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(CH2) Chapter 18: Rich Conversations

Spring came quickly. The snow melted into sludge before it eventually disappeared completely. The jackets, gloves, and hats were put away and shorts, dresses, and tank tops started to emerge.

The world went from bland colors of clothing and white snow to vibrate reds, greens, and yellows. Every thing was growing and life was being brought back into the world.

The loft apartment did not hold the same sentiment of renewal. It had been decorated without any input on Blake or Riane’s part. Mostly dark brown couches with cherry wood tables and chairs. The entire house looked like her father’s office.

There was a second story where the bedroom was, but it had no walls and one could simply look down into the living room. The two bathrooms, which had everything in plain white, were only place where any privacy could be sought.

Only one king size bed had been purchased which was an obvious attempt at pushing the two of them closer.

Blake had watched the movers that morning take all of his belongings to storage, except for what he would need at his new apartment. It felt like his life was being stolen from him, and a new, less promising one was being forced upon him.

Over the last few weeks, he had tried to come to terms with what had happened. Riane didn’t seem to bare him any ill will, but she was not the same person she had recently become.

Under her father’s thumb once more, she was having panic attacks daily and she was unwilling to leave her bedroom. Now, she had no more bedroom but an entirely exposed apartment which would offer her no time alone, unless Blake wasn’t there.

Of course, Riane tried to act the part for Blake and her father, but it was obvious to Blake it was all for show. Especially because when they were alone, she offered no smile, no happiness what so ever.

Julian didn’t help at all, either. He could be seen at school, but he purposefully never looked her way, and he had started acting like his old self again. Adonia hung around him and though they didn’t seem to be in any intimate relationship, it wasn’t from Adonia lack of trying.

It looked like she had never existed in his world, and that feeling devastated Riane to the core.

Blake hated the position he had been put into. He hadn’t won Riane away from Julian; her father had stolen her and acted like she belonged to him all along.

It pained him to watch all this unfold. It pained him to be with the woman he realized he loved, having everything within reach, and wanting none of it at all. He cared more about his best friend, and about her heart break then his own feelings.

Blake knew there were only two ways this could end happily. Either he somehow helped her and Julian get back together, or he figured out a way to make Riane love him again. He would only do the latter if the former failed.

He had decided this had gone on long enough. He would need allies, and he had just the right people in mind. He wasn’t going to share his plan with Riane, but he would be damned if he just married this woman to protect her and live a life of mediocre love.

“I am going to see Ivy today, do you want to come?” Riane asked as she sat on the couch with a laptop on her lap.

Blake was standing in the elongated kitchen, “No, you two have fun. Girls… um… afternoon, I guess.”

He knew meeting with Ivy was a moment for her to relax and be able to be the person she once was, and he didn’t want to remind her of the suffering she was dealing with.

In fact, all he felt like was he brought her pain, but he refused to let her be sent across the country. If he did that, she and Julian wouldn’t have any chance at all.

He had stopped bringing up Julian weeks before when Riane yelled at him for constantly reminded her of him. She had told him she would focus on him now and that would be her future.

A small part wanted to end it at that. Let her just set her mind to being with him and move forward, but his own heart couldn’t bear the thought of loving a woman, living with her, marrying her, and having children with her when he knew she had wanted someone else.

The idea of even kissing such a woman made his stomach churn. He wanted his partner to be a willing individual, and not some prostitute or slave going through the motions.

“Your loss. She is hilarious.” Riane mumbled and continued to play on her laptop without ever looking up at him.

He hated when she talked to him like everything was alright, especially on their first day of living together. “I bet.”

This was torture.

Playing house with someone you loved and knowing they were just an actor in a screenplay they didn’t want to be in.

It was hard to look at her sometimes. It was even more difficult to hold her hand and put his arm around her shoulder whenever her father decided to check up on them. The whole thing was a ploy Riane had made up in order to keep her father from acting any further.

Thier once rich conversations were now nothing more than pleasantries between one another. Studying together had become a moment of silence, and the drives home were more of the same.

He wondered what Riane thought of all this. For her to share her feelings with him could make all it so much easier to swallow, but she pretended she had no idea what he was talking about when he brought it up.

An actor in a screenplay. Pretending to be his girlfriend and acting like she was in love with him.

It was cruel.

He wanted to tell her how much pain she was causing him, but he feared she would run away and accept the offer across the country.

Sometimes he told himself he didn’t want to lose her, but he also didn’t want to keep her in this way. He wanted to believe things could get better, but there would be only one way to know for certain.

He had to make Julian and Riane at least try. Their denial was too much. They had to do something, anything at all.
Emma sat in Dalen’s living room as she watched the three men around her. She couldn’t help but wonder how these totally different men remained friends.

Seth was sitting beside her and eating a sandwich he had made in the kitchen. He was trying to stick close to her so she felt comfortable, but also pay enough attention to Julian who was melting down again.

Dalen was sitting next to Seth and reading some news articles on his phone. He would casually look up at his friend to nod or make a random comment.

Finally, there was Julian, who had taken an entire couch for himself and was going on several different rants. It began with there being no soda for him in the fridge, then went to cafeteria food, and it divulged into many other forms over the last hour.

Everyone knew he wasn’t really complaining about soda or food. This was a rant about Riane again, as they were all aware this was the day she would be moving in with Blake. It was their own private apartment, not like living with Julian’s entire family. This felt different.

Of course, there was only so much someone could care about Julian’s heartbreak, considering he did nothing about it. He didn’t acknowledge it. He didn’t talk about it. He didn’t even admit it was the reason he was upset.

No, it was always a bad driver or waitress. He wouldn’t even admit it when he started tearing up over a commercial that had a couple in it, which he decided depicted an inaccurate dating structure.

The sympathy of his friends had been depleted. They had all started out brokenhearted with him and for him, but as time had gone on, Julian had become insufferable and downright annoying.

He had multiple attempts at scaring Emma away, just because she reminded him of Riane. Even though he would never admit to it being the reason he suddenly didn’t like her.

The three of them had come up with a system which would either silence him or make him run away in anger. Just talk about Riane. Whenever one of them had enough, they would bring up Riane and the other two would join in.

Now if there was real news in there, Julian would listen, but if it was just to bring up past hurt then he would flee.

