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Falling For Him by Khardine Gray (1)

Chapter 1

Zoe

* * *

This had to be the perfect example of the blind leading the blind.

Or, maybe it was more like the brokenhearted.

Yes, that sounded more suitable because that was exactly how I felt.

Brokenhearted and definitely not the right person to sit with Denise as she poured her heart out to me, telling me how she thought she and Tristan were the perfect match and that she couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to be with someone like her.

We’d both been in the living room now for an hour. For one hour I’d had to be the listening ear she seemed desperate for, and I had to put on that understanding face most people expected when they were expressing their distress.

Denise was a nice person. Ticked the beautiful box and definitely had the kind of body Tristan liked, but I knew those weren’t enough to keep him interested. The nice part was a bonus. He wasn’t looking for nice. I knew the only thing that attracted him to her was her beauty. Her physical appearance.

That was all.

Even in her distress, Denise looked like she walked straight off the billboard of some Chanel advertisment for perfume. Or, like she’d materialized before me from one of the fashion magazines I had stacked up in corner by the bookshelf.

She had that long blonde hair that looked gold. He called it shampoo ad hair. Her eyes were bluer than his too, adding to her beauty. His types were all very beautiful. The most exquisite women you could imagine. It didn’t help that he didn’t have to work that hard to attract attention.

Working hard to attract the female species, as he called us, was not on his list of specialties. No, no. Tristan Bouchard was the kind of man who never wanted for a woman on his arm. And, when he got bored he’d simply move on to his next catch of the hour.

Or, it could be the minute depending on which day and how much time he had on his hands.

I didn’t bother to tell her that, and there was no way I was going to tell her Tristan was definitely not exclusive to her. Denise would just be a number to him, a lady he’d schedule into his black book if he wanted to see her more than the one time, which he did, and then she’d eventually be phased out. Which it seemed like she had.

How did I know all this about the man of the hour? No, I’d never been his girlfriend. Gorgeous as he was with his Hollywood good looks, element of mystery, and dreamy body I’d always heard the women swoon over.

I was just Zoe Carter, the best friend.

People thought it was weird that he had a girl/woman for a best friend, but that was what I was. That was me, or rather what I became.

We each had our own separate friends who we considered close to us. I had Rachel and he had Gibbs. We’d been friends with each for more than ten years, having met them both through work and college, but Tristan and I had each other.

We had a different kind of friendship. The kind that made you inseparable for years, or a few weeks shy of nineteen years.

He was three years older than me. I was fourteen when I met him.

We were both from Chicago, but we now live together here in this luxury four-bed beach house on Malibu Beach. It was our bachelor/spinster pad that had everything we could possibly want and an endless view of the ocean. We each have a master-size bedroom and a private office. There was a gym downstairs in the basement equipped with state of the art exercise machines for Tristan. There was sauna, a swimming pool, a hot tub room and a terrace with a rose garden.

We were thrown together in high school when our principal made me tutor him so that he could play football. As beloved as he was, he’d taken on the attitude some athletes had in thinking that if they played well grades didn’t matter. Thinking that way only landed him in the situation where if he didn’t make the grades he wouldn’t be able to play.

I would never profess to being some sort of genius, but I’d never had to worry about grades and always exceeded my classmates. I even skipped two grades in high school and our principal took that to mean me being the perfect candidate to help Tristan. I helped, and by the time I was done with him he no longer had to worry about grades. The extent of my help also secured him several scholarship offers from the best colleges.

He was the typical jock, and I supposed I was by most people’s standards a geek for my academic success. But that was where we began. Although he hated me teaching him and hated having to focus on anything that wasn’t football, he saw me as the person who helped him to get where he wanted to go.

Our friendship grew to the strong bond that it was today.

He doesn’t play football anymore, but when he did he was a force to be reckoned with. Today he used his fame and talents in his role as director of personnel to scout the best players for the Los Angeles Centaurs, a very, very prestigious team.

As for me, I became a teacher. I’m a high school English teacher, although I didn’t plan for that to happen. I just kind of fell into the profession and absolutely loved it. I worked at Malibu High and loved it there too.

He’s always been famous and renowned in football, and we couldn’t be more different if we tried, but we get along and we work together as friends.

Except when he did things like this.

Denise.

This breaking of her heart. It wasn’t the first time that I’d had to sit with one of his many dumpees. It was a regular thing with him. The women that ended up talking to me saw me as a way back to him.

I wasn’t.

