Chapter 26: Eighteen

“Today is your birthday?” Nick clipped.  To say he sounded angry would be an understatement; my fiancé was livid.

I cringed, wincing more at the reminder than his tone.  Hadn’t I had told him about the insignificance of today’s date once or twice?  Either he was not listening or I had, in fact, not told him.  The second scenario was more likely than the first.  Nick’s mind was terrifyingly accurate; he never seemed to forget a word I said.


“So, don’t you think that is a detail your betrothed should know?”  His words squeaked from between clenched teeth.  His strong jaw flexed and released.

Looking at him had a detrimental effect on my short-term memory.  “Huh?” 

YourBirthdayToday.  Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I don’t know.”

“Callista…” he warned.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” I said honestly, attempting to deflect his irritation. 

And it really wasn’t.  For the ten years I had lived in New York, I had not received a card or call or e-mail from my mother on the seventeenth of August.  All communication from England had been cut off after I had left Barnard Hall.  In the beginning I had taken it upon myself to make the calls.  But after a few years of dead conversations and one-worded replies I had stopped wasting my time.  Since no one else had cared I had vowed not to either.  At eighteen, birthdays were just another blank day of misery on the calendar.  However, this year was markedly different.  This year I had Nick.

“Callista, you only turn eighteen once.”

“Not necessarily.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

Technically, you’ve been eighteen twice.”

He found no humor in my words.  “You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Nick sighed.  “Even if the date held no significance for you, did it not cross your mind that perhaps it would be an event that my family would like to celebrate—that I would like to celebrate?”

“Well, your entire family is under a lot of stress with planning and organizing your mother’s party.  I didn’t want to interrupt.” 

And then there was the date that hung in everyone’s minds, the one we no longer spoke about.  Stressful did not even begin to cover the increasing tension electrifying the air as we drew closer to August twenty fourth.  The Daltons and I had been frantically attempting to brainstorm ideas for catching the culprits before the fuse was lit.  This year the date of my birth was far exceeded by the fact that it was one day closer to what could be the end. 

“Next time, please do.”

“Do what?”


I nodded, convinced the issue had been dropped.  Since it was apparently such a big deal, next year I would have to remind Nick at least a month in advance.  That is assuming we survived until next year. 

The negative thought popped into my head without permission.  But the truth remained: plans were impossible to make when life hanged in the balance.  I had tried to explain that to Nick, but he had adamantly disagreed.  He had been making plans for our life together ever since I had accepted his proposal.  So I had changed my mind; making plans had become wonderful, idyllic.  The ability to keep them, however, was not always possible. 

Happy birthday to me.

“How can you think this is not a big deal?”


“Your birthday!” he shouted, once again revealing his frustration with my easily distracted mind.

Why did it matter so much to him?  How could I explain my previous experiences—or lack thereof—without sounding depressed, bitter, and pitiful?  He wanted today to be a happy, joyous occasion; I didn’t want to disappoint the man I loved.

“Mother and Jim did not celebrate birthdays.”  That sounded sufficient.

“Never?”  Even though Nick knew about my relationship with my mother and stepfather, the news seemed to surprise him. 

“No.  But if you remember, I had only lived with them for one birthday.  That was when Jim had found out about Tilly.”

He allowed those words to settle before responding.  “But that was ten years ago.”

“I know.”

“What about before?” he inquired.        

“I can’t really remember that far back.”

“You had to have celebrated at least once,” he said sadly.

“I’m sure we did, before my dad died.  I just can’t remember.  That’s why it isn’t a big deal.  It hasn’t been for most of my life.”

“Well, it is now officially a big deal.”

We both jumped when a rapid knock sounded at Nick’s door.  I turned to escape to my room, but he stopped me with a soft touch.

“This conversation is not over,” he said seriously.  “If you hadn’t been born I would never have found happiness.  Happiness with you is something I celebrate daily.”

I nodded and then Nick’s mood shifted.  Another impatient knock sounded, and he grinned.  When the door flew open, we both jumped.  If one of his household staff had caught us alone together in his bedroom, I would be ruined—whatever that entailed.  Reluctantly, I peeked from behind his broad back, anxious to learn my fate.

