As we walked into the maze, I felt uneasy and a bit claustrophobic. Albeit my night there wasn't too bad with Troy, I was afraid we would somehow lose ourselves forever in this place. I was afraid if I looked away long enough, kept my eyes closed long enough in a blink, I would lose Troy and never see him again. I made sure to keep a strong hold on his hand.
"Would you tell me what to look forward to if I asked?"
"It's a surprise."
I sighed a loud breath but I don't answer him.
But once we made it to the center, after countless turns here and there and here again, I was finally able to understand why he bothered to venture so deep into the maze. I understood why Troy kept on coming out here, despite knowing of the possibility of getting lost in the dark. I now knew why he didn't just tell me what I would find in the center, because it was a beauty that could only be understood by sight.
Trees were scattered everywhere in a neat mess. The branches cascaded over us, like a ceiling created from by green leaves. The dirty path from the maze still continued, this time a series of yellow flowers outlining the edge. Besides the path, everything else was a bright green, somehow living off the rays of the sun slipping through the tree branches. From where I stood, I could hear a faint waterfall and see some water ahead - another pool, maybe?
The trees suddenly lighted up as we walked, the simple Christmas lights hiding in between the branches.
"Wow," I breathed, sneaking a glance at Troy. He caught my gaze and softly smiled.
As we neared the falling water, I could faintly make out the short wooden bridge ahead. It was a white structure hiding behind a few tall rose bushes.
I could see the small pond now, probably half the size of Troy's pool. Behind it were a number of ragged rocks, in which the water stealthily flowed. I wondered how it did that, and whether or not the waterfall was just water being reused.
Troy led me onto the bridge, a tight and well-built cluster of wood painted white which was perched over the pond and right in front of the ragged rocks. If I reached out far enough, I could have easily slipped my fingers into the waterfall. On the bridge, there was a long table set up with fancy silverware and glass cups. In the center of the table there was small version of a banquet, but with enough food to feed about five people. Four luxurious candles were surrounding it.
Troy paused and lifted a quizzical brow at me.
"What?" I pressed my free palm onto my stomach, as if that would suppress the nerves I felt when he watched me.
"You look like you're expecting me to poison you," he said with exasperation.
"What? No, I - I'm just surprised. That's what this is right? A surprise." I blurted out in a complete mess.
"You don't like it?" He asked.
"Yes!" I said quickly, before continuing more softly, "I do."
Never in my life would I have ever expected such a beautiful surprise. Although I know his money is what made this surprise possible, I never thought a man would care for me enough to at least try to impress me. The fact that Troy, probably the only person that will take the time to try, is also a man out of my reach terrified me.
He pulled out a chair and helped me take a seat before sitting across from me, so as to make the waterfall on one side of us and the pond and lighted trees on the other.
"Tea?" He asked as he served himself a glass cup of iced tea. I nodded and uttered a "please". He then asked if he could serve my plate and I let him.
Soon, we each had a plate of food and a cup of iced tea. I slowly picked up my fork first, his eyes watching my hands as I did so. He must have been waiting for me to start eating, because once I began to move so did he.
"It's good," I said after mistakenly meeting his gaze for the fifth time.
"Yes, it is. The chef is a great cook," he agreed carefully. He was doing his best to not offend me, for I admit, I do get offended easily.
It was about halfway through our meal that I caught his gaze again and finally decided to face the topic we were both avoiding. I didn't want to face it, honestly. The only reason I found myself speaking was because of my frustration - I was frustrated with the feelings I felt, almost like I was sure my insides were going to explode. Troy wasn't going to say anything, that I was sure of. He seemed to be waiting for me to speak. I found this unfair though. It wasn't as if anything I could say or do could help. I wasn't the one who was engaged to be married.
"You kissed me," I said. The words came out more like a snap than an actual comment.
"I did," he said, meeting my gaze with no hesitation.
"Why?" I demanded.
"I wanted to," he said. Again, he spoke as if he had no regret for what he had done.
