A Prior Engagement

By: Karina Bliss


SLEEP WAS ALWAYS elusive, the first night in a strange bed.
Juliet Browne plumped the pillow, trying to put more volume into it. It was too soft, the mattress too firm and ambient light emanated through a picture window to her right when she was used to cocooning darkness.
She could close the curtain....
Except what she did like about this room was the gnarled pohutukawa branches, spindly as ballerina legs and tufted with leaves dancing in the wind outside the window. Moonlight filtered through them, dappling the stark walls and Spartan-white duvet cover with monochromic graffiti. There was something anarchic about the bony branches that channeled her growing emotion.
Don’t be sad.
Rolling on her back, she stared up at the ceiling, shaped like an inverted triangle. This house was pale, stylized and angular, reflecting its architect owner. She liked Mark, liked his steadiness, his creativity, his easy conviction that, gee, life was pretty good, wasn’t it?
Tears prickled behind her eyelids and she blinked them away, sidling closer to the edge of the bed, as far away as possible from the man sleeping on the other side. It was normal to feel bewildered, even bereft, under the circumstances. Sex represented the last goodbye in a two-year journey of moving on—it was bound to raise Lee’s ghost.
Go to sleep, she sternly ordered herself and his ghost. But if their short, intense relationship had taught her anything, it was that Lee Davis had never been one to lie down quietly. Tucking the sheet around her, Jules thought about the trust agreement she’d been amending that day. The intricacies of subclauses would soothe her faster than watching branches dance.
A sound startled her awake. Opening blurry eyes, she saw her evening clutch bag vibrating on the nightstand. The realization of where she was returned slowly. Glancing over her bare shoulder at Mark, curled away from her, sound asleep, she turned back in time to see her quivering bag topple onto the floor, spilling its contents.
Mark muttered but didn’t wake. Just as well—she’d told him she’d switched off her cell. He’d wanted an intimate dinner with no outside interruptions. Instead, she’d put it on vibrate, unwilling to entirely disconnect from the world.
The low hum stopped as the call went to message. Rolling to the edge of the mattress, Jules shoved her things back into her handbag. A lipstick, comb, a couple of business cards—Juliet Browne, Solicitor, West Harbor Law—a credit card and keys hooked to a miniature tennis ball. Just out of reach, her cell pinged a message, its screen casting a green glow across the white carpet.
She frowned, catching sight of the time. Who would be trying to contact her at six o’clock on a Sunday morning? Pushing aside the covers, she crept out of bed, grabbing her cell en route to the bathroom, where she slid the partition door shut before flicking on the light switch. Ignoring the naked brunette illuminated in the mirror, she checked her messages. Texts from Dan, Ross and Nate.... Surely Lee’s surviving army buddies weren’t already after a progress report? And two missed calls from Nate. She scanned the text messages first.
From Ross at midnight: Have you talked to Nate yet?
From Dan at 1:00 a.m.: Phone me soon as you’ve talked to Nate.
Anxiously she listened to Nate’s voice messages, the first sent at eleven-thirty the night before. “Jules, I need to talk to you urgently. Good news, incredible news but—” he gulped “—call me, okay?”
His second was the call a few minutes ago. “Where are you if you’re not at home?”
Then she read a text from him: CALL ME!
In growing alarm, she punched in his number.
He picked up after the first ring. “Jules,” he said. “Thank God. Claire and I are bouncing off walls here.”
“What’s happened?”
“It’s good news—the best—but you need someone with you.”
“Someone is with me. I’m at Mark’s.”
There was a moment’s silence. “Oh shit, you’ve slept with him.”
“What did you think we’d do when you guys set us up, play tiddlywinks? What’s going on?”
“Hang on.” A few seconds later, Claire, her best friend and Nate’s fiancée, came on.
“This needs to be done in person,” Claire said by way of greeting. “Go home and we’ll meet you there.” She and Nate lived forty minutes east of Whangarei, the small city that acted as a gateway to northern New Zealand.
Jules clutched the cell. “If you’re up this early on a Sunday it must be bad.” Claire was notoriously grumpy in the mornings.
“I swear it’s brilliant news...astonishing—” Her voice broke.
Nate came back on the line. “Look, we can’t do this over the phone, Jules,” he said impatiently. “Just get home.”
“Is Claire cry—” The bathroom door opened and Mark came in, rubbing his face. His hair was ruffled. And he was naked. Resisting the urge to cover her own nudity, Jules cut the conversation short. “Fine. The spare key is under a fake rock to the left of the potted geraniums.”
“You can’t be serious,” Nate said, incredulous. She broke the connection before the former celebrity bodyguard could lecture her about security.
“What’s going on?” Mark asked.
“That was Nate and Claire.” In the mirror, two people stood naked in a confined space under a bank of spotlights. Jules edged past him and into the bedroom. “Good news, apparently, but they want to tell me in person.”
“Why would they withhold good news? That doesn’t make sense.”
“It doesn’t, does it?” Anxiously, she started dressing, putting a run in her nylons in her haste. Jules wiggled into her cocktail dress, a fitted sheath in flamingo-pink, and stepped into the matching stilettos. “Zip me up?”
He did, and then dropped her shawl, a fine paisley silk, across her shoulders. “Want me to come with you?”
“No.” Mark raised an eyebrow and Jules patted his arm. “Thanks, but I’m sure it’s fine.” A romance was one thing, letting him into her relationship with Lee’s friends something else. Even if the guys had set them up. Mark’s brother Richard served with Ross in the SAS and Mark had designed the renovations for Claire and Nate’s home.
Her new lover pulled on jeans and walked her to the front door, which he unlocked. “Phone me when you know.”
“I will.” She waited for him to open it.
“Wait a sec. You forgot something.”
Jules tamped down her impatience as he disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. A few minutes later he returned with the enormous bunch of pink peonies he’d given her the night before, still in their cellophane. He’d wrapped the ends in damp newspaper. And as much as Jules wanted to race home and find out what the hell was going on, she took a minute to kiss this thoughtful man.
“I had a great time,” she said, then added more truthfully, “I’m glad it was you.” Last night had been about more than a physical connection—she’d needed the tenderness. And if the sex hadn’t been earth-shattering, it would get better as she practiced letting go.
He grinned, suddenly boyish as he turned the burnished doorknob. “I’m glad it was me, too. Call me.”
“I will.” When he closed the door, she ran.
* * *

