I stared at the bouquet of roses sitting on the desk in front of me. Brad was trying. It was the third he’d sent that week and he’d left numerous messages on my voicemail. Still, I was numb to all his efforts. He wanted to go out. Begged me for just one more date and at times I thought I owed him that much. But, I couldn’t forget that he was the one that had pushed me so far away that I doubted he could ever bring me back. I just didn’t love him anymore. Sometimes I wondered if I ever had. It must have been lust all along because I just couldn’t believe that love could end. Fade maybe, but never completely disappear.
I stared at my computer screen. My work needed to be completed. My resident’s files needed updating. But instead, the phone in my scrubs pocket tempted. I hadn’t logged into Chatter in months. I missed it.
No, that wasn’t true. I didn’t miss Chatter. I’d tried to lie to myself, but that’s something no one could actually do. I missed Ethan. I missed our conversations. I missed how he made me laugh and I missed how he just popped up on my screen unexpectedly.
But there were still so many questions about his identity. I wanted to believe so badly, but the whole thing was extremely absurd. I just couldn’t convince myself he was sincere.
“Guess who’s in town.” Tori stepped up to the counter and grabbed the clipboard. She had been M.I.A. for an hour and a half.
“I give up.” I wasn’t in the mood to guess.
“MWC!” She sang out. “They just got off the ferry and checked into the Diamonds.”
“Ah, you’ve been watching T.V. with Dot,” I smirked.
“You know she takes a lot of time.” Tori grinned menacingly.
Dot rarely needed help, unless she was transferring from chair to chair, or chair to bed.
“Ready to put in for that transfer now?”
“Um … no thank you.” And I know she was kidding too. Tori was a big fan of the show, yes. But she wasn’t obsessed with them personally. She didn’t trust a man. Any man. No matter who they were.
Maybe Tori had it right. Maybe men shouldn’t be trusted. Maybe they were all good actors playing the charming prince they know most women want. But underneath, they’re all monsters waiting to laugh and point when a woman discovers that there is no such thing as Prince Charming.
“Anyway, I’m heading out. I’m working the graveyard tonight. They need another body. Feel like volunteering?”
“I’ll think about it.”
I stared at Ethan’s phone number again, risking disciplinary actions for having the phone in my hand. I wanted to talk to him. Unblock him and pick up where we’d left off. I hadn’t deleted our messages. I still had is number. Maybe I should call him. Maybe I would. What harm could it do if I blocked my number?
“I’m taking a break,” I told the nurse.
Outside. Off to myself, my hand shook as I tapped the numbers and pressed send. One, two, three rings. I knew I would get the answering machine. I was positive he wouldn’t answer a blocked number. No one ever did. At least I would find out the truth. The message would tell who he truly was. I heard that faint click and brief silence, that came just before someone spoke, and my heartbeat quickened.
“You have reached 555-555-2398. No one can answer your call. Please leave your name, number, and a brief message at the tone.”
Damn it! An automated voice foiled my plan. I held the phone to my lips for a moment, tempted to leave him a short message, but instead, I chickened out and shoved the phone in my pocket. I closed my eyes, giving myself words of courage in my head, then I dialed again, ready to tell that damn machine what I wanted Ethan to know.
“Can we talk?”
“I’m at work, Brad.” He popped his head out just as Ethan’s voicemail beeped.
I hung up.
“Hillary.” He touched my arm as I passed and gave me those sorrowful puppy dog eyes. “I miss you. Can I take you for dinner? Just us? Please?”
“I got a new job. I went to my dad and he’s going to let me run his new store. It’s going to be a lot of money.”
“Congratulations,” I stated disdainfully. “But I didn’t leave because of the money.”
“Please? One date? Tonight?”
“Fine.” My resolve never lasted. Not face to face.
My shift was over soon after that. I clocked out and drove to the home I shared with Tori.
“Wow, you’re dressed up.”
“I got a date,” I told Tori who popped her head in my room.
“With who? The cafeteria guy?”
“Um … I’m going out … with Brad.”
“What? Are you serious?” Tori spat, her joking smile fading instantly. “It’s only been a few weeks – are you going to move out?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged.
“What happened to being done with him? Huh? You said you wouldn’t give him another shot if he came crawling to you on his hands and knees.
“I …”I sighed when the doorbell rang. “That’s him. I have to go.” I was still slipping into shoes when I opened the door. “You’re early.”
“I couldn’t wait.” Brad smiled meekly and handed me a bouquet of yellow roses.
“You’re going to go broke buying these things.” I placed them on the stand by the door, knowing Tori would put them in the trash.
I hurried out and shut the door, unable to look at her disappointed glower.
“They’re pretty. Thank you.”
“Like you.” He reached out and gently cupped my cheek. I turned away. Brad reached for my hand, but I denied him.
