This is a test of something... I'm not sure what I'm doing with it. It may just turn out to be a "What If...?"
The steady beep of a heart monitor. Mumblings of voices. The clink of metal against metal.
Catherine Delaney opened her eyes to a sharp slant of sun. She brought an arm up to shield her face. A long, hollow plastic tube followed her movement. An IV. Where was she?
The last thing she remembered was her wedding. Her husband, Malcolm, had been away. They had history. Three children.
But one day Malcolm left. For five years he left and no one knew why. When he returned, they found out he was a witness to murder. He’d left because he didn’t want to put his family in harm’s way.
The two reconciled. It was sweet. They planned to marry again. But the brother of the man Malcolm had put in jail came for revenge. He’d infiltrated their happy home, nearly killed Malcolm, and ended Catherine’s modeling career with the biting tip of a knife. Her skin was ruined. Her career was over.
She still had Malcolm and her children, however. That was all she needed. Until she woke up in the hospital.
Someone shone a light in her eyes. It flicked back and forth, testing her cognizance. She squinted into the light, trying to make out the blurred shape surrounding her.
“Where am I?” she asked, her voice thick as though she’d just awoken from a long hibernation. No one answered her. The nurse clicked the flashlight off, placed two fingers against Catherine’s wrist, and gazed at her watch, giving Catherine a moment to drink in her surroundings.
It was a small room. One window lit up the corner wall. Monitors and IVs huddled next to the bed. Her life signs advertised her heart rate, brain waves, and BP – whatever that was. She was in a hospital. Why? Had something happened at the wedding?
Squealing tires filled her ears to the point of noise pollution. She winced. The nurse noticed.
“Are you all right, Miss Delaney?”
It must have been a car accident. She and Malcolm must have been in an accident on the way to their hotel. But where was Malcolm? Panic gripped her heart; the monitor to her right began to beep feverishly. Was her husband dead?
And why was the blasted nurse calling her “Miss”?
“What happened? Why am I in the hospital? Where’s my husband?” Catherine demanded, trying to position herself on the stiff bed. She pulled her legs over to the side, but the metal bars on each side of her prevented the movement.
“Miss Delaney, you were in a car accident. You’ve been in a coma for a few weeks, now. I need you to just lie still for me, okay? I’m going to call your doctor so we can try and get you out of here,” the nurse explained.
Catherine shook her head. “Where’s my husband? Where’s Malcolm?”
The nurse put a comforting hand on Catherine’s arm. “Miss Delaney, you don’t have a husband. Your sister’s been very worried about you, however. She’s come by every day—”
“Don’t have a husband?” Catherine demanded. “What do you mean I don’t have a husband? I just got married to him again! We have three children! Rose, Isaac, and Victoria. We were married for sixteen years, he left for five, and then we got married again! My husband’s name is Malcolm Holmes! Please find him!” she cried, letting the words out in one breath. But the nurse just sat there and stared at her like she was a lost soul.
The woman was about to say something, but recognition flashed in her eyes. “Malcolm Holmes...” she said, standing and placing her hands in the pockets of her uniform. “The name sounds familiar.”
Catherine’s pulse spiked. “Yes! Please, please tell me where he is.”
“No, no, Miss Delaney. Mr. Holmes has been by a few times, but he’s not your husband.”
“What? How dare you—”
“Miss Delaney, Malcolm Holmes was the man whose car you hit. He’s the reason you’re here.”
The apartment was small. A staircase accented the front hallway, leading up to one empty bedroom with nothing but a queen size and a mess of pillows. The living room was fifteen by fifteen – big enough for her. The slanted, sweet touch of a woman adorned each corner: a neatly hung painting on this wall, a folded blanket over the back of the green suede sofa, and a dusting of style on the entertainment center so the television wouldn’t scratch the surface.
Catherine sighed. Her older sister turned and shut the front door, piling her things onto the sofa. She glanced around for a moment.
“Man, looks like you haven’t been home in years!” she exclaimed, running an index finger over the kitchen counter and showing her the thin line of dust that had gathered.
“I don’t ever find the time to dust,” Catherine answered. “Thanks for taking me home, Victoria.”
Victoria, the sister who had been born four years before her, arched a dark eyebrow. Victoria was always beautiful. Her long, dark hair was always sleek an shining, her bright green eyes seemed to drink in every conversation as though it would be the last, and her alabaster skin was simply perfection.
“What are big sisters for?” she asked, flashing a toothy smile.
