Read the entire first chapter of “Deceived” below!
Bruce didn’t think it would end like this. Ten years of marriage, up in smoke. Ten years of memories, lost in a moment. For ten blissful years, he’d had everything a man could want.
Incredible, how fast that could change.
The course of his life had taken a dramatic turn, but his outlook hadn’t always been so grim. A decade before everything had gone to hell for him, he had just moved into his newly-constructed dream home in the growing suburb of Maple Springs, a happening little Northeastern town nestled cozily on the outskirts of beautiful Stirling City. Bruce had personally picked out the large plot of land for his gorgeous estate as soon as he’d managed to amass himself a small fortune, and its construction marked not only the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his life, but also the realization of a childhood dream.
Ever since he was a young boy, he’d had a vision in his head of what his ideal home would look like and just how perfectly it would sit nestled in the picturesque wooded hills of the suburbs. On the day he finally saw that vision come to life, he thought it almost uncanny how well the traditional brown brick mansion in front of him matched the hasty doodles he’d come up with as a child. Beautiful and private with its set-back lot, meticulous landscaping, wrought-iron details, and large in-ground swimming pool, the mansion was a nice retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city and its constant barrage of lights, sounds, and people, while being conveniently close to the metro his business called home. In no time, he happily settled into his new domicile and filled it with countless treasures and luxuries.
Construction of his high-class bachelor pad might have cost a pretty penny, but as far as Bruce was concerned, it was worth every cent – though if truth be told, he could have had his dream home much sooner if he hadn’t been so stubborn about paying for it all by himself. The younger of two brothers, Bruce was the son of a wealthy German banker and a well-to-do socialite mother who was a dedicated arts-enthusiast and loved to frequent the Stirling City ballet. The von Essens lived a privileged life and money had never been hard to come by, but despite his parents’ wealth, Bruce had been prideful and refused to let them give him a handout. Building the house was something that he’d wanted to do on his own, and it wasn’t the first big endeavor he’d undertaken solo. Before he’d even been able to think of laying down the first brick, he’d first had to set the foundation.
He’d started up the aptly-named brokerage firm Vonessen Inc. straight out of college, and as its founder and CEO, the determined Harvard graduate quickly proved himself to be a strong-willed, motivated leader who was inherently money-smart and boasted an unwavering work ethic to boot. Within its first few years of existence, Vonessen Inc. became an incredible success and his obsessive ambition paid off. His fortunate upbringings aside, the money Bruce made from running his business alone could’ve gotten him anything and everything that he wanted.
…Well, almost anything and everything. See, even though Bruce had the dream home and all the money and notoriety that a man could want, he couldn’t help but feel lonely lounging around in his huge mansion with no one else to share it with. Having a home filled with rooms kind of lost its novelty when he was the only one in them, and aside from the occasional get-together, that was exactly how it was: Bruce was always the lone person in a big, beautiful, empty house. When he’d been a younger man and a bit more naïve, he’d assumed that simply being successful and having nice things would bring him all the happiness and fulfillment that he needed. But when his mind wasn’t distracted by business matters, he felt an awful, hollow, nagging feeling in the back of his head that there was something missing in his life; something very important that money couldn’t buy.
He discovered what that something was when he met the woman who would change everything for him. That fateful afternoon, he’d decided to do something out of the ordinary and go for a quiet walk during office hours, just to get out and enjoy a change of scenery for once. It wasn’t often that someone as work-obsessed as Bruce ventured outside of it in the middle of the day, but spring in the city meant that the area by the river had been reinvigorated with color: the vibrant green of fresh buds on the trees, the blue of a sky rid of winter’s dulls, and the rainbow of hues that colored the flowers nestled in rustic wooden planters outside the boutique shops. Stirling was a city well-known for its flourishing business economy, but an even more distinguishing characteristic of the vibrant upstate-New York locale was its rich undercurrent of arts and culture, and the area by the river was perhaps one of the most indicative of this. Visitors to the city loved this part of it. They often said that it, the nearby cultural district, and the communities surrounding it made the city feel almost reminiscent of a “North American Paris.” Clean, cream-colored buildings, beautifully kept parks full of trees, a somewhat-hip, Bohemian energy radiating from the streets, and all of the homey cafés and charming coffee shops made it especially beautiful and romantic. That was the heart of Stirling, and the draw of life here wasn’t only contained to the riverfront and the theaters and galleries nearby. Stirling boasted some of the best restaurants in the country, and a little more than a two-hour drive would put you right at the coast, where residents liked to vacation and sail their boats on the harbor. The ride in-between was dotted with vast stretches of dense forest and quaint, cozy farmland – both a nice retreat for those wishing to escape for a little while.
