Summary: Sage Alvi’s whole world turned upside-down when she lost her mother to cancer. Now forced to live with a father she never knew, she’s trying to navigate her way through a new home, city and school. To make things worse, her half-siblings hate her and she’s being bullied by the cool crowd. They say high school is hard, but this is just ridiculous.
Aidan lay in bed, staring up at the hotel room ceiling while his mind was consumed with thoughts about his daughter. The image of the little girl watching him with her big doe eyes was etched into his brain. At one point she’d even seemed afraid – the possibility of which made him physically ill. After all, he knew all too well what it was like to be terrified of a parent and it was sickening to think he provoked that kind of fear in Ziyah.
He said the word out loud several times, sounding it out. It was such an uncommon name, at least for him, and he liked it. Apparently it meant shining light in Arabic which seemed to fit their situation perfectly. If not for the beacon of hope that was Ziyah and the desire to keep her safe and happy, he probably would have let the darkness in him destroy Sage already. After years of wanting to hurt her, it was difficult not to give into the bitterness and anger she made him feel.
He glanced at the clock. Although it was close to two in the morning here, Theo was in California where it was several hours behind. Picking up his cell, Aidan dialled his best friend’s number, hoping Theo would pick up even though they hadn’t spoken in weeks – not since their last argument when Theo had ordered him out of his life. Fortunately, Theo answered after several rings.
“What do you want? I’m busy.”
“Busy getting laid?” Aidan joked.
“I’m hanging up now.”
“You still pissed at me?”
There was a brief pause at Theo’s end. “Depends. You still an asshole?”
“Then, yeah. I’m still mad.”
“I’m in Toronto.”
“I don’t care.”
“I found Sage. She’s been living here for a while.”
“Great. You want a fucking medal for stalking her?”
“And she has a kid. My kid. Ziyah.”
“What?” Theo asked, sounding shocked. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Sage was pregnant when she took off. I have a daughter, and I’m…” Aidan exhaled a sharp breath. “Scared shitless.”
“Tell me about it.”
They were both silent for several minutes, the air thick with tension.
“This means I’m an uncle,” Theo said after a while. “And forget it, I’m not babysitting.”
Aidan chuckled. “Jackass.”
“How old is she?”
“Almost eight. Brown hair, brown eyes. Looks nothing like me.”
“You sure it’s yours?”
“Sage insists she’s not but I’m not buying her line of bullshit.”
“You’re going to do a paternity test, right?”
“I don’t need a fucking test to prove anything. I know she’s mine. Sage wasn’t the type to fuck around.”
“Take one just to be sure. You don’t want to get saddled with someone else’s problem, you know?”
“Bro, don’t piss me off. Your sister already did that tonight.”
“Which sister?” Theo snarked.
“Sounds like Sage is still in one piece after your meeting.”
“Yup, alive and breathing. No need to call the cops yet,” Aidan deadpanned.
“Give it up. You’re not going to do anything to her.”
“Really, you sure about that? You remember my old man, don’t you?”
“How many times do I have to fucking say it? You’re nothing like him.”
Aidan hesitated for a few seconds before answering. “My whole life I’ve been so fucking afraid of that asshole. I don’t want my kid to feel that way about me.”
“She won’t. You know why? ’cause you’re never going to do what he did.”
“You’re right. I’m not going to lay a hand on her. Ever. I swear it.”
“Hey, I already know that. You don’t have to convince me.”
“I’m going to be the best fucking dad in the world.”
Theo snickered. “Okay, let’s not get too carried away.”
“Come on, dude. I can do it. Don’t you think?”
“Yeah, but it’s not gonna be easy. And you can’t give up when things get hard.”
“And if the kid is anything like you or Sage, she’s gonna be trouble.”
It was Theo’s turn to sigh loudly. “Can’t believe I have a niece. Shit.”
“I can’t wrap my head around it either.”
“How long you planning to stay there?”
“Dude, I’m here for good.”
“Sage knows that?”
“She’ll find out soon enough.”
“How do you think that’ll go over?”
The anger in him resurfaced. “Who gives a fuck? This isn’t about her.”
“Yeah.” Aidan took a deep breath before continuing. “She doesn’t get to dictate if I have a relationship with Ziyah or not.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s weird but I like it.”
“You always were a freak.”
“Shut up.” Aidan yawned. “What’s going on with you and that Cadence chick? You engaged yet?”
“I asked. She turned me down.”
“You serious? What the hell is wrong with her?”
“Nothing,” Theo replied. “She’s not ready for something that serious.”
“Nah, it’s ’cause she knows you’re hot for me.”
“So how you doing? You alright?” Aidan asked, knowing exactly how it felt to be in Theo’s position. It hurt like hell, and Theo was the last person who deserved that kind of rejection.