They knew it was a cruel strategy, but how long were they meant to listen to a man’s heart break when he refused to heal or do anything to return to his love?

It was usually Dalen who had any information on Riane because he was “friends” with Ivy. No one bought their relationship was simply friendly as there had been several nights over the last few weeks where he had been unreachable. He had no excuse for his whereabouts either.

However, they had stopped making fun of it, when they realized he must be keeping it a secret for a reason. Seth and Emma had been the only ones to care, as Julian seemed completely uninterested in his best friend sleeping with his former semi-girlfriend type person. No one knew what Ivy had been to him, but what really matter was the answer was nothing now.

“And how do you not know that green beans aren’t meant for brown gravy? I mean it is just common sense!” Julian yelled while laying on his back on the couch as he stared up at the ceiling.

“Whose common sense?” Emma mumbled to Seth and Julian didn’t seem to notice her words at all.

“Brown gravy is starches like potatoes and for meats like Salisbury steak, not for green beans or corn for that matter! I mean why would you pair the two together.” He huffed.

Dalen looked up from his phone, “Wasn’t the gravy on the Salisbury steak and they just gave you green beans because you asked for them?”

Julian snorted, “You are missing the point! Why wouldn’t they warn me the two wouldn’t go together?”

“Don’t they put green beans in stew? Isn’t that similar to a gravy?” Seth asked, “I mean depending on whether or not you make the stew thicker or watery, I guess.”

Emma smirked. The time in the evening had come when Julian’s comparisons to his relationship with Riane were so convoluted that it was time to make fun of it and more importantly frustrate the crap out of their friend.

“Stew is not gravy!” Julian barked and sat up straight, “Gravy goes with dinner and stew is dinner!”

“But yeah, I mean gravy can be like a soup and stew is a type of soup, right?” Emma asked him with what appeared to be a serious expression though she was trying not to laugh.

“What the fuck? Soup is not gravy! Soup is a dinner or side dish, no one just has a bowl of gravy with dinner!” He never seemed to catch on they were purposefully being annoying.

“I don’t know. I mean around Thanksgiving, I can eat a lot of gravy.” Dalen informed him with a grin. “I’d almost say it was a side dish to me then.”

“No it wasn’t, because you didn’t eat it on its own!” Julian stood up from the couch. “I can’t believe you people are actually arguing that soup and stew are gravy!” He started to head for the kitchen.

“I think we are arguing gravy could be a soup or stew.” Dalen correct him as he slammed the swinging door behind him.

The three friends looked between each other and chuckled lightly, before returning to the activities. Emma pulled out her own phone and began to play a game app, while Seth finished off his salami sandwich.

Dalen sighed with a slight grin on his lips as he continued to read his new articles. All the way, they could hear Julian doing something in the kitchen while he ranted to himself.

When he finally emerged, he had his own sandwich and sat down on the couch with his eyes firmly attached to Seth.

His friend could feel the eyes on him and made a huge mistake by looking up at Julian.

“Did you put pizza sauce on your sandwich?” Julian growled.

Seth closed his eyes briefly, and instantly regretted the moment he saw the pizza sauce jaw in the fridge. “I thought it would make it taste like pizza.” It was the only excuse he could come up with, and it did indeed make his sandwich enjoyable.

“Salami and pizza sauce don’t go together.” Julian hissed.

Dalen looked up from his phone, as a silent collective groan formed around the three of them. “They put salami on pizza. Shut it.”

Julian didn’t snap back at Dalen, but instead began to eat his food and to everyone’s enjoyment he did so silently.
Riane sat at the coffee shop as she waited for Ivy to arrive. She had reached out to her after her break up with Julian, and the two became fast friends.

Ivy never asked about Julian or even tried to convince her to try to make something work. She would listen nod her head and give a kind word, before they changed the subject to something more cheery.

She never felt judged around her new friend, and therefore she never judged her in return.

Ivy’s new job afforded her more time and money, and she was preparing to leave the studio apartment she lived in and move to a nicer place. They had both hoped she could move somewhere near Riane’s new apartment, but the rent was simply too expensive.

Riane knew Ivy was dating someone “from work,” but she never told her a name or anything about him. She didn’t want to spoil the secrecy of their relationship.

“Sorry, I am so late.” Ivy announced as she hurried over to sit down at the table across from Riane. They were both wearing long summer dresses with a light button up sweater. “We match.”

Riane smiled as she looked at Ivy’s light blue dress paired with a pink sweater, while her own was flower print with a white background and white sweater.

She had changed her style of dress and though Riane didn’t say anything, she often felt Ivy had used Riane’s own style as a blueprint. It made her laugh a little because if Nanette hadn’t helped her to get out of her comfort zone when it came to clothes, she could only imagine the boyish look Ivy might be sporting.

“Indeed we do.” Riane replied and pushed the coffee in a large brown mug towards her friend. “I ordered for you.”

The cafe around them was pretty dead, except for an occasional customer who entered and left with their purchase. It felt like it was exclusively there own.

“Thanks!” Ivy took a sip of her coffee, “Your clothes are probably from an expensive line though, huh? Mine are employee discount at Hurstmart.”

Riane looked down at her clothing, “I don’t remember where I bought this. It was one of the shopping trips Nanette took me on, so probably.”

Ivy had removed the odd colors from her hair and dyed it back to a dark blonde. Riane had barely recognized her the first time she saw it.

“Have you even been in a Hurstmart?” She asked with a giggle before taking a big gulp of her coffee.

Riane thought for a moment, and then grinned “You know, I don’t think so. Should we go?”

“I don’t want to go to work on my day off, you go by yourself.” Ivy laughed and spoke in faux annoyance.

She stuck out her tongue slightly, “You’re no fun.”

The two fell silent for a moment, before Ivy asked. “So, move in day, how did it go?”

“Seamlessly. My father seemed to take a real interest in this project. He picked all of the furniture, the dishes, everything it seems. It’s like if he had a bachelor pad this would be it.” Riane sighed, “It’s hideous, but I guess over time we will be able to change it to our own tastes.”

“How is Blake handling it?”

She frowned, “He treats me with kids gloves. You know I thought maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after a few weeks, and I would get used to dating him, but he always looks like he is apologizing to me in his head.”