There wasn’t much option for such an escape during the weekdays though, so for now this would have to suffice. Downtown, the sidewalks were constantly crowded with fast-walking people wielding cell phones and briefcases and the streets hummed with a steady flow of traffic. Commuters packed the subway and regional rail and passers-by hailed yellow taxis. But by the water, it was quiet and calm. The path he walked was a refreshing change of pace from the monochromatic buildings of the city’s downtown business district, and Bruce let himself enjoy the peaceful simplicity of it as he took in the sights around him.
He could see wide cobblestone sidewalks lined with metal lampposts. Lovers walking hand-in-hand over a long bridge. Friends engaging in idle chitchat at a café. Women leaving high-end stores with bags of home goods and designer clothes on their arms. He could hear the chimes and dings of doors opening, the peaceful lull of flowing water, and birds chirping in the trees. He smelled the warm, soothing smells of coffee and croissants. Nearby, an elderly woman sat on a wooden bench feeding bread to the pigeons, and a pensive young man stood silently at his easel, sketching the entire scene against the backdrop of the river.
It was then that Bruce saw her. The prettiest sight of them all. He had always considered himself a gentleman and tried not to ogle her as she walked in his direction, but despite his best efforts, he couldn’t help but stare. Her dark chestnut hair hung loosely over her shoulders and the simple gray knee-length dress she was wearing was far from bland despite its lack of color. She seemed to have an aura surrounding her that simply emanated warmth and grace; an aura that Bruce was inexplicably drawn to.
From a distance she was lovely, but when she got closer and he managed to catch her eye, she practically took his breath away. Her lips were full and slightly parted, shaded by an alluring color that could have only come from the stolen caress of a rose petal. And her eyes were the most startling Caribbean blue that he had ever seen, radiant and sparkling behind a fan of thick lashes against the smooth olive undertones of her skin. Everything else about her was beautiful, too. But those eyes could stop traffic.
They’d certainly stopped him.
“Good morning,” she said, acknowledging their eye contact with a small, amicable smile. She tucked her hair behind her ear, and Bruce, always so steady and unfaltering, could feel the strange sensation of a childlike flutter in his stomach as he gave her a courteous nod and returned the sentiment.
Their exchange over, the pretty stranger continued to walk past him, the sound of her clacking heels against the cobblestone becoming less pronounced with each step. Bruce thought of letting her go and simply accepting the past few moments for what they were – merely meeting the eye of an attractive woman and an inconsequential “hello” between strangers – but each stride that she took from him made him feel a panicky tug at his heartstrings. He couldn’t leave it at that. He had to speak to her. He didn’t want to seem overzealous, but he hadn’t felt so dumbstruck in the presence of a woman since he was a much younger version of himself. There was just something about her… something intoxicating. Maybe it was those beautiful blue eyes.
He glanced over his shoulder to see where she was heading and noticed that she’d stopped in front of a quaint little coffee shop and bakery, Café Amadeus. She was looking at the sign over the door in an indecisive way, as if she were considering whether she should just give in to temptation and go in for something sweet or not, and Bruce took it as an opportunity to suck up his uncharacteristic nerve and do something of the same.
“You know, I hear the scones at this place are delicious,” he suggested helpfully as he approached her from behind, watching her tap her chin with her fingertips. He saw her jump slightly at the unexpected sound of his voice, but when she swiveled around to see that it was him who had greeted her, that demure smile broke across her lips again. It was such a charming, welcoming smile. One that lit up her whole face, even close-lipped and unassuming, and concurrently left Bruce stunned.
“I was thinking more of an éclair, to be honest,” she confessed with a slight flush blossoming in her cheeks. “An éclair and a cappuccino, actually. I’m having a serious sugar craving right now.” She paused for a moment and eyeballed his nice suit. “I take it you’re on a work break, too?” she deduced.
“I suppose I am,” Bruce almost laughed at himself. It was funny to think that the words ‘work’ and ‘break’ said in that particular order would ever apply to him, but here he was. He didn’t say it out loud, but the woman seemed to catch the vibe.
