Robert, the Present
Pearl Street, Lower Manhattan, 5:30 p.m, January 18, 2015
I take one last lingering look in the limo’s rearview mirror. Nothing but traffic behind me, and still no sign of Miranda.
Grow up, RH, she isn’t some lovestruck schoolgirl who hurtles after you, sobs her heart out, and begs for forgiveness the second you’ve had your first fight.
A fight? That’s the understatement of the century. The end of the world, to be more accurate. The end of my world. The world I thought I owned, lock, stock, and barrel: Hartwell Castle, Hartwell Global Media, and my pride and joy, the queen of my heart, the love of my life, Miranda Stone.
I still own the first two, of course, but not Miranda. Not anymore—if I ever did. Because how can you own someone so capable of deceiving you, of lying to you, of keeping the truth from you?
And you didn’t suspect a thing, RH! Robert Hartwell, media tycoon with eighty thousand employees and fabled for his ability to micromanage most of them, the man who prides himself on his ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, the genuine from the fraudulent. You didn’t suspect Miranda for one second. You trusted her implicitly, but she never gave even a hint she knew that Georgiana was still alive.
I slide down the window and take a drag on my cigarette, but then stub it out.
A weakness. No more weaknesses, RH. Especially not for any more women. Two in one lifetime is quite enough. Particularly as both of them betrayed me. Georgiana first, of course, but then I turned the tables on her, wrested my fortune out of her hands, and was just about to divorce her and leave her without a cent to her name when she died under tragic circumstances. Only—as I’ve just discovered—she didn’t die at all. She faked her own death and—as I imagine she had planned—became a legend, a goddess, an idol to millions. A brilliant chess move on her part. But why resurrect herself now?
There are so many mysteries surrounding her supposed death and sudden, dramatic resurrection, so many questions—but I won’t be asking her any of them because I can hardly bear to think of her, never mind be around her. One of these days, all those questions will have to be investigated by the proper authorities, and not me.
Which reminds me . . .
“James, get me my head of security on the line right away, please,” I tell my driver, and within seconds I’ve given instructions for two of my armed security guards to be stationed 24/7 at Georgiana’s hospital bedside, and to report to me on her condition daily.
Last, but not least, I call my lead attorney and instruct him to start divorce proceedings immediately, so that Georgiana will be served with the papers with lightning speed.
That done, I end the call, giving a sigh of relief.
Then my thoughts turn to Miranda once more.
I still love her beyond all reason. But will I ever be able to see past my anger and sense of betrayal to forgive her? And can I ever trust her again?
I replay the horrific events of the last few hours, searching for answers. When I stormed Le Château with a group of my most highly trained men, I found Miranda tied up and a prisoner, and Murray—the owner of Le Château whom I had believed was long dead—in the midst of torturing a naked woman tied to a cross, her face toward the wall.
Upon my order, one of my crack shots disposed of Murray. Then I untied Miranda and held her as if I were never going to let her go. As I did, she shook from head to foot, and I stroked and soothed her, vastly relieved that she wasn’t bruised, welted, or injured in any way.
I glanced over at the woman Murray had been torturing. A woman whose back, ass, and thighs were covered in bloody welts. A woman on whom he had clearly vented all his rage.
I quickly turned my eyes away, so as to preserve her dignity.
“Get her to the hospital as fast as you can, and charge all her medical bills to me,” I ordered, as the men started to untie her.
At that point, there should have been a thunderclap or a drumroll—so dramatic was the next announcement, and the villainous woman who made it.
“Darling, darling Robert, I’m back!”
I turned and was confronted by the smashed and shattered face of my supposedly late wife, Lady Georgiana Hartwell.
My instant reaction was to pull Miranda close to me and kiss her as if our lives depended on it, and to ignore the ghost who had inexplicably risen from the dead in such a sinister and macabre way.
Naturally, witnessing my passion for Miranda drove Georgiana wild with rage.
“Replace me with her! With little Miss Liar here? She knew I was alive all along, but she didn’t tell you, did she?” she hissed, as they carried her out on the stretcher.
“Miranda?” I said.
“I’m sorry, Robert, I did know. I just didn’t tell you because I was petrified you’d want her back,” Miranda said.
My immediate thought was: How in the hell could she think that, knowing how much I hate Georgiana, and how much I love her, Miranda? But I didn’t have an answer.
Instead, my Italian temper got the better of me, and, blinded by rage, I stormed out of Le Château, promising myself that I’d never see Miranda again, leaving her standing there speechless and close to tears.
Looking back, and remembering how beautiful her face was at that moment—overshadowed by her pain, how her lower lip trembled as she fought valiantly not to cry in front of me—I’m overcome by a surge of love for her.
Perhaps I was wrong to storm out of Le Château the way I did.
Perhaps I should have given her a chance to explain.
Facts are the lifeblood of journalism, Robbie . . . My father’s favorite phrase suddenly echoes in my mind.
Facts. I don’t really have all the facts. And maybe, just maybe, I ought to afford Miranda the chance to give them to me. After all, I do—did—love her, so maybe I owe her that. Of course I do.
“James, get us out of this fucking traffic and back to the address where you picked me up, and make it quick!” I instruct the driver.
He attempts to make a U-turn and ferry us back to Le Château, but after ten minutes of fruitlessly trying, he’s forced to admit defeat. There’s no chance of us extricating ourselves from this traffic right now.
