It was too late. The worst sentence in the English language, in your opinion of course. It could mean several things, but for you, it means the worst day of your life. Sobbing alone in the empty waiting room. Staring at the closed door, wishing it would open again. Those four words, the four simple words are enough to stab through your heart. And to think, it all started two days ago.
It started out as a normal day, 30 degrees and cloudy. You woke up, refreshed, and cheerily made yourself a cup of coffee and got to work.
As you check your mail, you notice a letter that makes you stop in your tracks. Of course, it would. You would recognize the wax seal, the soft but heavy parchment, and the cursive writing anywhere. With a heavy heart, you flip it open, slicing the top open and pulling out a letter.
Dear Miss Anne Smith,
I hope you will accept my invitation and join me here in New York for the weekend. My mother is hosting the annual Winter Ball tomorrow at 8 p.m and it is my wish to see you there. Enclosed in the envelope are a train ticket and other information you may need.
I am sorry. I hope that you believe it. I wish we had departed on better terms. I know I owe you an explanation for everything. I hope to see you soon.
It’s so perfect that you want to drag your fingers over the dark ink, but you refrain from doing so, a scowl rising to your lips. It’s been four months. You had thought that he had forgotten about that summer. That one perfect summer that you wish you could relive over and over again. When he didn’t call, when he didn’t write, you had assumed he had forgotten. You assumed that you would never see him again and you were fine with it. You had moved on.
Until he writes you and you are swept off your feet again, the smell of wildflowers and sea salt hovering around you. The nights you gazed at the stars as he pointed out each constellation. Or the days where you ran into the house, drenched by the warm summer rains. Now, underneath the buried memories, a glimmer of hope pulses, warmed with the idea that you might see him again.
That night, you toss and turn, unable to fall asleep as the memories plague you. The smell of wood fire, the orange blaze crackling as it licked at the marshmallows. His laughter as he pulled you close, pressing a soft kiss to your forehead. Running through the meadows, hand in hand. Even as you scold and try to dissuade yourself, you know that somewhere, deep down, you’ve already accepted.
Early the next morning, you slip out of your apartment, the hinges squeaking as you shut it behind you. You’ll have to fix it soon, you remind yourself with a sigh. The keys jangle as you lock the door behind you, the floorboards creaking as you exit the apartment complex into the cold winter air. Suitcase in hand, you head for the station.
It’s snowing, but just barely, the soft white flakes landing on your gloves as you trudge through the snow fallen last night, gripping the handle of your old brown suitcase. The sky is still dark, the faint rays of gold peeping out from under the layers of gray cloud at the horizon as you head for the train station. It’s simple enough, you’ve done this plenty of times before. But this time, it’s different.
As you stand on the platform, waiting for the train, your heart flutters nervously in your chest. Stop it, you chide. You try to tell yourself that you shouldn’t be nervous. But as the headlights of the train appear in the tunnel, you suddenly have to urge to turn tail and flee back to the safety of your apartment.
The four-hour train ride goes by so fast you’re astonished by the time you’re standing on the front step of the hotel that’s listed in the letter. A doorman bows to you when you step out of the taxi. He takes your bag from your hand even as you protest and guides you into the lobby. You have to take a breath as your eyes roam over the gleaming marble floors and the magnificent crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Someone offers to take your coat, but you refuse, heat rising to your cheeks. You approach the front desk, feeling very out of place and abashed with your scuffed up sneakers and ripped jeans in a sea of sharp suits and elegant dresses.
The hotel room is nice, of course. It’s by far one of the largest and most elegantly furnished you’ve ever seen. You have to admit, you shouldn’t be surprised. You remember the trip that summer, the stunning view from the hotel window, the glistening blue waves crashing on the white sand beach. The giant, sprawling room. The diamond necklace, the fancy dresses, everything more beautiful than you could ever imagine, even in your most wild fantasies as a child.
