Megan lay in her bed, eyes glazed over. She had been staring into blackness for hours now, no closer to an answer then she was five hours earlier, when the question first arose.
It was the question girls dreamed of from childhood.
How appropriate that it came on Valentine's Day.
Had he planned it that way?
Megan sighed. She rose, still feeling uncomfortably torn, and found herself padding softly toward Brian's room. The door was open a crack. She pushed it open all the way, and stood in the doorway, watching her child sleep.
He was six now, and no mother could be prouder of her child. There was a time when she wondered if she would ever be a mother, but when she discovered that she was at last going to have a child, even the tragedy of the time faded with the wonderful news.
Megan smiled, her first since last night. She walked toward Brian's bedside, automatically finding a seat on the edge of the tiny bed. She could hear him breathing, a sound that warmed her heart and reassured her that at least one thing in the world was still the same. She had listened to him breathe many times. When he was first born, many nights, she'd sat in the rocking chair by his crib, too excited to get some sleep herself. He was a miracle. Literally.
She'd grown used to it being just the two of them. She had never given much thought to a life involving anyone else. And now . . . it should have been so clear . . . all those years . . .
What would she do? What should she do?
* * *
Megan's legs ached. She had ridden her bike to the ice cream shop dozens of times, but today was different.
"Almost there!" a voice shouted from behind.
"This is crazy!" Megan panted in reply.
"Can you think of a better reward after mid-terms?" the voice countered.
"No," Megan shouted with a smile.
Megan slowed so they could talk face to face. Cathy grinned, her face red from the effort. Her bright eyes shone with anticipation. They rounded the corner and coasted into the parking lot. Moments later, after catching their breath, Cathy looked intently at her roommate. "Why so tired today?"
"All that walking yesterday, I guess."
"I've been waiting for you to tell me about last night. What happened?"
Megan shrugged. "Nothing," she said, but her face reddened.
Cathy shook her head. "I dont believe you."
"All right. We went for a walk."
"A long one," Cathy added immediately.
They placed their orders and found seats near the grass. "On the grounds," Megan continued. "We were talking. We lost track of time. We had to re-trace our steps in the dark. It took longer than we thought, so I got in late."
"You were walking with a guy and you lost track of where you were, the time, in short, everything." Cathy grinned.
"Cathy, Bryce is just a friend."
"That's not what your face says." Cathy bite off a large piece of bubble gum ice cream.
Megan flinched. "How can you do that? It hurts my teeth just to watch you! Ugh!"
Cathy laughed. "You're avoiding the subject."
A drop of butter brickle slid off the cone onto her hand, but Megan didn't notice. "There's nothing to discuss. We're study partners. He's easy to talk to, and--"
"And that's how all the great romances get started. First he's a friend. Then he's more." Cathy bite off another chunk with a smile. Megan squinted. "Bryce is a wonderful guy. You know all the co-eds are after him for their M.R.S." Both ladies laughed. "Funny how were all trying to get his attention, except you." Cathy flashed a smile. "You've got him."
Megan didn't smile. She felt hot all over, despite the ice cream melting onto her wrist.
It seemed like a lifetime ago that she and Cathy had that conversation. She stared out the window at the ocean below her. Funny how something seems so ordinary when it's happening. She could have never imagined where things would lead down the road
Cathy had been right; Bryce had feelings for her, and they'd started dating shortly after that lovely walk together. It had been two years now. They'd survived their sophomore and junior college years, two summers apart, and the frantic push to declare majors. Bryce had declared pre-med, while Megan had decided that her best bet was English, with hopes to become a journalist and maybe a tutor on the side.
Bryce knew he wanted to be a doctor. He had never wanted anything else. That was why he was considered somewhat unreachable to the young co-eds. He was at college to achieve a goal, and he could not be distracted by anything.
He and Megan first met when they shared a table in the cafeteria. All others were full. He was studying, even as he ate. He asked her to pass the salt, and in his deeply attentive state, did not notice that some prankster had left the cap loose in hopes of catching another co-ed unaware. But Megan had seen it scarcely a second before Bryce dumped a pile on his precious food.
"Stop!" she screamed loud enough to stop him and several other dozen diners. He looked up at her with alarm, but he wore a smile that left her breathless.
It still left her breathless.
Tonight, Megan felt like shouting stop, even as Bryce kept talking about his feelings for her. So much had changed since their days at college . . . how could he be serious about them after all this time?
As usual, Bryce had his life all planned out. When he first proposed to Megan, there was no hesitation. He wanted her in his life. He wanted lots of children, church every Sunday, and maybe even a dog. Megan had said yes right away, on one condition--she wanted a cat. They laughed before he kissed her to seal the deal.