“I don’t know what I did wrong. We seemed okay last week and then he just stopped returning my calls,” Denise cried as a fresh bout of tears took her.

I wondered just how many times she called him. Tristan hated constant phone calls. He felt that if he wasn’t responding to a woman then they should get the message that things were over.

We argued over this constantly with him trying to tell me it made sense and it was less awkward to stop contact, and me telling him it was a heartless, cruel thing to do.

“I’m sure it’s nothing, but Denise, you have to pull yourself together.” I was trying to offer the words I thought would help, words that were supposed to help and I wish I had someone to tell me the same.

Denise only broke down. Seriously broke down and now I felt stuck. I couldn’t do this right now. I had my own shit to deal with and I wasn’t strong enough to help someone else with their heartbreak when my own heart was shattered.

It was to be expected after finding out that Brian, the man I’d been dating for nearly two years, was married and had two children. Both under the age of five.

God, I still couldn’t believe it. I pressed my lips together to keep from crying out. I had to stop myself from screaming, and I had to forget the embarrassment I felt from the encounter I had with his wife today.

It was hard, so, so, hard, but I had to push the horrible names she called me out of my mind, and I supposed I had to be grateful that she’d approached me at lunchtime when I went to get some things from my car and not anywhere else.

There were only a few students passing by, and hopefully the news that Miss Carter was a homewrecker wouldn’t spread around the high school.

Jesus.

I didn’t know what I did to deserve this, or why it was that I always ended up with the wrong guy.

I just didn’t know, and right now I couldn’t figure out what was worse. The bad relationship history or this recent bad relationship.

Whichever was worse, it got to me and I didn’t think that I could deal with it.

I looked at Denise, feeling sorry for her. The poor thing looked as distraught as I felt. I was barely holding myself together. I was here in body sitting opposite her on the loveseat while she sat on the armchair leaning forward and crying. My mind, however, was elsewhere. I’d been crying all afternoon and just managed to get myself home. My hands shook and my vision was barely there as I drove but here I was. I came home to fall apart properly and never expected to find Denise here in practically the same state as me.

Though, I think I would have to grab dibs on my situation being a little bit worse. Mine was a long-term relationship of just practically two years, and I’d been with a married man. Me, Miss Goody Two Shoes. I’d become a homewrecker, the other woman, the mistress, the side piece.

Me.

It made me feel sick to my stomach to think of it.

Denise, on the other hand, had been seeing Tristan for less than a month and she seemed to be one of those women that fell in love at the drop of a hat. Those ones that held on to everything and every moment, making a big deal out of something as simple as a kiss. I didn’t do that, ever, and never would.

I came from a single-parent family. My mom was a strong woman, who learned the hard way after my father walked out on her, my two sisters and myself when I was ten.

I was the youngest, but I remembered the day with perfect clarity. I also remembered how heartbroken my mother was. But in the end, it hardened my mom and turned her into a no-nonsense woman.

I took on the trait from her, and I was tough with most things but just kept picking up assholes, like I was picking up dog shit from the street.

I wasn’t like Denise. I was sure of that, but I guess today we felt the same pain that the men in our lives had caused us.

“Denise, maybe you should go home and get some rest,” I suggested. Staying here wasn’t going to help her, and I was also getting very aware of the time. Tristan would be back soon. It was nearly six, and he didn’t have much planned today. If he came home and saw her here, he’d rip into me for allowing her to come in the house, and I’d give what I got because I was furious with him too for being such an asshole.

“I’m so upset.” She wailed. “I just wish I could understand what I did.” She looked up at me with huge sad eyes. The sapphire blue that I thought made her eyes striking looked distorted from the redness that surrounded her irises.

“Sometimes that’s how things work out,” I offered. “Sometimes they just don’t.”

“I know. But, you know when you meet someone and they get you, and you think oh good, this is it? I thought I had that with him.” Denise dabbed at her eyes. “Maybe you could speak to him.”

Shit, what should I say? If I said yes then maybe I could get rid of Denise sooner.

“We don’t get involved in each other’s relationships,” I decided to say. That was the best thing to say, especially since I didn’t want to get involved in this mess. “It’s a boundary we just don’t cross.”

“Okay. I understand.” Denise tilted her head and gave me a pitiful nod.

“You’ll be okay.” I smiled a smile I didn’t feel.

She ran her hands over her hair and twisted the ends of her ponytail around her finger. “Thank you for being so nice to me and listening.”

“That’s okay.”

“I’ll go—I know you just came from work. I didn’t mean to pounce on you. I was just hoping I’d see him.”

