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Cry to Me

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It must have been two or three months ago that Nasrene’s mother spoke softly to her during a downpour similar to this one, attempting to allay her daughter’s fears.

“It’s thought to be good luck, my child,” Sirisha chided her.

Nasrene had been fretting about the possibility of rain on her wedding day. Andrew’s family was insistent that they marry outdoors on a plantation – some southern thing that people in the States did, apparently – and the closer the date loomed, the more Nasrene worried. Her mother had tried again.

“When Baba and I were married it rained the whole day. I was so upset that my saree was soaked and the henna was running down my hands, but your daddy just smiled at me and said ‘The rain is washing away all of the heartaches of our past. We will have a fresh start and a long, happy marriage.’ He was right.”

Nasrene watched as sleek silver trails of rain slid down the bay window beside her, highlighting a stormy, turbulent gray sea. She still heard her mother’s echoed words in her mind.

“A fresh start and a long marriage…”

It wasn’t to be.

The truth of the situation was this: it was indeed pouring rain, but Nasrene and Andrew’s wedding had been canceled only three weeks ago. They weren’t to have any fresh starts, or a long, happy union. This rain, this…monsoon…wasn’t to wash away the heartaches of their – no, her – past. It was to welcome her newest heartache.

Ironically, the only thing that could currently take Nasrene’s mind off of said heartache was to make several wedding-related calls.

One call to cancel the caterer. Check.

One call to cancel the florist. Check.

One call to settle the bill at the tailor’s boutique where her bridesmaids had been trussed up and sewn in within an inch of their lives. Check.

One call, as requested, to the man who would’ve been her father-in-law. Just to check in as he’d asked. It was the least she could do, given her current living situation.

Nasrene’s eyes blurred with tears as she dialed the Tarkington home, praying that Charles would answer instead of his other half – the half of her almost in-laws who’d made no secret of the fact that she didn’t like her sweet baby boy marrying “outside the religion.”

Hinduism had been about as far “outside the religion” as Andrew could get.

“Tarkington,” a man barked in Nasrene’s ear. The abrupt sound startled her, causing the tears blurring her eyes to well over and streak down her mocha-coloured cheeks.

“Hi…Charles,” she breathed, trying to mask the sound of cloying sadness in her voice. “You asked me to give you a call once I…got everything settled…” Nasrene trailed off. She’d become enraptured by the sight of her ostentatiously sparkly engagement ring, watching as it blurred and twinkled with each flex of her fingers. There were still many days when she couldn’t believe it was actually hers; then she would remember that there was no point wearing it anymore. Still, she hadn’t managed to take it off just yet. Reality was still refusing to show its face at all hours of the day.

“Oh! Nas,” Charles’ tone changed. “Thank you for calling, my dear. I’m sure it, uh, wasn’t easy…”

Nasrene wiped delicately at her runny nose with a free hand.

“All of the amenities working?” he continued.

Nasrene took stock of her surroundings at Charles Tarkington’s question: she was in a beautifully decorated oceanfront home with every bell and whistle a girl could want. The utilities were first rate. She had a private drive and a heated swimming pool. She had a two-car garage for the one car she owned. She had a sundeck that wrapped around the back of the house. She had an uninterrupted view of the Atlantic, just beyond some small sand dunes. She no longer had a fiancé.

“Yes…thank you,” she murmured, eyeing the deed paperwork still sitting on the coffee table near her.

“It’s the least I, well, we could do…” Charles stammered a bit, “after what’s happened.”

What’s happened.

“Jeanette and I know how hard it must be for you, having left your close friends and family to make your life here in the U.S. with Andrew. It’s only right that we help you move on with your life, Nasrene,” he continued.

It was amazing how he could just pretend like nothing bad had happened. As if his son wasn’t the sole arbiter of her pain. Well, her emotional pain, anyway. It was also amazing that Charles Tarkington’s idea of helping Nasrene Chakpram move on was to simply gift her the seaside home that she was meant to share with Andrew as a wedding present. The home they’d decorated together. The place where they’d planned to start their family. Their home.

Nasrene’s throat tightened. Her eyes and nostrils stung with powerful emotion, but she bit the inside of her cheek to force herself into a calmness she didn’t fully feel.

“You really didn’t need to do this, Charles,” she managed, then covered the mouthpiece so she could clear her throat and get through the rest of the call. “I promise I’ll take good care of everything.”

“I know you will, sugar. I’m sure you’re already making the place feel like something all your own,” he encouraged.

Except for the china pattern, the linens, the furniture, and the cabinetry Andrew and I picked together, Nasrene thought bitterly. She needed to end the call before she started up again. So far no hysteria had escaped her, but she knew it was only a matter of time.

“I’m sorry to cut this short,” she half-whispered, feeling her throat clogging again, “but I have some calls I need to make,” Nasrene apologized.

Charles sounded relieved for the conversation to be coming to an end. “Oh, Nas, not a problem. It’s been wonderful to talk with you. You’ll let us know if you need something, then?” he said, sounding hopeful that she wouldn’t.

I need my old life back, she thought.

“Yes, of course…goodbye Charles. And…thank you for the house.”

He made a pleasant sound that was designed to convey his acceptance of her thanks, and also to get away from the phone as fast as humanly possible. Nasrene heard the click on the other end of the line. When she dropped her hand onto the table near her, the platinum band of her engagement ring made a similar click. She eyed the ring again. It took her a few deep breaths to keep the panic at bay.

I have a wedding to finish canceling. I’m a homeowner. I’m thirty-one and single and it’s raining and my life is a failure.

Nasrene tossed her phone onto the table, turning her face once more to the bay window. She felt sure that her face resembled the large panes of glass in front of her – streaked with wet, looking bleak. It felt appropriate to keep wallowing.

I’m an entire ocean away from my family and friends. I’m sick. I have a brand new life on top of the other brand new life I was supposed to have when I moved to South Carolina for Andrew. I’m alone. Alone in a house that was thrown at me to appease me because someone’s son decided I wasn’t worth it.

Nasrene kept on like this for several minutes, letting the bad thoughts and the salty tears pour forth. She’d kept it together since Andrew’s admission, and hadn’t given herself any time to just sit and think about what had happened. Apparently, now was the time.

By the time her head had started to hurt and her nose was stuffed up, Nasrene glanced out to the ocean again, only to see that the rain had stopped and the sea was calm once more. Pale swirls of blue were appearing amid the gray clouds covering the sky. The sun announced its presence in the shimmer of the waves lapping against the sand.

What would Baba tell her?

Think of all that is good right now.

She put her father’s age-old words into practice, as she’d learned to do from a young age.

She thought of all the money she was saving, not having to pay out of her own pocket for the things Andrew’s mother disapproved of – like the henna and the saree she’d wanted to wear at the reception. The shalwar kameez she was having tailored for their going-away party.

She thought of the beautiful wedding dress she’d crafted for herself, all the hours of stitching and sewing and draping she’d put into a garment she loved. Nasrene knew she’d never find another dress more beautiful, and something inside made her glad that Andrew would never get to see her in it. He didn’t deserve to.

She had a new house, paid for and in her name. It was crass of the Tarkingtons to buy her acceptance of the circumstances as they had, but she’d upended her life to move to the States just so Andrew could make his name at the investing firm in Charleston. A bitter part of her felt that it was the least they could do, especially since she was trying to make a name for herself and her designs in what was, essentially, a foreign country.

She had a sound medical diagnosis, putting a name to all the physical torment she’d been enduring for the last eight years. She’d conquered the initial procedure, the pain was slightly more bearable these days – the physical, anyway – and she was on hormone pills to help ease her symptoms until something more invasive could be done.

But this last silver lining had been birthed from the darkest cloud of her life.

 

 

“I simply won’t be with someone who can’t have my child.”

He’d said it as casually as if he were commenting on his preference for steak sauce over ketchup.

This wasn’t, in Nasrene’s limited experience, how these things normally went. She would have been less flabbergasted had Andrew said he’d met someone else, or that he had cold feet and wanted to live all of his thirties and beyond as a bachelor. The dinner she’d surprised him with that evening sat cold and uneaten on her own plate.

He ate heartily.

It got infinitely worse. That is, after he’d shot down her talk of adoption, or IVF, or surrogacy. He refused to hear that she still had low odds of fertility. It wasn’t that she had none, for god’s sake, but she couldn’t make him understand.

“Our sex life went from adventurous to painstaking years ago, Nas,” he whined. “How can we enjoy life with you always in pain?”

She started to tell him that she wasn’t always in pain, and that it wasn’t always bad, but his jaw was set in that infuriating way – the way that meant he’d decided on something and wouldn’t be swayed. That’s why he was so good at managing other people’s money. Decisiveness.

It had been exactly one year since Andrew had proposed, and Nasrene had made him a special dinner that evening in celebration of their impending wedding: her own special family recipe for chicken tikka masala. They’d finally ironed out all the details. She’d said goodbye to her family and friends in Cambridge and moved her life to the East Coast of the United States. They were living in his parent’s audaciously large home while their own oceanfront dream property was being built. And then she’d had the nerve, three weeks before this special dinner, to visit an OB-GYN specialist when things finally caught up to her and her symptoms became too much a part of her everyday life.

