SECOND PART RECAPS
***author’s note: Warning: Mention of anxiety and panic attacks/symptoms towards the end should you find those things triggering/wish to avoid them. Without further ado, the chapter that’s had the ~ longest ~ time coming. Quite a few thoughts at the end as well. Hope you enjoy~***
7:04 p.m. | Drew’s Room
“Come in.” Drew’s voice rings out at the sound of a light knock. The door creaks open and his mother steps in. He was expecting it to be Dakota. “Stop touching your hair.” She says sternly as Drew runs a hand through his slick locks, unused to the sensation of the pomade lathered into them. When he’d asked his sister for advice on how to style it he thought she’d laugh, but she was surprisingly helpful, providing overly detailed instructions on how to work the product into his hair. His mother walks over to him, pressing her palm over the strands he’s just disheveled. “You look handsome.” She says as she gives his shoulders a squeeze. “Thanks.” Drew says bashfully, he wanted to look his best for Mackenzie.
“And…” His mother continues, “your friend from school is here.”
“Mom, you should’ve said that first!” Drew exclaims.
“She’s pretty.” His mother says as she straightens his tie. Though her words seemed lighthearted, Drew could tell she was eyeing him carefully. “She is.” He says, doing his best to control his expression. His mother was an overly critical person by nature, and he didn’t want to hear her say something negative about Mackenzie if she picked up on his feelings. “I’ll go to her then.” Drew feels her eyes linger on him as he makes his way downstairs before he eventually hears his mother’s footsteps fade in the direction towards Dakota’s room.
He’d offered to have their driver pick Mackenzie up in class that afternoon, but she’d simply thanked him and said she’d be fine. He wanted to insist, but he recalled Dakota telling him that there was a fine line between being considerate and being pushy, and that girls found the latter off-putting, so he’d quickly dropped it. For a fraction of a second, Mackenzie’s expression looked panicked, but Drew wasn’t sure what about his offer could elicit that kind of response. If the evening went the way he’d hoped, and the relationship between them changed, he figured he’d have the chance to ask her later on.
As Drew makes his way to the entrance of the house, he passes by staff moving boxes from room to room. His parents’ annual fundraiser was set to begin officially at 7:30 p.m, and preparations were still underway for all the guests that would be arriving. Mackenzie comes into view, gazing out of one of their windows, and Drew takes a moment to collect himself before approaching her. He clears his throat, “Hi, Mackenzie.” “Hey, Drew.” She says. Mackenzie gives him a smile that jumbles all the thoughts in his head.
“Sorry. I came too early, right?” She asks as a waiter carrying a tray full of empty champagne glasses walks by. “It’s fine. I’m glad you did. We can spend a little more time together.” The words escape Drew’s lips before he thinks them through. Gosh, did that come off weird? He wonders. “I mean, if you’re cool with that… because I would like to-” “That sounds nice.” Mackenzie says, halting his flow of words before he can say something he’d regret. “Great. So, um, want to come upstairs? I actually have something for you.” Mackenzie looks at him questioningly. “You do?” She asks. “Uh-huh. Follow me.” Drew extends an arm and is elated when Mackenzie takes it. The brush of her fingers on his sleeve makes his heart hammer in his chest.
He leads her to the bench on the balcony outside of his room, plucking a bag off of his desk along the way. “What’s this?” Mackenzie asks once he hands it to her. “Just a little something… I saw it and thought of you, so…” “But, It’s not even my birthday.” Mackenzie says with a shy smile.
“Does it have to be for me to give you something?”
Mackenzie looks at the contents of the bag carefully. It was a sweater. A lavender one that Drew felt would look striking with her eyes. “It’s beautiful, thanks.” Mackenzie says as she feels the material between her fingers. Her smile falters the moment she looks at the embroidered label. “What‘s wrong?” Drew asks. Mackenzie bites her lip and a distracting amount of color forms on her cheeks before she answers. “I can’t accept this.” She says after a moment. Mackenzie folds and places the sweater back into the gift bag. “Why not?” Drew asks in surprise, his pulse quickening in panic.
“I know that brand. That’s a thousand dollar sweater, give or take.” Mackenzie says in explanation. Was it? Drew didn’t really pay attention to that kind of stuff when he went shopping. “So?” “So…” Mackenzie repeats, her face reddening further, “It’s way too expensive for a casual gift.” “Why should that matter? It’s not much.” Mackenzie flinches at his words and Drew wonders what he’s done wrong. “Mackenzie?” “I’m not comfortable accepting it, okay? Friends don‘t gift friends things like that.”
