° ° ° ° °
She was an impostor.
Out of all the things he’d imagined she was capable of…
Faking someone else’s identity just wasn't on his Top 10. It just sounded so absurd. And pointless.
Although, now that he had given it some time to stew ― give or take five hours ― the haze just cleared up in his head.
Now he knew why she’d always seemed guarded, mostly reticent whenever he would ask about her family. She’d only given him bits and pieces over the six months they’d dated, and he thought it was rather suspicious, but it hadn’t occurred to him she was actually capable of a crime. She just didn’t strike him as the type.
She had told him of her being a programmer and having worked for a telecoms company. He thought it was obvious and true, since she knew a lot about computers and technical stuff. Now that he’d come to think of it, he should’ve questioned her why she didn’t have F******k or any social media accounts, or a valid mailing address. In fact, he didn’t know for sure where she lived.
Wow. "You really outdid yourself this time, St-Pierre..." his friends would say.
Mick swore to himself, gripped the spatula, and slapped the pancake onto the Winnie the Pooh plate. The refreshing smell of sliced apples and grape juice didn’t do anything to distract him from dwelling on the message he received last night. Thanks to Zach, his cousin who delivered the news about his ex-girlfriend being a phony, Mick hadn’t slept until it was past two in the morning.
He’d been stuck in his sister’s kitchen for about an hour now. Veronica didn’t make breakfast before she left. So far, only three pancakes had passed his taste test because he didn’t bother to check the first batch he’d made.
He knew of his niece’s critical palate, and it didn’t help that he only had a few hours of sleep. He’d been up since six a.m. because Veronica didn’t leave until she was able to kick him off the bed.
Great. The imp’s awake. He hadn’t even glimpsed his to-do list yet.
“Mam-a-a-a!” a high-pitched voice continued to holler. “Wut time ith it?”
“Time for your breakfast, kid.” Mick sighed before putting down the spatula. He rushed out of the wide kitchen to get to the stairs. She shouldn’t be up this early. Toddlers needed at least ten hours of sleep, right? Oh crap. Yeah Literal crap. Maybe the kid needed to potty. “Don’t run down the stairs! I’ll get ya.”
“Your mom went to work, okay? You can stop screaming your lungs out now.” Mick looked up as soon as he reached the dim-lit staircase.
Holding on to the rail on the topmost step was a hunched ball of blonde hair in polka-dotted pyjamas. Sleepy blue eyes blinked slowly to examine him. In a second, an ear-to-ear smile lit up his niece’s face. “Coow miwk! You heew!”
“Huh? Wait— Don’t move,” he said, taking quick steps to reach her, while trying not to panic. Was she even allowed to use stairs by herself already? Shite. He might as well be dead if he screwed up first day on the job.
“Yeah, I’m here,” he said, chuckling. “Stay there,” he said louder.
With a sock missing and her hair all over her little face, Clancey excitedly waited on the second step and smiled bigger. A bit of baby drool gleamed on her cheek. “Um…wut time you, you get heew?”
“Last night.” Upon reaching the top of the stairs, he grabbed his niece before she could take another step and give him a heart attack.
Right. The toast. He hurried down the stairs with CC clinging to his shoulder. He turned on the ceiling lights on the way. The place was painted mostly white, but he hadn’t drawn the window blinds yet.
CC wiggled in his arms until they reached the empty dining table. He put her down in the purple high chair after she pointed to the sippy cup on the glass table.
Her smile and eyes widened after she sniffed her surroundings. “Yum! Pancaketh!”
“Hungry?” He combed clumps of unruly hair away from her pudgy face. She wasn’t a chubby kid, but she now looked big for a two-year-old. She weighed much heavier now, too. “Holy moly— You really are a St-Pierre. Last time I was here you couldn’t even sit up yet. What’s your mom been feedin’ you?”
"Nevermind." He handed her the sippy cup and a piece of toast. He then headed back to the stove, where the second batch of their breakfast cooked and smelled like they were seconds away from looking like black saucers.
CC kept sniffing and grinning wide as he finished cooking five more pancakes. “Pancake thmell tho good,” Clancey mumbled while sipping her milk, which he had reheated earlier.