“I’m guessing you don’t do work breaks very often,” she assumed, crossing her arms and cocking an inquisitive eyebrow. The gestures looked so endearing on her that the quiet chuckle Bruce had managed to suppress before promptly escaped his lips.
“No,” he admitted. “But I wouldn’t mind spending this one chatting with you over some coffee if you wouldn’t mind the company. A cappuccino sounds like a good idea right now.”
He shot her a cordial smile and the woman grinned back at him, that pretty flush coloring her cheeks again. She seemed to consider it for a moment – but a moment, apparently, was all that she needed. “That would be nice,” she agreed as she extended her hand towards him. “I’m Cecilia, then. And you are?”
Bruce shook her outstretched palm and could feel moisture beading in his. How strange, that this random woman could affect him like this! He was a confident CEO, the king of handshakes. He could write a book on how to do one properly and was the first to wag a finger at an improper one. And here he was with sweaty digits. “I’m Bruce,” he replied. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Pleasure turned out to be quite the understatement. You never know what might happen when you reach out to a stranger, but that day Bruce discovered over a table of cappuccino and shared pastries a kind of contentment just chatting with another person that he hadn’t felt before. Cecilia was undeniably a beautiful woman, but over the course of just thirty minutes, he’d quickly come to believe that the most attractive thing about her – even more than those captivating eyes – was the person that she was inside. Call it cliché or naïve or hopelessly romantic, but he was utterly enamored with her, right from the start. Cecilia was genuine and considerate, polite and personable, optimistic and intelligent. A classic beauty who not only had soft, timeless features, but a soft heart to match. A woman with a smart head on her shoulders, a thirst for discovery, and a penchant for culture, politics, and philosophy. She was startlingly down-to-earth and easy to talk to once he’d gotten past that initial “hello,” and luckily for Bruce, their first conversation over coffee didn’t end up being their last. By the end of their impromptu outing they’d agreed to meet again at this same place tomorrow, then again the next day, and again the next. Soon, getting out of the office to meet at Café Amadeus had become commonplace and sharing a mid-morning drink with Cecilia by the river was Bruce’s favorite part of the day. They would always sit outside if the weather was nice, and enjoy a few warm pastries, hot drinks, and good conversations, sometimes completely losing track of time in the process.
Bruce learned more about the object of his unspoken affections with every outing; things that only made those affections grow fonder. He learned that Cecilia was six years his junior, recently out of college and now working as a secretary at one of the law offices not far from Vonessen Inc.’s headquarters on Broad Street. He learned that she was an only child and that she’d moved to Stirling when she was eighteen years old ahead of attending Greenbriar University downtown. And he learned that just like him, she loved the arts, even if her middle-class roots hadn’t been as affluent as his. Growing up with a ballet-enthusiast as a mother, Bruce had garnered quite a bit of respect for music, art, and performance by default, and he was thrilled that they had that passion in common. He found it absolutely endearing the way that Cecilia’s beautiful blue eyes would brighten as she talked to him so ardently about her love of going to stage shows, visiting museums, and listening to music from around the world. The piano and violin were her favorite instruments, and she regretted that she’d never learned how to play when she’d had the chance.
She’d go on and on about her mother’s paintings, and how as a little girl, she would watch her smooth her brushes over canvas from start to finish, creating masterpieces from a few simple strokes of color. Her mother had always played classical music on the record player while she painted portraits, still-life, and landscapes of the French countryside for her modest gallery – melodies from the likes of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Handel. While her mother lived the life of a starving artist and dreamed of one day being recognized for her talents, Cecilia’s father worked as a commercial real-estate appraiser in Philadelphia. He was a hard-working Italian man who’d always seemed to put more hours into his trade than his bank account showed, but he always smiled and never showed his family how tired he was. He tried to teach Cecilia about the importance of family, good food, and smart investments, and she’d always taken his life advice to heart.
“A tavola non si invecchia” had been his favorite Italian proverb. At the table with good friends and family, you do not become old. Cecilia had always found it silly when she’d heard him say it as a child, but the older she grew, the more she understood what it meant. When he had passed away from lung cancer during her junior year of high school she’d been heartbroken, but she’d never forgotten the lessons she’d learned from him nor the love that he’d given his family. Since then, she’d tried to remember and honor him in whatever small ways she’d been able to. Her mother had closed her gallery doors in Philly and sold the family home to move to a quiet place in Maine, and Cecilia had set down her own roots in Stirling, eager to complete her schooling. She visited her mother any time she managed to get time off from work, and during every visit she made sure to cook one of her father’s favorite recipes. She was a good cook, she claimed, and Italian dishes were her favorite to make. Bruce figured he’d remember that if he ever got so lucky as to invite himself over for dinner.
