Prologue

It just couldn't end like this. Both of them knew that, but what could they do? Layla Montgomery, one of the smartest and most beautiful women that Tom Langley had ever had the privilege to know and love had just told him that she was no longer capable of returning the love that he so desperately deserved. For all of the ways she touted him and how wonderful he was, he couldn't imagine a woman that could be good enough for him. She was over exaggerating his greatness to make herself feel better about walking away.

Her deep chocolate brown eyes were full to the brim with tears that she was not allowing to spill over onto her cheeks. She was always so strong. It didn't matter what was happening, whether it was a sad movie, a dog she loved dearly being put to sleep, or one of the most painful breakups in his recent memory, Layla was brave. She would do anything it took to hold the tears at bay.

He couldn't speak. His mouth felt like it was full of cotton. Every angle had been met. There was no logical reasoning to give her that would allow this break up to cease. She was set, like she always was. Perhaps, just this one time, he could bargain emotionally with her. That was something that didn't work too often, but maybe this time it would…

"Layla, please, look at me," he begged in a voice that did not sound like his own.

She didn't dare to. She knew what he was doing. After eighteen months, Layla knew all of Tom's plays. Whenever there was something that he wanted to discuss that was serious enough, if rationality failed, emotion was the next step to take. With Tom, it was always the first step, but Layla was able to keep it up to a point where she was not the typical female, succumbing to silly emotions and allowing feelings to compromise what really only needed the mindset to accomplish.

"Please," he said in a near whisper, and the slight wobble in his voice was enough to undo the tightly wound strings that ensconced her heart. She peeked up under the veil of straight, thick ebony locks. She saw in those gorgeous cerulean eyes the desperation of a man about to lose everything. She couldn't allow him to look that way, but even more so she couldn't show him that she felt everything just as raw as he did.

Once he saw the moment of vulnerability in her eyes, he knew he had her. It was the thing she most dreaded. He now had the ability to plead his case, even though she had tried so hard to make that impossible.

"I just don't understand why you want this to be over… I mean, yes, you gave me all of your reasons, but I still just… I don't get it, Layls…"

She closed her eyes tightly and looked away from him. If she had kept them open a second longer, the tears would have spilled out quickly.

"I..." he began, and then sucked in a breath. "You know how I feel about you… I know how you feel about me… And I just don't get it. Why, even with all of the reasons you gave me, does it have to be this way?"

She sighed deeply and leaned back, arms crossed in front of her tightly. She took some odd comfort in being strapped tightly into herself like that. If she let go, maybe all of the emotions she'd suppressed since her childhood would finally come pouring out in this one ridiculous moment. Nothing she had ever gone through in her days with her mother and father, the people who had turned a blind eye to her as a child and didn't care to nurture and give affection, could ever amount to the pain she suddenly felt at this moment. The twenty-three years she'd tried so hard to numb those feelings of inadequacy, loss, and neglect were starting to bubble up to the surface the more she thought about everything.

Tom was too real, too decent, too amazing. He really did deserve a woman who could give him what he needed emotionally. She was a complete robot at times, according to other ex-boyfriends, and had the 'emotional range of a toaster,' as one scathing idiot had put into words once. It was her personal favorite, as much as one could favor an insult.

But Tom… he was something altogether different. She'd met him by chance at a Starbucks when she happened to be running late for a final exam. It was, quite literally, her final exam before she graduated and received her bachelor's degree in marketing. She hadn't quite decided what to do with her degree, but she and three of her best friends were already in the early stages of discussing their plans to put together a business. How they would do that was beyond her with the difference in all of their degrees. Luckily, she was good with that kind of problem solving. She had an idea of what could work, but she needed to get through this last exam and get to her usual Wednesday night pow-wow with the girls. However, things were about to take a drastic turn when she accidentally spilled an iced caramel macchiato on his khakis running out the door, not even bothering to look up before shoving the door open.

She had been surprised at his attitude at the time. He didn't mind one bit that she had drenched him in caramel syrup and espresso. She later learned that he was simply a sucker for a dark, attractive woman who seemed frazzled and open. That was how he'd met her, vulnerable. When he insisted she pay him back for ruining his pants with a dinner date, she agreed and also made a promise to herself that she was not going to let him see her that way again. She remembered being so completely mortified that it recalled some deep childhood memories she didn't care to relive. Afterward, that was the tone of their relationship for the year and a half they had been together.

