The Melanie Chronicles (2 page)

"If we tell anyone," Damian had murmured in her ear after that first time, "they'll just make you feel guilty about not waiting around for John and he'll give me grief about being with you..."

Damian was right, of course he was. The more she tried to move on, the less her friends seemed to understand.

Though John was already with his new girlfriend Chloe, he'd still reacted whenever he'd seen Melanie with someone else. And Melanie couldn't stop herself from watching him and forcing herself to stare each time Chloe bent in for a kiss. Sometimes she'd caught herself biting her lip so hard she'd drawn blood. Then she'd looked away, silently berating herself for being so weak that she needed to see him at all.

It felt like she'd never get over John. She'd lie in bed and feel his touch on her skin, the slow drag of his palm moving from her shoulder, over the curves of her breasts--his strong fingers rolling her nipples hard--the quick dip of his mouth grazing her skin and the moist heat between her legs. She still dreamt about him, heard his voice in her head saying all the things she wanted to hear. She'd wake in the morning with his name on her lips and a dull ache inside her.

She was upfront with Damian, not wanting to hurt him with lies and half-truths. And she told him that she didn't know what she felt for him but he made her feel alive again. She'd expected him to be annoyed, disappointed even that she couldn't just shelve her feelings for John, but he'd shrugged it off and said, "Maybe I'm just your rebound guy."

"What if we are together and I'm still not over John?" she'd countered.

"If we stay together long enough, you'll forget about John."

She hoped he was right.

 

With its thick velvety carpeting, silk damask draperies and imposing view of Edinburgh Castle, the room caught Melanie unawares. She paused at the door, taking in the ornate furniture and the rich fittings, and bit her lip. Damian had already tipped the bellboy and thanked him for his help. Now he slid off his shoes and settled into one of the armchairs by the window.

"Everything all right?" he asked. He stretched his long swimmer's body.

She nodded yes and closed the door. Her backpack was still on her shoulders and she shrugged it off, placing it carefully on the floor by the bed. Before she could speak, the telephone rang. Damian answered it, at first sounding irritated by its intrusion but his voice soon warmed and Melanie knew he was talking to the couple whose apartment he'd arranged to sublet during his stay in Edinburgh. She'd seen the photographs they'd sent Damian in an e-mail: it was the sort of sprawling loft apartment she'd read about in the upscale interiors magazines her mother always bought and dreamed over. Subletting an apartment like that cost a fortune; Damian had already griped about the price but also admitted that its location and comfort were worth the money. He'd already done a semester abroad in Scotland during his freshman year and lived in the student rooms, some of which he claimed were grottier than the dorms at University of Philadelphia.

He wanted her to stay with him at the apartment, but she opted for sharing a set of rooms with a Scottish girl named Gillian from Aberdeen who would be back in Edinburgh a few days before the term started.

"It's better this way," she'd told him. "If we decide to go our separate ways, we're not tormenting each other." He'd accepted her decision, but she knew he thought it was silly. She'd seen it in the slight raise of his left eyebrow and the tight smile he'd given her. But he didn't try to push the issue. "If that's what you want..." was all he'd said.

While he took care of the details with his new landlord, she went into the bathroom, figuring she could use the time to shower. The bathroom was as luxurious as the bedroom, with its shiny marble countertops and basket full of expensive-looking bath products, old-fashioned fixtures and gilt mirror. There were even burgundy damask curtains and blinds hanging at the bathroom window.

A shiver ran through her. All of the fixtures were so perfect and shiny she was afraid to touch anything--it was like being in a museum: look but don't touch. Did Damian ever feel this way? She doubted it. He always seemed so at ease wherever he was. And he'd grown up in this world; he didn't need to feel out of sorts in it. She stole a peek at her reflection in the mirror above the sink. Her hair, which she'd tried so hard to tame into straightness, had gone wild and disheveled again, and her tired eyes showed obvious signs of jet lag. She grimaced and stuck her tongue out at her reflection.

