Suspiciously Obedient

Page 23

“We’re not in the middle of Iceland, we’re on the western coast.”

He gave her a flat look. “Don’t deflect.”

She pulled back in surprise. “You’re right,” she admitted, then took a sip of her drink. “I am deflecting. Good catch.”

“You pick up a few things traveling around the world for ten years.”

“I’d imagine you’ve picked up a few diseases traveling around the world these past few years.” She pointedly looked at his groin.

He didn’t know what to do with that, and just cleared his throat. He could see why Mike was attracted to her. She wasn’t just funny; there was a sharp edge under it all. Of course, the outer package certainly was alluring. Damn, if he couldn’t get the images from that video out of his mind, the way her breath had hitched, how her legs had shifted in just the right way to make it obvious that Mike…

He shook his head, trying to banish the thought. “No, not those kinds of diseases, and no, not that kind of thing you pick up,” he said.

Struggling to find the right words, he interrupted himself and took a few sips of his coffee. The sky was so blue it could have been the sea, and for a moment his equilibrium shifted, the right side of his brain taking over. Everything he did felt perfect, the movement of his elbow bringing the glass of coffee to his mouth, the flip of her head as she pushed her long, deep brown hair back off her shoulder. How the wind swept it away for her like a servant attending her every need. The acuteness of the moment left him dumbstruck, for not only could he see what Mike saw in her, a rising wave of his own desire began to push back his obedient quest to watch over her. No longer was it for his friend, no longer was he there in lieu of his friend. As subtle as a shift in the wind by a few degrees, his course changed.

Now, Jeremy was here for himself.

Her eyes narrowed and she leaned forward. “You realize there’s no way I would ever entertain the thought of being with Mike”—she spat the word out—“again, knowing that he set me up.”

He frowned. “Set you up how?”

“Oh, please,” she said. “It was all over the television—that producer said that this was part of the deal, that Michael Bournham—” she mocked the name—“had come to him with this great idea of luring some woman to have sex with him on camera and create a viral video tape that would shoot Bournham Industries’ name through the roof.”

“And you believed that?”

“It was on television.”

“You believe everything you see on television?”

That seemed to stop her cold. “Oh, no…I…” She faltered.

“For someone who’s trying to break into the media and marketing business, you certainly are about as savvy as a nine-year-old getting on the Internet tubes for the first time.”

A flush of rage filled her face. Good. He got an actual emotion out of her other than some derisive sneer.

“I was not!”

“You were. You were snowed, Lydia, by that guy, that stupid jackass producer who set all of this up. So was Mike. Those cameras weren’t supposed to be on.”

“Mike said that?”

Jeremy shrugged. He didn’t know quite how far to take this. He knew, though, that he had to set the record straight for his friend’s sake. “As far as Mike knew, the cameras were supposed to roll during work hours, how you define that is up to you, and he had a talk with that guy after Mike realized that the cameras had been rolling, and the guy tried to blackmail him.”

“Blackmail him?”

Jeremy really wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say. He gulped down the rest of his tepid coffee and set the pint glass down, looking around as the jolt of caffeine got his veins pumping and his eyes flitted about from place to place, settling anywhere but on her now-inquisitive face. How much could he say? How much could he reveal? And really, how much should he reveal? Would it help Mike, or would it hurt Jeremy?

“I don’t know a lot about the details, Lydia,” he confessed. That much really was true, even if it was a bit evasive. “But I can tell you this—there is no way in hell the Michael Bournham I know and have known now for well over a decade would set some woman up to be caught on video, and then violated, viewing after viewing after viewing, by millions, if not hundreds of millions.”

“A billion is the projection CNN has.”

“Whoa,” he said, making a low whistle. “A billion people.” Jeremy shook his head. “He would never do that.”

“So why did Diane pipe up and say that he had?”

Now Jeremy really had to keep his cards close to his vest. “Diane was an outlier and camera-hungry. Nobody could have ever guessed that she was that kind of social climber, so desperate for the camera that she would lie and claim to be Mike’s fuck buddy on film.”

“Is that what I am?” she snapped.

He closed his eyes and cringed. Ah fuck, he thought, better to stay silent than to say anything more.

Her wry grin cut a little inside him. “Aha,” she said simply, “that is what I am.” Lydia finished off her coffee and stretched back in her chair, not really paying attention to anyone or anything, eyes staring out into the horizon, where, just over the building tops, you could see a touch of ocean at the harbor.

The tension was killing him. He was affable world-traveler Jeremy, not one to play games like this.

