I was in no mood to go to Watford. It was a four and a half hour drive from our flat in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and spending that long in the car with Maxine, or anybody for that matter, wasn’t my idea of fun. But she insisted, and I couldn’t really say no.
After all, she was my flatmate and best friend. I’d been struggling for the last year to get over the death of my parents. It was Valentines Day, and they were travelling back from a party. The car crash on the motorway had killed them instantly, so I knew they never suffered. And I hadn’t lived at home for the last fifteen years, so it wasn’t like I was used to seeing them every day, just the usual visits at Christmas, Easter and perhaps a weekend during the summer break. But it’s that old adage, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I missed them like hell. Max—that’s what everyone called Maxine—helped me through the really bad days when I couldn’t face going out. She was always there for me.
He wasn’t. I never understood why he left just when I needed him the most. But at least Max hadn’t deserted me.
Things were getting easier now. I had faced the first Christmas without going to mum and dad’s, and nothing else could be so bad.
So when Max was invited to a Valentine’s party in Watford, the least I could do was go with her.
After driving for two hours, we stopped off at a motorway service station for a quick coffee break.
“Just look at the price of these red roses,” Max said, staring at a dozen green stems with heads of vibrant crimson, propped in a bucket. “It’s criminal how they rip you off on Valentine’s Day. I can’t remember the last time anyone bought me roses.”
Then she added, “Sorry, Jen. I wasn’t thinking.”
I just knew we were both picturing the same small crosses made from the heads of fifty red roses—rich red velvet Adrenaline roses, which had adorned the coffins.
For the remainder of the journey, I wondered what I’d do for the evening while the only other person I would know would be making up for lost time with a guy she hardly knew.
I remembered seeing him at the university, where Max worked in the admissions department but I hadn’t realised they had exchanged numbers, nor that she fancied him.
When we reached the end of our journey, the house was easy to find, and a young woman opened the door.
“Hi. Come on in. You must be Max. Nick’s been telling us about you. You’re the one with the friend—”
“Yes, that’s right. My friend Jen,” Max quickly added, saving me from feeling like ‘Billy no mates.’
Inside, music was blaring, and drinks were flowing. It was 7.30, and already the party appeared to be in full swing. I counted twenty guests chatting in small groups and was relieved to see they weren’t all couples. I was also glad that there wasn’t a single heart-shaped balloon in sight. There was something about Valentine’s Day which left me feeling empty.
The woman who greeted us led us through the crowd into a spacious kitchen, its countertops laden with glasses, bottles and a huge bowl of what I assumed to be punch. Then she got distracted by someone asking her where the bathroom was, and called out, “Grab a drink,” before disappearing down a small corridor.
The next minute, the guy I recognised as Nick strode over.
“Hey, I’m glad you could make it.”
He hugged Max like she was his girlfriend. She hugged him back, and I couldn’t help thinking they made the perfect couple. A tinge of disappointment ran through me. I hoped I would have my friend’s company for a short while at least, but now my initial fears were confirmed. We had been in the house for less than ten minutes, and already I was the spare part.
“Has Michelle introduced you to everyone?”
“No, not yet,” Max confessed.
“Right then.” Nick held his bottle of lager up and shouted, “Hey, everyone. This is Max from Newcastle. She works at the university.”
I was a bit disappointed he hadn’t mentioned me but I had become a bit of a hermit since the car crash and was used to appearing invisible to people. This party wasn’t going to be any different. Still, everyone called out ‘Hi,’ in a jolly sort of way.
The next minute, new guests started to arrive, and I got ushered one way, and Max and Nick disappeared another.
Great. Now what do I do for the next few hours, I wondered.
Suddenly there was a tap on my shoulder. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I turned to stare at a man about six feet tall with sandy coloured hair and shining brown eyes. He looked pleased to see me.
I hesitated. He seemed familiar and I recognised his voice. But I couldn’t think for the life of me where from. “I’m sorry. Do I know you?” As soon as the words left my mouth I felt like a blithering idiot. But he took my hand and his warm touch put me at my ease.
He began to strum the back of my hand with his thumb. “You’ve forgotten me already.”—He sounded disappointed—“I’ve been waiting for you. I knew you would come.”
How can he possibly know I would come to a party on Valentines Day, miles from my home, and thrown by someone I don’t even know?
Then I noticed a chill in the air, and everything began to fade around me until all I could see was…Oh. My. Heart. “You’re Daniel.”
He put his arm around me. “Of course I am.”
I was falling, spiralling into a void, desperate to catch my breath but not quite able to. I was suffocating and tried to scream out. But his lips covered mine and I breathed in his smell. I remembered roses, dozens of roses. He knew they were my favourite flower.
He broke the kiss and held my hand before pulling me into the corridor. “I’ve got them for you,” he whispered.
His breath wafted over me, its heat replacing the chill.
I was dreaming. How could this be happening? I knew he was opening the front door, leading me out to the road. I watched, mesmerised as he opened the boot of his car, and I stared at the bouquet. It’s fragrance flooded my senses.
“I remember,” I gasped as he pulled me to him for a long, sensual kiss. His arms enveloped me and I was safe. I wasn’t alone. Daniel was with me. He would always be with me. I had found him again and now I could rest. We could rest.
“Hi, Maxine.” Nick’s sister pecked Max on her cheek. “Nick told me about the loss of your best friend, Jen. So tragic she was killed in the car crash. But I guess you can take comfort knowing she was with the man she loved.”
Max turned around. Something was different. Ever since the accident, Max had felt Jen’s presence—it was as though she had never really left. It had upset everyone that Daniel’s body had been thrown several feet from the car following the collision, and the two lovers had died apart, exactly a year ago today.
But her presence was gone now. Max prayed her friend had found peace with the one man she had truly loved.