It was the same everywhere.
The pomp, the circumstance, the piles of money going around.
Anthony tugged on the end of his tie before yanking it off and throwing it over his shoulder. The tie was too much. He didn't want to make it seem like he was trying too hard to make an impression.
But he was trying to leave an impression. This was his last chance to make some kind of memorable imprint on the girl who meant everything to him.
Too bad she didn't believe him when he said I love you.
Jack couldn't believe it was over.
Four years of sleepless nights spent in the library or the resident hall lounge. Four years of constantly changing material and grueling labs. Four years of mental breakdowns, caused both by the stress of academics and the hopeless situations his friends landed in, culminating in a five minute walk across a black stage.
His classmate, best friend and fellow graduate, Sabrina Valentin, engulfed him in a tight hug. "We did it!" She screamed in delight. "Can you believe it, Jack? We finally did it!"
Jack held her tightly, trying to calm the bouncing on her feet. "I know, Bree."
She frowned playfully at him as they emerged from the darkened stairwell leading outside the arena. "Way to be a killjoy about it. We were in one of the hardest programs in the university and we aced it."
He and Sabrina were two of six over-ambitious students double majoring in microbiology and biochemistry. Both were awarded honors degrees and distinguished as part of the top ten seniors in the College of Arts and Sciences.
A wave of their mutual friends and classmates stopped them as they searched for their families in the crowd. Several offered their congratulations and mentioned they would bring their gifts and cards to the party organized by their closest friends later that evening.
"Jack!" His mother's voice rang over the crowd. She waved him over to the spot where she stood next to his father and a family Jack had only seen from a distance and in photos. Sabrina also turned at the sound of his name and her smile slipped.
Sabrina's siblings separated them, all of them tightly holding their sister and yelling how proud they were of her. Their mother sharply reminded them to behave in public before giving Sabrina a hug of her own and whispering something in her ear. At the same time, his own parents beamed at him and shoved gifts and cards into his hands.
"Congratulations, Sabrina," Nathaniel Valentin said with a soft smile as he hugged his youngest daughter. "And congratulations to you as well, Jack. I didn't realize the boy my daughter never stops talking about was you of all people."
Jack frowned. Him of all people? What on earth was that supposed to mean? He caught his father's eye and he barely shook his head.
"I've made lunch reservations at Main Street," Dr. Valentin continued to say. "Would you care to join us, Rick and Clarissa?"
His mother graciously accepted the invitation. "You and Sabrina rode over here together, right? Take her to the restaurant as well."
How did she know that? Jack certainly never mentioned it. The two arranged to carpool the day before so they could sit together at the ceremony for the benefit of their mutual friends and not get lost heading to the pre-ceremony reception.
Sabrina tugged on his arm. "C'mon," she urged him in a quiet voice. "It's best to get this over with."
Get what over with?
The feeling of unease settled uncomfortably in Sabrina's stomach as Jack drove through the winding streets to Main Street Bistro.
Of course her father would pick the classiest restaurant in all of Irvine for lunch. She swore the man knew no humility. Sabrina didn't know what kind of game her father was trying to play and that scared her.
The Valentin family, known for its vast medical empire in Southern California and Toulouse, France where her parents grew up, was considered to be part of the social elite. Everything Sabrina did carefully maintained that image of invincibility.
Her father wanted her to become a doctor, like himself and her mother. Fine. Sabrina enrolled in pre-health advising, picked a dual-major, and volunteered at a local hospital to bolster her application. Much to her surprise, she enjoyed the work and looked forward to medical school in the fall.
Her father wanted her to inherit the family's medical empire alongside her siblings. Fine. Sabrina took several business and language classes and had a minor in Entrepreneurship and French.
Sabrina sacrificed everything on account of her father's wishes. In high school, she built up her student portfolio with club activities, volunteer work, music classes, and advanced classes. She was so busy, she didn't have time for things like hanging out with friends.
University was a little different. Her time was her own and not micromanaged by her mother. Without the familiar faces of her extensive family surrounding her, Sabrina made friends and kept them despite her busy schedule. She was sad to leave her undergraduate years behind because it mean leaving the freedom to be a young adult behind as well.
"You know how to play these games as well as I do, if not better."
Jack killed the engine to his Nissan GT-R. "What of it?" He narrowed his eyes at her.
Sabrina gave him a conflicted smile. "It means," she smoothed the errant collar of his blazer down. "Whatever happens today, I will always support you as your friend."
