Authors: Jennifer Harlow
"That makes you human," Jem says. "I observe happy couples and get so… jealous it almost cripples me. Why is it so easy for them but so difficult for me? I am aware how odd I am. I-I-I have difficulty connecting with other people. It's difficult being smarter than everyone else. People don't like it. But what am I lacking that makes me so--"
"Unlovable?" I finish. "You're preaching to the choir. Try being in love with your best friend and asking yourself that very question every time you're around him. 'Why not me?'"
His eyes narrow. "You-You were in love with Justin?"
"Since the moment I laid eyes on him. He didn't know until the end. You know, I only hooked up with Harry because he got engaged to Rebecca." I roll my eyes. "God, was I jealous of her. I used to imagine the million ways I'd frame her for a crime. Coke in her locker, thousands owed in parking tickets. And the fucked up thing was, deep down, I genuinely liked her. She was an amazing Mom and doctor, and she made Justin so happy. She gave him the best months of his life. I wish I could have thanked her for that." A couple passes us going the opposite way, and we nod. We've reached the center and keep walking.
"She liked you too. I believe her exact words were, 'I've never met someone so fierce, so loyal, so determined.' She built you up to such epic proportions when it came time to meet you I was exceedingly nervous. She all but had to thrust me across the room to ask you to dance."
I chuckle. "Let's make a deal. If I shouldn't be embarrassed around you, then you shouldn't be nervous around me. Fair?"
He nods. "Fair."
"Good." We stroll in silence for a few moments, arms brushing against one another. "So," I finally say, "you probably told me this already, but how did you and Rebecca meet? The hospital?"
His mouth tightens. "Um, through my fiancée, Uma. They were best friends in medical school. We lost touch after Uma's death, but when Rebecca finished her internship I helped her get a fellowship at my hospital in Independence. She was…a true friend."
"How long ago did your fiancée die?"
"Almost eight years. We, um, met while she was an assistant in one of my labs. She was brilliant, had an uncanny knack for the work. She used to joke no disease was safe with the two of us on its trail," he says with a beaming smile.
I can't help but smile too. "So who chased who?"
"All her. She was one of my students, so when the thought crossed my mind, or she made an overture, I ignored it."
"Until you couldn't."
"Yes. She had to change labs, but it was worth it. We dated a year before I proposed. She was murdered a little over a month later."
My mouth drops open. "Jesus Christ, I'm so sorry. Hell." We take as few more steps. "What, I mean, did they catch the guy?"
We keep going, and I glance at him a few times but he stares straight ahead. I can't stand the silence after ten seconds. "When I was twelve, my father was shot to death in his taxi cab. They never caught the guy either. A week later, I tried to kill myself." I gaze down. "I was about to jump off Pendergast Bridge when Justin pulled up and spent an hour in the freezing cold talking me down. He saved my life, but…" I shake my head. "I don't think you ever come back from something like that. Not intact. It changes you, infects you with its…darkness. The world dims a little, and it's like only you can see it. Justin was afflicted too, that's why we got along so well. Two orphans with nothing and no one but each other. My constant."
"You're still in love with him."
"Probably about as much as you're still in love with your fiancée. Just because they're gone doesn't mean they take the love with them. He was my soul mate. As long as I breathe he's in here with me, and I am doing my damnedest to remember that. I lost sight of that in the darkness for awhile, and I won't let that happen again."
There's only the sound of our footsteps for seconds until he says, "You're right. About the dimming. Your entire perception of life shifts when true evil touches your life. When Uma died, I just fled. I didn't tell anyone where or even that I was going. I packed a bag and took the first flight away. I spent some months in India because it was where I felt closest to her. She was from there. My lost year where all I did was walk, meditate, and do whatever I could to regain that light back by answering the fundamental question of life.
"You find the answer?"
"Of course not. Because there is no answer." His eyes move down. "All I do know is that as wretched as it was, her death was part of my path. It set in motion the rest of my life. If she hadn't died I never would have…gone on to do all I have. 'It is always darkest before the dawn.'" We step out of the labyrinth. With a proud smile, he says, "See? Trust. Just follow the path, and you will find yourself right where you are supposed to be."