It’s almost as if you’ve stepped into the past, you bitterly muse as you run your hand over the satin curtains and the plush covers of the bed, so soft and luxurious that you just want to sink in. You throw open the curtains, staring at the gray sky, the snow steadily falling, the cars on the road below, red and white lights shining in the windows, the pedestrians walking to and fro, paying no heed to each other. The only thing that’s missing, you brood as you shut the curtains, is the warm summer sun and the dazzling beaches. And him, but you don’t want to think about that, at least not right now.
“Miss Anne?” A knock sounds on the door and you tense. But the voice is too low to be his.
“Yes?” You pull open the door to see a man dressed sharply in a dark suit.
“I thought I would remind you that it’s almost 8 o’clock,” he says, smiling at you.
“Thank you.” You shut the door in his face, knowing that you must seem rude, but you can’t bring yourself to care, not when your hands are shaking.
The taxi drops you off on the white marble steps in front of the grand mansion. By this time, the snow has picked up, the wind whipping your cheeks into a bright red, tangling your carefully done curls. You shiver, teeth chattering as you make your way up the steps toward the blindingly illuminated mansion. It’s breathtaking, you have to admit, even in the dismal weather. No one else is around as you scan the steps around you; everyone must have gone in already. For a moment, the urge to go back and curl up in your hotel room is unbearable but you heave a sigh. You’ve come all this way already. You check the time. Perfect. As you intended, you’ve arrived fashionably late.
You’re bowed in, the doors opened in front of you as you clasp your gloved hands tightly in front of yourself. You can feel everyone’s eyes on you but you pay them no heed as you snatch a flute of champagne off the tray of the nearest waiter, closing your eyes at the sweet bubbliness as it warms you, lightness radiating through you.
Scanning the crowd, you make your way around, not recognizing anyone. The second glass of champagne goes down as smoothly as the first as you smile and nod, thanking those who tell you that you look great. You have to admit that you do, in the velvet green dress you bought several months ago but never wore. The diamond necklace Jamie bought you rests just above your collarbones, gleaming in the light. You knew you probably should have left it behind, but you couldn’t help yourself. But as you scan the crowd, you don’t see him, the weight in your stomach growing heavier and heavier.
The ringing of a spoon against a glass cuts through the bustle and conversation. Everyone turns to the stage where Mrs. Parker stands, her husband beside her. “Thank you all for coming to the Winter Ball,” she calls. “I hope you all have a splendid time!” She beckons for another figure to come forward and you gasp, almost dropping your glass.
Jamie looks the same, perhaps a bit older and less scruffy. He steps up the microphone, his suit impeccable, posture flawless, handsome smile all the same. For a moment, you almost melt, staring at him. You can almost smell the wildflowers and sea salt, the warm summer rains, until you see the pretty woman holding on to Jamie’s arm.
She’s dressed in a gorgeous, close-fitting, vivid pink silk dress, clinging onto Jamie, her body brushing against his as she hangs onto every word that he says, beaming and nodding along. A diamond necklace similar to yours dangles around her neck, the sight of it making you scoff. But what makes you stop short is the gleaming ring on her finger.
“My fiancée, Julia, and I would like to welcome you!” Jamie raises his glass of champagne, his own ring shining in the light, and the audience cheers. You try to smile along, but it feels as if something shatters in you. Why did you come all this way? Stupid, stupid, stupid. Your face burns as you turn, shoving your way out through the crowd before a hand catches your wrist.
“Anne.” It’s just one word, one simple word but it’s enough to make you flush.
“What do you want?” You say, angry at the way your voice trembles.
“You think I’d let you take off without at least saying hello?” His lips twitch up at the ends into the perfect smile, oh that smile. You can’t believe you fell for it.
“Well, now you have. Let me go. I’m leaving.”
“How have you been?”
“Oh in the last four months? Fine. Absolutely great.”
Jamie stares at you, his brow furrowed. “Anne, I’m sorry,” he apologizes, his voice gentle and full of regret. “I meant to write, I promise-”
“But you’re engaged?” Your voice catches in your throat.
He simply nods, lips pressed tightly together.