“So, a twenty four seven pity party being thrown just for you?” Ivy shook her head slowly, “Yeah, that would get fucking annoying.”

Riane smiled at her, “It is pretty fucking annoying. I know this is weird for both of us, but I accepted what is to come. As far as husbands and boyfriends go, I could do worse than Blake.”

“You did do worse.” Ivy joked.

Riane’s smile widened as she thought of Julian, “I miss being loved like that though. For a long time after I moved home, I expected him to burst through my bedroom door with my morning tea or coffee, and announce what he made for breakfast.”

Ivy lowered her eyes when she realized she had brought about bitter memories for her friend. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

She shook her head, “No, it’s alright. I just wish he didn’t act like nothing ever happened between us. When I see him at school, he won’t even look at me and sometimes I wonder if it was all a dream.”

“No, it wasn’t a dream. I actually attacked you two outside a really fancy restaurant and I was so drunk at the time too.” Ivy put her head to her forehead. “If only that were a dream.”

Riane laughed briefly, but decided she didn’t want to be sad any longer and changed the subject. “So, how are you and your secret lover doing?”

Ivy’s blush over her embarrassing behavior turned more red at the question. “Don’t call him that.”

“He’s not married or anything, right?”

She sighed audibly, “I told you a hundred times, it isn’t anything like that. We are just keeping things quiet and private for the moment until we understand the nature of our relationship.”

“Uh huh.” Riane sipped her black coffee which was lukewarm since she had waited for over twenty minutes for Ivy to arrive.

“I don’t see Joe anywhere, how’d you get here?” Ivy asked wanting to change the subject.

“Blake drove me. Hey, didn’t you get a car?”

She nodded, “It’s an older car, but I could afford the payments.”

“Do you want to drive me home afterward? I can show you the apartment.” She began to stand up.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Great, I am going to use the bathroom.” Riane pointed towards the bathroom door before she walked away.

Ivy pulled out her phone from her purse and went to her texting list where she found Dalen’s name. “I am meeting with Riane right now. She is smiling and laughing a lot more. It’s nice to see it. How’s your monster?” She texted.

After a couple moments he responded, “Insufferable.”
Joe walked into the grocery store to pick up some snacks before heading over to Neil’s home. They had been working on locating Riane’s mother, but so far had come up empty handed.

Matilda only contacted Riane twice a year and sometimes not at all. She didn’t know what finding her would do, but she hoped she could talk her into coming out here to see her daughter. Anything to alleviate the pain she felt for her betrayal.

As she was turning down the snack isle, her eyes met with Dalen’s own. He seemed to be picking out some unhealthy snacks, most likely because Seth and Julian were at his home.

She feared he would greet her, instead he turned his attention back to the food before him and pretended as if he hadn’t noticed her. She was thankful for it and began to back out of the isle, but as she did so, many thoughts came to mind. There were things she needed to say and she didn’t know when she would get the chance again.

She hadn’t seen him since their Hawaii trip, and she never explained herself to him. She had simply disappeared from his life.

Mustering up the courage, she walked over to him and tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey.”

Dalen turned his attention to her with a look of exasperation. “I was hoping you’d take the opportunity and just ignore me.”

Joe slowly nodded, “I deserve that. I did see the opportunity, but I just wanted to say a few things if you’ll let me. We might not get another chance.”

“Look, I have a pretty destroyed friend at my house who is stomping around asking for potato chips.” As annoying as Julian was being right now, he still tried to help him. Even if he couldn’t get him back together with Riane, at the very least it was his duty to help him get over her.

“I know, Riane has been having a rough time as well. I just feel terrible for the both of them.” She wasn’t about to admit it was her fault this happened, but she did in fact feel guilt for what she had done.

“I have no interest in discussing this with you.” He tried to move around her, but Joe stepped in front of him.

“Just one minute, alright? That’s all I need.” She looked up at him, but his face remained hardened. “Please?”

Dalen sighed, “Fine, make it quick. I have better things to do with my day then reminisce with ex-girlfriends.”

She didn’t particularly care for his coldness, but she had things she wanted to get off her chest and getting into an argument with him would be counter productive. “I know, so do I.”

Holding onto his little red basket he waited for her to speak, and tried to muster up as much patience as he could.

“I wanted to explain why things went down the way they did. It just seemed like I changed my mind every ten seconds about us, and I started fights when I should have voiced my issues instead.”

Dalen remained quiet as he listened.

“Now that I am removed from the situation, I know why I did it. I was purposely sabotaging our relationship.” She explained, “I think the idea of dating a rich man was too much for me. I always felt inferior, and I thought to the future and how I would be treated by your family and friends. How I would be seen in your business world, and I just couldn’t muster enough strength to be brave in front of them.”

He nodded, “I figured as much.”

“It made me very insecure, and I wanted things to end but I also didn’t want to hurt you.”

He scoffed, “So, you thought raising my hopes in Hawaii and then crushing me by completely ignoring me when we got home was the better bet?”

“No.” Joe sighed audibly and ran her hand through her hair. “When we were in Hawaii, it felt like the rest of the world didn’t matter. There we were equals, but as soon as we got back home, I remembered everything that bothered me. I ran away like a coward instead of explaining myself. It was cruel, and I apologize.”

Dalen nodded his head, “Well, I appreciate you telling me the truth, but I really need to get home.”

“Of course, thank you for listening.” She stepped aside and turned her attention to the snacks before her, as she tried to think of what Neil might like. He had told her to pick whatever she wanted, but she wanted to make sure they both could enjoy it.

“Joe.” Dalen’s voice came from the end of the isle, but it wasn’t harsh like it had been before.

She looked up at him without saying a word, as her hand reached out for a bag of popcorn.

“We were always equals. You were the only one getting in the way, it was never the money.” Dalen told her and before she could respond he left the isle and made his way towards the cashier.

Joe stood quietly for a moment as she thought over his words, and guessed he was probably right. She had been the problem with their relationship, neither Dalen nor his money had done anything wrong.

Pulling out her phone, she sent a text to Neil as she tried to figure out their snack situation. “Is pre-popped popcorn, alright?”

She looked towards the front of the grocery store, pass all the vegetables and fruits to where Dalen stood speaking to the cashier. He smiled as he talked to her and looked just as handsome as when he first smiled at her.