I waited for a second, keeping my expression the same, before saying, "That's it?"
He blinked with puzzlement for a moment before letting out a disbelieving breath. "No," he said with slight frustration. "I mean, yes, but not in the careless way you think."
I stared at him, and so, he went on.
"I kissed you today because I had the chance to. You were close - the close proximity that you've been trying to avoid," he said. "I would kiss you again, if given the chance."
The sound of rushing water interrupted the silence that followed. His words were only puzzling me when I tried to piece them together in my mind. But even though I wasn't allowing myself to understand it, I still felt myself getting excited.
"You kissed me back," Troy continued during my speechlessness.
I hesitated, unsure on whether I should admit to that or not, but I eventually do. "I did," I murmured.
"I'm glad you did," he said softly.
I frowned. "I don't know what you want from me," I snapped. "You might live in a world where this is okay, but I don't. Marriage is sacred. I won't be your - your - your mistress!" I had said that word because I couldn't think of another word to say.
His eyes scanned me with that same disbelief that they often viewed me in. "Is that what you see yourself as? Do you think it's your body that I want? If that were the case, why would I choose your body instead of someone else's? You know me enough to see that you would have been the last person I'd choose to have a side relationship with. Your presence wouldn't give me any more pleasure than that of an experienced woman."
I felt the fumes burn my face but said nothing. I couldn't tell if his words elicited anger or embarrassment, but it was certainly a mixture of the two. My eyes glanced away and I let out a quivering breath.
"I don't mean to offend you," Troy proceeded with frustration, his hand rubbing the temples of his forehead. "I wouldn't want you to be my mistress. God no. You're so much more to me than that."
I still couldn't understand how Troy could feel anything for me. I was nothing compared to the talented and beautiful women he must know and see frequently. What is it that makes me special in his eyes? Could he really be telling the truth? Could he be lying?
It didn't matter. I was stupid enough to believe him, and I was suddenly back to being worried and terrified by the idea of us together.
"I don't plan on marrying Grace," he said, interrupting my thoughts. Could he suddenly read them? "I know you want me to say I broke it off and that it's completely over, but I can't. Not yet. I can promise you, though, that you have nothing to worry about. The marriage isn't going to happen."
While his words were a relief to me, and I tried to hide that fact, I had to give myself a bit more proof. It would be easy to take his word on this - in fact, that is what I wanted to do. Did I not deserve a little more though? Should I just declare my feelings to Troy, whilst he is still basically Grace's fiance?
"I'm not worried," I said - a lie.
He smiled slightly, a relief shading his frustrated features. "Good."
"But until your father knows, we really shouldn't be alone together."
I got to my feet a little too quickly, my heart never ceasing its hammering. I wanted to kiss him again. Just being there near him made me want to hide into his embrace. I wanted him to accept me and I wanted to accept him.
He should have never kissed me.
"We haven't had dessert yet," Troy objected, standing up with me.
"That's okay, I'm not that hungry," I tried to say casually.
"Autumn," Troy said softly, "Please don't feel like you are breaking some kind of law by being with me."
"You're engaged, Troy."
"Damn it, no I'm not." He took quick steps forward, grasping my forearms before I knew what was happening. Troy was looking down at me now, his hazel eyes pleading with mine to forget what I couldn't. "Grace knows," he proceeded when his eyes failed to convince me. "She knows how I feel about you. Probably better than I do."
I gulp, my face warmer now. "Do you know how she feels for you?"
Troy hesitates, his hands slowly falling to my wrists, and soon entwining their fingers with mine, just as he had done the previous night. "I do."
"Could you ever love her?"
Troy's pained expression was replaced with puzzlement. "What do you mean?"
"Could you eventually fall in love with Grace, after your marriage?"
"I'm not going to marry her, Autumn."
"Then who? You do know you could never marry me, right? We are too different. To force me to live a rich life or to force you to live a common one would ultimately lead to a torturous life."
