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~FROM BROKEN PROMISES BY H.M. WARD~
Katie kicks me under the table, shooting me a WTF look when I meet her gaze. She picks up her wine glass, smiling at her little dinner party consisting of me, my boyfriend, his younger brother, and the new girl from next door. I think her name is Amy, but I’m not sure because she’s hardly spoken.
Katie lifts her glass. The red liquid sloshes within an inch of the rim. She grins and my stomach drops. I know that look. Crap. “To Mari and Derrick, the best boyfriend ever, with really awesome hair. May God bless you both with many years and lots of chubby babies for Auntie Katie to play with!”
They don’t know Katie the way I do and start to sip their drinks as she says those last few words. There are never enough napkins when Katie meets new people.
“Holy shit!” Jared chokes out the words and looks at his brother. “You got her knocked up?” Tact isn’t his thing.
Jared is tall and handsome like his brother, with dark hair, blue eyes, and a strong jaw. They both have lean bodies with hard muscles and broad shoulders. They’re confident, both aware they have the looks, but Jared is more boyish than Derrick. Jared tends to act the cocky male stereotype—as if to be anything else would let us women down. Unlike Derrick, Jared has no filters. It’s a trait he shares with someone else I know.
Katie is grinning.
I swipe my foot under the table trying to find her leg and miss.
Derrick and I start stammering explanations at the same time, “No, oh no. We’re not. I mean.” Our hands cross in front of us as if warding off evil spirits and our faces wear I-can’t-believe-we’re-talking-about-this expressions.
“Jesus, man! You scared me for a second.” Jared leans back in his chair and relaxes. He’s got Peter Pan syndrome up to his ears. Ever the lost boy, he’ll never grow up or settle down.
Not that I’m ready to settle down either. I’m on the anti-marriage side of the fence at the moment. I like to keep my options open, so I’m not ready to stick a fork in the concept, but marriage holds little appeal for me. I’ve seen things, and, while I don’t want those perceptions to guide my life, I understand how they’ve affected it.
Derrick is usually sweet and doting, but when his brother is around, their competing levels of testosterone frustrate me.
Derrick waves his hand at his brother, dismissing the fat baby fantasy. “Don’t be ridiculous. There’ll be a wedding before a baby.” He laughs, intending his comment to end the conversation on a joke, but New Girl perks up at the word wedding.
Amy smiles at me. “Are you two engaged?”
It’s one of the few times she’s spoken tonight. She seems a little shy. Katie probably pried her out of her apartment with the Jaws of Life. After an evening with us, she’ll never answer the door again.
Jared leans forward and slaps the table. “What! Why am I the last to hear about everything?” His reaction makes Derrick laugh.
I shake my head and look down to hide my face. Why am I blushing? “No, we’re not. There’s no engagement. There’s no baby.”
Katie idly swirls the wine in her glass. “And no sex. Got it.”
Leaning close to Katie, I whisper, “Remind me to kill you later.”
She holds up a second glass of wine and shoves it into my hands. Katie’s my age—closing in on thirty—with long, dark blonde hair streaked with pale gold and cleverly cut to frame her face. She’s about a head taller than me and speaks her mind without fail. “Will do. Seriously, though, you need to calm down. You know I’m kidding. And Jared, here, is going to have a heart attack soon.”
He lifts his glass of Jack and Coke, “Damn straight. A guy has to sow his wild seeds first. Am I right, Aims?” He leans in and bumps his elbow into Amy’s arm.
I make a face. First of all, I hate that expression. Secondly, Jared said it wrong—you sow wild oats. His use of the word seeds creates an unwanted mental image of Derrick spraying his stuff all over swooning co-eds in wet t-shirts. I shake the thought from my mind. I’ve spent too much time with Seth.
Amy slides down in her seat a little more, blushing fiercely. Her strawberry blonde hair and fair skin do nothing to hide that blush either. If she could discreetly jump out the window, she would.
