One mistake. That’s all it was. An error in judgment. A simple yes when I should’ve said no. It wasn’t more complicated than that. There was nothing nefarious in the decision. I didn’t even think about it, I simply said, “Yes.”
At the time, it wasn’t a difficult decision. My answer was my answer and there was nothing left to consider.
That single word answer would come to define everything that came after it. I’d thought it was a one-word sentence. There was an assumed noun—I. An action and a period. The end. But it wasn’t the end. It was the beginning, even I didn’t realize it at the time.
When I look back on that day and the question that led to my answer, I never wonder if I’d change my mind if I could. There was no doubt now that the right answer—according to anyone else—was no, but I can’t say with any level of certainty that I’d do it any differently given the chance. Yes was my answer then, and even knowing what I do now, it is still the answer I’d give. Because to me, it wasn’t a mistake. I didn’t regret my yes that day or the ones I’d uttered since.
I sucked in a deep breath and tried to steady myself. After more than a year, I shouldn’t feel this nervous, but my palms were sweaty and my legs shook. I ran my hand over my hair to smooth the tiny baby hairs that had recently sprouted and then tucked the platinum blonde strands behind my ears. With my shoulders pulled upright and straight, I took a step forward and rang the bell. I waited until the ringing stopped before I exhaled. Then, I closed my blue eyes and opened my ears, listening for the familiar footsteps. They came right on schedule, just as they always did. I forced my lips to curve upward and bit the inside of my cheek in anticipation.
“Miss Shepherd.” The young man greeted me with a smile.
“Hey, Eddie,” I said and kept my voice neutral despite the increasing tempo of my heartbeat.
“Come in. Mr. Thompson is waiting.”
“Is Mrs. Thompson in?” I asked.
“Rosaline is in New York this week.” His voice held the same sense of relief I felt. Rosie, as Mr. Thompson called her, was rarely home. I’d only met her once and I wasn’t keen on the idea of a second meeting. Eddie stepped aside and waved me into the house. I thanked him and removed my coat. He took it and left me alone in the foyer,
I took in the massive space and marveled at the elegant emptiness that filled it. I’d seen it exactly 65 times since I’d given my one-word answer—every Tuesday for the past 16 months—and it still amazed me. I didn’t belong here in this house. My name shouldn’t be on the lips of a butler who took my $15 thrift store coat, and he certainly had no business calling me “Miss Shepard.” No one else did, not the friends or family I had left. They just called me “Illy.” like Lily without the “L.”
I smoothed my hands over my baby blue cashmere sweater and tugged it down over my belly. The expensive sweater was a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Thompson. Though, I doubt Rosaline knew it had been given to me. She’d likely approved the gift with a flick of the wrist and an eye roll, dismissing her husband. She didn’t much care for me but I suppose most women aren’t too eager to pick out gifts for their husband’s mistresses. Then again, I doubt many wives handpicked the woman their husband was going to have an affair with. My mother certainly hadn’t. Neither had I, but I hadn’t been given the opportunity. Perhaps my first marriage would’ve lasted if I had.
“Ilona?” His voice called down the stairs. “Is that you?”
I took a step forward and flinched at the clomp of my shoe. I bent down and slipped it off. The mansion the Thompson’s occupied was larger than the apartment complex I lived in. Their expensive artwork and oversized furniture filled the space but the house was void of much else. Every tiny sound carried.
With my shoes tucked under my arm, I followed his voice and climbed the stairs. As I made my way toward the top, I let my body relax. I started with my eyes. Blinking them slowly, I pushed the tension aside. He’d see it immediately if I didn’t. Then, he’d spend our hours together fretting over me.
Once my face relaxed, I rolled my shoulders, and then my arms. I swayed my hips back and forth to loosen them as well. By the time I reached the top, I was a different woman. I was confident and casual. I was sure of myself and my decisions.
I turned to my right and let my gaze fall onto the door that never opened. That room belonged to Rosaline. It was the one room in the house I’d never been inside, but it was the room that held my curiosity. I was forbidden to enter it or to ask questions. I was to pretend she didn’t exist. On the surface, that was an easy task. There were no photos of the lady of the house in her husband’s living quarters. He didn’t wear a wedding band, and there wasn’t evidence of a woman’s touch anywhere in the house.