Hearing her say the word friend made his stomach sink. “What if we were something more, would you accept it then?” The words are out before he has time to rethink them. “Huh?” Mackenzie says, taken aback. Drew sighs. No turning back now. “At the park a few weeks ago, I said I had something I wanted to tell you today…” Mackenzie nods, eyes locked onto his. “I wanted to ask… if you wanted to go out with me.” “On a date?” Mackenzie asks. “On more than one.”
Was confessing your feelings always this nerve-wracking? Drew’d never done it before. Getting the words out was almost painful. “I’m trying to say that I like you, Mackenzie. A lot.” Mackenzie’s blush deepens. It was probably only a few seconds, but waiting for her to give a response felt like hours. “I really like you too.” She says after a moment and Drew does all he can to keep from hopping off of the bench in joy. “So, that means we’re dating now.” He says. He had to make sure he didn’t just imagine what he’d heard.
“I guess so.” Mackenzie says. He reaches over and takes her hand into his. Mackenzie intertwines their fingers, and for a moment they sit in a blissful silence. Mackenzie is the first to break it. “I still can’t accept your gift.”
“Why not?” Drew pouts. He really wanted to see how it’d look on her. Mackenzie rises and walks over to the balcony railing. There’s a quiet rumble of thunder in the distance, and the clouds in the sky begin to empty.
“I have my reasons, okay?”
Drew wanted to ask what they were, but felt he was tip-toeing into pushy territory. He leaves the bench and goes to her side. “Okay, fine. I understand. I’ll take it back.” “Thank you.” Mackenzie says, “Promise me you won’t get me anything like that in the future, birthday or not.” Drew bites his lip, and Mackenzie looks at him pleadingly. “I promise.” At his response, she exhales a sigh of relief. “Good.”
“Can I touch you?” Drew blurts at seeing the smile that forms on her face. Mackenzie nods. He places his hands on her back and pulls her towards him. What do I do now? Drew freezes. Thankfully he isn’t left standing frantically for long, Mackenzie wraps her arms behind his head and draws him in for a kiss. It’s only a quick peck, but Drew is surprised at how overwhelming the sensation feels. Every nerve of his body was on high alert. His surprise allows him to recollect himself.
“I’d been meaning to tell you, you look really pretty today.”
“Thanks.” Mackenzie replies. “You look handsome too. I like your hair.” Drew silently thanks his sister for her help as he leans back in for another kiss.
7:39 p.m. | Dempsey Residence
As they approach their destination, Aislyn is surprised at how lively the otherwise quiet residential area suddenly becomes, with a string of cars lining the street and groups of people walking from a distance. After managing to find a spot to park, she and Cailean join the procession. Aislyn gasps as the slick pavement gives way beneath her heel. It had briefly rained on the way over, and the ground was considerably wet. Cailean tightens his grip on the hand he was already holding, steadying her. “Easy there.” He says. “Thanks.” Aislyn says breathlessly. “I told you,” Cailean says as he draws her closer, “I’d be more than happy to have you lean on me for the evening.” “Well, you’re here to work, so I can’t exactly do that, can I?” Aislyn smiles.
Cailean hadn’t said much on the ride over, only that despite having some things to take care of, for the most part, it was meant to be a simple, social evening. As soon as they enter the hosts’ residence, she and Cailean are approached by a man in a gray suit. “Cailean, good to see you! Diana is already here. We’d agreed that whomever caught you first would bring you to the other.” “Mr. Polański, good evening.” Cailean says in acknowledgement. “And who might this lovely lady be?” The man asks as he turns his attention to Aislyn.
“Aislyn, this is Filip Polański, the current District Attorney of Oldmerrow. Mr. Polański, this is Aislyn Persefoni, my girlfriend. She works at the Sentinel here in Bayville.” “Nice to meet you.” Mr. Polański says as he extends a hand. “Likewise.” Aislyn says as she takes it in the one not currently enveloped in Cailean’s. “Sorry to spring on you right away, but before things get too busy, there are a few people we’d like you to meet.” Mr. Polański shrugs. “Right.” Cailean says as he gives an apologetic smile to Aislyn. “Don’t worry about me.” She says as she gives his hand a squeeze before releasing it.
“I tagged along fully expecting to be abandoned at some point along the night.” She jokes. “Mr. Polański gives a hearty laugh, “That’s a good one.” “I’ll come find you when I’m done.” Cailean says. Aislyn nods and waves as the two men depart down a corridor opposite the direction the majority of the guests are being guided along.
