Benjamin Ferrin Macon-Jones has it all: a luxurious lifestyle in Toronto and the love of an intelligent, ambitious woman…until that same woman refuses his marriage proposal, tells him he’s a detriment to her career, and leaves him. Unable to deal with his cantankerous family trying to be supportive, he quietly slips away into the Canadian countryside.
Lou Upjohn has problems of her own. She’s a recluse and agoraphobic, staying safely within the walls of her ancestral home in small town Saskatchewan and depending on Ike, her best and only friend, to deal with the outside world. Only Ike’s just married another woman and now he’s moving to Vancouver. Before he leaves, he hires the new guy in town, Ferrin Jones, to run her errands and do her yard work. Lou isn’t happy, but even she has to admit the stranger looks mildly interesting.
Both their lives could be changed forever if she only has the courage to open the door.
“What?” she teases with a fond, slightly mocking smile. “Are you ‘proposing’ because you think it’s what people are supposed to do on New Year’s Eve?”
Ferrin smirks his lopsided, endearing smirk as he lowers himself to one knee and proffers the small, square velvet box he dug out of the pocket of his tuxedo.
The beautiful brunette laughs again. “Oh, Ferrin, get up—you’re being ridiculous! And the joke really isn’t all that funny.”
Olivia glances at the crowd of beaming friends and family surrounding them and Ferrin watches as realization slowly dawns on her face. Her gaze snaps back to his as realization morphs into horror, and Ferrin feels a corresponding sick, sinking feeling grow in his stomach as her expression changes. His own smile slips away and his face freezes into an expressionless mask. Their spectators’ hissed in-drawn breaths and sudden, uncomfortable silence barely register given his complete and utter focus on Olivia.
He knows what she’s going to say before she says it, but like any impending disaster, he can’t seem to look away.
“Oh, my God,” she whispers. “Oh, shit!” She bites her lip, then says in a rush, “I love you, Ferrin, I really, truly do...but I can’t marry you.” Her voice breaks; her eyes fill with tears.
The silence that follows seems to grow and envelop them in a stifling cocoon built from his humiliation and suddenly terrified heart. Ferrin hears, as if through cotton wool, subdued voices and the shuffling of feet as their family and friends gather their things and leave the apartment. In some distant corner of his mind, he’s mildly surprised they're all leaving so quietly...or maybe he just can’t hear them across the yawning divide that’s opened between him and Olivia.
As the door closes, she whispers, “Get up. Your knee must hurt.”
Does it? He can’t tell over the crushing pressure in his chest, his stomach, his head, but he struggles to his feet anyway, like she asks, because she asks, aching and sore and suddenly ancient. He straightens and becomes, as always, self-consciously aware of how big he is in comparison to her, and how his bulk looming over her always makes her edgy. He automatically slouches his shoulders, trying to minimize his size, trying to make her comfortable.
“Say something,” she begs, and her voice breaks.
His voice is cracked, hollow, distant, as he says, “Is this it?”
‘It’, he thinks with despair. Such a tiny word with such a huge meaning.
She hesitates, then nods, not quite looking at him.
“This can’t come as that much of a surprise. Not if you’re honest with yourself.”
Ferrin can’t seem to make his brain work. He shakes his head, trying to force something—anything—loose so his world—his life—will start to make sense again.
“I—I—no. Yes. Why?” he asks, and winces at just how lost he sounds.
Olivia sighs and says, very gently, “I want other things in life than you do, Ferrin. My career means everything to me and I want to make it to the top of Macon-Jones Enterprises, or as high as I can get without being a blood relative.”
Finally, finally, anger flares inside him.
“And I’m holding you back? In my own family’s company?”
Ferrin’s eyes widen. “You really believe it,” he breathes. “When have I ever stood in your way, Olivia?”
This time her sigh is long-suffering. “You’ve never stood in my way, no, but you’ve never actively helped me, either.”
“I didn’t think you wanted me to! If I recall correctly, you told me so in no uncertain terms when we moved in together. That’s only a couple of years ago! What’s changed?”
“I didn’t want you using any undue influence with Abram to get me promotions I didn’t deserve,” Olivia snaps, her own anger flaring. “That didn’t mean I didn’t want you to help me at all!”
Ferrin snorts. “Nobody has undue influence with Abram. You should know that by now!”
“Abram isn’t the point! The point is that I could have used your support when some of my projects came up for a vote before the Board. Instead, you, as always, stayed out of it and gave your vote to the first cousin who asked for it, without any regard to how the decision would impact my career or my projects! Half the time, you didn’t even bother asking me how I wanted you to vote!”
“I never ask anyone about the projects or how they want to use my vote! The cousins know how I play the game and it works well for all of us. Why do you think I’m the only one any of them will talk to without a witness present?”
Olivia throws her hands up in the air as she whirls and paces away. “There! That’s exactly the problem!”
He takes a step back, blinking. “What? The fact that I’m friendly with all my cousins? That’s a problem?”