After undressing quickly, she turned on the shower and waited for the water to heat up. It had taken a few seconds to figure out how to turn on the shower there were so many handles but she soon got the knick of it. Once in the shower, she let the warm water run over her, washing away the tiredness settling in her muscles. She'd tried to sleep during the flight but it was difficult. Every foreign noise startled her, and then she thought of all the air catastrophe films she'd ever seen--from Airport to Fearless. Even mouthing a few Our Father's hadn't calmed her. Damian, though, had slept a while, unfettered by the jolts and pings and thuds of turbulence. When he woke, he reached for her hand and squeezed it reassuringly. "It'll be okay. You'll soon get the hang of it."

She hoped so. She didn't want to feel like a bumpkin, wide-eyed and terrified of every new experience. Maybe that was why John was drawn to Chloe--Chloe wasn't afraid of anything, and she'd do anything just for a thrill.

Don't think about them, she told herself and dipped her head under the shower's hot stream of water.

 

When she emerged from the bathroom, Damian was still on the phone. He smiled at her and said, "I'm ordering lunch for us. Are you hungry?"

She nodded. Her stomach had growled fiercely during her shower. "Could we have some coffee too?"

He added a pot of coffee and steamed milk to the order then hung up. "Lunch'll be up in twenty minutes," he told her and pulled her over to him. She sat on his lap carefully and leaned against him. "You smell good. Maybe I should shower as well."

"I had to get that airplane smell off me," she admitted. Sitting with him like this was nice. She curled into him, feeling safe and desired. She could feel his hand stroking her neck, his fingers brushing her damp hair. She kissed him and tried not to think of John.

"Are you happy you came?" he asked.

"I am. It was the right thing to do."

"You needed a break from everything," he said. "For months you were like the walking wounded. And I asked myself what was the best thing I could suggest that might help you..."

But she didn't want to talk anymore. She kissed him again and drank in the taste of Damian's mouth.

There didn't seem to be anything more left to say.

 

"I'm meeting the Lachlans in a few minutes at the Lobby Bar for drinks and to get the keys to their flat. Do you want to join us?"

She nodded absently. She was sitting at the vanity table, wrapped in one of the hotel's fluffy guest robes and brushing her hair. Damian was behind her buttoning the cuffs of his shirt. After they'd made love, he'd showered and his damp hair curled at his neck.

"Have you met them before?"

"The Lachlans? Yes, a few times. The wife went to school with my sister."

"Are they... what are they like?"

Damian grinned at her in the mirror. "Don't worry about them. They're fine."

 

After the introductions, the Lachlans launched into a flurry of questions about Damian's family and their mutual acquaintances. Neither the husband nor the wife paid much attention to Melanie other than a few polite inquiries into how she was enjoying her stay in Scotland and if it was her first time there.

Damian wasn't oblivious to this. He wrapped his arm around Melanie's shoulder and drew her closer, murmured in her ear that it would all be over once they had the keys.

"We'll have dinner at the Witchery," he said as his hand slid up and down her arm, "then we'll take a walk around the city."

She nodded, but even being close to him didn't diminish how invisible she felt. Looking down at the simple peasant blouse and new Gap jeans she wore, she wished she'd chosen something more stylish. Clodagh Lachlan was wearing a breezy silk shirt and chocolaty suede pants that Melanie recognized from the pages of Vogue while Angus Lachlan wore what seemed to be the European version of the Rich Man's Uniform: a pale blue checked shirt and immaculately pressed trousers. They both wore the pampered looks of the Idle Rich.

"We didn't know you'd have a flatmate, Damian," Clodagh said. She was smiling at Melanie but her eyes were cold and unwelcoming.

"He won't," Melanie retorted quickly. "I've got my own rooms at the university."

"Would that have caused a problem?" Damian was stroking Melanie's nape under her hair. His voice had lost its usual mellowness and sounded tight in Melanie's ears.