All was well until that horrible day. It was a day Megan still regretted. How could she have acted that way . . . ?
Bryce met her at the college snack shop on that fateful afternoon. Megan noticed that he was showing a rare exuberance.
He slapped a set of papers in front of her burger and fries with a huge smile. "Look at it," he commanded after planting a kiss on her cheek.
Megan wiped her hands before studying the precious papers. Her eyes widened. "You got into medical school! Terrific!"
A smattering of applause rang above the sizzling of burgers on the grill.
"Thank you, thank you," he said to the patrons. Megan laughed. "It's a different school, but I've got a partial scholarship. That means we can get married this summer." Megan's eyes twinkled as he talked. "We'll have to do it in June or July so we can be out in California by August. That will be cutting it close, and we'll probably have to skip the honeymoon until I graduate. Maybe we can take off a few nights near by--"
"Slow down," she ordered playfully. "That's fine with me--wait a minute. California?"
Bryce stuffed a handful of fries into his mouth, chewed and swallowed. "Yeah. The schools in Los Angeles. I know you hate the city, but its a sacrifice you'll only have to make for a few years."
Megan frowned. "How can we be married when you're on the West Coast and I'm on the East Coast?"
Bryce grinned. "Megan, aren't you listening? You'll be with me, silly."
Megan shook her head. "But I've been accepted at Northeastern. Everythings set--my job, my hours, everything."
"I know that darling, but I thought we could just make some adjustments in light of this news."
"Some adjustments?" Megan asked incredulously. "Bryce, you are asking me--no you are telling me to re-arrange my entire life for you! That's not fair!"
He shook his head. "The alternative is being apart for four years. Do you want that?"
"You mean youre not even going to think about re-applying out here?"
"We've been through this, Megan. There aren't any alternatives for me. I can't afford to pay for school on my own, much less with a wife. This scholarship means everything to me. You know how long and hard I've studied to get this far."
"I do know, Bryce. But it's no less important for me to achieve my dreams."
"I know that," he said, his voice raising slightly.
"But I can tell you want me to put it all on hold. I can wait, but you can't, right? That's what you're thinking, isn't it?" She stopped, glaring at Bryce. He said nothing. "I watched my mother put her life on hold for me. She never got it back because she had me. She died before she got her chance. She never saw me graduate. No! It's my time. Mine!"
This time, heads turned in their direction and no one was smiling.
"Lower your voice. Everybody will hear you," Bryce whispered.
"I don't care!" she shouted.
Bryce touched her arm. "You need time to cool down."
Megan stood. "No I don't." Her face was red. "You want to be a free man."
"No, I don't."
"I can't be tied down," she said, her lips tight. "I wanted to marry you because I thought we could have it all. But I see we can't."
"Megan, please. Think about what you're saying."
She wrenched off her engagement ring. "I've already thought about it. Call me in four years," she said, dropping the ring on the table before she stormed out.
* * *
Megan stared at her wedding ring. It sparkled in the dark, illuminated by the moonlight. At the time, her arguments against doing what Bryce wanted seemed so relevant. She felt completely justified in telling Bryce off. She alone had witnessed the pain and the sacrifice of lost dreams in the Child's home. Bryce hadn't. Bryce didn't know that she'd always felt it was all her fault. It was all because shed been born. The only way to make it up to her wonderful parents was to make something fantastic of herself.
Her parents life had been hard. She had decided, while still in kindergarten, to make something of herself because she could see that they were suffering.
Her mother had started college, just as she had, but she'd fallen in love with her father and they'd gotten married in her senior year. They'd planned to finish on time when she discovered that she was pregnant with Megan.
They were happy together. Her mother never voiced an objection to her life, but when Megan was older she often said that she was going back to school. Megan kept waiting for her mother to announce that she had officially gone back to college. Megan didn't understand that her mother wasn't feeling very well.
She walked her young daughter to school through kindergarten and first grade. Then Megan walked alone. She didn't mind; she liked the independence. When she came home, her mother was often resting. She was glad to see her daughter, but as the years passed, the twinkle in her eyes gradually lessened until one day Megan came home from sixth grade to find her father crying. "Mother is in the hospital, kitten," he announced as if his heart would break.
She died the day before Megan's thirteenth birthday. Her father remained loving toward Megan, but took his wife's death hard. He withdrew into himself. He never left the house, except to work and get groceries. Megan countered her fathers hermit-like life by throwing herself into school and other activities. She steadied herself through the long, lonely nights by promising that she would take good care of herself and never put herself in a position where she was dependent. When it really hurt, she told herself that her mother had died because her own dreams had been crushed at a young age.
