|“What are you so happy about?” Ryan asks, smiling at my cheerful approach.
I grab my purse from the side of his seat and pull out my phone. “I convinced the girl at the front desk to give me some information I needed.”
“I found out the two people brought in by ambulance earlier were in the accident in our neighborhood. The one Christian was looking into. I didn’t get their names, but I got the room number of the girl. Hopefully it will help him.”
Ryan scratches his head. “He’s a detective. You really think he needs help?”
”Well, I ran into him when I was coming out of the restroom. The nurse wouldn’t budge on his questions.”
He cocks a brow. “Then how exactly did you manage to obtain that info?”
Instead of going into detail about my display of tears and dramatics to the receptionist and nearby hospital staff, I give him the short answer. “I asked passionately.”
The truth is, I did something Christian would never do. I lied.
Ryan shakes his head and starts loosening his tie. I can’t tell if he’s amused, impressed, or irritated. I leave him be and text Christian the room number.
A half hour passes and still no response from Christian. I’m starting to think he lost interest and left. Or maybe he got his answers but decided not to respond. He was polite to both Ryan and I and that’s more than we both deserve. Still, he promised he would share his info and he’s not one to break a promise.
I close my eyes for a moment and rest. I’m no longer running on adrenaline and my body is finally relaxed enough to be tired. My mind wanders to the distressing interruption from my brother earlier this evening. He inflicted a lot of pain. Physical and emotional. I don’t want it causing any setbacks with Ryan. Jason needs to accept that we’re together now. He doesn’t have a choice. We’re his family.
“You awake?” Ryan asks, squeezing my hand.
My weary eyes open to see Christian standing in front of me. His expression is troubled and unsettling. I sit up straight and uncross my legs. One of them starts bouncing vigorously. “What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I recognized the make of the car,” Christian begins, resting one hand on his bicep. “It wasn’t a big deal. But then I heard the description of the driver and passenger. That’s when I really became concerned. I had to come down here and check for myself.”
An onset of chills cover my body. “What are you trying to say?”
He takes a deep breath, then glances at Ryan.
“Christian, just tell me.” I demand.
“It’s Sam and Ayden,” he answers, low and regretful. “They were hit by a reckless driver speeding through a stop sign.”
A coldness inside me starts as I stare at him: Shocked. Confused. Devastated.
“Are you sure?” Ryan asks in disbelief.
“How bad?” I ask, clenching my teeth.
“Ayden’s still in surgery. He has some extensive injuries, but they’re trying their best to stop the internal bleeding.”
“And Sam?” My voice trembles with anticipation.
“Sam has a few broken ribs, a broken leg, and a laceration on her forehead. She also has a concussion. Their still waiting for her to come around, but so far she’s stable.
“I need to call their families,” Ryan insists, somehow able to think clearly.
“Already on there way,” Christian confirms.
I stand with urgency, grab my cross-body purse from the chair and quickly pull it over my head. “I want to see Sam. Can you take me, Christian?”
Ryan quickly stands, and though his voice is calm, his body language says something different. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he says, taking my hand.
I squeeze his thumb. “I’ll be fine. Besides, Sam needs me.”
A nurse wearing floral scrubs and glasses yells out Ryan’s name. It’s his turn to get his vitals checked.
“Just a moment,” he yells back. “Sweetie, listen to me.” His hand moves to my shoulder. “It’s going to be really difficult to keep it together when you see her in the state that she’s in.”
A part of me appreciates his genuine concern for my mental state, but the other part wishes he thought I was strong enough to manage the delicate situation.
“Maybe he’s right,” Christian adds. “She’s in pretty bad shape. How bout we wait till she’s awake and able to visit.”
“No,” I quickly argue. “I’m seeing her now. With or without you.”
Christian looks to Ryan with questionable brows, as if he wants direction on what to do. It surprises me. Is this going to be his typical response from now on? Wait for guidance from Ryan? Or maybe it’s just the situation that has him seeking advice.
“You need to go,” I express, soft and firm. “That nurse isn’t going to wait forever and if you don’t go, you’ll lose your spot. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
Ryan’s heavy sigh is a clear sign of defeat, and my soft peck on his cheek officially lifts his white flag. “You are so stubborn. Will you go with her?” He pleads to my ex.
“I won’t leave her side,” Christian says with confidence.
After a kiss to my forehead, Ryan walks towards the nurse, who is patiently holding the door. After he exits the waiting room, and I can longer see him, my stomach begins to ache. Knots form, and I start to second guess my decision. But I remind myself that I need to be brave. I need to see my best friend. Talk to her. Make sure she knows I’m here for her.
