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Authors: Noelle Adams

Holiday Heat

BOOK: Holiday Heat
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Holiday
Heat

 

Noelle Adams

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places,
and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used
fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or
dead, is coincidental.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Noelle Adams.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit
in any form or by any means.

On
e

 

It was too hot in the room, the
air conditioner waging a futile battle against the September humidity. Carrie
pushed her sleeves up past her elbows, wishing she’d worn a cooler top.

She hated
evenings where new people were integrated into her therapy group. It was an
open group, though, so members came and went.

Tonight there
were two new ones. One was a middle-aged woman named Donna, and the other was
Matt, a tall guy with broad shoulders and threadbare jeans who kept his hood
drawn up over his head. He had a notebook in his lap and appeared to be
doodling.

It was way too
hot to wear a sweatshirt tonight. He must be trying to hide.

Carrie could
sympathize. She’d been trying to hide for the last nine months.

“Carrie, would
you mind starting tonight?” Rachel Davis, the therapist who led the group,
smiled hopefully at her.

Carrie nodded
and cleared her throat. She didn’t really want to start, but she’d been part of
this group since January, longer than most of the others, and all her life
she’d been conscientious, never wanting to let other people down. “I’m already
worried about Christmas,” she began, her voice echoing oddly in the quiet room.
“I know it’s still three months away, but I can’t help but feel it lurking in
the shadows, waiting to…”

“Waiting to
what?” Rachel prompted, when Carrie didn’t continue.

“Waiting to
hurt me.”

Eight of the
people sitting in the chairs around the circle were familiar. Carrie knew them
fairly well now, after months of group sessions. They nodded sympathetically or
murmured sounds of understanding. Their reactions should have made her feel
better, feel comforted in being heard, but she just felt lonely and exposed.

“Donna and Matt
don’t know your story,” Rachel said. “Are you comfortable giving them some
background?”

Carrie had told
the story enough that it didn’t even hurt anymore. Matt was still doodling, so
she didn’t look at him. She looked at Donna instead, since the other woman
seemed to be trying to connect. “Last year at this time, my life looked like
hundreds of other girls’. I was in college—an art history major. I made good
grades. Didn’t get in trouble much. I’d dated the same guy all through high
school and into college. Henry. He was the only guy I ever really went out
with. From the outside, he didn’t look like anything special—kind of nerdy and
a little shy. But he was always so sweet, and he really loved me. So, last
year, I got chosen for this exclusive study abroad program in Paris. It was
like a dream come true. I was so excited.”

She paused and
glanced down at her hands, which were twisting her in lap. It was an
unconscious habit, so she made herself hold them still.

Then she kept
holding them still as she went on. “So I was in Paris last December. Henry was
coming to Paris for a week to visit just before Christmas, and then we were
going to fly back together to spend Christmas with our families. We’re from the
same hometown.” She swallowed hard, although she wasn’t close to tears. She’d
lived too long with this to cry so easily anymore. “It was Flight 450 from New York
to Paris. You might have heard of it. It crashed twenty-two minutes into the
flight. Everyone died. Henry died.”

The words said,
she was able to look back at the faces of the people around her. Some held deep
sympathy. Some looked controlled, stony-faced, the way she felt a lot of the
time. All of them were listening.

Even Matt had
looked up from his doodling and was focused on her face, his features still
shadowed by his hood.

They were all
here for the same reason. They’d all lost husbands, wives, boyfriends,
girlfriends, lovers. They were all survivors—like her.

“I didn’t do
what I was supposed to do,” she continued. “It felt like an entire chapter of
my life had ended when he died, and I couldn’t start it up again. I dropped out
of college. I pulled away from all my friends. My sister, Jenn, and my parents
always tell me I need to start normal life again. They nag me all the time.
They say that the way to heal from grief is to keep living. But I can’t. I just
can’t live the life I had before.”

For some
reason, the thought of her family and how much they worried made a tear slip
out of her eye. It surprised her, and she swiped it away impatiently. She
looked down at her hands again. Her fingernails were neat, short, and
unpolished. She hadn’t had a manicure in nine months.