Said life had come crashing down in the space of three weeks. All it took was a thirty-minute consultation, an ultrasound, and a scheduled outpatient laparoscopy.

Endometriosis.

It was what she’d feared – but now she could definitively put a name to the uncomfortable pressure, pelvic pain, muscle tenderness, chronic fatigue, and the increasingly unpleasant periods that began plaguing her not long after she and Andrew began seeing one another during university.

He was supportive of her diagnosis at first, still comfortable in his role as almost-spouse and wanting to be the knight in shining armour for Nasrene. He took her to the laparoscopy, met with Dr. Alekhan for her post-op and follow-up, and read a few brochures about Nasrene’s condition and her options for treatment. But the more Andrew read, and the more follow-up appointments Nasrene had, the faster things crumbled. And suddenly, she was unceremoniously dumped – so near to the big event, too – all because her fiancé couldn’t seem to handle that they might have some considerable trouble conceiving and that Nasrene’s doctor recommended a little more vanilla sex in the interest of her patient’s comfort.

What kind of a man would leave his fiancée for the reasons Andrew Tarkington had? He’d never given any inclination that he needed to be a parent, or that he was anything less than satisfied with the love and physical affection Nasrene gave him. They’d been together for almost a decade – wasn’t that enough time for him to feel sure about whether or not she would be a good match? She thought he’d affirmed it when he got down on bended knee and popped open the Van Cleef and Arpels box, smiling up at her with reverence in his chocolate-brown eyes.

Was it his mother? Nasrene wouldn’t put it past Jeanette to influence her white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant only son in such a way.

But as she continued to watch the sun peek from behind the clouds through her expansive bay window, she admitted to herself what that small nagging voice in her head – her conscience – had been saying since they’d moved to South Carolina.

He’s not right for you. This isn’t right.

Nasrene instinctively knew, despite how unhappy and embarrassed she was, that the little voice was telling the truth. The man she was supposed to marry had decided to bail on her in her hour of need, and she’d managed to escape the additional embarrassment of a wedding (would he have left her at the altar?) and a possible divorce down the road.

Think of all that is good right now, Baba said in Nasrene’s head once more. She knew her father would be proud of her for listening to her head and not just her broken heart.

 

 

The phone calls were finished, the rain had completely abated, and Nasrene stood up to stretch, raising her arms over her head and standing on tiptoes to work out a little bit of the stress that had crept into her body during the afternoon.

In the window she could see her reflection, and her eyes immediately darted to the brown expanse of skin peeking out from under her short, white t-shirt. It was becoming a habit; her right hand was at the smooth skin of her abdomen before she even thought about it. With her pinkie finger, Nasrene softly traced the tiny scar near her navel where Dr. Alekhan had performed the laparoscopy.

Looking down, she observed the tiny, raised line on her otherwise unblemished skin, the only outward sign that her body had been examined and then found to be flawed.

Such a small cut gave me such a big answer, she mused, and then her train of thought went to a darker place. And it gave me so much heartache. A man who ultimately decided I wasn’t worth it.

While Andrew had indeed been wonderful in the initial days after Nasrene’s diagnosis, his interest in her condition quickly waned in favor of his job and his other pursuits – namely drinking with his buddies at the club and golfing during every free moment he could spare.

She was blessed, then, to have her family and so many friends back in England thinking of her and praying for her. For a few days after her diagnosis, Nasrene received card after card, note after note, and phone call after phone call from her myriad aunties, uncles, and cousins. Some of her closest friends from university even sent her little gifts and hellos in the post, and she was overwhelmed at how kind and giving people could be. Andrew’s partners at the firm even sent a note, although it had been signed without much thought – most likely by one of the secretaries.

But these mementos, however kind or impersonal, died down after a bit, too. Just as Andrew’s doting on her had. It was as though people allowed you a brief moment in time to rid yourself of whatever pain and trauma you were experiencing, asking to examine it, to accept it, or to try and take as their own. But eventually they moved on. Only mama and baba, and sometimes even silly teenage Srikanth, continued to worry over her and send her reminders of their love for her.

While she refused to see it at the time, Nasrene could plainly acknowledge now that the night of their “special dinner”, there was definitely a change in the air. Andrew was done giving his undivided attention to his fiancée. She’d had her slightly invasive procedure, she knew her diagnosis, and everyone had paid attention to her. Now she was just going to be a pain-ridden, possibly barren wife to him. This wouldn’t do for a Tarkington, evidently.

The Fed-Ex arrival hadn’t helped things before dinner, either.

 

 

Nasrene-My-Dream,

I know I’m ludicrously late with this, love, but please know I’ve been thinking of you – and thinking positive thoughts for you – since your first appointment and your procedure several days ago. Andrew’s been kind enough to keep me abreast of the latest developments.

You know me well enough by now to know that I’m reading lots of literature on this “endo” business, and I can’t imagine how simultaneously relieved and worried you must be, knowing what you definitively know now. If it wouldn’t be too presumptuous of me, I’d love to talk with you about what Dr. Alekhan has told you, and I have some questions (always the lifelong learner, I am).

Please don’t take this the wrong way, Nas. If you EVER want a second opinion, or a third, or a fifteenth…or you need a seriously invasive procedure done, I will make as many calls as I can for you. I can pull some strings if I need to. (Is this where I brag that I’m kind of a big deal? Please hit me if I ever say that to you.) We need to make sure you have the best care possible, Nasrene.

All the best,

Tom xx

The note was accompanied by three large vases of yellow tulips – her favorite flower – that the deliveryman placed carefully in the foyer at Andrew’s incredulous instruction.

“What’s all this?” Andrew asked her, looking almost accusingly at the note Nasrene clutched in her hand. She thanked the Fed-Ex employee absently, astounded at the sheer number of flowers now decorating the apartment attached to the Tarkington home.

“It’s Tom,” she smiled, holding the note out for Andrew to read. She would reflect on his reaction much more in the days that followed: he snatched the paper from her grasp, accidentally slicing two of her fingers with a searing cut from the stationery.

“He’s late as usual,” Andrew had spat, handing her back the note.

She tucked it into some of the flowers so as not to lose it right away. “I think he was out of the country filming, probably,” Nasrene mused, moving back to the kitchen to begin preparing her tikka masala. She was so pleased with the cheery yellow hue of the flowers, and the love and kindness behind Tom’s note. He’d been a steadfast friend since Andrew introduced them at Cambridge all those years ago (despite Andrew always insisting Tom had been his friend first).

“Well he certainly knows how to make an impression,” Nasrene’s fiancé continued. “Trying to outdo everyone else’s little gifts to you.”

She missed the slight sneering quality in Andrew’s voice and wouldn’t pick up on it until she replayed that evening several times in her head, after the fact. And when she reviewed the extensive inventory of notes and gifts and calls people bestowed on her, she realized that no one had thought to send her her favorite flowers, or to write her a loving note, other than baba.

And Tom.

 

 

The first time she’d met Tom Hiddleston, she’d seen him performing in a stage play at Cambridge University. She and Andrew had been dating for several months and had declared themselves “serious”, and this performance was one of a thousand date nights that Nasrene and Andrew would have together – a Friday night tradition that would carry on for years and years despite age, despite weather, despite whatever continent they were on.

When he first came out onto the stage, Tom seemed very thin and meek, quite unassuming, and with that riotous mess of hair that Nasrene would come to tease him about for years. Andrew pointed him out immediately.

“That’s my friend Tom. We play rugby together. Great guy,” he’d said. “You ok with all of us guys going out for a drink at the local place tonight? You can come too,” Andrew asked.

Nasrene smiled, nodding in acceptance at Andrew’s offer. About eight times out of ten, it never failed that a date night with him would end up being Nasrene seated by herself somewhere while Andrew and all of his friends would be playing cards, or drinking until the early morning hours. She was so in love and craved his attention so much that she usually went along with whatever he wanted. Srikanth called her “saaaad puppy” in a mocking tone whenever she talked about Andrew at home, acting lovesick and generally grossing out her younger brother.

“Great! You and Tom can talk about books or something,” Andrew trailed off as the play began onstage. “Guy’s a freak of nature about literature.”

Whatever Nasrene had imagined this Tom Hiddleston fellow to be, she certainly didn’t expect such a commanding voice and presence to exude from his person once the lights went down and the first act began. She’d grown up surrounded by British RP dialogue all around her – she tried to emulate it as much as possible since her parents still sounded embarrassingly like immigrants from New Delhi – and she’d grown accustomed to Andrew’s brash American slang, but nothing prepared her for the richness of timbre that soared from this guy’s mouth. She found herself holding her breath when he spoke, as his voice found every corner of the room.

Sure, he was tall and skinny, and he looked a little nerdy, but she could actually see a transformation happening on the stage. It was captivating.

She found out later that evening, once Andrew was deep into his drink, that Tom’s voice could be even more captivating when it was trained only on one person – and that person was her.

