“WHAT’S THE MATTER, Jen?” Russ asks, his voice all early morning gravel. My fiancé studies me under a half-lidded gaze from the other side of our mussed bed, his cheek still resting on the pillow.
I glance over as I stuff my suitcase for a two-week visit home to New Jersey and prepare myself for the inevitable. “What do you mean?” I ask, trying, but failing to sound natural.
He half sniffs, half chuckles. “Did you just hear yourself? You’re wearing that frown you get when we fight. What did I do? Tell me.”
The downside of being with someone for six years: they know you too well. But this time it wasn’t about something he did, it’s about something I did.
He gives me a sleepy smile and slithers across the bed toward me. The covers fall away from his bronzed shoulders, and a shaft of light from the rising sun casts a shimmering halo of deep red over his unruly mop of dark brown curls. There was a time when this vignette would’ve sent my heart fluttering and had me reaching for my camera to capture that shot.
But not lately.
“Come on, Jen,” he cajoles. “Tell me.” I stare down into his swoon-worthy green eyes on the other side of my suitcase, happy for the barrier between us. Double-edged sword, that, being with someone for six years. I take a deep breath and release the hounds. “I quit Gustav yesterday.”
As anticipated, it takes only half a second for Russ’s eyes to widen with a look that’s a mixture of panic and horror. He scrambles into a sitting position on top of the rumpled sheets. “What do you mean, you quit your job?” he shouts. A flush creeps up his neck. He crawls away to sit on the opposite edge of the bed. “Why would you do that without asking me first?”
I cringe and pluck seven days of clean underwear from our secondhand bureau and press them into my suitcase. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to upset you,” I whisper and drag the suitcase to the foot of the bed. How can I explain to my fiancé the lack of oxygen in my lungs when I wake up in the morning to go to work, or the painful gasp that passes through my lips whenever I look at the small diamond on my finger? Or how the high-windowed walls of the sleek San Francisco apartment we’re arguing in—funded in part by his parents—are choking the life out of me?
I grab the last of my clothes and glance at him out of the corner of my eye from behind a curtain of hair, afraid to say anything else for fear of blurting out things I can’t take back.
“Yeah, well,” he snaps. “I love the way you waited until right before you hop on a plane to Jersey to tell me you quit your job. Brilliant, Jen.” His shoulders slump like a deflated balloon. “We’re a couple. You’re supposed to tell me about things like this…before you do them.”
I grind my teeth at the lecture even though he has a point and throw up my hands. “Why does it have to be so serious all the time? We’re a year out of college. Shouldn’t we be enjoying our lives? Going to bars, getting drunk, traveling and seeing the world instead of becoming our parents at twenty-three?”
He twists his body to face me and glares. “What the— Seeing the world? This coming from someone who’s wasting her two-week vacation to go home and babysit.” He smacks the side of his head and snarls, “Oh, that’s right! You don’t have a job, so it’s not really a two-week vacation.”
My jaw clenches and my neck fills with heat. I curse the tears that spring to my eyes. Just like Russ to lash out and belittle me. I swallow hard. “That’s not fair. I love my family. I thought you did, too…”
Asshole. I’m not going home to babysit. I’m going home to help my aunt Jill and uncle Raine with my new baby cousin who is expected to enter the world via C-section if she doesn’t arrive by Thursday. Not that my aunt really needs me. She has my mom, who brings a new intensity to the word maternal, to dote on her endlessly. But I want to be there. The truth is, I miss home and need some breathing room to get my head straight. At least I can be useful at the same time.
Russ has the good sense to look sheepish. “You know I do,” he mumbles and jerks his fingers through his unruly hair.
I dab at my eyes. “I still have my part-time job at the gallery,” I offer, grabbing my makeup bag.
He gives a derisive sniff and turns away. “That wouldn’t even keep us in groceries.”
Again with the belittlement as if my contribution isn’t worthy. Helplessness and inferiority crater my middle as if he’s landed a blow. That’s always been the crux of our issue, hasn’t it? If I can’t live up to his definition of success, he rubs it in my face.
