Innocent Sins Ch. 10bychezshirecat©
This one is for all of the romantics out there. We thank everyone for their feedback, both good and bad.
Nearly a year later...
"I don't know how I let you talk me into this," Heather whispered to her sister as she fidgeted in the revealing red dress Cassie had talked her into wearing. It really wasn't that bad, the dress, but in the past year Heather had reverted back to dowdy clothing and little makeup, and it felt a little strange to be dressed so sexily again after so long.
She took a deep breath and glanced around the hotel ballroom that had been converted for tonight's Bachelor Auction and again wondered why she'd let her sister talk her into this. Cassie had said it would be fun, just to come and see what a real-live bachelor auction was like, and besides it was for chairty - Toys for Tots. That, more than anything, had won Heather over simply because she and Jake had once been heavily involved in the particular charity. Not that she expected to participate by bidding, of course. She'd paid fifty dollars for admission, which would be her contribution. Bidding on a man would be absurd in the circumstances, but Cassie had jokingly said in the car that she fully intended to buy herself a Valentine's date this year.
"And why not?" she'd added when Heather had looked at her as if she were crazy. "For once I can have a romantic date where he is obligated to do everything I say. How often does a chance like that come along?"
Heather glanced at her pretty sister now and smiled slightly, glad to see her older sister finally happy. Heather was glad that at least someone's dream had finally come true this past year. For years Cassie had slaved away at dead-end jobs just to help Heather get through school and then to save enough to start her own business. With Heather's help, she had finally done it. A few months ago, Cassie had finally opened her own floral business. Heather had agreed to do her sister's bookkeeping and had thrown a small investment into the pot, making them partners of a sort. They already had two part-time employees and several orders for Spring weddings to fill. Maybe the future wasn't as bleak as it had once seemed. She was getting her life back on track, finally doing something she was proud of again.
Still, after all this time, not a day went by that Heather didn't think of Jake. What a fool she had been. If she could only go back in time and change that one week...but she knew she couldn't. Somehow she had also learned to carry on with her life because there was a good chance that he would never want her again. And even if he did, she was a different person now.
When Heather had walked out on Jake that night, she'd gone through a myriad of emotions - hurt that they hadn't been able to work things out; a sense of desperation wanting him to come after her; anger at how much he'd degraded and humiliated her; and then finally acceptance that they were better off apart. A part of her still harbored a lot of anger towards him for what he'd done to her, yet at the same time, a part of her remembered the good, decent human being he'd been when they had married and wished he were still in her life.
If Jake were to walk up to her right now, she didn't know what she'd do or how she'd react to him. Slap him and walk away? Burst into tears and beg him to give her yet another chance? Maybe ask him just to sit down and talk so she could understand how such a wonderful man had allowed her to destroy his basic goodness? In her heart, she still hoped and she still dreamed of him - silly, fairytale dreams, of Jake riding into town and sweeping her off her feet because he'd finally realized he couldn't live without her. She'd pictured it a thousand times.
Jake would come back to town, tell her he'd decided to forgive her for what she'd done while begging her to forgive him. Of course there would have to be a few awkward moments at first, but finally Jake would declare, "I still love you, Heather," and pull her into his arms for a hug that would inevitably lead to a deep, soul-shattering kiss. Then he'd take her home and they'd make love to reaffirm their love...
But she knew it would never happen.
It was funny; she hadn't had sex since she'd left Jake. The only aspect of sex she missed at all was the feeling of intimacy she'd once shared with her husband...the feeling of being truly close to someone who loved you and who you trusted not to hurt you. At Cassie's urging, she had dated a couple of guys this past year, but neither had asked her out more than once. It was easy for anyone in her company for more than five minutes to see her heart just wasn't in it. She didn't want to get hurt again, and yes, she still felt a little guilty for even thinking about other men after the consequences of her affair. She needed to heal before getting involved with anyone again, and she wasn't quite there yet.
She'd even heard from Ty when she came back to town - he'd called to see how she was doing, said he still loved her and that she always had a place to stay if she needed one. Remembering what Jake had told her, she calmly asked, "I'm sorry...did you make that same offer to your partner's wife after you made her pregnant?" Not that she cared, or was jealous. She simply wasn't, so she added, "Please just don't call me anymore, Ty. I don't want a relationship with you. Please accept that and leave me alone."