It’s cold stone exterior and high ceilings were the opposite of inviting. The first time I’d come here, it felt like an overpriced prison. Rosaline had walked through the structure at a brisk pace and pointed out each room. Every space had a purpose to her but to me, it seemed as if it all existed to convince the world it was worthy of its inhabitants. Rosaline and Derrick Thompson existed to prove that same point.
When I first met Rosaline, I was struck by her power first. Her beauty, though astonishing, was the last thing I noticed. She commanded attention with every word and movement. Nothing was without intention. She spoke slowly and chose her words with care. She didn’t take a step without first evaluating every one of her options. I was nothing like her. Rosaline would never leap headfirst into a decision as big as the one she’d asked me to make.
My gaze lingered on the door for a moment longer than usual. A moment too long. The door I should have been standing in front of opening. Click-click. The sound of the doorknob turning danced down the hallway, bouncing off the pristine white walls. I turned on my heels and moved away from Rosaline’s forbidden door and smiled.
“Derrick,” I said and clicked my tongue against my teeth. He opened his arms and wiggled his fingers, inviting me in for our typical greeting. The forced smile melted from my lips and was replaced by the genuine one I reserved for him.
“Ilona,” he whispered into my ear. His lips lingered on the last syllable, dragging it out as if he were savoring the sound as I was. He said my name with an elegance I’d never heard or imagined possible. His chest pushed into mine as he inhaled deeply. “I’ve missed you.”
“I missed you, too.” Though I didn’t want to, I pulled back from him. “Shall we?” I nodded towards the open door of his bedroom.
“Are you—” he paused and placed one hand on my waist, “Is this okay?”
I dropped my head, not wanting to see the concern and sympathy in his eyes. I couldn’t bear the weight of his sadness or pity. I swallowed back the tears I’d been fighting for two months.
“Yes,” I said. I shivered as he ran the back of his hand over my cheek. He cupped my chin and tilted my head up toward his. His eyes brimmed with his own selfish tears. Unlike me, he hadn’t bothered hiding them. They’d flowed freely and without guilt. I hated him for it but those tears were what had made me fall in love with him.
He took my hand and led me into his bedroom. The door slammed shut behind us, sealing us in his sanctuary. This was the only room in the house that made me feel welcome. The dark gray walls and plush carpeting pulled me into their embrace and rocked me gently in their arms. In this room, Derrick wasn’t Mr. Rosaline Thompson, he was just Derrick. His touch was thoughtful, and his kisses were bountiful. In here it was just us.
In here my answer would always be yes.
Derrick sat on the edge of the bed and pulled me in front of him. I stood between his legs and waited for his tears to stop. He slid one hand under my sweater and rested it on my belly. The chill in his skin stung against the warmth of mine. I shivered as his fingers traced tiny circles and hearts into my flesh. He splayed his fingers across my flat stomach and closed his eyes.
I watched the memories move across his face. Each twitch of his lips and flicker of his eyelids a moment we couldn’t get back.
“Derrick,” I said, caressing his name as it rolled over my tongue, “I’m ready.”
He blinked his eyes open. “Just one more minute. I’m trying to remember the curve of her.”
The lump I’d swallowed back earlier, rose up my throat. I breathed in through my nose and held my breath as I counted from one to ten and back down. It took three full breaths to shut away the emotion I refused to feel. I wasn’t paid to feel. Feelings were what had gotten us in trouble in the first place.
I placed my hand over his and intertwined my fingers with his, breaking his connection with my skin. I pushed his hands higher until they rested on my breast, to remind him why we were here. The sound of his groan filled the room, and he lay back on the bed.
“Will you stay with me tonight?” he asked. He knew I couldn’t answer that question. It was the one yes I couldn’t give.
“Don’t worry about tonight,” I replied. I brushed a strand of his chestnut hair from his eyes and lowered myself onto him. I tried to focus solely on Derrick and push aside all thoughts of Rosaline. In this room, she didn’t exist. Those had been her parting words to me after I’d agreed to her plan. My one and only job was to keep Derrick happy and smiling. He was the one I’d said yes to, not her.
“I love you, Ilona,” he whispered into my hair as it spilled around him. I let those four words linger in my ears before shutting them out and retreating back into myself. If Rosaline heard him say those words to me, I’d be right back where I’d been when she found me, and I had no intention of ever going back.