"Don't come to the party if you can't be civil," his brother warned. "We want you there, but this is Amanda's party and I won't have you making a scene."
Kevin sighed into the phone and ran a hand through his hair. He wanted to go the party, he did. His sister-in-law, Amanda, was terrific. It was her thirty-fifth birthday party, sort of a landmark, he thought. But ... but, but, but ... Lana would be there and that made him hesitate.
"You still there?" Steve asked. He had a general idea of what was running through Kevin's head. Kevin and Lana had seemed all but perfect together, when suddenly it had all blown up. It was Kevin's fault, even he would admit it. Lana had been pretty close-mouthed about the whole thing. She wouldn't talk about how she was hurting, although Steve knew she had to be.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm here." Kevin sighed again. He had to go, this was ridiculous. He was thirty-one years old. He could handle a party with his ex in attendance. "I'll come, and I'll behave, I promise. If it feels like I can't, then ... then I'll just leave or something." He paused. "Is Amanda still mad at me?" Amanda was Lana's best friend, and relations between Kevin and Amanda had been tense following the breakup.
"It's fading, but yeah, I think she still is, a bit," said Steve. "But she won't say anything, you know that. She won't want to upset Lana."
"Upset her?" Kevin's voice was laced with sudden suspicion. "Why would anything upset her?"
Steve cursed under his breath, nearly stamping his foot in his irritation. He hadn't meant to say that. "You know what I mean," he said. "Amanda wouldn't want Lana to feel bad, so she won't say anything about it."
"Okay." Kevin wasn't entirely convinced by his brother's explanation, but didn't have time to press him on it. "Look, I have to go, lunch is over and I'm due in a meeting."
"Oh, sorry, didn't mean to keep you," said Steve. "So, it's Saturday at eight o'clock. Amanda won't count you late unless you come after nine." Everyone knew Kevin wasn't the most punctual of people, despite his best efforts.
Kevin sighed internally. Lana had accepted his perpetual lateness, and even found subtle ways to improve it. They'd arrived on time at his parents' for dinner once and surprised them no end. His mother, targeting dinner for Kevin's expected arrival, had been speechless until Lana had laughed and presented her with a platter of crackers and cheese. Lana always thought of everything.
"Right, eight o'clock," he said. "See you then." He closed the cell phone and headed back to his desk to grab the materials for his meeting. The meeting was sure to be dull, but perhaps it would keep his mind off of what he now realized had been a huge mistake.
"Ready to go, Lana?" Tom's voice came from the front room.
"Just about," she called back. She slid into her shoes—low-heeled black pumps; she had no desire to go tripping over anything—and took a last look in the mirror. Her dark hair was kept back with a silver headband, and she decided her make up was adeqate. It made her look a bit less pale, anyway. She straightened her dress, put in her earrings and stepped into the hallway.
"You sure you want to go?" Tom asked, concerned. She'd been out of the hospital for two weeks, but he thought she still looked a little frail. "I'm sure Steve and Amanda would understand. I mean, you've been under some stress and you know he'll be there."
"It's all right, really," she said softly, giving him a small smile. "I'm going to run into Kevin at some point, anyway. At least there it's on fairly neutral turf. It's been, what, four weeks now?" Despite her easy tone, Tom knew she was still hurting over the whole thing.
"Just take it easy," Tom said. "And I'm driving," he added, using his 'don't argue with me' tone.
Lana laughed. "I am allowed to drive now, you know. The doctor said it was okay."
"Cut me a break, I'm trying to be chivalrous." He opened the door for her with a flourish. Lana laughed again.
They were companionably quiet on the way to the party. Tom wasn't sure what he thought about this. His first meeting with Kevin hadn't gone well; in fact, that was when Kevin had broken up with Lana, something she obviously hadn't been expecting.
Tom had just arrived back home from his deployment to the Middle East a few weeks before, and after leaving the service, decided to spend some time visiting Lana, his oldest friend, after a stop off at home with his parents. Lana had been thrilled. They'd been close friends since they were kids, living next door to each other until his father had been transferred to a town a few hours away. Email and cell phones made staying in touch easier, and they'd managed to keep their friendship going through high school, college and beyond.
A few years after college, they'd tried dating. It seemed the natural thing, after all the time they'd spent together. From the first awkward kiss, they knew it wouldn't work. Tom's deployment schedule hadn't helped. Luckily, they'd been able to laugh about it and remain best friends.
