I rubbed David's hand, feeling the nerves sink into me. "I don't know what's gonna happen when I go back to work. If they're accepting me back, I'm... I'm going to put in my resignation."
His eyebrows flew up, but he didn't look too surprised.
Still, I owed some kind of explanation. "I'm way too attached to my patients. And with Avery, I became more emotionally involved than I ever expected to. I know that we put it behind us but... I'm still guilty. I wasn't straightforward with you when you found out and I hate that. I hate that you had to hear it from someone else's mouth in the middle of a hospital hallway."
"Casper, I don't fault you for..."
I nodded. "It's okay. I hope you can still forgive me."
He seemed to understand that I just needed to hear the words, so he gently sighed. "I forgive you. Of course I do."
"Thank you. I'm just not cut out for the job. I've watched good people and innocent children die, David. Babies. I learned to love them only to lose them. I always knew it'd be part of the job but you don't know what it's like until you know. I'm not as strong as I thought I'd be."
"You are strong." He squeezed my hand. "Strength isn't defined by being a robot when people die. You're supposed to feel it, each and every time."
I tried to smile. "I don't know. Lately I just feel like everything's going wrong. I never learned how to cope with that. I've been afraid to tell you because I-I didn't wanna disappoint you. You paid for my education. You took time off work for me and so much more. And here I am giving up and wasting all of it." I felt my eyes growing wet.
"You thought I'd be disappointed?"
David moved closer to me, placing my legs across his lap. "No, I'm just... I'm relieved to know exactly what's been bothering you."
My shoulders fell. "I've kept you in the dark, haven't I?"
"I think a part of me already knew."
I smiled at him. "No surprise there."
He chuckled, caressing the back of my hand. "Listen. Being a neurosurgeon makes you happy. But the moment that ceases to be true, you should tell me. I will support your next dream. Nothing spent on you could ever be a waste. Even if you decided to start bagging groceries for the rest of your life, if it made you happy, I'd back you up. I'll even wear those tight cheerleading outfits and wave pom-poms just to see you smile."
I burst out laughing. "I assure you, there's no grocery bagging in my future. So you're really not mad? I mean, what if I change my mind all over again and go back to surgery?"
"I did a similar thing. You were there for me, remember? I taught psychology, then I saw clients. Then I went back to teaching because I missed it so much. But now I'm seeing clients again. I think my teaching days are over, but I'd wanna know that I have my husband's support if I decided to do it again."
"You do. Always," I affirmed.
"See? How could I ever be disappointed in you? I didn't waste a dime. Your comfort has been my greatest investment. You know me. Don't underestimate my love for you. Casper..." He looked into my eyes. "You are the sun, which means my world revolves around you. I truly don't know how I lived before meeting you."
I felt my cheeks heating up. I definitely knew how to handle his poetic compliments a bit better now, but it still made my stomach flutter. "It's scary to be loved so much."
"It's even scarier to see you this way. You've gotta learn to share your insecurities with me. I'm your husband; I'd never judge you. I wouldn't steer you the wrong way. This has been brewing inside you for... I don't know how long. Your mental health is the most important thing to me. Don't check out on me, okay?"
I nodded, noticing David close to tears. And he never cries. It proved how much seeing me sad affected him.
"You know how, back when I had my cancer, I was planning to let it grow until... until it killed me..."
"Yeah. I remember."
"Well, I never told you this but... I'd stopped going for my check ups after I found out about it. I figured, what did it matter? I was dying anyway. Then we met for the first time, and I remember eating a little healthier when I got home. Swapped cookies for fruit. I'd opt for water instead of tea or soda. Then we had our first kiss."
"In your car," I couldn't fight my smile.
"Yeah, in my car." He grinned at the memory. It seemed so long ago. I recalled being so nervous and excited and afraid all at once--the thrill of kissing a man I'd thought was untouchable. "Anyway, I hauled ass to the doctor's office the following afternoon. My very first check up in months was the day after I kissed you."
I was frozen. "I... You're right, I never knew that."
"It's true. If we hadn't met, I'd be dead. I wouldn't have cared enough to go for that check-up."
"I think I'd be lost in this world without you. Honestly. You're the man I dreamed of calling my own before I ever even met you. You can ask Dawson about all those embarrassing times I fantasized about being in love when I was little. You are real and perfect, and I'm fortunate to be yours. We have a beautiful family. I have zero interest in breaking your trust or betraying you. I just want you to know that."
