Out of Breath (The Breathing Series, #3)
Author:Rebecca Donovan
Synopsis:

Prologue

    1

    Pandora’s Box



    ‘BONNE 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 glittery 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.

    ‘Need a drink?’ a voice asked close to my ear.

    I turned to find a guy with a thin, muscular frame, a mop of black hair, and a dark line of facial hair down the centre of his chin. From the tattoo behind his ear that crept down his neck and the few guys with similar attire of T-shirts and ripped jeans, I deduced that he was with the band.

    ‘Are you talking to me?’

    ‘Yeah,’ he replied with a cocky grin. ‘I’m Gev. I noticed your empty cup and thought I could help you out.’

    ‘Well, you don’t have a cup at all, so maybe I should be helping you out.’

    He laughed, but I left him and kept walking towards the table. When I turned back I had two cups in my hands. He stopped short and smiled when I offered him one.

    ‘I like your name. It’s different.’

    ‘I’m attached to it,’ he said with a quick raise of his brows, making me roll my eyes with a low laugh.

    ‘Are you going up again?’ I asked, nodding towards the stage, deciding I might as well talk to someone, and he seemed interesting enough. At least he wasn’t predictable.

    ‘Nope. We’re done for the night. And now I have some catching up to do.’ He downed the cup with several large gulps. I looked on, amused, and handed him another, which he accepted with a flashy smile.

    ‘What’s your name?’ he asked, moving away from the crowd forming in front of the table.

    ‘Emma.’

    ‘How are you feeling?’

    A minute ago I would have answered, On fire. But now I realized the fire was gone. In its place was a dull hum. A swirling calm ran through me, casting a veil of numbness over my senses.

    ‘Calm,’ I answered with a deep breath, relieved that the jacked-up Kool-Aid had finally kicked in.

    He laughed at my answer. ‘I’ve never heard that one before.’

    ‘You’ve never met me before.’

    ‘True. But I like that – I mean that you say what you’re thinking. No bullshit. That’s cool.’

    I shrugged.

    ‘Well, here’s to no bullshit,’ Gev raised his cup, and I tapped it with mine before we both took several large gulps.

    ‘Do you go to –’

    ‘No bullshit,’ I cut him off.

    ‘Okay,’ he said, considering my request. ‘What colour underwear do you have on?’

    I was caught off guard by his forwardness. ‘I can’t remember.’ I pulled my jeans by the belt loop to take a look. ‘Purple.’

    ‘Nice.’ He nodded in approval.

    ‘And you?’ I asked, liking this ‘no bullshit’ conversation. It was more interesting than talking about majors and sports teams.

    Gev was more daring, unbuttoning his jeans to show the top of his boxer briefs. ‘Black.’

    ‘I can see that.’ I pursed my lips to keep from smiling.

    I tipped my cup back and finished it, embracing the haze that continued to creep in.

    Gev’s hand slid along my back as he leaned in to ask, ‘Who are you kissing at midnight?’

    ‘How much time do I have?’ I enquired, not that it made a difference.

    He looked at his watch and answered, ‘An hour.’

    ‘I guess whomever I’m closest to.’

    ‘Then I’d better stay next to you,’ he replied with an arching brow.

    ‘Emma!’ Peyton exclaimed. I turned towards her voice and squinted to focus as she neared me. ‘Where’s Cole?’

    ‘I don’t know,’ I replied when I finally recognized her beside me. She looked from me to Gev and scrunched her eyes in confusion.

    ‘Come over here,’ she demanded, grabbing my arm and dragging me away from him. I stumbled after her, not prepared for the sudden movement. ‘Who is that?’

    ‘Gev. He’s with the band,’ I answered and waved back at him. He raised his cup in return.

    ‘What happened to Cole? He’s hot.’

    ‘He’s boring,’ I huffed. ‘Gev’s much more interesting.’

    ‘How many drinks have you had?’

    ‘Three.’ I grinned proudly at my accomplishment. ‘And I’m numb.’

    ‘Three?! Em, we’ve only been here an hour! You can’t drink anything else, or you’ll be on the ground before midnight. And I don’t think Gev’s a good fit for you.’

    ‘So?’ I wasn’t looking for a ‘good fit’. I was just looking for someone interesting to talk to, or drink with. But I didn’t want to waste my words trying to explain that to her.

    ‘Omigod. You’re already drunk.’

    I considered her accusation and smiled widely. I was numb from head to toe, except my lips felt tingly. I didn’t mind being drunk. It wasn’t what I’d expected, but it wasn’t bad.

    ‘Okay,’ I answered, accepting her assessment as true. ‘I’m going to find Gev now.’ I was done with the lecture. She wasn’t being fun. I turned, and the quick motion made everything blur past me. I remained still for a moment to allow the world to settle back in place before searching for his dark hair among the faces.

    ‘Fine. I’ll find you at midnight,’ she called after me.

    I felt a hand grab my arm, and I turned my heavy head to find his dark blue eyes. ‘Still next to you,’ he declared, clasping my hand.