Megan turned from the window to look at her young son. How ironic. Just like her, her child was without a parent. Megan thought she could do it all; she had for the past six years. But now, tonight, someone had come with an offer to be her husband and a father to Brian.
Megan had felt cheated at having only one parent. She had wanted her father to re-marry, but he never showed any interest or inclination. As a result, she couldn't wait to get out on her own and start her own life. And she did, after college . . .
Megan hadn't realized how much she loved Bryce until it was too late. Before they graduated, he tried to talk to her, but she was too consumed with her own problems to hear him.
A few months into graduate school, she wrote him with an apology and received a polite letter in reply. Then she asked if she could see him. Between his schooling and his work, he didn't know when he could see her. She respected that but as time passed, she became frustrated.
Finally, embarrassed, she gave up trying. Bryce was intentionally rebuffing her. She had lost him for good.
The realization came late one Saturday afternoon. Megan, pulling all As, decided to walk down Newbury Street in Boston and look at the shops. She could not afford anything, but it was fun to look at the jewelry and expensive shops.
She smelled the cologne before she saw him; a tall, striking man exiting one of the shops. He rounded the corner looking preoccupied. Megan pretended to be looking into the window at a display but she was sneaking glances at one of the most handsome men she had ever seen.
Some radar was with him too because he looked up immediately, followed by a smile. Megan felt silly.
"Hello," he said.
"Hello," she murmured.
"I'm Tony Evanston."
They shook. "Nice to meet you." There was an awkward pause. "Do you shop here often?"
They laughed at his opening line.
"No. I come to look every so often," she offered.
He studied her with sparkling brown eyes. "Well then, do you ever eat? I'm on my way to have a bite. Would you care to join me?"
What about Bryce? Her mind asked her. Bryce doesn't want me, she told herself. It's over. That too is my fault. Tony was smiling, waiting, hoping for an answer. Maybe I can start once again with a new love.
She nodded. Tony smiled wider.
At first she couldn't believe she'd dashed off to dinner with a total stranger. Shortly after they sat down to eat, it no longer felt that way. They clicked on every level, talking with ease through the appetizer, main course and dessert. Two hours passed after dessert when Megan realized that they hadn't had an awkward moment since they'd met.
Two months later, Megan knew everything about Tony. He had an office in downtown Boston as a lawyer, but he often worked at home. He didnt want to leave New England. He loved the idea of her going to school and even suggested that he had some contacts that might be able to help her get on the staff at the Boston Globe.
He completely supported her career. He would stay locally for her. He loved her. And she reciprocated by not hesitating when he asked her to marry him six months after they met.
They married the summer after Megan graduated from college, one year after she and Bryce were to be married. Megan finished graduate school and, as Tony promised, he helped her get on staff as a columnist at the Globe. For seven glorious years, Megan's career soared. She wrote a book and Tony insisted that if it wasn't published, he would invest to have it published. But it was picked up, and ended up on the New York Times Best Seller List for eight weeks in a row. Megan's life was perfect. She had money, a career, friends, a wonderful home, and a loving husband.
Shortly after their eighth anniversary, Tony worked late in town. Megan waited for him as usual. It was a habit now; she was never worried, but always felt better when he walked in the door. She fell asleep on the couch waiting. The jangling of the phone woke her with the worst news she'd ever had: Tony had been killed.
Megan discovered that she was pregnant shortly after Tony's funeral. It had been a freak accident, at least, that's what the police said. He had been waiting for a subway train and he was bumped from behind onto the tracks. The third rail electricity had killed him instantly.
She thought the nausea was from the stress of his death, but when the doctor told her that she was going to be a mother, she was beyond words. She had wanted children, but for the last few years, she and Tony had not seen any hope of that happening.
She ran into Bryce at a furniture store when she was shopping for baby items. He had moved back to New England. After taking in her swollen belly, she filled him in on the events of her life, right there in the store.
"I'm surprised to see you," she'd said.
"I'd always planned to come back," he'd told her softly. "I'm sorry about Tony. If you need the name of a good pediatrician, let me know. Here's my card. I can give you some recommendations."
Of course she was over him, but she was still embarrassed at what had happened between them. It was fifteen years ago, but Megan knew she was wrong.
After a routine appointment, she was leaving the hospital when she heard the hospital paging Doctor Peterson. Her heart seemed to stop in her chest. Could it be? Nah. Bryce lived in Massachusetts, but what were the chances that he was on staff at the same hospital as her obstetrician?
