Imperfect Affections (Beauty in Imperfection #2) - Charmaine Pauls

CHAPTER 1

Violet

A commotion sounds downstairs. It’s only eight in the morning, but I’m already dressed in my standard jeans and T-shirt. After Elliot presented Leon’s program and claimed it as his own work at the office party, I haven’t slept all night. The guilt wouldn’t let me.

I’m the one who stole the software for Elliot.

I’m the one who betrayed Leon.

I did it to protect my mother, not that it justifies what I’ve done. I simply didn’t have a choice, not when my stepdad would’ve killed my mom in the most painful way imaginable if Elliot showed him the evidence of her adultery.

The flowers Leon brought last night when he picked me up for the party sit like a colorful accusation in the vase where my mom placed it on my desk. Like the coward I am, I’ve been hiding in my room until Elliot left for the office. I can’t face him. Or Gus. I can’t face my mom and her well-intended questions. I can’t even face myself.

Voices come from downstairs. My mom says something in a high-pitched tone. A female replies in a voice I don’t recognize. Going to the window, I pull the curtain aside. A moving truck is parked in the driveway. A woman in overalls wheels boxes piled on a trolley down a ramp from the back of the truck.

“Violet,” my mom calls, following it up with a knock on my door.

I smooth down my hair and open the door.

“There you are,” she says with a smile. “Did you have a sleep-in after your late night?” Hesitantly, she adds, “You didn’t tell me about the move.”

My pulse jumps. “What move?”

“There are two women downstairs.” My mom studies me with a frown. “They say Leon sent them to move your clothes.”

Blood pumps through my veins and gushes in my ears. Why would he still want me to move in with him after last night?

Not wanting to alarm my mom, I try not to sound as shocked as I am. “He mentioned something along those lines, but he said not before the end of the month.”

She relaxes somewhat. “Well, someone is in a hurry.”

“I’ll go talk to them.”

“Don’t bother,” my mom says, laying a hand on my arm. “I’ll send them up.”

Meaning she wants to spare me the trip downstairs. I wish she wouldn’t be so overprotective. Just for once, I want her to treat me like I’m normal.

“Wait,” I say when she heads for the stairs.

She pauses, her expression expectant as she faces me again.

“Did you talk to Gus or Elliot this morning?”

Her cheeks turn pink. “I was tired. I didn’t wake up until after they’d gone.”

It’s not her blushing that gives away the lie. It’s the uneasiness with which she tells it, trying to shelter me from the truth. She can’t stomach her husband. If she can avoid it, she’ll rather not face him. Why can’t she just admit it? Pretending is so exhausting.

“Why?” she asks, concern creeping into her features.

“Gus introduced the new partner last night.”

“He did?” She blinks. “I thought he was planning on doing it in March.”

“It’s Elliot.”

She gives a start. “What?”

“He made Elliot a partner.”

Her eyebrows pinch together. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Oh, but it does. Perfectly. I just can’t tell her. The lies are piling up, spinning tighter around us. We’ve long since crossed the line of coming clean. There’s no backdoor, no other way out of the reality we created for ourselves. The only way is forward, continuing with the charade until I’ll never be able to dig myself out from under the mountain of untruths that define our lives.

“I guess Gus had a change of heart,” I say.

Her voice holds a note of panic. “What about your wedding?”

“I guess that’s down the drain too.”

She glances toward the stairs. “Then why did Leon send a moving company to collect your things?”

“I have no idea.” Stepping from my room, I push past her. “I’ll go find out.”

The tightness of my stomach hasn’t eased since last night. My tension only grows as I walk down the stairs with my mom following on my heels.

Two women wait stoically at the entrance.

“Good morning, ma’am,” the blond one says, checking the clipboard in her hand. “Miss Starley?”

“Yes?”

“I’m Susan from Peters International. We’re here to pack up your clothes and personal belongings.”

“There’s been a mistake,” I say.

The women glance at each other.

Susan takes a phone from her pocket. “I’m sure we’ll sort it out.” She swipes a finger across the screen and lifts the phone to her ear.