In her heart, she knew she had ruined everything, but it was nice to have it confirmed by the person she had hurt. She felt sorry for him and knew she had forever destroyed something which had been comfortable and nice.

“That stuff gets stuck in my teeth.” Neil replied back. “Can you grab me a couple red apples, if you are getting it?”

“Sure.” She answered him and walked over to the apples with the bag of popcorn in hand. She pulled out a couple of the biggest and nicest looking once and placed them in a small plastic bag the store offered.

Walking to the front of the store, she smiled at the very cashier Dalen had been dealing with, but by this time he was gone.

Her heart was a contradiction. It felt both heavier and lighter after speaking to him. She knew he would need a lot of time before even looking at her wouldn’t bring negative emotions, and she promised herself to take the opportunities to walk away if ever she were to bump into him again.
Blake appeared at the shopping center at the allotted time to pick Riane up. He approached Ivy and Riane who were enjoying a small lunch at the food court. They both appeared to have chosen burgers from one of the fast food chains.

He smiled at Ivy as he walked up to the table which was surrounded by many other shoppers. It was very loud with all the chatter, but he was heard well enough when he announced himself.

Ivy stood up and hugged him briefly, “It’s good to see you.”

“Nice to see you too.” He responded even though he had just seen her last week when she and Riane had done this exact same thing. Not to mention every week before that, but he figured she didn’t know what else to say.

“We just started eating.” Riane told him when he kissed her cheek before continuing to stand and looking around the food court.

“Good, I am hungry. I’ll go find something.” He told her before getting into the shortest line to a Chinese food stand.

Ivy noticed Blake always kissed her cheek as if it was out of obligation, because neither of them looked as if they enjoyed the touch. “I guess we went over, huh?”

Riane nodded, “Yeah, but that is why I suggested we eat lunch.”

She knew her friend had done this on purpose as to prolong the time before Riane had to be alone with Blake again. It was sad to know how close they once were and how comfortable Riane was around him, only for it to be completely destroyed by her father. He added an element into their relationship which had died on Riane’s side and was dying in Blake’s heart.

Now it constantly looked like they were trying to make something work they didn’t have their heart set in. Ivy knew a thing or two about forcing feelings, but this was also not her place.

She had ordered a kid’s burger and had finished it by the time Blake had returned to the table with a bowl of white rice and kung pao chicken poured over it.

“Done already?” Blake asked as he sat down.

She nodded with a smile before looking at the clock on her phone, “Yep, and I need to get home. I have a night shift and I want to get in a nap and a shower before I go.” While it was true, she had more than enough time, she just didn’t want to be around the uncomfortable couple more than necessary.

Riane and Ivy hugged goodbye, and she simply waved at Blake before disappearing into the crowd.

The two ate in relative silence, before Blake spotted a couple in the distance. They were holding hands on the table and he looked down at Riane’s left hand which just rested on the table as she finished up her french fries.

He had tried this before and had been rejected, but Riane had told him she wanted to legitimately give their relationship a shot. He knew it would never work out, but part of him wanted to try even if he knew he really should be helping her to see Julian again. Half of him was a would be romantic partner and the other half her best friend, and the two were always at odds with one another.

Today, the would be romantic partner had won the day, and he reached out his hand to hold her own. It shocked Riane and she retracted her hand immediately, and she seemed to play it off as they had accidentally bumped hands.

Blake didn’t know why he decided to bring this up here in the middle of all these people, but his selfish side would not wait. “Are you certain you want to try to make this work between us? I told you if you want you can...”

She cut him off, “I am not interested in seeing him. It’s over. Yes, I want to give this a try. I want to make this work.”

“But no touching you at all then?” He watched her look at him with concern and curiosity. “You don’t want me to kiss you or hold your hand. You realize for this to work, I am going to have to do a lot more touching than that some day, right?” He regretted speaking those words immediately. They made him sound like some horny jerk who only wanted her for sex.

Riane to her credit remained calm, but in truth she had never really gotten mad at him since they started dating. “I know, but I am just not ready.”

He already knew that, “It’s been months, and I just don’t see this working out. I feel like we are both wasting our time, but more and more I feel like you are using me to stay here.” Again, he felt like an asshole for speaking so bluntly, but the friend portion of his mind remained silent. He needed to know where he stood truthfully, so his heart wouldn’t think there could ever be a future if there was none to be had.

Riane scoffed, “You were the one who told my father you agreed to this. You wanted me to stay here instead of being sent away. If you recall, I had absolutely no say in this relationship until after a deal was struck with my father.”

“So, you would have rather I let you go half way across the country to people you didn’t even know?”

She slowly shook her head, “No, I am not saying that. I am both grateful and resentful for what has happened. I am also heartbroken, but you can’t make me heal or forgive any faster than I can.”

Blake poked at his meal with his fork for several moments, before looking up at Riane and offering a nod. “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. This is very frustrating and sometimes I forget this is even harder on you.”

Riane shook her head quickly and reached out her hand to hold his own. “This is difficult for us both. I really am trying, but I didn’t just lose a boyfriend, I lost many friends too and people who were becoming a family to me.” She paused briefly as if to prevent herself from crying. “My life was starting to feel like my own, and my father just couldn’t let that happen. No, he has to be in control.”

“Shouldn’t we just call this off, even if it is just between us, and then we can figure a way to help you that doesn’t involve us getting married?” There it was; the friend side of him finally speaking up.

“No.” She shook her head. “If my father ever found out I was lying to him, he would make things far worse than they are now. We have to move forward with integrity or nothing at all.”

There was she destroying his friend portion once again, even though he knew she desperately wanted to take him up on the offer.

“We can’t go on like this forever, Riane.”

She gave a nod, “I know. We won’t. Just give me a little more time, and I’ll figure myself out.”

He didn’t believe that at all. The more she promised the more he sort of let the friend in him die, even though he knew it was wrong. Even though it was selfish to want to believe her lies because he wanted them to be true. He didn’t want to break things off, because he knew that would mean losing her forever.

Dalen returned from the store and found Julian laying on the couch in his living room. Seth and Emma had moved into the kitchen to get away from him, and the guest he had invited over.

