I STEPPED into the apartment at fifteen until five, loaded down with groceries and ready for the weekend ahead: me and James, no work issues, no phones. His high school’s glorious production of A Streetcar Named Desire had closed the weekend before, after a successful run, and director/producer extraordinaire James Rogan deserved a chance to chill out and unwind.
Totally naked… oh yes, we were having a not-a-stitch-of-clothing-allowed weekend, and I had purposely purchased all of my baby’s favorite foods, including chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and cherries, which most certainly wouldn’t be used to adorn anything as mundane as ice cream. Oh no. Chocolate covered James was what I had in mind, thank you very much. This weekend would be about me and my baby, and frankly, it was time we needed. We had been working so much, me at the New Haven Sports Injury Clinic and James in school. It was hardly the second honeymoon I was ready to take, but James felt we should wait at least a full year after our commitment ceremony and first honeymoon before indulging in a second.
Me? I was pretty much willing to give my Jamie whatever he could possibly want. Damn, but I loved the man. Honestly, I couldn’t recall a time that I hadn’t loved James Rogan (well, technically he had been James Truman until he had taken my last name after our commitment ceremony), but we hadn’t gotten together until three years earlier, when Jamie’s sister got married and both Jamie and I ended back up in our hometown for the wedding.
Was that awkward? Painfully. For a dozen reasons, among which were: a) during our high school years, Jamie’s sister Ave and I had staged a relationship that allowed me to stay in the closet while Ave dated her bad boy (now husband) Matt Cassa; b) Jamie and his father Russ failed to forge a bond because his father couldn’t deal with Jamie being a less-than-graceful athlete; c) Russ showered all his fatherly attention on me because I was very much an athlete, and I sort of become the chronic and agonizing bane of Jamie’s existences; d) I was too much of a freakin’ coward to come out of the closet until Jamie confronted me with the truth after we were both in different colleges, in different states; and e) while home for said wedding, Jamie and I finally figured out/acted on our feelings, and needless to say, good ol’ Russ wasn’t pleased. Far from it. He treated Jamie like shit, leading to a confrontation (in the drug store, where my poor baby got caught buying condoms and lube), and since that confrontation, Russ and Jamie hadn’t spoken.
Okay, so our relationship hadn’t exactly been all wine and roses, but what Jamie and I had was real, intense. After three years, I loved him more than ever, and I knew he felt the same. “It doesn’t matter if I never speak to my father again, Pay,” he had told me, “because we have each other and my mom and my sister and Matt, and we’re a family.”
Ave, Matt, and Emma, Jamie and Ava’s mother, had happily attended our commitment ceremony. For two years now, Russ and Emma had lived separately, but Emma hadn’t filed for divorce, and Jamie suspected she was holding out hope Russ would finally remove his head from his ass.
“I think it’s late in the game to hope for that kind of miracle,” Jamie had said. Jamie was pretty much at peace where Russ was concerned, and as long as Jamie wasn’t upset, I really didn’t give a damn if Russ ever realized being a bigot and an asshole was a tragically sad way to spend his life. Fuck him. He could be alone and miserable while Jamie and I continued with our lives together.
Humming to myself as I stepped into the kitchen, I set the bags on the table.
I intended to make Jamie’s favorite: shrimp linguine, garlic bread, salad, and for dessert (other than each other, of course), I had strawberry cheesecake.
After placing the cheesecake and wine in the refrigerator, I hit the flashing button on the telephone, deciding I would deal with any and all messages before Jamie came home to find his surprise dinner/dessert/weekend of debauchery. No distractions. If there were any fires raging, I would put them out, and maybe I would unplug the damn phone until sometime late Sunday night. Hell, maybe I could make a case for both me and Jamie calling in to work first thing Monday so we could enjoy some extra hours in bed. Oh, yes. I liked that plan.
I smiled to myself as the messages finally began, and at first it was fairly typical stuff: friends calling to congratulate Jamie on an excellent production, a local sporting goods store calling to tell me my new track shoes were in, a few pointless telemarketing calls. Then, at last, a call that began with a long pause, followed by Emma’s nearly strangled voice. “… Payne? Jamie? Oh… God, please… as soon as you… you get… get this message, please call me….” I went still as a pained sob echoed around the otherwise silent room, and an icy wave washed over me. “I just… call me, please….”