Nasrene had never laughed so much in her life, nor had the conversation on date night ever been so interesting. Her date, however, was nowhere near.

“Andrew tells me you’re Art History,” Tom said after they’d finished a thorough round of laughing and gadding about while Andrew and his boys were carousing around the bar.

Nasrene nodded. “I am, and I love it, but I secretly dream of designing clothing. Same principles as art – the beauty of the eye, the aesthetic, the history of shape and color,” she trailed off, smiling to herself and thinking of the stacks and stacks of sketchpads and fabric boards she kept in her dormitory.

“Forgive me if this is forward, Nasrene,” Tom murmured, smiling politely, “but someone as beautiful as you naturally belongs in the world of beauty and design.”

Nasrene’s first impulse was to scoff and wave away Tom’s compliment, but he was looking at her so seriously that she didn’t want to be rude. She thanked him, taking a sip of her beer. “You’ve got quite the talent onstage, Tom,” she countered. “I don’t know what I was expecting when you opened your mouth, but you’re literally unlike anything I’ve ever heard before!”

“You were probably expecting me to bark, weren’t you?” Tom laughed, poking at the mess of golden curls atop his head. “My sisters think I look like a golden retriever.”

Nasrene snorted unprettily, covering her mouth as her eyes went wide. To her surprise, Tom threw his head back and laughed a hearty laugh, tongue poking out from between his teeth. She wanted to squeeze him, he was so cute.

What occurred on that evening marked the start of a very deep friendship between Tom and Nasrene – and occasionally Andrew, when he wasn’t trying to one-up his mates – and it would continue to flourish in much the same way as Nasrene and Andrew’s relationship did.

She followed Tom’s burgeoning career proudly, remembering the first performance she witnessed in those early years as something truly special. When he got the “yes” from Spielberg for War Horse, the first person Tom had called (after his mum and dad) was Nasrene. And when The Avengers premiered in London, Tom invited Andrew and Nasrene to come along and enjoy an evening with him and all of his new actor friends.

It still made Nasrene smile to herself when she remembered Tom taking her around to Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, and all of his Hollywood friends and introducing her as though she was someone extremely important. In reality, she was working out of a friend’s basement in Cambridge, making one-of-a-kind gowns and party dresses and secretly hoping for a big break. But the way Tom talked her up to everyone, she felt taller than the top of Big Ben.

His yellow tulips and note, in turn, made her feel that way again, almost four years later. Something she hadn’t felt in quite awhile. This thought brought back Nasrene’s sadness, and as if the heavens sought to match her mood on this day, the clouds descended upon the beach once again and she heard the hypnotic drip-drop of rain begin on her windows once more. Her tears went head-to-head with each splatter.

Nasrene wasn’t sure why, but she’d kept all of the notes and cards people had sent after her diagnosis in a little box on her coffee table. When the anxiety of her ruined life became too much to bear in recent weeks, she would take out the thick stack and read through everyone’s warm wishes and kind words. It helped. Tom’s note was always kept at the top of the stack, his messy scrawl momentarily lightening the weight on her thin shoulders each time she reread it. She could almost hear his sweet tone.

Nasrene-My-Dream.

Andrew hated when Tom called her that, always saying it was inappropriate to give another man’s girlfriend a pet name. But in all their years together, Nasrene was never anything to Andrew other than “Nas” or “babe.”

And now she was nothing at all to Andrew. The only remains of his influence on her were the ring around her finger and the house in which she lived. Both things could be sold. But she wasn’t anywhere near ready to accept that someone had stopped loving her for something she couldn’t control.

 

 

She must’ve fallen asleep on the couch because the doorbell startled her, and Nasrene could feel herself puffy-eyed and tear-stained. Tom’s note was clutched in her left hand, Andrew’s diamond winking mockingly at her in the pale moonlight reflecting off the ocean water.

Nasrene wasn’t fast enough, because whoever rang the doorbell started knocking rather loudly.

Her heart jumped – maybe it was Andrew. Maybe he’d had a change of heart and he wanted to talk with her about what a mistake it was to leave her. That he didn’t care if they had difficulty having a child, because all he needed was her.

She wiped off her face with shaking hands, running them through her hair and straightening her soft shirt overtop her silk shorts. With a glance in the mirror by the door, Nasrene deemed herself presentable enough as she unlocked the front door and pulled it open.

Her heart flew into her throat at the sight of him – standing there as if he’d missed her so. She felt like she hadn’t seen him in ages. He looked more handsome than she remembered – and she’d seen him so much lately – practically everywhere.

“I came as soon as I could, Nasrene-My-Dream.”

Chapter Text

Even with her messy onyx hair and her puffy, tear-stained face, Nasrene Chakpram was such a sight for Tom’s sore eyes.

Still so beautiful.

He hadn’t seen her in months, what with all of the filming and promo he was doing. Skull Island had just wrapped, and he’d been doing round after round of press in between for The Night Manager, High Rise, and I Saw the Light. He could barely keep track of what country he was in half the time.

Sure, he’d kept his promise to Nasrene about always keeping in touch when he was on the road, and he’d never broken it – not in all the years they’d been friends – never forgetting to send her a funny text, or a silly video of himself being fitted for a costume. And yet…

How often he wished she’d do the same for him. She always replied enthusiastically every time she heard from Tom, but as he became more and more famous, Nasrene distanced herself more and more. She rarely initiated. He suspected she felt like a bother (Andrew most likely had something to do with her feeling this way) and just didn’t want to be an inconvenience in his whirlwind “movie star” life.

It wasn’t a coincidence that Tom had become even more of a fanatic about work after Andrew and Nasrene announced their engagement. People assumed he’d finally hit his stride, and Tom certainly had. But a select few of those people knew that Tom was occupying his mind with enough work to distract from the fact that two of his best friends were getting married.

And the one friend he cared most deeply for was officially off the market.

Tom had been readying for an important audition when he got the text from Andrew, with the words she said yes and an attached photo of Nasrene’s delicate left hand bejeweled with an enormous engagement ring. She’d sent Tom her own text moments later, a picture of her adorable face with an ear-to-ear grin sharing the news.

The subsequent audition was the worst one of his life, hands down. His mind wasn’t anywhere near the material by the time all was said and done. All he saw were those startling blue-green eyes of hers, full of mirth and life and looking forward to being married. He spent the evening at home, drowning in Jameson, bemoaning the fact that he used to make her smile like that, before life had separated them so fully and Andrew had seemingly finally realized what he had in front of him.

Now Nasrene’s beautiful eyes were wet, and sad, and staring at Tom with such surprised, pleading helplessness that he immediately dropped his bags inside the door and pulled the sweet girl into his arms. It was a testament to Nasrene’s trust in Tom that she allowed herself to cry with abandon. Throwing her arms around his neck, Nasrene buried her face into the (surely) expensive suit that Tom wore and, for the first time since the bomb that was her life had exploded, she cried her heart out to someone else.

Tom had practice with this scenario; sad but true.

There’d been a handful of times in the last few years when Andrew had hurt Nasrene’s feelings quite deeply, or he had neglected her to the point where she felt like she was unlovable and inadequate. Tom was always the one to put the pieces back together again during those times, but he’d ashamedly had a few failures in recent history because work had prevented him from getting to her – especially when she’d had her diagnostic procedure.

Andrew had been practically catatonic with happiness at the fact that Tom had missed out on something so big. I’m all she needs now that we’re engaged, he’d told Tom over the phone. You just go live your exciting life, pal. Everything here is fine. No need to be the third wheel anymore.

Tom knew the tulips and note were inadequate at best, but he really had no idea what a sore spot he’d pushed with Andrew until everything unraveled at the seams just a day after his gift was received.

Andrew had called right as Tom was preparing to shoot the last leg of the Kong film in Vietnam. Normally, the two would have a good laugh and make plans to catch up whenever Tom would be back in the States. This phone call was very different, very quick.

“I know you’re busy, Tom, but I’ve decided to end things with Nas. Her medical issues are becoming too much for me to deal with and I think it’s best for both of us if we move on. Wedding’s off, she gets the house.”

Tom didn’t even get the chance to ask what the hell had happened; Andrew ended the call. It was totally unlike him to be so abrupt, but Tom figured that Andrew had just made a tough decision and didn’t want to ruminate about it any further. However, something struck Tom as extremely wrong, just then. It was the way Andrew worded something…

Her medical issues are becoming too much for me to deal with.

Just like Andrew to make everything about himself, even in Nasrene’s hour of need. Perhaps she wasn’t going to miss much by not marrying him.

He made a soft shushing sound in Nasrene’s ear so she would remember to take a breath, and then he followed with a soft command he’d used for her before.

“Up,” he whispered.

Nasrene’s arms instinctively tightened around Tom’s neck as she carefully placed her tiny bare feet atop his expensive, polished shoes. With one hand at the small of her back, he maneuvered them easily so he could lock the front door and walk the both of them into the living room, which was dark except for the view out the windows of the roiling Atlantic.