The intruder was beautiful, with porcelain skin and wild black curls falling around her petite shoulders.

“Nicki, where are you hiding the birthday girl?”

* * *

“I was so scared when the mirror broke.  I had been sure you were dead,” Tilly said seriously.

 It was like no time had passed since I had last seen my best friend.  We had caught up quickly, touching on the highlights of our ten-year absence.  The details of her life had been considerably less depressing than my own.  The only light in my story had come from Nick—a fact that had made Tilly gag repeatedly.

“I thought the same and had blamed myself for everything.  What’s worse was that I had believed you would not be my friend anymore if you had survived.”

“How could you come to such a silly conclusion?  Is that why you never came back?”

“No, Jim sent me away the next day to live with my father’s aunt in New York City.  I didn’t come back to Barnard Hall until this summer.”

“All this time I was sure …” Tilly shook her head.  “All that matters is that you are here now.”

“Just like old times.”  I smiled.  I was there, but for how long?  Neither of us knew the answer to that.  Now was all that could matter.

“Not quite,” she contradicted.

“What do you mean?”

“We are much older, and more sophisticated,” she teased.

“Of course.”

“And you love my brother.”  She stuck out her tongue, reminding me of the eight-year-old I once knew.

I giggled in agreement, something I had been doing a lot lately.

She rolled her eyes dramatically.  “Didn’t you listen to anything I said ten years ago?”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s a loon; he’ll only annoy you to death.  Get out while you still can.”

“You were right about everything you used to tell me about him,” I began.

“If that were true then you would’ve avoided him.”

“You’re right, except you forgot to share the one vital detail that has left me infatuated.” 

My friend’s smile broadened.  “I told you he was conniving, ruthless, vindictive and smelly… What did I miss that you could have possibly found attractive?”

“He’s perfect, Tilly.”

She made a gurgling sound again but sobered quickly.  “It appears as though there is no hope for you, my friend.  I can’t say I won’t be happy to have you as my sister.  I always used to pretend you were, you know.  I’ve dreamed of what it would be like if you were around all the time to help me pester and annoy Nicki. Oh, the torture we could have inflicted.”  She sighed wistfully.

“And now she will be,” Nick said, interrupting our reunion without a hint of apology.  “But I’m lucky enough to have Timothy as a brother to help me control you, baby sister.  If you’re ever out of line we could always hang you from a doorknob.”

She stuck her tongue out at her big brother, and he mussed her hair.  The warm scene unfolding in front of me was what I had imagined it would have been like to have a sibling.  Their easy banter left me feeling lonely.  Again I was reminded that these plans were fine to make—brothers, sisters, and family—but August twenty fourth was only a week away, looming like judgment day.  These ideas, our dreams, would be for naught if no one survived.

“Are they always like this?” I asked Tim, secretly hoping for an affirmation. 

We watched Tilly chase her brother around the settee; Nick’s long strides allowed him to remain a few steps ahead of his sister. 

Tilly’s husband was tall with unruly red hair.  Beyond the obvious differences in their appearances, the ways the couple contrasted were comical.  Tim was thoughtful, Tilly impulsive.  He was as quiet as Tilly was outspoken.  According to Nick, his brother-in-law had to be as Tilly talked enough for the both of them. 

Tim smiled but did not take his eyes from his tiny wife.  The love and blatant intimacy in his gaze made my own cheeks flush.  “Yes.  It is wonderful, isn’t it?”

I nodded in agreement while watching the Dalton children bicker.  “Do you have any sisters or brothers, Tim?”

“No.  I was an only child until I met Nick.  He was always like a brother to me.”

The object of our conversation had his sister in a tight headlock while she beat on his ribs.  There was no such concept as pulling punches with those two.

“Beg for mercy, scamp!” Nick shouted.

“You first,” Tilly challenged. 

“I’m growing tired of these games, sister.  I believe you’ve become weaker in your old age.  Beating you isn’t nearly as fun as it used to be.”

