By the time I could draw another breath, we were just five minutes away from home, and anything I said might be misconstrued as being melodramatic.
“Do you mind if I turn the radio on?” But I was just being polite really, and I was already leaning forward to press the power button even before he could grunt his assent.
A familiar crooning voice played out. Bee Gees. And they were singing How Can You Mend A Broken Heart.
I quickly switched to another station and breathed a sigh of relief when I heard Eminem rapping. Oh thank God. But a little while later, Rihanna joined in, and I realized too late we were listening to Love The Way You Lie.
Shit, shit, shit.
My fingers fumbled for the next station, just in time to hear the DJ say the next song would be from Billy Ray Cyrus, and I stared at the radio’s digital screen in complete disbelief. No. Way. Right? There was just no effing –
A melody of notes drifted into the air.
Oh my God!
I slammed my hand on the power button to shut the radio off.
ACHY BREAKY HEART.
Really, God, really?
And then I heard it – just the tiniest sound, so soft that I could be forgiven for thinking I had imagined it. But even so my head snapped towards his direction.
He was gazing straight ahead, and the chiseled features of his face could have been carved from stone.
Even so, my eyes narrowed. I knew what I heard, and a moment later, I saw it. A sight as tiny as that sound from earlier. A sight that was real, and it was beautiful.
And I laughed.
It was that or cry, and I could never choose the latter. Not anymore. Not ever. Because things were different. And so I just laughed, and after a moment, he – YO – joined in, too. Five seconds of bliss followed. Five seconds in which I could forget that the mere thought of him hurt so bad I had to mentally change his name to a stupid two-letter exclamation. Five seconds in which I could pretend things were not different.
We gazed at each other, and just seeing him smile made me giddy and weepy all at the same time. God, how I wished this could last forever.
But it didn't, and those five seconds were gone all too soon. The silence inside his struck started humming with tension again, and when I looked at him again, watching his smile fade was like seeing the world end.
And it hurt.
My fingers balled into fists.
So, so much.
I nearly jerked in my seat at the guttural sound of his voice. He rarely called me by my name, but I supposed he no longer had any choice now. All the other names he used to call me through the years weren’t appropriate anymore –
Princess. Baby doll. My girl.
I heard him curse under his breath as I squeezed my eyes shut.
And then he was speaking again -
The words were raw, and the images they painted behind my eyelids were even more agonizing.
I remembered the first day we made love, and I became his.
You’re finally mine.
I remembered the last time our eyes met before he became someone else’s.
And most of all, I remembered the mind-numbing, blood-curling fear, that inescapable sense of foreboding –
Sometimes, you just know.
His voice drew me back to the present. “If you want me to go---” His voice had turned forceful and aggressive. “I will.” The voice of a man who was willing to fight to the ends of the world for the woman he loved.
If only you would let that woman fight even just one battle for you.
I fixed my gaze on the windows. “There’s nothing for you to worry about. We’re good.” So damn good I couldn’t make myself look at him again, knowing that if he saw the tears in my eyes, it would only hurt him more.
And more than anything else, I just wanted him to stop hurting.
No one made a fuss about seeing me come out of Yo’s truck. Rather, no one except Kalli. The younger woman seemed like she had something to say at first, but then Yuri kissed her just as she opened her mouth, and the rest of the world no longer existed for my sister-in-law.
Dinner was a noisy affair. Not a single second was allowed to lapse into silence, as if everyone was afraid that a moment was enough for the elephant in the room to rear up and blow its horn. It was ludicrous, really. The way everyone was acting, it was as if we hadn't seen him for a decade when in truth, he had only been away for eight months. And it wasn't like he had moved all the way to Antarctica either. His new house was in San Antonio, a mere two hours' drive away.
Ludicrous, I thought again. And yet, here we were, with Helios and the others even inviting our closest friends and relatives to celebrate his homecoming. MJ's half-sister Katya and her best friend Diana Leventis, Silver March and his fiancée Lace. They had even managed to get Yuki and KC to fly out of Tokyo just for the occasion.
The night housekeeper came in to take away our plates, and silence started to creep in for some reason. The looks on everyone’s faces was laughably identical, with everyone groping for something to fill the void in the air. Maybe, after a hundred years, I could look back on this night and be able to laugh about it. Maybe. But right now, I just felt desperate, and I finally got why everyone had been so hung up on keeping the conversation going.
Keep your head down, you bad elephant.
Because if things continued, he might leave again.
Bad elephant. Bad, bad, bad!
But the silence kept getting worse even as the housekeeper bustled back into the dining room and started serving coffee and dessert.
Think of something to say, Hallie.
