Chapter 28: Goodbye

Callista,
Meet me in the Library.
Nick

The note was wrinkled, crumpled by my fist.  Nick had disappeared half an hour ago, and I had panicked.  When I had expressed my concern to Tim, he had agreed to help me look for my missing fiancé.  Now I searched the crowd for Tilly’s husband so I could let him know I had found Nick only to notice Tim had gone missing too.  Since my mind was no longer preoccupied with useless worry, I realized none of the Daltons were in the ballroom.

So much for sticking together.

While the Daltons had appeared at ease, I had been noticeably on edge most of the night.  It was difficult feign enjoyment when I knew what the end of the night held.  Thankfully, the other guests appeared content to excuse my nervous energy as post-engagement jitters.

When I was in Nick’s arms, it was possible to temporarily forget that we were standing on a precipice.  Then we would dance by the back window and I would catch a glimpse of the carriage house looming at the edge of the dark forest.  It was standing as a constant reminder of what was going to happen.

I sneaked undetected out of the party and raced through the dim, candlelit hallway.  Nick must have discovered additional details about the fire and wanted to share them with me.  Perhaps he was gathering his entire family which would explain why I hadn’t been able to locate any of them.  I ran into the library, stopping just shy of the doorway.

Once again, an unsettling feeling of foreboding overwhelmed me.

Something was wrong.

The way Nick stood, his back ramrod straight and unyielding, made me hesitate for longer than usual.  He did not smile when he saw me standing there.  Nick had always smiled.  Instead, he looked… disappointed.  So this was to be bad news.  I could only say a prayer that it had nothing to do with the impending fire.

I tried to speak but no noise came out.

“Callista.”  My fiancé nodded a cold greeting.  His voice was hard and held the sharp edge of a blade.  Even when Nick had thought I was a ghost, he had never sounded like this.  His voice was flat, bleak.

“Nick,” I started carefully.  “Where is the rest of your family?”

“As you can see, they are not here.”

“But they aren’t in the party.  I’ve been looking everywhere for them… and for you.”

“And you’ve found me.  Callista, we need to talk.”

I stumbled toward him.  The urge to touch him, to hold him, overtook me.

“Don’t come any closer,” he hissed.  As commanded, I halted in my tracks.  “I cannot say what I need to with you near me.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t say it at all,” I suggested.

A trace of regret lit his eyes.  “Nevertheless, I will say it.  Callista, we cannot continue this relationship.”

“What?  You’re joking…”  He had to be.  After all, he had convinced me that that we were meant to be together, that we could overcome any adversity as long as we were with one another.

“I am not joking.  I need a woman who knows how to run a household, who has been educated in propriety and social etiquette, and who is worthy of bearing my children.”

But he had just made the announcement of our impending marriage to everyone in attendance only two hours before.  Our engagement was officially official.  How humiliating for his family that he was now going back on his promise.  “Couldn’t you have decided this before today?”

“It has taken until this moment for me to realize the impossibility.”

“But your family…”

“Will understand.”

“Nick, please…  How can you say this after everything we’ve been through together?”  I did not care that I was begging.  I would have groveled if I thought it would make a difference.  My whole world was imploding, and I was clawing at anything concrete enough to keep me from being sucked into the black hole at my feet.

“Callista, you’re not good enough for me, for my family.  I have a responsibility to them that you cannot possibly understand.”

At first I thought he winced as he said those words, but his face immediately smoothed into an impassive mask.  The space just above the bridge of my nose began to throb with the beginnings of a migraine.   My head spun with a thousand images and questions.  All of the arguments he raised were vividly familiar—they had been my own only weeks before.

Instinctively, I knew who would meet all of his requirements, but Nick had adamantly opposed a connection with Lady Smyth.