It didn't take long for Layla to feel undeserving of his love, and this continues throughout the relationship as well. He was an eternal optimist, the sun could never shine too bright for him, and the glasses could all never be too full. He was amazing. She sometimes felt that she was the Medusa to his Apollo. God of the Sun, the most amazing and bright creature that anyone could ever set eyes on, and she, always in the background, as the dark serpent who crossed her arms and shook her head to everything, the rational one who just couldn't let dreams happen. How could a dreamer be with a realist? He deserved something more than what she could give him…

And if all of those years of psychological abuse taught her anything, it was that there was always someone better than her. Always. Her parents reminded her for years that she was not good enough, that they would have preferred a different daughter. No matter how many A's she earned in school, no matter how many decent, upstanding boys she dated and brought home, nothing was good enough. Her love from her parents was not limited; it was nonexistent.

She stared at this man in front her, his wavy golden hair somewhat glowing in the dim light of their living room, creating a halo effect. She couldn't suppress the urge to roll her eyes. It was just too much for her to handle at that moment. If the overwhelming stress of the moment hadn't gotten to her right then she would have cracked a smile.

His desperation once again cracked through the veneer of her closely guarded expressions and dark thought bubble. "Layla… I wanted you to be my forever."

Her heart broke again. How could they have such different perspectives on this relationship? After eighteen months, they should have been on the same page. He wanted her forever. She certainly wanted him forever, but how could that be fair to him?

"You're my everything…"

She glanced up at him again, watched him take his eyes away from her face, peer down at something he'd had hidden in the black Roots messenger bag he carried to and from work. If she had bet everything she owned that this situation could not possibly get any worse, in that instant she would have lost it all.

A small black velvet box rolled between his perfect, agile hands. Her heart and vocal cords stopped working instantaneously. Layla finally felt the urge to cry, let all of that hatred, angst, longing, and stifled loneliness that she'd felt for so many years escape from her diseased heart. With all of the ways that she knew they were wrong for each other, he still wanted this. Wanted her, as his partner in life…

Tom stopped fiddling with it and opened it toward himself, staring down at what she could only imagine was a beautiful chance at happiness. He sighed deeply and lightly stroked the side of the box. "I had this whole life imagined for us," he said, his voice sounding far off and wistful. If it was possible, her heart broke down even more. "I know how happy you are working at the theatre company with your friends, and that's the only thing I would ever ask for you. I just want you to be happy with what you want to do," he sighed again, not taking his eyes off of the ring. "And for me, I wanted to get out of this stupid firm where I'm interning. Get started in the ACLU, like I've been talking about for years. Buy us a nice little house in the country. Start a family… I know how you feel about too many kids, and I'm perfectly happy agreeing to at least two…" he smiled to himself, a small little reminder that things would not pan out as he had wanted them to. "Sure, we wouldn't be rich, and we would probably never have the kind of wealth that your parents had…" he paused here, holding back the urge to run off into a rant about her parents. "But we'd be happy. And that's all I ever wanted for you, Layls."

She turned her head from him, the tears finally, for the first time in so many months, peeked out the corner of her eye and starting streaming, with earnest, down her face. She took a deep breath and tried very hard to keep her voice calm. "Tom, you know that's just… too much of a dream for me to believe in it."

"But why!" he demanded, his voice rising slightly as his frustration finally began to rise to the surface. "Layla, I just don't understand this!" He snapped the lid of the ring box shut and set it down on the table in front of her. He clasped his hands together in that way he did when he was going over a legal brief that he didn't quite grasp. "You've given me every reason in the book why I don't deserve you, but you never bothered telling me what it is YOU want. Why don't you just do that for once? Why can't you understand that this relationship involves two people, you AND me? I know you think that I don't deserve you, and that for some GOD forsaken reason you have this opinion of yourself that is so god damn low that you think I could do ANY better than the most beautiful, smart, perfect woman on the planet…"

At this, Layla couldn't hold back her tears. And at that ridiculous act, she couldn't hold her laughter either. She started chuckling very softly, and then gradually, slowly, it grew into a heavy guffaw. She was able to glance at Tom, who was looking at her as though she were insane. And maybe she was, mostly because she knew he was thinking that there was absolutely NOTHING funny about the situation at hand. But she couldn't help it. The way he thought of her was too much to bear. Perfect? Her? The damaged little defective kid whose parents didn't even want her?

"What is so god damned funny?" he asked after several minutes of allowing her to carry on. His voice had an edge of frustration that was slowly growing to anger.

"Tom… You are!" she said, after settling herself down slightly. She wiped the tears out from under eyes and stared at her wet hands, as if fascinated that tears were part of her makeup at all.

He frowned at her after a few seconds of silence. "And?" he blurted.