She'd found out from Jessica that Ty's gym had folded and his finances had been left in pretty bad shape; Heather remembered that he'd put almost everything he had into the business, saying it had always been his dream and no expense was too great. She knew the knowledge might please Jake, but it just made her sad.
Next to Heather now, Cassie eyed her little sister and frowned. Since returning from Las Vegas, the light had faded from Heather's clear, blue eyes. Hell, Heather had been going downhill ever since Jake had left her to begin with, but this time it was different. Before she'd gone to Vegas, Cassie had feared for Heather's sanity and her health - Heather had lost so much weight and hadn't taken care of herself the way she should have. But then her phone calls from Vegas had always been so positive, so happy, that Cassie had stopped worrying. That is, until Heather had shown up on her doorstep at three in the morning one day, looking defeated and helpless...and numb.
Sure, Heather took care of herself now. She had gained back the weight she'd lost and, to the outside world, probably appeared happy and carefree. But Cassie knew her little sister, and she knew Heather wasn't the same. She was becoming too emotionally detached from everything and everyone. She refused to speak about what had happened in Vegas, or about Jake, period. She'd even severed all ties with his family. But Cassie knew Heather still thought about him a lot. She often caught her sister staring wistfully at old photos of Jake when she thought Cassie wasn't around.
Clearing her throat, Cassie raised the auction program they'd been given at the door and urged Heather to glance at it. How else would this plan work if Heather didn't wake up and pay attention to what was happening?
"Would you look at this? There's over twenty guys up for grabs tonight. How much money have you got?" she asked, hoping Heather would look at the names of the guys on the bill.
Heather decided to humor her older, obviously much hornier sister and took a glance at the auction program. She had read where most of the guys tonight were going to be local Marines or former Marines. Again it made her think of Jake, and she distantly wondered if she would know any of the guys on the program. Maybe she could find one of his old friends and see if they'd heard from him lately, see how he was doing. Despite her conflicted feelings, she still worried about him, knowing the path he'd been headed on before she'd left him. She hoped he'd gotten the help he'd needed and was able to regain some of himself in the process.
As soon as the thought entered her mind, Heather felt her heart stop dead in her chest. Was that really Jake's name on the program, right there under the BACHELORS heading? He was one of the bachelors up for grabs? Oh god, she didn't know how she felt about that. She quickly glanced around the room. There were a lot of women here tonight. Beautiful women. Beautiful, probably rich women. One of them would be taking Heather's ex-husband home with her. Oh god. And she would be here to see it.
She shot a horrified look at Cassie. "You knew about this, didn't you?"
Heather opened her mouth to say what a mistake it was, Cassie playing God with her life, when a man stepped into her line of view and made a throat-clearing sound to get their attention.
The truth was, she almost didn't recognize the man standing in front of her, dressed handsomely in a tuxedo. His hair was slightly longer than she remembered it, and back to its soft, sandy brown color. He was very tan and looked like he had spent all of his time since she'd last seen him working out. In short, he looked fine, damn fine. In that tuxedo, he even reminded her of their wedding day, so long ago...
Jake nodded politely and said, "Hello, Heather. You look very beautiful tonight."
She swallowed, forced herself to smile and say awkwardly, "You too, Jake."
For seconds, neither of them spoke. Heather felt her heart skip a few beats, stupidly fantasizing that Jake had finally come back to claim her and set things right, but reality had taught her a harsh, cold lesson and she couldn't easily dismiss the counter-thought that Jake had only come over here to further hurt and humilate her. This reminder caused her spine to stiffen as she pointed out, "I didn't know you would be here tonight. I swear I didn't. I don't want you to think--"
"Don't worry about it, Heather," he gently interrupted with a smile and a soft, calming touch on her arm. He sent a nod of greeting toward Cassie. "I'm glad you both came. It's nice to see a familiar face or two in this crowd."