“This is me.”  My voice hitched, quivering with unshed tears.  I pulled my hair from its elaborate chignon and let it fall in a thick, unruly curtain around my shoulders.  A pressure on my chest began suffocating me, keeping the air from reaching my lungs.  I ripped at the heavy diamonds crushing my neck; the clasp released, and I threw them at his feet.  The jewelry made a clinking sound much like that of a metal chain.  Instead of feeling lighter, my weight was harder to bear.  “You knew exactly what you were getting before you asked me to marry you.”

Nick’s eyes tightened, and his mouth turned to a frown.  “You are right.  I was a fool, forgive me.”

Forgive you?  Forgive you for what?  For crushing my soul, for breaking the most vital promise anyone has ever made?  The offense is unforgivable.”

“Yes, I know,” he whispered.

“Was it something I said or something I did?”  I flicked through the events of the evening; there had to have been some turning point.  What had happened to send Nick running away from me instead of into my arms?  What had I done? Had I committed some social faux pas, embarrassing his family beyond repair? Had Lady Smyth gotten to him and told him some vicious lie?

“Callista, believe me when I say this decision has nothing to do with you.”

I snorted.  How could he even begin to think this did not have anything to do with me?  “Oh, but it does.”  The voice that spoke came from somewhere else.  The tone was dead and calm, bordering on indifferent.  Inside I was filled with acidic bile, churning and eating away at my vital organs.  Inside I was writhing in agony. “When someone says, ‘Believe me,’ I have to be able to do just that.  But I can’t now, can I?”

He started to speak, but I interrupted.  If this was the last time I saw the man I loved, I had to try everything I could to keep hold of him.  “You promised me forever,” I reminded him bitterly.

“Nothing is forever.”

“But you promised!” I screamed then immediately regained my composure.

Nick was angry now.  He began pacing behind the solid desk, careful to keep the furniture as a barrier between us.  At least I had succeeded in pulling some reaction from him.  Anger was more acceptable than lifeless.  “Life is full of broken promises.  How can you consider yourself immune to the fact?”

Immune?  You know that my life has been nothing but broken promises.  I had thought you would be the first to keep your word.  But I was wrong.”

“I’m the one who was wrong.  We are not meant to be together.   Even from the beginning you were the one to tell me that.”

“Why did you even bother to convince me otherwise?”  The wasted words had ultimately been a fruitless endeavor.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you realize the date?”  Maybe he had forgotten that tonight marked the end of his life.

Nick nodded.

“I’m begging you, just let me stay until tomorrow.  Maybe I’ll be able to help.  I need to know you’re okay, that you’re…“ Alive.

“I’ll be just fine.  My family and I have dealt with similar situations before and survived.  We do not need you.”

No one had ever needed me.

“How will I know?” I asked dejectedly, only extending my pain.  This soul-crushing confrontation was going to be the last memory I would ever have of the man I loved.  Although the agony this conversation was causing me was excruciating, I couldn’t let go of the dream just yet.

He rubbed his hand through his dark hair.  “How did you find out the first time?  Read the newspaper again.”

“I won’t go.”  I would make him realize that he needed me, that he really did want me.

His eyes turned panicked, searching the room for a means of escape.  Did he really want me to go away that badly?  Was my presence that dreadful?  “You have to go, Callista.”

“I’m not a whim, I don’t change.  I’m permanent.”

“I know you are.  But circumstances change.  There are things out of our control, factors we can’t…”

“You told me that we were permanent.”

“I know.”

“What about when you told me you loved me?  Do you remember that?”

“Of course I remember,” he whispered.

“Well?  What about now?”

“Callista, love has nothing to do with this,” he explained slowly, as if I were an obstinate child.

“Then tell me you don’t love me.”

“Callista…” he protested, tortured.

“Tell me you don’t love me,” I repeated.  “Admit that you lied.”

“I lied.”

Without reciprocated love, what else was there to fight for?  Silence hanged in the air, separating us more finally than one hundred years.