“Favorite, huh? Merde. You forgot to wash your hands.” Mick turned off the stove and took her to the sink to wash her small hands. Since she only bit off a small piece of the toast, he gave her three sliced pancakes.
“Tank you, Coow Miwk. Yay! Tho many pancake!”
“Oh… Coow Miwk. I get it now,” he said with a laugh. He sat beside his niece after he put her back in the high chair. While he ate the rest of the toast, he watched the tot guttle her breakfast, and later realized he didn’t feel as glum as last night.
Babysitting this kid for a few days shouldn’t be that hard. She seemed manageable, from the looks of it. Being on sitter duty for the meantime might even keep his ill mood swings at bay.
“Yummy, yummy, yummy!” Clancey sat back in her high chair to look at him, cheeks bulging while she chewed more pancakes. “Where’th Mama?”
Mick glanced at the wall clock, then put down the glass of grape juice he held. “By now, probably at the airport with Uncle Dan and Uncle Yanniz,” he replied, supposing her mother’s bandmates had visited often enough for Clancey to remember them. “What’d you do to your other sock?” He pointed to her sock-less foot.
“Oduh thock?” she said, her lisp more audible, and her light-colored brows wrinkling. Her voice nearly sounded like a squeak toy. “Umm…I don’ know. Maybe in duh…in d’ bed.” Her frown made her lips and chubby cheeks stand out.
Adorable and quite funny, he’d admit. This kid should be in TV commercials. “What about your dad? You know where he is?”
Clancey took another sip of her milk, her eyebrows still slightly scrunched. “Dada, um… Dada wooking.”
“Yeah. Right. Working,” he muttered. He drank the juice when she shook her head after a sip. “I dunno why I thought I could get a more specific answer, but, maybe I’ll just text him later, huh?”
“He alwayth wookin’. He call Mama and, and…I talk Dada on d’ pone, Mama thay-pone, and…”
“Oh. Okay.” He nodded after she raised her greasy little hand to pretend she was holding a cellphone to her ear. Grinning, Mick watched and waited for her to finish her sentence. But Clancey only went on munching the rest of her meal. She even asked for more maple syrup when he poured some onto her plate.
Veronica wasn’t kidding when she told him the kid loved pancakes. Well, good for him. It was the only thing he could cook in the morning. Aside from fried eggs, hotdog, bacon— Oops.
Less processed foods. Right. His sister must’ve written it down. Mick stood up and walked over to the fridge.
Okay. The list. ‘Pancakes’ was on top, then ‘oatmeal with berries’, ‘poached egg’, ‘lasagna’, ‘carbonara with tuna’, and ‘PBJ or egg and cheese sandwich for munchies’— Oh, the kid liked omelettes, too. Okay. He made pretty good omelettes.
They weren't going to starve to death as long as there were eggs in grocery stores.
He turned to look at his chatty niece. “Yeah?”
Clancey burped. She stared at him, her left cheek swollen with food, and she now had her sippy cup spilling milk all over her Winnie The Pooh plate.
“CC— ’Ey...your milk.” He walked back to the high chair to grab the sippy cup. He set it down on the dining table.
“Coow Miwk, where you thleep?”
“Upstairs. In the guest room.”
“No. The other room.” Mick crossed his arms and watched her chew. Veronica had mentioned that CC hadn’t been favoring the new baby formula her pediatrician had recommended. “Aren’t you gonna finish your milk?”
CC wrinkled her nose as if in disgust. She even shook her head. After he reminded her why kids had to drink lots of milk everyday, she asked, “Whe’th Mama?”
“On her way to work. She misses the rockstar life, y’know.”
“She leave vewy ewly?” she muttered, plainly disregarding his early morning lecture.
CC absently wiped her plate clean with the last pancake slice. “Ewly today?”
“Before seven. If you must know.” Mick smirked, waiting for the toddler to ask about her mom again. Poor kid didn’t even know where her parents were. No way was he a qualified babysitter, so, at the moment, she was practically on her own.
“You not goin’ wook?”
“Fortunately for you, no.“ He stood up to clear the dining table, then the high chair. “I’m pretty comfortable with a stay-at-home job for the moment.” He brought her back to the sink. One last time, he tried to talk her into finishing her milk, but she only said no.
