It felt like deja-vu, going to Marco’s apartment as he threw a New Year’s Eve party. Only instead of Queens, his residence was a fancy rooftop apartment in Newbury street, which was spacious, with a balcony that showed the beautiful view of Back Bay, and probably cost him a fortune to buy.
The place was filled with people who were Marco and Diego’s friends, and I was feeling kind of strange. Yes, Diego and I had proclaimed our love for each other more than once, the recent being last night in his car after the whole visiting-Sierra and seeing his parents thing happened. But memories were hard to forget, and I could still remember vividly that New Year’s Eve six years ago and how it had happened.
It seemed that Diego sensed my unease, because his arm was firmly around my waist as he introduced me to people I couldn’t for the life of me remember their names. But when he said, “This one you might know,” I was curious, and then surprised to see that I indeed knew the man who had now come to stand before us.
He was the same man Diego had told me to call that night when I brought him back to my apartment, injured and feverish. He was the doctor - Doctor O, if I recalled correctly - who looked nothing like a doctor usually did; he was tall and roped with muscles, tattoos on every inch of skin visible to the eye except his face, and he had golden-brown locks, and beautiful light gray eyes that almost seemed silver.
“It’s nice to finally, officially meet you, Paige,” the man said as he shook my hand. “I’m Oz.”
A little hesitantly, I smiled back. “Nice to meet you, Oz. Although I have to admit I remember you as Doctor O.”
“That’s how I call him,” Diego said with a mischievous grin, not a trace of his deep-rooted pain from last night in sight, thank God. “Although he’s not technically a doctor anymore.”
“I quit some time ago, when I was an intern,” Oz explained when he saw I was confused. “I pursued my dream of opening a tattoo parlor and chose to use my affinity with needles for another profession.”
“This sure is a drastic change,” I said, surprised, “but it explains all these tatts.”
“I can get you one, too, if you’d like,” he said with a grin, “free of charge, since you’re my main sponsor’s girlfriend.”
“Sponsor?” I inquired, confused again.
Diego shot a look to Oz before he sighed. “I gave him the first few thousands bucks to kick off his business.”
“Which means he gets to have a tattoo for free whenever he chooses to actually do one,” Oz said with an eye roll before turning to me again. “So? What do you think? Want a tattoo on the house?”
“I might,” I said, pondering it. “I always had this dream to have a tattoo of an autumn leaf on my wrist.”
“I like her,” Oz told Diego conversationally before giving me his business card. “Give me a call if you ever want to take me up on this offer.”
“I will,” I promised, smiling now.
Diego was about to say something when another person appeared next to us. This one, I was familiar with; Luna, the woman who was in the same class in high-school with Diego and Marco, and who was still in love with Diego.
“Sorry to interrupt,” she said, and she turned to me with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Can I steal you for a second?”
Unsure, I glanced at Diego, but he gave me a reassuring smile. It wasn’t entirely clear to me if he was aware of Luna’s feelings, but I hadn’t thought of asking him before. Now I wished I had. I gave Luna a curt nod and let her lead me away from Diego and Oz, toward the enclosed balcony, where the bar was.
“I got you completely wrong,” she began as she poured us both some wine.
The memory of Larsen Walker’s birthday party came to my mind, and I knew exactly what she was talking about, since I’d told her then Diego and I were nothing but mere acquaintances. “Listen,” I said, feeling that I somewhat owed her an explanation, “I didn’t mean to… to lie or anything. It’s just…”
She sighed. “I’m not blaming you,” she told me to my surprise, and she gave me a small smile, “but I feel the need to clear the air with you, since you’re probably not going to break up with him anytime soon, and I have no intention of stopping being his friend.”
I blinked in surprise.
“A few months after Diego left for Costa Rica,” she said, facing me, “I flew there to visit him with Marco.”
Something told me I wasn’t going to like where this was going, but I remained silent, letting her speak.
“Neither Marco nor I knew the details of what exactly happened that made him flee the States,” she continued, her eyes sad, “but one night, he got drunk in a bar, and told us the gist of it. That he has someone he loved, and felt he wasn’t good for her, in Boston, and that the main reason he left was to protect her.”
She looked at me meaningfully. “I have a feeling that you already know, but I’ll tell you this anyway. I love Diego. I’ve loved him since high-school. When he put the moves on me that night in the bar, trying to forget about the mysterious woman he’d left in Boston, we slept together.”