For a moment, it appeared as though Cailean’s expression had stiffened. Aislyn couldn’t tell if it was nerves, or perhaps something else. She follows the crowd towards the main gathering space, immediately greeted by bright lights, mellow tunes being played by a live band, and flocks of people socializing all around. Aislyn’s attention is drawn towards the beverage counter and she makes her way towards it.
“What can I get you?”
“Anything non-alcoholic.” Aislyn says. “Coming right up.” The bartender replies. “Aislyn?” A man’s voice calls. She turns her head in the direction it comes from, and is surprised to be greeted by two very familiar faces.
“Mr. Silva, Ms. Valentine, what a pleasant surprise.” “I’ll say!” Ms. Valentine, who Aislyn can’t help but notice looks rather stunning, beams. “What brings you here?” Silva asks. “My boyfriend has some business to attend to, so I came as his plus one.” Aislyn intentionally refrains from mentioning Cailean’s name, Silva would surely recognize it from the Phillips case, and she’d done a good job of managing to navigate at work without having it come up.
Silva opens his mouth as if to ask a question and Aislyn preemptively deflects. “Are you here for work?” She asks. “Pretty much. The Dempseys normally have their fundraisers at convention centers or other grand, outdoor locations. The fact that it’s notably more intimate this year, and in their home, makes me think there’s a story. It’d be best if we could get the jump on it first.” Silva responds. That didn’t explain why his assistant, Ms. Valentine, was also in attendance, and Aislyn wonders if perhaps there was something going on between them. As if her thoughts were visible on her face, Silva clears his throat, “Well, we’ll leave you be.” He says as he extends his arm in an attempt to escape.
Ms. Valentine downs the rest of the champagne in her hand before taking it. “Have a nice night!” She says to Aislyn. “You too.” Aislyn replies, and they saunter off. As the room begins to fill up, she takes her drink and makes her way to the back wall, looking over the guests on the dance floor as she does so. As Silva and Ms. Valentine join them, even from a distance, the aura between the two definitely appeared to be more than friendly, and Aislyn wonders if the rest of the team possessed more knowledge of the nature of their relationship than she did.
A waiter comes to a stop beside her, holding out a tray, and Aislyn sets her now empty glass down with a thank you. A few more minutes go by with her awkwardly shifting from foot to foot. She’d told herself that she’d use the evening as an opportunity to network, but found that to be something much easier said than done. When was the last time she’d gone to something even remotely resembling a party? Her social skills were rusty at best.
Just as Aislyn steels her resolve to approach another woman standing alone on the wall opposite her, she feels a hand slip into hers and turns to see Cailean pulling her along. They don’t walk too deep into the crowd, to which Aislyn is thankful as she was now hyper aware of Silva’s presence. Cailean places one of his hands on the small of her back, and they begin to sway to the slow rhythm. She’d noticed something was slightly off about Cailean briefly when they were leaving her house, and again once they’d arrived at the lively premises. His current silence only serves to affirm that.
There was a time when Aislyn found Cailean’s expressions to be unreadable; she’d be so frustrated at her inability to tell what he was thinking by looking at him. A part of her was pleased she was now able to gauge his feelings so easily even though they’ve been spending most of their time away from one another. The other part was afraid as to what could be troubling him. “Something wrong?” She asks. “No, everything’s good. Great actually.” Cailean says, his expression lifting. “That’s good.” Aislyn says with a smile.
As they continue to move to the music, Aislyn allows herself to get lost in the features she’s come to yearn for during their many FaceTimes and phone calls: the curve of Cailean’s collarbone, the sharpness of his jaw, the locks of his hair that seemed to constantly change from deep brown to fair blond depending on the light. It looked chesnut now, and Aislyn held back her desire to run her hands through it. Her eyes eventually rest on his, and she notices Cailean is looking at her rather intently. A blush creeps into her cheeks. “Aislyn.” He says steadily, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about…” “Okay.” She says cautiously. Cailean expertly guides her, never missing a step, to a corner of the floor away from the crowd.
“Remember that job offer I mentioned a while back?” He asks. “The one you said you didn’t have to think about for some time?” Aislyn nods as she recalls their conversation. “Well, the time came to think about it, and I accepted.” “That’s wonderful, congrats!” Aislyn says excitedly. Cailean’s expression isn’t as bright as she suspects hers is, so she waits for him to continue, expecting there to be more.