Curiosity gave in and Megan stopped at the information desk. "By any chance is there a Doctor Bryce Peterson on staff? Tall blond man with blue eyes and a mustache?"
The elderly volunteer smiled, tapping computer keys. "Why yes. Doctor Peterson. Very nice man."
Megan felt faint. Wow!
She laid a hand on her son's cool forehead and rubbed it. The memories flooded in . . .
Her delivery had been normal, but only weeks after Brian's birth, she'd picked him up to feed him and noticed that he felt very hot. She kept calm even as she took his temperature. When it read 104° , she clutched Brian to her shoulder and ran to find Bryce's card.
She could have gone to the emergency room, but at that moment, all she could think about was talking to someone she trusted. Bryce sounded sleepy.
"Bryce, it's Megan. I'm sorry to call you so late, but my baby is sick. Really sick. I'm scared." She described his symptoms. Bryce said he'd meet her at the emergency room.
He dropped everything when she entered, still in her pajamas. But he didn't laugh. He quickly examined the tiny red body. She was impressed with how quickly he moved from his tiny ear canals to an all over inspection.
"I'm pretty sure that its an ear infection," he announced to her relief. "We'll do some tests to be sure."
The nurse administered some fever reducer, then antibiotics. Brian was fine. But Bryce checked in on him the next day. And the next. And the next. Megan's relief that Bryce had come to her rescue churned within her until she decided she had to thank him. She offered to make him dinner. It had been a wonderful evening, but there were no fireworks between them. He thanked her for the food then left.
How could she have possibly thought that he could have any romantic feelings for her? There had been no clues.
Or had there?
It hadn't started out with weekly meals. When he called the next day to thank her for dinner, he joked that since he was a busy emergency room doctor and a bachelor, he seldom had time for home cooked meals.
Megan compulsively invited him for dinner whenever he was able to stop by. After a couple of weeks, she got the courage to ask why he'd never gotten married.
"No time," he replied, and she'd dropped it, still agonizing over what happened between them years earlier.
The weeks multiplied into months. Bryce helped her organize Brian's first birthday party, since, Megan announced to all present, Bryce saved his life. Later, as he helped her clean up after a house full of guests, Bryce told her that what had happened that night was a routine ear infection. "I didn't save his life. I did what any doctor would do."
"But he means everything to me," she'd said. "It felt like a life-threatening occasion to me."
They'd parted awkwardly that evening, but Bryce remained as much a part of their lives as any good friend would.
Five busy, joyful years flew by. Megan never once thought of him as anything but a close friend. She had absolved herself of guilt by convincing herself that she was a different person now than the person she was in college. Bryce had forgiven her because he was a superior human being, but she had changed as well.
Was tonight's proposition really sudden? Had Bryce loved her all these years? Or had the time they'd spent since that scary night in the emergency room fired his feelings anew?
Megan stared out into the night.
Dinner tonight began as any other dinner during the past five years. Megan thought nothing of the fact that it was Valentine's Day. Bryce never celebrated any holiday with fanfare, especially not a romantic one. She briefly thought it strange that he wanted to spend it with her, but then the fleeting thought fled her mind as she prepared dinner.
He helped her set the table, they ate, they laughed, and then he played with Brian while Megan got the dessert ready. It had been a kind of joke; Megan was going through each of the recipes in Mrs. Fields Cookbook week by week. Bryce loved the desserts, and, much to her dismay, she found that he never gained weight. The three of them played a game of Monopoly together, then Bryce put Brian to bed.
When he returned downstairs, he'd suggested that they play Scrabble. That too hadn't been a big surprise. They liked to play board games. It started out as ordinary as before until the end of the second game. Megan won the first, Bryce the second.
"Tired?" he asked.
Now, in retrospect, she remembered that Bryce had seemed distracted for the last several weeks. She'd asked him if something at work was troubling him. They'd talked before of losing patients, of hospital bureaucracy and problems with insurance. But Bruce had shaken his head with an evasive answer that Megan had shrugged off.
"We can stop," he said, but she hadn't felt his heart was in the offer. She glanced at the clock. It was twenty minutes to eleven. "Then again, we do have a stalemate," he said.
"You mean a tie breaker?" she said.
"Sure. What are the stakes?"
Stakes? She'd thought. He had never suggested anything like that. He didn't even gamble. Before she could say anything, he'd pressed on.
"This is for the championship," he'd said.
"I didn't even know we were in the playoffs. I guess you want to make things interesting, huh?"
