Cassie, honey, are you sitting down?”
Phone in one hand, pitcher of water in the other, Cassandra Stephanopoulos halted dead center of her kitchen. The coffee she’d been in the process of making went forgotten as ice skittered down her spine, plunking hard and cold in her belly and awakening her sleepy senses. Every bit of bad news she’d ever received seemed to come off the heels of a line like that.
Any other day, she wouldn’t have picked up her phone before she’d had a much needed morning dose of caffeine. Things like talking coherently simply didn’t happen before coffee. She’d glanced at the screen, though. Who the hell would call her so early? Her girls and her best friend, Grayson, all knew she wasn’t a morning person.
However, at seeing Marilyn Benson’s number, she’d snatched her phone off the counter. Marilyn was Tyler’s mother. His family was her only connection to him now. It was a tiny, stupid little scrap to hold on to. It wouldn’t bring him back, but she needed the connection like she needed oxygen.
More to the point, Marilyn had only called her this early twice: the first time to tell her Tyler had gone missing. The second…to tell her they’d called off the search for him. All of which now had Cassie’s mind racing with horrible possibilities. Her hands began to shake, sending the cold water sloshing over the rim of the full pitcher and onto her bare toes.
She deposited the pitcher on the nearest counter, pinched the bridge of her nose, and forced herself to count to three before answering. She would not allow the panic slithering up her spine to take root. “Is everything okay? Are Dean and the girls all right?”
Tyler’s older brother, Dean, and his wife, Kathy, had two gorgeous little girls with the biggest blue eyes Cassie had ever seen. Every time she saw them, they made her chest ache, because she always wondered. If Tyler had lived and she hadn’t taken the coward’s way out by turning down his proposal, would their kids have inherited those eyes as well?
“Sweetie, I have something to tell you. I wanted you to know before it ends up on the news.”
Before it ended up on the news? Cassie’s stomach sank into her toes. Now she knew it was bad. She reached out to grip the edge of a nearby counter and swallowed past the thick paste in her throat. “My stomach’s in knots. Whatever it is, just tell me. Please.”
On the other end of the line, Marilyn drew a shaky breath. “Sweetie, Tyler’s alive.”
Marilyn’s voice came out barely above a whisper, but she might as well have shouted the words. Everything inside Cassie skidded to a halt. She stared out the long row of windows on the other side of her penthouse apartment. Despite it being January in Seattle, the skies were clear blue. The beauty somehow added a surreal quality to the moment. How many times had she longed for this exact phone call? Surely she was only dreaming…
Marilyn laughed, the sound of someone so relieved they were beside themselves. “He’s alive. I just spoke with him. He sounds a little shaky, to be honest, but he’s alive. Apparently, he was held captive somewhere in Iraq. I’m afraid I don’t know the whole story yet, but oh, sweetie, he’s coming home.”
Marilyn continued to ramble, her voice a giddy, half-delirious murmur on the other end of the line, but the actual words didn’t register. The impact of the news struck Cassie like an arrow, piercing her heart. She sagged back against the kitchen counter, staring at everything and nothing, as tears rushed over her, bringing with them a profound sense of relief.
Tyler was alive.
* * *
Cassie bebopped to the tune playing in her right ear as she made her way down the hotel corridor. The long hallway stood empty, save a few other last-minute arrivals. Grayson, her long-time best friend, and his new wife, Maddie, walked a couple steps behind, their gaits more casual than Cassie’s buoyant stride. It was rude to listen to music in the presence of friends, but as newlyweds, Maddie and Gray had gone off in a world of their own, and Cassie needed the upbeat tune to bolster her mood. Maybe if she forced herself to be cheerful, she’d eventually feel it.
She couldn’t believe she’d let Gray talk her into this. She didn’t want to be here. No, she’d rather be alone in her penthouse with a fifth of scotch, getting so drunk she couldn’t remember her name. A week had passed since Marilyn had called to tell her Tyler was alive. Marilyn had been right. Every news channel was talking about it. Somehow he’d not only managed to survive being captured by insurgents, but he’d also gotten himself home. To say she was relieved would be the understatement of the century.
Except he hadn’t come to see her. He’d been home for seven days now and he hadn’t so much as called her. But why would he? After the way they’d left things, the things they’d said to each other, she certainly wouldn’t come to see her either.
She wasn’t even sure she wanted him to. It wasn’t fair to want to see him, really. Nothing had changed for her. Tyler would be a soldier until he died. It was who he was. And she still couldn’t risk losing another person she loved. She’d lost her brother in Iraq five years ago…after losing their mother five years before that. Their family hadn’t been the same since Nick’s death. Her baba had shut her out, lost to his grief. She couldn’t, wouldn’t, go through that again, lose one more person.
She couldn’t deny, though, that it still hurt. That she still had an overpowering need to see him. Her heart wouldn’t fully trust that he really was alive until she saw him with her own two eyes.
Exactly why she’d allowed Gray to drag her to this auction. Because clearly seeing him again wasn’t going to happen, and she desperately needed a distraction.
When the too-familiar pain began to wrap itself around her chest again, Cassie refocused on the upbeat music and paused to shimmy out the last strains of the song. She’d have fun tonight if it killed her.
Behind her, Gray chuckled. “I’m glad to see you’re in a good mood tonight, Cassie. I thought you’d be pissed when I showed up earlier. I know you didn’t really want to participate in this auction.”
She pulled out the earbud and looked down at her phone, closing the music app.
“You’re lucky. I’ve heard about these shindigs from a few friends. If I’m lucky, I’ll end up with two of Christina’s hotties.” She shot a wink over her shoulder. “They can make me a Cassie sandwich.”