Adonia was sitting on the same couch as Julian and had allowed him to put his feet in her lap. She smiled at Dalen when he entered the room and even offered him a little wave.

It wasn’t unusual to see Adonia. Julian seemed to call her whenever he was bored or if the loneliness got to be too much, though he would never admit it.

Adonia, herself, was nothing like the woman he remembered her being last year. She wasn’t confident or strong, and she seemed willing to do anything Julian told her to do. She was practically obsessed with his friend, even though he treated her rather darkly. He didn’t know how the change had occurred, but it was a sad sight to see.

Dalen could only hope their relationship never became sexual, because he didn’t know who would be the bigger victim.

With his shoes off but still wearing his socks, Adonia massaged Julian’s feet as he watched some action movie Dalen didn’t recognize.

“Bring back snacks?” Adonia asked as if she had been informed of his whereabouts when she arrived.

He nodded, “Yeah.” He walked around the couch to sit on the coffee table still holding his shopping bag. The way he positioned himself put him in Julian’s line of view of the television. “I just talked to Ivy.”

“So, what?” Julian growled as he tried to look around Dalen without actually sitting up. It was worthless to try.

Dalen hadn’t wanted to tell Julian he was dating Ivy because he didn’t know how his friend would take it. If he was still with Riane, he didn’t think it would be a problem, but the little brat his friend had turned into, well, he just didn’t want to light that fire.

So, in an effort to cover up his meeting with her, he had made it out that Ivy was a spy for him. Even though Julian pretended not to care, he always seemed to retain the information he had given him.

“She says Riane is looking a lot happier lately. She is laughing more and seems to be adjusting. Are you sure this is something you really want?” Dalen knew the answer was no, but Julian would blow it off as if it didn’t matter.

“Who the fuck cares? She left me, remember?” He snorted, “She finally got her dream boyfriend, now get the fuck out of the way. I can’t see.”

Adonia’s ears had perked up at the mention of Riane and she seemed to relax when Julian offered his response.

Dalen wasn’t usually an irrational person, but everything about Adonia annoyed him. He couldn’t even stand the way she breathed. “So, you aren’t going to do anything? You are just going to let her go? Don’t you think you’ll regret it?”

“He said he was fine.” Adonia answered for him. “I thought you were going to make some sort of dip.”

Dalen glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. Never in his life did he want to punch a woman, but every time this one opened her mouth… at the very least, he wanted to stuff a dirty sock in there.

Julian thought Adonia’s answer would be enough, but Dalen continued to stare at him. “I don’t care. The bitch can do whatever she wants.”

Standing up, Dalen headed into the kitchen where he found Emma and Seth feeding each other cubes of cantaloupe. He knew to them it was flirty and cute, but it looked awkward and he really wished the two of them would get over this stage in their relationship.

“When did she get here?” Dalen asked with a lowered voice.

Emma frowned, “He called her as soon as you left. She brought him a coffee and he just threw it away right after she handed it to him. She didn’t even look insulted, she apologized for getting him the wrong one.”

Dalen put his shopping bag on the large island counter and began to pull items out. “She is so pathetic. I could never have imagined she would be this type of woman some day.”

Seth grabbed a bag of potato chips his friend had placed on the counter and opened it. “Remember when she would just ignore everything he said?” He watched Dalen nod. “What the hell happened? I mean she broke up with Blake, and then Hawaii, and now this? I don’t understand the sudden transformation.”

Emma shrugged, “Maybe she is just working through some emotional garbage and this is the solution she came up with.”

“What like Riane took her man, so now she wants Riane’s?” Dalen asked as he opened the fridge, pulled out a large glass bowl and dumped some strawberries into it. He then put it back into the fridge.

“I mean, yeah, I guess.” Emma sighed. “Has Julian ever gone through heartbreak before?”

The two men looked at each other, as if to exchange silent information, before shrugging at her.

“I mean not like this. Normally, it is going to parties, drugs, and drinking. This time around he seems to be stuck in whatever the fuck is going on out there.” Seth explained. “You don’t think they are… doing it, do you?”

Dalen gave a look of disgust, “I really hope not.”

“I don’t think they are. Adonia wouldn’t be acting this desperate if she already got him in the sack. Crazy bitches think they own a man when they sleep with him.” Emma grabbed a cube of cantaloupe from the bowl in front of her and ate it. “At least, that’s what I think, who knows what is going on in that brain of hers.”

“She scares me. I feel like if I say the wrong word around her, she’ll snap and kill us all.” Seth semi joked.

Dalen sighed, “I would ban her from coming to my house, but I think it would only keep Julian away. I promised his mom I would look out for him while he is like this, so I guess we just have to deal with her.”

“Ugh.” Seth moaned, “I have to go piss.”

As soon as Seth left the room, Emma smiled widely at Dalen, and he knew what was coming from her cheeky grin. “Did you talk to Ivy?”

She had figured the two of them out right after their first kiss. They were three days removed from it, and just talking at a coffee shop when Emma found them. Ivy and she had made plans, and the moment she looked at the two sitting together, she announced loudly they were dating.

“Shhh.” Dalen answered quickly, “I told you not to talk about her when they are around. Your whole demeanor gives it away.”
Upon arriving home that evening, Blake informed her his friends were coming over for dinner. It was going to be a house warming party, and he had been working on marinading the meat when she entered the house.

Riane didn’t care for Blake’s friends, mostly because they were very boring. The only one she had anything in common with was Kalei. She was one of Adonia’s close friends, but she had told her over the last few months Adonia had pulled away from her friendships.

By going to school, Riane could tell clearly enough why Adonia had done it. The woman seemed to follow Julian everywhere. It made her jealous to think those two might be dating, but she knew she had no right to feel that way, not while she was holding Blake’s hand.

In truth, these people had only become friends with Blake because of Adonia, but her recent actions had made them choose Blake instead.

Brian and Luke were just guys who liked the play the field, so she would have rather if only Kalei and Chad were invited, so it was couples only. After all, these gatherings excluded Bryce from the mix, which made Riane feel worse about the situation.

Sitting at the dining room table, Chad and Kalei sat across the table from Riane and Blake. Brian had a girlfriend named Ashley when she met him with Bryce, but that relationship had ended before she and Blake were engaged.