    ‘Tell me something interesting,’ I requested, taking the cup he offered me.

    ‘I think you are the most interesting person I’ve met in a long time,’ he responded. He slipped his hand around my waist and leaned in to say, ‘Dance with me.’

    I was about to open my mouth to explain that I didn’t dance, but the next thing I knew, we were squeezed in among the sweaty bodies and his hand was pressed against the small of my back, pulling me against him. I flopped my arms around his neck to steady myself and let him do all the dancing. He even danced for me, swaying my hips along with his.

    Time moved fast, and the next thing I knew, I was yelling along with everyone else as this year ticked away into the next.

    ‘Happy New Year!’ we all chimed in unison. Gev turned me around and made certain he was the one closest to me. I allowed his wet lips to slide along mine, followed by the force of his tongue. My head buzzed louder when I closed my eyes, propping myself against him. He pulled me closer, making me stumble slightly. Gev gripped me tighter and continued to kiss me aggressively. I didn’t stop him. I kept thinking about how strange it felt. I couldn’t feel my lips, or maybe I couldn’t feel his lips. Either way, it didn’t seem like we were really kissing, and I was more focused on this than the fact that I was kissing at all.

    ‘Wanna get out of here?’ Gev offered, his breath tickling my neck. ‘I live a few houses down, and we have a hot tub.’

    A hot tub sounded good. Besides, I wanted to sit down. My legs weren’t doing a good job holding me up.

    ‘Sure,’ I replied, and he led me through the heat of the crowd and into the cool night. It must have warmed up after we’d arrived because I didn’t need my sweatshirt any more. He kept a hold of my hand and led me down the sidewalk.

    I could’ve sworn he said he lived a few houses down, but I felt like I saw a million sidewalk cracks before we were finally in his back yard. But then I didn’t remember seeing his front yard. Maybe his house really was close by. Either way, we were here and I couldn’t wait to sit down.

    Gev uncovered a hot tub tucked next to a fence. As he turned on the jets, I studied it, trying to figure out how I was supposed to lift my leg over the side. It seemed so … tall.

    Gev stripped down to the black boxer briefs I’d gotten a sneak peek of earlier. I followed his lead, dropping my jeans and tank top on the ground. I discovered I didn’t have any shoes on, and I couldn’t remember where I’d put them.

    ‘I love purple,’ he declared, pulling me towards him and nuzzling his face into my neck. He was distracting me from solving the hot-tub dilemma. I was about to push him away when I finally spotted the stairs. I smiled proudly.

    He led me to the hot tub, and I slipped in, breathing a sigh of relief now that I was finally off my feet. I closed my eyes and leaned my head back. Everything started to spin.

    I could feel Gev’s hands on me and his mouth on my shoulder. I opened my eyes and he was right there, eager for more kissing. I tilted my head towards him and connected with his greedy lips. I still couldn’t feel them, but I couldn’t feel anything any more, so I didn’t care.

    Caught up in the kissing and the hot swirling water, everything suddenly ceased to exist. My head mimicked the motion of the water, and the steamy air closed in around me. Gev was there again, pushing up against me. I was too distracted to participate, trying to keep the world from spinning out from under me. That’s when I felt the tightness in the back of my throat and knew I had to get out.

    I pushed past him and staggered down the stairs, just in time to find the bushes and release the red contents of my stomach. The world spun faster, knocking me to my knees before I heaved again.

    ‘Are you okay?’ Gev asked from behind me. I shook my head, giving in one more time. I took a deep breath of cold air and pushed myself up to stand, leaning against the fence to steady myself.

    ‘I need to lie down,’ I told him, not even knowing where he was.

    He grabbed my hand, and I stumbled after him. Everything flashed by in a blur. I concentrated on keeping my feet under me as I tried to keep up with him. We were in a house; then I saw a door. The door opened, and a light revealed a bathroom.

    ‘I’ll get you shorts and a T-shirt to put on,’ he said and disappeared.

    I gripped the edge of the sink and closed my eyes, trying to find centre. The scales of calm had tipped to swirling chaos. And I had an awful taste in my mouth. I opened the cabinet above the sink and grabbed the toothpaste. Squeezing it along my finger, I scrubbed my tongue before rinsing my mouth with water.

    Folded clothes appeared in front of me. I removed my wet bra and underwear and slid them on. The warm, dry T-shirt smelled good as I slid it over my head. Then Gev’s hand found mine again, and I trailed after him into a dark room.

    Gev stood before me in a pair of shorts. I leaned against him for balance, my hands pressed against his bare skin. He took this as an invitation and bent down to taste the toothpaste on my lips. His hands gripped my hips, and he kissed me hard. The numbness that I had so desperately wanted to possess me kept me from caring when his hands groped my back under the T-shirt. I didn’t care when he thrust his tongue into my mouth. I didn’t care when he ground his hardened body against me and groaned in my ear. And I didn’t care when he slipped the T-shirt over my head and let me fall back onto his bed.