THIRTY MINUTES LATER, Jules spun into the quiet cul-de-sac where she lived, the loud rumble of her recent purchase—a 1959 Cadillac de Ville—vying with the dawn chorus of the sparrows nesting in the old oak in her front yard.
Nate’s glossy black four-wheel drive was already parked in her driveway and she screeched to a halt behind it. Opening her clutch bag, she pulled out her diamond ring and slid it on, then grabbed her house keys and the flowers. In last night’s clothes, with tousled hair, slutty stilettos and kiss-swollen lips, she felt like Cinderella minus the midnight intervention. Which was crazy—her friends wouldn’t judge her.
No, she was doing that herself.
The door opened before she could insert the key in the lock and she found herself dragged into a convulsive hug by her best friend.
Jules froze. “Oh God, I knew it was bad news.”
“No, it’s great.” Claire loosed her hold. “I’m sorry, I’ve crushed your flowers.” Tugging them from Jules’s hands, she nervously smoothed out the cellophane. “Go sit down.”
But Jules was looking beyond her to Nate, who was standing by the tiny tiled hearth, his fists jammed in the pockets of his jeans. Her stomach dropped. His dark eyes were red-rimmed. Her attention shot to Claire. Her friend’s long blond hair was tied back, revealing her pale face; she’d clearly been crying, too. And her piercing blue gaze reminded Jules of a nurse assessing a patient.
“You’re scaring me,” she croaked.
“If you’d just sit—”
“Tell me now!”
“It’s Lee.” Nate sucked in a breath, then his face split in a wide, shaky grin. “Jules, he’s alive.”
The words made so little sense she couldn’t process them. Lee was dead, his body detonated by insurgents after an ambush in Afghanistan nineteen months and three days ago. They’d held a memorial service and his SAS comrades had played the Last Post. She shivered, recalling the echo of that mournful bugle. “I misheard you,” she said politely. “What did you say?”
“Lee has been discovered alive.” Claire gave a half laugh, half sob and reached out a hand, but Jules fended her off.
“No!” It was fatal to let in a whisper of doubt...or hope...after so many months of fighting to accept the grim reality. But the word alive had already found a resonance inside her and was sucking all the oxygen out of her lungs. In front of her, Claire kaleidoscoped to a tiny smiling dot.
Jules returned to consciousness to hear Nate say, “We should have made her sit down.”
Something pressed against her left cheek. “Ow!” She fumbled at what felt like a wet plastic bag of marbles and opened her eyes. She was lying on the floral couch, her legs raised on cushions.
“It’s okay.” Nate replaced a package of frozen peas on her left cheekbone. “Only a bruise.”
“What happened?” she said in bewilderment.
Tenderly, Claire pushed strands of hair away from her face. “You fainted and hit your head falling. It was the shock.”
Lee’s alive. Shoving away the peas, Jules jerked upright, and then swayed under a wave of dizziness.
“Easy.” Nate steadied her by grasping her shoulders. “Give yourself time to grasp that Lee’s a—”
Jules wrenched free. “Stop saying that. It’s cruel!” Her teeth began to chatter and she hugged herself, blaming the frozen peas for the shivers.
Sitting on the couch, Nate tugged her into his arms. “I swear to God,” he rasped, holding her resistant body tight against his chest. “Lee’s alive. He’s safe.”
The sob burst out of Jules, as graceless as a retch. Then another and another. Alive. She was barely aware of Nate rocking her, of Claire wrapping her arms around both of them, laughing and crying. A rush of elation percolated through her bloodstream and she started laughing, too.
“Tell me...how...why?”
Nate launched into an explanation of some setup and a body switch. Clinging to Claire’s fingers, Jules nodded but all she could hear was the beating of her heart. Alive. Alive. Alive!
“...and when the Americans raided a remote mountain outpost, they discovered the dugout where they’d been holding him.”
Some dark thread in his tone caught her attention. “They?”
“He’s been a prisoner of the Taliban.”
Nate read her fallen expression and added soothingly, “He’s in a military hospital in Bagram. His condition can’t be too critical or he’d have been evacuated to better facilities in Germany.”
“We have to go to him.”
Nate exchanged a glance with Claire, who put her arm around Jules. “The SAS has arranged for the guys to fly out tonight.”
For a moment she stared at her friend blankly. “Oh, my God.” Jules massaged her temples. “He doesn’t know about his dad.”
Nate gestured to the rock on Jules’s finger. The diamond was big and brash, a powerhouse that seemed to seize all ambient light. “Or that he’s engaged.”
Knowing Lee had intended to propose, his buddies had given her the engagement ring. They’d found it when they’d packed up his personal effects.
Reality hit her like an oncoming locomotive. Instinctively Jules covered the ring with her other hand.
“Now he can propose in person,” Claire said cheerfully, as though a six-week whirlwind romance easily withstood a year-and-a-half’s separation. A separation where one of the parties had been presumed dead...and the other was boinking someone else.
And that was the least of her problems.

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