Chapter Twenty-Four: Deep Inside, I Wonder

TIME HAD BESTOWED UPON Carly the same benevolent manners that it had shown Alejandro. She had become even more beautiful than the last time he had seen her. Her platinum blond hair (a color she had never been able— or wanted to—escape from her early childhood) shone even in the dim lighting of the Pancake Loft. He noticed the way she tucked the loose strands behind her ear, something he once found so wholly endearing.

"Carly . . .?" He had never been at such a loss for words.

"Hi." She didn't have the same force behind her voice that she once did. "I'm in the town, looking at property. Stopped by for breakfast before meeting a client today, and run into you, of all people."

"Is that so horrible?" He hoped it would relieve some of the tension.

Fortunately, Carly did laugh, as she sat herself across from her, seizing Serena's seat. She still has her audacity, I see, Alejandro noted, and studied the way her pale blue eyes glinted in the light. Why had he never noticed that before? Her particular shade of blue was vivid and striking.

"How have you been?" Carly inquired once she had settled into Serena's chair.

For some reason, Alejandro felt it was an odd way to open up a conversation. Well, at least it was for an ex-wife and ex-husband who hadn't seen each other in over six years. He had to admit it was more than odd, it was damned awkward.

He honestly did not want to get into the technicalities of it, and didn't feel that was what she was truly after. "Been through good and bad. Just life in general, you know?"

Carly smoothed her immaculate cobalt blue blouse. It was suddenly no wonder why her eyes were so unexpectedly stunning today; her apparel and accessories brought it out, from her blue topaz stud earrings and matching necklace to her white skirt.

"Same here," she started and then interjected herself with, "well, actually, I've made some big changes. I, uh, got my real estate license, and I've been practicing for four years, running my own company . . . and I'm remarried."

Alejandro's brows nearly lifted off his face when she offered this piece of information, though the idea should not have been so preposterous. He gawked at her engagement ring and at the size of the ice that glistened from her slender finger. He marveled at how he could not have possibly noticed it before. It was two carats, marquis cut, probably triple the size of the simple solitaire he had proposed to her with.

"Oh, I see. Who's the lucky fellow?"

"Shawn Fellow," she replied, happily. "I met him taking the real estate class. He decided not to pursue it, but it's a hot market and I couldn't miss the opportunity."

"Of course not," Alejandro conceded. "I'm happy for you." He smiled, trying to feel the smile inside of himself. It certainly wasn't jealousy, was it? Carly had had an affair with a coworker, who was also married, Alejandro later discovered. It was a simple girlish crush that turned into flirting, which could no longer satiate their hunger, and thus led to weekly trysts at motels.

Carly set her Fendi designer wallet on the table, which appeared so out of place against such a humble abode. "What about you?" She leaned in closer, as if to whisper a secret. "Seeing anybody?"

As if on cue, Serena emerged into Alejandro's sight, hovering behind the athletic build of a seemingly youthful blond female.

"As a matter of fact," Alejandro prodded Serena to stand beside him. This was his chance to flaunt his fortune in life, as well. "I've recently begun dating Miss—"

"Serena Kristall, right?" Carly extended her hand to greet her, and Serena felt as if the Titanic had just crashed into her heart. She was met once again with Carly's mesmerizing blue eyes.

Feeling a chill come over her—either from the fact that Carly remembered her name or from her blue eyes alone or both—Serena shook Carly's hand, though weakly. "I'm . . . so flattered that you remember," Serena lied, trying to hide both her shock and fear.

"Of course I do," and something about Carly's eyes expressed to Serena and Alejandro that she somehow knew about them, knew about them when they had their affair when Serena was still his student. "I remember Alejandro saying that you were very talented."

Serena grew still. What does she mean by that?

"In writing," Carly supplied for them, when she saw their obvious confusion. "Poetry, I believe. Do you still write?"

She knows. Serena could feel her panic launch out of control. "Occasionally. When I have the time."

"Yes, life gets busy after high school, doesn't it? Well, for some of us, it was busy during it, too, I suppose."

Alejandro thanked God when the waitress appeared with their plates of food. She glanced at Carly, also bamboozled, and asked, "Would you like me to take your order, too?"

Carly waved her off with the air of a confident woman. "No. I'm just here visiting. I'm actually sitting right over there. I'm almost done with my breakfast."

Before the waitress had time to finish setting the plates and syrup down, Alejandro motioned for her to stop. "Actually, if we could just have that in a box. My girlfriend's not feeling well, so I think it's best if we eat it at home. I hope that won't be a problem."