“Well, the thing is… it’s in Ravensburg.” “Oh.” Aislyn says in acknowledgement. And now his demeanor partly made sense. “That’s… not too far.” She says after a moment. Cailean chuckles. “Yes, well, considering how often we get to see each other already…” He says sarcastically, and Aislyn laughs. “So… I was wondering if, rather than kill a good part of the day driving to one another for dates, you’d prefer to just stay over, for weekends, holidays, or whenever.” “You mean, like move in?” “Yeah. That is, only if you’d want t-” “I’d love to.” Aislyn doesn’t let him finish.
“I’m happy to hear that.” Cailean gives her a smile that makes her heart swell. Aislyn was surprised at the urge she had to pull Cailean in for a kiss considering how much public displays of affection made her uncomfortable. “Is that what had you looking so tense?” She asks. “That’s how I came across?” Cailean grins, “Yeah, it’s been on my mind. I didn’t know how you’d feel about it.” “I thought I’d made my desires fairly obvious.” Aislyn says in a low voice. At that, Cailean smirks. “Well, you can never be too sure… I already started looking at some places, but I figured it’d be nice if you tagged along when you have some time, that way you could have a say in-” Cailean is interrupted by Mr. Polański from earlier, and a woman Aislyn doesn’t recognize stopping beside them.
“Sorry to interrupt, yet again.” Mr. Polański says. “Mayor Dempsey will probably be occupied for the rest of the evening after giving his speech, so if we’re to speak with him, now’s the time…” As Mr. Polański continues to talk to Cailean, the woman by his side looks at Aislyn with an unreadable expression. Something about the smile she gives Aislyn unsettles her. She shifts in Cailean’s embrace and as if suddenly aware that he was still holding her, he releases her.
“Go on ahead. I can manage.” She says with a smile. Cailean gives her another apologetic look before taking off with Mr. Polański and the woman who opts out of introducing herself. Suddenly, all of the socializing made sense. If Cailean was going to be working in Ravensburg, he’d essentially be on his own, unlike in Oldmerrow where he was acquainted with all of the police, lawyers, fellow prosecutors, and even most residents. His departure provides Aislyn with a moment to process his suggestion. Living together… As the thoughts of what that would entail swirl through her mind, Aislyn decides to get some air, she felt her face was crimson.
She walks through one of the back doors and lays eyes on a woman standing alone, gazing at the starry night sky. “Mrs. Durand?” She says once she confirms it is indeed whom she suspects. Mrs. Durand tears her eyes away from the view she appeared to be enjoying to look at her. “You’re that journalist from the Sentinel.” Considering how many people Mrs. Durand likely met with on a daily basis, Aislyn was impressed she remembers. “Yes, I’m Aislyn.” “Is there something you need from me?” “No, actually, I just came for some air.” Aislyn says as she looks up at sky, letting the cool wind calm her warm cheeks. “As did I.” Mrs. Durand says, following suit.
“Everything okay?” Aislyn asks, breaking the brief silence after hearing Mrs. Durand give a lengthy sigh. “You won’t publish my answer in tomorrow’s paper, will you?” Mrs. Durand answers.
“No, of course not… If you’d prefer to be alone, I can go back inside-”
“I’m only kidding. My sister says my jokes aren’t that funny, I suppose she’s right.”
Aislyn smiles and Mrs. Durand continues. “I’m just missing my daughter. Being away from her for any length of time never gets easier.” Aislyn recalls seeing a photograph of her holding a child in her office. “She’s with my husband’s family for the evening, I’m afraid they’ll spoil her to the point where she’ll prefer their company over ours. Do you have any children?” Mrs. Durand turns to her, and Aislyn shakes her head. “I don’t think I want to.” Aislyn answers honestly, taking a moment to ponder the question. Mrs. Durand gives her a sad smile. “I don’t mean to pry, but may I ask why not-” Her question is interrupted by the sound of the door swinging open. “There you are, Jackie. I’ve been looking all over for you!” The woman exiting says.
It’s only when she’s a few feet away that Aislyn recognizes her. “Well, I grew tired of being a third wheel.” Mrs. Durand says dismissively.
“You aren’t a- Aislyn?”
“Hi, Jo.” Aislyn says with a wave. “You two know each other?” Mrs. Durand asks as her head turns between them. Jo rushes over and clasps Aislyn’s hands in hers. “Yeah, she’s a friend! We’ve met a few times.” Jo says in quick explanation.
“It’s so good to see you! I’d been meaning to message you, but I’ve been so busy with school and family stuff that-”
“It’s fine.” Aislyn smiles. Jo always seemed to have an abundant energy that was infectious. As Aislyn glances between the two women, the late realization that they were sisters sets in. Considering how similar they looked, she was embarrassed at how she was unable to piece that together sooner. “Do you two know each other?” Jo repeats her sister’s question. “We met through work, briefly.” Mrs. Durand says simply. “What a small world!” Jo giggles.