She even made multiple grossed out faces whenever he would hand her the sippy cup. "Eww..."
“Alright,” he sighed. “Don’t tell your mom I didn’t try.” He turned on the faucet to rinse her syrupy hands.
“When Mama gonna come back?” Clancey stretched her small arms while he soaped her fingers and cheeks.
“After another hiatus, or if they disband for good this time.” Mick glanced to his left to see the kid’s reaction. She was all ears, and seemed quite concerned. “She’s really itchin’ to come out of hibernation, you see. And Canada’s huge, so…you’ll be flying solo for quite a while,” he added, holding back a laugh.
Her eyebrows furrowed. “Why I can’t go wid Mama?”
“Hmm... For one, touring’s not for kids.” After wiping her face and hands with a bib he found in the nearest kitchen drawer, he carried her and put her back in the high chair. “And your dad might pitch a colossal fit if she takes you with her.”
"Why you not have wook? Where you wook?” his curious niece asked next.
Here goes the initial interview. He walked back to the two-door refrigerator to check the to-do list. Better get ready for the day while the tot threw the Wh-questions. His sister had warned him of this. The tip he got was that he just act busy with something until the kid noticed. Then she’d want to watch TV, or go back to her room to play with her toys. “I’m on a prolonged vacation, so to speak.”
“Because…” He paused to read the rest of the list, while trying to come up with another white lie. “Your mom’s really keen to make some hard cash so she asked me to look after you.”
“When you gonna go wook?”
“Um… That remains to be seen, frankly speaking.” He re-read the last three things on the folded sticky note.
8) Make mac ‘n cheese for dinner. Then prep three more scoops of the formula for bedtime.
9) Clean up the baby. Yes, that includes brushing her hair for at least 10 minutes.
10) Put her to bed. No nursery rhymes. She’s sick of them. Be original. If you’re lucky, two songs would do.
Mick rolled his eyes and looked for pasta in the fridge. His sister was of course being literal when she’d said she ‘wrote down everything’.
Like he was sure to put the cart before the horse. Even the freezer had customized compartments, labeled daily, with the contents marked with the name of the dish they were for. Mick shut the refrigerator door. Then his eyes caught the alphabetized recipe notes beside the to-do list.
What an OC.
They spent the whole morning in the living room. For about an hour, Clancey watched TV. She played with her dolls next, then solved a few picture puzzles before messing them all up again. He stayed on the couch the entire time and tried to get some writing done.
The script wasn’t even half-done yet. It was mostly just editing stuff that he still had to do, but, all year, he had procrastinated enough. If the producers suddenly changed their mind and called him up for a meeting before the holidays, it would be best to have the screenplay already polished and good to go.
Yui, his manager and longtime friend, had also been scolding him incessantly about it, and reiterating why this hiatus shouldn’t last another year if he still wanted a career in the movie industry. So, since his last on-cam work didn’t quite appeal to the masses, he had told her of his plan to put acting on hold to try his hand at filmmaking. It had been his main goal, anyway, even before he’d moved to L.A.
Quarter past 12, he made stuffed eggs and opened a can of mushroom soup, which he and CC savored to the last drop. Their naptime was cut short when she needed to potty. Unlike what he’d expected, it wasn’t such a nightmare. The kid knew how to operate the toilet bowl, thankfully.
And while he gave her a bath, she stopped humming the Frozen song when he told her he was sick of hearing it everywhere. So far, no tantrums whatsoever.
“Coow Miwk, what you weadin’?” Clutching a handful of colored Sharpees, Clancey doddered toward him to check out the manuscript he was burying his head in.
“Just something for work. In the future.”
“Why duh book have no covew?” Her scribbled left hand flipped the pages when he put the papers on his lap. She dropped the Sharpees on the couch.
“It’s not a book, kid.” He combed her curly bangs away from her cheeks. He could be mistaken as the kid’s dad since their hair had nearly the same pale blonde shade; Veronica’s was light brown and so was Théo’s lately. Also, the kid loved pancakes, deviled eggs and soups, just like him when he was little. Mick grinned.