Of course pulling away from Troy was not an option, so I don't even try. I just look up at him as my mind did its best to swim through the distracting butterflies and find the reality of the situation.
"Are you telling me that you want me to marry Grace?" He was confused. I was equally puzzled by my rambling.
"I'm saying that she is a fine choice for a wife. I'm not." My eyes darted away from his, glancing at the cup of iced tea that I suddenly craved to drink.
"I'm not asking you to marry me," Troy said softly, a shy and nervous smile spreading onto his lips. "If such a request was implied it was unintentional."
"I know that Troy," I said, trying to hide my nerves with exasperation. "I just don't see how this is going to work out. Is there a point in even trying? I mean, by the time we fail in this relationship Grace will probably be married and out of reach. This interruption would have been for nothing."
"This interruption means everything to me, Autumn. Your arrival has stopped me from making a huge mistake. I suddenly dread a life where I live as I am expected to live just because it's good for business and my family's reputation."
I don't know how to reply. Reasons on why I shouldn't give in were faltering. I was struck with a desire to help him. I wanted to help change his life for the better; show him that there is more to life than big houses and fancy restaurants. Would he be able to handle it?
"I am going to kiss you now," he suddenly said.
This caught my attention immediately. My eyes instinctively darted at his lips as he said this, my heart aching with a hope that he would kiss me before I had the chance to convince myself to back away. He took my face carefully in his hands and slowly, so painfully slow, pressed his forehead against mine. He sighed onto my lips, an impatience tugging at my skin when he didn't lean in. Why was he taking his time? Troy definitely hadn't taken so long the first time he kissed me.
"I like this," he whispered. "I like it when you're not pushing me away with your hands or words."
His phone rings and I nearly jump off the ground. This only causes Troy to tighten his hold on my face, his eyes fluttering open a second after mine did. I could see the annoyance and disappointment by the sudden interruption, but he wouldn't force a kiss on me during such a distraction. He pulls away and I'm shaking. His eyes don't leave mine as he pulls his phone, an expensive model I've seen advertised before, out of his coat. The one time he didn't forget his phone...
"Troy," he answered solemnly.
A pause, his body growing tense.
He pulls his eyes away from me as he said, "I'm busy." A pause. "Well, tell them to come back later." He hung up the phone before the person on the other line could finish speaking.
I waited for him to explain, but he just gave me a slight smile before taking hold of my face again.
"Sorry about that," he said softly.
He did try to lean in again, but it was already too late. The moment was ruined, and I was finally able to convince myself that I couldn't kiss him while he was still officially engaged. Perhaps after...
I refused him by turning my head, which proved more difficult than I had anticipated. Although I heard and felt his sigh of disappointment, this didn't stop him. His lips pressed lightly onto my cheek. This made it almost impossible to resist him. Then his phone rang again, one of those old ringtones. He pulled away with frustration and stared at me as his phone rang once... twice... thrice...
"Troy," I said with puzzlement. "What is it?"
"It's Logan and Violet," he muttered, not hiding his annoyance by this fact.
"Were you expecting them?"
"No. I don't know what they're doing here," he said. He had let me face go but kept us linked by pressing one of his hands onto my shoulder. "And Hayden is here too, asking for you."
My eyes widened with confusion. "Me?" I said. "Why does he want to see me?"
"He's here to complicate things, no doubt," Troy said to himself, but loud enough for me to hear him.
"What?" I said, slightly irritated by Troy's dislike for Hayden.
He finally let go of my shoulder. "I don't trust him," he admitted.
His eyes looked up at me, almost pleading me to believe his accusation. But I couldn't. Not when it came to Hayden, who had been too good to me and Melanie to deserve such gossip.
"He's a good guy," I said with confidence.
Troy obviously didn't like that answer. He turned away and began to walk. I was forced to rush along behind him.
"He breaks up with my sister and then returns the next day to see you? That isn't normal," he said.
"Is there a law against a friend seeking a friend?"