Catherine was about to answer when she noticed the two vases of red roses huddled together on the counter near the sink. She went over to them.
“What are all these?”
Victoria leaned forward so she could see her sister underneath the overhang of kitchen cabinets.
“Oh...” she replied. “That guy who got into the accident with you would bring a rose every day you were in the hospital.”
Catherine’s heart leapt. She touched the wilted brown petal of one rose, standing out like a sore thumb from the rest. It was dry and cracked almost into dust. She couldn’t imagine how that flower was once vibrant and red.
“He must have felt really guilty, or something. He told me he figured that once he got to a dozen, you’d be awake. But here they are all twenty-four—”
“You talked to him?” Catherine asked out of nowhere, swinging around to search her sister’s face.
Victoria’s perfect brow wrinkled the slightest bit. “Yeah... Well...I mean...a little. Why?”
Catherine shook her head. As soon as she’d found out that the past twenty years of her life had been nothing but a dream, she’d clammed up. She didn’t want to speak about it to anyone, ever. And every time someone would pry, she’d change the subject.
The funny thing was that Catherine remembered those twenty years like they were her own, yet she also remembered her other life – the real one. Her flawless memory served that Victoria was not her youngest daughter, she was her sister. And Malcolm Holmes was not her husband. He was a stranger.
“Earth to Cathy???” Victoria said, waving a manicured hand in front of her sister’s face. Catherine snapped out of it.
“Oh... Sorry. I was just...”
Victoria leaned a hip against the counter and stared quizzically at her baby sister. “You were just what? Day dreaming about that hunk of a guy you got into a wreck with?”
Catherine couldn’t help but smile. Even in real life Malcolm could have any woman he wanted.
“If you ask me,” Victoria went on, “any guy who’d bring a red rose to a complete stranger on twenty-four separate days is a keeper. Maybe you should go talk to him.”
“No... I couldn’t,” Catherine said, arranging the vases on each side of the sink. “Could I?” She stopped and looked up at her sister.
Victoria tilted her head. “Why not? I don’t know anything about him besides the fact that he works at the modeling studio in San Jose.”
Victoria nudged her. “Go see him today. When do you go back to work?”
“If I still have a job...”
Victoria poo-pooed. “Of course you do. Al wouldn’t give up a talent like yours unless his life was in danger. Even then...” A smile lit up that petite, heart-shaped face.
Catherine huffed. “What talent? Oh, you mean the one where I pretend to be pleased at every happy occasion while I serenade party guests into the evening?”
“Hey, it’s a good way to meet men.”
“Yeah, I can count the amount of men I’ve met as a wedding singer on one hand. It’s zero, if you didn’t catch that,” Catherine said.
“Yeah, yeah, I caught it, I caught it,” Victoria replied, waving a hand in her sister’s face. As she was doing so, she caught sight of the watch on her wrist. Her eyes widened. “Crap! Is that the time? I gotta get back to the studio. You wouldn’t believe how antsy those photographers can get when their model is late.” She threw Catherine a wink as she swished out of the kitchen and to the door.
“I still don’t understand why you work in the city when we have a studio in San Jose,” Catherine replied, approaching the door.
“Oh, I see,” Victoria said, a smile filling out her face again.
“You see what?”
“You just want me to work in San Jose so you can meet that handsome fella that brought you all them roses, huh?” she asked.
Catherine rolled her eyes. “Never mind. Just go.”
Victoria turned serious. “You gonna be okay?”
She nodded. “I’ll be fine. Now get out of my house.”
“Apartment,” she corrected before heading out. “Love ya!”
Catherine sighed and turned around to face the stairway. She leaned against the front door and felt the sadness threaten to envelop her.
“Yeah... Apartment...” she mumbled.
What am I doing? Catherine asked herself as she sat outside C&M Modeling in her beat up Chevrolet. It seemed strange to her that the name of the agency was C&M in real life. The M must have stood for Malcolm. But what about the C?
She took a deep breath, unlatched her seatbelt, and walked inside. She’d done the best she could with what she had. Her chestnut brown hair was straight and she’d used a million different products to make it seem shinier. She’d opted for some dark makeup like Victoria would wear to enhance the emerald of her eyes, and she’d made certain to wear the best dress she had – the little black knee-length one that hugged her body just right. She wasn’t a model, and the others passing her in the studio gave her strange looks as though she shouldn’t have been there.