“You don’t have to answer him,” I say, smiling kindly at Amy from across the little table. Everything in Katie’s apartment is small. It’s a rental on Long Island and costs a fortune, but she decided to stay put when Seth deployed. Her family is here, so I can’t blame her. Her compact living room bleeds into a galley kitchen and breakfast nook. Five people can barely cram into the small space. A light fixture hangs overhead. Katie beefed it up with crystals and pale ribbon. Everything she has is reclaimed, recycled, and repurposed in a kaleidoscope of pastels. It gives the apartment a shabby-chic meets New Yorker character, and feels more like home than anywhere I’ve ever lived.
“Okay,” Amy says, her voice an octave too high.
Jared laughs and swats a hand at us. “You two are no fun!”
“So, Playboy,” Katie says addressing Derrick, “Seriously now, how many kids do you guys want to have? Have you talked about these things? Or are you waiting for the stick to turn blue so you can wing it?” She’s smiling casually, her arm draped over the back of her chair.
Derrick nervously runs his fingers through his dark hair as he clears his throat. He’s taken this kind of abuse from Katie before, but she’s taunting him more than usual tonight.
Deciding to change tactics, he quickly asks, “Katie, how’s Seth doing? I heard his tour is almost over. What do you plan to do for his homecoming?”
Oh, God! He gave Katie free range to blab about her and Sexbot all night. The nickname we gave Seth in high school stuck. I manage to maintain the plastic smile on my face as Katie responds.
“I’m pretty sure he plans on doing me—over and over again, upside down and right side up—it’s been a while, you know?” Only Jared laughs. Katie stuffs a forkful of salad in her mouth and continues, her voice suddenly soft and sober. “I’m glad it’s almost over. It’s terrifying not knowing if he’s all right.” She looks around the room self-consciously, as if checking to see if anyone noticed the change in her voice.
Curious, Jared asks, “What does Seth do? Army?”
Katie shakes her head. “No, he wanted to go big or go home—he’s a Marine.”
“Wow, no kidding!” Jared seems impressed. I’m sure he’s wondering about the man that could take on Katie.
She goes on, “Seth turned into a good man, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. We hated each other when we first met. Mari was interested in his best friend, and you know how that—ow!” Katie’s eyes snap to mine, silently expressing her displeasure at my shoe’s collision with her shin.
I keep my voice calm, hiding the terror that’s climbing up my throat. “They don’t want to hear that story.”
Jared seems to sniff out juicy drama. He looks like a tiger ready to pounce on a tribe of naked women. “Of course we do! Was he good in bed? Better than Derrick?”
My jaw drops and Amy’s eyes turn to Ping-Pong balls bouncing right out of her head.
Derrick’s gaze narrows, and he turns to look at me. “Which boyfriend are we talking about?”
“Do tell. Based on your expression, I’m sure it’s a great story. Also, from the look on my brother’s face, he hasn’t heard it yet.” Jared smiles so wide that his dimples might pop off his face and kill someone.
Everyone looks at me, waiting. I want to disappear. I hate this story. I never tell it willingly, I never admit we were together. Not to myself, not to anyone else. Every time I think of him it’s like ripping open a half-healed wound. My stomach knots and I feel the words rising involuntarily up my throat.
But before anyone can say another word, Katie’s phone begins to play “I’m Too Sexy,” by Right Said Fred. She springs from her seat like a deranged Labradoodle. “It’s Seth! I’ll be right back.” Katie bounds through the bedroom door and shuts it behind her.
“Your friend seems nice.” Jared says it like he’s in love. He watches her bedroom door as if he’s hoping to hear an orgasm through the wall.
“She has her moments. She’s very excited Seth is coming home and forgets to filter her thoughts. All in all, Seth is a good guy. He’s been good to her. I suppose it is funny how things ended up.” I bite my tongue before anything else can spill out, but the thought continues in my head.