“It’s not too late to change your mind,” Christian offers, picking up on my insecurities.
I immediately take his hand and start walking. “Let’s go. Sam needs us.”
It only takes us about a minute to get to the special double door entrance leading to the ICU. Christian presses the red, round button and the doors automatically open. A friendly nurse with long brown hair framing her face quickly approaches us.
“You’re back,” she says, addressing Christian.
His lips curl up. “Yeah, this is Ally, Sam’s best friend. She would like to see her for a minute, if that’s OK.”
“Of course, right this way, hun. My names Lisa.”
I feel my blood pumping through my veins as I enter Sam’s room. The air is cool and clean, but in an unsettling way. Besides the hospital bed and the medical equipment next to it, the only other visuals consist of a wooden chair, a clock and an off-white counter protruding from the wall. A few supplies rest on top. The room is very sterile and somehow that makes me nervous.
“You can get closer,” Lisa says.
I watch her tap on the machine attached to Sam’s IV. Then I slowly make my way towards the bed, swallowing a big lump in my throat as I finally approach her helpless looking body. I’m surprised by the paleness in her face. Her head is all bandaged up and her nose is covered by an oxygen mask. Seeing her lifeless and badly injured is a lot to take in.
“Let her hear your voice,” Lisa encourages.“I’ll give you some privacy. If you need anything I’ll be right outside at the nurses station.”
“Thank you,” says Christian, softly.
My hand rests on the bed rest next to Sam’s face. “Hey...it’s me, Ally,” I whisper. “I’m here with Christian. Ryan’s here too, or he will be shortly. I’m so sorry this happened to you. But you’re going to be OK. I’ll make sure of it. Aydens going to be fine, too.”
The moment I stop talking, Sam’s body jerks, startling me. I assume she’s waking up, but I’m wrong.
“Involuntary twitch,” Christian explains, squeezing my shoulders from behind.
“Oh,” I mutter, catching my breath.
I reach towards her face and brush her strawberry blond hair behind her ear, taking in her beauty with the soft strokes of my hand. Despite her injuries, her skin is still flawless and smooth. Her lips even have a pink shine to them.
I stare at the machine next to her bed. I’m relieved to see her vitals look good and stable. My pulse finally stabilizes. This visit is going well, and I’m proud of myself for managing the anxiety that is trying to escape.
I adjust Sam’s blue and white blanket, fixing the fold with the palm of my hand. Another twitch from her body causes me to jump. Chaos erupts shortly after. She starts to convulse, and I freak as her head and chest continually rise in spasms.
“Christian, she’s seizing!”
“I’ll get the nurse,” he says, leaving me in a hurry.
Within seconds, I completely lose it—my ability to stay composed and rational. Anxiety takes over, and I’m faced with a panic attack. A horrible feeling floods my body, making it hard to breath normal or think straight. I have to avert my eyes from Sam’s seizure.
Tears are rolling down my cheeks as Christian and Lisa swiftly enter the room. I pace back and forth, hunched over with my arms glued to my stomach while Lisa quickly tends to Sam. She adjusts her body before using a syringe to disperse some medicine into her IV. Sam’s still unconscious and has no idea what’s going on. I envy her for a moment. Because I’d rather not have to feel anything right now. Especially the tightness in my chest.
I’m carefully grabbed at the waist by Christian’s strong hands. “Hey, let’s wait outside,” he whispers, forcing me to make eye contact.
“I can’t lose her, Christian. She’s my best friend.”
“I know. Come here.”
I’m pulled into his chest for a warm, comforting embrace, however, it isn’t helpful. I panic from the claustrophobic feeling—the feeling that started in my chest and is now suffocating my entire body. It’s like everything is closing in one me and there’s no way out.
I push away from his arms and cry. “I can’t breathe!”
Christian doesn’t panic, but I can see the distress in his dark eyes. “OK, do me a favor, breathe with me. In and out,” he demonstrates. “Nice, slow, deep breaths.”
I try mimicking his breathing, but it doesn’t work. My heart is still racing like an avalanche, determined to speed up.
A very calm, fit looking doctor enters the room with purpose. His white coat fits snugly on his chest and arms, while his stethoscope pokes out of his front pocket. His keen attention to Sam distracts me for a moment. He mumbles something to Lisa as he checks her pupils, manually opening her eyes to do so. Her body is finally still and the machines have quieted down, but I’m still a mess, sweating from the negative thoughts ruminating my brain.
“How bout we give them some space,” Christian says, placing his hand on the small of my back.
“Not yet,” I say with conviction. “I’m not leaving until I know she’s OK.”
My chest squeezes tighter and the pounding of my heart gains velocity. Why isn’t the doctor saying anything?