"I believe you," I say with a matching smile.
We just stand there grinning like idiots with only a foot between us. Then our eyes meet, and the smiles stretch as long as the equator. I feel it again, that spark of recognition, and damned if it doesn't make me feel close to happy. And scared shitless. The air, the night, the world grows still and silent as if the universe has ground to a halt. Judging from the way he's gazing at me, whatever this is I'm not alone in its glow. Oh…hell.
The spell is broken a second later when a waiter rushes over to us. "Excuse me, are you Miss Fallon?"
Thank the Lord. "Yes. Why?"
He pulls out a piece of paper. "A woman in a tuxedo told me to give this to you."
"Thank you." I open the note to read it.
Dearest, we had to leave. Brendan got sick and we couldn't find you. Please don't be mad. Will make it up to you.
"What?" Jem asks.
"My friends ditched me. I don't have a ride home."
"Oh." He pauses. "Well, I-I can drive you home. It's not a problem."
"Are you sure?"
"Absolutely," he says with another grin. "I insist. It's not every night I get to rescue a damsel in distress."
I bite my lower lip. Bad idea, Jo. Very bad idea. "Okay, then. Thank you." I am a damn moron sometimes. I take off his coat and hand it back. "Well, since you're doing me a favor, I'll return it. We won't leave here tonight until you've impressed three work colleagues and are on the path to friendship or at least lunch with them."
"I-I don't know if that's--"
I hold out my arm for him to take. "I insist. You need friends, and I intend to get them for you. Remember I'm fierce, loyal, and determined. You don't stand a chance in this fight."
He glimpses at my arm, and after a moment's hesitation he locks his arm in mine. "I believe you."
We pull up to my mansion two hours, two dances, and one lunch date with a group of colleagues later in his dark green 1957 Porsche 356 Speedster A classic convertible. He takes care of his car, it may as well have just rolled off the factory floor. I appreciate that in a man. Two years ago I would have screwed him just because of it.
The gate parts after I enter the code I provide without hesitation, and he rolls up to my door yet doesn't turn off the engine. We sit in silence, neither moving or looking at the other. Haven't done this is awhile, an awkward end of a date. Not that that's what tonight was. A date. Whatever it was, I sure as hell don't want it to end, but know if I invite him inside disaster will ensue. He'll expect something that cannot happen at this point and probably hate me for it. Shit.
"I had a great time tonight," I say.
"As did I."
Get out of the damn car, Joanna
. "Well then," I say, pulling on the handle, "thank you for the ride. Good night." I step out of the car and shut the door. There. Good. The car begins to drive away, but I realize I haven't released the door handle. Double shit. "Wait!" The car comes to a quick stop as Jem slams on the brakes. I throw open the door and jump in again. "Okay, here's the thing," I begin. "I want to invite you in. I
do. I've enjoyed tonight more than you know, but if you come inside I need you to know
can happen. I just, I can't handle anything but friendship right now, and even that is iffy. I'm sorry. If you're not okay with that, I completely understand." My brow furrows at a horrible thought. "Unless I was misreading the entire situation, and you just want to be friends. If that's the case, then please forget this entire, horrible, embarrassing tirade. Either way, would you like to come in and watch a movie with me and just…hang out?"
His open mouth snaps shut. "Um, I'd like that. Yes."
I breathe a literal sigh of relief. "Great. Good. Lovely. Come on."
Hallelujah. Jem shuts off the car, and we get out. The mansion is dark and especially creepy now. I kick off my heels at the door then turn on a light. "Did you ever get the tour?"
"Um, no," he says, glancing around the foyer with all its priceless vases and paintings.
"Mind if I do it later? If I don't get out of this dress soon, I'm going to rip it off." Mental head slap as he blushes.
Good start, Jo
. "Uh, why don't you get us something to eat? The kitchen is through the left hall, second door on the right. Give me five minutes." I pick up my shoes and bound up the stairs. When I reach my room, I all but tear off my dress, Spanx, uncomfortable yet sexy bra, and pantyhose. I replace them with black sweatpants, shirt, and blue hoodie before fixing my hair and gargling with mouthwash just in case my willpower fails. When I return to the kitchen, Jem is muttering to himself as he opens and closes cabinets. "I'm back. Need help?"