It’s funny how they stayed together, and Trystan and I broke up.
It’s funny that Seth’s promises meant something, while Trystan’s didn’t.
It’s funny that I’m still mad, even though things ended a long time ago.
“You okay?” Derrick whispers, leaning in to softly kiss my cheek.
I nod. “Yeah, just lost in thought.” I stand and start clearing the table, taking the dishes to the sink one by one, while Derrick and Jared talk.
I feel guilty whenever Katie mentions Trystan. I haven’t told Derrick about him yet. Guys react poorly when they discover I dated the sexiest man alive. Add in the rock star thing and they tend to jerk away from me, unable to compete with Trystan’s ghost.
I have a stack of dishes in my hands when I hear it—a shrill cry that’s equal parts terror and anguish. It’s a small burst of suffering, followed by the sound of something hard hitting the floor.
An icy chill races up my spine from deep within me. With trembling hands and shaky legs, I step toward the table and set the dishes down. All eyes are on the door to Katie’s room, but I’m the only one who can go in there.
Sensing the same thing I do, Amy stands and squeezes my hand. “Help her. I’ll finish cleaning up.”
The world around me freezes. Derrick’s voice is a dull buzz as I pad across the room. Each step feels heavier, like someone strapped anvils to my feet. My heart beats harder because I know what’s happened. I already know even though I’ve yet to hear the words.
I try to reassure myself that I don’t know anything for certain. It could be nothing. Maybe Katie dropped something. Maybe she stepped on a mouse.
Maybe it’s worse.
Dread licks the inside of my chest, freezing me in place. Time shatters and falls to pieces around me. What will I say? How can I help her? I don’t know. The door inches toward me until the knob is in my hand. I twist it and step inside.
Katie is lying facedown on their bed, her head turned toward the wall and resting on her arm. She’s utterly still, staring at the paint with glassy eyes. Her phone is on the floor alongside her lamp.
Swallowing hard, I step over those things and sit next to her on the bed. She doesn’t move when the mattress dips. She doesn’t speak. Katie remains suspended in shock.
I touch her shoulder gently. “What happened?”
It’s two words, two horrible words that won’t have a good answer. I feel cold, and the air is thicker than before.
Katie is quiet for a while. I don’t press her. I let her lie there, barely breathing, until she manages to speak. “Seth was there, talking to me, then the shouting began and the sounds of metal twisting and ripping apart drowned out his voice. Then there was nothing.” Her lower lip trembles as she sits up and looks into my eyes. “I’ve lost him, haven’t I?”
I have no answer, but I’m afraid for her, with her. Seth’s my friend. I’ve known him since we were kids. My eyes fill with tears, but I hold them back, blink them away.
I find my voice. It’s too dry, too scratchy. “I don’t know.”
Katie leans against me, her body trembling as she tries not to cry. I wrap my arms around her and hold on tight. “He might be fine, Katie. There’s no way to know right now.”
She nods and sits up, pushing her long blonde hair out of her face. Wiping away the tears, she smiles at me. “Right. I shouldn’t do this yet. I should wait until I know for sure, one way or the other. I should find his mom. We can wait together.”
I nod. “I’ll take you there. Don’t worry about anything here. Amy is sweet. She’s cleaning up. And if it will make you happy, I’ll borrow a fat baby from the hospital for you.” I’m kidding, but she manages a boogery laugh.
“No, it only counts if you do it the right way.” She sniffles and grabs a tissue from her nightstand drawer. It seems as if she’s going to say more, but doesn’t.
“I know, get married. Like you.”
She laughs, “No, have sex. Get married? I know you’re against that. Proposing marriage is the fastest way for a guy to kill a relationship with you.” She laughs and shakes her head.
“I’m not against it. I’m just not eager.”
She dabs her face with the tissue and looks over at me. “I know you don’t want to tell him, but if you think you guys have a chance at a life together, he needs to know about Trystan.”
