A/N: And thus, I have returned. And after going to Boston for the weekend… still got nothing done except for other projects. Luckily, I'm almost done with those, and can finish up this quickly, which shouldn't be much longer, hopefully. But I got you guys a gift while away… ANOTHER CHAPTER! Yay, who doesn't love those? And it's much longer, actually. So… enjoy! :)

By the way, before I give this, I am wondering if anyone can help me get an image for this, simply because I also had one for the first book. It doesn't have to have characters, like "the Insanity of Love" did; just anything. I'd much appreciate it.

Chapter Five

A Shoulder to Lean On

Work finally ended, so he had the rest of the day to himself. Taylor let him off for the coffee all over the outfit, though Daniel Grey had a fit about not so much about the stain, but trying to keep it from him. Of course he would find out—the building and clothing line were his. He knew it head to toe; for all Jerome knew, he had cameras stashed all across the building for his paranoid sake. Still, they were both given only warnings. Jerome learned long ago to at least keep his thoughts to himself; in the real world, trouble was not good one bit.

So he was able to walk around the streets of the warm day with not many worries about losing his job. While he was only in his mid-twenties, this job was one he was sure he would stick with as long as he could. A few slips of the tongue would have to stop when he was around.

He came into the park, trying to dodge the kids who were running around as he went through the playground that ran across a small part of the park. Returning home was this same cycle every day. He didn't mind it so long as little kids didn't bump into him. Although, his mood was slightly more relaxed after being given only a warning for the incident at the café, so perhaps he'd even let that slide.

But just as he was exiting the park, he saw a figure sitting on a bench—well, it was more like sulking. The dark haired beauty, shoulders sagging and hiding her face, was obviously in tears, what with her shaking body and the strange noise he could hear feet away.

What was Mara doing here? Sobbing to herself like this? He recalled that only two or three hours ago did those two talk—with disastrous results, obviously. So what had happened in between that? Why did he care? Whatever. Something in him knew something was going on, but he did not know exactly what. Curiosity drove him to walk toward her.

But when Mara slowly drew her head up from her arms when hearing footsteps come her way and blinked at him very slowly with those brown eyes, he wondered if that was the only reason he came over here. He then sat down, and Mara shifted over to give him enough space to sit comfortably, a sign she did not necessarily want to be quite so isolated. However, silence wavered for quite a bit. He decided to let her talk first, waiting to see what was lingering in her sad mind.

Finally it came out, as she came out from hiding and rubbing her tear stained face with her dark jacket sleeve. "'Ello, Jerome," she said weakly, and Jerome wanted to burst into laughter. It was as if he had just come over when he had waited one, maybe two minutes for her to relax. "What are you doing here?"

"It was a surprise to see you here, Mara," he said coyly, dodging her question entirely and putting his arm atop the bench oh so casually. "It's a shame to see a poor woman like you so down like you are. And being a gentleman, I decided to help out the innocent; the damsel in distress, if you will." He put a hand on her shoulder, which she shook off harshly.

Mara glanced up at him, and though her face was already slightly red from crying, her face seemed to get a tone redder but in rage. "What happens in my life is none of your business," she snapped under her breath. "If you cared enough, you'd leave me alone."

"Oh, then I don't care about you a single bit," he said with a knowing grin. Mara groaned in irritation. "So what's got you down in the first place? Does it… have to do with what I asked at the café."

"Jerome," she protested in a whisper.

"Hey, this time, you don't have coffee to spray all over me, so choose your words wisely," he put in. When she didn't respond, he went on. "What's it going to do to let people know what happened? How embarrassing. Especially someone who used to be a good friend of yours."

"It's even harder to explain it to a guy," Mara explained, but Jerome kept his attention. She was gradually caving in to saying something; he could just see it. She wiped her face with her sleeve.

"Just… well, pretend I'm one of your gal pals." Then he pantomimed as to how he saw girls interact, all while being melodramatic enough to drive Mara bonkers. He placed his hands on his chin and gave the brightest smile. "Mara, you should, like, absolutely tell me what happened between you and Mick. Oh, I'm sure it's awful! But you can tell me anything, because we're total BFFs! I pinkie promise I won't tell anyone!"

Mara gave him a blank stare in response. She raised a brow and struggled between laughing and informing the guy just how freaking weird he was. Jerome titled his head and said, "Am I more of an actor or a model, Mara? Be honest?"

"Model, definitely," she replied, and she could no longer hold in her laughter.

"So you think I'm handsome."

"Jerome!" She shoved his shoulder and chuckled. She rubbed her knees after a moment of eerie silence and said, "Never mind that. Let's… alright."

"Alright… what?"

"I'll tell you what happened in Australia," she answered with a glance at her shoes. She felt more comfortable staring at them over Jerome's eyes. She couldn't look over her , the sun glaring down upon them.