The message ended on that, and I automatically reached for the phone and hit Emma’s number, which we had on speed dial. My hands were shaking. I had never heard Emma sound that upset. She was positively shattered, and I realized I was holding my breath as the ringing finally started. After the third ring, the phone was answered by a voice that I didn’t immediately recognize.
“Hello? Is Emma Truman there?” I kept myself calm and heard the phone being passed from whoever had answered.
“Emma? It’s me. It’s Payne.”
“Oh… oh, Payne….” She broke down into frantic sobs, and I felt myself sag against the kitchen counter because something was obviously wrong. The only question was what, and honestly, I was afraid of what the answer might be. “Payne… this… this afternoon, there… I don’t know how to… to say this, but Ava and Matt… oh my God, a truck ran a red light and crashed into the….”
The sobs began again, and in that moment, I knew. Even without actually hearing the dreaded words, I knew, and tears began falling from my eyes as someone took the phone from Emma, and I listened as a stranger confirmed that yes, Ava and her husband were dead. Killed instantly. Dead at the scene. Luckily, their three month old daughter, Aubrey, was fine. Ava and Matt had been on their way to the daycare to pick her up when the accident happened, and Aubrey was currently sleeping upstairs, in a room Emma had created for visits shortly after the baby was born.
“You know that Matt’s mom and dad are older. Neither is in good health—his dad has Alzheimer’s Disease, his mother has heart problems, and neither one is in any real position to help Emma with arrangements….” The stranger (a neighbor of Emma’s, I assumed) sounded nearly as devastated as Emma, and I was quick to assure her that Jamie and I would be there just as soon as humanly possible.
Before ending the call, I asked her to tell Emma I would call as soon as I had information about our flight, and after hanging up, I went on emotional autopilot. I had to. Yes, my heart was shattered. I adored Ava, I considered Matt one of my best friends, and I wanted to sit down and sob because their deaths were beyond tragic. They were young, in love, and they had a beautiful little girl. It would’ve been so easy to fall apart, but I knew I needed to remain strong for Emma, and more importantly, James.
Aware that my hands were shaking, I put all the food away, and then I called the airline and made reservations for their next flight to North Carolina. We needed to rent a car. I made myself focus on all the little details, and once those necessary arrangements were made, I went into the bedroom, where I began packing for myself and for my husband, because once he heard about Ava, he wouldn’t be in the mindset to pack.
I needed to take care of James. More than needed to, I truly wanted to take care of James. He had spent so many years alone and feeling like he had no one he could depend on, but that had all changed when we began building our life. I wouldn’t fail Jamie now, when he needed me most. Period. I would break down later. When I was certain Jamie was okay; when we were home; when Emma was taken care of. And then there was Aubrey. Gods! Before Aubrey was born, Ava and Matt had asked if they could name me and Jamie her legal guardians if anything ever happened to them, and naturally, we had said yes, but I had never believed for a second that fate would actually be cruel enough to take Aubrey’s parents from her, especially when she was so very young.
Overwhelmed, I sat down on the bed, burying my face in my hands as a few tears escaped. This was a nightmare. It had to be. How could this be real? How could Matt and Ava be gone? They should have been safely at home, spending time with their little daughter. Instead, their lives were over, and Aubrey would never have any memories of her mother and father. It was wrong. So wrong. And so unfair. I wanted to scream at something or someone, but I knew it wouldn’t do any good, and when I heard the door into the apartment open and close, I drew in a breath and forcibly pulled myself together as best I could. Jamie’s world was about to take a major hit, and I had to be the one to tell him his sister and Matt were gone.
Brushing the tears from my eyes, I didn’t bother to look in the mirror because I knew I looked like hell. One look at me and James would know something was wrong, but that couldn’t be helped now. “I’m in the bedroom.” I called out when I heard Jamie calling for me.