"Oh yeah? How does it feel to be a hot hunk up for grabs, Jake?" Cassie teased with her old familiarity.
With a self-conscious laugh, Jake turned a little red and tugged at his collar. "Absolutely terrifying, if you want the truth." He stepped closer. "I heard you two had started your own business. Congratulations."
"Thank you. It's mostly Cassie's." Heather started to say more, but held her tongue. After a long pause, Jake cleared his throat again.
"Well, I'd better get going. We're supposed to mingle with any prospective bidders to stir up donations," he explained. "As it is, I think I'm being stalked by a little old lady waving a hundred dollar bill." He and Cassie laughed at the joke, and he added, "It was good to see you."
Heather was confused by his casual attitude. She'd have expected more drama, more...something...after the way they'd ended things this last time. All he wanted to do was act as if they were nothing more than old friends? Fine. She could handle that. She just nodded and said, "Good luck."
When he walked away, Heather thought she noticed an exchange of looks pass between Cassie and Jake and was going to ask her sister what it was all about when the lights flickered, hinting that the show was about to begin. The two sisters headed for their seats, and Heather found that she was suddenly a bundle of nerves. She was silently calculating how much money she could afford to spend and wondered, should she dare? Would Jake be angry if she actually bid on him? Would it be at all appropriate?
What was she thinking?!
No, she decided. She was resolved not to bid. She and Jake had had their chance and lost it. She had a good life now - not as happy as it had once been, but she was content. She couldn't go back to living in the hell that had transpired a year ago. It would absolutely break her this time. And Jake? God, Jake. He looked good, healthy again. He sounded like his old happy-go-lucky self, so much so that it tugged at her heart. Not that it mattered. He probably had a new woman in his life now anyway, one who was all ready to jump up and claim him once the bidding started. Someone who treated him the way he had always deserved to be treated. Heather didn't want to embarrass him or herself by jumping into the fray. Besides, she couldn't really afford to, not after dumping most of her savings into Cassie's business.
And she just couldn't make herself vulnerable to him again. Not after spending the past year working overtime to regain as much of her self-respect as she could. And if Jake really was on the mend like he appeared to be, how could she even think of messing him up again?
The first bachelor came out, and Heather wished she could just leave. To say this situation was uncomfortable was an understatement. Jake was the seventh bachelor on the program. The anticipation was going to drive her nuts, waiting to see which woman won him. The bidding went fast for the first two men, the bids quickly topping two hundred each. She was thinking of leaving and wondering how she could manage without ruining her sister's fun when she felt a nudge at her side.
"Hey," Cassie whispered and then pushed something into Heather's hand. Heather fingered the thick envelope, knowing it probably contained money, but she also knew Cassie couldn't afford this. Curious, though, she opened the envelope to see how much Cassie had been able to round up and gasped seeing nothing but hundred dollar bills. A lot of them. Far too many for Cassie to be able to afford. She also noticed a folded up piece of paper which she pulled out and opened.
"Heather - Maybe I'm taking too much for granted. I don't know. I'd like a second chance. Would you? The next move is yours. Love, Jake."
From off to the side, Jake watched Heather cautiously to gauge her reaction to his note and the money. He wondered what was going through her head, but he didn't have to wonder long. Heather couldn't mask the shock, disbelief and then flicker of hope she was feeling at the thought he might be reaching out to her, finally. Moments passed. She seemed deep in thought, probably weighing the pros and cons of giving them another chance, just as he'd done a lot this past year. He could see by her expression that the cons were probably outweighing the pros and sighed. He didn't deserve a second chance anyway. He knew it as much as she did, but still, he'd had to try. He figured he owed that much to the memory of the young, happy, loving couple they'd once been...
He felt a hand clasp his shoulder and a voice say, "Think she's gonna go for it?"
His old Marine buddy Kevin stepped close to watch Heather's reaction too. He and Kevin had renewed their friendship this past year, something that had helped Jake get his head straight again. Participating in this auction had been Kevin's idea, but giving the note and money to Heather as an Olive branch had been Jake's.
"Hey, man, is that her sister?" Kevin was pointing out Cassie, so Jake told him yes, it was. "Man, I don't suppose it's too late for me to pass her a few hundred and a note, is it? Hey, if this works out the way I think it will, think you can hook me up?"