She batted her long, camera-ready lashes at him. "Not at all, sir," and she kindly backed away to the kitchen.

Even amidst all the turmoil, Serena preened when she heard Alejandro fondly refer to her as "girlfriend."

Alejandro turned to face Serena. "Hey, love, why don't you go wait in the car?" He handed her his keys and kissed her on the cheek. "Don't worry about a thing," he murmured close to her ear, his breath hot on her neck, like it was the night before when they had made love. And he kissed her on the top of her head.

"It was nice seeing you again, Carly," Serena forced herself to say, out of courtesy, if anything at all.

"Likewise, Serena, though I'm awful sorry that you're not feeling so well."

There was just something so damn snug about the way she spoke to Serena, as if patronizing her. Serena's eyes lingered on this woman who had once shared a marital bed with Alejandro, and as he requested, she left the Loft and waited for him in the Jeep.

Alejandro waited patiently for Serena to leave, and once she was out of earshot, he lowered his voice to Carly. "What's going on?"

Carly glared right back at him. "What do you mean?"

"Don't play games with me," he shot back at her.

She scoffed in reply. "I think you're the one who's been playing games. She was one of your students, Alejandro."

"Well, not anymore," he pointed out.

"Don't pretend to be innocent. I saw it in your eyes. You always had some sort of infatuation with her. I think I only subconsciously noticed it, but I sure as hell see it as bright as day now."

Alejandro's anger pitched up another notch. "What you think may or may not have happened, I can't change. But I am with Serena now, and I do love her."

Carly could no longer meet his eyes. She was staring down at her folded hands in her lap. When she finally spoke, she sounded broken. "Did you ever love me the way that you love her?" And when she looked up at him, her eyes gleamed with welling tears.

At the very honest level, Alejandro couldn't remember. It had been so long ago. But certainly, he did love her. He wouldn't have proposed to her at Disney World in front of hundreds of other people if he hadn't.

"I loved you, Carly, and you betrayed me." That, he would always remember. The sting of infidelity.

Her brass exterior was coming undone as a tear slid unchecked down her cheek. "And I'm sorry for that. I've always . . . regretted it." She reached for his hand across the table and their skin contacted. "And deep inside, I've always wondered where we would be if I hadn't . . . you know . . ."

Alejandro could only focus on the way their skin was touching now, such an intimate display for such a time lapse. The behemoth of a diamond bounced back the light pouring in from the windows and refracted it to create streams of prismatic rainbows.

He couldn't stop her when she lowered her head and grazed the skin of his hand lightly, so faintly he almost missed it.

"I wish . . . that I could show you now how I've always felt about you . . ." And then she locked a steely gaze with him, relentless and unyielding to flexibility.

He saw it in the depths of the blue, what she was truly after.

"I love Serena." He drew his hand away from her, firmly, but not coldly. "There is no way I could ever hurt her the way you hurt me. I'm sorry, Carly, but this is the most pathetic thing I've ever seen you do. You're married, for God's sake, and I sure as damn well won't be a part of hurting your husband, too."

The waitress arrived with the bill and two boxes of breakfast food. He thanked her and set down a twenty on the table, while the bill only read eight or nine something. He snatched the boxes into his arms, rising from his chair.

"Have some dignity, Carly," he reproached her. "The time for us will never be again."

He turned on his heels, but no matter how fast he moved, he couldn't seem to get far enough away in time.

"Wait!" she called out to him, also having risen from her chair.

In the vacancy of the restaurant, they knew they were stirring up quite the commotion and probably the gossip for the rest of the day.

"Call me," she handed him a slip of paper that he immediately recognized as a business card. "If you ever need a good piece of property."

He shook his head slowly at her. "You just don't give up, do you?"

"No, I don't," and the impassable walls of the self-assured woman were resurrected.

Alejandro could find nothing more to say to her and stalked out of the restaurant. He spotted Serena in his forest green Jeep immediately; she was chewing on her nails. He opened the door to the driver's side, set the boxes down in a hurry, and reached over to Serena, pulling her fiercely towards him. He exercised his mouth on her, passion seeping into his blood. She resisted initially, uncertain of what was happening, but surrendered just as quickly.

He broke the kiss apart, though still holding her close to him. "I hope you know that you're the best thing that's ever happened to me in my life, and I don't regret anything we've ever done, back then or now."

"I couldn't agree with you more."

"Good," he said and started the car.