It was as though Nasrene was a child standing on her father’s shoes at a wedding, playing at being a grownup for the first time. Baba had always taken the lead with her, much more than he did with Srikanth, but now that he lived across the very sea that sat outside her back door, she had no one to lead her. Andrew was gone; he had left her.

But Tom had come back.

 

 

Nasrene’s parents would have been ashamed at her manners – she hadn’t offered her guest anything upon his arrival. All she’d done was cry hysterically into his clothes as he led her into the semi-darkness of her sitting area, carefully peeling away from her momentarily to turn on a dim light and remove his suit jacket, draping it over one of the chairs in the adjoining dining room before returning to her side. Once Nasrene discovered she could breathe without crying, everything else came tumbling out of her mouth. Tom sat as close to her as he could on an obscenely large couch while giving her a respectable amount of distance.

She told him all about her progress with the diagnosis. (He had many questions about that, but would ask them later. He had lots of time.)

She told him how Andrew had decided, out of the blue, that she wasn’t worth building a life with. (He wanted to ask questions about this, but didn’t dare.)

She told him about her in-laws’ “condolence gift”, gesturing to the ornate house around her.

And then Nasrene realized Tom had never been to the new house before; the last time she’d seen him, he visited her and Andrew at the Tarkington’s home where they were staying. Her nose crinkled adorably in confused surprise as she asked Tom what he was doing at her house. “How did you know where I was?” she sniffled, reaching out to brush a stray curl from his tan, freckled forehead. “You’ve n-never been here before. I thought you were wor-working.”

Tom gave her one of his trademark boyish grins: slightly guilty and mischievous. He took her hands casually, as he’d done hundreds of times before, and held them lovingly in his own.

“I still had the address in my mobile from your RSVP information on the invitation…” he trailed off, seeing Nasrene’s gaze fall to the floor at the word invitation. She was biting her lip, he knew, to keep from starting up the waterworks again.

“Aren’t you missing promo or whatever you’re supposed to be shooting?” she began to move her hands away from Tom’s own, but he wasn’t having any of that. He gripped her a tad more forcefully.

“I’ve no commitments for the next two and a half months, my sweet dream. Thor doesn’t go into pre-production for quite some time. I double-timed my final bit of our shooting schedule on Kong so I could get to you faster. You shouldn’t be alone right now, Nasrene. I need to be here for you. With you.”

Nasrene gave him a watery, appreciative smile. In his haste to finish his job, he’d probably worn himself weary, and she could see that fatigue mixed with a genuine concern and sadness for her in his eyes. “Do you want a shower and some dinner, maybe?” she asked Tom quietly, gifting him with a small measure of happiness in her breathtaking eyes.

(He hoped that happiness was down to his surprise arrival.)

She knew him so well, even though they spent the majority of their current lives apart. “It’s not like I don’t have room for you, if you’re planning on staying.” She waited a beat, took a silent breath, and plowed on. “Are you…planning on staying?”

Tom closed his eyes and tilted his head back, rotating his neck so it cracked a bit. He groaned at her offer. “Yes to all of the above, please, Nasrene. I’m so sorry, darling, but I truly am tuckered out,” he admitted with a less-than-graceful yawn.

She forgot how cute he was when he was sleepy. And judging by the several pounds of alarmingly attractive muscle he’d put on, he was most likely famished beyond belief.

“You go get a shower,” she murmured, gesturing down the hallway that loomed across the room from them. “Take any of the guest beds. They all have en suite baths.”

He raised an amused eyebrow at this information, and Nasrene laughed.

“Yes, I know, living the rich life now, aren’t I? All I had to do was get dumped by my fiancée and my parting gift was this gorgeous house,” she quipped with a bit of humor.

Tom heard the ice in her tone without needing to see any traces of it on her face. She hid things well, but they rarely escaped his notice. He stood up, knowing that if he sat any longer he’d never make it to the shower – or eat anything – and Nasrene followed suit.

“I’ve got some grilled chicken salad I can put together for you,” she rubbed his back a bit as he passed, “and I can heat up some naan if you’d like.”

“Would a quick kiss on the cheek get me some roasted red pepper hummus, too?” Tom asked playfully, moving to his bags by the door and rummaging around in them.

Nasrene laughed softly through her nose as she made her way to the kitchen, shaking her head at Tom’s ploy to get more affection from her. She jumped a little when she suddenly felt a light tapping on her shoulder, turning from the fridge to see Tom looming over her sleepily, smiling. Before she could say anything, he gave her a quick peck on the cheek and darted away, doing that sinister Loki laugh at his triumph as he made his way to the guest bedrooms in the far hallway. That low, throaty sound never failed to make Nasrene warm.

He’d certainly come a long way from the reed-thin, young looking man on the stage all those years ago at Cambridge.

“Red pepper hummus it is, then,” she murmured to herself, spooning some of the smooth spread into a little glass bowl. She began to prepare Tom a heaping plate of the grilled chicken salad, making sure to heat up the leftover naan bread and rummaging around for some cutlery and a large plate. Her mind had abandoned its shock at Tom’s surprise appearance and was now focusing solely on his sheer physical size as she filled a glass with ice and some water, setting a place for Tom at the kitchen island and laying out the basket of warmed naan, the salad, and the hummus.

Sure, his weight had fluctuated here and there in the last few years doing roles such as Coriolanus and I Saw The Light (Nasrene was furious when she found out how much running and not-eating he did in preparation for Hank), but then all of his work from The Night Manager and Skull Island seemed to stick – he was bigger than he’d ever been.

It didn’t help that she hadn’t actually seen Tom in person in several months. Once the engagement had been announced, it seemed, she and Tom grew further and further apart. Andrew had explained it away several times, saying that Tom was busier than ever, and that he really didn’t have time to come visit as frequently as he once did. That was the nature of a man in demand: very little time for leisure.

The closest Nasrene had been to Tom in many, many days was through her television, phone, or on a movie screen. Thus, the difference in his body weight – the way he carried himself and filled out his clothes – was immediately noticeable. He’d been away from her, face-to-face, for too long. She took note of how he’d maneuvered her up and around with ease as soon as he closed the front door behind the two of them. His shoulders were broader. His arms were thicker. Perhaps the fact that he’d pushed all his priorities to the back burner to get to her meant that his heart had gotten bigger, too. Nasrene didn’t know that it had been growing, for her, pretty steadily since the night they’d met.

 

 

Tom stared at the hot water swirling down the drain as he stood under the showerhead, watching all the dust and grime from his long travel back to the States wash away. He hadn’t had a good sleep in almost three weeks, and he knew it was due to the breakneck pace he’d kept up on Skull Island so he could wrap early. It was also because of Nasrene: her sorrow and her poor health.

Perhaps some additional blame could be placed on the countless hours he’d spent at night scouring the internet for information about endometriosis, ordering books on Amazon and researching all he could. The disorder was very…intimate, to say the least, and he didn’t want to pry, but Tom felt as though he needed to know absolutely everything that Dr. Alekhan discovered during Nasrene’s diagnosing laparoscopy. He wanted to know what Nasrene’s symptoms were, what treatments she was considering, and when there would be more serious procedures in her future (for this was a definite case of when, not if). He wanted to know just how low her fertility rate was.

This was the only thing she’d hinted at to Tom when she talked about Andrew’s reasoning for leaving the engagement.

Tom remembered feeling violently angry that a man he considered his friend would stoop so low and react so selfishly to something that life threw his way. He had initially planned to fly to South Carolina and find Andrew, then give him an earful and a bloody nose. But Nasrene won out, as she always did with Tom. She was infinitely more important.

Tired and hungry, but now clean, he didn’t want to bombard the poor woman immediately with question after question – especially since she was still hurting very, very much. He had no urgent agenda other than to be her friend and support her in what was surely one of the lowest points of her young life.

If his life was a true romance novel, he would have looked at her when she opened her front door and thought something like, “I’ve forgotten how beautiful she is.” The thing was, he’d never forgotten. Not in the handful of years they’d been friends. If anything, she had become even more beautiful in his recent absence. The dark liquid ink colour of her hair seemed more seductive, more languid. The blue-green of her eyes beckoned to him more vividly. Her smooth, coffee-coloured skin looked even softer to the touch.

Time may have been cruel to Nasrene – the threat of childlessness at the start of her third decade, an abrupt end to the one big love affair of her life – but it hadn’t stolen any of her beauty. Her gorgeousness increased with every passing day, and Tom considered himself privileged to have been around her for the number of years that he had.

How could Andrew just leave her? Over fertility? Because she felt ill? The man was an imbecile.

Tom frowned as he dressed himself in sweats and a clean black v-neck shirt. Andrew may have left Nas, but she was still wearing his engagement ring. It was, regrettably, the second thing Tom noticed after her exquisite face as soon as he arrived.

Did she know that when she had been lost in thought in the living room, telling him everything, that she absently twirled the ring around her finger? Perhaps it was another parting gift that Andrew (or more likely his family) allowed her to keep.

I’m going to convince her to throw that thing in the sea, he growled to himself as he towel-dried his hair. He doesn’t deserve any part of her anymore.