“Maybe we should pretend this is our first date.”
“Okay.” He placed his hands behind his back in military fashion as we strolled down the pebbled path. He was quiet for a time, his head hung in modesty.
“So, how is the job? Have you started yet?”
“Dad just told me this morning.”
“I’m glad you and your dad finally made up.” He and his father had been fighting over his refusal to work in the family business for years. The man called him a deadbeat. An opinion that was hard to disagree with. Actions speak volumes, right?
“It doesn’t feel like I thought it would,” He said.
“I woke up this morning and it hit me. I lost you and I felt sick because I know why.”
“I got caught up with the drinking and the partying. I wanted to be young as long as I could. I’ve been ignoring responsibility and I ignored you. I don’t know what I want to do with my life but I know I don’t want to be without you. Hillary, what more do I need to do to win back your heart?”
“A bit of honesty would be a good start.”
“I’ve been honest.”
“No, no, you haven’t. You’ve been controlling. You’ve been a monster.”
“I can only apologize so many times, Hillary.” He sighed. “How am I supposed to show you I’ve changed if you don’t let me?”
“I don’t need an act. I need someone who listens to me. I need someone who loves me for who I am. Who lets me wear what I want, fix my hair how I want, and who isn’t jealous every time I go out the door. I need it all the time, not just when I’m ready to leave.”
“I can do that,” he whispered, halting our movement and pulling me close. He smelled like frangipani soap, overlaid with sweat from walking outside in the humidity. His hair tussled messily in the light breeze coming off the water. My eyes strayed to his chest. The thin tee shirt material showed off his well-defined pecks. He was always a good-looking man.
“It was the drink, Hillary.” He touched his forehead to mine. “I’ll never touch another drop. I swear.” The sultry sound of his promise pulled me in as he caught my hips in his hands. My eyes went wide at the undeniably intimate contact and I know he deliberately stared, gauging my response.
“You are the prettiest woman I have ever had.”
Right then, he reminded me of the man I had met. The man who was sober, carefree and relaxed. He smiled more. Laughed more.
We walked that beach hand in hand, talking about his future plans and hashing out the past. We had walked so far we could no longer see the condominiums. The secluded paths, bordered by large rocks, hid its visitors from view.
Brad took advantage, trapping me against the damp surface.
I suddenly understood the allure that led a woman to fall into a man’s trap. How I had given into Brad so many times before.
This man with his incredible looks had a knack for saying exactly what I needed to hear. And I was almost brainwashed. It was like stepping back in time, experiencing all the things that had attracted me in the beginning. If it wasn’t bad enough that my heart remembered this version of Brad, my body remembered as well.
“We’re good together, Hillary.” The humor in his eyes faded and the lines on his face hardened.
“I think we should move slower,” I sighed with little conviction. “You’ve done so much to hurt me. You can’t expect me to just forget everything.” It sounded like a plea to my own ears. Like I was begging him to release me from his spell.
“Yes, you can. Just pretend I’m someone new because, I really am a different guy.”
I searched his eyes finding nothing but the same glazed over glare that warned me not to refuse him.
“I think Tori is right. You’re just saying what you have to say to get what you want.”
“Screw what Tori says. This isn’t about her. This isn’t about money, or what I did in the past. It’s about you and me and the fact that we belong together. I know you feel it too. Tell me you do.”
“I don’t know anymore. It’s right for today, but what about tom …” The words died in my throat, cut off by his kiss. His desire for me blazing with every stroke of his tongue against mine. He spouted promises between each touch of his lips. Promises that sounded too good to be true, yet I couldn’t think rationally because I was too tangled up in the slow glide of his touch over my skin. A touch I hadn’t felt in so long.
I pushed him away. “Stop. I can’t do this again.” Yes, it was all so familiar. So confusing. I have been through this exact thing many times before and I knew how it would end. “This was a mistake.” I started away.
“What if I made a call?” He spat out, taking long strides to catch up.
“Tori’s ex? Doesn’t he get out of prison soon? Maybe I should give him a call and tell him exactly where to find his girl.”
“Are you … blackmailing me? How could you even say that? You know what that man did to her.”
“I’ll do it because I don’t give a damn about Tori Malone, but you do.” Brad reached into his pocket and withdrew an engagement ring. “Marry me?” He said softly and I wanted to bolt.
I shook my head.
“Fine.” He walked away, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket. I heard him ask information for the number to the prison.
“I’ll marry you!” I shouted.
He turned and smiled eerily.
“And you’ll move back home?”
Then he slipped the ring on my finger, returning to his seduction as if he had never issued a threat. In his mind, I had forgiven him and we had made up, but in mine, I knew he’d found another way to trap me. And there was no way I was ever going to get out.