I drew in a deep breath, trying not to feel any sort of jealousy, reminding myself that Diego wasn’t mine back then, that it was in the past, that he was with me now, and not with beautiful Luna…
“It was the best and worst experience of my life,” she said with a scowl that I suspected was directed at herself. “The best, because he was Diego, and I’d wanted him for so long, and worst, because I knew that he wasn’t seeing me when we did what we did. He wasn’t truly with me. He was someplace else, with that girl from Boston he couldn’t shut up about, and I was hurt. He apologized the next morning,” she sighed. “And I forgave him, because I value our friendship more than anything else.”
She gave me a serious look. “When we met at that party a few weeks ago, I had a hunch it was you. The girl from Boston he kept talking about. But you were a vault, letting nothing out, and I had hopes that maybe I was wrong. Maybe you weren’t her. Maybe Diego didn’t meet that girl.
“Of course, now I know better,” she gave me a small, defeated smile. “I don’t know exactly what went on with you and him, and it’s none of my business. I can just tell you that I’ve never seen Diego as happy as he is ever since you two started going out, and I’m going to move on now.”
I stared at her, stunned at her maturity, at her simple acceptance, something I knew I wouldn’t have been able to endure if Diego chose that he didn’t want me. And so I gave her a smile in return and said, “Thank you for being there for Diego when he needed his friends the most. And thank you for understanding.”
She chuckled. “And you’re not just beautiful, but nice, too. Damn.”
“One minute till midnight!” someone called suddenly, and it was followed by a round of cheers.
“Go,” Luna told me. “I’ve kept you long enough.”
“We’ll talk again,” I assured her, and gave her a hug on an impulse. “Thank you.”
She hugged me back quickly and then left, draining the wine in her glass with one swift swallow.
I turned to find Diego there, and his arms went around me. “Yeah,” I told him with a smile, and sense of relief, as if I’d unknowingly needed this conversation with Luna before it even happened. “She is a great person.”
“Agreed,” he said, smiling down at me, his eyes dancing with happiness so rich, I felt as if I could drown in it.
The counting to midnight began, but I barely even heard it. And a few seconds before the clock hit midnight, announcing the new year, Diego’s lips met mine, and we kissed until there was no more breath left in us.
“I think I’m drunk,” Elijah said from his spot at the loveseat, a lovely woman named Dianna who was his wife sprawled over his lap.
Diego chuckled, hugging me tightly to his side. “I would be upset if you weren’t,” he said, to the loud laughter of Marco, “after all the work you’ve put in the last few months.”
Elijah pointed at him. “Don’t you start,” he said, then turned to me. “He’s a mama-hen, so be careful.”
“Noted,” I grinned.
“Blech,” Marco murmured, “y’all married couples are making me sick.”
“We’re not married,” I reminded him. “And as far as I can see, you’re the only one who minds it so much.”
“Stop that, mouthypants,” he mock-glared at me. “Singlehood is great and y’all are just voluntarily forsaking it for some… monogamy.” He shuddered, as if it was a bad word.
“Brah,” Oz shook his head, grinning. “You should cut that drink down. Mouthypants is not a word.”
“And your fear from monogamy stems from pure jealousy,” Diego drawled with a smirk. “You wish you had a Paige in your life.”
“Or a Dianna,” Elijah said to the giggles of his wife.
“Argh!” Marco threw his hands to the air. “Y’all are stupid.”
Oz sighed, putting an arm around Marco’s shoulder. “Nah, man, we are.”
I laughed, and my phone vibrated in the pocket of my jeans. I took it out, and saw a text message from an unknown number. Swiping it open, I read the message, and any sort of happiness, amusement, or sheer contentment vanished out of me, snuffed by the words on the small screen.
‘I’m watching you. All of you. Jack surely looks cosy with you tonight, and his sister’s such a sweet little thing, isn’t she? Have fun tonight, Paige Harper. You will soon wish it lasted longer.’
My entire body froze. My mind checked out. I had no idea what to do with myself, what to do with this message, and, as if on automatic pilot, I turned my phone off and put it back in my pocket. Diego was now conversing with Oz about something, but I couldn’t hear it; all I could hear was the rapid beat of my heart, telling me things before I could comprehend them
A lifetime later, Diego suddenly asked, “Everything’s okay?”
But I had no answer, because then it hit me. I had to tell him about this message. Whoever sent it called him Jack, and they were watching us right now, and his sister, and they knew who I was, meaning they would know who Peter was, but if I told him, he would… Diego would...
He would leave again. Disappear to protect not just me, but everyone else. And I knew, I just knew I couldn’t let him know. I couldn’t let him go away. He promised he wouldn’t, yes, but that’s because he thought we were safe.
But we weren’t safe. This text was the evidence for that. They wanted him still, those awful people, and I…
I couldn’t say a word about it to him.
So I turned to him with a plastic smile, said, “All’s good,” and let him hug me tightly to him, not knowing what to do.