The door opens once more, and another familiar face walks out. It’s Dr. Renolds, she and Kim’s savior from their dip in the Oldmerrow river last winter. He tips his head in acknowledgment at the sight of her. “I’d hate to interrupt your conversation, ladies, but it appears as though Mayor Dempsey will be making a speech soon, so everyone is gathering.” “Shall we head back in, then?” Mrs. Durand asks, and Aislyn nods, following the group inside.
Bruce was right. The room was noticeably more filled when they return, and they work their way forward until they’re a few rows away from the stage. Aislyn scans the crowd and sees Cailean near the front, flanked on both sides by Mr. Polański and the unknown woman. As if sensing her eyes on him, Cailean turns and meets her gaze. Sorry. He mouths. Aislyn shakes her head in response. It’s fine. She mouths back. “Who’s that?” Jo asks, catching their interaction. “My boyfriend. I came here with him, but he’s busy at the moment.” As if on cue, the woman beside Cailean reaches for his shoulder to whisper something in his ear. Cailean nods and redirects his attention towards her.
The sound of applause suddenly bursts through the room. Aislyn, Jo, Bruce, and Mrs. Durand join in. The mayor had entered and was making his way onto the stage. “Please, you’re all much too kind. Good evening, everyone!” He says as he takes his place behind the mic. Aislyn had seen Mayor Dempsey a few times in the paper and on the news. In person he seemed to have an air about him that was different from the impression he gave off from a distance. Perhaps it was because he was in the comfort of his own home, but he appeared a lot more relaxed.
“I’m Ryan Dempsey, but then again, most of you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t already know that.” He pauses for the crowd to finish laughing. “Thank you for taking the time to come tonight. This is a departure from our usual annual fundraisers. Fear not, we still plan on going through the usual motions for the different charitable causes of this great city; however, before that, there’s a bit of news I’d like to share.” The mayor pauses to clear his throat.
“The city of Bayville is my home, it’s all I’ve ever known. Being the mayor for these past few years has been one of my life’s greatest pleasures… But now, I think it’s time to be a bit more ambitious as my wife constantly tells me to be. And so, without dragging this out any longer, I am here to announce that I will be running for governor of the state.” The room immediately breaks out into hushed whispers. “There are people here from not only Bayville, but Oldmerrow, Ravensburg, Middlesbrough, and beyond. I’ve gathered you because I think I can make a difference in helping to resolve some of the issues that we’ve been having in cities all around Kardon. Now, I’m not springing this on you to pressure you into making a donation to my campaign funds, though any and all support would be appreciated. I simply wanted you to hear the news from me first…”
As the mayor continues to speak, Aislyn lets her eyes wander. She wasn’t much into politics, her job simply required she be in the loop, and that was what she did. Instead of listening to Mayor Dempsey’s many promises, she decides to gauge the reactions of the crowd. After scanning a few faces, a dress catches her eye. It’s one she and Nicole had painstakingly found. Mackenzie? If the boy Mackenzie mentioned she liked invited her here, it meant that this was the event his family was hosting that she’d told Aislyn about. He must be the mayor’s son. Interesting. Aislyn would have to get a look at him later. She needed to make sure Mackenzie was a good judge of character. Perhaps she’d ‘bump’ into the two and give her greetings. The idea makes her smile; seeing Mackenzie here was an unexpected, but much welcomed surprise.
Aislyn returns to her analysis of the area. She catches a glimpse of Silva jotting something down on a notepad, seemingly pleased that he’d managed to procure the scoop he’d wanted. Beside him, a woman in a distracting red dress stands out against the muted blues, blacks, and grays of the other guests. She does not make her disinterest subtle. After fiddling with an excellently manicured hand, she mimics Aislyn and also gives her attention to the room. It’s only when she does that Aislyn is able to see that it’s Valerie. Suddenly eager to direct her eyes elsewhere, a sudden change in Valerie’s demeanor halts Aislyn.
Her look of haughty disdain immediately becomes one of shock. Aislyn follows Valerie’s line of sight, and to a shock of her own, sees it fall onto Cailean. He doesn’t appear to notice the pair of eyes on him at first, but it doesn’t take long. His head tilts a fraction away from Mayor Dempsey and locks onto Valerie. The expression that forms on his face is as cold as it is instantaneous. Even in the brief moments she’d seen Cailean upset, Aislyn had never seen him look like that. His face was unrecognizable. As quickly as he looks at Valerie, he looks away, refocusing on the stage. Aislyn’s head snaps back to Valerie who, to her utter amazement, has her head hanging down. Her brows were knitted together so furiously with an expression that Aislyn could only deem as being a cross between sorrow and embarrassment. She couldn’t believe her eyes.