Tilly jerked, attempting to loosen her brother’s hold.  “You haven’t beaten me yet, Nicki.”

“Callista, I need to borrow you for a moment, if you don’t mind,” Nick said, abruptly releasing his sister. 

Tilly hit the carpet with a loud thud.  “You had better run while you still can, old man.”

“This coming from the shrew of a woman you claim as your friend,” Nick said, directing his statement toward me.  “If you’d like, I could introduce you to some of my nicer acquaintances.  I’m sure one of those women would make a better companion than my baby sister.”

“Thanks, but I’ll stick with Tilly.”

I took the hand he offered and let him lead me from the parlor toward the family rooms upstairs.  There was an energy radiating from my fiancé, vibrating and crackling the thin air separating us as we ascended the stairs.

His excitement was catching.  “What are we doing?” 

“We are walking.”

Why are we walking?” I pushed.

“Because I have a surprise for you.”  His voice was animated.

My stomach dropped.  “What is it?”

Nick rolled his eyes.  “Why do people always ask that inane question?  If I would have said I have a present for you, then I would expect your inquiries.  But a surprise is supposed to be just that—a surprise.  You will have to wait.”

“I hate surprises.”

“No, you don’t. “  He contradicted before the statement was off my lips.

“How would you know?” 

“Because no one hates surprises.”

“I do.”

“No, you don’t.”

With a huff of irritation, I stopped arguing with him, knowing I would never win.  He was too obstinate to let someone else win, even when he was backing the most hopeless position.  

When we reached his room I thought of a different way to word my question.  My cleverness planted a grin on my face.  “How big is it?” I asked.  I waited for his answer, ready to begin my rapid-fire guesses.  Like Tilly had done so many times before, I was going to annoy the answer out of him.  What color was it?  Could I eat it? Was it alive?

Nick was instantly furious.  “I’m going to murder Tilly when I see her!”

“Nick, calm down!  What are you talking about?”

  My betrothed stalked to his armoire and pulled out a black box with a blue satin bow wrapped tightly around it.

“This.”  He looked into my eyes before falling to one knee. 

In a rare moment of foresight, I had a niggling suspicion concerning what was in the box.

“Nick, I cannot accept this.”  The band looked too dainty to hold the diamond’s significant weight; the stone had to be at least four carats.  The ring’s mass would make it hard to for me to lift my hand.

“Of course you can.  If I may remind you, you have already accepted my proposal.  Wearing my ring is only a formality.”

“I know, but…” It was too much.  “This is too much.  I would marry you with a piece of string around my finger.”

He studied the ring with an unreadable expression.  “The clerk at the shop assured me that it was the very best quality.  I’ve never needed to purchase such a trinket so I took him at his word.  Even Tilly complimented my choice—which, as you know, is no small feat.  But if you don’t like it then…”

“No!” I yelped.  Calmer, I continued, “It’s not that I don’t love it, it’s just too much.  I don’t deserve it.”

Nick stood up and caught my shoulders, forcing me to look at him.  “Callista, I beg you to believe me when I say that you are worth a great deal more than this insipid token.” 

I had neither the time nor inclination to stop the flow of tears that pricked at my eyes.  “Now you’re wrong.  I’m not worth it.  I’m waiting for you to figure that out and send me back.”

He pulled my chin and leaned toward me so my eyes were level with his.  “Never.”  The gruffness in his voice stopped my confession. 

I searched the depths of his black eyes, trying to find wavering in his resolve; he was unwavering.  I waited for some condition to his love; there was none.  I kissed my fiancé with eighteen years of loneliness and passion. Before Nick, no one had wanted me as I was—or at all.  Tears of joy washed me clean of my doubt.  He offered me his ring a second time; it was a gift I would not turn away again.

Our private moment was interrupted by a familiar voice.  When she noticed my tear streaked, red face, Tilly’s eyes turned cold.

“Nicki, you dolt!  If you’ve hurt my best friend I will flay you alive.”

Nick and I both went into uncontrollable fits of laughter.  Tilly’s confusion only made the situation more hilarious.  How could I explain to my best friend that her brother had not hurt me?  His love had healed me.

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