The copywriting position I quit at Gustav Publishing didn’t hold much in the way of a large paycheck like his cool tech job at Nanotekx, a Silicon Valley start-up promising Microsoft-level riches when it goes public. But at least Gustav had been a job.
Not that I hadn’t needed some help to get it. They interviewed me thanks to Aunt Jill’s best friend and agent, Brigitte. But I’ll never know whether it was a favor to her or my own merit that landed me the job. Russ considered my position respectable enough to discuss at parties with our friends, but it wasn’t the kind of job that paid for large rents in the city.
Now it wouldn’t pay for anything at all.
Tears prick my eyelids as I wrestle with the zipper on my suitcase to close it. I bite my lip so that I won’t cry and ignore the unhappiness that gnaws at my insides. A sunbeam catches my diamond and the reflection bounces off the white walls of the bedroom in a kaleidoscope of happy colors, mocking me with emotions I should feel but don’t.
I haul the suitcase off the bed. “I’ll find another job when I get back,” I say with false calm to his bare back and dipped head, wiping away an escaping tear before he can see it.
“You sure you want to come back?” he whispers, still not looking at me.
I freeze. Do I? Russ is the only guy I’ve ever loved—my high school and college sweetheart. I still love him, I remind myself, even though the thought leaves me hollow. “Of course I do,” I reply finally and hope I’m not lying.
Abandoning my bag, I round the bed to stand next to Russ on the other side. As a peace offering, I attempt to bridge the gap between us and touch his hair. The curly strands feel good under my palm. He flinches and I jerk my hand away like I’ve been burned.
“I’m sorry. I should’ve told you last night,” I say, trying to sound as if I mean it while hiding my hurt at his retreat, well deserved as it may be. The truth is I didn’t want to hang around for the fallout and be forced to commit to decisions I’m not ready to make. Whatever I decide, I want it to be well thought through.
He meets my eyes and gives me a recriminating look. “We can’t get by on just my salary. My parents will wig if I hit them up for any more cash.”
My anger flares. “Why would you need to do that? What about that big bonus you said was coming?” God knows, he’s already spent some of it on new electronics.
“That’s still months away,” he mutters, avoiding my eyes.
“Then let’s move someplace cheaper,” I say, a suggestion he’s rejected more than once.
He closes his eyes and grinds his teeth. “Let’s save it for when you get back, okay?”
My cell phone chimes across the room, signaling the cab is waiting downstairs.
“I gotta go. I’ll call you when I get there.” Anxious to leave, I lean in for a hug but turn my mouth away. I can’t bear to kiss him when he’s angry.
He gives me a halfhearted squeeze, obviously feeling the same. “Give my congratulations to Jillian and Raine.”
I’ll call him later and apologize after we both cool down. Leaving Russ angry unsettles me, but not enough to interfere with the relief that washes over me when I get into the taxi and relax into the seat.
As the cab pulls away, I take off my ring and draw in the first full breath I’ve taken in weeks. I close my eyes and my lungs fill with the luxurious feeling of air.
I RUN THROUGH Denver International airport, pressing my phone to my ear and trying to keep my backpack from flying off my shoulder into a passerby.
“There’s been a…complication,” my mother says. There’s an unmistakable tremor in her voice. I recognize the tone. The last time I heard it was ten months ago when my great-aunt Vera died.
Ice water rolls through my veins. Even after all the therapy, I still suffer from extreme anxiety resulting from the death that has surrounded our family: Someone close to me has died every two years since I was sixteen, making four funerals in total. My aunt Jill thinks our family is cursed by the specter of death. For me, it’s the feeling of helplessness and knowing in hindsight that I could’ve done more for the first one who died that still haunts me. The other deaths just feel like punishment.
Let’s hope I’m not due for another dose.
“What kind of complication?” I ask, struggling for breath. “How serious?”
I scan the gate numbers, looking for B46. The incoming flight was so late I missed my first connection. I’m heading to my second. Hopefully, I won’t miss that one, too.
“Aunt Jillian’s in the emergency room…she’s bleeding.”
My heart drops and my voice climbs an octave. “Is she going to be all right?”
“I hope so, honey. I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to burden you,” my mom says thickly, followed by a pause and a muffled blowing sound. “Just text us the new flight number, and Daddy will meet you in baggage claim when you get here.”