He and Lana hadn't talked about it, but Tom remembered how Kevin had misread their relationship. They had arranged to meet up with Kevin, Steve and Amanda for dinner. Tom had been looking forward to meeting them after hearing so much about them all in Lana's emails and phone calls. As soon as they'd met outside the restaurant, it had all gone wrong. He hadn't seen Kevin since and that was probably for the best, since initially he'd been so mad he'd wanted to beat the man to a pulp.
"Nervous?" Tom glanced at Lana.
"A little, I guess," she said, leaning her head back against the seat. "But there isn't much to say. And there will be plenty of other people."
She was remembering that same night. She'd been so happy to see Tom again, after not seeing him for over two years. She'd told Kevin about him, of course—how could you tell not tell your boyfriend about your best friend? Kevin had seemed to enjoy the stories she'd told her, and even said he was a little jealous not to have had such a friend himself.
Four weeks ago
Lana was excited as she and Tom walked over to meet Kevin and his brother and Amanda. It would be wonderful to have so many of her favorite people together. When they came up to the others, howver, Kevin's eyes turned cold and angry. Lana didn't understand why and looked at him apprehensively. Steve and Amanda greeted Tom warmly, but Kevin just stared silently.
"What's this?" Kevin said, his voice tense.
"What's what?" Lana asked, puzzled. "This is my friend, Tom. I've told you all about him."
"Do you always hang on your friend like that?" There was an angry sneer in his voice.
Lana was still a bit confused. She had her arm linked through Tom's, but that was all. "Kevin, what's going on? What's wrong?"
"Geez, Lana, if you're going to see someone else, at least keep it discreet." His eyes bored into her.
"Kevin, I don't know what you think is going on." She couldn't keep the confusion out of her voice. "Tom's my oldest friend, he's home from the service like I told you, and that's it."
"Please," said Kevin. "Anyone can see this is more than that." He rolled his eyes.
"Kevin, what the hell is wrong with you?" said Steve. He couldn't understand Kevin's behavior, either, and he didn't like how it was affecting Lana. Amanda and Lana were best friends, and Steve had developed a soft spot for her himself.
"Nothing," Kevin said calmly, though his voice was still dark. "But I'm not going to stay here while my girlfriend waves her new guy around in front of me."
"I'm not waving anyone around." Lana was getting angry herself. Where in God's name had all of this come from? "He's my oldest friend, for crying out loud."
"That's your story and you're sticking to it, I'm sure." Kevin's voice was cold.
Lana took a deep breath. "Look, why don't we start over? Obviously something went very wrong here. Let's go inside, order some wine and dinner and try it all again." She was embarrassed that Tom had to see this. She glanced over to see a mixture of confusion and anger on his face.
"You guys go on," said Kevin, "but I'm done here." He looked at Lana. "We're done. I can see I've already been replaced."
Then Lana understood. "Go on, then," she said. "But before you go thinking you're taking the high road, you should know—I knew the whole time!" Shock registered on Kevin's face. Lana continued, her hands shaking, her voice low, her fury obvious. "Next time you want to keep a secret, don't leave your damn emails up on the screen for anyone to see." She turned to Steve and Amanda, apologized, and she and Tom left.
It had taken a few days for the whole story to come out, at least Lana's side of it. Kevin had cheated on her, and she had discovered it when she went to her computer and found several open emails. She hadn't said anything, and although Tom understood her reasoning, he didn't entirely agree. She had thought about it, she told him, but wasn't sure what to say. For some reason, perhaps just blind love, she had decided to see what happened, trusting that Kevin would end the affair. In fact, he did, but the damage had been done.
That must have been hellish, Tom thought. Both of them knowing about the affair, but neither saying anything. The proverbial elephant in the room. Lana hadn't confronted Kevin—she never was much for that, Tom knew—nor had Kevin admitted anything. Tom's guess was that the guilt had eaten at him, and Kevin turned it around on Lana when he had the chance.
After it was out, Lana clammed up. She wouldn't talk about it to anyone, not even Amanda. When she'd been hospitalized, she'd all but demanded blood oaths that no one tell Kevin about it. "It wouldn't do any good now," she'd said, "it's too late."
Tom drew into a parking space and looked over at his cousin, who was staring out the of window. Kevin's a fool, he thought to himself. If our history were different, I'd try again. But damn it, she still loves him. She'd never said it, but Tom knew.
"We're here," he said, gently touching her arm so as not to startle her. "Ready to go in?"
"What? Oh, yes, sure," she said, a little distractedly. Then she looked concerned, "Oh, no, did I forget the gift?"
