Ariana Parker lifted her gaze from the steering wheel. She stared at the clean, dark-gray lines of the ultra-modern office building in front of her. She swallowed down the acid burning the back of her throat and hoped she wouldn’t get sick.
A wild churning, which started the moment she opened her eyes that morning, grew in intensity when she thought of what she was there for: to sign the divorce papers. She gathered every scrap of courage she could muster, which wasn’t much at this point, and tried to calm her nerves.
Another wave of anxiety rushed through her. It would take so little for her to crumble. The knot in her throat grew bigger. She wanted to scream and cry and curse the world for her misery. When her lawyer’s assistant called her, she’d had the crazy hope that Nick might have changed his mind. That wasn’t the case. Instead, she had calmly informed Ari that everything was ready for their signatures.
After shutting off the engine, she had to mentally prepare herself to see the only man she’d ever loved. And the only man it hurt to have lost. So many years together. All gone. Her heart squeezed hard in her chest. Pain was a constant for her now. So much a part of her life since they’d separated that she had almost forgotten what it was like to be happy.
Cool evening air caressed her bare arms when she slid out of her navy Chevy. The car was Nick’s gift to her on their last anniversary, and the only thing she had left of their life together. Piercing anger stabbed at her chest, making her wince. They’d lasted seven years together. Five of those years married. Five amazing years.
Until it all went to hell.
She’d never understand how they went from best friends to strangers in the course of a year. Her mind fought against the idea that they’d been ill-suited to begin with. That he wasn’t the right man for her. Or that she wasn’t the right woman for him.
Nick’s pick-up was already parked in front of the entrance. She gulped at the dryness in her throat, rubbed her palms on the sides of her sundress, and hoped she didn’t make a spectacle of herself.
The closer she moved to the building, the harder it became to breathe. Sorrow, rage, and a mixture of desolation mingled to create a large void inside her. This was the last straw. She’d not only lost her husband, but she’d lost her best friend. She thought of what lay ahead and chastised herself for losing her cool. Damn it all to hell! It was hard to concede defeat when Nick had been her first and only love. As much as it hurt to admit it, she’d been the one to ask for the divorce, and he hadn’t fought it. He hadn’t argued or complained. All he’d done was say if that was what she wanted he was fine with it.
White-hot anger rose within her. Like giant cresting waves of heat, she felt it spread inside. She let it expand until she was fuming from his lack of concern for her. Clearly, divorce was the best option for them. It was overdue. Putting off the inevitable would only add more years of torture for them both. And though they had been estranged for almost two years, she didn’t wish Nick any harm. Time to finish this.
She yanked the lobby door open and freezing air slid over her, cooling some of the sizzle on her skin. She glanced around. Small, black sofas sat to one side while a large, glass receptionist desk was placed by the hallway that led to the partner offices and conference rooms. Her gaze clashed with Nick’s. For a second, her heart tripped. The emotions hidden deep in her heart—the ones she’d been fighting to ignore all day—rose to the surface. Love. Desire. Need. And pain.
She watched him stand as soon as he saw her. Her gaze roamed his body, remembering the feel of each line under her fingers. A blue T-shirt hugged his muscular torso, muscles he’d gained from working long hours at his construction company. She gulped, tamping down the instant flare of arousal. Figured her body would betray her. Disgust at herself flourished just as quickly as her pulse quickened. How could their bodies be so attuned but their minds be in such disarray? Faded denim encased his legs, and the black work-boots she was all too familiar with covered his feet.
A bright blaze ignited from the quick glance at the man she’d once known so well. Chemistry had never been a problem for them. She licked her lips. Her gaze slowly worked its way back up his body, this time taking in the sleeve tattoos covering his arms in intricate and beautiful designs. She continued up until her gaze met his blue eyes.
“Mrs. Parker?” Ariana’s gaze jerked away from Nick to the receptionist desk. She held her handbag in a death grip and fought the urge to glance back at her soon-to-be ex-husband. Jeez. Just thinking the words hurt. “Mr. Lawrence will see you both now.”