Christian gently cups my face. “Ally, your trembling. Please...let’s go get some air.”
“No!” I yell, pushing his hands away. “I won’t leave her! She—“
My outcry is suddenly cut off by a voice plagued with urgency. “Get her out of here, please,” the doctor barks.
Christian immediately picks me up at the waist and carries me firmly against his chest. “I’m sorry,” he says, bringing me to the hallway. After he sets me to my feet, I collapse in a nearby chair and cover my face, weeping from the overwhelming tingling pinging my body.
It’s not long before Lisa decides to jump into the dicey situation. She speaks directly to Christian, much sympathy flowing from her sweet voice. “You look like you could use some help.” she says, kindly.
“Yes.” He sighs desperately. “Thank you.”
But she doesn’t even get the chance to assist with my meltdown. Ryan is already at my side, assessing the situation.
“I got this,” he says, crouching down to my level. “Sweetie, look at me.” He waits for me to acknowledge his presence, gauging my reaction before softly lifting my chin. I’m able to hold back the tears as I gaze at him with a brave face. He sweeps the hair out of my face and says, “You are one of the strongest, bravest people I know, but right now, I don’t need you to be either. I just need you to trust me. Can you do that for me?”
I nod my head yes. The calm, soft sound of Ryan’s voice along with his gentle touch leaves me feeling rescued. He helps me stand and I fall into his arms with desperation, crying some more, but more from relief than anything. His hold keeps me steady like an anchor and in a matter of seconds, a veil of peace and understanding covers me. I feel safe in his strong, familiar arms.
I’m not sure how much times passes, but Christian’s deep voice brings me out of my clouded physical state.
“I’m so glad your here,” he says, lightly slapping Ryan on the back.
I have to peal my heavy body off of Ryan in order to see the relief on Christian’s face. I feel bad for overwhelming him. He’s never had to see or deal with me like this before.
“You did good,” Ryan says, patting his shoulder. “Thank you.”
Christian shakes his head. “I don’t know about that. But you’re welcome.”
My stress level soars again when Sam’s parents arrive. I hear Sam’s mom first. Her voice is frantic and devastated. “My poor baby,” she sobs, stroking my arm before quickly entering the room. Sam’s dad is just as upset, tears filling his eyes as he follows closely behind.
As devastating as it is to see and hear Sam’s parents upset, it would be even harder for me to speak to them. I wouldn’t know what to say. Thankfully, I’ve avoided that fear for now. I lean my back against the wall and take in a deep breath. I close my eyes for a moment, making sure to say a silent prayer for Sam and Ayden. After I open my eyes, I wipe my fingers under them, hoping to get any mascara smudges.
“That was horrible,” I admit to my two favorite guys.
“You seem better, though,” Christian observes.
“You look better too,” Ryan adds, brushing my hair down with his hand. “You’re not as pale.”
“Thanks to both of you.”
A loud click grabs my attention, and I watch the double doors near us open. Kelly speeds towards us. I’m surprised to see her, especially in sweats. I know without asking that Ryan called her. But I’m worried that Jason is here too. I don’t want to see my brother. Not for a long time.
Kelly hugs me first. “How’s she doing?”
I shrug my shoulders, unsure of the correct answer.
Christian gets a quick hug from Kelly before answering, “We’re not sure, but the doctor is still in her room. I’m sure we could find out.”
“Good. Jason is finding out what he can on Aydens status,” Kelly continues, embracing Ryan‘s frame next. “He’s really upset.”
“I think we should go check on Ayden’s Mom,” Ryan suggests. “I’m sure she could use the support while waiting for his surgery to end.”
Kelly pulls out her phone. “Good idea. I’ll find out where she is.”
Knowing that my brother is here creates tension in my already strained body. I can’t see him right now. My mental state is too fragile.
“What about your shoulder?” I ask, notching Ryan’s arm still needs to be mended.
“Stitches can wait. I’ll be fine.” Ryan’s smile is small but encouraging. He looks to Christian, eager to ask a favor, “Would you mind taking Ally down to the cafeteria while Kelly and I wait with Aydens Mom?”
“Sure, I could use some caffeine. What do you say, Ally?”
My response is unapologetic. “As long as I don’t have to see Jason.”
Ryan grants me a kiss to the cheek and a fleeting hug. “I’ll see you in a little bit.”
I grasp his hand as he leaves. “Don’t be long.”
His wink is coupled with a smile. “I won’t be.”
The cafeteria is practically empty. An elderly man wearing a brown hat sits in the corner alone, newspaper perched in his hand. Instead of traditional tables and chairs, there are several gray booths with pale blue tabletops. Fake yellow flowers are arranged in the middle of each table.
