Bartered Betrayal - The Billionaire's Wife 08

By: Ava Lore

I went home.

Not Anton's house—that wasn't home any more, if it ever had been—but my home. My tiny shitty apartment where this had all started. My studio now, I supposed, since all my shit was in Anton's house. I doubted he'd try to keep it all like some kind of jealous ex-boyfriend, but I didn't care about it anyway. It was just stuff. You can lose stuff. You can't lose yourself.

Or you shouldn't, anyway.

And yet that was what I'd done. I'd trusted Anton, let him fold me up and take me in and use me however he wanted because I loved the way my body felt when he touched it, and I'd loved seeing the man behind the mask. The one who sometimes laughed despite himself, the man who couldn't let himself lose control for even a moment, the man who sometimes seemed completely confused by me, as though I were some kind of exotic creature he couldn't understand. But I still didn't know him at all, no matter how many times I gave him control. I'd lost myself to him, and had nothing to show for it in return. I needed to go somewhere that wasn't his, that had never been touched by him, and clear my head.

I walked the whole way there. It was cold. My sneakers, my old familiar sneakers, were just canvas. The leather boots I'd been wearing would have been better, but those clothes were for Anton's wife. I was just Felicia Waters. I shared his last name, but nothing more. Not his house, not his life, and certainly not his secrets. He didn't even share my secrets with me.

My heart was a hole in my chest.

The wind cut through my hoodie, but I kept going until I reached my building. Wearily I climbed up to my floor, and when at last I found myself in front of my old door, I realized that I didn't have the key. I didn't even know what time it was, only that it was now fully dark and I'd been walking for hours. My feet ached. My head ached. My chest ached. And now I was locked out of my old apartment. Locked out of my old life, if I wanted to get all metaphorical about it. Locked out of my old self, if I wanted to be truthful.

I started to cry.

I really hate crying, but I knew I had to get it over with sooner or later, and it might as well be sooner, so I leaned against the door and let it come over me like an avalanche.

My shoulders bowed, my face crumpled, and I collapsed to the floor. Grief bubbled up in my chest, great wracking sobs that seemed to come from someone else completely, and a small, detached part of me listened to the anguished howls filling the small hallway, wondering what could have been so horrible that someone should make such a terrible, frightful sound.

I didn't even know. I didn't even know.

It's not like Anton loved me. It's not like he ever even hinted that he might. He'd explicitly said he didn't want a wife to love. And yet I'd allowed myself to hope, all the same, that our marriage might be something more than just a convenient arrangement. My stupid, dumb, hopelessly romantic heart had told me to hope, and I'd foolishly listened to it.

Sadie was right. I was stupid.

The sound of a door opening next to me startled me, and I quickly tried to wipe my tears away and pretend that some other girl covered in snot with a face like a tomato had been wailing like a banshee. It couldn't be me. I would never do anything like that.

My next door neighbor, Mrs. Andersen, stuck her head out into the hallway and glared at me.

“Felicia!” she snapped. “You don't even live here any more and you keep making a racket!”

I stared at her, tears leaking from my eyes.

She gave an exasperated sigh. Good old Mrs. Andersen. I could always count on her to not care. It was comforting. Almost.

“Well, what's wrong?” she demanded. “What are you doing here?”

“I'm locked out,” I said. It sounded inane even to my ears, because no one was going to bray like a wounded cow just because they were locked out of their apartment, but I wasn't about to explain myself to Mrs. Andersen. She could just go on believing I was the worst neighbor in the world. And I probably was. I'd had the audacity to come back after moving out and leaving her with peace and quiet. The fact that I was going to be staying—given that I could get in, of course—would probably put a huge crimp in her day. Night. Whatever.

She fixed me with her beady old-lady eyes. “That's why you're bawling?” she said.

I nodded. “Yup.” I sniffled and settled back against the door again, just to let her know that I was Very Sad and Not Planning on Being Sad Elsewhere, so she had Better Get Used To It.

“Well, call the landlord!”

I'd neglected to take my phone with me as well, and told her so.

She sighed again and slammed her door. I pulled my knees up to my chest and put my cheek on them, trying to get back in the crying groove. I may hate crying, but getting interrupted when you're having a good cry is the worst. I'd had a good head of steam going, probably on the brink of losing my mind with sorrow and rending my clothes, and now I'd been cut off at the pass. I shivered in the cold hallway and closed my eyes, exhaustion sweeping over me.

