The past week had been nothing short of amazing. If I wasn’t working or in class, Gareth and I spent all our time together. I’d barely made it to work on time after our trip to the dinosaur exhibit in Raleigh, but I’d found I hadn’t cared. It meant I got to spend more time with him. I glanced at the clock. Shit. He was going to be here any minute.
I hopped around the room, trying to get my legs into my jeans and pulled up. Grabbing my Keds, I plopped on the bed and tugged them on. My gaze darted around my dorm room searching for my bag. It was half buried under my comforter. Giddy excitement made my heart flutter in my chest. I’d never felt this way before about a guy. It also made me nervous. For someone like me, good things never lasted. They were always taken away when I least expected it.
This thing between Gareth and me wouldn’t last forever, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to enjoy every second until it was over. Pretty sure I had everything I needed, I dashed out the door nearly running into Jackie on my way out.
“You’re leaving again?”
I blinked at her tone. “Yeah, why?”
Her expression cleared and she shrugged. “Just curious. Not that I care. I’ve been enjoying having the room to myself.”
She turned her back on me and disappeared into our room. That was weird. It was like she hadn’t wanted me to leave. I had this urge to go back in and talk to her, but Gareth was probably outside by now. I’d make a point to talk to her tomorrow. With an eagerness that should have scared me, I skipped down the stairs and out into the bright Fall sunshine. My eyes latched onto Gareth’s car in the u-shaped driveway of the dorm. He smiled and waved and my heart skipped a thousand beats. I inhaled a shocked breath, and my feet froze. Was this what love felt like?
His expression turned to one of concern, and I quickly pasted a smile back on my face. This was so not good though.
The minute I settled into the seat next to him, he turned to me. “What’s wrong? You had this weird look on your face.”
“Oh, sorry, I’d just had this moment of freak out about my exam in a couple days. It hit me out of nowhere. So, where are we going today?” I tried to force excitement into my tone. Most of our dates were a surprise. He usually didn’t tell me about them until we were on our way.
Gareth didn’t answer for a moment. I blinked innocently at his narrow-eyed expression and put on my best smile. His look said he didn’t believe me, but he let it go. “I thought we could have lunch with my parents. They’re in town visiting for the next couple weeks.”
“Whoa, wait, what?” My stomach lurched. Please don’t get sick. “Your…parents? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
Hurt radiated off him, and he reached across the seat to hold my hand. Like always, an electrical current sparked across my skin at his touch. “I want them to meet you. I’ve already told them how amazing you are. I thought it would be nice for them to get to know you better.”
Terror burned inside me. I’d never met anyone’s parents before. And based on my musical foster home history, I clearly wasn’t good with the whole parent thing. My chest ached. What if they didn’t like me?
“What’s not to like?”
I focused on Gareth’s face. I must have asked that out loud. “I guess I’m just nervous.”
“Don’t be. It’s going to be fine.”
This was everything but fine. My stomach kept turning over, and I swallowed down the nausea. Dr. and Mrs. Brown had smiled politely during our introduction, but I could see what Gareth either couldn’t or refused to.
“Gareth tells us you’re studying to be a social worker,” Mrs. Brown set down her wine glass.
“That sounds,” she paused like she was scrambling hard for a diplomatic word. “Interesting.”
I smiled as best I could. “I enjoy it.”
There was no sense in elaborating, because her opinion was pretty obvious. It wasn’t like either of Gareth’s parents were rude. They just weren’t too welcoming either. She cleared her throat, trying to make conversation since I was doing a terrible job with it.
“Are you originally from Chapel Hill?”
“No ma’am. I was bounced around a lot between foster homes.”
“Livvie is a fantastic artist. She does these amazing pencil sketches you should see.”
Both his parents smiled placatingly. “I’m sure they’re lovely, dear.”
The nausea had continued building all night. I needed to get away from here for just a minute. I set my napkin on the table. “If you’ll excuse me for just a moment, I need to run to the lady’s room.”
Gareth started to stand, but I waved him back. I hurried through the crowded restaurant to the bathrooms in the back. I locked myself in one of the stalls, my breath coming in short, rapid gasps. With closed eyes, I focused on the breathing techniques I’d learned over the years to help quiet my anxiety. It took a little longer than usual, but finally my breathing was back to normal.