Normally I’d scold her for interfering, but I can’t right now. Her red-rimmed eyes are puffy, and the sheen of freshly shed tears glistens on her cheeks. I smile at her and nod. “I will. Soon, okay? Please let me do it.”
Katie stares blankly at the wall for a moment before fixing her eyes on mine. “I always thought we’d have more time—me and Seth. I thought we’d have kids. I wanted a super-cute baby girl with pudgy rolls, you know?”
“I know. No matter what, I’m here for you. During the good, the bad, and the ugly. Anytime.”
As if on cue, my phone chirps with a new text message. I breathe in slowly, calming myself as I brace for what’s coming. Please, not now. I glance at the sender and say a stream of mental curse words, before pinching the bridge of my nose.
“Is it work?”
“Yeah. I’ll call in sick. I’ll stay with you until you find out about Seth.” I have my phone in my hand, ready to dial when I see the message:
WORK: HIGH-PROFILE CAR CRASH. P4 CLEARANCE. NEED YOU NOW.
I press my eyes together and wish this wasn’t happening now. Dad will kill me if I don’t show up. It’s his emergency room. At the same time, I can’t walk away from Katie, not now. She takes my phone away from me and types a reply.
She hands me back my phone. “It’s okay. I understand. You’re a doctor and emergencies happen. I’ll see you later, okay?”
My face crumples. I don’t want to leave her. “I promised Seth I’d be here for you.”
She rushes at me, throwing her arms around my neck. “You are. You are here right now. This was the worst part because I thought—” she gasps, trying not to cry, “But you’re right. I don’t know for certain.”
Stepping back, she releases me from her bear hug and says, “He’ll be all right.” She says it out loud almost as much to convince me as to convince herself. “He promised he’d make it back. Seth always keeps his promises. I’ll see him again.”
I swallow hard. “Okay, I’ll call after work and check on you.”
Her big eyes glisten in the dim light. Before I leave the room, I pick up her things from the floor, placing the lamp back on her dresser and gently pressing the cell phone into her palm. “It’ll be all right.”
Katie forces a big smile and nods.
I’m in a mental fog as I make my way to the hospital. It’s a decent drive to the hospital from Katie and Seth’s apartment—plenty of time to think nothing good. My foot is heavy, pressing the gas pedal as far down as it goes. I stare ahead, my eyes darting between cars as I think about things.
Life is too short.
It’s too brief to be afraid to try.
The thing is, I did try—it was Trystan who walked away, and I still don’t understand why. Out of nowhere, he was done with me. It didn’t make any sense at the time, and I felt so hurt that I didn’t chase after him. I didn’t try to fix it. Shattered glass can’t be mended. No matter what I do, those fractures are still there. Pieces remain lost or missing. It’s not possible to regain what we once had, yet I still regret not attempting to mend things between us.
I wish things had ended differently, less anticlimactic. I wanted an explosion, a clear reason for the surprise end of our relationship. What I got was a pinhole in a balloon—a slow leak of air over weeks and weeks until there was nothing left—masking the cause of our destruction and hiding it from sight.
I blink and slam the heel of my hand on the horn. I’m flying down Sunrise Highway, trying to get to Montauk Highway. That’s the fastest route, but some nut in a junker cuts me off. I slam on the brake and swear.
“This can’t be happening,” I mutter to myself. I wasn’t even on call tonight, but I’ll get chewed out for being late.
I wail on the horn again. The jalopy moves back into the center lane. I floor it and don’t look back. A few moments later, I’m pulling into the hospital parking lot. As I press the brake and roll to a stop, I can’t believe what I’m seeing. News vans, reporters, and cops are crowding the ER entrance.
Crap. Some socialite totaled her car. The hospital is going to be a madhouse.
I pull straight up to the ER doors and jump out of my car. A cop starts to scold me. “You can’t park here. Hey! You can’t go inside!”
