tagErotic CouplingsHigh Stakes, Hard Sell Ch. 06

High Stakes, Hard Sell Ch. 06

byNorth200©

Author's note:

Allow me to present the sixth chapter in this series, a little delayed but a longer chapter than usual to compensate. I'd intended this to be the final chapter but there will be an epilogue in a couple of weeks for anyone still interested. Many thanks to the readers who have taken the time to read the story, and to those who have encouraged me with their votes, comments and emails. Reader response is one of the best parts about writing a story and you folks have been really fantastic so THANK YOU! Also, the esteemed author karaline has patiently and insightfully provided her feedback and editing, ruthlessly hunting down every unnecessary adverb she could find (although a few snuck back in stealthily and sneakily after she was done). Many thanks, karaline, I'm in your debt!

This is a story about fictional adults in a consenting relationship.


*****

Jane lay in a hospital bed. The dopey peace of the painkillers had faded she was starting to feel the full after-effects of the appendectomy. She'd have to buzz the nurse for more drugs.

They'd told her she was lucky her appendix had only perforated and not burst. The open surgery and clean up of her insides had gone well. Even the ugly incision on her abdomen would eventually fade into a thin white line. They'd keep her for another day to be sure there was no issue with the wound, then send her home.

She didn't feel lucky, just numb. And lurking beneath that numbness lay a growing sense of horror. The curse was in its final stages, ripping chunks out of her body, taking her a piece at a time. She'd be dead by spring, eight days away, unless she could find a way to wipe away the stain of a terrible betrayal and five years of indifference.

'Regain the trust most cruelly betrayed or die before spring'. That's what the old lady had said when she'd uttered the curse.

And Jane had tried. Over the past month she'd tried every angle she could think of, every trick, every tactic. She'd made progress; Mike was warming to her again and the spark between them was still there, promising to flare into the passionate love they'd once shared. But the sins of the past remained, making a full reconciliation challenging.

Or maybe impossible. Maybe it couldn't happen. Maybe some bonds, once broken, were forever irreparable. Maybe the upcoming week would be her last.

"Hey." Mike poked his head in through the privacy curtain that surrounded her recovery bed. His voice was low; she shared the room with three other people who didn't want to be disturbed.

"Hey," she said, giving him a grateful smile. He'd stayed with her the whole night after she'd been admitted, Nessa sleeping on his lap. He'd been there when she'd woken after the surgery and stayed with her most of the day and part of that night, even though she'd been too doped up to supply much in the way of conversation. She was glad to see him again, but concerned, too. "Where's Nessa?"

"At her friend's house. The mother said she could watch Nessa until three."

"You should be training. Your fight's in less than a week."

He shrugged, then pulled a chair close to the head of her bed and sat down. "The nurse says you can have coffee. Want me to make a run to the cafeteria?"

"I was just about to buzz for more drugs."

He nodded, then stood. "That's a good idea. Get some sleep. They're saying you'll be discharged tomorrow."

"Wait...stay a while?"

"I don't want you in pain."

"It's manageable. Your company would make me feel better than the drugs, I think."

He smiled, then reclaimed his chair.

"I don't know any jokes appropriate for a hospital recovery room," he said.

"It hurts to laugh anyway."

He held her hand and squeezed. They passed some time in silence.

"How freaked out is Nessa?" Jane asked.

"She's handling it. I told her you got sick, now you're in the hospital getting better. She gets it."

"I should have done a better job."

"She's fine."

"I didn't want to let you down."

"You didn't. You kept her safe and healthy. It's all good," he said.

"I'm relieved."

There was a pause.

"Janey, I think you should let your sister know you're here."

"No."

"She'd want to know."

"I don't want her to know. She'd find some way to blame you," Jane said.

"For appendicitis? Even Betty wouldn't go that far."

"I can't trust her."

He sighed. "I won't say anything if you don't want me to, but I'd like you to at least consider it."

"I appreciate you keeping it to yourself," she said.

"In that case, we need to talk about the next couple of weeks. The doc said you need to be careful - no lifting, no exertion. Probably wouldn't hurt to have someone else around in case there are problems."

How awful would it be to spend her final week alone in her apartment, waiting to die? She shuddered.