Jack abruptly opened the door and walked around to open hers, ignoring the flashing bulbs from the surrounding cameras. They walked in silence to the main door.
"Hi! Party of two?"
Sabrina shook her head. "We're part of the Valentin party."
The hostess's tensed before giving them another bright smile. "Follow me, please." She lead them to the back corner, the most secluded part of the restaurant. A chill ran down Sabrina's spine as she sank into a chair next to Jack's father. Mechanically thanking Jack for pulling out her seat, she steeled her nerves and took a deep breath.
Dr. Baudelaire gave her a warm smile before ordering a bottle of white wine and serving each person, including her seventeen-year-old brother, a glass. Jack must have sensed her anxiety because he gripped her hand under the table, out of sight from everyone else, and gave her a reassuring squeeze.
"Jack, Sabrina, we have an announcement to make."
Her grip on him tightened.
The house was packed with people.
Anthony and his roommates, Randy and Brent, recruited some of the girls to help them clean their house and prepare food for the party. He was halfway through grilling steaks on the back deck when people started to arrive.
Landon, one of his close friends, clapped him on the shoulder and inspected his work so far.
"Looks good, man." He eyed the steaks hungrily.
Out of the corner of his eye, Anthony saw him reach for a sample and swatted his hand away with a spatula. Landon squawked in indignation.
"Not until Bree gets here."
"Does your wifey know you're patiently waiting at home with dinner?" Landon teased. "Or is she too busy with her steamy affair with Jack in her office?"
Anthony turned over the last steak. "Where are they anyways?" He ignored the jibe. "They were supposed to be here thirty minutes ago."
Landon settled into a lounge chair. "Relax," he said, reaching over and grabbing a beer from a nearby cooler. "You know Bree has to pack up her apartment. Jack's probably giving her a hand and they're not paying attention to the time. Bree's got a lot of shit, after all."
He took the steak off the grill and set it on the plate with the others. "Sure. Whatever. They're still late."
"Sit down. Loosen up. Have a beer with me," Landon cajoled. "They'll be here."
Hesitating, Anthony glanced through the open back door. Chelsea Moreau, Sabrina's best friend, walked in with his cousin Leonor and their other friend Misty. The trio loudly announced their presence with a confident "The party has arrived!" The man picked up the plate of steaks and brought it inside before returning to the porch and accepting the beer Landon held out to him.
An hour into the party, he saw the guests of honor arrive from his seat on the deck through the glass of the back door. People crowded around them, shoving gifts and cards into their hands. Sabrina smiled and thanked each person in turn but Anthony knew some thing was off.
She moved with rigid tension through the crowd, staying close to Jack's side like she did when they went out to the bars on Friday night. When he watched her walk across the stage with her head held high, Sabrina radiated of happiness and confidence. Now, those emotions were tempered with unease.
Beside her, Anthony's best friend and mentor stood relaxed. Jack offered to take her gifts but she declined with a shake of her head. Sabrina stood on tiptoe and whispered some thing in his ear, causing him to grin and guide her to the kitchen where Anthony knew Chelsea waited with a gentle hand on the small of her back.
Closing his eyes, Anthony tried not to dwell on their interaction. Jack wouldn't betray him.
Bumping fists with Jack, Anthony smiled at her. He wanted so badly to reach out and embrace Sabrina but he restrained himself. She always looked so uncomfortable with his touch, shying away and returning his hugs with reluctance.
She grinned and thanked him but her tense pose and and nervous smile said she would rather be anywhere but speaking with him.
He wondered why.
“Bree!” Chelsea called to her, enthusiastically waving for her to join her. “Come over here for a sec!”
Sabrina excused herself. Jack shifted his weight.
“Spit it out.”
“It’s nothing,” Jack reassured him. “Want to get a drink?”
Chelsea pulled her best friend through the crowded hallways to the empty room at the end.
“So!” She could barely contain her excitement, even as she took a seat on the bed. “Where did you and your family go with Jack after graduation? You guys disappeared fast.”
Sabrina stiffened. “To Main Street,” she named the local favorite. “Father made reservations for us.”
The formal address always made Chelsea uneasy. Even after four years and countless intrusions upon their family dinners, the Valentins were a stiff lot, shaped by a propriety and elegance Chelsea could not comprehend.