Brian and Luke sat at opposite ends of the head of the table and had a couple times thrown chunks of bread at each other, when they had made a joke at the others expense.

Riane realized Blake was just trying to get her to make more friends, but these were not the people she wanted to be around. If they were being genuine with each other, then she must be so cynical she couldn’t identify it. Everything seemed to be sugar coated, even their attempts to tease one another.

A large wooden salad bowl sat in the center of the table with a small bowl of biscuits covered in a white towel. Each person had their own plate with a steak, mashed potatoes, and green beans along with a small salad bowl beside it.

“This place is very nice. Are you two planning on staying in Cerulean Harbor after you get married?” Kalei asked as Brian and Luke continued to giggle and act like children.

Blake shook his head, “No, I have to get back to the family business. With Riane’s business management degree, I’m sure my father will want to put her to work inside the company.”

This was not something she wanted, but it had been discussed by her father, so now it was their life plan.

“Your family is a shipping magnate, right? Eighteen wheelers and all that?” Chad asked as he ignored a piece of bread which hit his arm inside of Luke.

Blake nodded, “Yes, so we will be living in Texas when this is all over.” He explained before taking a drink of the tea he had poured for everyone.

“Oh, cowboys and all that then. Sounds like an experience, are you excited, Riane?” Kalei asked with a smile as she put a bite of steak into her mouth.

Riane had been picking at her food and pushing it around, as she didn’t really have an appetite at the moment. “Um, it won’t be for a few more years, so I haven’t really given it much thought yet.”

Kalei nodded and looked towards her boyfriend with slight concern. The two had talked about how Riane and Blake didn’t actually seem enthusiastic and how they were certain this was an arranged marriage.

“You are getting married during college though?” Chad asked. It was difficult to come over here, because with Riane it seemed like they had to carry the conversation as she seemed uninterested. They initially thought she was rude, but they realized they were dealing with a very sad individual.

“Probably after we get our associate’s degrees, so we will be married while we work on our bachelor’s.” Blake told them though he really wished they would discuss anything else right now.

“Kids during that time?” Kalei asked half playfully.

Riane tried not to choke on a green bean, and Blake gently patted her back. “No, it is best to focus on school before thinking of children. There will be plenty of time after college.”

“Of course, I was just teasing.” She replied a little shocked by Riane’s reaction to the question.

Blake decided to turn the questions on them. “You two have been together since high school, any plans for your future together?”

Kalei shrugged her shoulder’s playfully, while Chad looked uncomfortable with the line of questioning.

“Who knows maybe we will have more information in the future. Our anniversary is coming up.” She told him with a wide grin.

Chad offered Blake a look which told him to shut up as if this was something which was a matter of contention between them.

Luke and Brian seemed to have grown bored with the conversation which they were not taking place with and hurried over the couch. They turned on the television and began to watch it. Riane thought it was rude to use their TV without permission, but she was in no mood to argue about it.

“We should go on a double date sometime.” Kalei offered when she noticed the look of annoyance on Riane’s face.

“Yes, that would be nice.” Chad nodded as he put a spoonful of mashed potatoes into his mouth as if he were trying to make it where he didn’t have to talk much more.

Blake looked over at Riane, who was staring down at her food. She didn’t seem to care one way or the other. “Yeah, it would be nice.” He mimicked Chad.

They continued to eat and offer polite talk, but Riane could tell she nor Blake belonged among these people. This was Adonia’s domain, and they were just guests until she came to her senses.

She wished Blake didn’t feel the need to fill their home and free time with other people. It was awkward enough just the two of them, they didn’t need witnesses to the wreckage their friendship had become.

For Blake, however, he needed the buffer. He had to have someone there to distract from this awkwardness. He didn’t know what to do or say anymore, which he knew had to be solved, but for the moment he couldn’t stand to bare it.
Richard sat at the head of the large table with Seth and Emma on either side of him. On each of their plates was a steak, mashed potatoes, and asparagus. Richard had prepared the meal himself in anticipation of having his son and his new girlfriend over for dinner.

Emma eagerly ate her meal. It was the best steak she had ever eaten. With each bite, the meat melted away in her mouth like the butter it had been cooked in. She was so pleased to eat the meal, she didn’t noticed how awkward Seth was feeling, or that Richard seemed a bit on edge.

Seth kept looked across the table at her, but her eyes were fixed on the medium steak in front of her. She almost looked as if she was about to break out in song, which would have been humorous to Seth if he hadn’t felt so tense.

“You seem to be enjoying your meal.” Richard also noticed the woman looked like she was about to dance for joy.

Emma looked up at the food with a grin and a mouthful of steak. She covered her mouth with her hand before speaking. “Yes, this is delicious. Thank you.”

He smiled gently at her, “My pleasure.”

It took several moments to realize why this room made him so nervous, but the thought finally came to Seth. His mother was not here, and she had never met Emma. They had been dating for months and she kept having to leave the city before anything could be set in stone.

Before even thinking if this would be an uncomfortable question to ask in front of Emma, Seth spoke. “Where is mom?”

Richard had just put a piece of steak in his mouth and he let the fork hang from his lip for a moment. He chewed his food before answering with a light and friendly voice. “You have sniffed out the purpose of this dinner, I see.”

Emma chewed on a large piece of steak as if someone was going to snatch her meal away before she was finished, but she looked up at the two men when the conversation began.

“I wanted to have this discussion after dinner, if you wouldn’t mind.” Richard began to cut another piece off his steak.

Tossing his silverware onto his plate, Seth announced loudly. “Dinner is over now. So, why don’t you begin?”

Eating the food in his mouth, Richard put his fork and knife down gently before wiping his mouth with the cloth napkin on his lap. “You may be done, but Emma and I are still enjoying our meal.”

“Out with it, father!” Seth was becoming so obviously upset it caused Emma to put down her silverware as well.

Part of her was annoyed she couldn’t finish her meal at this point, but she knew this was a serious matter.

“I have been unable to convince your mother to back your relationship with Emma. She simply won’t budge on the issue.” His father explained, “Without her approval, your grandmother and grandfather would also refuse. If they refuse long enough you might be removed from their will.”

Emma felt immediately like she didn’t want to be part of this conversation. The last thing she wanted was for her to watch as Seth picked money over her, even though it was inevitable.