Tom smiled and reached into the backseat, pulled back a gift bag. "You made me put it in the car hours ago so we wouldn't forget." He laughed at the look of relief on her face. "Come on, let's go do this."
"Okay, you're right," Lana said, nodding. She laughed as Tom went around to open her door for her. "You are chivalrous, aren't you?"
"Well, I do try," he said, feigning modesty.
"We'll have to find you a damsel," Lana said.
"A damsel?" he asked as they walked up the street to the house.
"Well, sure. You're chivalrous, which is a knightly thing."
"I haven't had a nightly thing in ... Ooof!" Tom was cut off as Lana elbowed him in the ribs.
"Now don't ruin it," she said as he rubbed his side. "If you're going to be chivalrous, you need a damsel to be chivalrous for. And we're practically family, so that doesn't count," she said, stopping his protest. They arrived at the front door and Lana took a deep breath. "Here goes nothing," she said, and rang the doorbell.
"Lana!" Amanda squealed and gave her friend a huge hug.
"Um, happy birthday?" said Lana, hugging her back. "And can I breathe now?"
"Hey, can I get a hug like that?" asked Tom with a grin. Amanda laughed and hugged him hard, too.
"Just don't forget, I'm taken," she said.
"I know." He sighed. "All of the good ones are." They stepped inside.
"Come on," said Amanda, nearly dragging Lana into the living room. "Tracy, Lourdes and Brandon are here. You haven't seen them in ages. Tom," she said over her shoulder, "you come, too. You need to meet Lourdes."
"Why?" he asked warily, depositing the gift bag on the table as he followed.
"You just do." She brought them over to the couch, made introductions, and went back to her husband.
"How's Lana?" Steve asked, dropping a kiss on her forehead.
"Good, I think." Amanda watched her friend talk with the others. "I think she's still tired and looks a bit pale under the makeup, but I'm sure Tom wouldn't have let her come if she wasn't up for it."
"He's the next best thing to a big brother," Steve agreed. "I always wished we had a younger sister."
"Why?" asked Amanda, as she poured a glass of wine.
"Not sure, exactly." He shrugged. "Maybe so Mom would have had some more gender appropriate company. She never got to the do the whole pink and frilly thing. She tried, but Kevin had a fit." He winked at her.
"I can do pink and frilly," she said, her wink a bit more seductive. "I might even have some stashed away." Steve raised an eyebrow. "Later," she promised. The doorbell rang again.
"I'll get it." Steve set his drink down. "It's probably Kevin."
"It's only 8:30," said Amanda. "He's practically early."
Steve chuckled as he went to the door. It was indeed Kevin, complete with a gift-wrapped box. "Hey, man." Steve clapped him on the shoulder. "Come on in."
"Thanks," said Kevin. "I think it's about to rain, so inside is a good idea." He added his gift to the ones on the table. "Where's the birthday girl?"
"Right here," said Amanda.
"Hey, happy birthday," Kevin said with a smile, giving her a hug. He was glad Steve had found her. They were good for each other.
"Thank you," she said, returning the hug. She loved her brother-in-law, despite what happened. In fact, she wanted desperately to tell him about Lana going in the hospital, but she'd promised not to. Besides, she had agreed with Steve when he said it was Lana's place to tell Kevin. I won't tell him unprompted, but I won't lie, she thought privately. If Kevin asks, I'll be as honest as I can and hope I don't give anything away.
"Where's the booze?" Kevin asked.
"You never change," she said dryly, waving her hand at the kitchen. "It's all in there. Beer in the fridge, wine too, and harder stuff on the counter."
"Just a beer, thanks." Kevin stepped in and found one, opened it and took a swig. He was just stalling, he knew, delaying for as long as he could before he had to step into the living room with the other guests. Because he knew she was there.
Steve had bluntly told Kevin that he'd been a fool, and he knew it. God, did he know it now. The last few weeks had been awful. It was his own fault. Kevin had had an affair. He couldn't even remember why, now. She as just a girl from the office whom he'd known slightly for a while before they were put together on a project. Suddenly, working late one night, they found they'd moved from work to the kind of play that was generally frowned upon in office settings.
How had he let it happen, he'd wondered? He detested infidelity in relationships. It had led to his parents' divorce.
He had been so upset with Lana, he remembered, with the way things had been going between them. For weeks she had been working late, and his schedule had been crowded too. It felt like they had no time together. Half the time they were both too exhausted to do anything more than cuddle in bed. Lana had suggested a weekend away. Not far away, but somewhere that wasn't his apartment or her duplex. Somewhere with a spa, or a pool, and a day or so for them to do nothing but be with each other. Kevin had been so excited about it he'd made the arrangements himself.