"You're going to tell me?" Jerome summarized.

"Yes… but don't tell anyone about it. It's no one's business except mine and whoever I tell," Mara warned with a finger inches from jabbing his nose.

Jerome smirked at her petty threat, even chuckling, which sort of made her slink back into a less intimidation position. "It's not like anyone I know would care. My lips are sealed." He even pulled two of his fingers across his lips and tossed his hand behind him, a mimic that meant exactly what he said. He then leaned into her and added, "Now spill."

Mara rolled her eyes but nonetheless sighed as she began. "Well, we had been dating for a long time after we left for college. The college down there was great, and we got to see each other all the time. We had a few problems, but nothing ever made us actually break up,"—she swore she saw Jerome roll his eyes, but she continued—"but then after college, he asked me to marry him. It was just a little over half a year ago, and I was so happy, of course I said yes! And things went so well—all the planning, the outfits, everything… was perfect." She sighed dreamily, in deep thought of those joyous moments where everything was going so well.

Jerome was not at all enthused. He seemed to want the stuff he asked for—as in, the reason she came here, not how much she loved her wedding plans. He raised his brows at her and waved a hand for her to go on. After a few moments of blushing, she said in a stutter, "Oh, uh, sorry, I… anyway, at the very wedding, I felt so amazing. The pastor was doing the whole thing with marriage and I wanted to cry. And then… and then… "

Her voice faded, and the mere memory brought tears to her eyes. Oh, why was this making her so depressed, so emotional? Why wasn't she strong like Trisha, who would probably brush it off like dust on her shoulder?

"Then what?" Jerome asked, bringing her back from the darker part of her mind. She turned to him, and though he was stoic faced, she had a feeling, somewhere deep in his heart, that he cared. Or at least, she hoped he did. He put a hand on her shoulder, and this time, she did not protest. Maybe he did have a heart…

"The priest asked Mick 'I do' and… and he… he ran off!" Mara burst out, this time no longer able to cry. Perhaps she had lost all the moisture from her eyes. She had no idea, but at least she wouldn't look foolish anymore talking about it.

Jerome's eyes widened. "He left… right in middle… of a wedding? Your wedding?" he repeated in disbelief, but… was there a grin on his face? A tiny one, even? She noticed something like that for a second before it disappeared. He cleared his throat and said, "I'm guessing that didn't look too spectacular."

She glared at him but agreed, "Yes. His family was confused, and mine were devastated."

Understatement of the decade. Her mother was in tears. Her father was more furious if anything, almost wanting to sort out the boy. But Mara had convinced him to stay still. "I went out to talk to him. He went all the way to some garden, since we were at some fancy hotel his father offered to rent for us. He said… well, I don't really remember much of it—I try to forget it. But he said he was nervous, that he wasn't sure if he was ready to marry me. But I was just… just so mad, I wanted to yell at him. I didn't though. I told him we needed to back off for a bit—so I came here to sort things out.

It wasn't so much to be away from him, but… to decide if he's worth the rest of my life. Especially after that episode, I wasn't sure how to deal with it. I moved in with Amber, and, well, here we are." She gestured around the park, and shyly and weakly grinned at Jerome.

He was still grinning, still holding his hand against her arm in a sort of comforting way. "Lovely story, Mara. Shame it had to end like that," he said with no sympathy. He then gave her a suspicious look. "But you can't still have feelings for him, can you? Something like that ought to snap a girl out of her lovey-dovey trance."

"It just made me… confused? I have no idea, actually," Mara said with a strange, low laugh. But Jerome did not follow her, apparently not amused. With a straight face, she added, "I don't really know, Jerome. I mean, he asked me to marry him, and maybe he was just scared to get married. Like he wasn't prepared for all of it."

"So he waited for the last moment to wimp out and embarrass you in the middle of everybody you and he knows." It wasn't a question or a guess.

"It's not like that. I'm sure he was scared, but was so happy for me—and himself, of course—but when the time came, it all overwhelmed him.

"So you're defending him, when you're running away from him in the first place?" Jerome attempted to summarized, slow to get the point, which only bothered her more.

"See, Jerome? You don't understand! It's… complicated," she answered under her breath, but Jerome understood. He rose his hands like it would protect him, and she said nothing in response. She no longer had anything to say on this. He was the wrong person to say all of this t.

So why did she tell him in the first place? Why did she cave into his seducing ways to let him know her secret that she refused to tell even Amber?

It was too much to think about. Not now. Instead, something else invaded her mind. Glancing at him suspiciously, she questioned, "Why do you care so much about all of this? Don't you have your own life to worry about?"

He shrugged simply. "I dunno. Curiosity overcame me, what can I say?" Inside, he realized Taylor asked this same question not too long ago. What is it with girls asking questions like that, ones he couldn't answer?