The receptionist led them into one of the conference rooms. Kevin Lawrence, their lawyer, waited for them with two sets of papers on the long mahogany table.
“Ariana. Nick.” Kevin shook first her hand and then Nick’s. He pointed her to one side of the table and Nick to the other.
She sat down, keeping her gaze firmly on the papers in front of her. This was it. Another wave of remorse filled her. She’d made so many mistakes in the last year of their relationship, but there was no going back. The things she’d lived through were much too painful to forget. Those first years were amazing. She sometimes wondered if she’d dreamt them up. They’d been perfect. Or as close to perfect as one could get. Not because of the sex, though that had been amazing on its own. It had been more. The way they could just…talk.
“Since neither of you made any claims on the other’s income, the only issue is the custody over Harley.”
At the mention of her golden retriever, Ariana glanced up, her gaze colliding with Nick’s.
She cleared her throat from the sand that wanted to permanently live there, tearing her gaze from Nick. “Harley lives with me for part of the year and with Nick the rest of the year.” There was no fighting that. Harley was special to both of them.
“Oh.” Kevin frowned, glanced down at his papers and made a note.
“Is there a problem?” She skimmed through her own copy of the divorce agreement, searching for the notes on Harley. Her hands trembled. She cursed her inability to control her body.
Harley was the only thing that helped her keep her sanity through the past year and a half. Most people didn’t understand how important she was to Ari. The emotional support of having unwavering devotion from Harley had helped heal some of her wounds. For her, Harley had been a reason to keep moving forward. Not to let the pain of the failed marriage destroy her completely. Those first days after the separation, she’d fought the urge to stay in bed for days. It had been Harley with her big brown eyes and wagging tail who had made her snap out of it. Harley had kept her in one piece on days she almost let the agony of losing her marriage overpower her.
To her family, Harley was just a sweet dog, but they didn’t know she’d lain beside Ari while she cried herself to sleep. She’d kept watch and never left Ari alone. Harley was priceless.
“No, no.” Kevin waved his hand in dismissal, his wedding ring glinting in the room’s light. Ari’s gaze slid down to her own hand. She’d taken the bands off that morning. How pathetic would she look to go sign divorce papers still wearing her wedding rings? A quick look at Nick’s hand showed a ringless finger also, but the pale shadow of where his band used to reside was clearly marked. The thought that he’d continued to wear it all this time was surreal.
Kevin smiled back and forth between them. “It’s just that I thought you alternated weekends, and so I just need to go into my office and make a quick change before you both sign these. Just give me a few minutes, and we’ll continue.” He stood to go. The chair he’d been sitting on rolled back, hit the wall, and bounced forward. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
The minute Kevin left, tension flared, hot and thick, between her and Nick. Anxiety danced over her skin, turning her already tense muscles into stone. She could only hope her emotions held back until she was home and could let them loose without worrying about anyone watching. There would be no crying. The last thing she needed was to show how upset she was over the divorce when he was so calm, cool, and collected. It was hard when what she really wanted to do was scream and yell at him. Maybe even hit him. Ask—no, demand to know if he had ever cared at all.
“You can look at me, Ari.” The sound of Nick’s deep rich timber caressed her spine and made her want to shudder. Instead, she held stock-still, locking her muscles in place.
Her earlier anger bubbled to the surface. She couldn’t take it anymore. After a short internal struggle, she glanced up and met his gaze. “I know that. I choose not to.”
His eyes held so much cold distance. That distance annoyed her to the point she was ready to throw stuff. She was having a hard time keeping shit together while he sat there as if it was no big deal that the only link they had left was being put to rest. His nonchalance was playing havoc with her emotions and self-control. It also broke down her belief that he might still care about her. About them. Not a single ounce of worry or anxiety showed in the deep baby blues of his eyes. Everything about him screamed, “I don’t care.”