I text Mitchell, a friend I know is working the waiting room this evening.
ME: HELP. NO PARKING. LATE.
A moment later my phone buzzes.
MITCHELL: YOU OWE ME SO BIG.
ME: DONE. TY.
The police officer is scolding me. “You can’t park here. Get in your car and move it.”
I look up at him. “Do you know who runs this ER?”
I ignore his response. “Dr. Jennings. He’s a bit of a hardass. I wasn’t on call tonight and yet here I am, responding to this emergency even though my best friend just heard her husband go missing in action over the phone. He’s probably dead. I need to be with her. I don’t want to be here. You don’t want to be here dealing with this rich brat either,” I jab my thumb toward the ER doors and whoever is causing this commotion. “Let me do my job so you can do yours.”
“I.D.” He barks. I hold it up. He reads it, and his jaw tightens. “Dr. Mari Jennings, as in the only daughter of Dr. Jennings, the hardass? As in the doctor who was in the paper last week for saving that kid at Yankee Stadium?”
“Yeah, that one,” I say as I toss my keys at him. “A hospital employee in brown scrubs will be outside any second. Give the keys to him. He’ll move it.”
The cop shakes his head. “I can’t do that, Dr. Jennings. Your car will be towed.”
“Then tow it!”
Everyone around me is buzzing. It’s that manic hushed whisper, the one that’s so full of tension you know something bad is happening. The hair on the back of my neck prickles. I smooth it with my hand as I shove through the door and run into a mob of people. Every inch of the waiting room is full. I can barely move. I push my elbows out, and start shoving. These people aren’t sick. They’re here to see the rich brat.
I hear them talk as I make my way through the sea of people.
“How do they know it’s him?” A woman with wide hips and clingy clothing leans toward her friend. They’re both wearing sweat suits. It looks like they rolled out of bed and ran here.
“I heard his car was totaled. He’s already dead. They just don’t want to say it.” They continue whispering as I pass.
A few people away from me, a tall, thin man with dark skin laughs, his voice carrying over the roar of the crowd. “There are too many people in here to tell the truth. Imagine the shitstorm that’ll follow that announcement!” He laughs and then shakes his head.
Who are they talking about? I need to get behind the doors and check in at the nurse’s station. Rose is up there. I can hear her stern voice. After over thirty years in this job, she doesn’t take shit from anyone. She snaps, “I’m sorry, but I can’t give you information on his condition.”
I’m too short to see what’s happening. A man steps on me.
He doesn’t turn around. He’s an ogre of a guy—as tall as he is wide. He’s got rolls of fat down the back of his neck, clearly visible through the thinning black hair he slicked back and plastered to his scalp. He’s wearing sweatpants, a comic book t-shirt and a pair of flip-flops. “He totally smashed the car. There’s nothing left—and I mean NOTHING. They’re saying outside that the cops had to cut him out, and he wasn’t moving.”
“Holy shit.” The man he’s talking to is enthralled.
“HEY!” I yell, elbowing him to no effect. The guy he’s talking to looks around his wide friend and inclines his head toward me.
“Yeah I know, right? There is no way they can patch him up this time. Trystan’s a dead man.” He’s smiling as he turns toward me. “Hey, girlie. I didn’t see you there.”
My eyes are wide. Trystan? He said Trystan. I blink, unable to pull the right words from my brain to my mouth. My mind is racing in a million directions at once, trying to make a rational connection—trying to think of another socialite with the name Trystan.
There aren’t any.
I suck in three little gulps of air. My eyes water and I blink rapidly, cocking my head to the side like I’m hard of hearing. “I’m sorry, did you say Trystan?”
He jabs his thumb back toward the ambulance bay and glances down at my badge. “You’re a nurse? Can you tell me if he’s dead? That’ll be news worth selling.”