“I’m okay. We’re okay. Taking things one day at a time.”
“Wait, you still with her? Why?”
“Because I love her. I’m not just going to dump her because she wants to take things slow.”
“You deserve better than someone who treats you like shit.”
“Says the guy still chasing his ex after eight years.”
“Touché.” Aidan smirked. “Fine. Do whatever you want, just don’t be a miserable old fuck.”
“I’ll try,” Theo replied. “Anyway, I gotta go. I have a meeting tomorrow morning.”
“Yeah, I have big plans too.”
“Anything I should be worried about?”
“You? No. Your sister? Probably.”
“Great,” Theo muttered. “I’m not flying out there to bail your ass out of jail.”
“I’m serious. Don’t do anything stupid.”
“Don’t worry. Not going to give Sage any more reasons to keep me from my kid.”
“Man, I’m never gonna get used to hearing you say that.”
Aidan chuckled. “‘night, asshole.”
After the conversation ended, Aidan returned to pondering his future plans. As much he wanted to crush Sage, it was no longer an option. Instead, he had to find a way to deal and work with her in order to be a part of Ziyah’s life – and that wasn’t going to be easy. But he was ready, and prepared, to do whatever it took to win this battle.
Sage sat back in her chair, closing her eyes for a few minutes. As soon as Aidan’s face flashed across her mind, she sat up and turned her attention back to the computer screen in front of her. There were a million emails to respond to and phone calls to return, and she was too distracted to do any of it. All she could think about was last night and the sudden reappearance of Aidan back in her life. Just then her assistant, Kenisha, knocked on the door. Usually, the young black girl was spunky and vivacious; right now, however, she seemed more hesitant than anything. And Sage knew exactly why.
“I’m going out for lunch. Do you want anything?”
Guilt flooded over Sage at how nice Kenisha was being, especially considering Sage had snapped at her earlier. “Mind if I go with you?”
“I’d rather not be bitched out during lunch.”
Most people would be wary of speaking to their bosses so freely but Sage and Kenisha shared a great relationship and worked well together. And until today, they’ve never had so much as an argument. “I had a bad morning and I took it out on you. Sorry.”
“I’ll forgive you, as long as you buy me one of those super fancy lattes.”
“I was going to buy you lunch but a latte sounds easier on the wallet.”
“Here’s an idea. How about lunch and a latte?”
Sage stood up, gathering her things together. “I don’t know if I can afford that.”
“I saw the paperwork for your last sale. You can.”
Shortly after they were sitting at a nearby cafe, enjoying their lattes and sandwiches when Kenisha broached the topic of their argument again. “So why were you so angry? Is everything alright?”
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Sage replied.
“You know you can talk to me. Anytime. I may even listen.”
“Gee, thanks.” Sage smirked. “But what we need to talk about is your application deadline coming up. What did you decide? Are you going back to college?”
Kenisha scowled. “I don’t know. I’m still thinking about it.”
“Why the hesitation?”
“It doesn’t make sense to quit my job and go back to school when the whole point of college is to get a job in the first place.”
“But you would have so many more opportunities with a college degree,” Sage pointed out.
“The secretary thing is only temporary. I want to be an agent, like you. I know I still have to get my license and stuff but it doesn’t seem like it would be that hard. Besides, you make good money so it can’t be that bad.”
“It’s not as easy as it looks.”
“Sorry,” Kenisha offered with an apologetic smile. “I didn’t mean to imply it was.”
“When things are good, it’s great, but when there’s a dry spell it can really wear you down.”
“You’ve been pretty lucky then. You make decent money.”
Smiling, Sage knocked on the wooden surface of the table.
“Maybe I’ll be that lucky too,” Kenisha said in a hopeful tone.
“You’re only 21. Why limit yourself to something you’re just meh on when you can go to college and find a career you can be really passionate about?”
“What’s the big deal? You seem to like it just fine.”
“I do now, but when I was your age I was a single mom with a young kid. I didn’t exactly have a lot of options available to me. Working in a real estate agency was the only job I could get that paid a decent wage. And I was lucky Raj saw potential in me, helped me get my licence and set up a client base.” Sage took a sip of her coffee. “My senior year in high school was horrible, but it was the thought of college that got me through it. I used to dream of going away to a brand new place, meeting new people who weren’t anything like the ones I was around.”
“And occasionally go to classes?”
“Yeah, even that,” Sage replied with a wistful sigh. “I always wondered what college would be like.”
“You could enrol now.”
Sage snickered. “Yeah, right.”
“Because I have a mortgage and going back to school isn’t exactly a practical option for me.”
“Don’t you just hate when reality gets in the way of dreams?”
