Coll was slow to get to the door as she felt dizzy upon standing. The chances that Nick was the one knocking were pretty good and that was enough motivation to get her there.
“Hey.” He said with a weak smile as she opened the door. His shoulders relaxed and he exhaled heavily. Relief.
“Hey! How’d it go?” She asked.
“Not really how I wanted to spend my day off.”
“I know.” She whispered, the sound of her own voice creating even more chaos in her head.
He noticed then that she was wearing her pajamas and the room was dark. He narrowed his eyes at her, concern quickly taking over. “Are you okay?”
“I’ve just had a pretty wicked headache most of the day.”
“Did I wake you up?”
She shook her head and moved aside to let him into the room. “No, I was just relaxing. Where’s your mom?”
“I’m supposed to meet her later for dinner. Just downstairs.”
“Oh, nice.” She said simply as they embraced each other in a hug.
“I was going to ask you to come, but you shouldn’t have to suffer through it, too, and especially if you already have a headache.” he sighed, “I can bring you something back.”
She smiled as she walked back toward the bed, “That would be amazing. But I’m happy to pop a few more Advil and rally for you if you want me to come with.”
He watched her as she snuggled into the pillows and he took a seat on the edge of the bed next to her, reaching out for her hand as he did.
“You can think about it.” She said simply, “If you want a friend, I’m there.”
“I’ll make dinner as short as possible either way.”
She smiled, “What time are you meeting her?”
“Oh,” Her eyes wandered to the clock on the nightstand. 4:11 you’ve got time.”
“Just want to get it over with.”
“I’m sorry she’s stressing you out.”
He hung his head but didn’t say anything. His fingers laced through hers and she tugged his arm gently, “Snuggle therapy?” she asked as she adjusted her body to make room for him to lay down.
He smiled as she wrapped her arm around his waist.
“I know it’s not what you wanted today but, even if it doesn’t do anything for you, the snuggle therapy will make me feel better.” she giggled as his body relaxed into hers and he held her close. She was warm and comfortable and she didn’t need him to explain himself or defend anything. She wasn’t asking for anything. She was just there to wrap her arms around him and let him be.
“Trust me, it does something for me, too.”
She nodded into his shoulder and ran her hand over his back.
“I’m so glad you’re here.”
She smiled, “Me too.”
He squeezed her tighter, closer to his body. Feeling the need to keep her with him, feeling like he had to protect her while simultaneously relying on her for it too.
There were so many things she wanted to say and ask but she knew he needed the break and she wasn’t feeling up for it anyway.
He asked her how her day had been and she told him about her chat with Howie. She knew he didn’t want to talk about Jane so she asked him a couple questions about Florida and he seemed to brighten at the thought of being there with her. Still, something in his demeanor was off. She chalked it up as the result of being between two obligations he didn’t want to deal with and didn’t question it.
After a while, he fell asleep and she just enjoyed laying next to him.
Her mind wandered as her hand played with his hair gently while he slept with his head on her shoulder.
She thought about Howie and Becka and calling her mom. She thought about the gaps in her wardrobe that still needed to be resolved and wondered if she had what she’d most want for Florida. She thought about Jane creating chaos in Nick’s life and wondered if she had caught on to the inconsistencies in the bag story. She thought about school and Melanie and when she might see Nick, what cities she might be able to meet him in… She thought about the fountain and turned her body into his more.
She roused him awake gently at 5:30 and he moaned about having to do anything except lay with her all night.
“Would it help if I go with you?”
“I honestly am not sure.”
She nodded, understandingly.
“You don’t want her to know about us. Neither do i.” He said. “I want people to find out about you from me.”
She smiled softly at him. The thought of people knowing anything about them that was significant enough to think about beforehand made her feel warm inside and it distracted her briefly.
“I don’t trust her.” He continued. “I don’t know what she is capable of.” He said.
“You think she would say something before you had a chance to?”
“I think it’s possible.”
“But she doesn’t know. Or, well…” she took a deep breath thinking about the bag story from earlier that day but didn't mention it. “My thing is, I just didn’t want her to find out and potentially tell anyone who maybe should hear it from me.” She explained.
“Same. But I still really do want you there just to be with me.”
“Then I’ll go.”
“You feel better?” He asked.
She shrugged, “I feel well enough. And for you… I’ll make it work.”
“You don’t have to do this.” His voice was tired. He looked at her carefully and was overwhelmed by her again. don’t destroy her.
She could tell there was something he wanted to say and she waited patiently while he gathered his thoughts.
He shifted away from her to sit up on the edge of the bed.
“If you want me to go, I’m there. If not, I’m not insulted.” She reiterated, giving him another chance to back out.
“No of course I do.”
“Okay.” She eyed him carefully, “But…”
“She’s horrible and I don’t want you to have to deal with it.”
It hurt her heart and she slid into a sitting position as well, leaning against the headboard. “I don’t want to pry into this uninvited… your relationship with your mother is… your’s. I don’t want to-” He was quiet, tormented. She shook her head and shifted to summarize. “I understand there is something going on with the two of you… but I’m on your side. And I’m happy to be.” She tilted her head at him.
“I don’t want her to be involved in this.” Both of them looked at each other in silence as their own thoughts swirled around.
Suddenly he moved into action, placing his hands on her face and looking her straight on. “I love you. You’re real to me.” he kissed her quickly before standing up abruptly. “I don’t want her to ruin this.”