“Why?” CC leaned onto his knees, her tiny hands still inspecting the typewritten pages.
“It’s a script. For a movie. Well, hopefully,” he muttered while his head lay on the couch’s headrest. He fumbled for his phone when he heard it ring again. Naturally, it was his manager. She’d left another message. Most likely something about recent casting calls and broadway auditions.
Nah. Not his cup of tea. Never been, actually.
“Why tho many?”
“’Cause I want the flick to last at least an hour and a half. I’m not even sure I like the ending.” He let out a long sigh. Then he took the filed pages from her swift little fingers when she kept flipping the pages.
“What’th a ending? Why you don’ wyk it?”
“I dunno… It’s just…underwhelming, I guess. Needs a bit more zing. That’s why I gotta finish it soon or my manager’s gonna skin me alive.”
Oh no. Here come the WHYs again...
He glimpsed the wall clock above the flatscreen TV. 3:15. Time for snacks. “’Cause she’s an artful control freak who thinks I’m making her life so much worse right now by being out of work.”
Clancey gasped. Her gaze darted to the front door just as his did. “We have vithitow.”
“Yeah. Looks like.” Mick stood up from the couch and stared at the intercom. The red light on its left flashed. It kept doing so until he reached the door.
“Mama?” CC yelled when she ran to him.
“Uh…no.” He watched the intercom. He had no idea until now that the small screen it had was connected to the CCTV outside the apartment’s main entrance. On the screen was a blurred video feed of a guy in a dark hoodie, with scraggly hair and a black knapsack. Oh. Supermodel.
“Who ith it?” CC now gripped the hem of his shorts, her expression excited and uneasy at the same time.
He snickered and picked her up. “He looks kinda shabby, but, yeah. It’s your dad.”
“Dada!” She pointed to the screen and smiled big before letting out a piercing shriek. "Yay! Yay! Yay!"
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° E N D of P R E V I E W °
Copyright © 2020 by M.Z. MauveAll rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner without written permission of the copyright owner except for the use of quotations in a book review.•••• PROLOGUE ••••3 years earlier• Paris, France •Failure. Complete, utter failure.The word rang in his concussed head for days now, ridding him of much-needed sleep and peace of mind. He failed the assignment. The subject escaped the raid. Seven long weeks of risky, exhaustive investigative work just spiraled down the drain in mere hours.Unfortunate, but, his luck just ran out.Naked and alone, Théo took a long drag on his second stick as he stared at his pale reflection, the grayish smoke fleetingly obscuring the afterm
• A new record, a flourishing music career, new tours, bigger paychecks, enough savings for rent, a new car, and maybe a new house...Basically the things she looked forward to when she signed with the band under a bigger label. Not depression. Or a mental breakdown. Oh, right. A rather outdated term. "Now we generally call it a major depressive episode," was what her mom said the other night. Apparently it was the more clinically accurate term describing her condition. Good thing no one else knew about it. Yet."Not atypical for a 25-year-old after a traumatic breakup, hon. Stop being so hard on yourself," her mom had reminded. Dr. Michel even encouraged her to see a shrink last week. Yikes. Talking to a complete stranger who knew jackshit about her and her problems for an hour straight? Must be the most awkward thing ever. Veronica scowled and stepped out of the shower. Only the third time she bothered to bathe this week, but who cares...Lately she loved being alone and holing u
• Ecstasy. Nothing but pure ecstasy. It's how he always felt whenever he had her all to himself. Whenever they were intimate in bed, especially. It always felt this great.Something about making love to her just overwhelmed him with pure bliss and a rush of emotions he never felt with anyone else. It almost controlled him. It numbed every bit of his common sense, and he loved how it consumed him and every part of him, albeit just for a fleeting moment. Far from the annoying loneliness and instant guilt trip post-nut clarity often gave him. Holding her in his arms, listening to her laugh, kissing her wherever he wanted, feeling the gentleness of her caresses—just a thousand times better.Being with her just felt right. Natural. Freeing. He would never trade the feeling for anything. Not in this lifetime. "You okay, love?" Théo stroked her chin as her gasps and moans settled down, his chest and muscles relaxing now.Her naked body underneath him shuddered again. Her face still looked