“Okay,” I choke out over the rising lump in my throat. “Gotta go.”
Sweat drips down my back as I arrive at the gate and join the end of the line. I shove my dying cell phone into my backpack and wait. The thought of not getting on this flight makes me close to crazy.
My aunt’s unexpected pregnancy at age forty-three has been a rough ride for her, especially since it’s her first child. My thoughts take a morbid turn. If anything happens to Aunt Jillian or the baby before I get home, I won’t be able to live with myself. At this point, I’m not sure I can survive any more funerals.
“How may I help you?” asks the smiling woman behind the airline counter.
I hand over my crumpled itinerary. “I missed my connection to Newark. They told me I could get onto this flight.”
The woman’s fingers tap-tap-tap over the keyboard. After a moment she frowns and hands back my flight info. “I’m sorry. All the comparable seats are full.”
Panic grips me. “Wait. What? They told me to come down here to get rebooked. I missed my connection because your airplane was delayed.” My finger jabs the paper. “You need to book me on a flight…Now.” Don’t these people talk to each other?
Taking back the itinerary, she resumes her mad finger-tapping. She sighs a few minutes later. “Everything is booked for tonight. I can get you into a coach seat first thing tomorrow morning.”
“No! You don’t understand. I have to leave tonight,” I say, unable to reign in my panic.
“I’m sorry. The only thing I have is a First Class seat. I can upgrade you for $400.”
“I don’t have $400,” I squeak a moment before I burst into tears. My finances consist of a maxed-out credit card, the $28 in my pocket, and another $234 in my bank account. Nothing has gone right since I woke up this morning. Nothing. And now the aunt whom I love as much as my own mother is in danger.
“You don’t understand,” I blubber. “My aunt and her unborn baby are in the hospital and they could die. I have to get there!” I was beyond feeling pathetic or ashamed. The Vault of Black Doom that holds my deepest fears opens inside me, its jaws snapping at my heels.
A look of sympathy passes over the woman’s face. “I’m sorry. I wish I could help you. The best I can do is a flight tomorrow.”
An arm reaches past me and drops a platinum credit card onto the counter. “I’ll pay for her upgrade,” says a calm male voice from behind me.
I wipe my eyes and turn. A guy with sandy-colored hair and nice blue eyes stands behind me, wearing a business suit and a shy smile. He couldn’t be more than a few years older than me. He’s on the tall side—I have to look up to meet his eyes. No small feat since I’m five-foot-nine and spend a fair bit of time looking over the tops of people’s heads, even when wearing flats like I am now.
“I can’t,” I whisper.
He raises a brow and nods. “You can.” He steps up next to me and pushes the card closer to the airline attendant. “Please…take this.”
I’m at a loss, stuck between guilt and relief. “Um…I’ll pay you back,” I say. Shrugging my pack off my shoulder, I rummage in the outside compartment to find my journal and a pen. I turn to a blank page and thrust the journal out with a fine-point Sharpie. “Please. Give me your name and number?” I can ask him for an address when I call.
He shakes his head. “That’s not necessary.”
“Please?” I say again, giving him a wan smile. This time a flush rises in my cheeks. God, I feel so grateful and foolish all wrapped up into one.
“Here’s your card,” the woman says to him as she pushes back his plastic. Then she glances my way and hands me a boarding pass. “And this is yours, Ms. Lynch. Enjoy your flight.”
He sighs, then reaches into his suit pocket and pulls out a business card. “Here. If you insist...It’s really not necessary.” All of a sudden, he seems older…more mature. Maybe I’ve misjudged; maybe he’s closer to thirty. Behind his warm smile, I see a touch of sadness and recognize the emotion I know so intimately.
I glance at the card.
Devon Soames | Kingsbridge Industries | 973-555-4678
He gives me a parting smile and a tip of his head before turning his attention back to the airline attendant.
Turning the creamy card in my hand a couple of times, I hunt for a plug to charge my phone and come up short. Abandoning my search, I squeeze into an open chair in the packed waiting area and say a prayer that my suitcase makes it to Newark with me. Glancing at the business card once more before I tuck it away, I notice the odd sparseness of information. Who doesn’t have an email address or a social media presence in this day and age?