“No!” She brushes a hand over her face in exasperation. She turns to him, and now he recognizes that look on her face. It’s the one she has when she’s getting ready to lecture him on what, exactly, he’s done wrong, and what he needs to do to avoid making the same mistake again.
She says, “It’s not the fact the cousins all like you that’s the problem; it’s the reason they all like you! You’re such a goddamn fixer, itching to solve everyone’s problems that you’ve become a complete pushover! I don’t want to hurt you, Ferrin, but, let’s face it: you’re a sucker. You’re gullible. And I hate to say this, but you’re also a bit of a wimp. You’ll do whatever anybody tells you to do, and that’s proven in spades by your so-called ‘business investments’! All anybody needs in order to get money out of you is a sob story and a half-assed idea!”
His mouth sags open as he rocks beneath her barrage, every word slamming into his heart and his gut and his mind.
“What the hell?” he chokes.
Olivia deflates, pity in her eyes.
“Look,” she says, and now her voice is calm and firmly matter-of-fact, the way Ferrin has so often heard her speak whenever he’s forced to attend a board meeting with her, “I’m going to be CEO someday of a multi-billion-dollar multinational company. Your family’s multi-billion-dollar multinational company. It’s ruthless and cutthroat, and a spouse’s strengths and talents are just as important to an executive’s rise as the executive’s own skills and talents, especially in Macon-Jones Enterprises. You know how outright Machiavellian your family can be, and that’s when they’re arranging Christmas! If you think they’re ruthless in their personal lives, they’re ten times worse in the boardroom, trust me!”
“Yes, I know,” Ferrin says drily, and is almost glad he’s starting to feel something—anything—now. “I have met my cousins and I’ve even been to a board meeting a time or two. Abram seems to have done all right without a spouse to support him.”
She snorts. “He’s Chair and he was handed the job by your great-grandfather! He’s never had to prove anything to anybody!”
His laugh is harsh and barking. “Now you’re the one who’s forgotten what my cousins are like!” He waves his words away. “Doesn’t matter. You knew when we met that I do everything I can to avoid anything to do with the company.”
“You’re not supposed to avoid it by giving your vote to whichever cousin gets to you first! Besides, you’re your father’s only surviving child, the last of your particular branch of the family! You out of all your cousins shouldn’t avoid the company at all!”
She grimaces. “I’m sorry; that was low...but you know I’m right. You could wield enormous influence and power in the company, and not only with the family when they want something, if you’d just take an interest! If you would listen to me, let me guide you, advise you so you don’t believe everything you’re told, and let me stop Carson, Dyson and Jack from constantly distracting you, you could be the next Chair of the Board instead of Jack!”
“So I’m not only gullible and a wimp, I’m also so stupid I can only trust you to advise me?” he says, incredulous.
“Of course not! But you’re wasting your potential—and your birthright! Your father was Abram’s second-in-command, for God’s sake! All you have to do is step up and follow in his footsteps!” She runs a hand through her hair and groans. “Face it, Ferrin, I’m never going to be CEO if I remain allied with you, not unless you change your approach to the business.”
Ferrin rears back and stares.
“‘Allied’?” he says slowly. “Is that what the last five years have been about, Olivia? An alliance?”
“No! Of course not! I love you. I do! You’re a wonderful man, Ferrin. But you’re...” She spreads her hands and shrugs helplessly.
“Weak,” he says flatly, “and obviously a little stupid. Have I got it right?”
“Ferrin…” She takes a step towards him, but he quickly retreats. She stops and stares at him, her large, brown eyes brimming with tears. For once, he’s unmoved.
“I’m sorry I’ve been such a disappointment to your professional ambitions,” he grates out, a bitter twist to his lips. He turns and heads for the exit.
“Where are you going?”
“I have no idea,” he says, and slams the door behind him.
Lou signs the last of the papers and sits back with a rueful scowl.
“Considering I never leave the house,” she grumbles to Ike, “you’d think there’d be less paperwork.”
Ike chuckles as he straightens the papers and tucks them into his briefcase.
“You have a lot of investments, Lou. You need to keep track of them all.”
She shrugs. “I suppose, although I thought that’s what I was paying you to do.”
“Lou,” Ike says, and leans back in Ike's Chair with an annoyed sigh.
She grimaces and waves a hand. “Whatever. You know I don’t read the things when you put them in front of me, and I tune out as soon as you start talking finances and investments and whatever the hell else you’re saying when your lips are moving.”
“Yes, I do know. Why do you think I gave up a long time ago on trying to convince you to pay more attention?”
She shrugs, then tugs her over-sized, dirt-brown sweater more closely around herself. Her stomach churns and tightens as she buries her suddenly shaking hands in the knitted wool. She staunchly reminds herself of her New Year’s Resolution to make changes in her life, beginning with her relationship with Ike and ending with her finally figuring out a way to leave the house.
“Would you like something to drink?” she asks, carefully casual, but she can’t quite keep the hopeful lilt from her voice.