"I know." His lips tickled my cheek with a soft kiss." I love you. I trust you."
I brought a hand to his face and used my thumb to wipe away a fallen tear. "Why are you crying?"
"You're crying too," he playfully accused. "We're a mess."
I was a bit choked up, but we both laughed despite it. "It's okay," I said, kissing him sweetly. "They're happy tears."
I walked out of the Chief of Surgery's office with a solemn expression.
I looked up to see that Lyanna was waiting for me, sitting next to Lorenzo. They both stood up as I approached.
"Please tell me they didn't fire you." Lyanna wrapped me in a hug.
"No. At least not yet. I got suspended."
"Holy shit, Casper."
Lorenzo let out a humorless laugh, rolling his eyes. My friend pulled away from me to glance at him. "What's so funny?"
"I just..." he laughed. "I'm surprised. A suspension is a slap on the wrist."
I furrowed my eyebrows. "Hardly. I could lose my license to practice medicine."
"I've been biting my tongue, but you're a really shitty friend, Enzo," Lyanna said. "And it's getting really old."
He turned to her in a flash of anger. "I'm an honest friend. You're too busy coddling him; now look what happened. Maybe it's the way I was trained, but I can't empathize with you on this, Cas. You resuscitated a DNR patient. I warned you this could happen. Yet, somehow, I'm the bad guy."
Lyanna opened her mouth to respond but I held up a hand and moved in front of her to defend myself. "You want me to fail," I accused Lorenzo.
He blinked at me. "Excuse me?"
"That's what this is all about, isn't it? You trying to keep me out of trouble–it's all bullshit. I bet it just kills you that you don't have popcorn in your hands right now, but you're enjoying this."
He shrugged. "My only hope is, if you somehow manage to keep your license at the end of all this, that you'll keep things professional."
"I don't regret it. I'd do it again. I care about my patient. Nobody should ever have to lose their life over a damn tumor! I can help him fight it. I've studied and practiced so that I can understand everything about the brain, and I know I can beat this for him. I'm not gonna just let him die when the only reason he signed that God-forsaken form was because he thought he didn't have anybody. He didn't know any better!"
"You don't get to decide that, Casper. You think with your heart, and that's why you'll never be on the same level as the rest of us."
And there it is. At least he finally grew the balls to say how he really felt about me.
"Lorenzo!" Lyanna gasped.
I had to admit, that actually stung. Then I realized it wasn't true. "I don't recall one of you being chief resident."
"Oh come on! They were biased when they chose you for that. You're likable, Cas. You work well with others, you're most improved. Big whoop! Honestly, I'm willing to believe it's less about your skill and more that your rich husband bought you the position. Probably bought you this job too."
My eyebrows flew up. "Are you kidding me? You're bringing my husband into this?"
He did that stupid shrug of his. "Tell me I'm wrong."
I clenched my jaw, marching up to his equally stupid face. "All I hear is a man threatened by the fact someone six years younger than him received the position he worked his ass off for. I was chosen because my skills are, in fact, transcendent. My intelligence is unparalleled. I earned that. I may be emotionally involved, but you will continue to have bad outcomes because you're too detached from your own patients to keep them alive. You refuse to take the time to know who they are, to know their stories. You're right; I'll never be on your level. I'm too busy being the best, and you're too pathetic to keep up!"
"Being the best doesn't get you anywhere when you have a budding romance with your own patient! That man is crazy about you, and you do nothing to discourage him, knowing what it could cost you. Knowing what it has already cost you! This is your license! Your career—your future! You're really saying none of that matters all because some cute guy bat his lashes at you? Well, go on then! Tell me, does the so-called 'love of your life' know that you're cheating on him?!"
I sucked in a breath, watching Lyanna's jaw drop. If I didn't know better, I'd say he wanted the entire hospital to hear him calling me a cheater. I could see the sick satisfaction on his wretched face, but I soon came to realize the real reason he uttered those words.
I turned around, meeting David's eyes. My heart sank into a writhing pit in my stomach, and I mentally cursed Lorenzo and his future generations in ways I didn't know were possible.
"Are you okay?" David asked, walking up to me. I couldn't speak, but I managed a very stiff nod. He grabbed my hand, but before pulling me away, he scowled at Lorenzo. "What was that you said about being professional? Screaming at someone who's clearly emotional doesn't quite fit the bill."