“I got a job in
a coffee shop, so I just work and go home. Every day. I know it isn’t the way
I’m supposed to get better, but I just can’t do anything else. Everything I
used to do, everything I used to be, seems tainted now. I can’t force myself to
go through the motions, just because I know I should. I’ve always been a good
girl. I did everything I was supposed to. All my life. Sometimes I feel like a
failure because I can’t seem to get through this in the right away. But I
can’t. I still can’t even imagine dating anyone else. I can’t stand the thought
of it. And now I’m so scared about Christmas.”

Donna, the new
woman, had tears streaming down her face—tears of empathy, evidently. But some
women were like that. They cried at the drop of a hat.

Carrie had
never been one of them.

She looked away
from Donna and over at Matt. The hood on his sweatshirt had slid back slightly,
and she saw his face clearly for the first time.

She recognized
him immediately—the closely cropped brown hair, the vivid blue eyes, the skin
that appeared almost too tight over the strongly chiseled features.

Matthew Lynch.
Rising star of the art world.

Carrie had been
an art history major, and her favorites were Renaissance artists. But she’d
kept up with contemporary art, and every female art major knew about Matthew
Lynch. He’d made a name for himself as an artist at nineteen, six years ago.
Gorgeous and charismatic and wild and brilliant—he’d been the poster boy for
contemporary art until he disappeared from the scene completely two years ago.

There was
gossip about his disappearance. Stories of a heart-wrenching tragedy that had
turned him into a recluse. Never any details, though.

Carrie realized
she’d held his gaze for too long, so she dropped her eyes again. “So that’s it.
That’s me. Still not able to really connect to people and terrified of
Christmas.”

Her voice was
edged with irony, since she’d always been self-aware and knew she should be
farther along in healing by now—nine months after Henry’s death. She’d done her
duty for the evening, however. She could be quiet now and just listen for the
rest of the session.

She wouldn’t
still be attending this group if her parents hadn’t nagged her incessantly
about it. She hated that they were so concerned about her. If her going to this
group helped them worry less, then she would do it.

“Does anyone
want to respond to what Carrie has said?” Rachel asked.

“For me, summer
is the hardest, since it’s so hard to be around pools.” That was Micaela, who’d
been in the group since March. She glanced over to Donna and Matt. “My husband
had a heart attack in our pool.”

The discussion
continued, with most of the members sharing and Rachel leading it as deftly as
always—steering them toward honesty and clear thinking.

The session was
almost over before Matt said anything. Carrie wasn’t sure he would have spoken
at all had Rachel not prompted him in the last few minutes by asking if he
wanted to share anything.

To her
surprise, he shifted in his seat and said, “Yeah. Sure.” He pushed his hood
back to expose his entire head, and Carrie had to hide her shocked reaction.

A few years
back, Matthew Lynch had been listed in a popular magazine as one of the most
beautiful people in the world, and his features were still incredibly attractive,
his presence still deeply compelling.

But a long
ragged scar slashed the side of his head now, and another ran from his jaw down
the side of his neck.

“I know what
you mean about not dealing with the aftermath the way we’re supposed to.” He
was talking to her, his deep eyes resting on her face. “I paint. That’s who I
am. That’s what I do.”

Carrie felt too
exposed by his intense gaze, so she glanced around at the others. She could
tell from their expressions that no one but her had recognized him. The magazine
article
notwithstanding, he wouldn’t be a household name or face to
anyone who didn’t follow contemporary art.

“It’s what I
did
,”
Matt went on. “I haven’t lifted a brush in two years. Everyone tells me I’m
wrong—that it’s exactly the wrong way to react. But, after some things, there’s
no going back.”

“Do you want to
share with us what happened?” Rachel asked gently.

His eyes still
hadn’t left Carrie’s face, and she had no way of understanding the expression
in them. “My girlfriend and I were at a party. We were both high. That was
normal for me back then. She was driving when we left. We crashed into a
construction barricade. I was injured. She died.” He spoke without any emotion
at all, but it was obvious that he’d been broken by that crash—his heart as
much as his body.