Aislyn’s staring must’ve been a tad too obvious, as Jo leans towards her and speaks. “I know her.” She says quietly. “That’s Valerie Jamieson. Ugh, she’s so annoying. Do you know how many times she’s dug into Jackie? She never has anything nice to say. Even when-” “That’s enough, Josephine.” Jackie says sternly. Jo seems to catch herself at her sister’s discomfort. “Sorry.” She mumbles. Aislyn barely processes the conversation occurring around her, she was much too preoccupied with what she’d just seen.
Yes, Cailean had expressed his dislike of Valerie before, so his expression – though startling – she supposes shouldn’t have been such a surprise. No, what was the surprise was the look on Valerie’s. She must’ve upset plenty of people with the stories she’s run – Jo and her sister seemingly on that list – but Aislyn doubted Valerie would wear the same expression she currently was if she were confronted by them, or anyone else. There’s no way…
Aislyn’s never pried into Cailean’s love life. All she knew were the bits she’s heard from Kim, who tended to overshare despite her best intentions. So she knew that Cailean’s last relationship prior to theirs ended fairly badly after… what was it Kim said? ‘A betrayal of some kind by his ex’… Though the story would make sense, Aislyn could not picture a world in which someone like Cailean was with someone like Valerie. There had to have been another explanation.
The sound of applause pulls Aislyn out of her thoughts. The doors beside the stage were beginning to open. A teenage boy and girl bounce up the stairs and the audience continues to clap at their entrance; the mayor must’ve introduced his family. Aislyn attempts to focus on what was going on in front of her, shoving her current speculations from her mind.
“…And last, but not least, the rock behind me who was responsible for helping to organize this evening and almost everything I do, really. My lovely wife-” From the same door the mayor’s children entered from, a woman walks out. She embraces Mayor Dempsey and turns to wave at the crowd.
The room that was so warm and loud suddenly seemed cold and quiet. Aislyn immediately turns on her heel before the woman’s eyes reach where she’s standing. “I’ll be right back.” She says in a near whisper. Beside her, Jo and Mrs. Durand nod, their gazes still fixed on the scene Aislyn has turned her back to. She begins to make her way towards the back of the room, and doesn’t make it very far. Aislyn had never given much thought to the expression ‘having the rug pulled out from under you,’ but now, as she sees the ground hurtling towards her face, she supposes that was exactly what it felt like.
She’s caught by a pair of arms. A man whose face she is too ashamed to look up at speaks into her ear. “Are you okay, dear?” He asks. Aislyn is thankful the audience’s applause drowns out whatever noise she’s made. She nods. She supposes the gentleman was waiting for her to stand up and walk away, any logical person would, but Aislyn remains fixed in place. She couldn’t feel the lower half of her body, let alone get it to move. “Would you like to get some air?” He asks at her silence, Aislyn nods yet again. The man repositions his arms, draping one around her shoulders and placing the other on her upper arm to support her. He guides her onto her feet, and Aislyn is grateful she’s able to get her legs moving again thanks to his assistance.
The bustling workers appeared to be preparing tables outside for a dinner by the poolside. The man leads them from the back of the house to the foyer; the sights of dishes, trays, and staff pass by in a blur.
Aislyn does not realize they’re outside until the night’s chill greets her face. Compared to the flurry of activity in the ballroom and out back, the front of the house is eerily empty. The man gently walks Aislyn to a bench, and joins her on it. He places a hand on her back, and begins to rub it in small circles.
“It’s all right. You’re okay.” He says.
Why is he speaking to me like that? Aislyn wonders. It’s only as she tries to vocalize that question that she notices just how labored her breathing is. Was she hyperventilating? Calm down. She thinks. If only it were that easy. She looks at her hands in her lap and notices they’re shaking. What is going on? Thinking that only serves to worsen her shortness of breath.
“Easy, now. If you keep breathing like that you’ll get dizzy, or worse. Can’t have that now, can we?” The man says calmly. Amidst her stress, Aislyn wonders if he was used to seeing such things. “I’m going to need you to try and focus.” He says evenly. “Breathe in, hold it, and breathe out when I tell you to. Can you do that?” “Aislyn nods. “It may help if you close your eyes as well, or perhaps focus on something in front of you.” Aislyn fixates on a potted plant across her feet. After a few minutes of following the man’s instructions, her breathing returns to normal.