It’s been a long time since Ike stayed past the time it takes to get her signature on a stack of papers, or to confirm she’s still breathing. She misses the days when he’d linger and talk with her, giving her news of the world outside the walls of her house. Even more, she misses those all-too-few nights, when he’d whisper against her heated skin, and leave her weak with need. But those nights, like everything else, faded away and now he barely spends any time with her at all.
She doesn’t really miss people, but she misses Ike, and he’s the only one right in front of her.
Now he hesitates, and the thoughtful look on his face makes her stomach drop.
This won’t be good, she thinks.
“I don’t want anything to drink,” he says slowly, “but I do want to talk to you.”
Her stomach drops even further as she shifts her weight in her seat, her fingers clutching at the strands of her sweater.
“All right,” she says, feeling as wary as a rabbit sensing danger.
Ike leans forward, his gorgeous golden-brown eyes never wavering from hers. He says, very carefully and precisely, “On New Year’s Eve, I asked Irish to marry me, and she said yes.”
The ensuing silence lengthens, deepens, as the words drift around her like leaves, like dust.
She loves Ike, has always loved him. Even while they played cops and robbers through the dusty streets of Ledoux, or hunted for ghosts in and around the abandoned hospital on the outskirts of town, or searched for buried treasure in the rare copses of trees that dot the prairie landscape, she also secretly dreamed of playing house. He’s her white knight, riding to her rescue whenever he noticed her schoolmates teasing her or when her mother got sick or when she realized she could no longer bring herself to face the world lurking outside her windows. He starred in more dreams than she can count when she was a teenager, and he’s in more fantasies than she cares to admit as an adult.
Ten years ago, he helped her cope with her mother’s illness as he gradually took over all the mundane tasks she had no time or energy to do: paying bills, buying groceries, talking to the neighbours. Five years later, he stood by her side, strong and tall and comforting, when she finally laid her mother—that poor, long-suffering woman—to rest. Lou had been twenty-five then, grief-stricken and suddenly unable to cope with the world outside, but Ike remained her friend even after she crept into her house and allowed the doors to seal shut behind her.
She stayed inside, and there were those few brief months when he joined her in her bed, but then his desire faded away, and when she wasn’t looking, he fell in love with Irish.
The cold of a Saskatchewan winter doesn’t even come close to the ice growing inside her.
She blinks and shifts, her fingers flexing nervously against the knitted fabric of her sweater.
“Congratulations,” she croaks. Her heart clenches at the genuine happiness on his face, in his eyes. She clears her throat, then asks, her voice husky, “When’s the big day?”
“The beginning of March.”
“That’s only six weeks away!”
He laughs. “Well, there’s no reason to wait, is there? Don’t worry, Lou, I’m still going to manage your finances and take care of you.”
“Oh. Well. That’s...good.” What did it matter, she wants to scream, if there’s no longer any hope you’ll come back to me?
Ike nods as he smacks his hands against his knees and surges to his feet.
“Maybe someday you’ll meet her,” he says, grinning as he picks up his briefcase.
She forces a smile, and hopes he doesn’t notice her trembling lips. “Maybe. You’ve told me so much about her, I feel like I know her already.” She winces inside at her dry tone.
Ike either doesn’t notice or decides to ignore the sarcasm.
“You’d like her, you know,” he says as he walks to the door. She drifts after him and watches, helpless, as he pulls on his boots and parka. “She reminds me a lot of how you used to be.”
Lou opens her mouth to say she could be the way she used to be; she just needs to figure out how to get there, that’s all. But he’s already opening the door, and she closes her mouth, the words unsaid.
He pauses on the threshold, the icy air swirling round his feet and into the large, cluttered foyer. He half-turns towards her, standing in both shadow and light. Lou swallows, once again struck by how perfect he is, from the compelling beauty of his amber eyes, high cheekbones and perfectly symmetrical features, to his crown of carefully groomed dark brown hair, now ruffled by the cold winter wind. She sometimes finds it hard to believe he’s ever run barefoot through mud, or hovered over her as he patiently coaxed her to orgasm. Maybe if she had been able to enjoy the sex more—
“I’ll be back before the wedding,” he says now, startling her from her thoughts. “See you later, Lou.”
He flashes his charming smile, and is gone before she even finishes nodding.
She stares at the door without seeing it before she carefully straightens her sweater, vaguely aware her feet are numb even in their wool socks, thanks to the cold prairie wind that had blown inside the house. She turns and walks just as carefully back to the living room. She eases down onto the couch, feeling as if even the air touching her skin is enough to break her.
She stares at nothing, and allows the comforting silence to gently settle over her.
About the Author
Victoria Bernadine (a pseudonym) is, as the saying goes, a "woman of a certain age". After twenty-something years of writer's block, she began writing again in 2008.
Victoria enjoys reading all genres and particularly loves writing romantic comedy and post-apocalyptic science fiction. What those two have in common is anybody's guess.
She lives in Edmonton with her two cats (The Grunt and The Runt). Along Came Jones is the second novel she felt was good enough to be released into the wild.