But a text would have let Declan know I was on my way and he could have been looking for me. Under these high, ornate ceilings, staircases leading up and down and around, corridors and masterpieces hung everywhere I turned. I felt dizzy, like I was in Halloween fun house of mirrors. Everyone looked a little like Declan in impeccable black tuxedos, but no one actually was Declan.
I accepted a slender flute of champagne from a waiter and faded back into a corner. I’d have less chance of finding Declan there, but at least I’d be less visible, too. I felt like the country peasant who’d snuck her way into Versailles. Stick figure models strut past, a couple of them casting cold glances in my direction. I probably ate more in a day than they did in a week.
Where was Declan? Maybe I could head to the bathroom, that would give me something to do. And maybe I’d find him on the way. Laughing throngs and men with their hair slicked back and waiters with silver trays bearing unrecognizable tidbits surrounded me at every angle. I needed air.
Around a corner, I finally broke free of it all. A bit secluded, away from the rest, I leaned against a wall, put my hands on my thighs and breathed. Slowly, carefully, just breathed. No sense in having a panic attack at the type of event people longed to attend. I had to get a grip.
Once I stood up, things got much worse. I wasn’t alone in the corridor. Now I saw a couple much further down. At first I hadn’t noticed, I’d been too dizzy. But now I could make them out.
The woman was Courtney, that much I could tell instantly. Her raven black hair matched her blacker-than-black gown, a diamond choker necklace unfortunately not quite tight enough as she still seemed fully alive and kicking. I didn’t know if I was making things up or if it really was the case, but I swore I could see her fingernails blood red as they made their way along a man’s back. A wide, broad back in a black tuxedo.
The pit in my stomach formed fast and furious. I told myself to look away, but like a big rig wreck on a highway you didn’t want to look at it, but you almost always did. It probably wasn’t Declan. From this far away, I couldn’t tell. They weren’t in the brightest spot, tucked away in a dim corridor, a quiet corner. The kind of place you’d go for a romantic moment.
Courtney saw me then, her eyes alighting on mine like a hawk’s. She splayed her fingers along his back and she lit up with a wicked, triumphant smile. It was then that I knew, without a doubt, the man was Declan.
He turned slightly and I could make out his profile, the strong jaw, the stubble all gone from his recent shave back when he was in the hotel room with me. But now he wasn’t with me, he was with Courtney in a dark hallway far away from the throng, intimate and close.
She fixed me with her stare as she twined her fingers in Declan’s thick, black hair. Then she looked up at him and leaned in for a kiss. He didn’t move, didn’t back away, didn’t shove her off of him like a disgusting maggot. No, he kissed her back.
Then I looked away. There was only so much you could take. Reeling, feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach, I somehow stumbled back into the party and toward the front entrance. Air, I needed air. I must have looked bad. A waiter asked me if I needed some help.
“Out,” I managed looking toward the door. He took my arm and guided me to the doors. Once I got out into the warm night air, I didn’t stop. I ran down the steps and down the steps and down more steps. How many freaking steps were there outside the Met? Down at the street, I dove into a taxi cab. The driver didn’t seem phased. I guessed that was the up-side of New York: it took a lot more than a speeding bullet of a girl in a red ball gown to cause a scene.
“Where to?” he barked in that New Yorker accent I’d found so entertaining and now wished I’d never, ever hear again. I gave him the name of the hotel and managed not to throw up until I got up into the room. I even made it to the bathroom. I was very proud of myself.
Ripping off the dress and corset, I left them there on the bathroom floor. I wanted nothing to do with Declan Hunt, not the man, not the gown he’d bought me. I’d fallen in love, completely and utterly in love. I’d given myself to him in every way. And he was with another woman. I’d even told him I loved him, yelled it out merely hours ago. It hadn’t occurred to me until now that he hadn’t said it back. I’d told him I loved him and he’d said nothing in return. Stupid me, I’d taken his groan and thrust as a response in kind. To call me a moron didn’t begin to describe my idiocy. My glasses were so rose-colored they made me totally blind.