Sage shrugged her shoulders. “You get used to it. Besides, your reality is a hell of a lot different than mine. If I were you, I would not be tied down to a full-time job. I’d be out there exploring the world, maybe even travelling.”
“Can I ask you something personal?”
“Don’t you always?”
“Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you didn’t have Ziyah?”
Sage traced the rim of the coffee cup with her index finger. “To be honest, I’d probably be dead without her. Before Ziyah I was alone, miserable, and in a shitload of trouble.”
“Really? What kind of trouble?”
Sage locked eyes with Kenisha. For a moment she was that terrified girl again, walking into something horrific that she couldn’t even begin to process, let alone handle.
“I know you don’t really like to talk about stuff that bothers you, but maybe talking would help,” Kenisha suggested.
Sage shook her head ‘no’. “It doesn’t matter now. I’m over it. I left all of that behind me when I moved here from L.A.”
“Are you sure?”
Sage nodded. “I know it sounds crazy but having Ziyah saved me. Finding out I was pregnant was probably the best thing that could have happened to me at that time. She gave me a reason not to give up, to be hopeful. I finally had a purpose again.”
Kenisha smirked. “She’s lucky to have a mom like you.”
“No, I’m the lucky one. I know I sound like I have regrets about not going to college but I don’t. When it comes to Ziyah, I’m just really grateful things turned out the way they did. It could have been much, much worse.” An image of Aidan popped into her head just then, reminding her that her words weren’t exactly true: if he didn’t leave, her situation really was about to worsen.
“We should probably get back,” Kenisha said. “I have a ton of stuff to file.”
“Just promise me you’ll think about college.”
Kenisha rolled her eyes. “Fine, Mom.”
Sage laughed, taking her wallet out to pay the bill.
They entered the office building a few minutes later, both shivering from the chilly breeze outside. The receptionist greeted them with an enthusiastic smile, gesturing them to come over. “Guess who walked in a few minutes ago,” Carrie said, practically bursting with excitement.
“Jesus?” Kenisha suggested.
“Nah, not in this part of town,” Sage retorted. “This is more antichrist territory.”
“You guys are so lame,” Carrie huffed. “There’s an actual celebrity inside this building right now.”
“A list or C list?” Kenisha asked.
“It’s Aidan Carrington.”
Sage froze instantly, her heart pounding in her chest.
“Who?” Kenisha asked. “I’ve never heard of him.”
“He’s big in L.A. You’ve probably heard of his dad. Christian Carrington?”
Kenisha shot Sage a questioning glance. “Doesn’t ring a bell. Do you know him?”
Sage didn’t respond, still unable to speak.
“His dad was a big time Hollywood producer but now he’s in prison. You really don’t know the story?” Carrie asked.
Kenisha shook her head ‘no’. “What did he do?”
“He was convicted of rape,” Carrie replied. “Some people think he’s innocent.”
“Those people would be wrong. That man was a monster,” Sage stated, finally finding her voice. “I’ll be in my office. Kenisha, hold my calls.”
“Actually, Raj is in there with Aidan Carrington right now.”
It was difficult but somehow Sage managed to maintain her cool composure. “In my office?”
“Yup.” Carrie flashed a bright smile. “He’s really, really hot. I’ve seen pictures of him on those pap sites but they don’t do him justice. He’s so much hotter in person.”
“Who cares?” Kenisha fired back. “His dad is a rapist. That’s creepy!”
Walking away from them, Sage headed towards her office. She spotted the pair right away. Raj was sitting in her chair, facing her, but she only had a view of Aidan’s back – and that was enough to make her stomach clench with anxiety.
“Sage, you’re back.” Raj stood up to greet her. “We’ve been waiting for you. I believe you know Mr. Carrington. You guys went to high school together, right?”
Raj’s words barely registered as Sage kept her gaze fixated on Aidan. He was standing up now as well, feigning a polite smile even as his eyes twinkled with both mischief and menace. Dressed in jeans, a grey knit sweater and a black leather jacket, he looked good – and she hated herself for noticing.
“Maybe she doesn’t remember me. I guess I didn’t make that much of an impression on her,” Aidan drawled.
He was taunting her, daring her to fight.
“Sage, are you alright?”
She cast a brief glance at her boss before shifting her attention back to Aidan. “Of course I remember you. You tend to leave your mark on people.”
Aidan smirked. “Stop. You’re making me blush.”
“It wasn’t meant as a compliment.”
Raj shot her a concerned look, and rightly so. Usually she wasn’t the type to behave unprofessionally but Aidan did have a tendency to bring out the worst in her. Whatever Aidan was here for, she had to deal with him alone or risk raising questions. “Raj, why don’t you give us a few minutes alone?” Sensing his discomfort, she gave her boss a reassuring smile. “Aidan and I have a lot of catching up to do.”