He admired so many aspects of her personality – her appreciation for creativity, her loyalty to family, and her persevering spirit, just to start – but for all of her positive traits, perhaps the one that he found the most surprising – and maybe even comforting – was that Cecilia didn’t seem very interested in his wealth and treated him like a normal human being in spite of it. Bruce had grown up with a lot of nice things, but finding nice women had always been a bit of a challenge for him. Money was a big part of his life; a big part of his upbringing. Talk often revolved around it in any other setting, and he knew deep down that most people – particularly women – only cared about him because of what he had and what he could give them.
But Cecilia wasn’t like most people. Her pretty blue eyes didn’t light up at the mention of his big fat paychecks. Her eyes lit up when he told her a good story about life, or they discovered another shared interest, or they laughed together until their sides were sore after one of his particularly horrible cheesy jokes. And the encouraging thing about this was that she wasn’t just putting on an act. There was a pure honesty about her. She was the type of person who truly cared about other people, and that drew Bruce towards her just as much as those pierce-right-through-him eyes.
She was so relatable and genuine and sincere that Bruce started to open up to her because of it, confiding in her not just as an acquaintance, but as a friend. He found it surprisingly easy to get carried away talking about everything with her: their pasts, their presents… even their futures. Bruce told Cecilia that what he really wanted for Vonessen Inc. was to see it grow as a business and become something bigger. To have offices dotting the Northeast, to make his family proud, to garner his own success independent of their privilege, and to provide good jobs and a good service to the people around him. When he asked her what she wanted out of city life, that bashful smile would return to her lips again and a dreamy look would soften her eyes.
She told him that she liked her job at the law office and all of the people she worked with, but what she was really in Stirling for was the lifestyle outside of work. She loved how cultural it was, how artistic the area was, and how everywhere you turned there were countless opportunities for a person to learn and experience new things and broaden their horizons. When she’d first arrived in the city, one of her favorite places to visit had been the library. She loved the tall Roman columns out front and the classical architecture throughout and the big, big shelves accentuated by tall wooden ladders inside. For her, it had been easy to get lost in there for hours, and coincidentally, that seemed to be how she approached life as a whole. She got lost in it, always finding wonderment in the most overlooked of things. Always appreciating them, knowing that time was finite. To Cecilia, life was a constant work in progress, a constant journey. There was always more to see, more to do, more to experience. She loved to learn and create, and at heart she was a free spirit… but sometimes, even free spirits can be afraid to let themselves shine.
Before he knew her better, Bruce couldn’t have imagined that someone as real as Cecilia could ever be shy or uncertain about anything, but as she told him one afternoon of her hopes to have a big, beautiful garden one day just like the ones in home magazines – the ones with the carefully crafted landscaping, charming stone fountains, and innate feeling of truly being a labor of love – he discovered that even she kept secrets from the world.
Maybe one day she would have that garden, she said optimistically, but for now she would just have to make do without because her apartment was located in a good spot close to work that allowed her to walk to the office and anywhere else that she could possibly need to go. But if she did have that garden? She would spend all day in it. Reading, thinking… especially painting.
Bruce was surprised to hear this about her. In all the times that they’d talked about their shared admiration of the arts, Cecilia had never mentioned being involved in them as anything more than an appreciative spectator.”You paint?” he asked her. “I thought you said that your mother was the artist?”
He was sitting beside her on a wooden bench near the river, his typical dark roast warming his hand. Cecilia was holding a coffee too, though admittedly she’d been a bit too caught up in conversation to drink very much of it. She was wearing nude heels and a breezy pale yellow dress that buttoned in the front. A pretty color that the small flush she could feel creeping up into her cheeks again like it did so often around him undoubtedly clashed with. Painting was a bit of a hidden talent of hers, something she didn’t share with many people. But Bruce was into this sort of thing. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to share it with him.
“Well, I managed to pick up a few techniques watching her work at her easel all day,” she admitted with a downplaying shrug. “Honestly, I would love to have a gallery like she did someday… but I don’t think my paintings are good enough for that. If I had more time for it or started learning a little earlier, I’d probably be better. But that’s the way of the world isn’t it?”
“I’m sure your paintings aren’t anything to shirk at,” Bruce disagreed.