Quietly now, with steel in his voice, Nick said his goodbye.  “After the ball you can collect your things, and I will arrange for our carriage to bring you to where you are staying.”

“But…”  I didn’t need the carriage.

“Just go!” he shouted, cutting me off.

Frantic now, I turned to escape.  Faceless guests in the hallway stared at me like I had finally gone mad; they were right.  Their whispers were distorted, colliding with one another and chasing me up the stairs.  I flew into Nick’s room and slammed the door, attempting to shut out the memories of what I had lost.  My heart shattered into microscopic pieces across the wooden planks.  The shards crushed beneath my shoes as I paced in the emptiness.

I tried not to breathe in his scent, but the smell of his skin lingered everywhere, even on my own sheets.  After I crossed over into the present, I ran to the corner of my vacant room—as far from the mirror as possible—where I could cry in silence.

Nick had abandoned me in a sea of loss, so far out that I was unable to see even a glimpse of healing shoreline.  It was disorienting, not knowing which way to swim.  Ultimately, I knew saving myself from drowning was no longer a priority.  I stilled my arms and sank deep beneath the waves, welcoming the burning liquid that filled my lungs.

For the past ten years I had felt alone.  I had been alone except for when I had been in Barnard Hall.  My interactions with others had been purely superficial; I had listened and responded when necessary, but nothing had gone deeper.  No one had broken through.

Nicholas Dalton had penetrated the fabric of my existence, and I could never be the same.  It would be impossible to let him go.  I would do anything I could to get him back, to undo whatever damage I had done.  But that couldn’t happen.  He hadn’t just been saying, “Goodnight,” or, “See you later.”  Nick’s farewell tonight had been irreversible.  I couldn’t allow myself to bother him, to become a nuisance.  What we needed—what Nick wanted—was a clean break.  If I could give him nothing else, I could give him back his life.

My eyes searched the room frantically.  Without conscious orders, I picked up the bedside lamp, and climbed onto my mattress.  I drew back the heavy metal and waited for my world to explode.

But nothing happened.

The lamp hit thin air, and I fell through the frame, landing on his quilt.  I escaped back to my room faster than I would have if his mattress had been engulfed in flames.   With inhuman strength, I shoved my own bed out of the way so I could be grounded in front of the mirror—my doorway to Nick.

With the heavy piece of furniture moved, I lifted the lamp a second time.  I could no longer see into his room, which diminished the significance of what I was about to do.  Risking seven years of bad luck was worth giving Nick what he wanted.

Prepared for another swing, I brought the lamp to crush the gateway but stopped just shy of the fragile glass.  The ring on my finger reflected an errant beam of light like a lighthouse, signaling my proximity to the healing shoreline.  Instead of giving up and allowing the sea to consume me, my arms and legs began to kick, forcing me to the surface.

I collapsed and leaned my head against the cold, hard reflection, too weak to shatter the dream.  My tears fell, leaving moist streaks against the smooth surface.  If, by some miracle, Nick ever wanted me back, I would need a way to go back.

Without Nick, my life was a like a blank page; not a clean slate or a fresh start.  I was an empty space, void of anything that mattered.  Hadn’t I known all along that this ending was inevitable?  It was the timing that was so disconcerting.  Earlier today Nicholas Dalton II had been declaring his undying love; now he had sent me away.

Now our undying love was dead.

Dead.

I checked the clock; it was just past one in the morning of August twenty fourth—the day Nick and his parents were supposed to die.

Maybe the final events had already been set in motion.  Perhaps Nick had no other choice than to send me away.  I clutched any reason to hold onto the fragile hope that remained in my being.

In the midst of my imploding world, Nick had said that a carriage would collect me.  He knew I did not need a carriage to return home.  Why had he said that?  Something was wrong, it had to be.  I would never find out what it was if I did not stop the fire.  If he decided to send me back afterward, at least I would know he was alive.

Even if he was never going to be with me, I needed Nick to be alive.

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