p; “And I’m not,” she said.
“...the companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds which hardly any later friend can obtain.”
—Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Louisville, Kentucky, 2015
All Allison wanted was for this conversation to be over. That and she hoped the heavy gray clouds would part and the sun would appear. It could go either way today—sun or rain. She stood at the kitchen window, peeling old white paint off the sill as she waited for the Kentucky sky to make up its mind. Meanwhile, sitting behind her at the table, her lover, Cooper McQueen, gently ruined her life.
Then, a small mercy—the clouds split wide open. The sun shone bright enough to momentarily blind her. She exhaled in her relief. Allison had always loved the rain. She could forgive McQueen for leaving. She would never forgive him if he’d ruined the rain for her.
“She’s pregnant,” McQueen said. “She’s due in April.”
“You’re happy about it,” Allison said, working another strip of paint off the edge of the frame. She felt a silly sort of triumph when it came off in one long white ribbon.
“Cricket,” he said softly, apologetically. “Look at me.”
Allison wanted to walk out right then, walk out and never look back. She should have, she knew. Instead, she turned around and faced him. He’d just ended it and here she was, still obeying his every command.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s all right, McQueen,” she said, shrugging. “We knew this would happen eventually. Not you getting some strange woman you picked up in a bar pregnant, I mean. But...”
“But...” He sat back in the chair.
“You are happy about it, though, aren’t you?” she asked. “You can be honest with me. I’d appreciate it.”
She was lying. She was lying through her teeth. She didn’t want him to be honest with her. She wanted him to lie to her, lie as hard as she was lying to him. She wanted him to tell her he wasn’t happy about it at all, that he didn’t want to end it, that his hand had been forced, that if given the choice he’d throw caution to the wind and marry Allison tomorrow, even if it did cause a scandal, even if it meant his kids might never speak to him again...
“Yes,” he said. “I’m happy about it.”
“I’m happy for you, too, then.”
Allison had sensed that morning that today was going to be the day. Instead of calling her to let her know when he’d drop by—for sex, of course, there was no other reason he ever called her—he’d called instead to tell her he had some mail of hers he was bringing over and a pair of earrings he’d found in his bathroom drawer.
“She has her own money. She’s thirty-seven. A little bit more age-appropriate than you,” he said. A joke. He was trying to make her laugh and, damn him, it worked. But it was a very small laugh. Her lover—or, she supposed, ex-lover—was Cooper McQueen, who was very possibly a billionaire if one got creative enough with the accounting. He was also forty-five to her twenty-five. She’d been his mistress for six years, although she’d known him for seven. The worst part of it all was what a cliché the whole tawdry thing was. At eighteen she’d gotten a job working for McQueen as his daughter Emmy’s weekend babysitter.
“Congratulations,” Allison said. He was trying to spare her pain by not admitting how thrilled he was to have child number three on the way. He and his wife had divorced after two kids, and he’d confessed to her a long time ago that he always felt someone was missing from the family. Not her. She wasn’t family. She was an employee.
“It’s going to be an adventure,” he said, his voice neutral.
Going to be... He was already seeing the future with this child, with this woman. There was no talking him out of ending things. It was already done and over. Now if she could only get through the rest of this conversation without falling apart. She’d gone six years as the secret mistress of a very wealthy man without falling apart once in his presence. She hated to ruin her streak.
“Does she know about me?” Allison asked. An important question.
“I told her,” McQueen said. “After she told me.”
“She asked you to get rid of me, didn’t she?”
“No, in fact. She said I could be in the baby’s life if I wanted to keep you, but I couldn’t be in hers if you were still in the picture. For the kid’s sake, I thought we should try to make it work.”
“You should, yes,” Allison said. Even she couldn’t deny he was doing the right thing—finally.
“She told me to tell you she was very sorry,” McQueen said. “And she means it. She didn’t know about you. This isn’t personal.”
“No, of course it isn’t,” Allison said. “What’s her name?”
McQueen paused before answering as if weighing Allison’s motives in asking. “Paris. Paris Shelby.”
“Tell Ms. Shelby I appreciate that. And I understand.” Allison paused. “Must be special. You kept me through three girlfriends.”
