Kismet or Happenstance? Ch. 05byAugust_Bouvier©
Someone suggested this story would find its proper home with romance readers. I think she's right and I hope you do too. Enjoy!
Saturday, September 9th, 2006. 2:38 pm.
The glass panels parted with a swish. Then came the blast of frigid air with its clouds of stale, denatured alcohol. The scent assault dragged Ana through time where she was kneeling in fright, reaching for the limp hand clutching twenty dollar bills. She looked at Sean's profile and prayed his world would remain unchanged when he emerged from the other side of these doors. Her fingers entwined with his; the past and present pressed between their palms. She stuffed the memories deep in the closet of her mind and they crossed the threshold together. She was here, now, for Sean.
"They're running tests...they're doing an ECG, something called a tropnin and a CK...I think that's what the nurse said," the harried brunette—Sean's mother—tried to explain. Her nose and eyes were shades of red. The smudged mascara added a look of fatigue to her delicate, pinched features.
"A troponin test," the greyer haired version of the man next to her corrected while he smoothed his wife's back. Even his rich baritone matched Sean's. In fact, the son favored the father in every way but for the elder's green eyes. "They're checking to see if Grandpa had a heart attack. Grams is with him right now."
"We're waiting to find out more before we call Em." The woman's wild, blue eyes landed on Ana. "Who are you?"
If Ana didn't feel like an interloper at a private family gathering, she did now. Given the situation she didn't bristle at the question's slightly brusque delivery. But Sean's father looked taken aback.
Sean placed a hand on the small of Ana's back. Touching her tempered the spark of red hot anger that rose up his chest. "This is Ana," he announced before she spoke.
The simple words held a dark edge—one she never wanted to be on the receiving end of—as he pulled her closer to him. His hand slid up her back, the tiny gesture felt both protective and defiant and rendered any further explanation unnecessary. That was all it took to for her to feel like she belonged—unquestionably.
Sean's father extended a hand, his smile and demeanor apologetic as he spoke. "I'm Dominic, Sean's dad."
"I'm Clodagh," Sean's mother followed automatically and exchanged distracted pleasantries with Ana. "I should check on Daddy...you stay here," she said to no one in particular, "Duncan should be here soon."
"I'll come with you," Dominic offered gently.
"We'll be right here," Sean promised at his mother's uncertain look.
She wanted to tell him everything would be alright but she didn't want to offer empty platitudes. She looped an arm around his waist, instead, and rubbed his back, wishing she could do more. She sent out another silent prayer with the others circulating these walls and hoped it would be answered.
He snaked an arm around her shoulder and gave her a light squeeze. "You can go. I'll call you later about picking up my car."
Ana's hand froze. It was a gentle rejection, a reminder that she was privy to just a small part of his life, nothing more. But hearing him put it to words, even indirectly, stung. God, how foolish of her to misinterpret the simple way he'd introduced her to his parents. She reached for her hypocrisy—she would've called off their affair by now if hadn't he taken that phone call—and it dulled the hurt. A little. She wasn't going to hang around where she wasn't wanted. Certain she had her face schooled in a neutral expression, Ana looked at him, ready to acquiesce to his request. But his vivid blue eyes said something entirely different.
He'd given her an out. Nothing would change if she went home right now. Would something change if she stayed?
"No." Her hand moved over his back again in slow, circles. "I'll stay...if you want."
He nudged her closer to his side, taking in the comfort of having her near before he'd have to let her go. "It might be a while," he warned.
He wouldn't ask her to stay lest there be a small chance she would...out of obligation. That and he couldn't let her know how much he needed her right now. She didn't sign up for this. Hell, he frowned, did he?
Ana wove her fingers around the ones hanging off her shoulder. This wasn't about walking away from an afternoon in a hospital waiting lounge. He wanted her here. She heard it in his voice, though he was too proud to admit it.
"Yes," she said and gave his hand a reassuring squeeze, not needing to deliberate her decision any further. She looked up at him again, hoping to articulate the message with her eyes, wanting to erase the doubt she saw in his. "I know. I'm staying."