Instead of playing games, he reached for her hand. To his surprise, she let him. The touch made his heart slow down—calmed him, in fact, though he could tell that to her it was nothing but a compassionate gesture. It was—and it was something more.

“I’m sure if Mike were here he would say that he was sorry.”

“He already did,” she admitted. “Twice. But why didn’t he say something?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why didn’t he say something at my apartment in Cambridge when we realized that that producer claimed it was all set up by Mike?” Her eyes searched his. “Why?”

Jeremy shook his head, his stomach curling into a ball. “I know the answer to that.”

“Then tell me, because I really need to know, Jeremy. That question has haunted me, leading me to assume it was right, and now here you are, a long flight away from home, sent by the great Michael Bournham to watch over me—”

“I don’t know why he didn’t say anything, but I can make a really good, educated guess.”

“Then, by all means, make that guess,” she said.

He stared out into the same horizon where her eyes had just rested, trying to line up the jumbled thoughts into some sort of linear explanation that would make a modicum of sense. “Mike is very bottom line, and in the moment that you learned that, I’m assuming you were watching it on television…”

She nodded.

“He probably already had made his case…”

She closed her eyes and nodded again.

He squeezed her hand in sympathy. “Given the evidence, and the fact that you didn’t trust him or believe him, I’m sure he didn’t even try to protest—because in Mike’s world, if you don’t believe him after he’s given you his word, then it’s sheer folly to keep trying.”

“You’re saying that after the way he hurt me, he just gave up on trying? What kind of man does that?”

“The kind of man who respects you enough to say his piece and then let you go when it’s obvious that you don’t want him anymore.”

Jeremy’s words came out like pieces of glass out of his throat, some of the most authentic and rawest words he’d spoken in a decade. Psychoanalyzing and deconstructing his best friend at a time when he could be off frolicking in the beaches of Thailand, Jeremy wished that those coffees had been spiked with a shot or ten so he could finish this conversation, go back to his apartment, and have lascivious dreams about the woman his best friend loved.

You call this a vacation? he thought.

Tears filled her eyes and threatened to spill over the lower lids. Oh God, no, he thought, not crying, anything but crying. Jeremy could handle fury in a woman, he could handle proclamations of love, indifference, or even infidelity. What he couldn’t handle was crying. It meant that he had triggered the tears, and the idea that he had harmed another person deeply and emotionally enough to trigger an autonomous physical response sent him running scared. He stood, needing to move, and pretending not to notice.

”So, I’m gonna go for a walk. Thought I’d go over to that giant hamburger…kitchen thing.”

“Hamburger kitchen?” she said, trying to wipe the tears out of her eyes without his noticing.

“Ham-bur-keer-ken. Hem-er…heh.”

“Hallgrimskirkja,” she said slowly, as though she had memorized the syllables out of a travel guide.

“Halls-grim-kick-er,” he said, fumbling again.

“The giant stone church,” she said, flatly.

“Yes, that’s it. Wanna go?”

“I’ve already been.”

“Well, I haven’t.” He reached out, palm open to the sun, arm extended to her, a peace offering. “Come with me to the giant church. Tell you what,” he said as she hesitated, “you can climb to the top and I’ll stand at the bottom, and you can spit out of one of those long, thin, tall windows in the stone structure, and we’ll see if you can hit the top of my head.”

Her face shifted to a mask of abject horror. “Why would you want to do that?”

“Pretend I’m Mike.”

She paused, her face clearly considering it. “Nah,” she said, “I wouldn’t even do that to Mike.”

“Then maybe you don’t hate him as much as you think.”

She took his hand and stood, fingers interlacing. Face to face, she was a good foot shorter than him, like most women, and so he bent down just enough for the conversation to make sense in the wind.

“I don’t hate him.”

“I know.”

“That’s the problem,” she said wistfully. “How on earth can I still be wrapped up in a guy who I slept with in the office and who didn’t tell me that there were cameras running the entire time? And oh, yeah, by the way,” she said sarcastically, “who happened not to be the guy I thought I was sleeping with, and who ended up being so famous that the video has now penetrated even the farthest Inuit villages, where cell phones are a feature.”

“You know that?” he asked, impressed.

“No, but I’m guessing. Why isn’t Mike here?”

The question made ice water run through him. He hadn’t even asked himself that question. “I…uh, I…uh…uh…I…” he stammered.

“I don’t know, either,” she said, her face tipping to the right, breaking eye contact. “He sent you, but he himself didn’t come here. Was it that he assumed I wouldn’t welcome him?”

“I think there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface than any of us can understand, but I don’t know the answer, Lydia, and I’m sorry.”

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