"Absolutely," he'd said, and his voice shook slightly.
"Okay, what are the stakes?"
His eyes averted. His voice shook even more, but he spoke with confidence. "If you win, then I'll make dinner for the next three months. From scratch."
"Whoa, you've got a deal!" Megan roared.
"Now wait a minute," he said, holding up a hand. Megan looked into his face. It was red. "You have to hear what happens if I win."
"I can't wait," she said, grinning.
At her statement, he looked as if he were going to burst. "If I win, then I get to take you out someplace fancy. We get a baby sitter for Brian. And at the end of the evening, I get to kiss you good night."
Megan's mouth dropped open. She laughed, a shaky, nervous chuckle. "Is this is your idea of a joke, or something?"
Bryce shook his head. "No. I'm serious."
Her body was shaking. "You mean, like a date? Bryce, why . . .?"
"Because I love you, Megan. Why shouldn't I want us to be more than friends?"
The past came rushing back to her. She stood, her face red. "No, no, not me . . . you deserve some one better . . . wait a minute! What am I saying?"
Bryce was gazing at her, his eyes full of love. "There is no one better. "
"Not after what I--"
He stood. "What you did to me? That's what you were going to say, wasn't it? I don't want to hear it."
"Why?" she exploded.
"Because. It was a long time ago. Maybe we weren't ready then. We are now."
"Ready for what?" Her head was spinning.
Bryce studied her for a time. The house was silent except for the sound of the clock ticking behind them. "I wanted to date you, Megan, so that I could ease you into this. But I can see that you want--no, you need--the answers right now. Megan, I want to marry you. I want to be a father to Brian. I already am emotionally, and I could be legally if you let me. I know he wants me in his life full time. We just have to convince you." She was shaking her head, crying. "Brian asked me last year if I would be his father. I was as stunned as you are now. That precious kid made me realize that I had been denying my feelings for you. Megan, I don't know how long they've been there, I just know they are there now, and I can't ignore them. I love you, and I want to us to be a family. Forget all else. Forget the past. I know you need time to mull this over, but what I don't want is for you to drive yourself crazy with what happened a long time ago. I know you have regrets. So do I. But I want to move forward now. That should be enough."
The tears had started anew. They fell onto Brian's carpet with light thuds against the thick carpet. Why would he want her? She was about to answer that question when his words fired in her brain once again. Forget all else. Forget the past. I don't want you to drive yourself crazy with what happened a long time ago. I want to move forward . . .
Shutting her romantic feelings away for him had been one of the most painful things she'd ever done. To open herself up again to those kind of feelings for Bryce would be doubly painful.
But, she thought with a sudden smile, this time, she wouldn't make mistakes. This time, it would be forever. Because it wouldn't be hard to let herself love him as a woman loves a man.
Maybe it's already there. In fact, I think its started already.
Her grin turned ridiculously wide as she relived the past--this time--all good memories--with the prospect of a life together. Bryce had never stopped being wonderful to her. Never.
She had never had a high school sweetheart, but Bryce had been her first love. She smiled wider. Maybe it was fitting that he should be the love of her life.
Dawn broke. Megan rose, wiped her wet face and left Brian's room quietly. She slipped into her room and dialed.
Bryce sounded fully awake despite the hour. "It's me," she said softly. "I'm sorry for calling so early . . ."
"Yes. Did I wake you?"
"No. I got called in. I was about to get a few hours rest. What's up?"
Megan couldn't speak. An unspeakable joy was coursing through her. Her nerves were tangled up in her boundless emotions, tying her tongue beyond light conversation.
Her cheeks hurt because she was grinning so wide that her jaw was trembling.
"Megan? Is something wrong? It is Brian?"
"No," she managed at last. "Nothing is wrong with either of us. I was calling to, uh, to challenge you to a Scrabble game. Same stakes as last night with one exception."
Bryce sounded as if he were going to burst this time. "What's that?" he asked immediately.
"I, uh, I'm going to let you win." Her voice lowered. "Brian and I need for you to win. We need you, Bryce."
"I thought you needed time to think it over."
"I've thought it over. Remember? I decide things quickly. This time, no regrets."
He laughed. Megan gathered up all her courage. "Bryce, I'm pretty sure that I love you. I don't know if I never stopped or if it's been on hold or if it happened since you came back but I--"
"I'll take it any way it comes," he said, sighing.
"I guess you really are my lobster," she said.
Megan giggled. "They choose one partner and stay together for life, no matter what."
Bryce hummed. "If that's not us, I don't know what is."