A moment later, smiling brightly as only Jamie could smile, he came into the bedroom, but the moment he saw me, the smile I loved so much faded away. It was like a light going out. Somehow, the world was just too dark without Jamie’s smile, and I struggled to find my voice as he looked away from me to glance at the suitcases still on the bed. Finally, those remarkable eyes looked at me again, and I could see fear and confusion clearly reflected there.
“Pay…?” His voice was a whisper, and I swallowed back a fresh rush of heated tears. “Payne, what’s going on? Are you… please tell me you’re not leaving me.”
It shocked me momentarily that he could imagine such a thing possible, but then I realized how it had to look—the suitcases on the bed and me standing there, obviously upset—and I moved quickly, taking James in my arms, crushing him hard against my chest. I felt him tremble. And then his arms went around my waist and I buried my face in his hair, wishing I could stand like that forever and never do or say anything that would cause him the pain he was about to experience.
“I love you.” The words were muffled, but I knew he heard them. When he trembled again, I tightened my arms around him. “And no, I am not leaving you, James Rogan, and nothing will ever make me leave you, because I wouldn’t have a life without you.”
Despite everything, I knew Jamie still had some fears about being abandoned. His fucked up relationship with Russ often made it difficult for him to believe he deserved love, but I had sworn I would change that, even if it took the rest of our lives. I was committed. To James. To our life. And now he and I would be committed to Aubrey. Just thinking about the little girl ripped viciously at my heart, and I forced myself to pull back from the embrace so I could look down into Jamie’s upturned eyes, which were still darkened with concern.
Taking his hand, I led him to the bed, and he sat down while I knelt in front of him, still holding his hands trapped in mine because I needed the physical contact. “When I got home, there was a message, from Emma, and I….” I blew out a breath. “When I called, she told me there… Jamie, there was an accident today and….” I started to cry again, and as I did, Jamie squeezed my hands, looking suddenly pale and frightened. “Aubrey is fine. She’s at your mom’s. But a truck ran through a red light and Ava and Matt….” The words seemed to lodge painfully in my throat, refusing to be voiced, but I shook my head, and the words weren’t needed. The bitter truth was obvious.
Jamie gasped, a sickly sound, and I wrapped my arms around him. I knew the shock would take a moment to fade, and when it did, I felt tears falling hot and heavily against my shoulder. Then he was sobbing while I silently cried with him. I wanted to take away the pain. Gods, I wanted to turn back time, find a way to save Matt and Ava. I hated how powerless I felt as Jamie cried. His heart was breaking, and I could only hold him and whisper to him again and again that I loved him and I would do whatever it took to help him, to be there for him and Emma and for Aubrey.
Shaking, he pulled back, making a visible effort to regain some emotional control. “We… we need to….”
“I have us packed, booked on the next flight to North Carolina, and there’s a rental car waiting,” I explained, and he nodded, but he still looked dazed. “I’m gonna call and let Emma know what time they can expect us and… we’re together in this, baby, and I promise, I’m not leaving your side for a second.”
“Pay… my sister….” He shook his head, a vain effort to deny the truth that couldn’t be denied.
“I know. I know, baby, and I am so sorry.”
“Oh, God. And Matt. And… his parents are sick and… Pay, Aubrey is only three months old, and now… now she’s lost her mother and her father and I….”
“It’s horrible and unfair, and it hurts so much, but I swear, we will take care of things, and no matter what the future holds, you and I are a team, James, and together we’re going to take care of our family and each other.” His eyes found mine, and I could see some of the shocked confusion there had slowly faded, but the agonizing grief and pain stared back at me, and it was a sight that ripped at my soul because I loved this man, and seeing him in pain was torture. “I love you, Jamie. Always. And I’m here. Just lean on me and let me be here for you, because there is nowhere else I would rather be.”
He nodded and moved back into my arms, and I held him, burying my face in his hair again and giving him a moment to struggle with his grief before we had to head to the airport and back to North Carolina and the people there that needed us. Emma. Aubrey. Matt’s parents. People who had known and loved Matt and Ava, extended family, friends. And, of course, Jamie and Ava’s father, with his bitterness and anger and his hate for the only child he had left, the man I loved and would protect, even if it meant standing between him and his father while Jamie and the rest of our family grieved.