 

 

Nasrene was sitting atop the kitchen island beside Tom’s food, flipping through a stack of new fabrics one of her suppliers had sent, when he came padding into the kitchen. His scent permeated the air, and his masculine, controlled presence immediately softened the rigidity of her spine. She looked up from her work and was greeted silently by that warm, comforting smile that her friend had been giving her for so many years. It was a look that never failed to help her relax – to know that someone had her back, and that he would do whatever she needed him to do. He may have been one of the most sought-after actors in the world, but he’d put everything on hold to come see and support her.

“Roasted red pepper hummus, as requested,” she whispered with a hint of a laugh in her voice, pointing at the small bowl of blended chickpea mixture beside Tom’s gargantuan salad plate. She made to hop down from her perch, but Tom merely put a hand on Nasrene’s right knee, and she remained where she was.

“Have you eaten today, darling?” Tom asked as he sat down on the barstool, taking a healthy draw of ice water before picking up his fork and spearing some lettuce and grilled chicken. He quirked an eyebrow at Nasrene as he chewed, making a small sound of happiness at the perfect sear of the chicken and the fresh crunch of the lettuce. “So good, Nasrene. Thank you.”

She reached her hand out to ruffle through Tom’s still-damp curls, smiling at how relaxed he looked. He was so easy to please – never had any objections to where she wanted to go, or what she wanted to eat…always just content. He had always been a stark contrast to Andrew’s needing to call all the shots all the time.

“I ate a bit earlier but I’ve not been very hungry lately,” she responded guiltily. In a show of good faith at the sight of Tom’s stern stare, she took a piece of the naan bread and scooped up a bit of the hummus with it, popping it into her mouth. He winked and took a ridiculously large bite of his salad in return. After several minutes in companionable silence, Tom had finished his plate and was tearing off bite-size pieces of the naan, watching his sweet friend swinging her legs a bit atop the island as she looked out to the dark ocean past her windows.

“You’ve lost some weight,” Tom remarked simply. This phrase, coming from anyone else in Nasrene’s life, would sound pleasing – especially from Andrew or Jeanette or Nasrene's girlfriends back home in England. Coming from Tom, it sounded concerned. Nasrene played it off.

“I haven’t exactly been in the mood to stuff my face three times a day, Tom,” she teased, but there was no fire in her retort. It was just blatant honesty.

“You know I think you look lovely all the time,” Tom continued as he finished off the last of the naan, “but we can’t have you wasting away to nothing.” She nodded, looking at her toes. Nasrene had gone ahead with her spa appointment yesterday even though the wedding was off. Her mother had encouraged her to take care of herself – get a massage, a wax, a facial, and get her feet and nails done. Instead of having the nail technician use the barely-there pearl color Nasrene originally wanted for the wedding, she’d opted for a dark burgundy in a shade called Wicked on her fingers and toes.

Tom caught his closest friend eyeing her pedicure, and his eyes were drawn to the rich colour that glistened there.

“Just gilding the lily, Nasrene-my-dream.”

She smacked his arm playfully, sticking her tongue out at him. When he caught her hand before she could retreat, he pulled her gently off the kitchen island and stood to his full height, staring down at her with appreciation and affection. “You always take such good care of me,” he murmured, pulling her in for a hug. “I thank you for the delicious food, but it’s my turn to take care of you.”

He gently pulled a blushing Nasrene over to her antique record player, stood her in front of her overly-large vinyl collection, and said the words he’d uttered a hundred times before.

“Your choice.”

She knew what this meant – and she didn’t want to do what Tom was suggesting. A low rumble of thunder echoed over their heads. It was as though the gods were angry with her for resisting her dearest friend and confidant.

This was Tom Hiddleston’s infamous way of getting Nasrene to relax and let go: she was going to choose the mood music, and they were going to dance. He never picked for her, and he never scoffed at any of her choices. If it was a waltz, if it was something ridiculously pulpy, if it was a boy band, it didn’t matter. The song would always start, Tom would always take Nasrene into his arms, and they would sway, slowly, close together.

The beat didn’t matter – it was always his time to hold her steady when the world was crashing around her. She’d laughed the first time she saw Tom in The Deep Blue Sea dancing slowly with Rachel Weisz. That looks familiar, she thought. For once, the movies are mimicking real life.

This dancing ritual started, obviously, during a time when Andrew had been a real arse at university their first year of dating. Nasrene couldn’t remember the specifics of the incident – whether he’d bailed on her for his friends, or said something insulting about her skills or something she liked – but she always went to Tom whenever things made her cry or upset her. In the years that followed, it never failed to help her catch her breath and calm down. Tom’s strong arms curled around her, holding her hand and waist and guiding her, became a refuge. He would talk to her, help her navigate the situation, and send her back to Andrew (to his own regret) with a smile.

“David Bowie okay?” Nasrene asked, pulling out Let’s Dance from her shelves and placing the record on the turntable.

“Excellent,” Tom grinned.

The funky echo of Nile Rogers’ guitar began to saturate Nasrene’s living room, and normally she would have busted some ridiculous moves had she been with her friends back home (and on occasion Andrew, if he was in a good mood). But her ritual with Tom dictated a different pace. He wrapped a possessive arm around her slim waist, bringing her flush against the solid wall of his chest and abdomen, and he tangled their fingers together as her left hand found his shoulder blade. They began their timeless sway, just as Bowie’s backup singers encouraged.

“I’m going to be honest with you, Nasrene. I know you probably don’t want to, but would you permit me to ask you some questions about it? About the endo? We haven’t gotten to talk much since you found out…”

He felt her stiffen for a moment, but then she seemed to gather herself and realize who she was with. She nodded.

“Do it fast, please,” she whispered, strained. “I’ve talked about it so much that I don’t even want to think about it anymore.”

“Did they find a lot of tissue?”

She nodded, looking away as they rotated in a solemn circle, Bowie professing his love in the chorus of the song.

“Can I ask where–”

“Don’t ask me where–”

They spoke at the same time.

Normally Tom would have conceded, but this was important to him. He wanted to know absolutely everything that was going on in her body. He wanted to have all the information at his disposal so he could be of the utmost help to Nasrene.

“Nas…” he pleaded. “It’s me, darling. You know we can talk about anything.”

A tinge of blush had crept into the apples of her cheeks, and Nasrene shook her head ever so slightly. The song played on, and the swaying continued. He wasn’t about to let her escape this.

“In…” she took a breath and looked away. “In my bowels. Lots in my ovaries, but mostly in my bowels.” If there was one thing she never thought she’d talk with Tom about, it was this. Please let me die now, she silently prayed.

“Painful when you…go?” Tom encouraged. He wasn’t blushing in the least. He ached for this wonderful woman – and he hated that anything was causing her discomfort.

“God, Tom, do we really have to do this?” Nasrene could now add anger to the myriad list of emotions she was experiencing. Why couldn’t he just revert to his younger, sweeter self? He’d become so dominant as he got older.

He startled her with a slightly raised voice – which she’d only ever heard from him when he was acting.

“Yes, Nasrene. We do have to do this. You are ill. I will be damned if I don’t know you inside and out through all this. If the man who proclaimed for years to love you can walk away from your pain and suffering and you think I’m going to do the same, you are sorely mistaken, little one.”

She still said nothing. Embarrassment still coloured her features.

“Nasrene,” Tom’s voice dropped an octave, a tinge of chastisement in the syllables.

His treatment of her – which she would normally characterize as loving and protective – was suddenly making her mad. She knew it was embarrassment talking, but she lashed out in misplaced anger at Tom’s pressing of the issue.

Yes, Tom, it’s painful during my periods when I have a bowel movement. I have severe cramping in my thighs and abdomen when I’m menstruating. The pressure in my pelvic floor is unbelievable, to the point where sometimes it’s difficult to put in a tampon. I’ve had to re-think having sex. I’ve had to STOP having it sometimes. Yes, sometimes the pain is so acute that I get a hot flash and almost pass out. Yes, I’m going to need major surgery down the road to scrape the tissue that’s overgrown. Yes, they want to perform a hysterectomy as soon as I’m ready to stop taking hormones and to shelve my 2-5% chance of conceiving a child. Are you happy?”

David Bowie had moved on to “Without You.”

Nasrene’s intent toward the end of her diatribe was to shock Tom into silence, to shame him with enough factual information that he wouldn’t dare ask her anymore questions about the hellish state of her new life. What she received from the tall, handsome man was a sincere, quietly spoken “okay”, and then with a brush of his thumb across her cheek, he said, “what can I do?”

She promptly started up her sobbing again.

 

 

He’d gotten her quieted down enough to help her shut down the house for the night and escorted Nasrene to her bedroom, where he rooted around in her wardrobe until he found a soft nightgown. She sat on her bed, wiping at her swollen eyes and running agitated fingers through her long, dark curls. Bringing her the clothes, Tom sat beside Nasrene on the bed, reaching across her lap for the hairbrush that sat atop her nightstand. He motioned for her to turn away from him, and began brushing out the little tangles in her thick tresses. Nasrene dropped her chin to her chest, staring at her hands in her lap as Tom brushed.