He laughed half-heartedly, the sound slightly piercing me. That laugh was basically saying, 'don't be so stupid, Autumn.'
"Friend? Are you blind?"
I am too surprised by this harshness to reply right away. My eyes could only stare at him; my face could only flush with an embarrassment I knew I shouldn't feel. It took him a while to see how his tone affected me. But as his features soften and his mouth begins to form out words of apology, I spoke.
"Yes, FRIEND. Maybe you just don't know how it is to have friends who are girls. We can be much more than just temporary entertainments." The words came out a bit harsher than I had hoped. I looked away from him and allowed a few more inches between us as we walked. But he stopped, and although I was tempted to keep on walking, I didn't know my way forward or back. I stopped walking a few paces after he did. I wouldn't let myself turn around, because I knew he expected me to. So I fell to the floor and crossed my legs. I had nothing else to do but stare at the floor. I heard a quick but light chuckle behind me before Troy took a seat beside me, copying my crossed legs.
I never imagined Troy sitting crossed legged on the floor, especially in the expensive clothing he owned. I wanted to glance at him and see how this looked like. I'm sure it was an odd sight. But I wouldn't be the first one to move or speak.
"I'm sorry," he said genuinely. I was so surprised by this reaction that it was difficult to not look at him. "I admit, I'm a bit jealous of Hayden's hold on you."
But to this I couldn't help but look at him. Troy wasn't fully crossed legged. He had one leg, the one nearer to me, higher up than the other, his elbow resting on it. Troy smiled apologetically in a hope to not unintentionally offend me again.
"Hold on me? He has no hold on me," I disagreed. My words were weakened by the innocent sight.
"Sometimes I feel like you feel more comfortable with him than you do with me," he proceeded.
"I - uh - I," a pause and I look away.
"Could you tell me why?"
Because Hayden never made me feel less than I actually was. This is weird, but I could see the flaws in him. He wasn't perfect and that gave me comfort, because I wasn't perfect either. Troy and Scarlet were perfect. Grace and Violet were perfect. How could I ever be like them? How could perfect people ever see me as an equal?
"I don't know," was all I could say.
"Do you ever think of him more than a friend?" Troy asked with a resistance. But he was kind as he forced the words.
"No," I answered truthfully.
"Then what is it?"
"I don't know."
"I need more than that," he continued with some frustration. "I can't read your mind."
'Thank God you can't read my mind', was my first thought.
I meant to answer him somehow, but I didn't know what to say. We were again accompanied by silence. There were things that I would have said to him if I weren't being too careful. I was doing my best to avoid the careless laugh I had received from him only minutes earlier. My cheeks still flushed with mortification and anger at the reminder of it.
"I can't read your mind," Troy repeated, "but I feel it running wild. What are you thinking?"
He took my hand and forced my attention back to him. Troy wasn't looking at me when my eyes landed on his face. He was staring at our now linked fingers as he set them above his high knee. I followed his gaze as I bit my lip to avoid the instinctive smile that threatened it.
"If you don't want to go into detail, I only ask that you summarize it in one word. One word, Autumn. Just one."
I sucked in a deep breath and risked glancing at him. His eyes were still fixed on our hands.
"Apprehensive," I forced out dubiously.
"You." Your thoughts of me.
"Are you afraid of me?"
Troy finally caught me staring at him and I was forced to look away. In that moment, I caught more confusion in his expression than anything else.
"Maybe a little," I admitted shamefully.
"What is it I do that makes you scared of me?" Troy sounded more concerned now.
"God, I don't know Troy. I can't possibly keep up with you and your circle of friends. They see how ridiculous I am. It won't take long for you to see it too."
"So you're afraid of those who you think are my friends?"
When I don't make an attempt to answer further, he tries again. "But you're afraid of me?"
"In a way."
My answers weren't sufficient to either of us. I was getting frustrated at my nerves and I was sure he was too. We have never had conversations like this before - where I was too hesitant to speak my mind.