"You could stay with us, but a lumpy, old couch probably isn't the most comfortable arrangement for you..."

"I'll take it, and thank you. I really don't want to be alone."

"Well, Nessa still has to go to school, and I still need to get to the gym, but at least there would be someone there in the evenings."

"We might have to modify our deal," she said. "I won't be scrubbing any floors or carrying any laundry for a couple of weeks."

"It was fun while it lasted. Guess I'm back to being Mr. Mom."

His tone was lighthearted but Jane realized how disastrous her position was. Her final week - the week where she should be making a strong push and working hard to close the deal - she'd be lying on the couch uselessly, watching Mike do all the housework. Not only useless but actually burdensome. How could she demonstrate her trustworthiness when she couldn't even get off the couch?

Even the sex option was off the table - the doctor had been clear about it. Nothing strenuous meant NOTHING strenuous. During the most important week of her life she'd be a sexless blob on Mike's couch. She wouldn't even be able to shower or wash her hair.

"No, seriously, Mike. We can extend the deal by a few more weeks. When I'm better I'll more than live up to my end. Make up for lost time, you know?"

"The focus right now is on you getting better. Forget about the deal. I'll accept a cash settlement instead."

"Will you take a personal cheque?"

He chuckled and gave her hand another squeeze. She'd been right; his warmth felt better than codeine. She felt a sleepy wave wash over her.

"You've got four or five hours. Get to the gym. The fight's on Friday and you're an underdog as it is," she said.

Perhaps hearing the fatigue in her voice he stood up and put the chair back. She was drifting when she felt him lean in close and kiss her forehead. It brought a smile despite her distress. He really was better than drugs.

**

Early Monday afternoon Mike picked her up from the hospital in her own car. Getting from the hospital-supplied wheelchair into the passenger seat of her car was agonizing - it felt like someone kicked her in the stomach. The fact that her left ankle and right wrist were still sprained and mostly useless didn't help matters. She was a basket case.

At his building he carried her from curbside up three flights of stairs to his apartment. Even with his powerful physique he was trembling and winded by the time he set her gently on the old couch.

"Do that four or five times and call it your workout for the day," she said, gingerly re-positioning her hips to find a comfortable posture.

"I figured you'd be lighter with no appendix," he said, gasping for air. "Do you need anything? Water? Coffee?" He got the fleece comforter and draped it over her legs.

"I'm good for now. I'll snap my fingers when I need service."

"You'd better be a generous tipper."

"No joking, Mike, I hope you realize how much this means to me. I don't know if I can ever thank you enough."

"No problem. What are friends for?'

"Friends?" The word startled her - were they friends? His assessment left her feeling both hopeful and strangely unsatisfied, even if it was better than she deserved.

"Too much?" he asked, reading her expression.

"No...not at all. I'll take it, happily. Friends with benefits, right?"

He grinned and her spirits soared. Maybe there was still a chance.

"Do you need anything from your apartment? You know...clothes or female things?"

"Maybe I could get you to swing by there tomorrow when Nessa's at school? I can't wear these clothes for a whole week."

"The car will make it easier to do a grocery run, too. For now, I've got to return some calls. Promotion stuff for the fight."

He turned to leave and she grabbed his hand. "Could we talk a bit more?" She knew she sounded needy but she was past caring.

"Sure. What's on your mind?" He sat on the edge of the couch.

"Well, it's March thirteenth. Spring is only a week away."

"You're worried about your curse?" There was no mockery in his voice and she was grateful for that.

"The last few days demonstrate that I've still got a ways to go to earn your trust."

"Janey, this wasn't a curse. It was appendicitis. It's common."

"You know I'm completely at your mercy here, Mike. I will literally do anything you say if it means helping you trust me again."

"I do trust you. I left you with Nessa, right?"

"And it was a disaster!"

"Why? Because you got sick? How is that your fault? Besides, Nessa ended up safe and healthy, so you did fine."

"There's got to be something more I can do. Can you think of anything? Anything?" Her voice was going shrill and she tried to regain control.

"Okay, relax a second. Take a breath. Let's just talk...figure this out," he said.

"Maybe...maybe a punishment of some kind?"

"What?"

"To make things even, I mean. You could...punish me. I'd do it willingly - anything you said." Her deep blush was impossible to hide. To even suggest such a thing...

