Read on for an exclusive excerpt from Finding Paradise, available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble!
(WARNING: Contains explicit language)
My fists, damp with sweat, are clenched in my lap beneath the crisp white tablecloth. I know he’s waiting for me to speak, but I just can’t find the words. I don’t even think I know what words are. I used to know them. I use them daily, but right now, words are things of a distant nature. I could mutter unintelligible sounds, but words? I’m all out of them.
My lips are starting to quiver. No words, but apparently, I do have a heart and it’s threatening to break in the middle of this busy café in downtown Phoenix. I pull my bottom lip between my teeth and bite down, feeling burning pain but refusing to let out the sobs that are building in my throat.
We’re not at this café for a normal lunch between a boyfriend and his loyal girlfriend. No, my dear, we’re here for an ambush. A bombshell. A catastrophic turn of events that’s about to turn my uneventful life upside down. And I’m supposed to have words at this point to speak? What are words?
Ethan utters my name, but I can’t peel my gaze away from the image in front of me. My tunnel vision is focused on the small grayscale picture he slid towards me with guilty eyes a few minutes ago. The picture next to the Cobb salad that will never be eaten and next to the iced tea covered in condensation dripping down the glass, crying for me.
The picture is actually perfectly clear. They say it’s hard to make out anything but blobs of gray in these things, that you can’t see much at this point. But they say a lot of things, like that love conquers all, and all you need is love. Whoever they are, they are full of shit.
I can see everything in the picture so perfectly. The tiny button nose, the delicate fingers, the rounded belly. I can make it all out just fine.
The baby in the ultrasound picture in front of me belongs to my boyfriend.
But the baby in the ultrasound picture doesn’t belong to me.
I bite my tongue on the left side, on the right side, on the left side again, trying to feel a harsher pain than the one that’s crushing my chest right now. I can’t breathe – I must have forgotten how to do that too. I’ve forgotten a lot of things in the last 30 seconds, like how to be strong, how to trust my boyfriend. My eyes burn with the tears that I’m holding captive as they threaten to run down my cheeks. Can’t breathe, can’t blink. I can only feel.
I wish I couldn’t feel.
“Mila, please. Say something.”
I drag my attention away from the picture and let it travel across the table to the man in front of me, my blood boiling as he comes back into view. His blue plaid shirt rests unbuttoned against a white undershirt. I haven’t seen that top on him before. I wonder if he bought it on his own or if someone else – the same someone who was having the baby in the picture – bought it for him.
I hate that shirt. I hate plaid. I hate the color blue. Most of all, I hate Ethan.
But I still love him.
I can’t bring myself to meet his mahogany eyes. My gaze settles instead on his Adam’s apple as it bobs up and down. His chin and jawline are clean-shaven, as usual. Every bit of Ethan’s appearance has always been picture perfect, from his dirty blonde hair that sticks up in all the right places to his thin, sharp lips. But it looks like Mr. Perfect wasn’t so perfect, now was he? Fool me once…
“It’s yours?” My heart is silently praying that I heard him wrong the first time. Please, please, please…
Ethan grinds his teeth as the clock keeps ticking. One second. Two seconds. Three seconds.
“Yes.” He draws in a long breath. “He’s mine.”
He? “It’s a boy?” I look back at the ultrasound of Ethan’s bouncing baby boy. The baby boy who is bouncing around in a womb that isn’t mine. “Who is she, Ethan? Do I know her?” If he tells me it’s my roommate, I’m going to lose it.
He shakes his head as he fixes the collar on his shirt. “You don’t know her. We met in study group. It kind of just happened…”
“Kind of just happened? What part, Ethan? The part where you cheated on me, or the part where you knocked her up?”
Ethan hushes me.
I lower my voice. “How far along is she?”
“Almost five months.”
My eyes grow wide as my throat closes in. Almost five months. “God, Ethan! When were you going to tell me about this?”
His facial expression transforms from concern to pain to indifference within a matter of seconds. “I just found out a few weeks ago myself. I didn’t think it would go any further than a one-time thing, I swear. I definitely didn’t expect her to pop up months later telling me she’s pregnant with my kid.” He brushes his palm down his jaw, pulling his skin along with it. “I wanted to tell you weeks ago when I first found out. I did, really. I just didn’t know how to tell you. It’s not something you just throw on someone you love.”
Love? I don’t think he knows what that word means. “So telling me in a crowded restaurant was the next best idea you had?”
He shakes his head and starts to speak, but I hold up my right hand to stop him. “I don’t care to hear any more from your mouth.”
“No!” I say a little more forceful, slamming my palm on the table. I can’t stand to hear any more of his lies.
