It couldn’t be.
But that was exactly what I’d thought the first evening Chase had been waiting for me on my doorstep, luring me into his fake-engagement plan.
“I thought . . . ,” Ethan began.
I shook my head violently. Like there was something inside it I wanted to get rid of. There was. “You thought right. I told him to back off. Let me deal with this.”
I stomped my way to my door, feeling the anger coiling hotly in the pit of my stomach, blossoming, building up, and climbing up my throat. My entire body was buzzing with wrath. How could he? How could he do this to me again? Hadn’t I made myself clear? I didn’t want to see him. Had gone as far as admitting I had feelings for him just to make him take a step back. Was there anything more humiliating than admitting your unrequited feelings toward someone? That was the basis to every poem, love song, and angsty work of art in the universe.
How selfish could he be?
“What in the world do you think you’re doing here?” My voice came out high pitched, dancing on the verge of hysteria. Chase was still sitting on the stairway as I positioned myself above him. “I told you to take a step back. What is wrong with you?” I realized I was baring my teeth when Chase looked up from his phone, startled by my verbal attack. I froze.
He looked different. Disheveled and exhausted and . . . broken.
It was the broken part that undid me. I knew that look well. My father had worn it the entire year my mother had been dying. Really dying. It was still permanently inked into the place behind my rib cage. It was the hopeless look of someone whose fate had brought them to their knees.
My guard dropped. Armor clattering on the pavement at my feet.
“What happened?” I crouched down to Chase’s eye level, placing my elbows on his knees. My fingers were shaking as they held his jaw and tilted his face up. “Where is he?”
“Chase.” I wasn’t sure I was breathing. “Why aren’t you with him?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
I saw Ethan standing in my periphery, a lone candle, long and straight and unlit. He took the scene in. It scared me. How much I didn’t care what he thought, what he felt in that moment. Only Chase charted.
It was the first time I realized being Martyr Maddie was unsustainable, but perhaps being a good friend to those I cared about was something I could swing. I couldn’t protect everyone’s feelings.
But I would slay dragons for those who found their way into my heart.
“We need to go see him, okay?” I rubbed my thumbs over Chase’s cheeks. I thought I felt him nod. I took my phone out, scheduling an Uber to take us to the hospital he indicated his dad was in. After I was done, I turned to Ethan. “I’m so sorry.”
His head bowed. “I hope he gets better soon.”
“Thank you,” I whispered. Chase was too out of it to notice Ethan. I had to stuff him into the Uber. Wearing a ball cap, a hoodie, and a bored expression, the driver tried to make idle conversation about politics and the state of traffic.
“Your boyfriend looks trashed,” he said finally. “Too many drinks?” He pinned me with a look through the rearview mirror. “I don’t want no puking in my back seat.”
“He’s fine,” I clipped.
“So are you.” The driver grinned.
“I’m going to smoke your eyes like beef jerky if you as much as look at her that way again,” Chase groaned. It was the first time he’d spoken since we’d gotten in the car.
“Man, talk about jealousy issues.”
“We’re having a day,” I snapped, no longer caring about being polite, agreeable Martyr Maddie. “Mind keeping it quiet?”
“Stop looking at her,” Chase warned again like a wounded animal. “Don’t even breathe in her direction.”
“You heard him,” I drawled at the driver, breaking out of my sweet shell.
The driver shook his head. “Jesus.”
Katie and Lori were already in Ronan’s hospital room, perched on a pastel-blue sofa that had seen better days. The antiseptic smell, bright, unforgiving fluorescent light, and morbid oldness that was glued to the walls made me nauseous. I hadn’t been to a hospital since Mom had died.
I hugged Lori and Katie as Chase collapsed on a seat next to his unconscious father’s bed. He closed his eyes, breathing through his nose.
“He had a heart attack.” Lori ran her fingers through Ronan’s thick white hair, frowning down at him. “The doctors said the heart attack itself was minor, but his systems are collapsing one by one. He is stabilized but not out of the woods. Grant is on his way.”
Chase didn’t react. He wasn’t completely there. I slunk out of the room in search of coffee and some snacks. I thought maybe Chase might wait for me to give them some space before he responded to this piece of news.
I was punching buttons on a vending machine when Katie appeared next to me, hugging her arms to her chest. She was wearing flannel pajamas and a rich coat over them. It was the first time I realized it was freezing in the hospital.
“He hasn’t been sleeping,” she said. “Chase.”
I pretended to focus on the machine. The pretzel bag wouldn’t come out. It was trapped between the glass and metallic wheel. I tried giving the machine a shake, but the thing barely even moved.
“Fuck,” I muttered. I didn’t curse. I never cursed. Katie flinched.
“I think it’s been a week since he last had an actual night of sleep,” she continued. “I don’t know if it’s just about Dad.”
Was she saying what I thought she was saying? It couldn’t be. I figured Katie had known Chase and I weren’t really together the moment I’d told her about the cheating ex I’d caught. But why would she tell me Chase was losing sleep the entire time he and I weren’t in contact? The obvious reason, because it might be true, just never occurred to me.
“I hate this for him. For all of you.” I kicked the bottom of the machine, stifling another curse when I realized my toes had fared much worse than the machine. Dammit.
“Yeah,” Katie mused, studying me closely. “I thought you’d know. Seeing as you guys are engaged. You’re engaged, right?”