“I’m a mess, habibi,” Nasrene confessed quietly, using the term of endearment she reserved especially for Tom so many years ago. Tom leaned forward, kissing the back of her head as he finished brushing the ends of her hair until the waves wound around his fingers.

“That’s why I’m here, Nas. I’ve been gone so long and I’ve not been there for you as much as I should have. Let me help you.”

Nasrene turned to face Tom again, sadness clouding her eyes.

Even more beautiful when she’s sad, he said to himself, putting the brush down.

“There’s nothing you can do, Tom.”

She took the clothing he’d chosen for her, got up from the bed, and went into her bathroom to change, hoping he might leave her alone with her sorrow and fear. Yet when she returned a few minutes later dressed in the white satiny knee-length gown, he was still seated at the foot of her bed. He’d turned down her sheets, fluffed her pillows, and was watching her every step of the way back to him. When she stood in front of his outstretched legs, he offered her his large, warm hands and enveloped her own with them.

“I can support you, my little dream. I can be with you when you’re scared. I can help you find the best surgeon for your procedures. I can get you to relax, take your mind off of things…” Tom spoke reverently, staring at Nasrene with his handsome features fully trained on her defeated face. “I want to be here for you every step of the way,” he finished.

Her first thought was of Tom’s other commitments. If there was one thing she’d learned from being with Andrew, it was always to expect someone else’s needs to come before her own.

“I can’t ask you to interrupt your life for me, Tom,” she sighed, moving past Tom and breaking their contact so she could crawl into her big, soft bed. “That’s not fair to you. And I’m fine.”

They both knew she wasn’t.

Tom realized that he was going to need to take charge of the situation, or she’d squirrel her way out of his life for fear of being a burden. He was tired of his sweet Nasrene being mistreated, shoved aside, and broken.

“You’re not asking,” he said plainly, standing up from his perch on the bed and walking over to her nightstand to turn out the light. “I’m not offering. I’m telling you, Nasrene.”

She watched, shock written clearly on her face, as Tom then moved around the perimeter of the room and situated himself easily into the other half of the bed, right beside her. Nasrene knew her mouth was hanging open – he’d never, ever been so forward.

“When did you last sleep well, sweet?” he spoke softly, hunkering down beneath her sheets and down duvet and turning to rest his head on a propped up arm.

His arms are positively bursting out of those shirt sleeves, Nasrene thought. She could have slapped herself for even going there at a moment like this.

“Uhm,” she wobbled, “it’s been awhile.”

“Right then,” Tom answered. “Come here, my little dream.”

He scooped her up against him, tightly enough for her to feel his warmth but loosely enough that she could move away if she became uncomfortable by his close proximity. Nasrene reflected silently that she’d never been in a compromising position like this with Tom before, but it was so comforting that she found herself letting go almost immediately.

They were both asleep in minutes.

 

 

Nasrene woke from a deep, dreamless sleep only a few hours later, judging by the darkness still seeping in through her blinds. Immediately upon waking, she registered two things: she hadn’t moved one inch from Tom’s hold, and her mind was positively racing.

What have we done?

Is this going to be weird?

I can’t believe I told him everything… I still have so much to do.

And then, turning her head slightly so as not to disturb her sweet Shakespearean friend, she took stock of the sight before her eyes.

Tom’s mouth was slightly ajar, and he was breathing deeply – almost snoring, but not. The poor thing was completely exhausted, but even in sleep he had a legitimate hold on her. She noticed how his face, neck, and chest had filled out considerably, how he was so much more man than she’d noticed before. The riot of short curls at his temples caused her to smile, though. That hair reminded her of sweet, young Tom in his earlier days. He hadn’t changed from the loving, kind person she’d gotten to know at the pub that first evening.

He’s going to be so bored if he actually stays here with me.

She surprised herself; the thought of Tom leaving now – after his declarations – hurt almost as much as Andrew’s leaving had. Nasrene looked down at the ring she still wore, her left hand curled protectively around the slight swell of her abdomen. Sleep was going to be an impossibility, after all.

 

 

Nasrene was outside sewing in the dim light of early morning that flooded her back veranda when Tom stumbled out, half asleep and looking for her.

“Darling girl, I couldn’t find you,” he murmured sleepily, his throat hoarse with disuse. “I’ve spent the last several minutes calling out for you.”

The way he rubbed the stubble of his beard and ran his hands through his hair spoke of agitation and unease. “Why aren’t you asleep?”

Nasrene gave Tom a wan smile, carefully sewing another bit of lace to the train of what was supposed to be her wedding gown before answering him. “I woke up and my brain started working overtime, as it’s been wont to do lately,” she explained, picking up another delicate scallop of material to add to the trimming. “Didn’t want to bother you so I came out here to do what I always do when things get to be too much,” she gestured with the tiny needle and thread in her hands.

Tom was listening but had momentarily become entranced by the view Nasrene now owned. A perfectly untouched swath of private beach, secluded from view with brush and dunes, leading to a calm, gray-blue Atlantic.

“The ocean helps too,” Nasrene added. “It doesn’t really matter anymore, me finishing this dress, but I hate to just abandon it,” she finished.

Tom noted her inflection of the word abandon. He crouched beside her and ran a gentle hand over the ivory material of her gown.

“Is this yours?” he asked quietly, his eyes wide at the intricacy and craftsmanship of the garment. He noted the lace, the tiny beading, the sheer panels that would hint at her beautiful skin under the dress.

“Mm hmm. I wanted something spectacular,” Nasrene answered. “I knew I’d never find what I wanted, so I designed it from scratch and made it myself – every stitch. Seems a shame…” she trailed off.

“It’s absolutely breathtaking, Nasrene,” Tom admitted, astounded at her talent. He’d seen her designs over the years, and knew she had made some excellent pieces for a lot of lucky women, but he’d never seen her skill up close.

And to think she would have worn this gorgeous dress…how could she possibly get any more beautiful? He thought about this for several seconds, zoning out.

“It’s ironic that when I get stressed about…” Nasrene faltered, searching for the right phrase, “my whole current situation, I work on my wedding dress for my wedding that isn’t ever happening. I still have to cancel a bunch of appointments and call the travel agent and the airline and deal with the fallout. Ugh.”

He had a thought. It should have passed, but it dug in.

“Where were you and Andrew planning on honeymooning, Nasrene?” Tom asked.

She paused a moment as she had the needle in her mouth, grabbing another swath of lace to sew to her train.

“Uhm, the Seychelles. For two weeks. I really need to get that taken care of today,” Nasrene answered.

Tom waited a beat, again, warring with himself.

“Seems a shame,” he echoed her earlier sentiment. “I could really use a vacation.”

Nasrene laughed, smiling up at Tom as she began working on the newest piece of lace. He was watching her, testing her reaction. Her laugh died in her throat almost as fast as it came out; her eyes widened.

“You can’t be serious,” she balked, reaching up to teasingly poke Tom in the ribs. (What a shame for her that her index finger was met with rock-hard muscle.) He caught her hand in his own and Nasrene stopped her work. Her heart was suddenly slamming against her ribcage, at the idea that she would be honeymooning with her best friend on her ex-fiancee’s dime. It seemed wrong. It seemed a lot of things.

“Let’s go back to bed and sleep on the idea, then,” Tom reasoned. “Although I must say, my mind is already made up.”

His voice and countenance were completely serious, both exuding a confidence in his decision. He made it sound like the most rational idea he’d ever had.

Nasrene hesitated a few moments until Tom gently tugged on her little hand with his own, and she gathered her sewing materials to follow him back into her house.

Five minutes later, she found herself ensconced within his arms once more. He kissed her softly on the temple. “Think about it, darling. Let’s get you out of here for awhile.”

He nodded off almost instantly again, his right hand covering Nasrene’s left against her abdomen.

She didn’t miss how his fingers unconsciously covered her engagement ring, even in his sleep.

Chapter Text

Vibrant sunlight streamed into Nasrene’s bedroom through the gauzy curtains, which were blowing softly at her windows. The scent of salt and warmth wafted on the breeze. A few small inhales in sleep, combined with the heat of the sun, woke her from rest.

To find that Tom was gone.

A large indentation in the opposite side of the bed was the only trace of his presence Nasrene discerned – as though he’d been there only in her dreams – but when she rolled over to press herself against the half of the bed he’d occupied, she was assaulted by his scent. A couple of short, dark blond hairs remained on the large pillows where he’d rested his weary head.

He slept in my bed with me all night, she blushed to herself.

Her best friend, the only man aside from her father whom she trusted – at one time she thought she could trust Andrew – had stayed with her and lulled her to sleep twice.

Nasrene knew she should have felt embarrassed at the forward nature of Tom’s visit. Within the space of an evening, she’d poured her heart out to him, spoke about things that only her ex and her family truly knew, and essentially handed over control to him.

He slept in my bed with me all night.

As though it was normal. As though they’d been in this situation before, and were comfortable with it. As though that’s what friends did when life crushed you.