“Ari, things don’t have to end this way—”
“What way?” She glared at him, heat swarming her cheeks. Screw holding it in. “Go ahead and tell me how things will one day be fine, and we can even be friends.” Her voice rose with each word. Her control kept slipping. She hated that! His calmness was going to make her crazy. She panted and struggled to slow her racing heart.
He watched her, his face set into one of his stony guarded looks he was so good at giving. “Listen…” He rubbed a hand over his short dark hair. Oh she was very familiar with that move. It was one of his many ways of expressing his frustration. “…that’s not what I meant. But we don’t have to hate each other either.”
Shock filtered through her system. She stopped short. Oxygen tripped inside her lungs, and she almost choked. She didn’t hate him. How could he even use that word? Hate was the furthest thing from her mind. Frustration. Anger. Pain. Fear. Rejection. All those feelings were very familiar to her when it came to her marriage. Never ever hate.
She knew the reality of what they’d had and was sure that there was not going to be some amicable friendship or parting of ways. Anger and hurt twined her insides into knots. A dull throbbing pierced her heart, torturing her over her failed marriage again. She turned her face away to glance around the small single window room.
She didn’t look back. It was hard enough to keep a lid on her pain without completely exposing her vulnerability while he watched.
“Forget it, please.” She continued to study a chair at the other end of the table. Focusing on the black lines and smooth surface kept her from whirling around and creating a scene. “It’s fine.”
Lie! She wasn’t fine. The entire situation was not fine. She felt like she’d been thrown into hell naked and alone. Her phone buzzed in her handbag. After pulling out the device, she glanced at the screen. She had a message from her best friend, Patricia.
Are you done? Ready to party like it’s 1999?
Ari smiled, knowing her friend was doing her best to lighten her mood.
No. Still at the lawyer’s office. There was a mistake over Harley’s custody. Waiting to get it fixed before I can go.
It wasn’t even a minute before her phone buzzed in her hand.
Don’t forget we’re meeting at Wyatt’s Bar. We’re going to get roaring drunk and possibly kicked out for indecent exposure.
As if Tricia would ever let her forget. I won’t forget.
A new message came in. Is N there with you? Tricia had never called Nick by his full name since they’d been in college.
She sighed. Yes, right across from me.
He still look good?
Did he ever. You have no idea.
Don’t worry Ari, I’ll have a drink ready and waiting for you. Call me, text me, whatever if you need me! I swear I’ll come over there if I have to.
I’m okay. I’ll see you soon. It was all she could say. Was she really okay? Even she couldn’t answer that one.
Ari stood, unable to stand the silence, and knowing that he just sat there scrutinizing her. What could be taking Kevin so goddamned long to return? A migraine started to form in the back of her skull. She couldn’t wait to be done with this already. It was ironic that a few years ago they’d come to Kevin’s office to talk about paying for fertility treatments and baby funds. Now, they were there to sign away their life with each other. God, that really hurt.
“Congratulations on the new contract.” Nick’s voice drifted from behind her as she made her way to the window facing the parking lot.
“Thank you,” she replied, folding her arms over her chest and staring at the single tree in her line of sight. The tall willowy limbs shook with the force of the afternoon wind. Bright pink and white flowers detached from the branches, along with deep green leaves, and scattered around the paved lot. She felt like those flowers, floating in the wind without an anchor. Without purpose.
“I mean that, Ari. I know how hard you worked to get your advertising company off the ground.” His voice sounded closer.
She turned. He was taking slow steps in her direction. She remembered how much he’d encouraged her to continue sending out proposals to clients, telling her it would one day pay off. It had. What she hadn’t expected was for her business to flourish and her personal life to wither and die.
“I know.” She struggled to get the words out. How did he do it? He acted so unfazed, yet here she was with her heart and life being torn to shreds. Where was the justice?