"Autumn," he said, the impatience now accompanying his soft tone, "Please explain." His hand tightened its grip on mine, an assurance that it was okay to speak freely. "I'm confused."
"I know, I know, I'm sorry," I said, disappointed at myself.
I shook my head and ran my free hand through my hair. Troy reached forward and caught that hand before it could fall back onto my lap. He pressed it on his knee with my other hand, a move that brought our faces closer. His eyes scanned my flushed face for a moment before he spoke.
"Trust me," he said. "I could never see you as ridiculous."
His phone rang again and I couldn't help but smile nervously. He did not find it as amusing as I did. Troy let me go and got to his feet. He offered to help me, but I was up and walking before he could insist. Troy only smiled at this before taking my hand anyway. He didn't let go until about thirty minutes later when we made it out of the maze.
We were exiting the library when Troy halted us for a moment. We started hearing the yells - Scarlet's angered and aching yells. The hurt in her voice was a part of her I didn't even know existed. She sounded so desperate and dismal that it actually made my chest hurt.
"What is it with her?" Scarlet demanded.
I could tell that she was just at the foot of the stairs, the staircase the only wall in between us.
"Stop blaming her," another voice said in attempt to soothe her. It didn't. It belonged to Hayden. "This has nothing to do with her. It's me, okay? I can't be with someone who treats those with no money like they are nothing in this world."
"You've never cared about it before," she snapped, "Not until Autumn and her precious little sister came along!"
I tightened my hold on to Troy's hand and he returned the grip.
"I tried to look past it," Hayden said weakly.
There was a pause. I could hear Scarlet's deep breathing from where I stood.
Troy took this moment to pull me back into the library and shut the door closed quietly behind him. He looked at me apologetically, as if it were his fault that Scarlet made me the problem of her relationship.
"She blames me," I said with more disbelief than anything.
"It's not your fault," he assured.
"God," I whispered, feeling myself go pale at the realization of it all. "Scarlet hates me."
Because suddenly it mattered. How could I not care about what Troy's sister thought of me? Whether they like each other or not, they were ultimately family. The last thing I wanted was to be on bad terms with Troy's family, which it seemed like I already was.
"She doesn't exactly like you," he agreed, pressing his forehead against mine.
"She's your sister."
"You just figured that out?" He joked half-heartedly.
"This could never work," I thought out loud.
"Hold on," Troy said with surprise at the sudden turn in the conversation, suddenly understanding what I was saying. He backed away to read me. "Don't say that."
"No," he said sternly. "I told you, Scarlet doesn't like anybody."
I sighed, my eyes falling to the floor. Would Scarlet ever stop her torture? Would she do more than just drench me in paint in front of a whole crowd; would she give me something worse than a brain injury? She had more reason to now.
But I could take it. I could take it when I knew Troy would be right behind me backing me up throughout it all.
There was a loud crash outside the door and I jumped out of Troy's light hold. We exchanged shocked glances before Troy opened the door and rushed out, me trailing behind him.
When we made it to the entrance of the mansion Hayden was staring at the broken pieces of glass on the floor, what used to be a luxurious vase beside the doorway. The wooden table it was settled on was also thrown aside on the floor, only a few feet away from Hayden's vans.
I glanced up the stairs just quick enough to see Scarlet disappear into the right hallway.
When I turned back to Hayden, he was pale, staring first at Troy, then at me.
"It wasn't me," he said, barely a murmur.
"Are you okay?" I asked him.
I had never seen him so blanched before; never seen him so crestfallen and surprised. His eyes were wide and slightly red, his knuckles white from his tight fists.
"You and Melanie need to get out of here," he said suddenly. Not once did he look at me as he said that. "Today."
Hayden stepped over the glass and rushed toward the front door, stepping outside quicker than I had anticipated. Out of instinct, I began to run after him, because I needed to know what he meant. I needed to know why Hayden would tell me to leave.