Then it hits me. It’s a modern-day calling card. Only given as a courtesy to someone he already knows…as a reminder. It isn’t an invitation, but rather a polite barrier to contact. Chances are that the closest anyone ever gets to him using this number is a pleasant-sounding administrative assistant.
Chances are he will never take my call.
Intrigued, I wonder: Who is Devon Soames, anyway?
“HOW DID IT GO?” asks my twin sister, Leticia. A thread of anxiety seeps through her calm voice. Holding my cell to my ear, I step away from the boarding lane with my stuff and cup a hand over my other ear to hear her better over the airport din.
“As well as can be expected,” I say, wishing I didn’t have a six-hour flight ahead of me and wanting nothing more than to curl up with a can of beer and a bowl of chips in front of a game on TV. But that flawed desire wouldn’t happen any time soon, even if I was at home. Beer and chips are off limits and there is nothing in season on TV right now worth watching. But a guy could dream, even when dreaming remained a dangerous prospect.
“Meaning what?” she asks.
“Meaning, I think they were suitably impressed.” Fooled was more like it. I recount my meeting with the board and the highlights of my trip to the headquarters of the biotech arm of companies held by Kingsbridge Industries. Five or six more holdings were left to visit after this, and then my charade would temporarily end.
She releases a sigh of relief on the other end of the phone. “Good. That’s good. We only have four months to go.”
“Yeah, four months until I sign my future away in the name of family fealty,” I mumble. If I live that long, I think, reminding myself that I’m doing this for my mom and Leticia. So they have a future. So they’ll be taken care of. It doesn’t matter how long I make it past that—as long as no one learns my secret before I’m sworn in as CEO.
“Dev, I’m sorry…” she says softly. “I know there were other things you wanted to do.”
I pinch the bridge of my nose to ease the throbbing behind my eyes. “It’s okay, Lettie.”
The overhead speaker announces, “Final boarding, Flight 683 to Newark, New Jersey.” I’m the only one left standing at the gate.
“I’ve got to board. I’ll see you when I get home.” I hang up and head for the plane.
The stewardess greets me with a warm smile and a look of relief. “Welcome aboard, sir,” she says and closes the door behind me.
I spot my open First Class seat. A small smile unexpectedly touches my lips when I notice the dark, flowing hair of my seatmate as she huddles over something in her lap.
Lettie would’ve smiled at my impulsive move to pay for Ms. Lynch’s upgrade. When we were younger, Lettie always teased me about having the heart of a romantic. She thought I was a sucker for saving damsels in distress and trying to fix girls who were broken…until it was me who was the broken one.
I blame my quixotic streak on Lettie and all the games of make-believe we played as kids. Dressing up as her favorite Disney character du jour and enlisting me as the knight or the prince—whichever one the story called for. My inducement? The cool toy sword she talked Mom into buying me one year for Christmas. To this day, I still have a fascination with swords and a collection hanging on my bedroom wall—the only place in the house Lettie would let me display them. Apparently, I still save damsels in distress—something I haven’t done in what feels like an eternity.
Ms. Lynch looks up from the window seat with wide blue eyes—startled—as I squeeze my carry-on into the overhead compartment. After pulling a thick audit report out of my briefcase to review on the flight home, I tuck it next to my carry-on. The report is equal parts work I have to do and a prop to keep from getting entangled in unwanted conversation.
I slip into the aisle seat next to her, struck by a mixture of discomfort and pleasure at the unanticipated surprise.
A pink tinge spreads across her cheeks and she removes one of her earbuds. Soft rock music leaks out at the threshold of my hearing. “Um, hi,” she says.
My lips tip up in a half smile before I can stop them. “Hi…Ms. Lynch,” I say, feeling stiff with the formality of it but it’s all I have.
She breaks into a wide grin and sticks out her hand. “Jenny.” Then arches a brow and adds, “Unless you’d prefer I call you Mr. Soames?”
I chuckle and shake my head. “God, no. That would be just plain weird.”
The stewardess stops next to us and retrieves Jenny’s glass.
