then Jennifer it is.”

“Nathan has already decided that you will be referred to as Jenny.”

Jenny. I puff out my cheeks in exasperation. Even worse.

My name is only part of the problem. I stare at the racks of designer clothes, designed for someone other than young vixens with a body worth showing off. According to my new workout regime, delivered by an energetic ball of annoyance named Beth, I will be having my ass kicked for two hours a day, twice a week. Following that schedule, and my new diet (also delivered in irritating cheerful fashion), I will be down a dress size within thirty days. What is the point of all of that hell if it is going to be hidden by three layers of couture?

I flip through the racks, every hanger holding some variation of the same thing. Classic colors. High necklines. Low hemlines. Cardigans — a whole freaking shelf of them. Lace. Panty Hose. I shudder, grabbing the panty hose packages and tossing them in the general direction of a trashcan. My wardrobe has been cheerfully delivered by Rosit Fenton — a forty-ish bald, round, g*y man — whose outfit contains more color than this entire wardrobe combined. He also supplies me with a book.

“When you flip through the book you will see the outfit selections,” he drones in a nasally tone that reeks of dignity and culture. “Each outfit has a number, shown here.” He points to a giant number, placed to the side of a blouse, so big and clear it looks like it was created for a six-year-old. “The numbers correspond to a hanger. So all you need to do is pull the hangers and you will have your outfit!” He closes the book with a sharp crack, smiling at me in a way that is typically reserved for those of a lesser intellect.

I don’t need a book that matches blah with blah; I can master that disaster all on my own. I force a smile, trying to present an exterior that is gracious and refined. “Thank you.”

And so begins my first day as Jenny — polite, reserved, Jenny. I grit my teeth at the name.

CHAPTER 2

Word: 5 letters; second letter is ‘U’.

Clue: something justice will not erase.

I smile at my father. He is weak, the monitors showing dismal results that I am now an expert in. My eyes flit between his weak face and the numbers, numbers that constantly change, never giving me a moment’s rest. There’ll be a moment of brief elation, followed by a heartbeat of despair. I see these numbers in my sleep, they dominate my dreams, always traveling in the wrong direction, my breaths quickening as they increase, incessantly beeping at a rate that parallels my heart.

His condition has improved only slightly since my last evening at the Crystal Palace. Nathan had him moved to a nicer facility called Crestridge; Dad now has a private, corner room with windows that open to a bloom-filled garden. I visited him three times before his move, enough times to realize the marked difference between the two facilities. His other doctors didn’t have time to answer my questions, giving my father a cursory glance as they made hurried adjustments to his chart. The new doctors are patient, informative, sometimes spending a half hour with us discussing minute changes in his condition. It is through their gentle answers that I am fully realizing the bleak situation: we need a miracle. Unless things change, one by one his systems will fail, machines stepping in to do their part, and my father will slip away forever.

I grip his hand, grateful to feel a response, a tightening of his fingers around mine. “Hey beautiful,” he whispers.

“Hey Daddy. How’s your day going?”

“You know me. Just fighting off the ladies.” He smiles at me, the motion breaking my heart in its lighthearted attempt.

“So I’ve heard. Janice at the front desk is positively glowing about you. Try to let her down easily.”

He laughs, a loose sound that turns into a cough, his hand tightening around mine as his body tenses. I hold my frown at bay, patting his hand gently. “I brought the crossword puzzle. I’m stuck on a few. Think you could help me out?”

He swallows hard, his eyes watering slightly, and nods, releasing my hand and gesturing for me to continue. I grin, reaching into my bag and pulling out a worn book, the second we have done. Our first book was one for beginners, the clues ridiculously easy. This one is for intermediate puzzlers, and we are moving through it at a much slower pace. I can’t pick up the book without fearing that we will never finish it. It, like everything else in my visits, is a bittersweet reminder of the time I have wasted, and how little we have left.