Raj hurried out of the office; she followed behind to close the door. Pausing briefly to regain her composure, she took a deep breath before turning around to face Aidan. He was leaning against her desk, his long legs spread out in front of him, watching her intently. She didn’t speak; neither did he.
“Never pictured you as a real estate agent,” he remarked, finally breaking the silence.
“What do you want, Aidan?”
He reached out to pick up the picture of Ziyah sitting on her desk, studying it for several minutes before leveling her with a hostile glimpse again. “I’ll give you three guesses.”
“I’m not interested in playing games.”
“Come on. It’ll be fun. I’ll even give you a hint. It has something to do with wanting to be a part of my daughter’s life.”
She marched up to him and grabbed the photo frame from his hand, careful not to make any physical contact. “We went over this. She’s not yours.” She returned the picture back to its original position.
“Why would I lie?”
“Because it’s who you are. Because it’s Monday. I don’t know. Pick a reason.”
“Are you so bored with your own life you have to harass me to feel some excitement?”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Sage. I’m not here for you. My only concern is Ziyah.”
Just hearing Aidan say her daughter’s name set her teeth on edge. “Don’t pretend like you care about her.”
He stood up to his full height, peering down at her. “She’s my daughter.”
“No, she’s not. And your inability to accept that I fucked around on you just makes you look more pathetic.”
He smiled, a cheshire cat grin that made her even more nervous. “I told you this in high school but you probably don’t remember. You have a tell when you lie. It gives you away every time.”
“Go to hell!” She turned to walk away but he grabbed her arm. “Let me go!”
“You’ve kept her from me long enough.”
“She’s not a fucking toy for you to play with.”
“That’s right, she’s not. So stop acting like you own her. She’s our child and I have a right to get to know her.” He eased his grip on her wrist. “I don’t want to take any legal measures to right this. Don’t force me to.”
She yanked her hand away from him. “Why now?”
“Because it took me this long to find you.”
“Are you kidding me? That’s the best excuse you can come up with? I’ve been here for the last eight years. I didn’t move around. I didn’t change my name. Finding me was not a difficult task. So why don’t you stop bullshitting and tell me the truth?”
“That’s rich coming from you.”
“Sage, you were never a stupid girl. Don’t change now. I’m here because I’m willing to compromise and do things on your terms.”
His words took her by surprise. “Meaning what?”
“Meaning I have no interest in taking Ziyah away from you. I just want to spend some time with her, get to know her.”
She eyed him suspiciously. “And then what?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“You might be playing nice now, Aidan, but I know how you and your family operate. I’m not going to do anything to risk Ziyah’s safety.”
Hurt flashed across his face, his green-gold eyes simultaneously brimming with anger and anguish. “You think I’m going to hurt her?”
She swallowed an audible breath. Although her instincts screamed that Aidan wasn’t capable of physical violence the way his father was, she didn’t trust her own judgement. “Yes.”
His jaw clenched, he tore his gaze away – almost as if her words had stung so badly he couldn’t even bear to look at her. “You really believe I would hit a child?”
Say yes. Just say yes. If she played on his insecurities, maybe he would leave altogether – but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. “No, I don’t think you would do that.” His gaze sought hers out again, and she spotted a glimmer of hope in them. “But I know you, Aidan. You have a blind spot when it comes to your family and friends. Which means if any of them were to ever threaten Ziyah, hurt her, you wouldn’t do anything to stop it. You’d stand idly by.”
“You don’t know me at all, do you?”
“I wish I didn’t.”
“Yeah well, you can’t change the past. And as much as you might hate it, I am Ziyah’s dad.”
“Biologically, maybe, but you haven’t earned that title.”
“Fine. Then give me the chance to do so.”
“If I don’t?”
Picking up the picture again, he flashed a cold, intimidating smile. “Then I can make your life extremely uncomfortable.” He sauntered towards her, a predator stalking its prey. Getting ready for the kill. He was standing directly in front of her now, in such close proximity she could feel his breath humming against her skin. “And while the thought of you being miserable brings me great joy, I don’t like the idea of Ziyah seeing someone she loves suffer because of me.” Sage struggled to stay stoic but it was difficult with his gaze lingering on her face, wavering from her eyes to her lips and back again. “Don’t be stupid, and don’t be childish. We’re adults, we can find a way to work through this. And like I said before, I’m even willing to play it your way to make things easier for Ziyah.”
Her breath caught in her throat when, suddenly, he leaned in closer. That same longing was still there rushing through her blood, strong as ever , but she forced herself to ignore the butterflies in her stomach. If he knew about her inner turmoil, he would use it against her – and she wasn’t going to let that happen.