Silence enveloped the two, and she found her head resting on his shoulder, and other than that, they both remained stiff in their positions. She didn't care if he found it awkward or anything, because he didn't seem to mind. She didn't even care; she just needed a time to keep still and peacefully quiet. She took in the blissful moment as the silky white skies grew gray for future rain. It wouldn't be long before she had to return home and face Amber after stomping out in a huff like she did.

"… I should get going. Amber may want to know where I went," Mara interrupted the moment after it lasted that; a moment. She got off the bench and looked down at him. Her cheek felt warm, after being comforted by his jacketed shoulder. And with that feeling inside her, she wanted to escape her.

He followed suit, getting up to once again look down at her. "I'll take you. Might as well

"I don't need an escort," Mara argued with tight lips.

"No, you very much don't, Jaffray," he said, pointing. Then he flashed a lovely smile. "You just need a friend."

His voice was not the kind to make anything sappy, which Mara was thankful for, because his generosity was nothing more than what he was implying; he was, and always will be, a good friend. They walked toward Amber's house, and Mara was slightly disturbed with her thoughts.

… Just that, right? Just friends?

Amber was brushing her hair delicately, wanting to get it just perfect. Why? For no reason other than to simply have fabulous hair.

Well, not only that-though it was a huge reason-but while brushing her hair, she often went into deep concentration with her thoughts. That mishap with Mara, coming in at such a bad time… actually, Amber was amused by it. Mara was so defensive and emotional. She just wished she knew where she was, because Mara hadn't been in London for years. What if she forgot her way around and got lost?

Amber laughed to herself. If only she wasn't so daft and actually thought things through. But the poor girl was too emotional to sort out her brain in any way. So rather than chase her off like a human chases a dog who caught the owner's slipper in their fangs, she decided to wait for Mara to come back on her own—and tell her all she needed to know. The walk would cool off the steam she produced while here.

The second she heard the door open, she smiled a devilish smile, put down her hairbrush, though fluffing her silky strands one last time, before heading into the beige hallway.

"Mara, is that you?" Amber said, half singing in absolute delight as she peeked through the corner and at the door.

"Yes, I'm back," Mara answered, appear in the room as she spoke, and her voice told Amber a million words. Gentle and stable, and she imagined a smile painted on her face; she had healed during her walk. Not like Amber doubted it.

"How are you now?" she decided to play, pretend like she didn't know she was feeling better.

"I'm fine," Mara said, dodging Amber's gaze as she tossed her purse onto the couch casually before heading into the kitchen. "

"I'm guessing your walk went well," Amber noted, following her friend. "You seem very happy."

"Everything is alright now, Amber. In fact, I think I should tell you what happened between me and Mick?"

Talk about icing on the cake! Amber thought gaily. She nearly ran over to Mara and asked, "Tell me everything. I'm sure it'll feel great to get it all out." She had Mara sit on the couch beside her. She placed her hands in front of her, losing her containment on her excitement.

But when Mara slowly got into the story, and it all clicked into Amber's head, her enthusiasm dimmed, her face falling into a somber look. She placed her hands on Mara's lap, which Mara covered with a sweet smile. They smiled solemnly at one another when she finished.

Amber frowned, though, when she replied, "That son of a bitch!" She shook her head violently as she shut her eyes. It was all unbelievable, but what else could she suspect from someone like Mick, who broke her own heart when they were teens. Only it's much more real now that they were adults, facing reality at its toughest without bringing heartbreak into the mix. "I'm so sorry he did that to you! I—you have every right to be mad at him."

Mara tilted her head downward. "Amber, I don't know if I'm mad anymore."

This—this surprised her. "What?"

"I don't even know what he was thinking when he was going through this. Maybe he was scared, maybe he wasn't ready. I'm not here to run away from him. I'm here to clear my mind and see if I can go back to face him ever again," Mara informed her.

Amber gaped. She didn't know what to think, aside from wanting to persuade Mara otherwise. "I…" But she stopped herself. As angry as she was, she didn't know Mick anymore, didn't know how much he changed over the years. What was he thinking during all of this? He did not do so purposely, did he? He wasn't an ass, just a stupid git.

But something inside her made her think otherwise, a darker side of her that made her think negatively. She always saw Mick to be a heartbreaker, and he was doing it again. "Mara, you really should think about this. Maybe… maybe you being back here is a sign to move on with your life. Meet new people!" She shut herself up entirely that time. Did she say too much?

Mara nodded, but grinned at what Amber last said. Amber flashed a smile herself, only innocently and not a sign that Amber was caught. "By the way… I met someone while waiting for you at the café where Patricia works," Mara began slyly.

"Oh, yeah, I had to do extra time at work," Amber interrupted casually. Then she met Mara's eyes with a raised brow of feigned curiosity. "What about it?"