“There you go.” He says as he draws his hand back. She hadn’t spoken a word since she’d slammed into the kind man helping her, and felt thankful but also slightly guilty.
“Are you alone? Is there someone you’d like me to get, or call for you?”
“No… I’m all right.” She says, at last finding her voice. After taking a few steadying breaths, ensuring whatever that was has passed, she turns to face him, and starts.”You’re Willem Grayham.” Aislyn observes aloud. Only she could be so unlucky as to embarrass herself in front of one of the people she admired most. “I’m flattered at the recognition.” He says with a broad smile. “That’s a given. I’m… a fan of yours.” She says sheepishly, “I went to your book signing here last year.”
“I tend to be quite good with faces, and looking at you now, I do find you quite familiar… Ah! The young lady with the Greek name.” “Yeah, my last name is Persefoni.”
“Right. I recall taking my wife on a surprise trip to Santorini after that signing, I suppose she has you to thank for that.”
Aislyn cracks a reluctant smile. She turns her head and rubs her temple. As if by doing so she could erase the frazzled look Grayham had already seen. He gives a comforting laugh. “You know, not to brag or anything…” He says in an attempt to draw her attention back. Aislyn slowly returns her eyes to his. “…but, shortly after getting this haircut, I quite literally had a young woman swoon at the sight of me. Collapsed on the floor and everything.” Graham pauses to clear his throat, and Aislyn can’t help but let out a stifled laugh at the unexpected comment.
“I’ve seen a lot worse than this, you’ve nothing to feel ashamed of.” She had a feeling Grayham was a good person from the words she’d spent so much of her youth reading, and seeing him now only reassured Aislyn of that fact. “Thank you… for saying that. And for the help.”
“My dear, it was nothing at all.”
Cailean didn’t use the word astonished often, but as he watches Mrs. Dempsey speak, there is no other word that comes to mind that comes close to describing how he feels.
“…I don’t want to go on for much longer, so I’ll conclude by thanking you all for coming tonight. This is certainly quite different from our normal affairs. We wanted those closest to us to know first, and to thank you for your continuous support over the years for our endeavors. We’re currently preparing a dinner we’d be delighted if you’d enjoy with us. As my husband mentioned, this is not to strong arm any support out of you, but should you wish to help the campaign, that’s something we can discuss on a Monday morning, through our offices, and not a Friday night, off the clock. Have a wonderful evening, and thanks again for coming.”
It’s only when she steps away from the microphone for Mr. Dempsey to chime in does Mrs. Dempsey’s hold on Cailean break. He was transfixed at her every word. There was no doubt in his mind as to who she was. Even without a facial resemblance that was so striking, those eyes alone were enough. They were the exact same as the ones he was staring into moments ago.
Aislyn. He thinks. Cailean turns his head towards where he’d seen her standing before, but is unable to see her amongst the crowd. “Excuse me for a moment.” He says in a low voice, and Diana and Mr. Polański nod in unison.
Cailean begins walking towards where Aislyn was earlier. “Hello!” A young woman says excitedly, stepping away from whomever she was with to intercept Cailean’s path. After taking a moment to think, Cailean recalls seeing her on his evening visit to the Phillips’ home. She was Jacqueline Durand’s sister, and Walter Phillips’s niece. “Hi.” He says apprehensively.
“If you’re looking for Aislyn, she stepped out a little while ago.”
Cailean is surprised at the familiarity in which she speaks Aislyn’s name. How well did they know one another? Evidently well enough to recognize him, and know the nature of he and Aislyn’s relationship. Cailean supposes that’s something that can be inquired about at a later time. “Thanks.” He says. The young lady nods, and Cailean excuses himself.
He looks over the pool area outside. There were several waiters standing at the ready to serve dinner besides tables lined with cloths and candles. The rest of the house seemed otherwise quiet, which meant there was only one other place Aislyn would go. He walks through the entrance and sure enough, sees her seated on a bench by the front facing windows. A man was sitting beside her, a little too close for Cailean’s comfort. As he approaches, the man says something to Aislyn he doesn’t catch before rising and making his way to the doors. Cailean doesn’t bother looking his way as they walk past one another.
“Did you see who that was?” Aislyn asks in a quiet voice once he comes to a stop at her side. “No.” Cailean says curtly, he honestly couldn’t care less. “Are you all right?” He asks, his eyes scanning hers in concern. Aislyn breaks the contact between them. Redirecting her head to the floor. Cailean kneels in front of her to look up into the face she clearly didn’t want him to see.