“So, their plan is to control me with money?” Seth asked in a rather calm tone, Emma hadn’t been expecting.

Richard nodded a slow nod, before answering matter-of-factually. “It would seem so, yes.”

His son snort briefly, before picking up his knife and fork and cutting into his steak. He didn’t reply right away, and Richard looked over to Emma with a gentle smile on his lips.

“Go ahead and eat.” Seth told her as she watched him from across the table. Her heart trembled at what this might mean.

“But...” She began, but didn’t know where to go from there. Did she want to cause a scene? Did she want to beg him for an answer? Did she want to scream at him?

Richard seemed to understand her turmoil and turned to his son. “I think she will need more than just telling her to eat to understand this situation.”

Seth looked up from his food at the woman across from him and realized there were tears forming in her eyes. He immediately swallowed his food and offered her a smile. “Don’t worry. They give their money to whomever they want. It doesn’t bother me in the least.”

“It doesn’t?” The question came out with a squeaky and choked voice, though she had tried her best not to sound upset.

He shook his head, “No, I consider it the price I have to pay for absolute freedom. Eat your food. Go back to dancing while you chewed. I shouldn’t have brought this up in front of you.”

Emma looked over at Richard as if to verify what his son was saying, and the older gentleman motioned towards her meal.

What Emma didn’t know is Richard had no intention of letting the family control his son’s life. He had already gone through it, even if he had married for love. Still his wife would never have chosen him if it weren’t for the fact he was from a wealthy family. She was from a more traditional family in that way, but Richard never did want to conform.

In truth, had he not fallen so hopeless in love with his wife, he would have refused to marry anyone his family approved of on principal. He had always encouraged his son to look at character and not the pocketbook.

After meeting Emma, he knew his son had an eye for the right kind of people. Though he didn’t believe it since he had been hanging out with Julian and Dalen for so long. Perhaps he was just blind to bad people of his own gender, but Emma was sweet and genuine, both traits he could appreciate.

“Have you two made any summer plans?” Richard asked changing the subject, though he was doing it more for Emma’s benefit.

Seth shook his head, “Right now, things are a mess. Once everything settles with Julian and Riane, we will see if it’ll be a friends vacation or just the two of us.”

Emma looked up at him, “We just went on vacation.”

“Oh, you don’t want to go then?” Seth asked, “Do you want to spend all summer hanging out at your apartment? We can arrange that.”

She sighed, “I am not interested in thinking about anything like that right now.”

Seth and Richard both offered her a grin, and the meal continued forward.
Joe hung up the phone after having a long chat with the woman on the other end. She sat in Neil’s barely furnished apartment and looked over at him while they both sat on the couch. He had been sitting nearby listening to the one sided conversation.

“So, is she coming?” Neil asked when it seemed like Joe wouldn’t speak due to being shocked they had actually found her.

She slowly shook her head before standing up and heading into the kitchen to get herself another glass of iced tea. When she returned she cleared her throat and seemed to focus on the glass in front of her.

Neil was dying of curiosity. He hadn’t heard what the other woman was saying and he had a thousand questions. Mostly, what did she say when you said this? However, he didn’t want to begin until Joe had digested everything.

“I didn’t think I would recognize it.” Joe finally spoke before picking up her tea from the side table and taking a sip.

“Recognize it?”

She slowly nodded, “Her voice. I thought I forgot what it sounded like, but the moment she answered the phone it all flooded back to me.”

He sat quietly beside her as he began to understand the enormity of the situation for the woman beside him.

“She used to play with me when I was a child. While my mother worked, she would take Riane and I out into the backyard. She would sing and dance with us. I loved her like she was another mother to me, and then the day came where she was just gone.” Her voice cracked a little.

Neil placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

“When that day came everything was about Riane, and suddenly Deidra was there with Russell. My mother loathed Deidra so very much in the beginning, but she told me to be kind to her. She thought Deidra was the homewrecker, but over time it has been obvious it was always Simon.” She took a deep breath. “I never realized how much that one day affected me, though, until I heard her voice again.”

“It seemed like she was open to your ideas.” Neil was trying to steer this conversation back to Riane, even though he understood this meant a great deal to Joe as well. However, they were doing this for Riane and not her.

Joe nodded slowly, “She said the deal she made with Simon ended when Riane turned eighteen, but she didn’t want to interrupt Riane’s college with her presence. She then admitted she didn’t know if Riane ever wanted her in her life.”

“But she will come?”

“She said she would think about it, but I think the more I told her about Riane’s situation the more she wanted to come out here.” Joe inhaled deeply, “I hope she does, maybe she can help fix all this.”

“Did she say anything about herself?” Neil picked up his soda bottle from between his legs and took a swig.

“She mentioned a husband, but other than that, no. I remember my mother said she had a lot of trouble getting pregnant with Riane, so it wouldn’t surprise me if she was her only child.” Joe sighed audibly and ran her hand over her face.

“Your mother ever speak of your father?” Neil asked with what seemed like a completely off topic and out of the blue question.

Joe looked up at him, “She says he got scared and ran away as soon as she told him she was pregnant. He didn’t even pretend to be alright with it, but just ran out of the house and left everything behind. Why?”

He shrugged, “I don’t know. I always thought it was weird how close they let you and Riane be, and sometimes I wondered if you were both half sisters. Related through Simon, you know?”

Joe chuckled, “No, as nice as it would be for us, I highly doubt it. My mom has pictures and a name, but I just haven’t ever cared to look him up.”

“Why has your mother never dated?”

She brought her brows together, “We are talking about Riane’s mom right now, why are you bringing up mine?”

Neil shrugged his shoulders, “Seemed like a good time to talk about mothers. I had some questions which were nagging at me.”

Joe sighed once more, “I think she has had relationships over the years, calling them her friends, but no one she has ever wanted to introduce me to as her boyfriend. I think my father scared her and made her especially wary of men. I mean could you imagine going to your boyfriend of six years with what you think is good news, only to watch him run out of the house leaving only a smoke cloud of his outline behind?” She sipped her tea once more.

He didn’t mean to chuckle but the description was humorous. “No, I suppose not. Anyway, back to Riane. So, I guess her mom is going to think about it? I heard you give her Riane’s address and number, that means everything is in her court for now.”