“I’m crazy about her,” McQueen finally admitted. It was a knife in her heart. A small knife, but serrated. It did damage.
“And you’re sane about me,” she said.
McQueen sighed heavily, too wise to retort. He was a handsome man—tan, tall and lean with a twentysomething’s libido. But there was no denying he had crow’s-feet around his eyes, hair more salt than pepper and, on those rare occasions when they were together in public, people always gave them that “daughter or girlfriend?” look. She wouldn’t miss that. She needed to think of other things she wouldn’t miss, but she kept coming up empty-handed.
“Your rent’s paid through the end of the year,” McQueen said. He removed an envelope from the box and showed her the receipt inside. “I would have given you the place, but I don’t own the building. And if you want all the furniture, it’s yours. Anything you don’t want to keep, you can sell.” A surge of relief flooded through her body. She wasn’t married to the place, but she liked having a roof over her head. And it was a very nice apartment—a corner unit on the second floor of a Colonial Revival mansion in historic Old Louisville. McQueen had it furnished with an antique sofa and chairs, plush rugs on the polished wood floors and a luxurious king-size bed. Furnished for him, of course, not her. But she was relieved he wasn’t kicking her out. She had nowhere else to go.
“I appreciate the grace period,” she said.
“If you need more time, please ask for it.” He smiled and took out a smaller envelope. “And I’ve written you a letter of recommendation.”
Now that did make her laugh, loud and hard.
“Recommending me for what?” Allison asked. “Is there an employment agency for rich men looking for mistresses?”
He wrinkled his nose in disgust. “You weren’t my mistress. It’s so...”
“Melodramatic. This was always a friendly business arrangement.”
“I see. So you’re not dumping me, then. You’re firing me.”
Allison turned away from him, back to the window and the peeling paint. Outside a knot of college students, a couple of them in red University of Louisville T-shirts, walked past the house, sweating in the sun. One girl linked arms with her boyfriend. Two other guys lightly punched each other’s arms over a joke. They must have been at most four years younger than her, if that. And yet they looked like children. Happy children. Beautiful, happy children. All children should be that happy.
“I’ll send someone to repaint,” McQueen said. “I want to make sure you get the security deposit back.”
“I can paint it myself.”
“I’ll send someone.”
“It’s my responsibility now, right?”
“Not what?” he asked.
“Your responsibility. Not anymore.”
“That’s going to take some getting used to,” he said.
She turned back around and dug her hands deep into her jeans pockets. He never liked her to wear jeans. Or slacks or sweatpants. Skirts and dresses were his preference—or the lingerie that he bought her. One tiny rebellion, wearing jeans today. And yet she’d topped her outfit with his favorite blouse of hers—the sweet white eyelet lace top that made her look like a pretty hippie lost in time—and worn her hair down and loosely curled the way he loved.
“Get used to it,” she said. “I already am.”
McQueen ignored that and reached into the box again. He pulled out a canvas bag with something inside it the size and density of a brick.
“What’s that?” she asked, narrowing her eyes at the bag.
“Fifty thousand dollars. Cash.”
Allison’s eyes widened.
“It’ll tide you over until you can get a job,” he said. “Or help you through grad school. I know you so I’m giving you an order—do not blow it all on books or give it all away to total strangers with sob stories.”
She ignored that last part. If he was giving her money, she’d do whatever she damned well pleased with it. She’d buy a whole damn bookstore to spite him if she wanted.
“Fifty thousand dollars,” she said. “You must feel really guilty, McQueen.”
“I do feel guilty,” he said with pride. “I paid you not to work after you graduated so I could have you when I wanted you. Three years is a big gap on your résumé.”
“I’ll tell them I was working for you as a professional kept woman. The name of Cooper McQueen goes far in this state.”
“I would prefer you give them the letter of recommendation instead. It says you’re a very good personal assistant.”
“Emphasis on the ‘personal’?” She picked up the bag, weighing it in her hand. “I thought it would be bigger.”
McQueen raised his eyebrow. “Not a sentence I hear often.”
She glared at him, tight-lipped, not amused.
“Five hundred Ben Franklins don’t take up a lot of space,” he said. “Don’t believe everything you see in movies. Even one million won’t fill a briefcase, unless it’s all in ones.”