“You should know.” His index finger was on her skin, tracing along her hairline, making her insides quiver. “I bought the penthouse suite in your apartment building, which means we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other. And I’ll consider this a housewarming gift from you.”
Before she could react he strode out of her office, Ziyah’s picture in hand, leaving Sage stunned as she watched after him.
CHAPTER 24 (Updated 08/14)
Later that evening after putting Ziyah to bed, Sage poured herself a glass of wine and headed into the den. Usually this was her time to relax but that was the farthest thing from her mind tonight. David was watching a movie and she took the seat beside him, offering a small smile when he reached for her glass. After an unsuccessful attempt at watching the movie, she finally gave up. “I don’t think Aidan’s leaving.”
David took a sip of the wine. “What changed your mind? The other night you were so convinced he’d be jetting out of here.”
“I was wrong.”
“You mentioned he showed up at your office?”
“Yup. To tell me he bought the penthouse suite in this building. So now I have to worry about running into him everywhere.”
“Jackass doesn’t do things halfway, does he?”
“What exactly did he say?”
“That he’s not going anywhere and he’s willing to do things my way to make it easier on Ziyah. Blah, blah, blah.”
“If I say something will you swear not to bite my head off?” David asked.
“I’m going to say it anyway.”
“It’s your head.”
“Fighting with him is obviously taking a toll on you. You’re stressed out, pissed off. Is it really worth it?”
“What should I do then? Just hand him my daughter?”
“That’s not what I meant,” David griped. “He said he’s willing to do things your way, right?”
“Then use that to your advantage! Give him a chance to get to know Ziyah but you be the one to dictate the terms.”
“I don’t want him near us.”
“Yeah well, he’s not going anywhere until he meets Ziyah. So you can either compromise with him and gain some control over the situation or let him ruin what you’ve worked so hard to protect. You have every reason to hate him and his family. I get that. After everything that happened, who can blame you for wanting to protect Ziyah from them?” David wrapped his arm around her shoulder. “Maybe the key to getting what you want isn’t to keep fighting but to give him just enough rope to hang himself. He wants to play daddy, right? Let him. Show him all the work that goes into it, how hard the whole thing is, and maybe that’ll be enough for him to give up on that idea. Once he sees how difficult it is, he’ll go back to L.A and doing whatever the fuck he does, and you’ll never have to worry about him again.”
“And how do you think Ziyah will feel about that, huh? Do you think it’s easy for a kid to be rejected by a parent? Unless…” Her mind raced, her heart pulsed. “I don’t have to tell her he’s her dad, I could just say he’s a friend or something. And that way when he leaves, she won’t be attached to him.”
“There you go!” He squeezed her shoulder as a sign of encouragement.
She took back the wine glass from David’s hand and chugged the rest of the drink. Although still hating the idea of Aidan being around Ziyah, she realised David was right. When things became too difficult or too much for Aidan to handle, he had a tendency to run back to the familiar – as proven by how easily he’d abandoned her and returned to Cat once Sage refused to bend to his will. So all she had to do was be patient, and wait for Aidan’s destructive habits to kick in when parenting proved more difficult than whatever fantasy he had created in his head. And then, hopefully sooner rather than later, he would finally leave and she and Ziyah could return to their normal routine. Until then if she had to play nice, so be it.
Finding some semblance of peace now that she had a plan, Sage leaned back against the couch. “I’m going to miss you when you leave.”
“I’m not gone yet.”
“I wish you could stay longer.”
“Have you talked to Patrick?” His hesitation didn’t escape her notice. “David, what’s going on?”
“You sure? I’m here if you need to talk.”
He replied with a half-hearted smile before falling back on the couch, snuggling against her. “Shut up and let me watch the movie.”
“Fine,” she muttered, resting her head on his shoulder. Tomorrow she would search for Aidan’s contact information on and set up a meeting, thereby inviting the chaos that he always brought with him; tonight, however, when everything was still peaceful, she just wanted to cling to the comfortable life she had built for herself and Ziyah.
Sage entered the Shangri-la hotel and headed towards the bar where she was supposed to meet Aidan. Spotting a bathroom along the way, she made a quick stop to check her reflection in the mirror. Her stomach was coiled into knots, she felt nervous and sweaty – but her reflection appeared normal, composed even. She smoothed down the fabric of her suit, checked to make sure the hem of her skirt was even. A little voice in her head pointed out she never worried this much about her appearance, not even when doing showings for prospective clients, but Sage ignored it.