Mrs. Andersen opened her door again and it was my turn to sigh with exasperation, but before I could passive-aggressively comment on how I wanted to be alone with my grief, thank you, she stomped over to me.

“Get up,” she ordered. “Stop sniveling.”

Ouch, I thought. For a moment I thought about not doing it, but then I realized that since I had no plans, going along with whatever Mrs. Andersen had in mind was probably a net gain in forward momentum. I could use a little push. Crying wasn't going to help anything, except maybe my mental health, and who needed that?

I stood.

Mrs. Andersen stepped forward, clearly ready to do battle with something, and shoved me out of the way none-too-gently.

"Hey!"

"You want to get into your apartment or not?" she asked me, her voice clipped. Then she squatted down in front of the door, her old knees creaking, and stuck two lock-picks in my door.

My jaw dropped open. "What are you doing?" I said.

"Picking your lock, what does it look like?" she said as if I were stupid. She jiggled the picks, turning and fiddling. I don't know. I'm not a master criminal. But she certainly looked like she knew what she was doing.

"I..." I stared at her. "I didn't know you knew how to pick locks."

"Very valuable skill," she said. "You should learn a valuable skill yourself."

Ouch, I thought again. "I have a couple," I said.

She snorted at that. "Sure. So what are you really crying about? Your pervert husband spank you too hard?"

My face flared. Of course she would know about that. Everyone knew about that. She was just the only person I knew who would be so gauche as to say something about it to my face. "No," I said. "He..."

"Cheated?"

"No. He broke my trust, though."

Mrs. Andersen made a very expressive sound. "Of course he did," she said. "That's the way of men."

I sighed. I didn't need life lessons from a woman who once told me to cough more quietly when I'd come down with bronchitis.

"Well, you wanna work it out with him?" she asked.

"I don't know yet," I answered truthfully. "I came home to think."

"Good luck with that," she said, and then something made a little sproing noise and she pulled herself to her feet. "There," she said. "Should be open now."

I reached out and turned the knob. The door swung open and the old, comforting smell of mold and dust and clay brushed against my face.

"Ugh," Mrs. Andersen said. "Figure it out soon, your place stinks."

"Thanks," I said. She just hrmphed at me and tottered back to her apartment, slamming the door behind her.

What a peculiar old woman, I thought, and went inside.

In the dark, the place was stripped and empty except for the old mattresses that I'd been using as my bed—now without linens—and my sculptures and tools, now just hulking shadows in the light spilling in from the streetlamps outside. They sat in my lonely apartment, the last remnants of myself that I didn't take with me into my new life with Anton. Anton hadn't touched them. My last piece, done while drunk the day after I had first met Anton, was a goat tied up and blindfolded. A crude metaphor to say the least. Clearly I was the sacrificial goat. But when I had become Anton's wife, I hadn't quite felt that way. I didn't know how I had felt. I still didn't know.

I walked over to the area where I'd worked. It looked so small now, after Anton's enormous mansion, and now that there was nothing left in my apartment I realized I could spread out. I could make whatever I wanted here.

I sat down on the bed and tried to think of something to make, but nothing came to mind. All I could think about was Anton, and the great sadness yawning inside me.

I lay down and looked at the ceiling, full of cracks and old water stains. The mattress under me was scratchy and sagged, and I tossed and turned, unable to get comfortable.

What was I going to do?

I reached down inside myself, searching for the answer, but nothing came to hand. I was lost. I wanted to talk to Sadie. I wanted to talk to my mom. But I didn't have my phone with me. And what would they be able to tell me anyway that I didn't already know? That I'd married a guy for money and shock of shocks it hadn't turned out very well? Who would have seen that coming? Clearly not me.

You should learn a valuable skill, Mrs. Andersen had told me, and she was kind of right. I was pretty helpless. Being Anton's wife... it had been somehow freeing in the way that solid ground frees you up to run. I had enjoyed the idea of no longer fighting to survive, no longer struggling to make it on my own. I had enjoyed being subject to his needs, knowing at any time I could stop what he was doing with a word. I had enjoyed trying to get under his skin, trying to make him laugh. I had enjoyed being the one who made him come. A powerful man, but he was still a slave to his own desires no matter how he tried to control them. And I was just a girl who wanted to give up the fear and the exhaustion and let him take it out of my hands.

Top Books