"I don't want that. I never wanted that."

"I mean, I hurt you bad, humiliated you, right? Maybe if you did the same to me?"

"I did punch you, remember?"

"Maybe that didn't do it. Maybe it wasn't enough?"

"No. Absolutely not."

"Then what? Just name it. Even if you think it's a long shot, I'll do it." This wasn't sales anymore, not negotiation - it was shameless grovelling. Jane tried to reign in her panic but wasn't able to shake the sense of impending doom.

"Sit back. You're supposed to be relaxing."

She felt frustrated tears welling up and she willed them away. She didn't need his pity, she needed his trust.

"I hope you understand...you don't need to be shy about asking for things or making demands. Don't hold back just because you're a nice guy."

He rose form the couch and pulled a chair up, then sat facing her. He leaned forward and looked at her. His expression had gone serious.

"Tell me why you betrayed me the way you did," he said.

This again? She looked away. "I told you - I was protecting you."

"From who?"

"I'd rather just leave this in the past, Mike."

He leaned back in the chair. "If you don't want to tell me, I won't insist. But this question isn't going away. It's always going to be there, standing between us."

She was silent a few moments. The significance of his words wasn't lost on her. "Even if I explained it, you wouldn't understand."

"I'm not stupid, you know."

"I don't mean it like that. It's just...you're wired differently. It wouldn't make sense to you."

"How about you try?"

"Okay," she said, then paused, trying to arrange her scattered thoughts into a coherent explanation. She'd never tried to relate the concept to anyone before. Where to begin?

"Love creates a powerful bond. You'd agree with that?" she said.

"Yeah, of course."

"Whose responsibility is it to keep that bond strong?"

He paused. "I guess both people are responsible. It takes two, right?"

"I agree. And since both people share the responsibility for keeping it strong, both people are responsible when the bond weakens or breaks, right?"

"Well..."

"Maybe they're not equally responsible when things go bad, but each person bears some portion of the responsibility. Are you with me so far?"

"Yeah...I suppose it makes sense."

"And if we're both responsible when the bond is broken then we're both responsible for the consequences that directly result from that. Maybe not equally responsible, but each person bears some responsibility, right? Some percentage of the blame for the consequences?"

"What consequences?"

"Well, like you hitting me for example. That was a consequence of me ruining our relationship - breaking that bond."

He was quiet for half a minute, thinking through her words.

"So because we were both responsible for our bond, you were partially responsible for me punching you when the bond was broken? That doesn't sound right."

"Because you can't accept that hitting me was an emotionally valid response to the collapse of our love. A collapse that was entirely my fault."

"Hitting you was wrong."

"I didn't say it was right; I said it was an emotionally valid response."

"You weren't at fault for me hitting you."

"Yes, I was," she said in a patient voice. "Not completely, but a large part of the blame was mine."

"No. People are responsible for their own actions," he said.

"People share responsibility for maintaining a loving bond, and they share the blame for what happens when that bond is broken," she said.

"I can't accept that."

"I told you you'd never understand. You're blinded by rationality and can't see that humans are emotional creatures first and foremost. You'd be a terrible salesperson." She smiled sadly. It had been her best attempt to explain, but not good enough.

Mike stood up as if to pace, then thought better of it and resumed his seat.

"Okay, let's pretend I agree with you, just for the time being. That doesn't explain why you did what you did - why you destroyed our relationship."

"I was protecting you."

"That doesn't make any more sense than the first time you said it."

She looked down and fidgeted with the edge of the comforter. The tears came and this time she didn't try to hold them in; it was going to be that kind of conversation.

"My mom killed my dad."

Her words hung thick in the air, choking the conversation for at least a full minute. She could feel Mike's eyes on her but he was quiet, doubtless lacking a response for her revelation. She sobbed but didn't look up. The tears felt hot on her cheeks. Hearing the words aloud - even in her own voice - had been wrenching.

"But...how? What happened?" He leaned forward and grasped her hand but she yanked it back. She didn't want to be comforted or consoled. She fought to steady her voice.

"They were in love. For seventeen years they were inseparable, but mom suddenly decided she wanted more. Dad was blindsided when she filed for separation. She started seeing other people right away. Dad hung himself in the garage. I was fourteen."

