They were walking on a path through the park. The breeze was cool as the bright sun beat down on them, the soft echo of laughter and conversation all around them. Jess felt a gentle squeeze from the hand enveloping hers and she glanced sideways with a smile. Before she could say a word, he stopped walking and turned her towards him. With a quizzical expression on her face, she stared into his eyes as he nervously shifted on his feet.
"Hey," She tilted her head and rose up on her toes to place a soft kiss on his lips. With a chuckle, she gently punched his shoulder. "why so serious?"
He gave a short laugh and swallowed hard, searching her eyes for reassurance as he cleared his throat. "So, I've been thinking a lot lately...about the future. And well, about us. And..."
Jess straightened up, and her smile slowly faded in anticipation as he stumbled over his words. She had been picking up on hints that he had been thinking a lot more about taking the next step, but it still didn't prepare herself for the feelings that would surface as the words tumbled from his lips. The idea that a future together was just was within her grasp, she felt her stomach flip flop. He smiled at her and swept his hand across her cheek, tucking a lose strand of hair behind her ear.
"Jess, I know we've both been through a lot this past year, and you are the only reason why I'm standing here right now. I can't tell you how happy I am."
"I'm happy too." She gasped softly, tears building along her lashes.
He nodded, his confidence building. "I've been trying to figure out how to do this, how to make it special for you, but I'm just going to say what I feel and let you take it from there, okay?"
Jess bit her lip and stared up into his brown eyes. "Okay." Holding her breath, she watched him reach into his pocket and she waited for him to speak.
"I love you, Jess. It's taken me a long time to figure out what I want in life, but being with you changed all of that." Taking her left hand in his, he smiled at her sheepishly while sliding a thin band on her finger. "Will you marry me?"
Letting the memory wash over her, Jess walked slowly along the beach, the cool sand against her bare feet. Taking a deep breath of the salty air, she collapsed to the ground and finally allowed the tears to roll down her cheeks. Wanting to be swallowed whole at that moment, she glanced out into the darkness in front of her. The sound of the crashing waves gradually began to calm her sobs and she hugged her knees tightly to her chest. As she stared into the darkness, her fingers traced the spot where all the promises of a bright future used to rest. Her hand was lighter now, but her heart so heavy.
Before she could form another thought, she felt someone behind her and she inhaled a shaky breath.
"I thought I might find you here." His words were soft, cutting through the silence with their familiarity.
Jess closed her eyes, wishing he would just go away. "Please go."
For a moment there was silence, but just when she thought he might turn around and leave, his body sunk to the sand next to her. Just close enough to feel his warmth, but still far enough away to not upset her, he stared out into the ocean with her without saying a word.
After a few minutes, Jess swallowed hard and closed her eyes, willing her tears to remain hidden. She swept a hand across her cheek with a sniffle. "You don't have to sit here. I'll be fine."
"I know." He nodded sharply, turning his head towards her. Even in the darkness, he could see she'd been crying. His voice softened. "But I want to."
Shaking her head, she tucked her arms tightly across her chest to fight the breeze. "I don't want you here Nick. Just go home."
"I can't do that."
"I know you, Jess." He leaned towards her, the familiar smell of his aftershave making it all the more complicated. Nick watched as her eyes stared straight ahead, noticing how tense she was as she sat there. He knew that any moment she was going to break down and he desperately wanted to know why. "You can talk to me."
"I can't." Her face fell and her words caught in her throat. "Not now. Not about this."
Against his better judgement, his hand traveled to her face, pushing a curl off her wet cheek and behind her ear. He watched her close her eyes with his touch and his heart began to ache. Why did everything always have to be so complicated?
"Let me take you home."
"I don't want to go home." She hiccuped with a tiny gasp and the tears began to fall freely once again. "I can't go back. I..."
Sliding close to her, Nick wrapped his arms tightly around her and pulled her to his chest. Kissing her forehead, he swallowed the lump in his throat and closed his eyes as he felt her body finally give in. Uncontrollable sobs wracked her body and he squeezed tightly, never wanting to let her go.
"Nick, I'm so stupid." Her hands found their way to his chest and gripped tightly as she pressed her face to his neck. "What's wrong with me?"
"Nothing." He squeezed tighter, his hand stroking her back. "It'll all work out. Things will get better, I promise."
"No," She shook her head and pulled away, looking up into his face. "you don't understand. I made a huge mistake."
"Mistake?" He frowned down at her. "What are you talking about?"
Biting her lip, she stared into his dark brown eyes and so many feelings came flooding back. Feelings that had never truly gone away, ones that had stayed hidden just beneath the surface. She took a deep breath and shrugged away from his embrace, shaking off the grip he tried to maintain on her arms.
"Please, Nick. I can't do this right now."