Cecilia smiled back at him in appreciation. She was sure that he was only being nice, but it was still encouraging to hear.
“Would you like to see some of them? And give me your opinion?” she offered. “My apartment’s not far.”
Bruce agreed and followed her down the cobblestone walkway onto regular sidewalk, past the townhomes and apartment buildings that fetched the highest rents closest to the river to an area that was still nice but slightly lighter on the wallet. This was a good neighborhood; a very nice, classy, artsy place with a lot of young professionals in their mid-to-late twenties and early thirties. Bruce wasn’t surprised to see that Cecilia lived here.
Her apartment was housed inside a white brick building with a wrought-iron gate out front and black Cape Cod shutters on the windows. She lived on the top floor. Bruce noticed that she seemed a little nervous as she turned the key and opened the door to her own little corner of the world to him, but while shyness was a characteristic he hadn’t seen her display much before, it was one that he found just as endearing as her quiet confidence.
The door opened to a charming one-bed, one-bath open floor plan colored in warm, neutral shades of light brown and clean cream. The floors were all hardwood and the vintage decor was sophisticated and traditional with a touch of the artistic and bohemian. Cecilia’s furniture was something Bruce could best describe as something of the modern Victorian persuasion, the same style that he’d tried to incorporate into his mansion. The quaint kitchen and dining area were attached to the living room where a small stone fireplace was nestled against the wall, giving the modest space a touch of comfort and understated luxury. A set of narrow skylights let natural light into the kitchen – enough that Cecilia didn’t bother turning on more than the dimmers.
“Do you want something to drink?” she asked. “I can make tea.” Perhaps it was nerves to suggest such a thing considering they’d just had coffee, but Cecilia had never been the type to invite someone into her home without offering some sort of food or drink. She walked into the kitchen and pulled out a canister of fresh leaves that smelled like lavender and honeysuckle. As she let the leaves steep and busied herself by getting a kettle of water going on the stove, Bruce perused the room, trying to get a better understanding of who this woman was. He could see a bookshelf full of books along the wall, books that all seemed to have spines bent back from use. And in the window near the dining table he could see a wooden planter box just like the ones at the river, full of small red flowers. He stepped closer to get a better look.
“What are these?” he asked interestedly, noticing the way the petals flared up like a miniature tufted skirt. Cecilia peeked over her shoulder and smiled.
“Oh… those are Tuscan poppies. My father’s favorite.”
“You have quite a green thumb.”
She tucked her hair back and concentrated on the tea. “I’d plant more if I had a real garden. One day, maybe.”
Bruce moved on to the bookshelf next. From the way it appeared, Cecilia liked to read classics and memoirs and literary essays – mostly nonfiction. Scattered amongst all of the really heady stuff were books on home decorating, gardening, art, travel, and ballet. She certainly had a healthy array of interests.
He looked towards the fireplace after perusing her books and stepped forward when something small and rectangular on the mantle caught his eye; something with intricate carvings in chestnut wood and a gold clasp on the front. It sat next to a petite antique picture frame holding a photograph of a gentle-looking man with olive skin standing beside a woman with eyes as blue as Cecilia’s. It was a music box. He opened the lid and a soft melody tinkled out. Cecilia turned to him, pulling two porcelain teacups from the overhead cabinet and placing them on the kitchen island.
“My mother’s,” she explained as Bruce listened to the beautiful, bittersweet melody. It was a song he didn’t recognize. “Before her, my grandmother’s. She wanted me to take it with me when I came here for school. It’s from France… probably one of the only really nice family mementos I have, come to think of it.” Cecilia sighed as Bruce closed the lid. “I know the apartment’s not much. But it’s close to the river and I can walk to work.”
“Not much? It’s wonderful. It’s very you, Cecilia.”
She gave him a flattered grin and cleared her throat. “So… would you like me to show you some paintings while the tea finishes up? They’re just in the other room.”
He nodded and she led him to her bedroom, a room just as quaint and feminine as the rest of the apartment. Centered against the back wall was a four-poster bed, and alongside it a mahogany dresser. And there, in the corner, was a wooden easel, a stack of canvases leaning against the wall next to it. Some looked to be painted, some were not, but from what he saw – the art supplies on the small table beside it, a set of oil paints left out in a rush – he could tell that this was something that she really got engrossed in.