* * * * *
A sonorous, Brennan man's voice called out Sean's name. Ana recognized him from the photos she'd seen in Sean's living room. Duncan Brennan was slightly taller, his frame more athletic, than his younger brother. Dressed in a black shirt, dark jeans and black boots, Duncan was the rugged anti-hero to Sean's charismatic leading man—outfitted in a blue crew neck peeking out from a red / blue striped white shirt, chinos and dark loafers. The two men hugged in the loose way men did, without hesitation. Sean introduced her to his brother before updating him on what little was known of their grandfather's condition.
Time went by in a choreographed waltz of doctor updates and Brennans taking turns to sit with Sean Gallagher. New faces came and went, some stayed long enough to become familiar strangers—like the worried couple sitting a row ahead. They were here for a little girl. There was the small talk people engaged in to pass time, to will everything back into order through a stream of words, to break the silence. Hospital silences were the heaviest, most unbearable sounds in the world.
The first hour and a half of waiting rewarded them with good news: the results of the blood work were negative. The tentative relief grew more confident as the elder Sean showed no further signs of discomfort. Reports came back he was pleased his attending physician was a woman. The sight of a pretty lass made the indignities of being poked and prodded and the absurd questions about the quality of his recent bowel movements, rather bearable.
Ana looked over to Sean, who was talking with Duncan near the water dispenser, and smiled inside; now she knew where he inherited his flirting gene. Both brothers commanded attention in their unique way, which didn't go unnoticed by some visitors or hospital staff—female and male.
"This is some way to meet Sean's family isn't it, love." Emily Gallagher patted Ana's hand in the sweet gesture only loving grandmothers mastered. The lilting dip and roll of "love" betrayed her Irish roots.
Ana leaned in, not quite sure how best to respond. "I'm sorry."
"Why be sorry?" Emily waved her freckled hand around. "This isn't your doing. I'm glad you're here for my grandson."
Ana cast a look to Sean, now linked to his niece, Grace, via a shared earphone. Their heads bobbed in time with the music coming out of her Ipod.
"I know he is too. He's much calmer around you." Emily's blue-grey eyes softened as she watched the pair talking animatedly. "I used to tell Clodagh, God would repay her for all she put me and her father through by giving her a child just like herself." She pointed weathered, hot pink manicured finger in Sean's direction. "She thought I was exaggerating until that one was born."
"I've heard some of the stories but I have a feeling there was some editing involved. I can definitely picture him being a handful as a child—he still is."
Emily nodded and studied the swirl of caramel colors in her chamomile tea. She didn't miss the affectionate note in the girl's voice. It wasn't the affected sweetness of a girl trying to impress upon her young man's family the sincerity of her a feelings. She had a quiet strength about her and while she appeared kindhearted, she didn't go out of her way to seek approval. Qualities...what was her name...oh, dear...Ana...would need in spades if what she suspected came to pass. Clodagh would turn into a mama bear to make sure her youngest had chosen well. Luckily the boy had an anarchistic streak, especially when he had to have something, like the day he'd marched his muddied feet into the neighbor's living room and demanded his bike back with a "thank you" at the end. Poor Clodagh had been embarrassed and exasperated, but it was the funniest thing to see Karma play itself out. She looked at...Ana...and felt a tinge of regret that she'd wished little Sean his own set of rambunctious offspring.
"You're not flustered by it though...Nic is like that with Clodagh."
Ana acknowledged the observation with a nod. If she were a cartoon character her head would've swiveled three-sixty a dozen times already. Was Sean's grandmother was speaking as if their relationship warranted comparison with a married couple's? She couldn't suppress a wry grin as her glance dropped to the octogenarian's pale blonde head. Finding out she was just some girl her grandson picked up at a bookstore would knock the curl out of that elegant coif. The sweet woman assumed she was here by design, not coincidence and leapt to certain conclusions. And who could blame her? The no-strings lover never got introduced to family. She looked over to where he was standing. He'd correct the falsehood at the appropriate time.
He must've felt her watching him because he looked her way. Their eyes connected for a moment. He wouldn't have called her to be with him had events occurred differently. Her being here didn't impart any significance on their connection. She was here for him the way a friend would be. She'd better remember that. She deflected back to where it was needed.
