“Hey, guys,” Paul says as he and Tessa join Henry and me at our table at O’Reilly’s.
It’s Sunday night, and I’m meeting my best friends for some drinks. Tessa has plans with Ava, and she’s meeting her here.
“Hey, Tessa,” Henry sighs. “Lauren says sorry for not calling you back today. She and Amy have been so damn busy.” He rolls his eyes.
Tessa chuckles. “Hey, planning a wedding is a lot of work. Tell Lauren it’s okay. We’ll talk about the flower decoration when they have the time.”
Henry sighs. “I will if I’ll ever see her again.”
Paul gives him a little shove. ”Aw, come on. A wedding needs lots of diligent preparation.”
“But it’s not even our wedding she’s planning,” he says with another eye roll. “That makes me reconsider.”
Tessa gasps. “Henry! Are you saying you’re thinking of proposing?”
Henry shrugs. “Maybe the thought has crossed my mind.”
“Are you serious?” Paul asks.
Tessa gives him a questioning look. “Why would that be so bad? They’ve been together for like what? A year?” She looks at Henry, who nods.
“We’re talking about Lauren here,” I throw in. “The same woman who freaked out more than once about anything serious or long-term.”
Henry gives me a sideways glance. “She’s changed, and we have talked about getting married.”
“I think it would be brilliant if you proposed,” Tessa says and smiles at Henry.
Paul shakes his head at her and rolls his eyes. Of course, Tessa sees him do it and groans. ”Aw, come on, Paul. It’s not like I’m expecting anything from you now.” Ignoring any further nonverbal comments from her boyfriend, Tessa turns to me. “Oh, Jack! I wanted to ask if you’ve heard from Emma.”
I look at her with narrow eyes. “Why?”
“She’s not answering my texts, and after what happened, I was wondering if she was okay.”
“What do you mean?” Because of the worried look on Tessa’s face, a slightly uneasy feeling rises within me.
“Oh, you don’t know? Someone attacked her at work.”
“WHAT?” I yell.
Tessa looks at Paul. “You haven’t told him?”
Paul frowns. “No. I didn’t think—that—uh–”
Tessa rolls her eyes. ”Clearly you weren’t thinking. We were at the hospital today,” Tessa finally explains. I’m sitting in my chair, anxiously grabbing the edge of the table.
“This other nurse, Tamara, was there too, and she told us some junkie came to the ER on Thursday, looking for drugs, and when Emma didn’t want to give him any, he hit her.”
“Fuck!” I growl. “How is she? Was she hurt?”
“We don’t know.” Tessa frowns. “That’s why I sent her a text and tried to call her, but I haven’t heard from her. But Tamara said she’d be working again tonight.”
“Tonight? Like right now?” I get up from my chair.
“Jack, what are you doing?” Paul narrows his eyes at me.
“I gotta go see her,” I plainly say.
“What, now?” he asks. “Are you crazy?”
“I guess so. Okay, sorry. See you later.”
Without waiting for any of them to try to talk me out of this, I leave the pub and make my way to the hospital.
I walk into the ER with a wildly beating heart. All the way here, one horrible scenario after the other played in my mind. Someone attacked Emma? Was she injured? And why is she working again already at the place where it happened? It’s only been three days.
I stand at the front desk and let out a sigh of relief when I see Emma standing a few feet away. As if she sensed my presence, she turns around and looks at me. My lips lift in a smile, but when I notice the huge bruise on her left cheek, I frown.
Emma comes up to me and looks at me with raised eyebrows. “Jack! What are you doing here?”
“I heard what happened and wanted to talk to you. Are you okay?”
She shrugs. “Been better. But I’m okay; no need for you to worry.”
I nod, trying to hide the slight pang of disappointment. I was hoping she’d be less dismissive. I sigh. “Can we talk? Please?”
Emma looks around. A few people are sitting in the waiting area, and I guess she’s got enough work to do.
“Sorry, I’m busy,” she finally says with a frown. “Too many patients need my attention. I can’t talk now.”
I nod and take a deep breath. “I understand... Well, uhm–,” I say, feeling a little dumb all of a sudden. What was I thinking coming here just like that? And that while we’re not even friends officially.
All of a sudden, a stupid idea forms in my head, and as doing stupid things has been my MO lately, I tell her, “You know when I got that electric shock–”
Emma looks at me with raised eyebrows, crossing her arms in front of her chest, and with a hint of a smile on her beautiful lips. “Yes?”
“You said I should come back if anything felt off.”
“Well, something feels off.” I rub my chest, maybe a little too theatrically.
“Is that so?” Her tiny smile turns into a subtle smirk.
“Yeah, I think something’s wrong. Maybe even a heart attack? I have this weird pain in my right arm.” To emphasize my point, I rub said arm.
Judging from the look on her face, she can hardly stifle a laugh. “You mean your left arm?”
Oops! I quickly change to rubbing my left arm instead of my right and give her my best painful expression. “Yes. You better perform another ECG.”
Arms still crossed, she studies me with narrow eyes. Yup, stupid is working great. At least, it makes her smile. She shakes her head, and a short but happy laugh leaves her mouth. And damn, that soft sound is the sexiest thing I’ve heard in a long while.
“Okay, follow me.” She waves me after her, still shaking her head, and I think I heard her mumble a chuckled "Unbelievable" under her breath.
