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Authors: Rebecca Donovan

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Out of Breath

BOOK: Out of Breath
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Rebecca Donovan
 
OUT OF BREATH

USA
Today
bestselling author Rebecca Donovan has been a writer most of her life, but has just recently been deemed an author. Her debut novels,
Reason to Breathe
and the follow-up
Barely Breathing
, have resonated with readers around the world.
Out of Breath
is the final instalment in the trilogy. Rebecca graduated from the University of Missouri–Columbia and currently lives in a small town in Massachusetts.

Books by Rebecca Donovan

REASON TO BREATHE

BARELY BREATHING

OUT OF BREATH

For my loving friend and life-sister, Emily
~ you are my happiness, and the choice I never had to make ~

Prologue

‘I
DON’T EVEN KNOW WHY I BOTHERED
picking up. Yeah, maybe I’ll talk to you about it eventually, after you stop acting like such an ass.’ I stood at the top of the stairs with a heavy box of textbooks balanced in my arms. Sara released a frustrated groan, so I assumed she’d hung up.

I made some noise as I neared the door so she’d know I was coming and could hold her temperament in check. She’d told me about her decision to end things with Jared, and I’d listened. But I was basically incapable of offering any guidance. Sara didn’t confide in me too much lately, afraid something would upset me. It wasn’t that I was that fragile. I just refused to talk about … anything.

‘Is that it?’ Sara asked, her smile brighter than usual, overcompensating for the annoyance that still lingered in her eyes.

‘You can tell me, you know,’ I offered, trying to be the friend that she needed right now.

‘No, I can’t,’ she said, redirecting her attention to the boxes stacked all over the room. ‘I don’t have much space to work with. This room is tiny.’

I let her avoid the topic, since that was what she preferred.

‘I don’t need anything. Really. No need to bother.’

‘I thought you’d say that,’ Sara replied with a small smile. ‘That’s why I only brought one thing to decorate your room.’ She reached for a purse so big it could honestly be called a duffle bag, and pulled out a frame. Flipping it around, she held it up under her chin with a beaming smile. It was a picture of us at her house, in front of the large bay window overlooking the front yard in the background. Anna, her mother, had taken it during the summer I’d lived with them. From the gleam in our eyes it was apparent we were on the verge of laughing.

‘Omigod,’ Sara said with a shocked seriousness. I tightened my eyes in confusion. ‘Is that a smile I see on your face, Emma Thomas? I was wondering if I’d ever see one again.’

I ignored her, straightening my lips, and turned towards the built-in desk in the corner of the small bedroom.

‘Perfect.’ Sara set the photo on the dresser, admiring it. I pulled out the textbooks and tucked them on the shelf under the desk. ‘Okay, let’s unpack you. I’m so happy you’re out of the dorms now. And I’ve always loved Meg … and Serena, even though she won’t let me do a makeover. I’ll work on it. But what’s up with Peyton?’

‘She’s harmless,’ I said, breaking down an empty cardboard box.

‘I guess every house needs drama,’ Sara noted, laying a stack of folded shirts in an open drawer. ‘And as long as Peyton’s the only drama in this house, I can live with that.’

‘That’s what I was thinking,’ I replied, hanging clothes in the minuscule closet.

Sara plopped a black boot box on the bed. ‘Should we keep the boots in the box or set them in the closet?’ She
began to slide the cover off, but my hand slammed it shut. She jumped and looked up at me in alarm.

‘They’re not boots.’ I could hear the edge in my voice.

Sara’s mouth opened in surprise as she took in my intense expression. ‘O-kay. Where do you want it?’

‘I don’t care. I’d actually rather not know,’ I answered. ‘I’m getting something to drink. Do you want anything?’

‘Water,’ Sara requested, her voice quiet.

When I returned with the two bottles of water a few minutes later, Sara was making the bed, and the box was gone. Setting my shoes on the bottom of the closet floor was the final touch. There was a benefit to not owning much.

I sat on the rolling chair at the desk while Sara lay on her stomach on the bed, scattering the display of decorative pillows she’d just masterfully assembled. I knew I’d stuff them on the top shelf of my closet after she left.

‘You know I ended it because I can’t do the distance thing, right?’ Sara asked. I spun the chair around, surprised she’d decided to open up.

‘I know it’s hard for you. It always has been,’ I replied. She’d had the same challenge in high school when we were in Connecticut and Jared was attending Cornell in New York. But she made it work by visiting him practically every weekend for the last part of our senior year.

‘I’ll be in France; there’s no way I could do that to us,’ she continued. ‘It doesn’t seem fair to make him wait.’

‘But would you want him seeing anyone else while you’re gone? Because that’s basically what you’re giving him permission to do. And then what happens when you get back?’