“Would it be possible to get a glass of water?” I ask.
“I’m sorry, sir. We’re just about to take off. I can bring you something when beverage service resumes once we’re in the air.”
Jenny reaches down into her pack and hands me a bottle of water. “It’s the least I can do,” she says before I even realize it’s for me.
“Thanks.” A feeling of warmth spreads through me at the small kindness. I take a drink to satisfy my parched throat, one of the many symptoms I live with. Suppressing a smile, I place it, capped, into the pocket of the seatback in front of me.
The plane taxies and picks up speed. Jenny replaces her earbud and gives me a quick smile before closing her eyes and relaxing back into the leather seat.
My hands rest on top of the heavy report sitting on my lap, and I do the same—close my eyes and relax into the seat as we head nose-up into the air. Drowsiness overtakes me and I drift off, not quite unconscious.
I think of the pretty girl sitting next to me, wishing I had a normal life. Wishing I had the guts to do what normal guys do when they find themselves faced with this kind of opportunity. I feel the sides of my mouth droop. There I go down that wishing path again.
“Normal” and I don’t live in the same world, I think just before sleep sweeps me under.
I wake with a start and turn my head toward the aisle to do a quick check for drool before facing front. All clear. Jenny is working on her computer next to me. The weight of the audit report presses into my lap, reminding me I have work to do. I pull down the tray and lay the document on top.
I turn the first sheet and stare at the tiny print.
“Can I get you a drink?” the stewardess asks as she sets down a napkin in front of me.
“What do you have in a red?” I ask, imagining Lucas, my private physician, with a reproving look on his face.
“Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.”
My jaw sets in silent rebellion. “Pinot, please.”
“And you, Miss?” she asks Jenny, who continues to type on her computer. I tap her on the shoulder. She looks up, startled, until she sees the expectant look on the stewardess’s face.
She removes the music from one ear. “Diet cola, thanks.”
The images on her screen catch my eye. Two photographs rest side by side. A couple. Their expressions are riveting. An unexpected feeling of longing overwhelms my senses, taking me aback. But good art always does that to me. It’s why I love to paint, doing it now only in the stolen moments when I’m not bound by some other duty. I think of my latest project, a half-finished canvas sitting on an easel in my shared art studio.
“Did you take those?” I ask.
She nods and touches the screen. “Last summer in my aunt’s studio.”
“They’re good. You’re a photographer?”
She gives me a small smile. “No. Nothing like that. They were originally shot for a book cover. My aunt Jill is an author.” She points to the late-30s-early-40s woman in the photo. “That’s her. She’s also a former fashion photographer. She put a camera in my hands when I was ten and taught me everything I know.”
“Who’s the guy?” I ask.
The side of her mouth quirks up. “My uncle Raine. But he was just her cover model then. They’d only met a day or two before these were taken.”
My eyes pop wide. He looks about my age. “How old is he?”
She chuckles. “Yeah. Kind of weird, huh? He’s twenty-five and my aunt Jill is forty-three. They’re expecting their first child.” Her smile fades. “It’s been a complicated pregnancy.”
I remember her distress at the counter. Her concern over her aunt and the baby got to me. Pain and loss are things I know too well.
“So I heard.”
“I’m trying to decide which picture to blow up for their wedding present. I could use another opinion. Want to help?” she asks, her eyes glistening.
“Sure,” I say before I have time to think too deeply on it. The Kingsbridge report can wait. “You made it sound like they were already married.”
I’m not sure when the glass of wine arrived, but I take a swallow. The crisp notes hit my tongue in a rush on their way to my empty stomach.
She angles her computer so that I can see her screen more clearly. “They are. It’s a long story. She wanted to wait until after Rachel was born to have the fancy wedding. But my uncle Raine didn’t want the baby born out of wedlock, so they had a quick civil ceremony to make it legal when my aunt was eight months pregnant.”
I eye the guy somewhat suspiciously, wondering if her aunt has money. In my world, marriage for financial gain is less the exception and more the rule. “Is he a good guy?”