Christian points to a booth. “Have a seat. I’ll get us some coffee.”
It’s hard not to admire my view as I watch Christian pull out his wallet from his back pocket to pay at the counter. But he’s more than just an attractive man. He’s such a great person, and it really hits me hard in that moment. Without hesitation, he agreed to be there for me. He went with me to see Sam and now he’s keeping me company on probably one of the hardest nights of my life. Christian hasn’t let me down once. We may not be together anymore, but my heart still cares for him. Maybe too much.
The black, plastic mugs he brings are steaming. He slides into the booth and sits across from me, tossing a couple sugar packets my way.
“Hope you like it black, because that’s all they had,” He says.
I slide the mug in front of me. “It will do. Thank you.”
For a moment, it’s quiet. Comfortable. I enjoy the peaceful sips of my warm beverage. Christian also looks content. We both enjoy the company, even the speechless kind.
Eventually, I glance to his waist and become transfixed by his gun. He catches me staring and adjusts his holster.
“Everything Ok? He asks, curiosity lifting his brow.
“It’s been awhile since I’ve seen you carry a weapon. Are you supposed to be working?”
Slowly and purposely, his lips curl into an amused smirk. “What do you mean? I am working. You’re a full time job, last I checked.”
I nudge his forearm with mine, grinning with amusement. “Ha, ha.” I joke, lacing my voice with sarcasm.
“Come on, we both know mischief runs through these veins of yours.” He teases.
I flush when he traces my arm. “Well, someone has to keep you on your toes.”
His smile grows and so does his lightheartedness. “I agree. And I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“For real, though, if you need to leave, I understand.”
The playful tone in his voice turns serious. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Good.” I lean back and sigh. “I’m sorry about earlier. I don’t know what triggered that emotional eruption.”
“Stress is all it takes sometimes. Honestly, I’m just grateful Ryan showed up when he did. I’ve been trained to deal with all sorts of situations, but in that moment, I didn’t know how to help you. Ryan was incredible.
I want to say that he’s giving him too much credit, but I’d be lying. I cover his hand with mine. “You were great too. You stayed calm and supportive.”
With a subtle movement, he flips my hand over and starts rubbing my palm in a circular motion with his thumb. It’s his habitual response to comfort me. I still remember the first time I experienced it. We weren’t officially a couple, but it certainly felt like it by the days end. He had come over to play basketball with my brothers and Ryan. His sweet gesture was a sensual distraction as I was debating whether to tell him the truth about Jason and the tutoring. That innocent moment on the front porch feels like so long ago.
After a big sip of his coffee, Christian makes a bold statement. “I bet even if the sky was falling, Ryan could make it OK for you. Your faith in him is that strong.”
With a pensive stare, I carefully respond. ”I’ve known him a long time. I trust him. But I trust you too.”
“It’s years versus months, I guess.”
I let out a quick sigh. “I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve any of this.”
His brown eyes flicker, hiding apparent sorrow. “It’s OK.”
“No. It’s not OK.” I pull back my hand and fold my arms on the table. “I’m sorry for pursuing you so hard. I should have left you alone and prevented all this heartache and drama.”
“I don’t feel that way at all. I admired your persistence. I’m grateful for it. The day you surprised me at the police station was the day I knew you weren’t giving up without a plan.”
A grin inhabits my lips, unexpectedly. “The tutoring plan,” I say with a nod.
“More like a scheme to flirt with me.”
He narrows his eyes at me, but it only lightens the mood more. I shrug my shoulders in complete acceptance. His perception is accurate. No point in denying it. He knew I wanted him. I never had to keep that a secret from him like I did with Ryan. I was always honest about that, at least.
“You did your share of flirting, too,” I point out. “Especially in your condo.”
He appraises me with his face, staring suggestively and it’s as if the flirting never stopped. It makes me blush. Hard.
“I didn’t even say anything and you’re pink as a grapefruit.”
My defenses erupt. “You can’t look at me like that!”
His chuckle lingers as I cover my face.
It’s wonderful to hear him laugh. It also feels good to carry on with him, ignoring the impending disasters headed my way. Christian is helping me find joy in the midst of adversity, and I’m grateful for it. For him.
I pour another sugar packet in my coffee and grin as the jesting words flow from my mouth. “Admit it, you loved tutoring me.” He tries hard not to smile and it only makes me want him to admit it more. “Be honest, now,” I request, giving him a critical stare.
”Of course I loved it. I wanted an excuse to spend time with you. Get to know you more. Your relentless pursuit taught me to be fearless and helped me let my guard down. But most importantly, to not give up on something I really want. Something I think is good and worthwhile.”