The bar, conveniently named The Bar, was tucked away in the northwest corner of the lobby floor. Upon entering the premise, she scanned the area and found Aidan at the bar. Surprise, surprise, he was talking to the very attractive bartender and, from the looks of it, she was flirting back. Not that Sage could blame the woman. Wearing jeans, an olive-green sweater, and a charming smile on his face, he looked good. Really good. Asshole. Feeling more tense now, Sage approached him. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
He turned towards her, the easy smile on his face now replaced with something a lot less warm. His languid gaze swept down her body, cold and judgmental. “Aren’t you always?”
“Says the man who barged into my life and now refuses to leave.”
“Touché.” He grinned, standing up. “Let’s get a table.”
“This isn’t a fucking date,” she snapped.
He quirked his eyebrow. “Don’t flatter yourself. I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in hours.”
“Why? To maintain your girlish figure?”
“Ah, you noticed.” Aidan smirked. “Been checking me out?”
She resisted the smile that was threatening to break out. “Now who’s flattering themselves?”
“Someone has to. You obviously won’t.”
He gestured to the hostess to seat them and soon they were sitting at a booth, big enough so that it didn’t feel intimate – which was the last thing she needed to worry about. After he ordered a steak, a bottle of wine and some appetizers, they were alone once again. Awkwardness set in like a thick fog over them. It occurred to her there was a time when she used to fantasize about going out to dinner with Aidan at a public place, like a normal couple, without having to worry about Cat or anyone else bullying or insulting them, but Sage told herself to stop being ridiculous and get over it.
“If you play nice, I may give you a small piece of my steak,” he said, bringing her out of her reverie.
She met his gaze. Aidan’s eyes were a darker shade of green tonight, almost matching the colour of his sweater. His handsome face stared back at her, his lips curved into a small, flirtatious smile. It was so easy to be swept away by him when he played up the charm, and just as difficult to get over the heartbreak when he was done and no longer cared. Although it had been years it still felt like it was just yesterday he had rejected her, thrown her aside for her sister, and she remembered the deep anguish all too well. “I don’t want you anywhere around my daughter.”
His smile dissolved. “Our daughter. I know you like to think you conceived her all on your own but you didn’t. Do I need to go over the birds and the bees thing with you?”
“Fuck you. I’ve raised her on my own, I’ve given her a safe and loving home-“
“No one fucking asked you to do it by yourself!” His voice was heavy with anger and fully directed at her. “I could have helped! I could have been a part of her life from the very beginning but you took me out of the equation. You had no right to do that!”
“So what is it that you want? Is this about ownership for you, about possession? She has your genes so now you feel like you have to claim her, maybe dominate over her?”
“No!” he griped, disgusted. “I want to…” He exhaled a resigned sigh, reaching for his glass of wine. “I want to get to know her. That’s all. Why is that so hard to understand?”
His sincerity was almost enough to weaken her resolve – until she remembered the danger that surrounded him. “I don’t trust you, and the thought of you being around Ziyah scares the crap out of me.”
Pain flooded over his features, as if she had physically hurt him.
“But I also know how much of a stubborn jackass you are and you’re not going to give up anytime soon.”
“You’re making me blush,” he deadpanned.
“I don’t want to spend my time arguing or worrying about you. It’s not good for me and it’s definitely not good for Ziyah. She might be a kid but she can sense when things aren’t right.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“I have conditions. And before you start bitching at me about them, you need to know this isn’t for me as much as it is for Ziyah. I have to protect her no matter what. I’m her mom. That’s my job.”
He gave her a small smile. “Okay.”
“She can’t know you’re her dad, at least not yet.”
“Because how do I know you’re not going to get bored and take off next week or next month? I don’t. And when that happens, I’m going to be left with a daughter who’ll be heartbroken. I can’t bear that. I remembered what being rejected by a parent felt like. I don’t want her to experience something that horrible.”
Suddenly Aidan leaned in closer, his gaze boring into her. “I’m not going to leave. You have my word.”
“Your word doesn’t mean anything to me,” she replied, hating that her voice trembled with emotion. “Until I can trust that you’re in her life for good, she can’t know you’re her dad. It’s as simple as that.”
He watched her for a long time, almost daring her to break eye contact, but she refused to look weak in front of him and held his gaze.
“Fine,” he finally relented. “How are you going to explain my being around all of a sudden?”
“I’ll just tell her we’re friends. She’s a kid. She’ll buy it.”
“Friends, huh? Is that what we are now?”
“No, but we don’t need to be. We just can’t be at each other’s throats in front of Ziyah. That’s not a good environment for a child to be in.”
The food arrived then, just in time to distract from the hostile energy that had taken over between them. Shortly after she was nibbling on some deep-fried spring rolls and watching him wolf down his steak. He wasn’t kidding when he’d mentioned being hungry. By the looks of it, he was positively famished. “What were you so busy doing that you didn’t even have time to eat today?”
“That’s none of your business, is it?”