“Ruin it? What could she do?” She asked as he began pacing around the small space between the bed and the window.
He grunted. “She would find a way.”
She sighed and ran her hand through her hair. She didn't know what that could mean, and was still distracted by her own concerns to entertain his too much without any real clue as to what she could possibly do. All she knew was she wanted to be with him and he didn't want to deal with Jane alone... so the answer seemed obvious. “Well, I like you too much to let you suffer solo so… let’s pretend it’s the summer of ninety-eight, we are just friends, you and your mom are both regular normal people with a regular normal relationship as far as I’m concerned and nothing is weird. Okay?” She asked, “Does that work? We are just friends eating dinner.”
He smiled at her and gave her a look that heated her body up in a way she wasn’t familiar with, “I can’t be just your friend.”
It made her weak, she blushed. “It’s pretend. You can act. For two hours. And then…”
“Then?” He asked as she got to her feet and stood in front of him.
“She will think we both went back to our rooms and she won’t know I’m snuggling you.” Her arms crept around his neck and she smiled at him.
“I promise people can know, I want them to know. I just also want to protect you.”
She nodded, “I get it. I appreciate it. I’m following your lead with the world and with your mother.”
“We just have to survive the next few days and then we will be in Florida and no one will bother us.”
“Sounds amazing.” She said quietly as a thousand butterflies fluttered away in her belly.
“I’m so sorry.” He said quietly.
“There’s nothing to be sorry about.” She said. “Help me think of a profile for my fake Boston boyfriend who she is definitely going to ask me about.” She laughed.
“I hate that you have an imaginary boyfriend in Boston.”
“Well, me too. Since reality in Europe is so great…”
He shook his head, “I’m just annoyed.”
“I know. But it’s okay. We will go to dinner together, play it real casual and when it’s over, I’ll snuggle the crap out of you.”
“But we could have been doing that all day. It was supposed to be my time off. And I was supposed to spend it in bed with you.”
“Yeah, that would have been nice. But it’s okay.”
“I just want more.”
“Nick, I am in no rush.” She said, “Are you?”
“No. I don't know. I just… want more.”
“Me too, but it’s no rush.” She smiled, “honestly I hope you always feel that way.”
“Like you want more.” She said quietly as she kissed him on the cheek and slowly back away from him. “I’m going to change my clothes.”
He watched her drift across the room, his body felt full of anxiety over the thought of the world knowing her and the mystery of what they could do to her. But heavier than that at the moment was the fear of what his own mother could do.
Dinner with Jane had started off casual and non-threatening. There was even some laughter. Coll engaged Jane in topics from her world to give Nick a break, but by the time Jane inquired about her boyfriend, Coll was no more prepared to answer.
“So tell me more about your boyfriend.” Jane smiled, reaching out to touch Coll’s hand. “You haven’t said anything about him! You always were so modest…”
“Oh. Umm…” she began, “sure yeah well, he’s… brunette.” Shit.
Jane looked at her curiously. “What’s his name?”
name? Shit. “Joey.”
“Yeah? Where’s he from?”
“He’s from…” she hummed, “Milwaukee.”
“Joey from Milwaukee! Wow-what brought him to Boston?”
“Oh, I suppose the warmer temps.” She joked. “Just kidding ... no, umm, well BU has a really excellent program.”
“Oh, umm fine arts program. He’s an artist.”
“How do mom and dad feel about that? They always wanted you to end up with a professor or Yalee or something… safe.”
Coll’s eyes narrowed involuntarily. Her parents had at times floated a fantasy that she and Becka would end up with Yale grads, or Yalees as they were affectionately known, and ‘keep it in the family.’ Eric and his sister and their father were all Yale graduates and Becka was a current student. Eric taught in the mathematics department and Jill worked in the libraries. But once Coll broke the trend and went to BU, the storyline lost its luster. She knew her parents didn’t actually care who either of them ended up with, so long as they were happy. While part of her felt Jane was also just saying all of this in jest, she also could tell something else was going on. “Ahh, well, they’ve let that go these days...”
“We used to joke about you two ending up together.” Jane smiled, “You two were so cute together but of course it was just a silly thing parents do.”
Coll tried to smile through her nerves, “Just like that whole Yalee thing…”
Jane smiled casually at her before turning her attention to Nick. “Certainly I wouldn’t complain if you two did somehow end up together, but obviously, it’s not going to happen. Too much potential in you to sacrifice it all for this lifestyle. I mean, who would honestly want to get involved in this… seriously, anyway.” Jane sighed, eyeing Coll, “so much chaos, so much… competition.”
Her heart dropped and she knew it was written all over her face. She couldn’t help but look at Nick and she knew Jane saw the way they looked at each other. She felt it deeply that she was being set up. She knows. And he was right.
Trying her best to keep her cool, she shrugged, “Oh I guess if it was absolutely true love, it would be worth it.” She smiled at him with a cheesy, fake adoration and tilted her head, but his demeanor was less comfortable still and not even interested in playing it cool apparently.
Jane shook her head, “this is why I always worry about Nick.” Her eyes shifted in Nick’s direction before locking back on Coll’s. “No good, sensible woman with her own ambitions would get into this. That’s why he keeps ending up with airheads and gold diggers.”
Coll sat back slowly in her chair, convinced that Jane was on to them but still unsure what to do besides play it off.
“It's just the truth, Nickolas. No self-respecting woman would even attempt a serious relationship in these conditions.”
Nick hung his head, defeated and Coll opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out.