Sara was quiet, resting her chin on her hands with her
eyes focused on the floor. ‘I just don’t want to know about it. And if I meet someone in Paris, he doesn’t need to know about that either. Because in the end, I know we’re supposed to be together. But I’m not sure either one of us is ready to admit that.’

I still didn’t understand her logic, but I wasn’t about to challenge her.

She sat up suddenly, not allowing me the chance to say anything in return. ‘So, do you think … since I’m going to be gone … that I can let Meg know a little about you? Not everything, just enough so she’ll be here for you while I can’t be. I hate the thought of being so far away without someone –’

‘Looking out for me,’ I finished.

‘Yeah,’ she replied, smiling gently. ‘I don’t want you to be alone. You have a tendency to shut yourself off for days at a time. It’s not good. I’ll still call you every day, of course. But I hate not being close … in case you …’ Sara looked down, unable to finish the sentence.

‘Sara, I’m not going to do anything,’ I promised feebly. ‘You don’t have to worry about me.’

‘Yeah. It doesn’t mean I won’t.’

1
Pandora’s Box

‘B
ONNE ANNÉE!
’ SARA SHOUTED THROUGH
the phone. Music and voices exploded around her, making it difficult to hear her clearly. It could also have been that she was calling from Paris, and the reception wasn’t the best.

‘Happy New Year to you too,’ I replied loudly. ‘Although it’s still last year here for another nine hours.’

‘Well, I’m telling you next year is looking pretty frickin’ fabulous from where I’m standing! This party is insane. Designer drunks,’ she giggled, her own sobriety in question. ‘And I designed my own dress just for tonight.’

‘I’m sure it’s impressive. I wish I could see it.’ I wondered if we really needed to keep yelling to be heard, but she didn’t retreat to anywhere quieter. I sucked it up because I wanted to hear her voice, even in her current giggly mood. I hadn’t heard it enough since she’d started the exchange programme in France in the fall.

She’d spent last summer and every break during our freshman year in California with me. Knowing I was going
to see her every few months almost made life bearable. So far, my sophomore year sucked. If it weren’t for my room-mates, I wouldn’t do anything outside of soccer and school.

‘You’re not going to lock yourself in your room like you did last New Year’s Eve, are you?’

‘The door won’t be
locked
, but I am staying in my room,’ I confirmed. ‘Where’s Jean-Luc?’

‘Getting us a bottle of champagne. I’m sending you a picture of my dress as soon as we hang up.’

‘Hey, Em –’ Meg poked her head in my room, then noticed I was on the phone. ‘Sorry. Is that Sara?’

I nodded.

‘Hi, Sara!’ Meg screamed.

‘Hi, Meg!’ Sara screamed in return.

‘Umm, I think she heard you,’ I told Sara, wiggling a finger in my ringing ear, ‘but now I can’t.’ Meg smiled.

‘Well, I have to go,’ Sara yelled above a roar of laughter. ‘My man and champagne have arrived. I’ll call you tomorrow. Love you, Em!’

‘Bye, Sara,’ I replied. God, I missed her. I wasn’t sure if she realized how much. It wasn’t like I told her. But I did. I missed her … a lot.

‘It sounds like she’s having an incredible New Year,’ Meg remarked, sitting down on my bed. ‘I could hear the party all the way across the room.’

‘What time are you leaving?’ I asked, knowing she was meeting up with some friends in San Francisco to celebrate.

‘In an hour. We’re all supposed to go out for dinner before the party.’

My phone chimed, and an image of Sara filled my screen. She looked stunning, of course, in a shimmery dark green sleeveless dress that had a twenties flapper-girl flair, her shoulders dramatically exposed before it swept up into a high collar. Her wavy red hair was twisted back at the nape of her neck. She was puckering her shiny red lips, her eyes smouldering as Jean-Luc kissed her on the cheek while clutching a bottle of champagne.

I shared the picture with Meg. ‘Sexy. Did she design that dress?’

‘Yup,’ I replied.

‘That’s incredible.’

‘Agreed.’

I placed the phone on my desk next to my laptop as Meg asked, ‘Do you mind if I borrow your black boots?’

‘Go for it.’ I turned back towards my screen to continue downloading the required reading for the next quarter. ‘They’re in the box under my bed.’

‘You can still change your mind and come with me,’ Meg offered. I could hear the box sliding along the carpet.

‘Thanks, but I’m all set,’ I told her. ‘I’m not really a New Year’s fan.’ I tried to keep my tone flat, not allowing the reasons why to reflect in my voice. The last time I’d celebrated, the year had held promises of happiness and a future I wanted to be a part of. Now, it was just another page torn from the calendar.