My voice breaks. “I did that?”
“Yes. You did.”
I’m reminded that Christian was once engaged like Ryan. Heather left him because she couldn’t handle his job. So if I helped him to love again—and then broke his heart, how does he move past this? How does he find courage to open himself up again?
I tilt my head and reach for his hand. “Please, don’t think I regret meeting you. Because I don’t. I just regret hurting you.”
“I know. And I know you didn’t plan on hurting me. We can’t change what happened. We can only move past it. I want to be here for you—for Sam, and Ayden. I know how much they mean to you.”
“Even though I’m with Ryan?” I ask, boldly. “Yes. It doesn’t change how I feel about you. I realize I can’t care for you in the same way, but I still want to be a part of your life. I love your family. Ryan’s not so bad either.”
I’m taken aback. Why does he seem to have a soft spot Ryan? Am I missing something?
“I’m not going to lie,” he continues, “it hurts to think about what I lost. But you and Ryan we’re always close. I saw it with my own eyes. Not much has changed.”
“Yeah, I guess your right.” He makes a good point. The only difference is that we kiss now and make plans for the future.
I take another sip of my coffee. Then ask the question that’s been burning in the back of my mind, “How are you able to still be friends with him? I know he hurt you. We both did.”
“I was hurt—yes—but it wasn’t a complete surprise. It almost felt inevitable. Even on our best days I had my doubts.”
“Oh.” My face falls to my chest.
“And there’s something I never told you. I feel bad because I’ve always been big on honesty. I wish I could say it’s because I never like to bring up my job, but honestly, I think this was more about me being self-conscious. I knew if I told you it would showcase Ryan and his strengths. Which seems silly now because you already know them...”
I’ve never been more curious. What is he talking about? How is Ryan involved in something work related?
“About a month ago, I was working on a case that really weighed heavy on my heart. I had to investigate a young girl that was dealing drugs. It turns out she was selling them in order to feed her younger siblings. Her home life was a mess. I mentioned it to Ryan one night when I was over. He not only helped me emotionally, but found a way to fix the situation. Even though I have resources to aid with situations like this, Ryan went out of his way to contact some people that were able to make a huge, positive impact on this girl and her family. It meant a lot to me.”
“So you feel like you owe him?” I ask, thoughtfully, adjusting the vase of fake roses to the side of me.
“No, not at all. He’s been a great friend. I’m not willing to end a friendship over someone. No matter how wonderful that someone is.”
I’m not surprised at Ryan’s act of kindness—that’s who he is— but I am impressed with Christian’s ability to get past Ryan’s change of heart. It ended our relationship, but apparently not their friendship. It still remains intact, flourishing more than I ever thought possible.
Twisting my mug side to side, I causally speak more truth. “I can tell he’s grateful for your friendship, too. And it’s probably not my place to say, but his guilty conscience has been eating at him all night.”
Christian nods as he takes another sip from his mug. “Yeah, I can tell.”
“How so?” I ask, freezing my movements.
“He asked me to take care of you, which says a lot. I know that wasn’t easy for him.”
“No, I imagine it wasn’t.”
Silence falls upon us, but it’s not awkward. It’s comforting and reflective. It’s nice that we can still talk with ease. A friendship with Christian definitely doesn’t feel hopeless after tonight.
Later on, I notice his obvious, intentional stare over my shoulder and turn to see what has grabbed his attention. Ryan is a few feet away, his phone in hand, walking towards us appearing antsy. I watch him sigh and struggle to make eye contact with me. Whatever news he has to share, he’s clearly dreading it.
“Hey, thanks for taking care of this one for me,” Ryan says, squeezing Christian’s shoulder, drawing a smile out of him. He sits next to me, still avoiding eye contact, but quickly kisses my ear to acknowledge my presence.
“Everything OK?” I ask, stroking his back.
“No, not really. But let’s talk about something else. Anything else.”
“That bad, huh?” Christian asks.
Ryan runs both hands through his dark hair, then hunches over, resting his elbows on the table. “It’s definitely not good news.”
My heart sinks. Is it Sam? Is it Ayden? I’m afraid to ask. I rub his back with my fingers and let him peacefully gather his thoughts. He needs time to regroup.
“We’re here for you, bro,” Christian says, breaking the silence. “You don’t have to carry this burden on your own.”
“There’s no easy way to say it,” Ryan starts off, shaking his head. “Aydens gone. He passed away on the table.”
A knife stabs my heart, twisting deeper with each horrible thought entering my mind. Sam just lost the love of her life. Ben just lost one of his best friends. Aydens mom will never see her son smile again. There goes a life so brief.