"I was just—"
"You were just frustrated that Casper showed attention to someone that isn't you. Stop projecting your insecurities onto my husband and use this time to check on your patients." David placed a supportive hand low on my back. "Come. Let's get you home."
I followed him without a glance behind me, aching to be anywhere but here. It was only then, through my blinding tears, that I noticed all the stares and prying eyes.
"What are you all looking at?" David bellowed, and they all scattered. Protectively, he held me close. "You've got to be kidding me. Is this how they embarrass you here? They should be ashamed!" With our hands still locked, he led me down the stairs and out of the building.
Once situated in the car, he leaned toward me and wiped the tears from my face. "I don't know what that was about, but..." He shook his head and sighed.
"Did you hear... everything he said?" I quietly asked, my fingers trembling.
David averted his gaze then sat back. "We'll talk about it at home. I still need to know you're alright until then."
"Yeah," I whispered.
He nodded, fastening his seatbelt and starting up the car.
I unlocked the front door and allowed Casper to walk in first. The drive home was awkward and silent, which didn't help the anxiety I was feeling. I told myself to just let it go for the moment, to let him shower and eat and calm down before pestering him with inquiries.
But my curiosity got the better of me. "I'm kind of... I'm at a loss. First I was cooking, waiting for the kids to get home and looking forward to dinner with all of us. Then you called, sounding like you'd been crying. By the time I got to the hospital, you were in a screaming match and now... what's going on?"
"I got s-suspended."
"What? Did it have something to do with that man yelling at you? Did he do this?"
"Jesus, David, I did this. This was all me! I'm so stupid!" He tugged at his hair, pacing back and forth.
"Casper, slow down. What happened?"
"I-I resuscitated a DNR patient. They could revoke my license. David, I couldn't just watch him die. I couldn't..." He clutched his chest. I saw the worry on his face, that look in his eyes. It was more than just some patient.
"I don't know what to say." I combed my fingers through my locks with incertitude. "This is a lot for one day. Who is this man anyway, this patient?"
Casper shrugged. "His name's Avery Weppler; he first came in with a tumor. We operated on him but his cancer spread to his brain stem. I mean, it's very aggressive and it's growing at a rapid pace. He's been declining ever since and I just— damn it. I shouldn't even be saying any of this!"
"Wait, I'm confused. When did he first come in?"
Casper searched his mind for a clear answer, then sighed. "I-I'm not entirely sure. It's been a few weeks now probably."
"And he signed a DNR?"
"Then you resuscitated him against his wishes because you 'couldn't watch him die?' So—what, you throw away your career for someone who chose not to be brought back?"
He looked at me like he couldn't believe what I was saying. "Obviously it's more complicated than that."
I blinked, my eyebrows furrowing together. "That doctor arguing with you..."
"Was what he said true?" I hated to ask it. I hated to even breathe life into the idea that he could do such a thing.
He was my angel, he couldn't do anything wrong.
Was my love blinding me?
I realized, as I had these thoughts, he still hadn't answered me. "Casper, was it true?" I repeated firmly.
"No," he whispered.
Tears gathered in my eyes. I could feel the uncertainty seeping out of him, and dread filling into me.
He noticed the terror in my eyes, immediately shaking his head and stepping closer. "David, I swear—"
I took a step back, feeling the anxiety in pulsing waves. "For days now, I stopped myself from asking what was really going on with you. You come home at odd times. You leave before I can kiss you goodbye. You missed our baby's recital. I thought I'd give you space because your job is tough, no doubt about it. Now, suddenly you're suspended. Your career is in jeopardy. But you're not worried about any of that; your only concern is about him. Who is that patient to you?"
"He's just a patient."
"No," I refused, searching his crystal blue eyes. "You've had plenty of people with DNR orders. You tell me all about them. You tell me everything and I've never heard of anyone named Avery. Who is he to you? Why is he worth risking your entire future?"
"That's not enough!" I snapped.
Casper flinched subtly, his breath picking up. "I... He's... I care for him, that's all. Nothing more."
"Nothing more? You knowingly violated protocol on a whim? So where were you all those nights you didn't come home? What was the rush all those mornings when you left before I even opened my eyes? Who was keeping you occupied, that you stopped calling in the middle of the day to check on me and our children? Was it him? This–this Avery?" I practically spat his name like it was bitter.
His eyes were wide, his tongue speechless. "David, he doesn't have anyone else. What was I supposed to do?"