‘Em, I’m begging you one more time. Please, please, please go with me tonight,’ Peyton grovelled from my doorframe. ‘I really don’t want to go with Brook. You never go out with me and it’s
New Year’s
. Make an exception this
one
time!’

I spun around in my chair to decline for the thousandth time. Before I could utter a word, her eyes lit up, with her attention direction towards Meg. ‘Ooh, what’s that?’

I followed her inquisitive expression as she walked into the room. Meg had just removed the cover to the box that was set on my bed. The
wrong
box. A vapour of memories and unfathomable heartache was released into the room as the box opened. I couldn’t breathe.

Meg ripped the white T-shirt with the blue handprints out of Peyton’s hands as she held it up.

‘Stop it, Peyton!’ Meg scolded. I remained paralysed as she flaunted my past in front of me.

Still not doing a very good job fading.
His voice flitted through my head, sending a chill down my back.

‘I love this,’ Peyton admired, shaking out my pink sweater. ‘Can I have it?’

‘No! Knock it off, Peyton!’ Meg snatched the sweater and placed it back into the box. ‘Sorry, Em.’

A rush of painful emotion coursed through me, forcing me to feel more than I had in the past year and a half. I couldn’t utter a sound. It was as if I were being flayed, every nerve exposed.

Before Meg could slide the cover back over my past, Peyton removed a jewellery box.

You can’t have it. Please, I’ll pay you. But you can’t take that from me.

Desperation echoed through me, and the memory of cold hard eyes triggered a flash of panic, releasing me from my silent torture.

I sprang from the seat and grabbed the blue box from Peyton’s hand. My sudden movement forced her to take a
step back. I threw it in the box and slammed the cover back on. My heart was beating so fast my hands were shaking. I gripped the edge of the cover, waiting for the pain to subside. But it was too late. The simple act of opening that box had unleashed the wrath of guilt and despair I’d hidden within my darkest depths, and now it wasn’t going to be confined by a lid.

‘Sorry, Em,’ Peyton whispered. I didn’t turn around. I slid the box under my bed and took a deep breath. My heart singed around the edges like a burning piece of paper, the flames slowly creeping towards the centre. I closed my eyes and tried to extinguish it, but couldn’t.

‘I’m going for a run,’ I murmured, barely audible.

‘Okay,’ Meg responded cautiously. Afraid of what she might see in my eyes, I didn’t dare look at her as she ushered Peyton out of the room. ‘I’ll see you when you get back.’

I threw on running gear and was out the front door within minutes. With my iPod blaring music in my ears, I began to run. Picking up the pace until my thighs burned, I cut down side streets until I reached the park. I stumbled to a stop, unable to fight back the onslaught of emotion. I clenched my trembling hands into tight fists and released a guttural cry, until I feared I’d collapse.

Without looking around to see whose attention I’d drawn, I took off into a sprint again.

By the time I returned home, my face was dripping with a mixture of tears and sweat. The exhaustion from the run had helped ease most of the fire, but I couldn’t extinguish it all, as much as I tried. My insides still burned. I considered what I could do to push the torment back
into the dark and return to my numb state. I couldn’t do it on my own. I needed help. I was desperate.

‘Peyton!’ I called out from the bottom of the stairs. She turned down the music in her room and poked her head out.

‘Hey, Em. What’s up?’

‘I’ll go with you.’ I heaved, still trying to catch my breath.

‘What?’ she asked, unsure that she’d heard me correctly.

‘I’ll go to the party with you,’ I repeated more clearly, my breath beginning to even out.

‘Yes!’ she exclaimed. ‘I have the perfect tank top for you to wear too!’

‘Great,’ I grumbled, heading towards the kitchen to get a drink of water.

‘You have no idea how happy I am that you changed your mind,’ Peyton chirped when we stepped out of her red Mustang at the end of the car-lined street. Even from here, the music carried down the block.

‘No problem,’ I replied absently. I needed to be distracted from the voices that were suddenly whipping around in my thoughts. I needed to find my way back to being numb.

‘You cannot wear that sweatshirt,’ Peyton scolded before I could shut the car door.

‘But it’s cold out,’ I argued.

‘Not where we’re going. It’s only a short walk to the house. Come on, Em. Suck it up.’

I reluctantly removed the sweatshirt to reveal the glit
tery silver tank top beneath and shivered as I tossed it into the car.

‘Much better,’ Peyton admired with a vibrant smile, joining me on the sidewalk and sliding her arm through mine. ‘Let’s go party!’

Peyton strode alongside me in her strapless red dress, her golden blonde hair lying in a glossy sheet down her back. Her greenish-blue eyes were lit with excitement as she escorted me towards the music that grew louder with each passing house. I was surprised the police hadn’t shown up yet. But when I looked around, I realized it was surrounded by college housing. Most of the residents were probably away for winter break or at the party.