• Arcueil, Paris •"You good?""50 percent remaining." Enough for a 30-minute call. Théo stretched out on his daybed and sat up after checking his phone's battery bars. Growing impatient, he got on his feet and headed out the door.The rooftop would be ideal. Moonlit. Spacious. Private. He could talk to his girlfriend for as long as he wanted. His hand disheveled his clean-cut hair as he dashed across the hallway to get to the staircase. He glanced around the lonely apartment, then flipped the wall light on.The loft, unusually still since the all-nighters left, reeked of male musk and sweat. Théo grimaced. A tolerable noise of rock 'n roll music playing over a speaker in the next unit was the only thing keeping their apartment from being eerily quiet.Naturally, the place was a complete mess again. Dirty ashtrays, dirty shirts, and even filthier sneakers littered the living room. He would move out of this place in a heartbeat if only he had his own house and lot just waiting for his p
•"You serious?" Her glare should tell him her confusion just clouded her thoughts now. Veronica locked stares with him.Kyle kept quiet while she waited for another answer—something that sounded more believable and sensible. But she got zilch.She breathed out a sigh and did another mental count before she could say something sarcastic.He didn't even blink or move one bit."You think I'm gonna say yes, just like that?" she blurted out, incredulity loud and clear in her voice. She even cracked a joke, only to end up snickering at her dull attempt to sass her way out of the conversation.Perhaps to make her feel like crap, Kyle kept his mouth shut as if he hadn't heard anything."What, you think I'll leave?" she questioned. Why did he spark off an argument? Was he that worried she would just leave the band and forfeit their musical career j
•Her sweaty palms went cold on her bare thighs as Veronica sat on the bed. Her back and legs felt like limp lettuce. She'd already stripped down to her nightdress, and the orange numbers her nightstand clock flashed told her it was going to be a long night. She waited for the sound of her faucet going off.The bathroom lights—because her boyfriend left the door ajar—kept her bedroom from being pitch-black. Veronica eyed his carry-on sports duffel near the windows. His hefty baggage then reminded her how he'd spent his entire day hopping on planes.Théo had just walked in a list of fashion shows in New York, Paris, and Milan consecutively. After fixing up a week-long vacation so he could spend time with her, he'd flown back to the US. Théo arrived an hour ago. She couldn't drive to pick him up at the airport at that point because Kyle was throwing another hissy fit back in the studio—something that
•Groggy and relaxed, Théo got up when he felt a light tap on the leg. It was his girlfriend. She just interrupted his siesta. He stifled a yawn, grabbed his cargo shorts, and zipped his fly. Veronica smiled and thanked the uniformed masseuses as they left the two-bed hotel room.Théo watched and muffled a loud yawn. With her phone in her hand, Veronica walked back to the other bed, barefoot and with her thighs partly covered by denim shorts. Her pale, dainty hands gathered her long brown hair. His girlfriend grinned when she caught him ogling.Even sleepy and with his energy way below normal level, he couldn't help getting winded up by the mere sight of her. Her sporty bra showed off her beautiful shoulders. Her long-lashed eyes focused on her phone. She kept texting, prolonging the comfortable silence in the room.The fact that she chose a single room pleased him of course. But he knew she just didn't want to double the bill. The fact that it was a two-bed room dismayed hi
• "This bed's too cold." Veronica chuckled, not expecting his complaint. While Théo pretended to look annoyed, she switched off the lights, then snuggled to him under the covers. "Better?" she teased. "Perfect," Théo sighed. His arm circled her waist while he pretended to focus on the television screen. An impish grin put small slits beside his eyes. Veronica kept a side comment to herself. She was bra-less with nothing more than a thin sheath of sleeping gown over a small pair of scanties. He wore nothing but his boxers. No doubt he wanted to do something else later. They killed time watching TV, but she also kept her mind busy pondering things, committing to memory how addictively good it felt to be this intimate with him...to have him right next to her while he hugged her close. It had always been like this. Time apart always told her what they had was more than physical. He'd made clear of that himself from the beginning. "This isn't just a test run for me. Alright?" T