That was the worst idea ever, and I didn’t see how Denise thought it was okay. Sure, I didn’t agree with Tristan’s breakup methods or whatever he called them, but I would never go to a guy’s house if I suspected he was dumping me.

Just like now, I didn’t plan to make contact with Brian. I didn’t see the point. Besides I would have hated to do so and then end up running into his horrible wife again. She’d been completely vile and treated me like I intentionally set out to ruin her home and her marriage.

I never even got to explain myself—she just landed the news of Brian being married in my face, and then she started attacking me with her words.

Home-wrecking bitch she’d called me.

“I think that you should let him contact you, and if he doesn’t then you should move on.” That was the best piece of advice I could give her.

“Yes. I’ll…I’ll do that.” She rose from the seat and picked up her purse. “Thanks again, Zoe.”

“You’re welcome.” I gave her a curt nod and watched her leave.

The minute the door closed I released a sigh and felt my lungs collapse. I could feel the tears were near again now that I was alone, and my heart burned within me.

I thought I loved Brian. I thought he loved me too. I really believed him when he said he wanted to plan for our future, and I started planning too.

The first thing I thought was that we’d move in together and take it from there. I hated feeling used, or like I lost the game yet again. How could anyone tell, though, from the start if a relationship was going to be bad?

How would you know, especially if the guy seemed good and like he was a suitable match?

I’d always thought I picked guys who seemed like the safe options but they’d all proven me to be so very wrong.

The bad thing was this couldn’t have happened at a worse time. I’d just gotten through the first round of applications for the role of department head. The current head, Mrs. Applebee, was retiring next week. She’d been in charge for thirty years, so it wasn’t as if the job came around more than once in a lifetime. It was the kind of job that I’d hoped for, and honestly never saw myself making it this far. In the English department, there were eight teachers including me. I was probably the least experienced and the youngest, but my students were excelling. I could teach just about anything, but my expertise lay with the classics and post-romantic literature.

The long application process which had stemmed across most of the school year saw us in a vicious competition, where I seriously had to try hard to maintain my sense of professionalism. One of the teachers, Gertrude Jackson, had it in for me and had made my life hell since I started working at the school four years ago. She was in her mid-fifties and the kind of woman to make you feel like shit every chance she could. She flaunted her extensive teaching career, accomplishments, and student achievements in my face daily and didn’t hesitate to highlight that I didn’t have half of what she had.

In the end, it was just down to me and her, which came as a brutal shock to her, because she never thought I stood a chance. Out of the eight of us who applied, the board selected us to go on to the final round and then they’d pick who they wanted from there.

I wanted the job, now more than ever since I thought I had a good shot. I actually didn’t realize how badly I wanted it until I was told that I’d been selected for the final stage. Before I was just trying and taking a chance like I always did when it came to my career. I always believed in pushing myself toward an opportunity when I saw it. It was how I’d gotten to where I was today.

We had less than three months before the board made their final decision. I needed clarity of mind to get through it, and I needed to focus. I had to prepare a portfolio similar to the thesis I did in college, but this was for a job I knew I wanted desperately. The portfolio had to display my experience in detail, demonstrate how I thought I was suitable for the role and pitch various proposals for how I planned to run the department to make the English curriculum more effective.

It wasn’t an easy task.

That was why I needed my head screwed on.

I could do it. I could usually do anything I put my mind to, but not when I was depressed.

I looked out the floor-to-ceiling window and stared out at the scenic view of the ocean front. The usual calm it gave me had no effect today.

I was trying to figure out how Brian pulled off acting like he was single, or rather, not married for the whole time that we were together.

He was definitely what I would have called a safe option. So, not particularly good-looking and average. I took comfort in his averageness and the warming personality he had, and…I grew to love him. Or at least I thought I did. I was hurting now, but what hurt me more was the lie as opposed to not being with him anymore. Did that mean I didn’t love him as much as I thought I did?

I didn’t know. That part of my brain that was responsible for reasoning things hadn’t functioned since I heard the words, “I’m Brian’s wife,” coming out of that vile woman’s mouth.

Sure, I felt guilty and sick to my stomach that I’d been involved with her husband for nearly two years, but I was a victim too. I was a victim because that was something I would never, ever do.

Particularly since it was a similar thing that happened to my mom. My father was a real playboy. Even at ten years old I knew that. He thought I was dumb because I was the youngest, and to him I didn’t fully understand what was going on. But I knew well before I was ten that he was up to no good with all those women I saw him with. It was their body language and the whispers.