“Really? For all of you? Did you plan to eat lunch with Jack and his parents?”
Sabrina did not respond, choosing instead to look at their surroundings. “This is Anthony’s room?”
Chelsea frowned at the change in topic. “I don’t know… why do you think that?”
She came face to face with a framed photograph of their last Spring Break trip to Cabo San Lucas. Michaela snapped this candid shot of the four of them and posted it on facebook. In it, Sabrina and Chelsea were caged in between Jack and Anthony in an attempt to toss them into the sea.
Sabrina shoved another frame into her hands. Chelsea recognized the photo at once; it was taken on that same trip on the evening they decided to dress formally for dinner at a beachside restaurant renown for their incredible sea food. With steady hands, Chelsea immortalized the one moment Anthony summoned his courage and asked Sabrina to dance to the Chopin waltz playing on the dance floor.
“Bree,” Chelsea said as she returned the frames to the dresser. “You’d tell me if something was up, right?”
The smile didn’t quite reach Sabrina’s green eyes.
Later in the night, Chelsea found Jack nursing a beer by himself on a corner of the back deck.
He smiled and scooted over to make room for her. Chelsea sat down and casually asked, "How was lunch with Sabrina's parents?"
Jack tensed and took a drink. "It was just lunch. Nothing special."
Chelsea knew some thing happened at that lunch. The evasion on the topic from both of her friends piqued her attention. Typically, if one would not tell her, the other would. Jack and Sabrina’s united silence worried her.
"I didn't know your parents knew each other,” she carefully probed.
Jack offered her a taste of his beer. She declined.
"Me neither. I guess they're business partners."
She thought about it. Was lunch a business meeting then? Were the matters discussed so sensitive it required silence on their part? In a way, it made sense. Sabrina's dad owned a hospital and Jack's mom was the CEO of a medical research lab. Both were to inherit the family industries.
"That's nice," Chelsea commented off-hand. "At least, you know you'll never lose touch with Sabrina, right?"
He went rigid before covering it up by taking another drink.
"Yeah. We'll never be apart."
Sabrina giggled as Leonor dramatically flipped her hair over her shoulder and ignored Brent with an exaggerated huff of impatience. Sabrina was going to miss this—the carefree moments of reprieve from constant studying and the brightness these people infused in her life.
"Bree!" Someone yelled her name from the living room. "Come in here and take a shot with us!”
At the mention of taking shots, Leonor shot forward and grabbed her hand, pulling her through the crowd effortlessly.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the Summa Cum Laude graduate has arrived!"
Blushing at the mention of her honors status, Sabrina accepted the lime and the shot of tequila before extending her hand and allowing Randy to pour salt on her skin. With practiced ease, she licked the salt off her hand, downed the shot, and sucked on the lime. Sabrina didn't grimace like the others had and people loudly cheered.
"And to think," Misty wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "This girl refused to hang with us on the weekends before her twenty-first birthday. She takes tequila shots and holds her liquor better than the rest of you!"
The crowd hollered indignantly at Misty's bold statement, clamoring for her to take a shot of Everclear. She obliged with a flourish.
"A toast," a familiar voice said in her ear at the same time someone pressed a shot of her favorite liquor—Absolut Vodka—into her hand.
Sabrina smiled weakly and turned around to toast Anthony properly. "To the end of another school year," she said as she tapped her glass against his.
"To you and all your amazing accomplishments, Sabrina Valentin," Anthony said.
His intense gaze made her wish she had something in her hands to occupy herself with other than the empty shot glass. Reaching for her cell phone, Sabrina pretended to check it for a message.
"Hey," Jack appeared before her with their belongings in hand. "We've got to go."
She glanced at the time. Two am. Perfect.
Passing the glass back to Anthony, she reached for her wristlet and gifts. Jack shifted his weight before grinning at Anthony and telling him he'd see him at the gym in the afternoon. Sabrina quickly said goodbye to him as well before waving to Chelsea.
Jack opened his car door for her and she sank into the front seat. As he started the car, he glanced at her before squeezing her hand.
"Hey, it's okay."
She looked at him in doubt. "It's so hard keeping this from everyone."
"They'll know soon enough," Jack reassured her. "It won't be long until the announcement is made."
Sabrina sighed quietly and leaned back into the seat. "A whole summer of keeping this from Chelsea..."
Jack murmured he had faith in her before shifting into drive and turning on the radio.
She wished she had the same confidence.