Then Lana had come home two days before they were scheduled to leave, and told him they'd have to postpone. The case she was helping with required everyone to work over the weekend to meet deadlines. Kevin had nodded, but inside he'd been furious. So, when Julia had flirted so blatantly with him, he'd only put up token resistance.
Kevin had felt horribly guilty immediately afterwards. Julia hadn't seemed too affected, but then, she'd said she had an open attitude about things. He had told himself it wouldn't happen again, that there was no need to tell Lana, and had tried to go on. Except it did happen again. And part of him liked it.
He and Julia had met on the sly, during work hours or the occasional late night for a project. Once they'd managed to go at it in a stairwell, freezing when they heard the security guard on the floor above them. They hadn't been discovered, but it had hit him like a cold shower. Julia, on the other hand, had been quite turned on by the threat of exposure. It had taken some convincing on her part, but they'd resumed their activities. Again, Kevin felt awful afterwards, like he was dirty.
Lana deserved better, and he knew it. When he thought about it rationally, he knew he didn't want Julia at all. He didn't know why he kept going back to Julia when he had Lana. Lana ... Lana was just gorgeous in his eyes. She had that hair, dark brown like mahogany wood, and those sparkling green eyes. Her body was perfect, despite what she sometimes thought. She understood him, she treated him better than anyone else had, and she loved him. And he loved her. So why the hell had he kept cheating?
Finally, as Lana suspected it might, the guilt had driven him to call it off with Julia. She had taken it well—it was obvious he was just "some fun" to have on the side, nothing serious. He would tell her, he had thought. He would tell Lana, and hope she would forgive him. She deserved that much.
But he hadn't.
He wanted to. But he found excuses all the time. She was busy, he was busy; too much to do on the weekends; when the evenings hit, he wanted to be with her, to hold her, cuddle her, make love to her, not tell her something which could end in her leaving. All the conflict had come to a head the night she'd brought Tom to dinner.
Kevin hadn't expected that to happen. She'd told him about Tom and the fun they'd had growing up, and he'd envied her the friendship. He'd also wanted to meet Tom, to find out what Lana had been like growing up, to like someone who was obviously so important to her. The guilt had continued to gnaw away at him, but he'd gotten adept at pushing it away, ignoring it. Then they'd shown up, walking across the parking lot. Lana had had her arm linked through Tom's, and they were both laughing at something, and suddenly Kevin had been incredibly, inexplicably jealous.
He'd picked the fight and broken up with her, his guilt and anger at himself holding off the regret until the next morning. Then he'd realized the mistake he'd made, but had no idea how to fix it. His own brother hadn't talked to him for a week, and Amanda for another week after that. He'd apologized to both of them, but neither offered to speak to Lana. In fact, they both said he didn't deserve her and he should leave her alone. Then Lana had been in the hospital for several days. Steve and Amanda refused to tell him why, saying they'd promised Lana. It drove him crazy.
That was when he realized how much he loved her. That even if they weren't together, he couldn't bear the idea of something happening to her. He wished he had been there, even as a friend, if he couldn't be there as her lover, her partner. She'd known, she said that night. She'd known about the affair, but hadn't said anything. He wondered why. He was desperate to ask her that. Even if she never took him back, he had to know why she had kept silent about it.
"Are you ever coming out?" Steve startled him out of his thoughts.
"Oh, yeah, I was just ... thinking," Kevin said.
"Look," said Steve, "Lana is here. She's in the living room talking with Tracy and Brandon. Just so you know. And Tyrone is here. Remember him from my office party?" Kevin nodded. "Okay, so there are people for you to talk to, and people for her to talk to. No reason for a scene, right?"
"Right," said Kevin, in a flat voice. "Hey, Steve..." His brother turned around and looked at him inquiringly. "Do you think ... do you think Lana would let me apologize?" He continued before Steve could interrupt. "I mean, just apologize, nothing more. Seriously."
Steve was silent for a moment. "I think she would. But I don't think that now is the time." Kevin nodded. He followed his brother out to the living room. His heart almost stopped when he saw Lana.
She sat on the couch, talking animatedly with Tracy, Amanda's sister. She wore the green dress that had always been his favorite, and he was surprised to see her wearing a necklace he had given her. She looked different, though, and he tried to put his finger on it. She'd lost a little weight, but that wasn't all of it. Her eyes, he saw ... they looked tired, maybe a bit sad. It killed him not to go over and hold her, to give her the comfort he was sure she needed, although he didn't know why.