Just like last time, she asks me to take off my shoes and socks, along with my shirt. I willingly oblige and lie down on the exam table. And just like last time, I watch Emma place the electrodes on my chest, wrists, and ankles. I hold my breath while she does because every slight touch of her fingertips on my skin makes me cringe, but I don’t want to cringe. I let out a long, slow breath when she takes a step back and pushes some buttons on the electrocardiograph.
“Can you tell me now what happened?” I ask quietly.
“You shouldn’t talk during the recording,” she answers.
“Then you do the talking.”
She sighs deeply. “It was my own fault.”
I want to protest, but she holds up her hand to stop me. “No, seriously. I should have known better. There was this guy. I knew he was gonna be trouble. He was high on something and looking for more. I should have waited for backup, but I came to his help when he fell on the floor. He seized the opportunity to attack me. He hit my face first.” She grimaces and takes a deep breath. “And then he punched me in my stomach.” She puts her hand on her belly, rubbing slightly. She shakes her head as if to chase away the bad memories.
I shouldn’t listen to this while being attached to a device that records my heart rate because, sure enough, my pulse quickens as I hear how some fucking asshole attacked an innocent woman, a woman I care about more than I should.
Of course, Emma’s gaze falls on the display of the ECG, and she looks at me with a frown. “Are you okay, Jack? You’re a little tachycardic.”
I close my eyes and nod. “Yeah, just a little pissed off at the guy who did this to you.”
Emma chuckles, and when I open my eyes, I see her press some buttons on the device.
“Okay,” she says. “This looks good, nothing out of the ordinary. I’ll quickly show this to the doctor, and then you’re good to go.” She removes the electrodes from my body and hands me my shirt. I want to grab it, but she holds onto it.
“Jack, why are you here?” she asks with an almost painful expression on her face.
I sigh and look at our hands holding my shirt. My fingers are barely touching hers, and my heartbeat accelerates again, this time for a different reason.
I look up into her eyes. Those beautiful blue eyes, which stare at me expectantly. “Oh, Emma,” I say quietly. “I needed to see you, see if you were all right. I care about you.”
“You do?” She speaks in the same low and careful voice as if to match our whispered conversation with our delicate touch. Her gaze falls on my tattoo, and she lets go of my shirt. She slowly lifts her fingers and gently touches my chest, outlining the ink on my skin.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath, trying to keep the impending sense of unease at bay. The longer she touches me, the faster my heart beats. Little drops of cold sweat form on my forehead, and soon, the moment’s sweet tenderness yields to the usual intense inner turmoil. Before the expected anxiety takes hold of me, I grab her wrist, which makes her flinch and pull back instantly.
“I—I’m sorry,” she stammers.
I grimace and run my hand over my face. “No, don’t be. It’s not your fault. I—It’s just complicated,” I sigh as I put my shirt back on and give her an apologetic look.
“What is?” Emma asks. “Why don’t you let anyone touch you?”
There’s the question I had been expecting. I take a deep breath and look at her for a moment. “That’s a long story I won’t tell you tonight,” I finally tell her. “But I will because I like you, Emma.”
Her big and beautiful eyes look back at me when she whispers, “I like you too.”
But all of a sudden, a shadow flashes over her face, and a deep frown forms on her forehead. “Jack, there’s something you should know.”
Before she can go on, we are interrupted by another nurse. “Hey, Emma, we need your help. Are you done here?” She looks at us expectantly.
Emma nods. “Yes, Diane, I’ll be there in a minute.” She looks at the printout from the ECG. “Well, as I said, this looks fine. I’ll show this to the doctor.” She already turned to leave the room.
“Emma, wait,” I call after her. “What did you want to tell me?”
She turns back around and shakes her head at me. “I can’t tell you this in passing.”
“Are you working tomorrow night as well?” I ask.
She shakes her head again. “No, just this one night.”
“Go out to dinner with me.”
She takes a deep breath, and just when I think she’s going to turn me down, she nods. “Okay.”
I smile as I take a step toward her. I breathe in deeply before I gently put my hand on her bruised cheek. Emma gives me a surprised look but closes her eyes and leans into my touch.
And because I’m still feeling very stupid, I lean closer to her until my lips tenderly brush over hers. A soft sigh escapes her, a sound I’d like to elicit from her again and again, but I won’t be able to, so I pull back before that unpleasant tingling starts in the pit of my stomach.
When I remove my hand from her cheek, her eyes flutter open, and the many questions I see in them make me sigh. I want to tell her so many things, answer all of those questions, but that scares the shit out of me. I don’t want to lose her before I even had her.
Emma clears her throat and brings me back to reality. “Well, I gotta go.” She starts walking backward out of the room. Before she turns the corner, she lifts her hand. “Bye, Jack.”
And before she vanishes, a slight blush suffuses her cheeks and she smiles.
On my way home, I enjoy the chilly night air, which helps me stop my racing mind and cool down after my encounter with Emma. It’s time to face my past and get over it so I can finally do what I want again.
What I want is to kiss her some more. But I knew I couldn’t do that tonight. I know I have to work on my issues. There’s no way around it anymore. If I want this to work, which I do, I need to do what I’ve been avoiding these past years. If I want to be able to touch her, feel her, let her touch me without being completely wasted, I need to get my act together.
So my first call in the morning will go to my therapist.