She’d never been in the place before, and it wasn’t laid out the same as it had been in her dreams. For one thing, there were no double doors leading into a large concrete floored studio. Instead, a stone staircase plunged into a while-walled room to her left. The stage wasn’t set, so the vibrancy of the room almost overwhelmed her.
She remembered that Malcolm’s office was toward the back of the studio, but when she ventured down the short hallway in front of her, she was met with only an emergency exit. Embarrassed, she spun around, almost smashing into someone.
The man was like a brick wall. His chest was broad and hard underneath a tight black t-shirt. His thick arms ended in enormous hands poised on his hips. Catherine met his gaze. Hard features and dark, brooding eyes. Uh-oh.
“Can I help you, miss?” he asked.
“I...I’m looking for Mr. Holmes,” she replied.
The man squinted at her. “Say...you look familiar...”
“Oh, yeah! You’re that lady who was in the coma, right?”
The man smiled, brightening his face in an instant. “Well, why didn’t you say so? Follow me.” He wound a meaty hand around her wrist and tugged. It was if she were being pulled by a Rottweiler on a leash. The whole way to Malcolm’s office – which was consequently on the other side of the studio through a set of private doors – the man talked non-stop about how he’d been in an accident four years ago and his coma had lasted two months. Catherine nodded politely at each interval.
They stopped in a small reception area. A plant in the final throws of death was resting in the corner. The reception desk was manned by a petite blond who didn’t look strong enough to stand. She raised her eyes when they approached.
“Hey, Melissa. This is Miss Delaney. Remember, the coma lady from the papers?” the man asked proudly.
The receptionist nodded. “Hi Miss, Delaney. Do you have an appointment?” she asked.
Catherine deflated as the man let her go. “No. I didn’t think I was... I didn’t know...”
“Just let her in. Mal’s been goin’ to see her almost every day while she was in that hospital,” the man replied.
“Yeah, Jack, that was before Cici found out,” Melissa answered, glancing at Catherine. Cici? Who was Cici?
“Just let her in.”
Melissa heaved a sigh her body couldn’t have possibly anticipated and picked up her phone. She punched in a number, waited, then said, “Mr. Holmes, you have a visitor... No, no appointment... Yes, sir... I think you’ll probably want to see this one... Do you have a minute?” She waited. “Okay, sir, I’ll send her in.” She hung up and motioned Catherine toward the solid door on her right. Jack gave her a wave and left the office.
Another deep breath later, Catherine opened Malcolm’s door and stepped inside. It was like a mini suite in there. A large bookcase sat against the far wall. A dark, mahogany desk sat empty in the center of the room with a new Mac resting on top. The plush brown sofa across from the desk looked inviting, but Catherine was too preoccupied with the room being devoid of life.
She heard someone clear his throat. Turning to her right, she noticed a tiny kitchen nook. A man had his back to her. He was making a hot cup of tea. He was Malcolm.
She even recognized him from the back. A black turtleneck sweater, jeans, thin and angular, and a mess of silver hair. It took all her strength not to run and wrap her arms around his waist.
He cleared his throat again, muttered something about “bloody allergies”, and turned around, too busy steeping his teabag to notice her presence.
Good, she thought, he kept the beard.
It was trim and white, covering his chin and growing up the sides of his face. He looked much better with it because it took the focus away from those subtle lines and imperfections in his thin face.
He sniffed and looked up.
Those gorgeous, sparkling blue eyes searched her face for a moment. At first, it seemed like he didn’t know what to make of her. Did he think she was just some poor soul looking for a job? Not her.
But then, something came over him. The serious expression turned anxious, maybe even a little worried. The mug of tea went a bit slack, spilling a few drops over the side and onto the linoleum floor.
“Mr. Holmes...?” Catherine asked.
Abruptly, he shut his mouth, set the mug of tea on the counter, and went to her. She expected him to come shake her hand or something, but when he scooped her into a tight embrace, she felt a pull of loneliness. But she’d promised herself no tears.
“Miss Delaney, I’m glad you’re all right,” he replied in that gravelly, accented voice.
“Yes, thank you,” she replied, tugging away from him. She didn’t want that overwhelming feeling flooding her anymore. He smelled of fresh soap with a hint of vinegar. It killed her.
“I’m sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable,” he said, his voice soft. He scrubbed a hand through his beard; it sounded like Velcro. “Please sit.”
She did, crossing her ankles like a polite woman.
“Would you like something to drink? I don’t drink coffee, but I can make some. I also have tea or water or...something stronger if you prefer,” he added when he saw the look on her face. She cleared her features at the same time as her throat.