"Leave her alone." Kevin turned to see Tom standing next to him. "Leave her alone," Tom said again, his voice low.
"I will," said Kevin, "I was just, uh ... just looking," he finished weakly. He glanced at Tom. "She looks good. But is she okay? I heard she was in the hospital."
"She's fine," said Tom, and it grated at him not to say more. "She's still recovering some, but she's okay."
"I ... I ... Look, I'm sorry," Kevin stuttered out. "What happened that night was all my fault. I know there's nothing between you two. I was a jerk and I just wanted to say I'm sorry." What the hell, he thought to himself. Might as well start the apology ball rolling.
Tom nodded. "I'm not the one who needs the apology, though."
Kevin sighed. "I know. I'm just not sure that she'd listen to me."
Tom looked at him as though he were crazy.
"What?" asked Kevin uncertainly.
"Listen to you?" Tom asked, incredulous. "Man, she's in love with you. Beats the hell out of me why, but she is. She'll listen to you. Not here, maybe, but she'd listen." He shook his head. "Look, just let her be for now, okay? I know she'll listen, and I appreciate your apology, but I have to say, I'm not sure you're good for her."
Kevin nodded. "Me either." Tom looked at him for a second longer, then went into the kitchen for a drink of his own. Kevin looked around, spotted Tyrone, and went over to say hi. He relaxed as they chatted, although he always had Lana in the corner of his eye.
Lana saw Kevin come in, but quickly turned her attention back to Tracy. They were just chatting about mundane things, but it was fun for her, and it felt good to be out of the house after all the enforced rest. She'd gone back to work on Wednesday, despite Tom's protests, and although it had wiped her out each day, she'd felt better than she had sitting around at home all the time.
Kevin looked handsome, she mused. She'd always thought he was, with his windblown blond hair and brown eyes. Steve had many of the same features, but looked a bit sterner than Kevin. Kevin always gave off a relaxed air, even if he wasn't. She'd liked that, since she knew she could be pretty high-strung. It was one of the reasons they'd worked well together, she thought. She kept him from getting too lazy, and he kept her from getting too wound up. She sighed inwardly. Too bad it had all exploded.
Her mind only half on the conversation, she remembered the surprise trip he'd arranged for her. She'd told him how as a child, she was so disappointed that she'd never gone to Disneyland. Nearly all of her friends had been, and she couldn't help but be jealous. A few weeks later, for her birthday, he'd given her an envelope with two tickets to Los Angeles and passes to Disneyland. It was the only time in her life she could remember literally squealing in happiness.
The lengths he'd gone to had amazed her. Kevin was notoriously disorganized, but he'd managed to talk to her co-worker and her boss and secure two days off. He had even packed her suitcase for her. Lana tried to bring her mind back to the present.
She retained a small hope that he would apologize, even though he'd never given any sign that he would. Maybe I should be the one to apologize, she thought. The expression on his face when she'd told him they'd have to move their romantic weekend had made her feel terrible. She couldn't help but feel perhaps she'd driven him to cheat on her, although Tom continually pointed out that Kevin could have said no.
She'd often wondered what she would do if he did apologize and it all came back to the same thing—she loved him and would take him back. Amanda might scoff, Tom might argue, but she would. She loved him.
The evening passed, and Lana found she had at least managed to be distracted from thinking about Kevin too much. Kevin realized the same thing as Amanda went to open her presents. She squealed in delight at everything, running around with hugs and kisses for the givers. After she was done, he saw Lana come up to her, covering a yawn.
Once again he was hard put to refrain from running over to hold her, to see what was wrong, to help. He was sure it wouldn't be appreciated, and he'd promised not to cause a scene. He watched the two of them, and realized Lana was getting ready to leave. It wasn't that late, but she was obviously tired, and Tom had gone to get their coats. He caught her eyes just before she left. She gave him a small, cautious, sad smile, and left. His heart ached. He had never quite understood that expression until now, but as he watched her go, he felt a growing hurt in the left side of his chest.
He went into the kitchen for another beer—only his third; he had to drive home—and wandered out to the living room, finding an empty seat near the gift table. He didn't mind that no one was talking to him at the moment. It was better to listen to everyone else talk, he thought. Then he could just drift and not think about what was running through his own mind.
" ... and she just got out of the hospital about two weeks ago..." The fragment of conversation piqued his interest. Kevin looked over to see Tracy, Amanda's sister, chatting with her friend, Lourdes. "Poor Lana. I wouldn't have known, except a friend of mind works on that floor. I wish I'd known, I would have visited."