My mother’s daily distress and anguish when my father didn’t come home most nights only served as confirmation. My sisters, Andrea and Louise, who were four and three years older than me tried their best to comfort her but to no avail. It got worse when my father left. We lived in a rough community in east Chicago, in one of the worse apartment blocks. He left with the woman who lived a few doors down from us. He’d just gotten a new job on an oil rig, something that would bring us more money as a family. But he had other things in mind, which included a life free from us, taking the twenty-year-old a few doors down and setting up a new life.

If there was anyone who would never steal someone’s husband it was me. I would never do that, and the fact that I had made me feel physically ill. That was probably why I felt worse about the lie than the loss of Brian. He’d turned me into something I hated.

I ran my hand through my hair as my head started throbbing. My thick dark locks that usually felt smooth and silky were clammy with sweat and the ends that spiraled into waves looked sticky with it. The vibrant glint it normally had from all the hair treatments I indulged in no longer exists. I dread to think what I must look like if the texture was like this.

What about my face? I could feel the slight puff under my eyelids and the tenderness in the skin just above my cheeks.

I felt a hot mess, and usually that feeling came with the look.

All that from one afternoon.

Shit. I didn’t even know what to do with myself. Now that I was in the silence that I craved when Denise was here, I couldn’t think of one thing I could do to fix myself.

In actual fact, now that I was alone I was thinking about what happened on a deeper level.

I felt dirty, like I’d landed in filth, but I felt like I was the filth. I felt like bathing and scrubbing myself clean of what I’d been turned into. A homewrecker.

Me.

I’d slept with someone else’s husband. God, how did that happen? The tears started coming again and my hands shook as the image of Brian’s wife came back to my mind. She looked so upset, and she was crying too as she yelled at me and accused me of ruining her marriage and her life.

Feeling flustered and sick to my core, I got up, deciding to head to my room, but then the door opened and in came Tristan.

He smiled when he saw me, his bright blue eyes sparkling and his jet-black hair shinier than usual with that just-been-trimmed sharp look. He looked gorgeous and better than usual, which was normally perfect, which meant he has a date.

He walked towards me in that badass, cocky way the women swooned over and stopped just paces away from me by the coffee table.

“Hey, baby, I didn’t think you’d be home. Could you iron that blue shirt you got me for Christmas?”

I looked at him, watching him set down the newspaper he was carrying on the table and shrugged out of his dark-colored blazer.

“Did you see Denise?” I asked, ignoring his request.

“Denise?” He looked at me and brought his hand to the perfectly sculpted, chiseled line of his jaw.

I was appalled to see him thinking hard like he can’t remember who Denise was, and I felt enraged when he narrowed his eyes and looked like he really couldn’t remember.

“You fucking man-whore. Get away from me.” I pushed him and tried to move past him, but he caught my arm and pulled me back

“What the hell, Zoe?” he asked, looking at me as if I was crazy.

“You don’t remember Denise, do you? One of the many you’ve been seeing this month. She’s the hairdresser.”

“Ohh, her. God, Zoe I can’t deal with her today. She was here?”

“Yes, and I had to comfort her.”

“Why? She’s a big girl.” He widened his eyes as if it was absurd I did that. His expression just made me madder.

“You’re an idiot, you know that? You treat women like shit.” I tried to move away from him again, but he tightened his grip and kept me there.

“Zoe, I know you may think so, but I don’t. Denise knew we were just having fun. I shouldn’t have to be made to feel bad if she knew that from the start. I never at any time made her feel like we were in a relationship.”

You feel bad?” I inclined my head and gazed up at him. It would be a first if he felt bad for anything like this.

“Not so much.” He smirked and did his trademark grin. “I have a date with Beth.” He said that like I should knew who Beth was.

Beth? Who the hell is Beth?”

“Massive tits, firm ass. It’s safe to say that I won’t be back tonight.” He looked at me like he’d just won a million dollars.

All I could do was stare. I had no words. Brian had treated me like a fool and was a complete dog as far as I was concerned, but so was Tristan. My best friend was a dog too.

I didn’t say anything and when he released me I walked into the kitchen, opened the freezer, and took out a whole tub of Ben and Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream.

“What’s wrong?” Tristan asked, joining me in the kitchen.

“Nothing. Nothing is wrong.” I grabbed a spoon and a piece of kitchen towel as a tear made its way down my cheek. I then turned my back to him as I wiped it away but he still saw me.