I keep my voice low, giving him clues and waiting as he thinks. His pauses lengthen, and during one long break, I open the windows in his room, bringing in fresh air and the scent of lilies. A few times he dozes off, then awakens again, his hand reaching out in a panic for my own.

I spend all day there, as I do every Wednesday. My first visit occurred just eight days after I signed the document and agreed to marry Nathan.

I fidgeted nervously in the waiting room, fingering the ends of my hair. My head felt light, my waist-length tresses cut into a sophisticated bob, with my hair dyed the color of dark chocolate. My hair hadn’t been brown since I was twelve. I had spent the last week in a beauty boot camp, my entire body worked over by a team of experts.

Nails: My false tips removed, glossy pale polish now covering short, manicured nails.

Skin: I am no longer allowed to tan artificially. I have been exfoliated and moisturized within an inch of my life, a new layer of spray tan applied weekly.

Eyes: My lashes are being thickened and extended by a treatment I apply three times a day. I now wear color-enhancing contacts, which turn my dull eyes into a smoky almond that catches the light.

Teeth: Three shades lighter.

Wrinkles: Gone, courtesy of Botox injections.

Cellulite: Gone, courtesy of some crazy electrode machine that shook my ass so hard my teeth chattered.

Any delicate hair not on my head: Ripped off by a sadistic Chinese woman who wielded a wax stick freely. She used care on my eyebrows; everything else went into the trash via white squares of pain.

Breasts: Deemed acceptable.

Wardrobe: A seamstress arrived, measured every inch of my body, and then returned four days later with Rosit Fenton and a moving van. The clothing rack that Rosit had originally delivered was compounded upon four men spending two hours unloading the van and filling the guesthouse closets, and Rosit barking orders while massacring a clipboard full of notes.

I watched from the couch, a book in hand, trying to release the tension that was building between my shoulder blades. As it turned out, handing over control of your life can be quite stressful, no matter how much of an improvement it is making.

It was lonely — the glamification of my life — without a partner in crime. I could have enjoyed it so much more — the beauty treatments, the clothes, the forty-six pairs of designer shoes. Yes, in a weak moment of elation, I counted them.

The first week was my training in all things manners and etiquette. Nathan allowed me this day of freedom, away from any coaches and lessons, for my first visit with my father. He agreed that Wednesday will be set aside as a visitation day — this day to be the first of many, depending on my father’s condition. What was unsaid: how long this agreement would matter. How long I would have a father to visit. I was blinking back tears when the nurse called my name.

I didn’t call ahead and warn my father of my arrival. I had intended it to be a surprise, a wonderful burst of light that would make his day. I walked into the room, my eyes clear, my smile bright, one designer heel stepping in front of another, past an intubated woman and through the curtain that hid my father.

He glanced at me briefly then stared. Puzzlement first, and then a crumbling, body caving as he reached out shaky arms, fumbling hands, gripping my shoulders and watery eyes staring into my own. “Candace,” he whispered, confusion in his tone. “Oh, Candace.” His arms held me close with a fierceness that alarmed me, his need so great, a man who had been neglected for too long. A sob caught me off guard, loud in the room, ugly in its wail, and it took a moment for me to realize that it was coming from my body. I was suddenly wracked with too many emotions, guilt dominant, squashing all of the rest in its fight to the front.

This man, who had been so strong on our phone calls — so light-hearted and nonchalant.

“Sweetie, I’m fine.”

“Don’t worry about me, I’ll fight this.”

“The ladies at the hospital have been spoiling me rotten.”

This man, who was gripping me as if I was his lifeline. His only child, a child who had abandoned him in his time of need. I’d been four short hours away, lying to my father, inventing a life that didn’t exist so that I could excuse my lack of visitation. Ashamed of my job, ashamed of my life, my selfishness had left him to die a lonely death.

At that point, that horrible moment when I realized all the ways I had failed him, I knew I made the right decision. I would sign my soul to the devil if it meant that I could, in some way, right my shortcomings as a daughter. He was my father, and I vowed to become more worthy of his love.