A sudden movement made her instinctively reach out to hold on to something, a sense of vertigo took hold of her. Nick rushed forward and grabbed her.
“Are you okay?”
The ground shook. Hard. He tightened his hold on her. The lights flickered until they shut off completely. Emergency lights flared to life. She stepped into him, allowing him to pull her flush against him. Crack! The window imploded into the room. He shoved her face into his neck and turned, covering her from the glass flying inside. Her muscles seized up, keeping her from moving. The shaking continued to increase, until a loud groaning sounded all around them. She lifted her face from his shoulder, watching in awe.
She gasped, shocked at what she was seeing. “Oh, my God!”
“Don’t worry.” He tried to sound soothing, but she heard the tremble in his voice. “I’m sure it’s nothing—”
He pulled her away from the window. A second later a large piece of the building landed in front of the glassless frame, cutting off the view to the parking lot and shutting them in from that side. Her heart raced in her chest. Dust swooshed into the room, making her cough. Wide-eyed, she stared around the low-lit room. Pieces of plaster rained down on them from the ceiling.
They ran for the other side of the room, toward the door. When Nick turned the knob and jerked the handle, she shrieked. A wall of plaster and exposed electrical wires sat in the entrance, blocking them in. Her muscles pulled tight. Fear had a chokehold on her chest. It wasn’t letting up.
“Dear God!” The words rushed out of her mouth.
He stood there for a moment. Unmoving. Watching him stare at the blocked entrance let loose a wave of hysteria inside her. “Nick what do we do?”
He didn’t say anything. Oh God. Terror made her knees weak. She leaned on the wall to stay upright. They were going to die. “Nick?”
He continued to stare at the doorway. Almost as if he’d gone off to another place. She gripped his shirt. He turned to stare at her with a blank look. Her blood ran cold through her veins. Anxiety had slowed her ability to remain calm. She threw frantic glances all around, trying to figure out what to do. It was useless. Her focus returned to Nick.
“Nick!” She snapped, tugging on his shirt.
“Are you okay?” She asked, worried that something was wrong with him. She was yanked back to their plight by the plaster that knocked down a painting.
The walls shook hard. Hard enough she’d swear they were made of paper. Cold fear rooted her to the spot. Christ. What if they were buried alive?
He glanced down at her with glassy eyes. “I’m sorry.”
She nodded repeatedly. Nerves shook her to the core.
“Hello? Can anybody hear me out there?” He yelled, putting his ear to the slab of ceiling blocking their path.
“Kevin! Kevin!” She screamed and turned to Nick, her heart beating so hard it was hard to make sense of anything. “Do you think he and the others are okay?”
“I don’t know. I hope so.” He pushed at the plaster and sheet rock, grunting when it didn’t move. “Fucking hell!”
Another rumble and the lights flickered. She swayed with the movement of the ground. Plaster continued to rain down on them. Anxiety pulled her muscles tighter. She swallowed back the acid rushing up and down her throat. Her hands shook. She wanted to cry and throw up. Screeching noises came from all over, and she could hear alarms going off inside the building. Outside the car alarms were also creating all kinds of noises.
“We need to stay safe until we can get out of here,” he said and rushed away from the blocked door.
Shocked at the severity of what was happening, she stood there and stared. The ground shaking slowed until it stopped completely. She watched him start to haul the heavy conference table to the corner. It took her a moment to mentally slap herself out of her trance. She should be helping. Grabbing the other end, she pushed. Damn table weighed a ton. He continued to pull until they had the table at an angle in the corner of the room.
“Come on.” He tugged her hand and motioned for her to sit under the table.
Eyeing the space with skepticism, she said the first thing that came to mind. “Are you serious?”
“Yes, now get under the table.” His voice dripped with authority. It was something she’d never seen in him before. And it made her scoot her ass under the table much faster than she normally would have. Her heart still beating wildly, she clutched her bag in her grasp and sat on the gray, carpeted floor.