“Why did you invite me here?” I ask. This was not what you expected, not at all.
He lowers his voice, tilting his head toward yours. “I wanted to see you,” he murmurs, breath warm against your cheek.
You can feel warmth flushing through your body, not just from the alcohol. You feel lightheaded, unsteady on your feet as your eyes meet Jamie’s but neither of you says anything. Just say it, you silently remind yourself. You knew you’d regret it if you didn’t. “I loved you,” your voice cracks, but you press on. “I loved you, Jamie. And I thought you loved me too. What happened- what happened to us?”
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I love you too. You probably won’t believe me, but that,” he motions to the stage. “None of that was my choice.”
Love you. Present. Not past. I gape at him. “What do you mean?”
He smirks. “I’ll explain in the car ride. If you’ll have me?” He holds out his hand and you notice dizzily that the ring is gone.
As if in a daze, you take his hand and he leads you out of the building, down the steps, into the biting cold. The wind stings your face, cooling you down. But the wind and snow don’t matter to you, not now at least. Not as he holds the door open for you, like the gentleman he always was, and slides into the driver’s seat himself, waving off the confused guard.
You can’t believe it. Not even in your wildest dreams could you imagine this. Snow falls thickly around you, filling the streets with white as the car speeds out of the city, the landscape around you changing to evergreen trees, stretching up to the dark sky, lights fading in the distance. The road winds back and forth and you squint out the windshield, through the snow, watching the occasional car zip past.
“Where are we going?” You turn toward him, your eyes meeting his, even in the dark light.
“It’s a surprise.” You can see him grinning and you huff, turning back to the scenery.
“So what was all that about?” You ask after driving in silence for a few minutes.
“Anne, I’m sorry-”
“I don’t want an apology,” you cut him off. “I just want an explanation.”
Jamie sighs, rubbing a hand over his face. “It started when I left for New York after the last day we spent together. Do you remember that day?” You nod. You can remember that day as if it was yesterday, the rain thundering down outside, lighting arching from the sky. The lingering kiss. So many promises. Promises to write, the promise to see each other again.
“Well,” Jamie continues, “My father was upset when I got home.” He sends me a rueful glance. You remember too clearly the one and only meeting you had with James Parker Sr, the tension so thick that you could have cut it with a knife. “He demanded that I had to marry Julia- my fiancée or he would-”
A light washes over Jamie’s face, making him glance up in surprise. You look up to see two blinding lights hurtling toward you. You don’t have time to scream out a warning before Jamie’s eyes widen and he yanks the wheel of the car hard to the left, sending the car spinning, brakes squealing, tires screeching on the road. The seat belt tightens around your chest as something slams into the car with the sound of metal crunching against metal and glass breaking and the putrid smell of gasoline. The impact jars you and you taste the iron tang of blood in your mouth where your teeth graze your tongue before the world went dark around you.
You wake a few moments later, pain piercing through your skull. You feel disoriented and struggle to get up, before realizing you are pinned by the seat belt. Your fingers fumble for the buckle but you can barely move them. You can feel warm blood trickling down your face and hear sirens in the distance before the world goes black around you again.
The rest of the night comes in bits and pieces, the grim face of an officer. The flashing red and blue blocking the snow-covered road. Dark scarlet spilled over the white. A paramedic, her eyes soft as she pressed gauze to the gash on your forehead. A hospital bed. Beeping machines. Frantic voices as you drift in and out. Finally, you open your eyes to see the white ceiling overhead, bright fluorescent lights shining above. Pain shoots through your forehead and back as you struggle to sit up, leaning against the soft pillows, panting as you catch your breath.
A nurse enters, looking surprised to see you awake. Her brows furrow, a strange expression of pity and regret coming over her face that sends fear shooting through your mind. The memories rush through your mind, the tires screeching on the road, the metal crunching, the dark scarlet.
“Jamie,” your voice is hoarse. “Is he alright?”
“I’m sorry, Miss Smith,” the nurse looks apologetic. “It was too late.”