Her face lights up. “Yeah. The best.” Her finger traces them on the screen. “I’ve never seen two people more in love than they are. I saw it even before they did—in these pictures.” Like she’s suddenly remembered something, a look of sadness settles around her eyes and a tear slowly slides down her cheek.
My chest tightens and my hand twitches at my side. I sit frozen, unsure of what to do, feeling awkward. She’s a stranger, I remind myself.
The tear falls, splashing onto the back of her hand, and a second one follows. She hastily wipes them away, runs her wrist across her eyes, and sniffs.
I take a deep breath and contemplate my options. The worst she can do is shut me down. I decide that’s better than ignoring the obvious and feeling like a coward. Despite my discomfort, I push forward and tentatively touch her shoulder. “Jenny, are you all right?”
“I’m sorry. It’s been an awful day,” she says as tears cascade down her cheeks.
I pull the napkin from under my drink and hand it to her. Before I can talk myself out of it, my eyes connect with hers, and I utter the words I’ve said a thousand times to Lettie. “Need a hug?” I hold my breath and wait for a response, hoping I didn’t overstep any bounds.
She dabs the napkin under her eyes and nods. I resume breathing, wrap my arm around her; and she leans over so that her head rests on my shoulder.
Jenny feels far different than my sister in my arms, and she stirs things inside me my sister definitely does not. My lips rest atop her head and the fresh scent of flowers from her soft, silky hair fills my senses. A small feeling of triumph, as if I had passed over a personal hurdle, spreads through me for reaching out. I close my eyes and remain silent.
I can’t tell Jenny it will be okay. I don’t know enough to know if it will. Plus, I gave up on happy endings four years ago when life threw me some nasty curve balls.
Still, I’m happy to know that I haven’t lost my appetite for rescuing the occasional damsel in distress.
“I’M SORRY,” I SAY, as I regain my senses and push out of Devon’s warm embrace and away from the woodsy male scent of his cologne. I could’ve rested my cheek on the lapel of his fine suit for the rest of the flight…happily.
Still, I feel like such an idiot for blubbering like that in front of him and letting him comfort me. The scene at the airport counter had been embarrassing enough. I shift back into my seat and pick up my laptop from where it has slid down onto the floor.
“Are you coming or going?” I ask to fill the dead air between us and to recover from my mortification over the sudden intimacy.
“I’m on my way home,” he says softly, catching my eye. “What about you?” He seems a little less distant now that we’ve touched. I look to see if there’s a flash of gold on any of his fingers and come up empty. If he’s married, he’s not wearing a ring.
“Going home. Well…visiting,” I say, putting my laptop away.
“Summit,” I reply.
His eyebrows shoot up. “Really? Where in Summit?”
I give him a sideways glance “Tulip. Why?”
He shrugs. “I live on Essex.”
Now it’s my turn to be surprised. “Really? When did you graduate high school?”
He chuckles and presses his head into the headrest. “We definitely never met in high school, unless you went to an all-boys boarding school in England.”
I’m not terribly shocked. My town has some stupid wealth. Not to mention, he lives on the North side where the real money is. But England? For the first time, I notice his white, straight teeth and the dimple that shows up when he smiles. “Uh…no. Nothing so posh. Summit High School. My parents wanted to get the most out of their tax dollars.”
“It’s a good school,” he says matter-of-factly. “I wouldn’t have minded going there.”
“You didn’t answer my question.” I give him a direct stare and ask what I really want to know. “So how old are you?”
He glances at me, his lips twitching as if he’s fighting to suppress a smile. “That’s a different question.”
I can’t help but grin, my black mood behind me. “Come on. Want me to guess?”
He clasps his hands. “Go for it.”
I sit back and narrow my eyes, studying his face and clothes. The clothes are definitely expensive, so he’s wealthy—or at least his parents are. “Hmm.” I examine every detail. A fine head of sandy-blond hair, no receding hairline. Not much in the way of lines around his eyes. Clear eyes, blue. Full lips. Sensuous. Kissable. Shit, I move off of his lips. Neck is smooth, a nice square jaw. Tiny cleft in the chin. The back of his hands are smooth and he has long, tapered fingers.
He looks at me askew. “What’s taking so long? You’re making me feel like a lab specimen.”