"How are you doing? Really." She hoped the question didn't come off as lame or intrusive. It's just that Emily Gallagher had remained so serene throughout the afternoon, it seemed eerie and unnatural.
The lines around Emily's stormy eyes deepened. "Resisting won't change the situation, love. It's out of my control. I know my Sean's a fighter," she paused and her half-smile faded, "he'll do his best to stay with us."
Clodagh Brennan rounded the corner just then and dropped into the chair next to her mother. She'd been running on pure adrenaline the entire time.
"Why don't you and Nic take a walk. You could do with the fresh air."
"Mom. I should—"
"Grace and the boys are here and Ana is keeping me company," Emily continued on as if her daughter were closer to sixteen than sixty. "You have your phone with you, yes?"
Clodagh watched them both and something crept into her face before a look of resignation settled in. Was it hurt? Jealousy?
"Okay," she relented. "I'll be back in a few minutes."
"Thank goodness," Emily remarked with uncensored relief after her daughter left. "She means well but being around all her nervousness and worry is too much."
"I know. I am too," Emily confessed: her fingers shifted the short blonde hair at her nape. "A timeout from all of this will do her a world of good." And Grams would probably find it easier to maintain her composure which was much more fragile than Ana originally guessed.
Sean slid into the empty chair, taking his mother's place. "What are you girls chatting about?"
Emily's eyes turned conspiratorial. "Ana was about to tell me how you met." Did impishness run in the family, like the blue eyes?
His gaze went back and forth between the women. She knew his agile mind was spinning a tame version of their meeting, palatable enough for his doting grandmother.
"Did she tell you she tried to pick me up at Borders?"
Ana was horrified even as Emily grinned. "I did not!"
"Don't think for a second I believe you," she said smiling up at her grandson.
Sean had the audacity to look wounded.
* * * * *
Ana was happy for them, she really was. But other feelings made it impossible to sit by and watch with a cheerleader smile. Feelings she was ashamed to have right now because they were selfish. She passed a wet napkin around her face and neck, hoping the gentle pats would help her tamp down what tried to surface a few minutes ago.
Clodagh's demeanor had announced the good news well before she'd said the words: her father was being discharged in the morning. He'd stay overnight for observation but everything looked good. Heartburn—due to a forbidden quarter pounder and shake—and not a heart attack appeared to be the likely culprit behind his lunchtime chest pains.
Ana hung around while Duncan left to walk Grace to her car, listened as Clodagh and Emily "discussed" how long Clodagh would stay with her parents, while Dominic mediated. Sean had vanished from the corner of her eyes as the frightened couple who sat in front of them got escorted to "the private room". The little girl! The moment the man started to shake his head in denial, was the moment Ana had to leave.
Ana checked her reflection again before leaving the ladies' room. She armed herself with cherry Chap Stick and rounded the corner with renewed determination. Even from here she could see the tense vigil now lay behind them. They were probably still making plans for tomorrow and the next day. She scanned the waiting room and saw the grieving couple huddled in a corner, clinging to each other. A visit to "the private room" only meant one thing.
Miss Williams, I'm sorry. We did everything we could. Please accept my—
The sting fanning out from the bridge of her nose had her searching the hallways for an escape. She ran when she spotted Sean walking down the corridor. She couldn't let him see her like this. Not even on a good day...
* * *
Sean took a swig of his Pepsi on the way from his Grandpa's room and grimaced. This could never, ever pass for Coke. It wasn't even close. He walked by a sobbing couple talking with a doctor and quickly shifted his gaze out of respect. Being a voyeur into their pain felt like a violation of something sacred. It was a sad reminder how blessed they were that Grandpa was alright. He looked for the person who helped make this day easier to bear. How fitting she'd chosen to wear a top and trousers in that off-white color. She'd been nothing but an angel.
She'd never been gone for an extended amount of time. And whether she was close enough to touch or several feet away, even when no words were spoken, her message was soothing as it was constant. I'm here for you.
"She went to the ladies' room," his mother said.
"She looked unwell, poor girl," Grams added with concern.
Sean felt the irritation kick up upon seeing the indignant tilt of his mom's head. She might as well have thought balloons floating above her. Why should Ana feel ill? Is her daddy in here too?