We approached the side of a beige house with a large white tent in the back yard. A couple of guys were handing out tiaras and top hats as we passed through the entrance. Peyton slid a tiara on her head and I took a top hat. A guy ladled red liquid out of a trash can and set the cup on a table in front of us.

Peyton’s eyes widened when I took the cup. ‘You know that has alcohol in it, right?’

‘Yes, I do,’ I replied casually, taking a sip. It was … sweet. It reminded me of an overly sugared fruit punch. This wasn’t going to be as difficult as I thought. Why had my mother opted for the dreadful taste of straight vodka when this was an option?

‘But you don’t drink,’ Peyton countered in obvious shock.

‘New year, trying new things,’ I explained dismissively, holding up my cup.

She grinned and tapped it. ‘To trying new things!’ As
Peyton took a sip, I opted to drain the contents of my cup, needing the effects to kick in sooner rather than later. After all, it was the reason I was here.

‘Em!’ Peyton scolded. ‘I know it doesn’t taste like it, but there’s
a lot
of alcohol in there. You may want to pace yourself.’

I shrugged and grabbed another before we entered the tent crammed with bodies. We made our way to the stage where a band was performing, drowning out any possibility of a conversation – which was fine by me.

‘Hey!’ Peyton hollered, recognizing a tall guy with wavy brown hair dressed in typical college plaid.

‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ Plaid Guy replied.

‘I told you I was coming,’ she returned playfully. She turned towards me and said, ‘Tom, this is Emma, the room-mate you haven’t met yet.’

‘Wow,’ Tom said. ‘I can’t believe you’re actually here.’

I feigned a smile, wondering what Peyton had told him about me. I could only guess.

‘And this is Cole,’ Tom said, directing my attention to a blond guy with broad shoulders standing next to him.

‘Hi,’ Cole responded with a nod and slight smile. Peyton elbowed me. I ignored her and barely nodded in return, taking a sip out of my cup instead.

Insistent, Peyton grabbed Tom’s arm and said, ‘I need another drink.’ Tom eyed her full cup in confusion, but let Peyton drag him away. I glared at her as she smirked back at me.

‘Having a good time?’ Cole yelled over the screeching coming from the stage. He didn’t appear concerned about the forced pairing. I cupped my ear to indicate I couldn’t
hear him. Instead of repeating the question, he bent down and said, ‘I was beginning to wonder if you were real. I kept hearing about you, but I’ve never actually seen you out.’ I leaned back, not wanting to encourage him to get so close, and began scanning the crowd around us. ‘Don’t say much, huh?’

I shook my head and took another large gulp of my drink to drown the inferno still burning beneath the surface. Why had I thought coming to this party was a good idea?

You’re amazing.

What did I do?

Just you, everything about you – you’re amazing,

My back straightened, the clarity of the voices invading my head. Images of the last New Year’s party I’d attended threatened to surface, and I swallowed them down with another sip.

‘Are you going to say anything at all?’ Cole asked, pulling me out of the painful remembrance of being wrapped in Evan’s arms while watching fireworks explode overhead.

‘Huh?’ I finally looked up at him. ‘What would you like me to say?’ I challenged.

‘Well, that was a start,’ he taunted, not fazed by my rudeness. ‘You go to Stanford?’

I nodded my head, then caught myself when he accusingly widened his eyes. ‘
Yes
,’ I stressed. ‘And you?’

‘Yeah, I’m a junior,’ he answered.

‘Sophomore,’ I responded, pointing to myself. I pre-empted the next predictable question: ‘Pre-medical.’

He appeared impressed. ‘Business.’ I nodded in return. ‘Do you play soccer with Peyton?’

I sighed, and took another gulp, not loving the mundane exchange. ‘Yup. Are you on a team?’

‘No. I played lacrosse in high school, but nothing here.’

I didn’t come to the party for small talk or to get to know someone new. I needed to get away from this guy. And I really didn’t care what he thought of me. I swallowed the last mouthful of the drink.

‘I need another,’ I announced. ‘I’ll see you around.’ I turned and walked away before he could respond, dodging through the crowd in search of the drink table. The band stopped to take a break, and a DJ started, igniting a movement of dancing energy towards the small stage.

I was still
feeling
too much. I’d never drunk more than a couple of sips before, so I didn’t know how long it would be before it took effect. I also had no idea how it would feel when it finally did. My mother turned to alcohol to numb her pain, and even though I swore that I’d never drink, there was only so much a person could endure before breaking that promise. And I didn’t want to be in pain any more.

I squeezed through the crowd towards the far side of the tent, where a table was lined with filled cups.

BOOK: Out of Breath
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