"I'm sorry," he said. What else was there to say?

"I hate her for what she did. I swore I'd never do that to anyone - make them love me and then destroy them. For a long time it was easy - meet a new guy, go on a few dates, end it before he could fall in love. Everyone had fun, no one got hurt. A couple of guys would get clingy and make it awkward but cheating on them was a good way to break things off nice and clean. I didn't want to run the risk of ruining them completely."

"Janey, I don't think..."

"But then YOU had to come along and screw everything up," she said, giving a laugh that ended in a whimper. She wiped away tears with the back of her hand.

"What did I do?"

She continued to worry the comforter with her fingers, determined not to meet his eyes.

"I knew I was in love with you by the end of our second date. It was unexpected. It felt so good - I didn't want it to stop. I kept hoping it would get stale and we'd drift apart but it just got better and better. I could see you were falling for me too...and I knew I needed to break it off...but I was so happy when I was with you. So I kept putting it off, delaying the inevitable. We were practically living together and I still couldn't find the will to end it. I knew it was wrong, Mike - I knew the longer it went on the more dangerous it became. But I was so selfish...selfish and happy."

"You were entitled to be happy."

"Not at your expense. Not at the risk of killing you. Anyway, I stumbled on the engagement ring while putting away your laundry. I was horrified. I knew then I'd let it go too far - way too far. You were in love with me and I had the power to ruin you. It was a terrible realization."

"Or we could have had a happy life together. Wasn't that an option?" Mike said.

"But we were young, Mike. I was starting a career and so much about the future was uncertain. I couldn't guarantee my feelings for you would last, and if they didn't you might have ended up dead. It wasn't worth the risk."

"So to protect me, you cheated."

"I cheated...then rubbed your face in it. I wanted it to hurt as much as possible. I wanted you to be furious with me, to hate me with every cell in your body."

"Why?"

"Because..." Her voice broke and she had to start again. "Because anger is safe. Angry people don't kill themselves - only depressed people do. If you were angry at me, you'd have a reason to live. So I made sure you were angrier than you'd ever been. I made you hate me. I didn't want you end up like dad."

"Janey, that's crazy!"

"And it worked. You survived, you fought through. Now you've got Nessa and you're building a great life here. In the end, my mistake didn't cost you too much."

"You think because I didn't kill myself it means you were right to do what you did?"

"I'm sure of it."

"Bullshit. How can you be sure?"

"Because...a few years later I saw you were on the fighting circuit again, doing okay, so I figured maybe I'd been wrong. You'd survived, so maybe my dad had been a one-off, a tragic fluke. Maybe I could enjoy love and not worry about the consequences. I met this musician, Pierto. He was fun and there was a spark so I decided to go all-in. I wanted what I'd had with you, that same feeling."

"Good."

"Not good. The feeling wasn't the same. He was nice and we got along well but he didn't make me feel the way you did. Not even close. We'd only been dating a few months when I tried to break it off. He pursued me...wouldn't take 'no' for an answer."

"So you cheated."

She nodded and sniffed. "But Pierto didn't get angry - he didn't have that temperament. He tried to kill himself...like dad...and it was MY fault. I was right all along. Love leads to ruin."

"That wasn't your fault. He made his own choices."

"And we're back to the beginning again," Jane said. "With you being Mr. Rational and failing to see how people truly are."

He took a breath and exhaled loudly.

"Love doesn't lead to ruin. Thousands...millions...of people are in loving relationships. They can't all be idiots."

"Some of them are ignorant of the risks. Some know the risks but choose to minimize them, or rationalize, or delude themselves into thinking they're immune to destruction. Some are just selfish, like I was, and want happiness regardless of the cost."

"I was in love with you. Which category was I in?"

She knew she was walking into a verbal trap, but forced herself to answer anyway. "You didn't see the risks. You were completely unguarded. That's why I needed to protect you."

"That wasn't your choice to make!"

"Yes it was. Love gave me the right to make that choice."

"Janey..." he started, then stopped and shook his head. "Well, now I know, at least." He stood, and she couldn't tell from his sour expression if he was frustrated or angry. "I need to get Nessa."

"You've got more than an hour," she said. Had she pushed it too far? Had she set them back again, so close to the deadline?

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