“Zoe, what’s going on with you? You’re far too angry at me for this to just be about me. What’s going on, baby?”

He walked over to me and I turned to face him, beholding the concern in his expression.

“Brian,” I managed, but just saying his name twisted my stomach into knots. “I found out today that he’s married with kids. His wife came to the school today and called me a homewrecker.”

I managed to say all that and stop myself from crying but as soon as I finished, the tears were streaming down my cheeks.

“What?” Tristan asked with his eyebrows raised. Shock filling his face. “What the hell are you saying to me? Brian’s married? As in Brian, Brian?” He looked furious.

I supposed one thing was certain. Tristan was definitely a total man-whore, an asshole on any given day, but he looked out for me.

I nodded and opened my mouth to talk but couldn’t. It was time for me to cry again. I couldn’t control it no matter how hard I tried.

Tristan pulled me into his arms and held me. “What do you need?”

“I don’t know. I feel so bad,” I cried.

He stepped back and took hold of my shoulders. “How about a movie? We could watch Die Hard or something?” He smiled, revealing dimples, and those blue eyes sparkled again.

“Don’t you have a big date?” I asked, raising my brows.

He smirked at me and shook his head. “You come first, babe, you know that.”

I looked at him, taking his words in with appreciation. It was amazing how I’d gone from furious and disgusted with him to this.

I reached up and touched his face, keeping my hand by his cheek. “You sound really into Beth. I wouldn’t want you to miss a date for me.”

“You know it’s fruitless talking to me like that, baby. I just told you, you come first. Now come.”

He took my hand and led me back in the living room where he sat me down on the large sofa and made a show of putting my feet up, taking off my ballerina pumps, and grabbing a blanket to put over me. He then went back to the kitchen to get the ice cream and a large dessert spoon and handed it to me.

Die Hard?” He said with a cool smile.

“Thank you.” I nodded. “And thanks for staying.”

He took my hand, brought it to his lips, and kissed it. The gesture took him off my all-men-are-dogs list.

He sat next to me, and as much as I wanted to lie there and rest, I just kept thinking about the horrible day I’d had.

I felt like a hypocrite now for thinking the way I had about Denise.

I thought I’d found the one guy who got me too. I thought I had something special with Brian, but he was just using me.

“I thought he loved me,” I said, and Tristan looked at me in awe. “What’s wrong with me? Why would he treat me like this? Why? He was never serious about me. I was just a thing.” I searched his eyes, hoping he could give me an answer. But then I realized that I would need an answer for all my other failed relationships too. Before Brian came, it was Tom, Patrick, William, and Joey. My cast of boyfriends. A total of five serious relationships in my thirty-three years.

All ended badly. Tom, the sports journalist, got with me because he wanted in on my closeness to Tristan, he wanted a foot in the door to the NFL. Patrick, the accountant, was the abusive type. He never hit me, but things ended when I practically had to make a run for my life after we had a terrible argument where he grabbed me and threatened to kill me. Being with him was horrible because I had to hide a lot of the stuff that happened to me from Tristan. I knew even now, if he’d ever found out about Patrick’s threatening behavior, he’d find him and probably kill him.

William was the artist, always in search of new ideas. I didn’t think that hunger for newness meant he wanted a new woman every week, but apparently, it did. I found out after we broke up that he cheated on me every chance he got.

And Joey, I still felt an ache in my heart when I thought of him. I loved him. I was young and naïve when I first met him back in college. He was older, and I thought he was so cool as he was the lead guitarist in the then up and coming indie rock band 5 Nails. I was with him for three years, and he left me without even a goodbye. The band became famous after signing with a major record label. Now they were world famous and while I didn’t allow the past to get to me, I tended to avoid any form of news of the band or watch them on TV. Particularly during times like this when I had to do the bad boyfriend checklist.

Trust. That was what they all destroyed. My trust, and they all used me in one way or another, and then made me feel like nothing.

“He wasn’t good enough for you, Zoe.” Tristan’s calm voice brought be back from my boyfriends-of-the-past doom. “Neither were any of the others.” He said that with emphasis, showing me that he knew what I was thinking. He always did. I tried to smile but failed.

“I don’t think so Tristan.” I shook my head.

“Well it’s a good thing I do.” He tweaked my nose playfully and put his arm around me, pulling me close as the tears came again. “You’re an angel. Perfect.”

This time the tears really came hard as I seemed to cry from the depths of my soul. I really wished his words were true.

If they were I wouldn’t have felt so awful.

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