"I can't find your popcorn maker," he says with a scowl. "How many cabinets do you
"Too many," I scoff. "And the popcorn maker is in the living room. We just need to do the butter in here." I pull out the tub and a mug, putting them in the microwave.
"How large is this house?" Jem asks.
"Seventeen thousand square feet. I've been coming over here for twenty years, and I don't think I've been in all the rooms. People think it's haunted too. Bitsy swears she saw a woman in Victorian dress in the second floor hallway. At least I'm never alone, huh?"
"Is that why you stay here? Because you think--" He shakes his head. "Never mind."
Mercifully the microwave dings, and I remove the cup. "You sound like my cousin Veronica. She's convinced I walk around in Justin's clothes talking to his ghost. But that's only on Wednesdays," I say with a smile. He grins back. "No, I stay here because this is the closest place to a home I've ever had. Some of my happiest memories occurred right here. It was literally my safe haven. When my mom was on a bender or feeling especially evil, I could come here, stuff my face with popcorn, and spend time with my best friend until I was strong enough to face that apartment again."
"I'm sorry," he says with a pitying look.
"Yeah, well, she's dead and burning in hell now. All's well, yada yada. Come on, it's movie time." I lead him out of the kitchen to the living room. As we pass through the Hall of Pendergast, he slows to examine the portraits. "It's the family dating back to the founding of the city. They creep me out. Feels like they're watching me, disapproving that an interloper is in charge of their legacy. One from the lower classes no less. I know I'm projecting but…" I shrug. "I was thinking of commissioning one of Justin with Rebecca and Daisy just so there's a few friendly faces up there. I know they weren't technically Pendergasts, but they would have been."
"I think she would have liked that," Jem says.
"Yeah." I pause. "Onward." I flip on the living room lights. As he looks around, I start the popcorn. "You can choose the movie."
By the time the popcorn starts popping, he picks one out with a grin. "
"Don't think I've seen it."
"Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I was obsessed with the legend as a child. My brother and I used to go on quests for hours, slaying evil sorceresses and other threats to our kingdom. He was Arthur, and I Lancelot, or Merlin depending of which part we were re-creating." He chuckles. "We-We even chucked one of Father's swords in the pond and swam under to retrieve it." His smile wavers. "I won and Jordan didn't speak to me for days. I hadn't stayed historically accurate." The smile's completely gone now. "Anyway, will this do?"
He slides in the movie before sitting on the couch. I shut off the lights and join him with our popcorn and water just as the movie begins. The music swells, and we smile at each other. I haven't hung out with anyone in over a year. We watch for awhile in silence until…the sex scene. We glance at each other, and I hold in my chuckles. Guess he forgot about this part. A minute later, when everyone is fully clothed again, there's still tension in the air so Jem clears his throat. "This-This film is one of the few that stayed true to the most popular telling of the legend. It-It evolved through the years, as all folklore does. In the original versions, there was no Camelot, Lancelot, or even Guinevere."
"I'll bet you know every telling from every book," I say with a smirk.
His face contorts in shame. "Yes. I have a photographic memory."
"Why on earth would you be embarrassed by that? Especially around me." I sit up straight. "In fact, I just realized you know almost every mortifying fact about me, but I know none about you." I flop back on the couch. "I want to know three embarrassing things equal to rehab, in love with my best friend and suicide. If you can. I dare you. Top those."
Jem glances at me, and I raise an eyebrow. He takes a second to gain courage, and then says, "My parents never loved me." My eyebrows drop. "We were…adopted. Father thrust us upon Mother, but even he never treated us as children. I was raised by nannies and tutors, subjected to psychiatrists, doctors, and trainers to make us the best we could possibly be. We barely left the compound, rarely associated with other children. We were treated more as experiments than children. I didn't go to proper school until I was thirteen when I began college. I was so frightened there among…people, I barely uttered a word the entire first year. Does that count?"