Ethan sits back, his lips pressed in a tight line. He averts his eyes to the water glass in front of him and I follow his line of sight, watching the droplets on the glass swivel their way down to the tablecloth as I contemplate my next move.
The man in front of me has been the love of my life for the last three years. We were high school sweethearts, then college sweethearts, Ethan Lowe and Mila Quinn forever. We had plans and goals. But in an instant, it was all tossed out the window like yesterday’s garbage. No recycle bin here. Everything must go. Oh, you wanted to keep your heart? Sorry, Miss, that needs to be thrown out too. Here, I’ll take your bag of sloppy tears with me on my way out.
“What do you want from me, Ethan? Did you bring me here to gloat? To see the shock value of this picture?” I pick up the picture and fling it towards him. He fumbles to retrieve it mid-air, barely saving it from landing in his pasta.
Yes, Ethan, save the picture. Much more important that your relationship at this point.
He smooths the picture against the table. “I don’t know what I want. I love you, but I’m going to be a father soon. I need to take care of my child.”
I’m in disbelief. He brought me to a crowded restaurant to tell me that he’s having a baby that was conceived while we were together – something that should’ve been confessed in private. How could he possibly think this is okay? But then again, that’s how he’s always been. Ethan I-can-do-no-wrong Lowe.
I gather my long, loose chocolate brown hair to one side of my neck and shift in my seat. I love this man with everything I am, but this is wrong. Cruel. Unforgivable.
“You’re something else, Ethan.”
His forehead creases as he tries to predict my words.
I continue. “I gave you everything I had. My heart, my love, my virginity. And you threw it away for some whore in your study group? And because that wasn’t injury enough, you added an insult and got her pregnant. I wasn’t enough for you.”
“You’re more than enough.”
I hold up my hand again and Ethan bites back his words.
“I wasn’t asking you a question.” I lower my hand and discreetly wipe my sweaty palm on my skirt. “You’re incredible, Ethan. You’re an incredible asshole for doing this to me, to us.”
“I didn’t do anything to you. I did it to myself.”
“But you pulled me into it. Don’t you get that? The moment you decided to cheat, you pulled me into this.”
“I don’t have a choice, Mila. This baby is more important than you.”
I draw in a sharp breath. “Yeah, you’re right. So I’ll make it easy for you.” I grab the glass of iced tea and fling the drink across the table. The auburn-colored liquid drenches Ethan’s face and his ugly plaid shirt. I wish it were red wine instead to stain his shirt like he stained my heart.
Ethan is frozen with shock. A small part of me is pushing to apologize, to help him clean up, to wrap myself in his arms and figure out this whole mess together. But I shove that part of myself back into the closet and lock her up before regret sets in.
I don’t smile. I don’t blink. I don’t breathe. I wait until Ethan meets my eyes, until he sees the pain he’s caused.
“Go fuck yourself,” I mutter through clenched teeth.
I stand up and shove away from the table, knocking over my chair in the process. Heads turn and whispers fly as I spin on my heel and weave through the tables in the café towards the exit.
He doesn’t call after me. I didn’t expect him to anyway.
As soon as I reach the sidewalk, I break into a run to my car, afraid that I’ll lose my nerve and turn back into the café. I rev up the engine in my old Toyota and peel out of the parking lot. I’m not sure where I’m going, as long as I’m far away from the restaurant and Ethan. I partially hope he’s following me to beg to take him back. But every time I glance in the rearview mirror, his Mustang isn’t there. Just strangers and stone cold truth.
My adrenaline fades away the longer I drive. The more my adrenaline fades, the more heartache overwhelms me. I haven’t felt a pain like this since I was 15 years old. I almost forgot what it was like to lose someone who was your entire world, someone you loved the most.
I curse at myself for not being smarter, for not seeing the obvious signs that were there the last few weeks – hell, the last few months. He’s been distant, distracted during our conversations, late to our dates, quick to leave at the end of the night. When was the last time we had sex? Instead, I’ve been wearing these rose-colored glasses, believing that everything was perfect in our relationship. Five months pregnant puts the date of his one-night stand sometime in December, the month before our three-year anniversary. That’s if Ethan was telling the truth about it being just a “one-time thing.” For all I know, “a night out with the guys” or “studying late” could’ve been code for Ethan cheating on me. For all I know, the only thing he was studying was her naked body.
I can’t breathe at that last thought. I’m completely shattered.
I pull off the road into a semi-empty Target parking lot in the furthest empty spot and let the heavy sobs I held in during the confrontation with Ethan erupt from my eyes. Tears for me. Tears for the broken promises. Tears for all the plans that will never come true.
I end up crying alone in the parking lot until the sun leaves the sky and the moon takes its place.