I flung the glittering diamond and ruby necklace onto the vanity. Fuck him and his fucking jewels, flattering me and making me think I was hot shit. And I’d fallen for it all.
Hot tears stained my cheeks but I splashed them away with cold, clear water. I didn’t have time for wallowing in self-pity. There’d be plenty of time for that in the future. But not now. I needed to get out of there, fast.
This time around, I found my boots, jeans and t-shirt, too. Powered by humiliation and fury, I had everything on and stood ready to go in seconds flat.
I paused at the door. Everything in me just wanted to dash, take off in the night and begin the complicated nightmare of forgetting any of this had happened. But I knew Declan wouldn’t let me go that easily. He’d proven he liked toying with me. He’d also shown he had no heart. I needed to end things and end them good to have any chance of really getting away.
I decided to write a note. In a drawer, I found a pen and some hotel stationary. This had to be good. If I left any window open at all, he’d come after me and I knew myself all too well. He’d start talking and touching and before I knew it I’d be in it all over again, a sucker willingly placing my neck on the chopping block. No, this had to be convincing.
It came to me quickly, and I wrote:
Someone else has come through for me to help with the ranch. I don’t need you anymore. I’m terminating our contract a day early, so I do not hold you to your end of the bargain. You don’t owe me anything.
I left the note on a table with a shaking hand. Terrified he’d return before I left, I closed the door behind me, raced to the elevator and then down to the lobby. Heart racing, yet also strangely numb, I made it outside and a doorman hailed me a taxicab.
In the car, I blew out the breath I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding. No crying, not yet. I had some things to take care of. I needed to buy a plane ticket and fly back to Montana. I had to get in touch with Lymon and sell him my ranch. Then I had to find somewhere else to live and start my life all over again.
There’d be time in the future to feel everything, to hate myself, to dredge up memories of it all. How I’d told Declan I loved him. He’d grunted and come in me and I’d somehow interpreted that as, “I love you too, Kara. Would you like to spend the rest of your life with me?”
Crushed, I shook with unshed tears and fury. I had to keep it together. I had a plane flight and a bunch of business to transact first.
Sitting there in the dark, speeding to the airport, I made myself a promise. No more believing in fairy tales. From now on, I’d keep my feet firmly planted on the ground. I’d become the strong, independent woman I aspired to be, the kind who’d never have gone running to Declan in the first place. I’d look the truth straight in the face, brave and hones
t, no matter how grim my reality. I was done with the old Kara, sweet and dreamy, imagining rainbows and moonbeams where there was actually just plain mud.
I’d embrace the truth, alone and fierce. I could do it. I knew I could. I just had to stay far, far away from Declan Hunt.
UNLEASHED, VOLUME 4
Had I not been so happy, I wouldn’t have let Courtney kiss me. She got a wet one in before I even registered what was happening.
She’d lured me into a dark, quiet corner in the middle of the gala at the Met. She said she had something important to talk to me about. If I’d thought about it I’d have known what she was up to, but I didn’t. A smile on my face, I was focused on Kara, eager to see her in that gown, searching for her face in the crowd. She hadn’t arrived yet, but she would soon.
Since the one person I wanted to see wasn’t there yet, I decided I could give Courtney two minutes. She was one demanding and relentless woman. The best way to get her off my back would be to give her a bit of my time. Otherwise, she might make a scene. I knew I could handle it, but why go there if you didn’t have to?
Even as she led me back into the hallway, I kept scanning for Kara. I saw no sign. In the last twenty minutes I’d texted and called her but it had gone straight to voicemail. I knew she was fine, just taking her time getting ready, but patience wasn’t my strong suit. I couldn’t wait to see her in that gown with the diamond and ruby necklace I’d given her, and even better, later on stripped down to just the corset underneath.
Courtney dragged me off into a shadowy corner with the subtlety of a tigress. I guess some guys got off on aggressive attack women. I wasn’t one of them. I was all for a woman who knew what she wanted, but this not-reading-my-signals, not-taking-no-for-an-answer bullshit wasn’t going to play. She wanted a piece of me and she wasn’t going to get it. That was final. I belonged to Kara. It was that simple.