"Do what?" Nick shook his head in confusion and watched as Jess jumped to a standing position. Raising his voice to get her attention, feeling the frustration mounting, he reached out to grab her left hand. "Jess, you have to..." His hand froze and he stopped mid sentence, his hand tightening around hers. Jess inhaled sharply and tried to pull her hand away, but Nick stood up and held fast. He stepped in front of her as his eyes dropped to her hand. Trying to catch her gaze, he leaned in front of her but she refused to look at him. With one rough tug, she managed to free herself from his grasp and turn away from him.
She wanted to run away. She wanted to run away and never look back.
Nick felt the tears prick his eyes as he took several deep breaths, his chest clenching with each passing moment. His voice was shaky as he watched her take several steps away from him.
"What's going on, Jess?"
She stopped, turning slowly on her heels and steadying herself against the lightheaded feeling coming over her. Her hands fidgeted for a minute before she wrapped her arms tightly around her body and finally raised her eyes to his. He walked cautiously towards her, seeing her tear stained face in the dim light. She took a deep breath and blinked away the tears. "I...I can't do it."
"You..." Choking on his words, he couldn't take his eyes off of her. He waited for her to continue, but she nervously looked past him towards the ocean, unable to look him in the eye. Slowly reaching out towards her, Nick's warm fingers pried her hands from her arms and found her left hand once again. Inhaling sharply, he felt his chest constricting and he shook his head. "Your ring..."
"I think we need to talk."
Sitting down next to him on the couch, Jess took a deep breath and closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them, he was staring at her expectantly.
"Jess, what is it?" Reaching out to take her hand, he held on tightly and frowned. "I know something's wrong, you've been pulling away for weeks. I wish you could talk to me."
She stared into his brown eyes and her heart sank. How could she do this to him? How could she break his heart? She realized in that moment just how big of a mistake she had made so long ago. Not only had she lost the only person she had ever truly loved, but it had brought her here- to hurt another man who didn't deserve any more heartache than she did.
The words tumbled from her lips before she was able to stop them.
"I can't marry you."
He watched her as her blue eyes filled with tears and his thumb caressed gentle circles over her hand. Almost on instinct, Jess pulled away and took a deep breath. He had known something like this was coming. Somehow he had always known. He knew it could never have ended any differently. Her heart had never really been his, no matter how hard he wanted to believe it had.
"I'm so sorry. I never wanted to hurt you." A tear began to fall down her cheek and he reached out to smooth it away with his thumb. He felt a heaviness settling into his chest, aware of how painful it would be to lose her. He pulled his hand back slowly and nodded, knowing it was probably the last time he would touch her.
"I think I always knew, I just..." He blinked his own tears away quickly. "I wanted to believe I could make you happy. I love you so much and..."
"I WAS happy. For a long time I was, but...it doesn't feel right." Jess nervously bit her lip, unable to hold his gaze, too ashamed to see the heartbroken look across his face. "I want you to know that I wasn't lying when I told you how important you are to me. I DO care about you. You're amazing and you healed my heart when I thought no one could. But..." She struggled with the words, already feeling an emptiness at what she was losing. "you should be with someone who's crazy about you. You deserve so much more than I can give you."
"You're wrong. We can try to..." He rambled, hoping to change her mind and make her realize how much she meant to him. "If you need more time..."
"Please don't..." She stared deep into his eyes and he felt his heart stop. Something was missing, something that he could never replace. He sighed, resigned to her decision.
"It's Nick...isn't it?"
A silence hung between them as he watched her intently. Her breath came out in short gasps as she struggled to breathe, and all he wanted was to make everything okay. She had shared so much with him, but at that moment he realized that no matter how hard he tried, Jess was never going to be able to give him that last piece of her heart that he so desperately wanted.
"I'm sorry, I..." She closed her eyes and inhaled sharply, feeling her emotions taking over. "I don't think I'll ever stop loving him and...it's not fair to you."
He closed his eyes at her words and waited for her to say something else. Anything. Finally his eyelids fluttered open and he watched her nervously spin the ring on her finger, hesitating for a moment before taking a deep breath, and slowly removing it from her finger. Her hand shook and he took it silently between his fingertips, nodding sadly.
Jess swallowed the lump in her throat, pleading with him softly. "Please don't hate me."
"It was always him," Without turning his head, he clenched his fist tightly around the small band, pressing it into his palm. "wasn't it?"
Unable to look him in the eye, she pulled her arms around her body and nodded, tears soaking her face.
Jess stood frozen on the sand, Nick's hand still clutching hers. Her eyes dropped, voice catching in her throat as she watched his thumb nervously press swift and firm circles over her hand.
"I can't marry him, Nick. It's over."
The silence and fear eating away at her, she slowly raised her moist eyes to his and watched as his shook his head slowly in disbelief.