At seven, Pam comes in, gently knocking on the door. I sit, watching my father sleep, a tray with our dinner sitting to the side.

“I’m sorry, but time’s up. We have to start night rounds.”

I nod, stretching as I stand, meeting her kind eyes with a grateful smile. “Thank you Pam. For everything. He speaks so highly of you.”

She beams, clasping her hands together before her generous bosom. “He is one of our favorites, and lucky to have a daughter like you.”

I force a smile, hoping that it looks authentic. This staff knows me as I am now. A devoted daughter, willing to authorize any expense to ensure her father’s comfort and well-being. The previous, state-run facility knows the truth. They know that he was alone during the first six months of his sickness. They know the lonely old man whose insurance was running out, the one whose daughter didn’t bother to visit, or even send flowers. Actually, according to the blank faces and irritable responses I received on my first visit — they don’t know him at all. He was a bed number, one of hundreds. The week that I spent there, before Nathan was able to move him, made me appreciate Crestridge so much more. I appreciate their false view of me, and the genuine care, love, and attention that they show to Dad. With every visit, with every bond that renews between him and I — the guilt lessens. I can’t make up for six months of neglect. But I am trying as hard as I can.

CHAPTER 3

Word: 3 letters; comprised of two vowels

Clue: the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious

As the private plane moves closer to home, my nerves tighten. I can physically feel them, a bundle of nerve endings being twisted, tighter and tighter, bulging and straining, testing the limits of their strength. I spend all week looking forward to Wednesdays. And I spend all week nervous about Wednesday night.

I walk off the plane, the press blissfully absent, the FBO empty, save one aircraft handler who flashes me a friendly smile. “Good evening, Ms. Dumont.”

“Good evening.” I walk through the empty lobby, heading down a long hall that will lead to the exit, my heels echoing on the wood floor. Fifty steps to my car. Seven miles to the house. An unknown duration ‘til his hands.

Honestly, I have nothing to dread — nothing to fret and panic and work myself up over. When he reaches for me, when his hands travel over my skin and his mouth claims my own, I melt. I enjoy every second of his touch. I think my dread is more for my heart. With every experience with him, I guard it fiercely. And with every experience, I feel it crack a little more. On Wednesday nights, I am at my weakest — my heart warm and grateful for the opportunities he has afforded me and my father. On these nights, I can feel it, the warm tendrils of emotion slipping uninvited into my heart.

I reach for the handle of my car, a sleek black Mercedes, the car sensing the key’s proximity and unlocking at my touch. Then the large iron gates are opening, and I am heading home. Home sweet home.

Drew waits for me by the entrance, glancing at his watch as I park the car in front. “He’s been waiting,” he says quietly, opening the door as I approach.

“Our flight hit some weather, so we had to go around it.” My words travel with me as I step inside, and my steps stop as I see Nathan standing by the large windows, his back to me, his eyes on the cityscape. I glance at Drew, a question in my eyes. His expression gives nothing away, and I set my purse down, passing my keys to Drew.

“Mr. Dumont, I’ll park the Missus’s car. Will you need me for anything else?”

“Yes.” My eyes close briefly at that response, hoping that tonight isn’t like other nights, where Drew has stood by while we have fucked, his purpose unknown to anyone but Nathan. Saying that, I know the purpose. Control. It is a food that Nathan feeds on, devours with a vulgarity that clashes with his smooth exterior. He wants to control me, and he wants an audience — an audience that he controls in the process. I always wonder what Drew is thinking, what thoughts go through his head when I am with Nathan. He feigns disinterest, his head cast to the side or down to the floor in a preoccupied, respectful manner. But sometimes, when my head flips back, or when Nathan suddenly spins me around, I catch his eyes on me. Burning green eyes that pin me in place. And in that fire, in that intense stare, I think I see arousal. I think I see want.

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