He peered at the painting on her easel, intrigued. Its subject was so simple in concept – just a plump pair of bluebirds sitting on a branch decorated with pretty white cherry blossoms – but so striking at the same time. As Cecilia showed him more, he noticed that flowers and birds were a common theme. He could see it so clearly, captured here on canvas: she was a dreamer, a person who could appreciate the beauty in little things. A person who reveled at the freedom and simplicity of something as pure as having wings. She loved creating things that were beautiful. It was what made her feel alive. And she was sharing it with him, letting him in on something personal and meaningful to her.
In a way, it was like opening the window to her soul.
“Beautiful,” Bruce said softly.
Cecilia’s eyes flickered to his face and she realized that he wasn’t looking at the paintings anymore. It was hard to tell if his compliment had been meant for them or for her. She stumbled on her words, the sudden intensity of their eye contact taking her aback. “Give me a garden to paint these in and I’d be completely content,” she said, tucking her hair behind her ear like she always did and looking away shyly. She regained eye contact with him again when she felt his hand clasp her wrist, gentle but firm.
“You’ll have a garden one day,” he said with certainty. “I’ll make sure of it.”
Cecilia felt her breath hitch in her throat. She could see something in his eyes. An admiration… and a desire. They’d met for coffee plenty of times by now, but neither of them had ever spoken of any sort of harbored attraction. Yet it was startlingly clear that they both had to feel it, because as they stood close enough that either of them could have easily pulled away if it weren’t true, neither dared to move. Bruce could feel Cecilia’s indecision in the way she said nothing at all, yet her blue eyes seemed to speak all that he needed to know… and then, without thinking, his thumb was grazing her chin, he was tilting her face towards his, and when his lips found hers, she didn’t edge away.
He kissed her slowly at first, then building, appreciating her just as ardently as her art. Her lips were as soft as they looked, they tasted just as sweet. She shut her eyes and let out a yielding sigh, leaning in to him as her hand glided along the side of his neck and into his dark hair. Bruce had never felt anything more right. The tea kettle was squealing on the stove, but neither of them seemed to notice. The only sound Bruce could hear was that of his own heartbeat as his blood rushed wildly in his ears.
Bruce lied awake in Cecilia’s bed, a cup of hot tea on the nightstand beside him. He could feel the warmth of her body as she snuggled up against him, her arm draped across his torso, her leg tangled over his, and her face nuzzled contentedly into his chest. His black suit coat had long been discarded over the corner of her mahogany dresser, a few buttons of his white dress shirt were still left undone, and his tie hung loose around his neck. As Cecilia’s fingers traced delicate circles in the exposed skin of his chest, Bruce’s hand found its way into her hair, playing with silken brown strands of it as the room filled with a peaceful silence. The squealing of the tea kettle long-contained and his thudding heartbeat slowly calming in his chest, the room was quiet now save for the muted sounds of the city outside and the repetitive rhythm of her breath, easing gently in and out.
They stayed like that for a long time, relaxing in the silence, until Bruce saw something even more curious to him than the poppies in Cecilia’s window and the music box on her mantle. It was a long scar on her knee, dotted by tiny staple marks along its length. Her yellow dress had bunched around her thigh, and now Bruce could see why most of her dresses seemed to be a little longer and hit right below it. She was hiding this scar. He wondered how she’d gotten it. Cecilia could feel her skin grow hot as his fingertips traced the outline of it, careful and featherlike.
“What’s this from?” he asked her softly.
She hesitated for a moment. Like her art, the scar on her knee wasn’t something she talked about often; it was a remnant of something that she’d left behind before. But she trusted Bruce now. After what had just happened and the way that he’d kissed her, she really did. So she mustered up a little courage and told him her story, letting him in on the entire thing.
“It’s from the accident.”
The accident. Every time she said it, it gave her an involuntary shudder. The accident had happened only a few years ago, just a few years after her father had died. Another blow to a healing heart. She told Bruce that growing up she’d been a dancer… and apparently a pretty serious one, at that. Her parents had gotten her into ballet when she was a little girl to help her break out of her shyness and meet new friends, and she’d quickly come to love it. She’d kept up with dance throughout high school, even after her dad had died, regularly performing in her town’s productions of The Nutcracker every Christmas. By the end of her senior year she’d chosen to attend college in Stirling because along with getting in to one of the best academic schools in town, she’d also been accepted as a student at one of the best dance studios where she could train between classes. Her father had always loved watching her dance, and at one point she had dreamed of being a part of the Stirling City Ballet… but it was right at the end of her first year as an undergrad that the accident had taken her dream away. She’d slipped on ice and broken her knee, badly enough that she’d needed surgery and extensive physical therapy for it to heal. Yet even after all of that therapy, she could still feel the long-term effects: periodic pain, permanent muscle weakness in the quadriceps of that leg, and a loss of motion in her knee that affected how well she could straighten and flex it. Her doctor had advised her to avoid any exercises that involved squatting or repetitive deep-knee bending to protect herself and prevent future issues, and at the time, a nineteen-year-old Cecilia – just accepted into college and a great dance school – knew what that meant.