"No, no, of course not," Angus answered with a smile but Melanie could see that they were just backtracking. They didn't want to anger the brother of their friend, especially when he would be lining their pockets for the next year while they were in Antigua. "Of course your friend could stay there with you."

And you'd be counting your silverware the moment you came home, Melanie thought with a glare. She sat a little straighter and returned their smiles. Angus nodded at her, but Clodagh focused on Damian distracting him with a barrage of questions about what he'd be studying for the next year. The subject of Melanie possibly living in their apartment wasn't broached again.

By the time Angus Lachlan handed over the keys, Melanie was glad she'd insisted on her own rooms. They didn't want her in their apartment.

She wasn't one of them.

And she was glad for that.

 

 

Starting Over

 

Until She Comes

They didn't speak during the drive from the airport. John was all fingers and thumbs, afraid that anything he said would be wrong and that she'd turn and glare at him with eyes as hard and shiny as polished ebony and snap her fingers and disappear. Melanie looked too exhausted to attempt a conversation of any sort. But even with the fog of jet lag cocooning her, she was lovely and knowing that she'd called him and not Maria or Karen or even her mother filled him with a ridiculous giddiness that embarrassed him and revealed itself in the silly grin plastered on his face. Did he look as lovesick as he felt?

The late afternoon rush hour had begun an hour ago, and the cars on the Schuylkill Expressway inched along at a snail's pace, punctuated by the irritated tooting of horns and the occasional curse. And John was brewing with impatience. He wanted to be in his apartment with Melanie, to just feel that she was near instead of a million miles away. He longed to be away from everyone else so that they could talk. He should've guessed that the Expressway would be congested and nerve-wrackingly slow, but he hadn't been thinking straight since last night when she called and told him she was coming home. The midsummer sun glared down on them. A thin layer of sweat shone on John's forehead. Melanie fanned her face with a faded and dog-eared postcard she'd found on the dashboard. Not even the air-conditioning helped. It hummed loudly but the air being pushed out was clammy and warm.

Even though her flight landed at 3:20PM, it had taken Melanie more than an hour to get through customs and retrieve her luggage. John had paced the floor of the International Arrivals Hall, sworn under his breath each time the doors whirred opened to present yet another passenger who wasn't the one he wanted. He was scared, and he hated it. Doubt ate away at him and burned in his stomach. He needed to know that she was just on the other side of the wall. What if she'd changed her mind by the time she landed at Heathrow and rebooked her final ticket so that she returned to Stockholm to give Alex another chance? What happened then? He'd bitten his thumb until he tasted blood, then cursed at his own stupidity and balled his hands into shaking fists.

By the time Melanie finally appeared, weighed down with three suitcases and a shoulder bag that kept sliding down her arm and looking a bit dazed, John had nearly worked himself into a frenzy. His hair stood in dark, uneven tufts on his head from raking his fingers through it too many times, the frayed sleeve of his sweater was even more frayed from pulling at loose strings. He'd hugged her a little too long, but he couldn't help himself. And she'd held on to him just as tightly, had kissed his cheek and left a smudge of dark red lipstick that he still hadn't wiped away. A year had passed since the last time they'd been together, and now she looked so fragile he wanted scoop her up and keep her safe. And now that she was sitting just a few inches away, he couldn't stop glancing at her or reaching over to touch her hand or stroking her hair.

"Where do you want to go?"

They were creeping along I-76, closing in on the University City exit. John turned down the radio and searched for a station playing something other than overly sentimental ballads and pounding hip-hop. Neither seemed the right soundtrack for their reunion. He wished he'd remembered his REM compact discs. Melanie always liked them, and he was always impressed when she knew the lyrics to every song on whichever cd he played.

"Can I go to your place?" She sounded hesitant; she looked a little stunned to even be sitting there. "I haven't even called my mother yet. And I don't want to just show up like that . . ."

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