Why did I do this to myself? It was obvious that Gareth’s parents didn’t really care for me. I should have known this thing between us was too good to last. He was close with his parents, and it was clear how much they loved him. There was no way I was going to let this…thing we may or may not have ruin their relationship. I wasn’t going to come between them. A sense of calm came over me now that I’d reconciled the fact that it was over. It had been amazing while it had lasted. I splashed some water on my face, checked my reflection in the mirror a final time, and headed back out to the table.
I could see the three of them talking. There were genuine smiles on both Gareth’s parents’ faces. They were far more relaxed and animated than they’d been with me. Pasting my own smile on my face, I took my seat.
Gareth reached across and held my hand. “My parents just invited me to the theatre next Saturday to go see a show. Why don’t you come with?”
My gaze flicked in their direction, and I saw the frown on their faces. This was it. Time was up. A pain I’d been ignoring twinged in the vicinity of my heart. So this is what heartbreak feels like. “I have to work, but I appreciate the invite. You go and have a great time with your folks. I’m sure they want to catch up with you.”
“You can’t call off one night?”
“Gareth,” his father scolded.
How could he ask me that? He knew I needed that job. “No, I’m sorry, I can’t.”
The rest of the afternoon past with uncomfortable conversation until finally we all said our goodbyes.
“Thank you for lunch, Dr. and Mrs. Brown. It was a pleasure meeting you.” I maintained a polite smile even while my heart was cracking in my chest.
“It was nice meeting you as well, Olivia.”
Gareth hugged both his parents. “I’ll call you later and we’ll make plans for tomorrow.”
“That sounds lovely dear.” His mother kissed his cheek. “I love you.”
“Love you too.” He waved and then walked us to his car.
We started to head to his house, but I stopped him. “Can you take me back to the dorm, please?”
My fingers ached from the tight grip I had on my bag against my chest. I needed to hurry up and get out of this car before I broke down.
“Is everything okay? I thought we could go back to my place and watch a movie.”
“It’s fine. I just really need to study for that exam I have in a couple days.” My head was starting to pound.
Gareth sent me a look, but he changed directions and headed to campus. My foot began tapping a restless beat. He needed to hurry up. Finally, we pulled in front of the dorm.
“Thank you for lunch. I’ll talk to you later.” I jumped out of the car, slamming the door behind me.
“Livvie, wait.” I could hear Gareth behind me. My skin burned from where his hand clutched my arm. I stared down at it for a second before I looked up at him. There was confusion written across his face. “What’s going on with you?”
I shook my head, turning away from him again, my heart racing in my chest. A panic attack was bubbling just below the surface. I needed to get inside before it exploded out of me. “Nothing. I just need to go study.”
“You keep saying that, but you won’t even look at me. What the fuck is going on with you?”
I jerked out of his grip, and tried to glare at him. “I told you from the beginning how important my studies and work are to me, yet you want me to call off work to go to some stupid musical with you and your parents. Now, I’m trying to go study for a test, and you won’t let me.”
Gareth’s eyes widened in shock and he backed away, his hands held up in surrender. “Wow, I’m sorry. I thought you liked spending time with me.”
“I did, I mean, I do. But not everything is about you, you know. We don’t all have mommy and daddy’s money to get us by.” I hated the cruel words, but it was the only way I could get him to leave me alone before I broke down.
Hurt and anger flashed in his eyes. “That’s not fair. You know as well as I do that I’ve never wanted to rely on my parents’ money. I’ve worked hard for the things I have.”
I kept my mouth shut.
Gareth huffed out a sound that could have passed for a laugh if not for the tightness around his mouth. He straightened to his full height, pride evident in his posture. “I’m not sure what happened between this morning and now, but clearly something has. If you want to talk, you have my number. Have fun studying.”
He turned and walked back to his car. It took everything in me not to call him back, but I forced myself to stand there and let him go. It was for the best. Pretty soon, he’d forget about me and move on to someone his parents would approve of. I swallowed back my tears and headed up to my dorm room.
I stepped inside and Jackie glared at me. Then her expression changed to concern by whatever it was she saw on my face. “Hey, are you okay?”
Ignoring her, I dumped my bag on the floor and went into the bathroom. The second I turned the faucet on, the first sob escaped. Then the next. I couldn’t hold them back any longer. I slid to the floor, tugged my knees to my chest, and bawled for everything I’d just lost.
I don’t know how long I cried, but I vaguely heard a noise. The water was shut off and then an arm hesitantly went around my shoulder. My tears were still coming, but not like they had been. Needing the small amount of comfort, I leaned into Jackie who remained quiet. We sat there together while I tried to figure out how I was going to get over my broken heart.