“Is this how you’re planning to talk to me in front of Ziyah?”
“Do you really think I would do that?” he fired back. “You’re not the only one with a shitty parent. I had one too, and I remember what it was like growing up in a house and being terrified of him. I hated how he spoke to my mother and me, like we were fucking things that he owned and not actual human beings.” He wiped his mouth with a napkin and took a swig of his drink. “Whatever is happening between us, you and me, I’m not going to bitch you out or disrespect you in front of her. And before you list this as one of your conditions, I don’t intend to go against any decisions you’ve made for her either. As far as Ziyah is concerned, you and I are a united front.”
His words stunned her, mostly because she hadn’t expected that level of understanding from him.
“What else? What other conditions do you have?”
She took a breath before speaking. “Ziyah can’t have any contact with Cat, Theo. Any of them. And your mom.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
She braced herself for a fight. “I don’t want my kid being called names, or being treated like shit. No one should have to live with being bullied, and your friends and family? They’re bullies. They’re horrible people, they’re disgusting, and I won’t let my daughter be exposed to them. I don’t give a fuck that they matter to you or they’re important to you. What I care about is Ziyah and I’ll die before I let any of them near her.”
“Don’t hold back. Tell me how you really feel,” he said flippantly.
“I’m not budging on this.”
“They’re not just my family, they’re hers too. Sooner or later, she’ll have to meet them.”
“Not if I can help it.”
“Is this really about Ziyah? Or you?”
Sage shook her head. “Of course you don’t get it. I don’t know why I expected any different from you.” Taking out her wallet, she threw some bills on the table. “Forget this. Forget I even came here,” she muttered, refusing to look at him as she gathered her things together.
“Yeah, keep running. That’s what you do best, right?”
Not bothering to respond to his condescending tone, she stormed out.
The morning had started off like any other: a sparring match with Cat at home and then dealing with the constant buzz of malicious gossip about herself at school. Although Sage had perfected the art of acting impervious, it was hard to keep up the charade when a nastier-than-usual rumor reached her ears. Yesterday’s gossip blast was all about how she’d fucked three guys, one after the other, in the men’s bathroom to get her hands on some molly; today, there was something new to fuel people’s interests.
“What’s going on?” David asked, joining her as they followed the crowd of people in the hallway.
“Locker check or something.”
“Why are the cops here?”
“They received a tip someone was selling drugs in Belleville,” someone replied from a few feet away.
“Why don’t they just question Marcus? Everyone knows he’s the one you call when you need a hit of something,” David griped. “Wait a sec. If they find porn in our lockers they can’t arrest us for that, can they?”
“They’d have to arrest all the guys in Belleville then,” Sage replied. “I doubt that’s going to happen.”
“I hope so.”
They watched as a police officer and his dog walked the hallway, occasionally stopping in front of lockers to check them. Soon they were near Sage’s section when the dog started sniffing her locker. Even though there was nothing suspicious contained within, her stomach still turned with anxiety.
“Ms. Alvi, can you please open your locker for us?”
Sage shot a worried look at David before doing as requested. Nervousness turned into a sick feeling of dread as she stepped aside and allowed the officer to search through her things. A second later, he pulled out a variety of bags from the back of her locker.
“Those aren’t mine!” Sage insisted.
“Ms. Alvi, I need you to come with us.”
It didn’t matter how much she protested; her pleas fell on deaf ears as they led her away from the gathering crowd.
After spending the last few hours in the police station being interrogated by the cops and then lectured by Thomas and his lawyer, she was finally back in the poolhouse. The events of the past few hours flashed through her mind. Someone had put drugs in her locker, enough to make sure she would be charged with possession for sale. And with her recent bout of troubles at Belleville, they were all too eager to believe she was capable of that. The cynical part of her wondered if the authorities would be more lenient if she had been white. Unfortunately, despite having a father who was, she wasn’t afforded the benefits of the privileged.
Closing the door behind her, she stared blankly at her surroundings. She was tired, of this place, her father and his family, of continuously fighting with everyone. Her mind was exhausted, her heart broken. For a while there she had been happy, deliriously so, when she and Aidan had been together but now the thought of him just filled her with shame. He’d used her and she had allowed herself to be used, letting herself believe he cared about her, even loved her. With everything falling apart, he’d been a lifeline she had desperately clung to – but it had been an illusion, nothing more than lies.
In the end, with Layal gone, she was alone. Always alone. And that was never going to change.
She walked to the bed, took a seat. College had been the light at the end of the tunnel, the one thing getting her through this hellhole, but now, because of these trumped up charges, even that dream was quickly dissipating. Everything was dark, her future bleak, and there was no escaping it.