“I’m like you.
I don’t want to be close to anyone—a real relationship would be impossible for
me right now—and I don’t want to do what I used to do. My manager and my
publicist and my parents and everyone tell me I won’t be happy or fulfilled
until I start to paint again. But being happy isn’t even on the radar.”

Carrie nodded,
understanding exactly what he meant. “It’s still about trying to get through
the day without hurting.”

“Yeah. You fill
your mind with distractions.  A cup of coffee, a great song, an interesting
conversation—and you never let it go deeper than that.”

***

Matt didn’t come back to her
group the following Thursday. It happened. Group therapy wasn’t the right fit
for everyone, and some people just didn’t like this particular group.

Carrie was
vaguely disappointed, though. She’d wanted to know more about him, which was an
unusual feeling for her anymore.

She had the
last shift at the coffee shop afterwards, and she sighed in frustration when
someone walked in a few minutes before closing. She hated when people arrived
at the last minute, just when she was getting ready to leave.

When she saw it
was a guy in a hooded sweatshirt, she immediately thought of Matt.

She did a
double-take when she realized it was actually him.

“Hi,” she said,
blinking as he walked up to the counter.

“Hi. I’ll have
a large cup of whatever is freshest.”

She poured him
a cup of Columbian and took the cash he handed her.  She wasn’t going to say
anything or ask any questions. What he did was his own business, and she didn’t
have the emotional energy to worry about him.

Despite these
clear resolutions, as she handed him change, she heard herself asking, “So the
group wasn’t for you?”

He wasn’t
smiling, but he was gazing at her with that same intensity, as if he could read
something in her expression she wasn’t aware of. “I don’t think so.”

“It’s really
not bad. It just takes some getting used to. I like it a lot better than
private sessions.”

“Yeah. I can
see why that might be.”

“Even if you
don’t go to our group, you should do something. I’m hardly the model of
emotional health, but I don’t want to think about what would have happened to
me without any help at all.”

“I’ve done
therapy and treatment and different support groups for two years. You name it,
I’ve done it.”

“Okay. That’s
good.” She glanced at the clock. “I’ve got to close up here. Sorry to kick you
out.”

“No problem.”

She wondered
about his showing up in her coffee shop the week after she’d met him in group
therapy, but it was just down the block from the counseling center so the
coincidence wasn’t completely impossible. He didn’t make any move to leave.
Just stood sipping his coffee and watching her.

It made her
nervous. Not that he was creepy but that he seemed to really see her, really
know
her. It didn’t make any sense.                                                           

As she was
wiping the counter, she said, “I like your paintings.”

“I wondered if
you were familiar with my stuff. Most people aren’t.”

She gave a
little shrug, feeling a tug of interest in her gut. “So you really haven’t
painted anything in two years?”

“No.” He didn’t
look annoyed or offended or upset or anything much. He just gazed at her with
that intense look she couldn’t really understand.

“Do you think
you ever will?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe if you
just started painting something for fun, without any thought about displaying
it publicly, you could get going again.”

“I’ve tried.
Painting isn’t fun anymore.”

She frowned as
she looked up at him, thinking hard. He was incredibly attractive, even scarred
and puzzling as he was, but there was something unbearable about the idea of
Matthew Lynch never painting again. It felt like an offense against nature.

“You’re not
going to figure me out.”

“I wasn’t
trying to figure you out. I was just thinking.”

“You were
trying to come up with a plan that would get me to paint again, and I’m telling
you I might be a lost cause.”

She let out a
breath. “Yeah. I know all about that.” She wasn’t sure what to say, so she
focused on her final tasks before closing. When she’d finished, he walked
outside with her.

She glanced
over at him as he fell in step with her. “What are you doing?”

“Walking you
home. I don’t like you leaving by yourself so late.”

“I go
everywhere by myself all the time.” She wasn’t sure if she found his insistence
on being a chaperone obnoxious or gratifying.

BOOK: Holiday Heat
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