“Yep, we have done all we can.” Joe spoke those words as if she had been defeated.

“If she doesn’t come, we can always call and harass her again. I mean we can be pretty tenacious if we want to be, right?” He smiled.

Joe offered a grin in return, “Yes, we can be. However, I am not going to sit around doing nothing. Do you want to order in?”

He shrugged, “I was thinking we could go to the grocery store and maybe cook something together. My mom gave me her recipe for lasagna. I could eat off it all week as leftovers.”

“We could make tamales. You can make a ton of them and freeze them, then you could eat off them for months. They take forever to make, but it is pretty cheap.”

He didn’t really care for Mexican food, but seeing how excited she was, he decided to give tamales a try. “Alright, as long as we can make them for cheap, I am in. Chicken and cheese?”

“Yep, do you like spicy or mild?”

“Uh, spicy, I think.” He stood up to get his jacket, “Do we need to go downtown to the Mexican grocery store?”

She nodded, “Yeah, we’ll buy the masa pre-made so it is cheaper, but we will still need oil and water. Do you have olive oil?”

“I think so.” He replied putting on his jacket next to the door. He watched Joe pop up from the couch to go check his kitchen.

He didn’t know how to react to the news from Matilda. Her vague response could mean they had wasted hours of their lives looking for her. He didn’t want to let Joe dwell on it, so anything that could take her mind off of it was a good thing. Even teaching him to make food, he wasn’t all that keen on.
Julian sat in his car and watched the apartment building. Even though Riane had moved, he had kept tabs on her to ensure he knew where she would be at all times. He told himself this was stalking, but he would often end up outside the building or of her old house on his particularly worse days.

Of all the times he had gone, he had never actually seen Riane. He was rarely there for more than fifteen minutes. Most of the time, he told himself he was going to ring the doorbell and run away with Riane, whether she liked it or not.

He never stepped foot outside of his car, however. He didn’t know if it was fear of being rejected or if he was trying to respect her decision, but in the end it was probably a cocktail of both.

A couple months ago, he had set Riane’s ring tone to something loud and startling just in case she called in the middle of the night and he was sleeping. The loud sirens would surely shock him awake.

Every time he sat in front of her home, he knew how pathetic he was being. He knew how sad and weak he was in his friends’ eyes as they sat there watching him lounge around on the couch, or even when he allowed Adonia to keep him company.

He couldn’t stand Adonia now, but she waited on him as if she was his servant girl and he was some mighty king. In the mental state he was in, he was quite alright with using her to this end.

As he was about to start his car, another car pulled up and parked under the car port the complex offered. Riane and Blake stepped out, each with a shopping bag in hand.

Julian panicked as he thought they were hosting a party tonight and he didn’t think he would be able to see her. This was poor intelligence from Ivy and he was damn sure going to let Dalen know about it.

He kept his car off to not draw attention and watched as they began to walk towards their apartment in the brick complex. His heart sank as he watched them talk and smile at each other, but then it happened.

Their fingers touched and Blake began to hold her hand, and in Julian’s mind she didn’t want it to happen.

He was across the street and grabbing Riane’s arm, before he even realized what he was doing.

Riane was startled to see him and seemed to come with him almost willingly as he dragged her towards his car.

It took him opening his car door for Riane to come back to her senses. “What are you doing here, Julian?” She snapped as she yanked her arm from his own and began to glare at him with as much anger as she could muster.

In truth, her heart fluttered at the sight of him and part of her was glad to see he still cared about her.

Blake approached them and Julian scurried to get in the way so he couldn’t pull Riane up into her apartment.

He gave a sigh to the other man before looking at Riane, “Give me the bag, and you two can talk.”

“We have guests.” Riane mumbled as she offered out the bag to him.

Blake slowly shook his head, “I’ll tell them you went for a walk.” He gently took the bag from her, gave Julian an annoyed look, and then headed up to the apartment.

Julian spun around, and grabbed the car door. “Get in.”

“No.” She reached out for the door to shut it, but Julian held onto it with a tight grip.

He stared at her for several long moments. Months had gone by and he had imagined this scenario a thousand different ways, but they never ended with her coming with him, even if he forced the fantasy to do so. In his heart, he knew she would never abandon her brother for him.

Still, he had come this far so he might as well try. “I’m begging you.” He began and saw the surprise in Riane’s face. “Just come back home. We can figure everything out from there.”

Riane shook her head, “I can’t. My father can be a destructive man. Even if he had no financial link to your family, he can eventually create one. He is vindictive and when he doesn’t get his way he can be downright evil. I can’t go against his wishes.”

It sounded like she had rehearsed this scene in her head too.

“He won’t do anything to my family if they had nothing to do with it, right? We will just run away together, and when everything settles down we will come back.” He knew this was a ridiculous plan, but it was all he could come up with at this junction.

Riane didn’t immediately tell him the idea was terrible, and her eyes went to the seat in the car. She was tempted to just screw the world and jump in the car. She didn’t want to go back up there to Blake’s friends, especially now with snacks and movies which would last for hours.

She wanted to jump in that car and drive as far away from here as possible. To laugh at her awful behavior with Julian, as their sorrows disappear on the road behind them.

Julian could see she was becoming swayed by the idea, which started to sound better to him by the thought she might actually come with him. “Come on. Let’s go.”

“We wouldn’t have any money or jobs, and we would be abandoning our studies. I can’t just leave without a plan.” Riane couldn’t believe she was actually considering this option.

“We will figure it out as we go. I have enough cash in my wallet to get us far enough, and then we can go from there. I am certain my parents’ won’t cancel my credit cards, so we...”

Riane waved her hand to silence him. She couldn’t just run away. Blake had done so much for her in these past months, she couldn’t just treat him like this. She couldn’t leave Russell alone either. He was the whole reason she left Julian to begin with.

Seeing Julian again and not having him completely ignore her made her forget her commitments for a moment.

“I have to get inside. Drive safely.” Riane walked across the street as fast as her feet could take her.

“Do you still love me?” She heard Julian shout, but she didn’t want to answer him. “I still love you.”

Her eyes filled with tears when she heard those words, but she still refused to turn around. She didn’t want him to see her like this, and know she had been swayed.

It didn’t matter though. Julian already had his answer.

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