"Jerome was there—" Mara brought up, attempting to be unrehearsed, but only someone as slow as Amber could not get it. Did she?

Amber interrupted her anyway, with a squeal of excitement, as if she weren't a part of it at all. "Ooh, how did it go? It's like a happy accident, right? That must've been nice."

Mara decided not to play games any longer. She rolled her eyes and said, "Amber, Jerome told me and Patricia that you basically tricked him to go there. You set that up, didn't you? You told him to go while I was there to have us… what did you do that for, anyway?"

A dark flash invaded Amber's eyes. She tried to shy away but decided against it and instead tilted her head innocently. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said with a shrug.

"So Jerome lied to me when he said the only reason he went to Patricia's work while I was there? Jerome may be tricky, but I doubt that's anything of a coincidence. Amber, if you just tell me the truth…I won't be mad. I just want to know why."

Amber hesitated to answer, but Mara knew that she was only stalling. But it was useless, since they lived together. She crossed her arms and waited for a long time. Eventually, she wanted to just give up and go to bed—though it was only a minute, maybe less. Finally, "Alright, maybe I did, uh, tell a certain boy to meet me there when I promised you I would meet you there. And I never showed up" She blinked very innocently.

"Well, why?" Mara asked, careful not to let her anger get the best of her. None of this made any sense to her.

Amber shrugged vaguely, to which Mara huffed. Finally, Amber gave in with a bubbly expression, no longer able to hold it in. "Why, it's so simple, Mara! I'm trying to help you forget Mick!"

"Why would Jerome help me forget about Mick?" she asked. With the fact I told him what happened with Mick, it's the exact opposite.

"Because I thought you would be happy to see Jerome. You two are so sweet together. And it would take your mind off him a bit. It would help you get through th—"

Mara realized that all through Amber's spiel, her mouth had dropped open. She shut it only to break her off, "Yes, I am aware of that, but… what are you talking about? Jerome and…. and me?" Her eyebrows creased.

This surprised Amber, throwing her slightly aback. "You really had no idea? You couldn't see it at all? You're supposed to be the brainiac, Mara!" She levitated a hand in the air before Mara could snap back at her, which she would have done more than willingly. "Well believe me, you two really had chemistry in high school—and not the school kind, obviously. And I'm really surprised you never figured this out until now. I mean, I get you were dating Mick, but… you didn't see it at all?" Amber said like the idea was scandalous. She plopped onto the couch, swirling her wine in her glass. How many did she have?

Mara sat beside her and observed her face. Nothing too bad, eyes neither bloodshot nor foggy. Maybe this was her first. She bit her lip. "I never knew, I just didn't. Perhaps I—I was in love with Mick too much to see it. I never even knew Jerome liked me. At all."

"I never said he did, but, yes, he totally did. Everyone could see it," Amber said, nodding in agreement despite her bemusement.

"Actually, he said it. At the café. Before I could leave, he told me… that he loved me."

Amber's eyes popped open, almost like how it happens in an animated cartoon. She covered her mouth with her hands scandalously. "Did he really? How did you react? Oh my gosh, I would have lost it!"

"I ran out! Besides, Amber, he said loved. As in, past tense. He obviously doesn't feel the same way. He did it just to mess with my head—that's how he is. B-but it doesn't matter because I don't feel anything for him at all! You have no idea what happened, anyway!" she sneered, wishing now more than ever they got off the topic of Jerome. She'd rather talk about Mick.

"I don't, but you can tell me," Amber mused, leaning in, her hand cupped close to her ear. Mara groaned but did not try to protest.

"Patricia and he got in a fight, we sat down, talked, and then he mentioned Mick, and I poured coffee all over him," Mara summarized blankly, not even flinching at the word Mick. She was getting better. Often just thinking of his name made her struggle not to sob. Heck, the airplane workers asked what her problem was while on the ride there. She said nothing, of course, no matter how sympathetic the woman sounded.

"Coffee?" Amber's mouth fell open. Although Mara had no idea what she was shocked at. They went to a coffee café, for heaven's sake.

"Black coffee. Extra hot since I just bought it. But it was worth it, what with the way he was talking about Mick!" Mara growled. "And he knew I wouldn't like it. That's so like him!"

Amber had no way to reply, her enthusiasm draining as Mara's words processed. Her plan didn't go quite well—in fact, it went pretty horrid, apparently. She was getting mad at Jerome. Oh, why did he have to make things so complicated? She agreed with Mara, only not verbally. Hoping to make amends for him, she said, "Well, whatever he said, I'm sure he didn't mean it."

Mara's silence was an answer that was open to interpretation, but Amber's mind to on a path she liked best. While the topics of both Mick and Jerome were dismissed for the rest of the night, Amber felt an accomplishment she hadn't felt since meeting Luke.