Before I know what I’m doing, I have my finger in the guy’s lower ribs—he towers above me—and I’m poking him. I laugh like my brain turned to Jell-O and melted out my ears. My words come out broken, jumbled, my thoughts moving faster than my mouth. “That guy in the car wreck—what is his name?”
This can’t be happening. Not tonight. My heart slams into my chest, threatening to burst. I stab him with my finger again, and he steps back.
“Yeah, it’s the rocker—Trystan Scott. He got wasted and plastered his brand new Pagani Huayra into a tree. That’s a two million dollar car. It crumpled like toilet paper.” The man suddenly stops talking. He touches my shoulder a moment later. Our eyes meet. “Did you hear me?”
I shake my head. “That can’t be true. He doesn’t drink.”
The guy laughs and rolls his eyes. “A fan, true to the end.”
“No!” I shove my way past them as they laugh.
My breath freezes inside my body, and my lungs won’t move. My heart is afraid to beat, terrified it might be true. My elbows connect with my ribs, and I no longer finesse the crowd. I race through the people, using my body as best I can, jabbing my pointy elbows as needed until I reach Rose at the desk.
“Get your skinny ass in here! Your father’s going to tear us in half if you don’t get back there. Like right now.” She holds her hand under the desk and the door buzzes open. I push through, grab a clean pair of scrubs and shove myself into them in one continuous motion.
Another cop grabs me by my shoulders as he kicks the locking door closed. “Stop. I need to check your badge.” I lift it for him to see, noticing for the first time that I’m shaking.
It can’t be Trystan.
The cop scans my badge and lets me pass. “You can go. P4 rules, no pictures, no phones, no video. Talk to the press and you know the repercussions.”
“I know, thanks.”
I knew Trystan had a single drink after Tucker died. I saw him wrestle with one tumbler of whiskey for what seemed like forever before finally swallowing it. I don’t think he saw me that night. Everything happened so fast. One day Tucker was watching out for Trystan, managing his career. Then we blinked, and the young teacher was in a casket, disappearing into a grave.
I can’t do this again! I’ve already lowered two people I love into the ground. I can’t lose Trystan, too. Not like this.
My chest feels like it’s tearing in half as I race toward the board. Rose grabs me. “Room three, they’ve got him in there, and Dr. Jennings—“
As if bidden, Dad appears. “Mari, you took your time getting here.” He’s wearing an expression on his face that makes the rest of the staff wet themselves. I’m in for a verbal lashing.
“I wasn’t on call tonight.” It won’t matter, for some reason he wanted me here.
“And you took your time to enforce your point?” He snaps his fingers and points to the floor next to him, indicating he wants me to walk with him.
Rose’s eyes go wide, and she slams her mouth shut. She wants to tell Dad off like you wouldn’t believe. We all do, but he has a right to be this arrogant—he’s the best. That’s why he’s here. He never makes mistakes, and he runs a tight ship.
“I’m sorry, I—”
He flips through a chart that’s attached to a clipboard as he walks. His white coat billows behind his long legs. “I don’t care. When we have a crisis, and I want you here, you come. End of story.”
He scans the papers he’s holding and grunts. “This isn’t the correct report! Damn it, Rose! Where is it?” He rounds and slaps the clipboard down on the counter then keeps walking. He snaps his fingers in the air. “Get it. Now.”
He barks orders at people, as we pass. The janitor sees him and quickly walks the other way, taking his mop with him.
“Mari, I’m sure you’ve heard about your idiot ex-boyfriend by now. He’s lucky no one else was on that road. What he did was incredibly stupid.” Dad continues talking about Trystan, but I tune most of it out. I learned to do that a long time ago, but it doesn’t stop my stomach from churning like I’ve swallowed a bucket of acid. After everything that happened between us, it can’t end like this.
But it seems it already has.
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Release date: DEC 14, 2015
Type: Contemporary Romance Novel
Related Works: The Arrangement, The Secret Life of Trystan Scott, Stripped, and The Proposition