Most all of Nasrene’s friends were either back at Cambridge or were no longer her friends (all of her mutual friends with Andrew immediately jumped ship and sided with him once the wedding was called off, except one). Most of Nasrene’s friends were also…female. Tom was the one constant male presence in her life that hadn’t been affected by the fallout of her relationship. Thinking about that word, that toxic, evil word ‘relationship’ caused Nasrene to startle and look down at the engagement ring still on her finger. The brilliance of the cut diamond sparkled in the morning sunlight, and she turned her hand this way and that against the duvet, still painfully mesmerized by the lavishness of the jewelry.

When Andrew proposed, Nasrene fell in love with the ring immediately – it was large and ornate and had a beautiful setting. But the more she looked at the ring now, the more disappointed she became. It was such an obvious choice for a ring. The type of cookie-cutter choice that would fit nearly any bride of any style. The type of ring that didn’t require much thought on the groom’s part. It was just like Andrew, just like his family.

Throw enough money at something and the lavishness will outweigh the lack of sentiment behind it. Distract everyone!

If she was really being honest with herself, the ring wasn’t her at all. She rotated it around her ring finger with the pad of her thumb, letting the reality of her admission really sink in. The gem didn’t show her individuality. It didn’t reveal anything about her taste. It could have been for anyone. It could be for any girl who’d be able to give Andrew children and a carefree life without pain and suffering. So why couldn’t she take it off?

Why did the thought of taking her honeymoon – something she felt she deserved after the trial she’d endured – make her feel treasonous toward Andrew? Was it because she would be going with Tom?

The ‘would be’ portion of that thought slipped into her mind, unasked for. Nasrene gasped at how inappropriate she was being.

What kind of woman takes her ex’s best friend with her on a honeymoon?

The kind of woman who wants to get over her shit luck and be happy for a few days.

That thought, too, was unbidden. Rolling onto her back with a heaving sigh, Nasrene threw her right arm over her eyes and groped blindly on her night table for her mobile. She knew she wouldn’t have any missed calls. No one would have texted her unless there was some deathly emergency. Srikanth would be busy at school, and Mama and Baba only called in the afternoons or evenings.

I’m simply not needed, she thought somberly. She scrolled mindlessly through the list of her contacts, willing herself to wake up and stop feeling sorry for herself. When she reached the number for the travel agency through which she and Andrew had booked their vacation, she paused.

If I call, this is one of the last things on my list. It will be like the engagement and the wedding planning never even happened.

She could move on with her life and pretend that everything – save the endometriosis – was just a bad dream. With one more phone call. She could even have the agent contact the airline and do the final bit of legwork for her. Her thumb hovered over the call button, just a second too long.

And then she heard voices.

Angry, hushed voices, coming from down the hallway in the entryway.

Nasrene shot up, her body at first thinking there were intruders in her home; and then she heard the voices more clearly: Tom’s, arguing with Andrew’s. She felt her skin go hot, then clammy.

Creeping quickly out of her bed and tiptoeing down the hallway to get an earful, Nasrene stopped just before the boundary of the hallway gave way to the open-air entry of her foyer. Her heart was stuttering in her chest.

“What the fuck are you doing here, man?” a rough voice hissed.

That was Andrew. She’d never heard him speak with such barely-subdued rage before. It frightened her, and she unconsciously wrapped her bare arms around herself.

“I’d ask you the same question, Drew.”

Tom’s voice was cool, calm, and detached. He spoke as if he had every right to be in Nasrene’s home, as though Andrew himself was the real intruder. The sound of his tone caused Nasrene’s heart to slow, and she felt herself relaxing just the slightest bit, leaning against the wall where she eavesdropped.

“Is there some reason you’re here? Coming back for the ring, maybe? I’m sure I can get her to take that meaningless thing off,” Tom continued, his voice never rising above the soft – yet steely – decibel level he’d set.

The young woman flinched; she saw it coming a mile away. Andrew exploded, violently. He started ranting about what Tom could and couldn’t do, how he’d crossed all kinds of boundaries by coming to their home, by staying with Nasrene, oh yes, he’d seen the lights on in the house, had seen the taxi drop Tom off the previous day. He’d wanted to come over to check up on his fiancée and saw that she was already being taken care of by another man. A man who was supposed to be his friend, not hers.

Nasrene sniffled, tears pouring from her eyes at the ridiculously hurtful situation unfolding just one wall away from her – how could he? How could Andrew call this their home when he didn’t want to share a life with her? How could he still call her his “fiancée” when he’d waived that right by proclaiming her, essentially, a barren waste of his time? How could he be so upset with Tom – their friend – for wanting to check up on someone as sick and sad as her? Rage mixed with her sadness and Nasrene struggled to contain the sounds of her anguish – but it didn’t matter. Andrew never would have heard them, because Tom chose that moment to volley his own explosive temper right back.

She’d never heard him sound so threatening, so viciously protective. Not even when he was acting – this sounded like pure, unbridled rage.

“If you and I weren’t friends, Drew, I swear to god I would have already broken your nose, your jaw, and the rest of your disgusting face,” he seethed, and Nasrene heard what sounded like a fist pounding against the doorframe as Tom elucidated the various body parts he thought about destroying. “This is no longer YOUR home, it’s HER home. She is alone. She is devastated. She is very, very ill. But you – you fucking prick – you KNOW that already! You know because you CAUSED so much of this. And the fact that you refuse to take responsibility for a situation like this, not to mention how you’ve crushed the one woman who would have loved you loyally and deeply for the rest of your life – shows me what kind of a person you are. I don’t count you as a friend any longer, and as of this point, I consider you a THREAT to Nasrene’s life. Coming in here as though you have a right to her when you wouldn’t even speak to her before…”

Andrew tried to butt in but Nasrene heard what sounded like the hard shoving sound of hands against clothing. Someone stumbled against the doorframe.

“I’m not FINISHED with you yet,” Tom rasped. The sound was met with another shoving sound and another stumble against her front door.

“You can be furious with me for coming here, you can be jealous that someone is finally taking care of your girl PROPERLY; I don’t really give a fuck, man. But know this – I’ve made a lot of money in recent years, and I’ve made even MORE powerful friends. And you’d better bet your fucking measly life savings that I will spare no expense – I will leave no connection untapped – to ensure that Nasrene is safe, loved, and cared for. I can have the best lawyers, security firms, doctors, surgeons, jewelers, and fertility specialists at my disposal, just to name a few, mate. And I will be calling each and every one of them in that order. You can connect the dots, I’m sure.”

Both men were heaving violent breaths, and Nasrene assumed the conversation was over. She made to move into the entryway just to get one more look at the man who’d ruined her life, when Tom made one more comment, low and sinister in its threat. She froze.

“If you ever try to contact her, or come to this house again, or come within a mile of her – voluntarily or otherwise – I will have you taken out.”

Her delicate ears picked up the unmistakable sound of a thrown punch connecting with muscle and bone, and then her front door slammed closed right after the injured party stumbled through.

Nasrene couldn’t help the strangled sob that escaped her lips; her left hand flew to her mouth in a feeble effort to hide the sound, but it was too late. She’d been heard.

Tom was upon her in seconds, the fear in his eyes contrasting his violent threats and actions from moments ago. Nasrene had crumpled to the floor, both hands now covering her mouth, tears streaming down her face and her body wracked with pent-up emotion. He scooped her up into his arms, carrying her bridal style into the kitchen to gently ease her onto one of the barstools. She was in hysterics, barely holding it together as she watched Tom fill a glass with water and bring it over to her.

Taking hold of the glass with a shaking left hand, Nasrene stared up at the man who’d just defended her – as no one ever had before. The extent of his loyalty to her, of his fiery sincerity at what would happen if Andrew attempted to ruin her life any further, floored her. She never knew Tom had such primitive anger before. He was generally a happy-go-lucky, sweet man, and rarely took umbrage against anyone. But this was an entirely new side she’d never had the chance to see.

Threatening.

Possessive.

Completely in control.

And all of it was for her.

She took a slow sip of the cool water, willing her heart to stop thrumming in her ribcage at the way Tom was staring at her. Nasrene wasn’t sure if he was staring because he wanted to say something, or if he was looking her over for signs of distress – whether from Andrew’s appearance or from his own defense of her. Blowing out a shaky breath, Nasrene put the glass down and looked into Tom’s eyes with tears filling her own.

“Thank you,” she breathed quietly.

The smile that broke the concern on Tom’s face warmed Nasrene all over, as she could see her old Tom behind it. His words, however, didn’t match the sweet, gentle expression of his countenance.

“Take the ring off.”

He held out his hand to her in entreaty, never moving his gaze from her face, as he leaned across the kitchen island toward where she sat, frozen. The free hand that wasn’t waiting for her ring to be removed went to Nasrene’s face, stroking lovingly across her cheekbone and into her jet-black hair, still messy from sleep and anguish.