“And you’re giving it to me out of the goodness of your heart?” she asked.
“I am. You should know, my lawyer tried to tell me I should get you to sign an NDA before I gave you the money. I told him to shove it.”
“An NDA? He wanted me to sign a nondisclosure agreement for sleeping with you?”
“I pay the man to protect me,” McQueen said. “My daughter’s ex-babysitter talking to the press about how I slept with her at the tender age of nineteen might hurt me a little. You know I want to run for governor one of these days. But I’m not making you sign anything. I trust you. I have always trusted you. The money is yours free and clear. I want you to take it. You’re only hurting yourself if you don’t.”
“I shouldn’t accept it,” she said. “It’ll let you off the hook too easily.”
He smiled at that. He knew his own faults, which was one of his few virtues.
“But I’m going to take it,” she said.
“You earned it.”
“I did,” she said. “But not because I put up with you the past six years. I earned this much just for putting up with this conversation.”
He lowered his head and exhaled loudly.
“You don’t make it easy on a man,” he said. “You could say thank you. Most girlfriends don’t get severance pay after a breakup.”
“I’m not your girlfriend, remember?” She put the money into the box. She saw her earrings. She saw the rent receipt. She saw the letter. She saw two thick envelopes.
“What are those?”
“One’s your mail. The other’s...they’re the pictures.”
“Our pictures?” she asked.
He slowly nodded. “You have any idea how much it hurt giving those pictures up?”
“A lot. I came this close to keeping them.” He held up his fingers a hairbreadth apart.
“They’re pornographic,” she said, glaring at him.
“They’re beautiful. And you’re beautiful in them. And I don’t look too bad myself.”
“What about running for governor someday?” she asked.
“That’s the only reason I gave them back to you,” he said.
“You seem sadder about losing them than losing me.”
“Don’t call me that anymore,” she said, closing her eyes. “I did everything you asked me to do—in bed and out. Everything. I never asked for anything from you. I never complained. I never...” She never made a scene. She never cried in front of him. She did all his favorite tricks.
“We had six good years,” he said.
“Good for you. I was nineteen. Do you feel bad about that at all?”
“Let me ask you this,” he said. “Do you?”
“You want me to absolve you.”
“I want you to be honest with me,” he said. “Did I take advantage of you? If I did, then tell me. Or did you want it as much as I did?”
“I was nineteen,” she said again.
“You weren’t drafted into the army. You had sex with an older man who paid your rent and your bills and gave you diamonds for Christmas. You knew what the deal was when I offered it to you. I’ve told my fair share of lies to my fair share of women,” he said. “But I never lied to you about us. Did I?”
Allison would have argued except it was true. Of course he never lied to her. Lovers lied to protect the loved one. No love to protect meant no need for lies.
“No, you never lied to me.”
McQueen met her eyes for a split second before glancing away, a guilty look on his face.
“So this is it?” she asked. “The end?”
“I’d like to have sex with you before I leave,” he said.
Allison stared at him, incredulous.
“Yes, and I’d like to marry a knight-errant and raise rare-breed cats with him in our castle by the sea,” she said.
“I’m taking that as a ‘no’ to breakup sex,” he said.
“Safe to say that’s a ‘no.’ We had sex yesterday,” she said. “Twice.”
“That wasn’t breakup sex,” he said. “And don’t give me that look. This is your own fault.” McQueen pointed at her, shook his finger.
“My fault? My fault?” Allison was laughing in utter amazement at the sheer gall of the man.
“Your fault. You’ve been trying for years to make me a better man,” he said. “Give more money to the poor. Be nicer to my employees. Don’t date girls my daughter’s age. Well, maybe your guilt trips finally started to sink in a little. I don’t call you Jiminy Cricket because you wear a top hat and tails.”
“You are unbelievable,” she said.
“Allison,” he said, “I am sorry about this. I truly am.”
He held out his hand to shake.
“Six years of my life,” she said, “and it’s going to end in a handshake.”
“You already said no to breakup sex,” he said.
Another hard truth. So she took his hand. As soon as her hand slipped into his he pulled her gently to him and held her close.
“You bastard,” she said even as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders.