Authors: Rhoda Charles
Copyright © 2016 Rhoda Charles
All Rights Reserved. This eBook is licensed for your personal
enjoyment only. Any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner
whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for
the use of brief quotations in a book review or journal.
First edition: 2016
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents
are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons,
establishments or events is strictly coincidental.
To my mom, who always kept the faith
This book has been a long time in
the making. As I’ve worked on writing it off and on over the years, I’ve been
blessed to receive a lot of encouragement from my family and friends. This book
would not be complete without acknowledging their support. In particular,
Serene, Sharon, Elvin, Dawn-Marie, Darrell, Jillian, Robyn, and Sandy who have
read, listened, and advised. A special mention is due my copy editor,
Jennifer Sankowski, whose attention to my details has made Seven Days all the
better. Thank you all. I’m so grateful.
Carolyn scanned her mirrors looking for the police. No way
was she going to get a ticket. Though she was parked legally at Philadelphia’s
Thirtieth Street Station, her meter had run out. Rhys was due at any
moment—actually twenty minutes ago—and she would not be feeding that thing
“Are you sure you got the time right?” Luke asked from
the back seat.
She met her brother’s deep brown eyes in the rearview
mirror; they matched her own. “I think so,” she said and reached into the cubby
hole in the dashboard to retrieve her phone so she could check the text from
their older brother. It started to ring just as she picked it up.
Julian, Rhys’ best friend, turned expectant eyes to her
from the passenger seat where he’d been sitting with his arm propped up on the
ledge of the open window. He’d been just as anxious as she and Luke for Rhys’
return home from New York. Rhys was Julian’s best man and his arrival would
mean that the wedding countdown had finally begun.
“He’s here,” Carolyn said and turned the key in the
ignition. “He’s been waiting for us on the other side,” she said as she pulled
into traffic and turned onto Market Street.
Philly’s main train station occupied an entire city block
just west of the Schuylkill River and had entrances on three sides. Like
Julian, Carolyn felt the best parking was on the west side. Apparently, Rhys
didn’t agree. He had been waiting on the east side with its view of Center
City, the downtown section of town.
“There he is,” Julian said, though Rhys was hard to miss.
Her oldest brother drew the eye and not just because he was tall and
attractive. Rhys had the charisma of the most popular guy in high school and
the intelligence of the nerds in the computer lab. He was good looking, smart
and personable. People flocked to him. Carolyn, like Luke, was more subdued.
Luke, followed quickly by Julian, hopped out of the car
to greet Rhys when Carolyn pulled to a stop in front of him. Though Luke and
Rhys shared the same parentage, it was Julian who was often taken for Rhys’
brother. Similar in height and looks—both dark haired and dark eyed with
smooth, brown skin—they both shared that likability factor that made them the
center of attention. Friends since kindergarten, Rhys and Julian had gone
through life orbiting each other in their own cosmic universe.
“Looking good, Luke,” Rhys said and gently tugged on a
springy coil of black hair acknowledging Luke’s new grown-out style. Rhys
stepped out of their embrace to hug Julian, who gripped his hand and patted him
hard on the back the way that men do.
Julian stepped back to get a good look at his friend,
“It’s good to have you back, man.”
“I can’t believe it’s been two years,” Rhys said, taking
a moment to absorb the sights. Like many before him, Rhys had left his hometown
and gone to New York to make it big and put his stamp on the world. Driven and
focused, he hadn’t been back since he’d left.
“I know. I had to get married to get you back here.”
“Don’t blame that on me,” Rhys said and walked around the
car to say hello to Carolyn. He poked his head through her open window and dropped
a peck on her cheek. “Thanks for picking me up.”
Luke packed the trunk with the two duffel bags, suitcase
and backpack Rhys had traveled with, and then he got in the back seat next to
his brother. “You moving back?” he asked. “That’s a lot of luggage for a week’s
“I’m the best man. I gotta look good.”
Julian turned around in his seat as Carolyn pulled out of
the station, “Hey, don’t blame me. All you needed to bring with you was the
“I’ll remember that next time. So, how is the lucky lady?”
Julian turned back around, observing Carolyn as he did
so. She was focused on the road, carefully driving the men in her life home.
“Milan’s good. She’s meeting us later. Be nice, okay?”
Lincoln Drive was a narrow two-lane road with twists and
turns that resembled a writhing serpent. It wound its way into the northwest
section of the city in between a narrow offshoot of the Schuylkill River and a
high rock face that seeped moisture onto the road, which made winter driving
that much more interesting. The posted speed was 25, but the locals drove on it
way too fast, making it both a thrilling and terrifying ride.
Carolyn took the exit for Lincoln Drive just as her phone
started to ring. She reached forward, feeling around in the cubby. Julian
grabbed the phone and handed it to her.
“So, what are we doing tonight?” Julian tossed over
his shoulder. “Are we going out? Or are you too tired?”
He had assumed that they would hang out like they used to
do, but Julian had noticed a wistfulness in Rhys that he had not expected. He
hadn’t pegged Rhys as one to suffer from homesickness, but Rhys had never been
away from home for so long, either. Maybe a night at home would be better.
“You haven’t changed a bit, I see,” Rhys said, “still running
“Oh, no!” Carolyn said into the receiver, “Are you sure?”
At the change in her tone Julian shot a look at Carolyn.
She glanced at him then shook her head letting him know he shouldn’t worry.
“No way,” Julian continued talking to Rhys but kept his
eyes on her, “I’m about to settle down, but I gotta spend my last days wisely.”
“Can you come by earlier?” Carolyn asked into the phone.
“We’ll be at home. I’d really like it if you could mee—” she stopped talking
abruptly as if she had been interrupted and flipped on her right turn signal
with more force than was necessary.
In the back, Rhys nudged Luke, “Who’s she talking to?” he
Luke shrugged, “I don’t know, probably Mark. Their
conversations often go like this.”
“OK, call me later,” Carolyn snapped her phone shut and
tossed it back into the cubby.
Rhys leaned forward, “Everything okay?”
She slowed as she approached a hairpin turn in the road.
She checked her mirror to make sure the Lexus tailgating her hadn’t gotten too
close and was met with two sets of concerned brown eyes. Her brothers were ever
protective of their little sister.
“Yeah, Mark has to work late and might not be able to
make it tonight.”
“Who’s Mark?” Rhys asked.
She raised her eyebrows, “Mark!” she said with disbelief
as if repeating his name louder would clear the fog in Rhys’ mind. He shook his
head, at a loss.
Julian turned around fully in his seat, “Mark is her
latest boyfriend. They’ve been dating for about six months and from your
expression, this is news to you,” he turned to Carolyn, “I knew you hadn’t told
She pulled her eyes from the windy two-lane road long
enough to make a face at Julian.
“Eyes on the road,” Luke called from the back.
Carolyn refocused ahead and Julian shifted in his seat, quieted
by Luke’s command and his own suddenly inescapable memories. “I don't know how
you even drive on this road after what happened,” he said mostly to himself but
he knew everyone in the car heard.
For a moment there was absolute quiet. Then Carolyn continued
trying to make Rhys remember her boyfriend. “Mark is the guy I’ve been seeing
for the last few months. Remember, I told you about him?”
Rhys’ silence was answer enough. “Sort of,” he offered to
her rear-view mirror in response to her exasperated sigh. “Sorry, it’s been
really crazy lately. You may have told me and I forgot.”
They turned off Lincoln Drive onto a smaller side road in
Mt. Airy, a residential neighborhood in the city. It was full of stone-faced
houses and leafy trees lining the streets.
“It’s okay. I was hoping you’d meet him tonight, but I’m
not sure. He has to work or something,” she dismissed the topic with a wave of
her hand and then turned into the driveway of the James family home.
At the sight of the house, Julian was hit with a feeling
of homecoming that he was sure Rhys was also experiencing. It shouldn’t have
surprised him. Growing up, Julian had spent almost as much time in this house
as they did. It had been some time since he’d been here; not since Carolyn had
They piled out of the car. Carolyn waited as they emptied
her trunk of Rhys’ luggage, while Rhys stared at the building in front of him.
“C’mon,” Julian nudged his friend on the shoulder and
startled Rhys back to the present, “it hasn't changed all that much.”
“No, it hasn’t. It’s still the same.”
“Anyway,” Carolyn said, “I have to run,” she gave Rhys
the hug she hadn’t been able to before. “I’m sorry. I’d planned to stay, but
Mark needs me to pick something up for him. That’s why he called. So, I’ll see
you guys later tonight.”
“Okay,” Rhys squeezed her tight and held on, rocking side
to side as he buried his head into her neck and pulled her ponytail. She
giggled and he let her go, closing her safely into her car.
Julian waved as she backed out of the driveway and
watched her drive away. Then he picked up a duffel bag and followed Luke and
Rhys into the house.
Ragtag’s was a bar-restaurant near Penn’s Landing that
they’d been coming to since they were legal—and maybe even a little before
that. Located just a hair’s breadth from the places where all the tourists are
told to go, it had managed to escape the faux celebratory atmosphere that had
often led college girls to screech, “Omigod, I can’t believe you’re here!”
while sloshing beer on unsuspecting patrons.
The place was dark wood and muted sconces, polished bar
and working jukebox, burnished brass and deep-seated booths. Their rears had
worn grooves into at least one of those booths—the one in the corner near the
tiny stage in front of an even tinier dance floor. It was their place,
mostly because they’d outlasted all the other regulars.
No matter how hard she had tried, Milan could not get
them to go someplace else…for long. She knew better than to suggest another
venue tonight. The leader of the pack had come home and no place but the old
place would do.
“I reserved our booth for us tonight,” Luke said, leading
them to the corner, “just to be safe.”
Carolyn slid in first, followed by Mark and Luke. Rhys,
Julian and Milan filled in the other side. Before they could look around for a
server, one appeared ready to take their drink order.
She must have been new because Luke didn’t recognize
her. She was petite and cute and couldn’t seem to decide which guy,
Julian or Rhys, to pay the most attention to. Rhys’s disarming smile wasn’t
helping. The girl dropped her pad and after retrieving it tried her luck on
Julian, who was doing the quiet smoldering thing he was so good at.
The pair of them had always caused a stir when they went
out together. They were at ease with women and accustomed to the attention they
received, but not arrogant about it. Mostly, they were amused by it, though not
immune. Over the years Julian and Rhys had left a line of broken hearts behind
Luke waited for Milan to react to the girl’s obvious
interest in her fiancé. From where he was sitting, there was nothing to see.
Milan was a beauty in her own right and probably just as used to receiving
attention from the opposite sex as Julian was. This waitress was no threat to her.
She did not even register a warning on Milan’s radar.
Bored by the whole thing, Milan took control. “Bring a
pitcher of whatever’s on tap for the table. I’ll have a white wine,” she looked
across the booth daring anyone to object, and then she leaned into Julian. “I’m
going to the ladies’ room. I’ll be right back.”
Deep in discussion with Rhys, Julian barely acknowledged
Milan, but Luke watched her weave her way through the crowd and disappear into
a narrow hallway.
“Sir,” the waitress’ voice pulled Luke’s attention back
to the table. She was all business now that she realized she was going
unnoticed by the guys opposite him. “I’m going to need to see some ID.”
“Identification. Or I can’t serve you.”
Luke looked at Carolyn, his younger sister, with
disbelief, but he lifted his hip to reach into his back pocket and get his
wallet. Instantly, he saw it sitting in the glove box of his car, which was
parked about six blocks away. Parking was always tight on the weekends.
“Look, I don’t have it with me. I left my wallet in the
car, but I’m over 21.”
She probably would have let it slide if she hadn’t been
duly ignored by Julian and Rhys. Now she held the cards and by golly she was
going to save a little face by taking it out on him.
“I need to see some ID.”
“Come on, I’m with these guys, look at them. They
wouldn’t be hanging with some underage kid.” He pointed to Carolyn, “I’m her
older brother and she’s 24.” Carolyn nodded in agreement but the server
only gave him a fake
look and held her ground.
“Just go to the car, Luke. I’ll come with you,”
He knew she meant it, but she was stuffed in the corner
and he was at the end. No need for Mark to have to move. “No, I’ll be right
back.” He got up and he swore he saw the waitress’s lips twitch.
“Drinks will be up in a minute,” she said, suddenly
No tip for you, Luke thought and made his way through the
Bracing herself to return to their booth, Milan watched
them from across the bar. She could tell this was going to be a
grin-and-bear-it night. With his best friend finally back, Julian’s attention
would be on Rhys. It had already started—the two of them were laughing about
something one of them had said. Carolyn was grinning too, and Mark, well, he
didn’t seem to get the joke. Whatever.
She gave them as much time as she could before she
started to look pathetic standing alone in the bathroom hallway. She merged
into the crowd and made her way back to the booth, but instead of sliding into
it, her hand found Julian’s hand and tugged gently. He turned to her and she
held up a dollar. “Come on,” she said, “let’s dance.”
He took a moment to respond and she feared he would say
no, but then he slid out of the seat and let her lead him over to the jukebox.
With fewer people in their booth and one beer down, Mark
had finally loosened up a bit, much to Carolyn’s relief. He and Rhys had
found some common ground talking about business and markets, but she would have
to put a stop to that. She liked sports—she was a gym teacher after all and she
had grown up surrounded by guys—yet here she was sitting in a booth with two
men talking about stocks. Yes, she’d been eager for Rhys to meet Mark. But this
had to stop.
“Mark,” she said pointedly, “Rhys
He’d been mid-sentence and looked at her with raised
eyebrows, as if he were going to ask her what that had to do with the Asian
markets? She winked at him and his face relaxed.
“Oh,” he said, chagrined. He squeezed her hand, which
he’d been holding, and impulsively lifted it to his lips. “So, you play piano,
Clearly playing along, Rhys answered, “Yes, a little.”
“Don’t believe his act,” Carolyn added, “he’s
practically a virtuoso. He’s been playing since he was a child.”
“Have you?” Mark asked, this time with genuine interest.
“I only started in college. I needed the credits to round out my major.”
“And he sings, too,” Carolyn dodged the peanut Rhys
tossed at her.
She knew she was laying it on thick, but she’d been so
excited to have Mark finally meet Rhys. She really wanted them to get along.
Rhys’ opinion meant so much to her. Growing up, his advice had never led her
astray. If he approved, then she knew she had made the right decision.
It was important she make the right choice now. Childhood
was behind her and life was suddenly speeding up. Her eyes found Julian and
Milan swaying together to a ballad whose tune she could barely make out over
the bar’s noise. In a few days Jules would be married. Rhys had already moved
away. Pretty soon it would just be her and Luke: His photography career was
slowly coming along, and she liked her job at the local public school. A
full-time position was available. She could stay here and be very comfortable.
Mark’s work had been taking him back and forth to Japan
with increasing frequency, and he had told her recently that there was a strong
possibility he would be transferred to a post in Tokyo for a multi-year
project. He’d asked her what she thought, and she’d made a joke about sushi and
let the topic slide.
She hadn’t been able to get it out of her head though.
His question implied a lot of things. Was he asking if she would go with him?
And if so, in what capacity? Sure, they were dating exclusively now, but was he
hinting at a greater commitment?
Mark was an ambitious man and he made no apologies for
it. He would move around the world if it advanced his career. Was she ready for
that? Did she want that? Rhys’ return couldn’t have come at a better time. She
needed another opinion and his was golden.
“Don’t listen to her,” Rhys tossed another nut in
her direction and this time she caught it and popped it in her mouth. “She’s
been known to exaggerate on occasion.”
“Not about this,” she took a peanut and held it up
for Mark. He inspected it then opened wide.
Julian worked his way over to the bar, moving through the
other dancers in rhythm to the music and pulling Milan along with him. He
deposited her on an empty stool and leaned forward to get the bartender’s
attention. He placed his order and looked over his shoulder to see what Milan
wanted; she shook her head no.
So, it was going to be one of those nights.
He slipped his wallet back in his pocket and took a long
swig of his beer. The place had been very busy when they’d arrived, but the
crowd was starting to thin. A group of college-age kids were moving on, leaving
behind only a small contingent of die-hard darts players.
Julian nursed his drink, remembering the hours that he,
Rhys and Luke had spent whizzing barbs at that same target. He and Luke would
go at it, but Rhys never really cared. The darts in the wall were usually his.
It was one of the few areas where it was Luke and him instead him and Rhys.
Milan cleared her throat, jolting him back to the present
to find her looking at him intensely. “I said,” she ran her finger along his
jaw and stopped at his chin, “you
going to shave this off before the
He’d been sporting a goatee for the past few months.
Milan didn’t like it. He ignored the question and catching Rhys’ eye across the
room, raised his bottle high. Rhys nodded and started to scoot out of the
“Bartender,” Julian called, leaning once again against
the bar, “I’ll have another.”
“Would you look at her?” Milan nudged Julian. “Poor Rhys.
Carolyn has him trapped over there with the colossal bore. She’s so
“Hey!” Julian objected, deliberately misunderstanding,
“he’s not so bad.”
“Well, she is!” Milan said. “Do you think maybe she could
give up a little bit of the spotlight and let Rhys out of her sight for a sec?
She’s going on and on about Mark. I’m sure the first thing Rhys wanted to do
when he got back home was be subjected to the Encyclopedia Britannica’s rundown
on her boyfriend. Look, he couldn’t wait to escape,” Milan added triumphantly.”
“What? You know I’m right.”
What he knew was that she was starting to get on his
nerves and he let his expression speak for him. She matched his glare with an
equally expressive, wide-eyed “What, me?” one of her own.
“Why are you so bothered?” he asked, and Milan rolled her
He turned away and waited for Rhys to work his way around
the dance floor, but something in Julian couldn’t let it go. He wanted a
straight answer. “She’s his sister; she’s missed him.”
“Julian,” Milan never called him Jules and tonight
that irritated him, too. “I’m not bothered. I just think that maybe Rhys would
like to spend some time with his real friends on his first night back instead
of making small talk with someone he just met.”
Her syrupy-sweet tone might have worked had Julian not
been listening closely to what she was saying. He just looked at her and, not
getting the response she wanted, Milan tried a new tactic.
“I was just looking out for you.”
“And how is that?” he asked, putting her on the spot.
She took a second to answer, but with a sweet smile she
said, “Well, I know you were just as excited to see Rhys as she was—maybe even
more so. I mean you
his best friend,” she placed a hand on his waist
lightly, an empathetic touch designed to soothe. “You would think that she
wouldn’t monopolize him all night.” Milan turned her head slightly so she could
watch Rhys as he approached, “You can’t tell me Rhys doesn’t look as if he’s
heard enough about good old Mark now, can you?”
Julian shook his head and tried to change the subject.
“Come on, let’s dance,” he moved her hand from his waist and tried to get her
off her stool.
“I don’t want to dance anymore, Julian,” she nearly
bit the words out and pulled her hand from his.
He knew she was annoyed that he had seen through her
sudden concern for his feelings, but he was now irritated too, and snapped back
at her, “Well then what do you want to do? Sit here all night and piss me off?”
She lowered her lids and said seductively, “Only if we
get to make up afterwards.”
His harsh grunt was indicative of how he felt about her
suggestion, but he felt he needed to be clear. He took a few moments to collect
his thoughts and control his tongue. “You know, Milan,” he marshaled his words,
“I came here to have a good time tonight. My good friend is back home. I’m out
and everybody is having a good time—except you. Why is that?” he waited for an
answer. “You know what? I don’t care why.”
Milan blinked in surprise at her fiancé’s harsh words,
and she was glad that his fumbling with his wallet distracted him long enough
to keep him from seeing the stricken look on her face.
Julian pulled out a few bills and tossed them on the bar.
“Here, buy yourself something to drink. Sip it slowly and enjoy. I’m going to
go find someone who wants to dance.” He grabbed the beer he’d ordered for
Rhys and backed into the crowd.
She sat perfectly still and followed him with her eyes as
he crossed the room, handed off the beer to Rhys and then whispered something
into the ear of a smiling, perky little thing. The girl took one look at his
killer smile, broad shoulders and slim hips that were already moving to the
beat and followed him onto the dance floor without appearing to think twice.
Straightening her shoulders, Milan picked up the money
Julian had left on the bar and slipped it in her purse. She caught sight of
Rhys’ back just as he ducked around the corner that led to the men’s room. The
booth she had abandoned earlier was empty; Mark and Carolyn were now also