She had been devastated. When she’d first gotten hurt, she’d been determined that once her knee was healed enough she’d find a way back into dance and train herself back to where she’d been before… but she knew that it was impossible now. In the beginning, she’d had a hard time coping with it. After all, she loved ballet and there was nothing that made her happier and comforted her more than getting lost in the emotion of the music and becoming someone else on that stage. But in time, she’d learned to deal with her situation and make the best of what she had. She took up what little gardening she was able to do in her apartment because it helped her heal to nurture something else, even if that something else was only a handful of Tuscan poppies. And she took up painting because it helped her express herself artistically when she could no longer do it by dancing.
Bruce was touched by her story. He was certain that it had to be difficult for someone who’d lost so much to keep their optimism intact and be as put together as Cecilia was… but Cecilia claimed that she was still the same Cecilia as she’d always been, just a Cecilia who used a different medium now. Crazy how if her dreams to become a ballerina for the Stirling City Ballet hadn’t been dashed, she could have been one of the dancers his own mother had always watched so enthusiastically.
“Why don’t you become a dance instructor?” he encouraged her. “You can still be involved with the ballet.”
“No…” she shook her head against his chest. “That would just be going backwards at this point. I’m ready to move forward.”
“Then why don’t you open the art gallery that you want so much? That would be moving forward, wouldn’t it?”
Cecilia brushed the idea off. She wasn’t that good. She wasn’t that brave. It was probably silly to go for it when there was no guarantee that anyone other than him would actually like what she put on canvas anyway.
“I think you might be becoming biased,” she teased him.
“Maybe I am,” he admitted with an agreeing chuckle. “But you shouldn’t brush your dreams aside, Cece.”
“Cece?” she cocked an eyebrow at the new nickname.
He shrugged and his hand found its way into her hair again. “I can call you by your full name if you want.”
“No…” she sighed. “I like it.” She shut her eyes and inhaled deeply, nuzzling her cheek further into his shoulder.
“Just because it didn’t work out with ballet doesn’t mean you can’t still do what you love for a living,” Bruce reminded her gently. “I made Vonessen Inc. work. You can make an art gallery work, too. You have a real talent, something that shouldn’t go to waste. You’re doing the world a disservice by hiding it.”
Cecilia couldn’t help a skeptical laugh. She appreciated the notion, but opening an art gallery took money. Furnishing her apartment had taken a good chunk of her savings, and the money she made at the law office was just enough for rent and groceries every month. Whatever was left over was comfortable enough to live off of, but not sizable enough to occupy a commercial space.
“Everything is so easy for you isn’t it?” she mused.
“No. But I believe you can do whatever you put your mind to if you want it enough. You just have to believe in yourself.”
“Maybe one day,” she caved just a little.
“If you need help getting started, I’ll help you,” he offered.
Cecilia felt a quieting pang in her chest. She’d just spent the last half-hour lost in this man’s kiss, but she didn’t know him much outside of their friendly chats at Café Amadeus. This was such a genuine, selfless offer. One that was much less about impressing her than about helping her realize her dreams.
“Bruce… why would you do that for me? You know you don’t have to do anything like that,” she frowned.
“But I want to,” he confessed. “You’re special to me, Cecilia. Before I met you, I never left my office. But you remind me that there’s more to life than a bottom line. I enjoy talking to you… spending time with you… kissing you.” His thumb brushed across her lips, sending a warm, tingling sensation rippling through her body. “You make me happy. And I want you to be happy, too.”
Cecilia’s pretty blue eyes met his and the look she gave him said more than just her words alone. “I am happy,” she whispered. And when she leaned forward to kiss him again and show him just how much she meant it, Bruce didn’t have any reason to doubt her. Cecilia was modest and never asked for much. Maybe she really was happy and at peace with her life now. But Bruce knew that she could be even happier, and he was determined to do everything in his power to see that happen.
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