Just then Jake heard one of the organizers telling him that he should get backstage. He swallowed hard, figuring he owed it to the kids to go through with this, even if Heather turned down his offer. "Wish me luck, buddy."
Heather listened as the auctioneer began introducing her ex-husband to the crowd of captivated women. When she looked at Jake, dressed so handsomely and looking so much like the young man she'd married, she had an epiphany of sorts. Things hadn't worked out between them in Vegas for so many reasons. Largely because she'd allowed Jake to treat her so badly. He'd been trying to make her leave, but she'd arrogantly believed she could overcome his hurt and anger by doing everything she could to please him. One of the reasons he probably hadn't been able to trust her again was because she'd appeared so weak and insecure, allowing him to walk all over her.
What they'd needed then had been time apart to heal and come to terms with their loss, followed by counseling together. They might have stood a real chance then.
Maybe they still did.
"Jake is an entrepreneur who spent much of the last year backpacking across Europe. That's right, ladies, he's fluent in French and Italian...."
Someone gave a catcall and Jake laughed.
"Let's start the bidding at twenty dollars..."
A redhead near the front screamed out, "Twenty dollars right here!"
A group of older women ganged up and countered with thirty. Cassie leaned over and whispered, "Well...?" as the bidding war continued around them...without Heather's input.
Oh god, why was it so hard to decide?
After some hesitation, Heather opened the envelope and began counting to see how high she could go with Jake's money. She thought about screaming out a dramatic "Two thousand dollars!" when she figured the total, but since it was Jake's money, she wanted to be as thrifty as possible with it.
"Two hundred dollars!" the auctioneer yelled in delight.
He'd put himself on the line by offering to meet her halfway. Call her a fool, but the least she could do was the same.
Swallowing her pride, Heather called out two hundred and fifty. She saw the look of relief that passed across Jake's features, then exchanged a wry smile with him across the room. The next few minutes were a flurry of bids and counter bids, with Heather coming out the winner at over five hundred dollars. It had become obvious to everyone in the room that she wanted Jake and she intended to win him, no matter what the price. One of the event organizers quickly came over and asked Heather to meet Jake at the back of the room to turn in her money.
"You know," he said by way of greeting, "you could have saved us both a lot of trouble if you'd just bid the whole amount at once. It's for charity, after all."
Heather wanted to throw herself in his arms and thank him for doing this, but she held herself back. She eyed him warily, still a bit puzzled by his gesture.
"And miss watching you squirm? No way," she teased good-naturedly. She handed over the money and was told to fill out a donation form. She was just about to put her signature down when Jake's hand stopped her.
"Before you sign that, there's some things you should probably know," he said somberly. He saw a flash of worry pass across her features. He hadn't meant to worry her, so he quickly added, "I've been through a lot since I last saw you. I did a lot of soul-searching and made a lot of decisions. Part of the reason I did this, Heather, is to get closure, to apologise for being such a bastard to you. You didn't deserve what I put you through."
"Th-thank you," she said in worried voice. "But you could have just picked up the phone to say that."
"I'm not so sure."
Heather stiffened her spine and met his gaze with determination. He was glad to see the fight was still in her even as she asked him, "What does that mean, Jake? What are you trying to tell me?"
Jake took a deep breath and then clenched his jaw, working up to what he'd come here to say. It wasn't going to be easy for him, for either of them, but he had to say it.
"Last time, neither one of us put our honest intentions up front, and we both ended up in hell because of it," he pointed out. "That's why I'm here. To tell you that someday - I don't know when - but someday I will probably ask you to marry me again, Heather. Whether you say yes or no, that will be your choice. But those are my cards on the table."
The tears burst free before Heather could stop them, and through the mist of those tears she saw him shift his weight anxiously and rush to add, "The truth is, I'd like to think we'll end up as husband and wife again someday, but I won't promise anything, Heather. Hell, I don't even know what it is you want from me anymore. For all I know you're seeing some guy who treats you like a princess and you're counting the minutes until I'm out of your life again."