The knock on the door woke her up. She glanced at the clock. It was a little after 8am, only a few hours had passed since she’d returned from the police station. About to get up to answer the door, she stilled upon hearing the jiggle of keys. A second later, Cat stepped inside. Dressed impeccably like she always was, Cat greeted her with a smug smile on her face, positively preening.
“Damn. You’re still here.”
“What do you want, Cat?”
“You. Gone. For good.”
Cat strutted across the room, stopping halfway between the door and the bed, carefully scrutinizing the area. “We’re going to have to steam your stench out of this place when you finally leave.”
Sage forced herself to remain calm. “It was you, wasn’t it? You put the drugs in my locker.”
Cat met her gaze, her eyes gleaming with satisfaction. “Maybe. Then again, you’ve pissed off so many people it could be just about anybody. Tish. Marcus. Aidan.”
Sage wondered if this level of despair would haunt her forever. There seemed to be no end in sight, no matter where she turned.
“Nothing to say?” Cat jeered.
Despite how she felt, Sage refused to break down in front of Cat. “Leave now, Cat, or you’ll be needing a plastic surgeon to fix your face once I’m done with you.”
“And you wonder why people hate you. You’re trash, Sage. And instead of being grateful that we let someone like you around us, you act all superior. No wonder Madeline hates you so much.”
From the slight inflection in Cat’s voice, Sage knew right away who was responsible for setting her up. Madeline. Aidan’s mom. And she obviously did it with Cat’s help.
Swallowing an audible breath, Sage stood up. “I’m going to count to five, and you know what’ll happen once I reach the end.” Before she made it to three, Cat scurried out of the room. Taking a deep breath, she pondered the bombshell her sister had dropped. Madeline was the one responsible for these charges but Sage couldn’t figure out why. It’s not like she and Aidan were still together so why was his mother out to get her now?
As much as Sage hated the idea of contacting Aidan, she had no choice. He was the only one who could explain Madeline’s motivations because, frankly, Sage had no clue. She picked up the phone, dialed his number, growing increasingly tense as the phone rang for several seconds. Finally, he picked up after the third ring.
The way he whispered her name with such longing made her insides churn. It was hard for her to breathe, let alone speak.
“Forget it. This was a mistake.”
“No, don’t hang up. Please.”
Every instinct in her body told her to end the call but her heart… her heart leapt up in her chest, surging with emotions.
“I don’t know why you called but I’m glad you did. I miss you, Sage.”
She remained silent, unable to respond.
“I know you’re pissed at me, you have every right to be. But I swear I’ll change, I’ll be better, I’ll never hurt you again. Just please give me another chance.”
“That’s not why I’m calling!” she replied quickly, before his words were able to break through her barriers. “I’m in trouble.”
“What’s wrong?” he asked, sounding panicked.
“I was arrested today. The cops searched my locker and found drugs in there.”
“Marcus.” Aidan’s terse words were laced with anger. “He must have planted them there. When I get back-“
“It wasn’t Marcus. Or at least he didn’t work alone. It was your mom who set it up.”
There were several beats of silence before he finally answered. “Sage, come on. Why would she do that?”
“That’s what I’m calling you to find out. You and I are done; we’re not together anymore and she doesn’t need to worry about me filling your head with independent thoughts. So why is she out to get me?”
“Don’t you think you’re being a little paranoid right now?”
Of course he didn’t believe her. It was foolish of her to assume that he would. After all, Aidan was one of them. “I don’t know why I thought you’d help me.”
“And I don’t know why you’re so determined to blame my mom for this. What makes you think it wasn’t Tish or Marcus that put that shit in there?” His voice softened, almost as if to lull her into a false sense of security. “I’m at my grandparent’s right now. I’ll be back in LA soon. Just hang tight for a few days until I’m home and then we can work through this together.”
“Yeah, sure,” she scoffed.
“Sage, I know things seem hopeless right now but you’re not alone. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Just wait for me. Please.”
He sounded insincere, every word out of his mouth a ridiculous lie. How could she have trusted him in the past? Loved him? Cat’s words from earlier rung in her ear. There was a very good possibility that it was Aidan who had planned this. She knew all too well what he was capable of when angry; thanks to his parents, he was an expert on manipulating people and doling out extreme punishment when he felt slighted – and yet there was a part of her that still refused to believe he would hurt her to that extent. Then again, it didn’t matter. Even if Madeline was the one responsible, his refusal to believe the truth made him just as culpable in Sage’s eyes.
“Say something,” he urged, voice infused with fake desperation.
“I have to go.”
She hung up and turned off the phone.
With no one on her side she had to figure out a way out of this mess on her own – which meant she had to confront Madeline.
To be continued…
A/N – Thank you for reading. If you enjoy my writing, my debut novel Follow You Down is available for sale on Amazon.