She pulled herself from her trance and looked up to answer him. "Tom, your opinion of me is ridiculous. Completely and obscenely ludicrous."

His brow creased even further. "How is that exactly?" he asked, no longer holding back on his anger. All pretense of keeping this civil was gone. "Why the HELL is thinking that you are the perfect woman for me so ridiculous?"

Layla shook her head, pushing her hair back from her face. "It's just insane, Tom. It really is. How can I be perfect for anyone, let alone you? You, the man who sees the silver lining in every cloud. We ran out of gas on the way to an extremely important business meeting for you, and you know what you said?"

"Yes, I remember exactly what I said. I said that the job was obviously not meant for me. And I was right. Besides, what the hell is wrong with being optimistic and not thinking that everyone in the entire world is out to get me because I grew up with the worst and most ridiculous god damned parents this side of the Mason Dixon line?"

Her heart jolted. Tom was especially protective over what she had gone through, seeing as he had grown up in a home where no one could fall asleep without an 'I love you' and a goodnight kiss. He could never understand how two people could make a child that they didn't care for. It was one of the things that she couldn't fully wrap her head around. She still sought her parents' affection and approval any time she could actually get in touch with them. At the same time, there were moments when Tom had encouraged her, pushed through for her, and tried to get her to see the damage those two people had done for her, and that their approval was not something that she EVER needed. She was strong, independent, smart, and beautiful all on her own…

She shook herself. She couldn't think like that. She had to allow herself to believe that this was best for everyone. She knew what would happen if she allowed the relationship to continue. At some point, he would realize what she had realized already. That her realistic and at times pessimistic attitude would be their downfall, and he would call it quits this time. And by then, she would have opened herself up wide. He would have already seen all of that raw, bitter flesh that she had worked for so many years to cover up and bury. And just in the time it took her to patch all of that raw openness to the point where she could allow herself to be happy, truly, truly happy, he would suddenly decide that her opinion was not nearly as different and sexy as it once had been. That's when, stripped naked and bare, she would have tumbled inside of herself. She would never have healed from that.

How could she let him think that that was okay?

"Tom… I just… I'm not good enough for you."

He stood up then with such a jolt that she was taken aback. He started pacing, running his fingers through his blond hair, tousling it up worse than he had left it that morning. It was apparent that she had crossed the threshold from depression and shock to frustration and fury.

"I'm just not –"

"Would you quit with the bullshit? Please?" he barked at her as she opened her mouth to repeat herself. "The only person you're not god damned good enough is for yourself. You're perfect for me. Do you have ANY idea how many times people have told me I'm too god damned sunny side up for my own good? I need someone to be there to say, 'No, Tom, that's not a bowling ball. That's a bomb. Good thing I was here to take off the rose colored glasses and watch out for you.' I need you, just like you need me. We complement each other. That's the whole fucking point! Don't you get it? WHY don't you GET it?"

Her chest started heaving. It was apparent that if she allowed this conversation to get more heated, she was going to start sobbing. The last time she sobbed was when she was five and her mother had forgotten her birthday. "Tom, would you please… please stop?"

"WHY should I? Why should I try and make YOUR life easier when you're sitting here essentially ENDING mine?"

The moment was so quiet and tense, pregnant with all of the things that could not and would not be said anymore. Layla couldn't do it. She had told him so many times what it was that she couldn't give him. He had told her all of the ways that she was breaking him, when he just didn't get that she loved him more than words could possibly describe… That everything she said to him broke her heart into shattered pieces from the cold mess it already was… That no matter what he was feeling, she felt it even rawer. That without knowing it, she had opened up the vulnerable parts of herself in just feeling all she felt to let him go…

"Tom…" she squeaked out, the tears, grief, and pain of everything finally catching up to hear and affecting the steadiness of her voice.

He stopped cold and turned to her. The coldness dissipated. No matter how angry and frustrated poor Tom was at that exact moment, he couldn't help his true nature. He sat down again and remained silent, not wanting to comment on her shaken vocals. He knew, in that very moment, that they were truly over… He knew that this beautiful one carat diamond engagement ring that he had bought her was never going to make its way onto her elegant, olive skinned finger.

"Okay, Layla," he breathed, slipping the velvet box back into his pocket.

She looked up. "What?" she asked quietly.

"Okay. You win. I just… I just hope… For your sake, not mine… That you understand what all of this talk is doing… That you're not as horrible as you let yourself believe… One day, I hope you know you are beautiful, and perfect, and amazing in your own right. Don't let anyone tell you any different."

Layla let one last cloud of mist fall over her eyes so that when he walked out the front door, she wouldn't see him go.