With a pang, Cailean notices how unusually flushed her face is. It wasn’t the color he was accustomed to seeing on her; this one had spread to her forehead and neck. “Aislyn…” He places a hand on her cheek, expecting her to be warm to the touch, and is alarmed at how cold she is. Aislyn flinches out of his grasp and quickly jumps up from the bench.
“What are you doing out here? I thought you were-”
“Are you seriously asking me that?” Cailean asks as he rises from the ground. The shakiness of her voice does not go unnoticed. Aislyn had mentioned on their first date that she hadn’t seen her mother in years. If that still held true, her reaction was understandable. And, it confirmed that Mrs. Dempsey was indeed Aislyn’s mother. He knew she was a sensitive subject for her, but beyond that, Cailean had no idea exactly what caused their relationship to become whatever it was.
Aislyn turns away from him and runs a hand through her hair, tucking some curls behind her ear.
“That’d be infinitely more believable if you’d say it facing me and not the wall.” Cailean says softly. “Do you think that insisting like this is going to put my mind at ease? That I’ll just say ‘okay then’ and go back inside knowing that you aren’t in fact ‘fine’?”
Aislyn doesn’t provide a response to that. Cailean takes her silence as a positive sign, he places a hand on her waist and spins her towards him. She opens her mouth, but no words come out. “You don’t have to say anything. Come on.” Cailean takes her hand in his. “B-but-” she stammers.
“You don’t look like you can bear to be here a moment longer.”
“I can wait until you finish…” She mumbles. Cailean tilts Aislyn’s chin to meet his eyes. “You’re prioritizing my work, when right now my priority is you.” At his words Aislyn bites her lip. The look in her eyes pained him, they were as emotional as he’s ever seen Aislyn, unshed tears glistening.
“There’s nothing more important to me at this moment than making sure you’re all right.”
To his surprise, Aislyn quickly closes the distance between them. She buries her head in his chest, and locks her arms around his waist. Cailean takes no time to return her embrace. As he presses Aislyn closer to him, he notices she’s trembling ever so slightly. Cailean mentally chides himself for not noticing her absence, or distress, sooner.
“Let’s go,” He whispers into her hair. Aislyn nods against him. Cailean presses his lips onto her forehead. He pulls off his jacket and drapes it over her shoulders. Taking her hand once again, Cailean pulls Aislyn alongside him as they make their way down the driveway, and out into the dimly-lit street.
At long last, Chapter 50 is done; this part of the story is done. Done, done, done 🎊 No more split chaps, unexpected hiatuses, or delays *exhales sigh of relief*
Well, for starters, there were quite a bit of back to back developments here, hehe. No significant ghostly/mystery revelations, but at least a few answers for some other things that may have crossed your minds whilst reading.
One being the significance of Drew (and Dakota) after meeting them almost 40 chapters ago, lol. They’re Aislyn’s step siblings~ Bet you didn’t see that coming 👀 Another thing probably being the question: what has Aislyn’s mom been up to, that Aislyn has wondered from time to time herself. The answer: she’s been busy being the mayor’s wife – for quite a while at that – out of the public eye. My apologies for anyone who might’ve been uncomfortable at the end there. I know reading about anxiety or panic attacks is something not everyone is comfortable with. I tried to make it on the tame side/not too detailed. But Aislyn’s unaddressed trauma from her mother is something that’ll come into play moving forward, and will likely explain a lot about why she acts the way she does sometimes, so hope that’s all right. Lastly, but certainly not least, you finally found out who Cailean’s ex is. In a maybe not-so surprise for some of you, it’s Valerie XD What a couple, am I right? I’ll probably provide a bit more insight and explanations on all of that in the eventual reflections post I’m thinking of doing before returning to writing the rest of the story.
As of now, I’ve got zero screenshots beyond this point, so if I manage to overcome my current computer hurdle, I’m quite looking forward to getting back to that. I have some of the next chapter written already because there’s a conversation between Aislyn and Cailean that has just been chilling since I made my story outline years ago, so getting that out eventually will be nice 🤤
This was a whammy of a chapter (can you imagine this and the last one being one combined 💀). And it officially takes first place as my longest one 🥇 Something else I’ll probably mention again moving forward is that I really want to cut down on these lengthy chaps. Even though you’re all so kind and tell me you don’t mind, it’s for my own sake as much as yours, lol. Even though this chapter was done, the edits kicked my a**, lol, which probably wouldn’t have been as taxing if it wasn’t > 6.5k words.
Of course this ending note has gotten quite long, but it’ll probably be my last one for a while so thanks for bearing with me 😄❤️ Feel free to let me know your thoughts!