Her notorious impatience was no excuse--one of the traits Grams insisted they shared. Her being in a constant state of fright for hours was no excuse. Ana didn't have to be here. She didn't have to spend ten minutes on the phone directing Grace on the fastest way to get here. She didn't have to go across the street to make sure Grams had a real cup of tea to drink instead of that generic cafeteria crap. She didn't have to spend her Saturday afternoon in a hospital. Not when there were a million other things to do than to sit with a bunch of strangers and be reminded of the day she lost her mother. But she did it anyway. For him.
Shit. Her mother.
"Her mother died of a heart attack almost two years ago," he accused. He couldn't help it. He found the contrite look on his mother's face, as her hand covered her mouth, just shy of perversely satisfying. While his ears vaguely entertained her shame filled acknowledgment of Ana's compassion and kindness, how Ana never let on how close to home this must hit, his eyes drifted past her head, down the hall.
"Go look for her," his father advised, sensing the direction of his thoughts. "She's been gone a while."
* * * * *
The muscle in his jaw worked in frustration when he dead ended at the emergency exit. He could've sworn he'd caught a glimpse of a woman wearing an off-white top headed in this direction. He opened the door; it wouldn't hurt to look.
Was he ever wrong.
Hysterical wailing he could to deal with because the drama of it all usually overshadowed the actual cause. But he wasn't prepared for this. The loneliness of seeing her sitting on a step, hugging her sides, her silent suffering, gutted him. She was quietly fighting the hollows of despair with every drop of resolve in her. Even in a deserted, half-lit stairwell, Ana tried to be stoic. How often had she been alone when she needed someone?
I often didn't know what to tell them or how to ask for help.
She went still.
Sean sat next to her and she turned to the wall as if he'd disappear, as if he wouldn't realize she was crying. She jumped when he stroked her back.
"Ana." He didn't know what else to say so he edged closer while his hand swept across her shoulders.
"I'm s-sorry," she sputtered. He guessed the words rather than understood them.
He kept his voice gentle as he spoke. "Honey, it's okay. You're human. Being here must have brought back a lot of memories."
Ana started shaking and turned into a tight ball. He gathered her in his arms and she resisted until she must have realized he wasn't letting her go. He rubbed her back and rocked her like a baby when she sagged against him.
"Let it out, love" he whispered as she began to sob in earnest. "It's okay. I'm here. Let it out." His words poured out without any thought but to soothe her and continued even after his throat ached.
The sound of her heart wrenching keen leapt off the concrete walls and went straight to his soul. Part of him wanted her to stop crying because he felt the agony of her heartbreak and sorrow as if they were his own. Part of him knew Ana needed this release. She needed reminding that being strong didn't mean it wasn't okay to say "ow" when life hurt. He held her long after her tears faded into intermittent sniffles and then silence. She eased out of his arms but the instant their eyes met, her face crumpled again.
"Oh, God." Her scratchy voice was loaded with remorse. "I've made you cry."
He could feel his eyes brimming with tears but only a total, unfeeling bastard could've remained indifferent right now. He cradled her again.
"Ssh," he murmured into her hair. "Technically, I'm not crying." He felt some relief when she made a sound somewhere between a hiccup and a laugh.
He realized how fortunate he was; not only would Grandpa be okay, he had his family—even if they got on each other's nerves. Ana, however, had been in a mall full of strangers when her mother had collapsed at the ATM. She'd waited alone in the ER until her friends rushed from work. He kissed her temple, truly understanding for the first time how scared she must have felt. He wished he'd known her then, wished he could do more for her now.
"I can't let your family see me like this," Ana remarked as if speaking to herself. She fussed at her eyes, her hair and reached for her bag.
"They know about your mom; they'll understand."
Ana stopped rummaging.
"You told them?" she repeated as if there were some hope he'd deny it. So much for the whole trying-to-ease-her-worries bit. Her eyes flashed from distressed, to mortified, to distressed again. "They've been through enough today. They need to focus on your granddad and stay positive."
"Sweetheart, it's only natural you'd have some reaction to everything that's happened today. It's nothing to be embarrassed about and we don't hide stuff like this in my family." Sean took her hands in his. Damn, they were cold. "It means a lot that you were with us today."