But I was too slow. By the time I had made it outside Hayden was already jumping into his car and driving off, leaving me standing near the edge of the fountain I had found myself running to. I silently watched as the car disappeared, my heart sinking deeper with every passing second. Troy blocked my view, a look of concern on his face. But he didn't say anything. He just took my hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
"What did he mean? Why would he say that?" I said.
"He panicked," Troy said with a shrug. "It didn't mean anything."
I shook my head vigorously. "No, Scarlet must be planning something," I said quickly. "Melanie - where is Melanie?" I pulled out of Troy's hold and ran back inside toward Melanie's room. There was a thumping fear in my heart that I couldn't shake off.
I was rushing up the stairs, ignoring Troy's attempt to stop me. But he managed to beat me to the top steps and block my way.
WHY WAS I SO SLOW?
This didn't stop me. I still tried to push past him. A weak attempt that allowed him access to my arm. He held it in both of his hands with a secure grip.
"Melanie is fine," he said insistently. "If you show up panting and freaking out then you will scare her. So, calm down. Breathe."
I sucked in a breathe and let it out dramatically. Mostly because I was still in a hurry and I knew how strong he was - I would never be able to pull away from his grip.
He didn't let go. "Let me go check on her," I begged.
A pause. "Okay," he said softly.
He finally let me go, but not before taking my hand. I was nearly pulling him all the way to Melanie's room, and he let me.
We stopped right outside her room door. "I have to let you go," I said.
"No, you don't," he said back.
I gave him a look of exasperation, which quickly formed into a look of terror when he knocked on the door.
But I didn't have time to argue. Melanie's room door opened almost immediately. But it wasn't Melanie. To my horror, it was actually my mom, the smile on her face disappearing in an instant. This time, Troy did not object when I let go of his hand. But it had been too late. My mom had noticed.
"Autumn, Troy," she greeted in surprise.
"Hello Mrs. Williams ," Troy said. "I must say, you look very nice this evening."
Troy noticed, before me, that my mom was dressed in a fancy dress. She had taken the time to curl her hair, making it shorter and right below her ears, and put makeup on. Her smile returned slightly at the compliment.
"Why, thank you," she said. Her eyes met mine and she continued. "I heard about the engagement." She turned to Troy. "Congratulations. I'm looking forward to the celebration."
He cleared his throat, but I don't look at him. I just look away. It's really all I can do.
"That's just a rumor," he insisted.
"Oh, I'm sorry Troy, but the secret is already out. No reason to keep hiding!"
"Where are you going?" I asked her, desperate to change the subject.
She gave me a quick disapproving glance, as if she knew what I was up to, but she eventually answered with a smile.
"You're dad and I are going on a date tonight. It's been so long! We need this," she said with excitement.
"It's 8:00, mom," Melanie said, stepping up from behind our mom. I was relieved to see her without a scratch.
"Oh! I'm going to be late. Your father is probably already waiting downstairs. Don't wait up okay?" My mom kissed Melanie's forehead and then mine. "Be good." It sounded like she was saying that right into my ear on purpose.
When my mom was gone, Troy took my hand again. I shot him a look, but I didn't let him go.
"How did it go?" Melanie asked us, her eyes staring at my hand in Troy's. She wouldn't say anything to me about it in front of him, no matter how desperately she wanted to.
"Good," I said quickly. I turned to Troy and he nodded.
"Good," he agreed.
"You should go find your friends," I said after an awkward silence. "They must be looking for you. I'd rather they not learn where I sleep."
Troy nodded again with reluctance. "Right, okay," he said.
But he wouldn't let my hand go. His eyes kept mine for a very long time - so long, that Melanie during this time decided it would be best to creep back into the room to avoid the awkward tension. After this long moment, Troy wrapped his free hand around my cheek and pressed his forehead against mine again.
Troy quietly murmured, "Don't worry, as much as I want to kiss you, I get the hint. I will wait until you give me permission."
He kissed my cheek before letting me go. Troy walked away, not once looking back.
When I nearly stumbled into Melanie's room, the first word she uttered was a "Wow." Apparently, she had heard him.