Jersey Girl (Sticks & Hearts #1)(10) by Rhonda James

Thanks for letting me stay here this week. I'm really sorry you had to leave for my sake, but I have to say I frigging LOVE your bed. And I'm sorry we didn't get to spend more time together, but it was fun while it lasted. Hope to see you again under different circumstances. ~Cassie

I laugh at her wit, imagining the gleam in her eye as she wrote it, then crumple the note up before throwing it in the trash. The house is quiet, which is rare once classes start, so I take advantage and turn on my music. My bed sits there, perfectly made, and it beckons me over. I stretch out my legs and remember the last time I lay in this exact spot. When my eyes close, it's her face I see, and her blond hair I feel where it fell forward and tickled my skin. Before long, I'm fast asleep, dreaming of when I was a young kid skating on Miller's Pond. Those were happy times, when all I cared about was what time the rink opened and when the lake would finally freeze over so we could put our skates on.

A ringing phone awakens me, and it takes a few seconds to find it in my sleep-induced state. It's dark, and I figure I must have slept a good five hours. My stomach rumbles loudly, and I realize I've slept right through dinner.

"Hello," I answer groggily.

"Sweetie?" Mom's voice breaks through the fog surrounding me. "Did I wake you?"

"Mom. Wow, it's good to hear your voice." I pause and shift my position so I can cradle the phone between my ear and the pillow. "Yeah, I was sleeping, but I never intended to sleep this long. I'm glad you called and woke me. How are you? How's Dad?"

"I'm fine." I sense the strain in her voice, and I am instantly wide awake.

"Mom, what is it? Something's wrong."

"Sweetie, I need to tell you something, and it's not going to be easy. I really wish I could be there with you when I tell you this."

The line goes silent for a few moments, and it gives my mind time to speculate what's going on. My grandmother had a heart attack. Or something has happened to my brother.

"Your father collapsed this afternoon. The doctor's believe he's had a heart attack," she says, catching me completely off guard. Her words strike me hard. It feels worse than the hit I took in the playoff game against Minnesota last season. That blow had been bad enough to take me out of the game. But this...

This one leaves me feeling as if I've been hit by the whole fucking Minnesota team all at once.

"Where was he? Was he at work, or with you?"

"We were in the kitchen, having an argument. He collapsed right before my eyes. I've never felt so helpless in all my life. They're running tests right now."

"Wait, what does this mean? There's something you're not telling me." By now my frustration has reached a dangerous level. I receive a phone call waking me out of a deep sleep, only to be told my father just had a heart attack and possibly almost died. Yet I sense there's something she's not telling me.

"Brantley, I need for you to try and calm down. None of this is easy for me. I hate having to tell you this over the phone."

"Mom, I'm sorry. It's just that I know there's something else. Just lay it on me," I plead with her. "Why were you and dad fighting? You never used to fight."

"People change, sweetheart. Your dad's business has been struggling for some time, and he hasn't really been himself. We were fighting because I found out a woman he works with has been texting him. They met for coffee a few times. I jumped to conclusions and confronted him."

"What?" I bellow, sitting up so fast it makes my head spin. "Why the hell would he be with another woman? He's a married man, or did he forget that?"

"Sweetheart, I know this is hard for you to hear. But right now I'm choosing to look past all of that because I want him to get through this. I can't afford to get held up on those details. He's my husband and he needs me. Now more than ever," she answers resolutely.

The rest of our conversation is a blur as I listen to the long list of tests scheduled. He'll be admitted to the hospital and will most likely be there for a couple of days. I suddenly feel guilty for being so far away, and I wonder if my brother is there with her.

"I'm sorry, but I don't understand. I just talked to him a few weeks ago and everything was fine. You both sounded so... so... normal. How can he go from normal to having a heart attack in just a few weeks? And how is it you sound so calm? Aren't you freaking out right now?"

"Sweetheart, I understand this comes as a shock. This isn't something any mother wants to tell her children. And it hasn't been easy for me. While I may appear calm on the outside, I can assure you on the inside I am barely holding it together. Your father and I have been together for twenty-seven years. It's hard as hell to see the man you love lying on a hospital bed with machines hooked up to him."