And I tried, I really did, but the thoughts that kept showing up in my mind were all the things that I shouldn’t say. In the past eight months, much of the press had devoted its time writing about him, and a single click was all it took for one to know everything – the good, the bad, and most especially the ugly.
We knew about the penthouse apartment he shared with her, which had been featured in Town and Country, but we also knew about the way a certain rifle club had revoked his membership due to “recently exposed data making him unable to meet the standard requirements”. We knew about the countless parties they had attended as a couple, including last month’s Cattle Baron’s Ball in Dallas, just as we knew that he had become the trolls’ favorite whipping boy, with a conservative average of 200 new memes being made about him each day.
In the corner of my eye, I saw him shift in his seat, and we all stiffened. A moment later, I heard a chair scraping back, and my heart started to shrivel. No. Oh no. No, no, no. Even without him saying a word, I knew he was planning to leave – and he might never come back again.
I heard Yo start to speak, and self-preservation kicked in.
“I HAVE A JOKE!”
Silence again, but this time it was only mortifying…for me. A moment later, almost everyone started to cough in an ill attempt to cover his or her laughter, and I almost made a face. So that came out a little too desperate, but it still worked by keeping him in his seat. The least they could do was appreciate my effort.
“So, umm…” MJ cleared her throat. “What’s the joke?”
Oh. Right. Shit. My mind went blank for a second. “Um. So. I, err, have a riddle. But it’s funny, I promise.”
“Go on.” Yuri, loyal big brother that he was, was the only one who tried to look like he believed me. The rest looked pained while he remained expressionless.
I cleared my throat. “If Mario is to Maria, sugar is to spice, Bello is to Bella, pen is to paper, then North is to…”
“Hanger,” KC answered right away, the result of having been on an Austen binge since her arrival at Claymore several days ago. “It’s Northanger, isn’t it?”
Aria rolled her eyes. “Duh. It should be south. North is to south – always.”
“Unbelievable, you guys.” Lace threw her hands up in disgust. “It’s Carolina. As in NCAA Division I North Carolina.” She glanced at me with a triumphant grin. “#amirite or #amirite?”
I could only stare at them. “Come on, guys.” They had to be pulling my leg. Right? I saw Katya Vlahos open her mouth, and I brightened. “Do you know the answer?”
The other girl suddenly looked like a cornered rabbit. “I was actually just going to excuse myself to go to the ladies’ room, sorry.” She made her escape, and I found myself looking at Diana.
“Do you know the answer?” I asked hopefully.
“I’m, umm…I feel like I should but I don’t because I’m Greek and maybe the riddle is too American?” The others started coughing, and a moment later Diana turned red. “Oh. Right. I forgot. You’re Greek, too.”
“Everyone in Afxisi is actually,” Silver commented.
More coughing followed, and I glowered at them in exasperation. “Unbelievable.” I threw my hands up in disgust. “The right answer’s Narth---” Someone started to laugh, and we all froze.
The sound was abruptly cut off, but it was too late. We had all heard it, and we all knew what it meant.
“I’m sorry.” His voice was extremely stiff. “I was thinking of something else.”
“We knew that.”
Everyone started laughing and talking at the same time even though we both knew what he had just said was complete and utter bullshit.
He had laughed because –
He loved me
His humor sucked balls like mine did.
Katya came back to the table, and everyone rushed to fill her in, all of them desperate to turn their conversation into a reason not to notice the way I could no longer tear my gaze away from him.
Emotions threatened to consume me from within as I stared at him. I wanted to cry. I wanted to yell at him for being the biggest goddamn idiot in the world. But most of all, I just wanted to say his name. I wanted to say it so bad.
Kalli, who was seated on my left, turned to me with a questioning frown. “Did you say something?”
“Yo. Yo. Yo.”
Lace, who was seated on my other side, glanced at me in visible alarm. “Are you okay?”
The number of odd glances that went my way steadily increased as I kept rapping to the tune of David Penn’s Yes, Yes, Yo, but I didn’t care.
Yo, yo, yo.
Yo, yo, yo.
Yo, yo, yo.
I only had to force myself to stop when Aria looked like she was about to call 911. One look at their faces told me that not one of them had a clue. But I didn't care. I loved them – I’d never have survived the past eight months without them – but even so, it didn’t change things. They didn’t get it, and I had no need for any of them to get it. He was the only one that mattered. The only one I needed to understand, and when I whispered it one last time –
I saw him close his eyes.
Because sometimes, you just know.
And slowly, my own eyes closed.
I’m sorry, God.
So, so sorry.
But I still love him
I really hope you enjoyed this sneak peek. <3 Again, thank you for the patience! See you at ISWAS, which I'll be updating this weekend.