I shook my head in disappointment. "Don't do that. Don't manipulate me."
"How am I manipulating you?"
"You're telling me he had nobody else, so that gives you the right to what? Lie to me? Have an affair?"
"I didn't cheat. You have to believe me. I didn't cheat on you."
My heart pounded, and my blood boiled. "Maybe not physically."
He bit his bottom lip, looking away. "I didn't cheat on you, physically or otherwise."
My shoulders sagged in defeat. "More than anything in this world, I want to believe that. But Casper, how can I?"
He reached out to cup my face in desperation. "Because I love you! Because I've never lied to you."
"But you have. You lied about this. I– I can't do this right now. I can't look at you." I released myself from his hold.
"Please, just... don't. I need to go pick up our kids."
"What? You're just gonna walk away? They'll be fine on the bus. Or at least let me come with you."
"I'm going alone. Just stay here. Maybe when I get back, you'll be ready to tell me the truth about all this."
I grabbed the car keys, not giving him a chance to respond. I felt like I was suffocating, and I needed to be anywhere but here.
So I climbed in my car, and I drove for maybe a mile before pulling over to the side of the road and turning it off just to cry very, very pathetically.
I didn't enjoy being so vulnerable. Whenever I hit a low point, I tended to run off and be alone. And I thought that doing so would be enough to feel just a tiny bit better. Sadly, no amount of distance I put between myself and Casper could ever ease my growing heartache.
I thought I knew pain. I thought I knew loss. And maybe he was being honest. Maybe I was completely overreacting.
But I knew, with absolute clarity, that nothing had ever hurt more than this.
It took me a while to sober up and regain my composure. I eventually reached for my phone and quickly dialed my sister.
"Hello?" She answered in a cheery tone.
"What's up! How are my little munchkins?"
"Uh–they're fine. They're at school; I'm on my way to pick them up. I actually needed a favor."
"Yeah, sure. What can I do?"
"When can you stop by? I need you to watch over the kids later, please."
"Not today, unfortunately. I'm free as a bird tomorrow though."
"Tomorrow's perfect. I'll see you then, okay? Thank you."
"Yeah, wait. David, is something wrong? You sound... not yourself."
"I'm okay, Dani. I'll call you again tomorrow." I hung up and took a few deep breaths to calm myself.
It didn't work. Nothing worked. So I restarted the car and did what I knew best.
I stroked Dawn's hair soothingly as I tucked her into bed for her afternoon nap. I hummed a soft song and watched as she fell asleep, laying a kiss on her forehead. When I was leaving her room, Casper was walking out of Royce's at the same time. He left the door slightly open.
"He's sleeping," he whispered. "Could we talk? In our room."
I nodded once and led the way. When the door was closed, he sighed and turned to face me. "I know that... things are... tense between us right now, but you can't do that again."
"Can't do what?" I asked.
"Run off like that. We've never fought before, and next thing I know, you're driving to go get our kids. You don't think that scares me? Knowing that you're angry with me while driving with our children out there. What if something happened to you? My last memory of you would be you saying that you can't look at me." His voice broke, and he looked truly terrified.
"You're right," I admitted after a beat of silence. "I'm sorry I scared you. And I won't do that again."
I didn't miss the slight expression of surprise on his face. He must have been expecting me to put up a fight. But those would be the actions of a proud man. I was in the wrong, and he was right to call me out.
As for our bigger issue, we didn't speak much about it that day. Besides, I need a little time to center my thoughts. I soon realized that the more I thought about what happened, the more frustrated I became.
It wasn't until the following afternoon that I addressed it. I asked Casper to sit with me in the lounge. I took the couch across from him, grasping a pad of paper and a pen. I knew there was only one way to understand the chaos in my mind without spiraling out of control.
"I need to know everything," I said, trying to keep my voice steady. It took a lot of effort, and it left me sounding cold and distant.
"And I'm prepared to give you that," Casper agreed.
"Are you? Because I want every detail, starting from the day you met that patient. And I want transparent, raw honesty. Can you really do that?"
"Yes. Yes, I will. I'll tell you."
I noticed the quick rise and fall of his chest, and I heaved a disgruntled sigh. "Okay. I'm listening."
He took a shuddering breath. I could see him searching his memory for the day that he met Avery Weppler before gazing into my eyes.
"Rounds began at seven in the morning..."
(fun fact: the rest of this scene is the prologue... cuz I sho as hell not writin' it again)