Get out and walk?
Better still, get out and run?
And then what?
I can’t very well burst into Le Château and demand that Miranda give me the facts and nothing but the facts.
First, I have to convince her to forgive me.
Forgive me for what?
I didn’t straight-out accuse her of lying to me, I didn’t accuse her point-blank of betraying me. I just walked out and left her standing there.
Walk out on Miranda? The worst thing in the world I could ever do to her, of course, given her history with her father, that bastard who walked out on his family to marry some actress. And then he left the actress, not to return to Miranda’s mother but to fling himself into another love affair with a Thai girl decades his junior.
So do I throw myself on Miranda’s mercy, tell her that my knee-jerk reaction was caused by the shock of losing her, the shock of finding her in that den of iniquity that held so many horrific memories for me, and, most of all, the shock of being confronted by a living ghost?
My number one goal, of course, is to get an answer to the $64 million questions: When precisely did Miranda discover that Georgiana was still alive? When did she and Georgiana first meet? Was it through Miranda’s grandfather, who was once Georgiana’s astrologer? Did Miranda know at the time when Georgiana faked her own death that that was what she had done? And did she know that she was planning to make her dramatic comeback, and now?
No matter how long it now takes to get there, do I tell James to drive us straight over to Miranda’s apartment in Hoboken and wait till she gets home and demand answers from her right then and there?
Or do I wait till she comes back to Hartwell Castle to pick up her things?
But my guess is that she won’t come near the place unless I invite her to, not after the way I walked out on her.
She’s far too independent, far too proud to do that. The least submissive of all submissives. If, of course, you make the common mistake of assuming that all submissives are submissive out of bed as well as in—a mistake I’ve never made, and definitely not when it came to Miranda. So I’m certainly not going to fall into the trap of making it now.
Her very independence, her guts, her balls, her pride are what made me fall in love with her in the first place—which means that the next move will inevitably have to be mine.
Take her in your arms and never let go of her again. Tell her how much you love her, explain that you were in shock, and that you walked out on her because you couldn’t grasp that the bitch was still alive.
That, of course, would be the easy way. Then let her explain everything to me and try to forgive her, try to go on as if this nightmare had never happened at all. But I know that if I see her again face-to-face, my brain will turn to mush and I won’t be able to separate her lies from the truth.
The only way for me to find answers to all the questions hammering inside my head is to initiate an investigation, and meanwhile concentrate on my work and survive on my own.
On my own. Without Miranda. Unthinkable.
Survive without Miranda, my dream woman, my love, the woman I wanted to make the center of my life and my future.
RH, you haven’t lived this long—you haven’t survived what you’ve survived—without trusting your own instincts. Go on without her. Go on alone. Once the hurt and the pain and the loss have subsided—and one day they will—you’ll survive.
And I shall. Just as I learned to survive without Georgiana when I discovered the horrendous truth about her, the woman I thought was my perfect submissive, my happily ever after, the woman at whose altar I once worshipped as fervently as the rest of the world, Lady Georgiana Hartwell, glamorous, beautiful, a beacon of philanthropy, an icon who exuded a matchless allure.
Once I thought that she was all mine, and that we shared the most delicious, darkest of all erotic secrets; the secret that for one single solitary evening, she assumed the identity of a submissive girl named Pamela and submitted to a rigorous session from me, conducted at the S&M fantasy parlor Le Château.
But after Pamela once more assumed her real identity as Lady Georgiana Lacely—and after our wedding, as Lady Georgiana Hartwell—at the exact moment in which my happiness should have been complete, I learned the full extent of her perfidy, her venality, her evil, and then I knew that she was the devil incarnate.
Although I still faced the future with unlimited riches, power, and glory at my disposal, none of that, I knew, would compensate me for my emotional aridity, or penetrate the armor I now wore against anything or anyone who might touch my feelings and ignite my passion once more.
And then, of course, I met Miranda, who pierced that armor, who set alight all my innermost, secret desires. My angel, my perfect woman, a born submissive whose very existence I thought would obliterate all the wrongs Georgiana had done me; together, we would live out all our passion, all our wildness, and find eternal bliss. I truly thought we would. After she passed my battery of BDSM tests, I knew that she was my perfect match. I loved and trusted Miranda implicitly, intended to make her my wife and share my worldly goods with her, my heart, my life.
And now this . . .
Suddenly it comes back to me that before I rode to Miranda’s rescue at Le Château, whenever I mentioned Georgiana’s name, she literally blanched. Could that all have been an act? Was everything, including our very first meeting?
No more fucking questions, RH. Let the professionals investigate everything.
“James, get me Peterson on the speaker.”
When he picks up the phone, I get straight to the point, without offering any explanation for what I’m about to say, simply, “Peterson, I want a tail on Miranda, 24/7. I want to know where she goes, what she does, and, above all, who she sees.”
How soon will it be before she betrays me with the next man? The next Master? Unless, of course, there has always been another Master waiting in the wings.
Don’t think of Miranda with another man, not yet.
Besides, right now it doesn’t really matter.
All that matters is that I was wrong to let my guard down with her, wrong to love her, wrong to trust her. And—unless I get evidence to the contrary—I’ll never make that mistake again.
I survived before you, Miranda Stone, and I’ll survive again without you.