“The longer you wear his ring, my sweet dream, the longer you’re tied to him. The longer your heart beats for him. Is that what you want?” Tom asked, sincere pain in his eyes at the words he spoke. “I can protect you, and I can help you mend your broken heart and ease your troubled mind, but I cannot do it if you’re going to remain steadfast and loyal to Andrew Tarkington.”

Nasrene hadn’t realized it, but she was subtly nuzzling into Tom’s touch at her face and through her long tresses. Despite everything that had just happened, despite the violence and Tom’s threats to her ex-fiancé, she felt a knot loosening in her chest at the prospect of putting her current situation behind her. With Tom’s help. He seemed to want to take control, and she felt very comfortable, all of a sudden, with letting him do so. She normally overanalyzed everything, but this appeared to be blindingly, obviously simple.

She gently tugged the engagement ring off of her left hand, dropping the jewel into Tom’s still-outstretched palm. His fingers closed around the treasure as soon as it hit his hand, and he removed his other hand from Nasrene’s hair to walk around the kitchen island directly to where she sat. Running a solid hand from the base of Nasrene’s spine up her back, slowly, to the nape of her neck, Tom pressed her forward against him. He knelt down ever so slightly to press a firm kiss to her forehead.

“Excellent choice,” he murmured. “Don’t move, darling.”

She couldn’t if she tried. Nasrene watched as Tom, still in his sleep clothes, walked calmly over to the double-doors leading to the back porch. He opened them very matter-of-factly and stepped out into the blazing Carolina sunshine. She didn’t dare move, but swiveled atop her barstool and craned her neck to see what he was doing, his right hand still curled protectively around her engagement ring. He walked a straight path through the hilly, sea grass-covered dunes, not looking left or right to take in his surroundings. He seemed focused on a task of some sort, walking assuredly toward the bluish-gray water ahead. The sea was calm, only little dips of waves present every so often. There were no whitecaps to be seen anywhere.

Tom got to the water’s edge and began efficiently rolling up the legs of his sweatpants, almost to his knees, wading into the shallows of shells as soon as he finished.

Nasrene found that her body didn’t offer one second of protest as she watched Tom hurl her engagement ring deep into the murky waters of the Atlantic Ocean, never to be seen again.

 

 

“Mushrooms?”

“Ew no. Absolutely never,” Nasrene laughed in feigned horror.

“Tomato?”

“Yes, please. And the cheddar and some ham,” she requested. “I can’t believe you’re making me breakfast in my own house.”

Tom feigned a look of wounded hurt, expertly chopping up the requested ingredients Nasrene preferred in her omelet. She’d protested for nearly fifteen minutes after he returned from…divesting her of the ring – neither of them said a word about it. It lent a finality to her previous situation, something she didn’t realize she needed.

“Are you shocked that I’m being such a good houseguest, or are you shocked that I can cook better than you?” Tom teased her, winking as he began to whisk the ingredients together in a shallow bowl before pouring the mixture carefully into a hot, buttered pan.

She wasn’t sure how to answer. The day was already off to such a strange start – with Andrew’s appearance, Tom’s vehement defense of her, the ring…

“I suppose I feel badly that you’re doing all this for me,” she murmured shyly, smiling at the sight of his broad back looming over her expensive range. Once again, she was noticing how much he’d…filled out. His clothes clung to him in a manner they never had before.

With slight bewilderment in his eyes, Tom turned to Nasrene, who was still seated faithfully at her perch at the kitchen island.

“You feel badly that I am doing something as simple and small as making you a meal, is that right?” he asked her, moving a spatula around the rapidly-cooking eggs. “When you did the very same for me last evening after I dropped by unannounced?”

Nasrene nodded her head, smiling genuinely, but confused as to why Tom seemed to question her statement. He elaborated for her.

“One meal is not ‘all this’, darling girl. I don’t know what that man-child convinced you of in your years together, but if he somehow brainwashed you into thinking that making one breakfast was spoiling you, then I’ve got a lot of work to do to rectify that problem. You need taken care of. You need spoiled as much as you’ll allow…”

She went to interrupt Tom, about to protest and say that she didn’t need anyone to take care of her or spoil her, but the protest died in her throat.

They both knew it would be a lie if she said it.

“What are your plans today, Nasrene?” Tom redirected the conversation.

It took her a few moments to remember what, exactly, was on her to-do list for the day, so taken was she by how comfortable Tom looked in her kitchen, cooking breakfast for the two of them.

“I, um,” she faltered a little as she watched the muscles straining against the arm of his t-shirt when he flipped the omelet in the pan. “I need to do some sketching today for a couple of young clients, dresses for some teenagers in town…I’m going to need to call my travel agent and get things canceled…”

Nasrene swore she saw Tom stiffen at the word canceled. She continued on anyway, wanting to move past the entire notion he’d had the night before.

“And I do want to finish the last of the lace detailing on my wedding gown. I know that’s stupid of me,” she trailed off.

Tom turned to her, a serious look on his face and one of his eyebrows quirked in an expression meant to convey that she was no way, no how stupid.

“It’s very understandable you’d want to finish such a lovely piece, Nasrene. He never saw it, did he?” Tom asked.

Nasrene knew immediately who ‘he’ meant. She shook her head no. A small smile graced Tom’s face as he slid her omelet onto a plate and grabbed some utensils from her cutlery drawer.

“Then it’s not all for naught, sweet one. You should cherish something so beautiful as that. It will be useful to you someday,” Tom declared. He handed Nasrene her breakfast and began to work on his own egg creation, making quick work of the milk, cheese, and peppers from her refrigerator. His words echoed in Nasrene’s head.

It will be useful to you someday.

She scoffed at Tom’s statement – what could she offer a man? She was all but infertile, had a litany of embarrassing, personal symptoms that accompanied her condition, and she would be in for many years of pain and surgical procedures. Baba had always stressed to her that most men only wanted to be taken care of and looked after, and that she had to choose wisely and pick one who would do the same for her. According to her father, these men were few and far between.

Tom must have seen the cogs turning in Nasrene’s head, because her silence forced him to turn around and see her food, warm but still untouched. His voice was low, and he kept it unthreatening – he would never threaten her – but there was no mistake that he meant business.

“Eat, Nas. I’m going to try and throw you in the ocean later and I want you to have at least a little bit of energy to try and outrun me,” he teased, only half joking.

The gravity of her situation quickly passed at Tom’s humor, and she finally picked up her fork and sliced into the cheesy omelet in front of her.

 

 

The two old friends ate in companionable silence, sharing snippets of conversation as they ate their eggs and drank a particularly yummy dark roast of coffee that Tom had brought back from his recent travels. He’d been the one to hook Nasrene on caffeine when they were at university – no one else had convinced her it tasted good enough to drink regularly – and she often enjoyed his “spoils of war” whenever he’d filmed in some exotic locale. It was because of Tom that she had a coffee grinder, bought only whole-bean coffee, and no longer used creamer or heaping spoons of artificial sweetener. Though a small trifle, he’d genuinely managed to influence her taste in coffee.

Add that to the list of little things Tom had impressed upon her over the years: the importance of slow dancing, reading aloud with inflection (even if it was just an advert or a letter), and believing one’s work was the absolute best it could be at all times – nothing short of perfection, if it could be helped.

When they’d finished their meal, Tom declared – before Nasrene could intervene – that he was cleaning up so she could go about her day and do whatever work she needed to do.

“I refuse to be an imposition since I am your humble houseguest,” he declared. “I have a few calls I need to make to wrap up the Skull Island stuff, and Luke and I are going to do a little tête-à-tête on Facetime later so I can clear my schedule a bit. Would it be okay if I camped out here in your living area to do a bit of work?”

Nasrene smiled at Tom’s graciousness, his need to always ask permission of her regardless of the situation. She remembered once after she accidentally split her finger open with a paring knife a few years ago, she’d had to replace a plaster on her finger after she bled through the gauze rather quickly. She’d been feeling rather woozy at the sight, and Tom stepped in, asking permission to gently peel away the adhesive from her finger before replacing it with a fresh bit of gauze and a new plaster.

Andrew thought she was being a child about the whole situation; Tom had playfully kissed her finger behind Andrew’s back, rolling his eyes at his friend’s general lack of concern for his own girlfriend.

“You can do whatever you need to, Tom. My house is your house, delam,” she kissed him on the forehead, handing him her breakfast plate. “I need to shower and then I’m going to work in my studio for a few hours, okay?”

Tom nodded at his little dream, grinning at her willingness to relax around him and do as he asked. He loved that she automatically let him take the lead, especially when she easily handed over her plate and told him he could do whatever he needed to. He had something at the top of his list that he definitely needed to do while she was in the shower – so she wouldn’t be able to listen in on his calls. But the fact that she’d called him delam, something she hadn’t said to him in years, made him want to grab her and twirl her around and around in his arms, holding her tightly to him.

Sweetheart.

“Come get me if you need something,” she trailed off endearingly as she wiped her hands on a dishtowel and made her way out of the kitchen, heading toward the hallway. She was focused on her mental to-do list and didn’t see Tom watching her walking away, his eyes following all of her beautiful curves.

Delam.

As soon as he heard the faint sound of water being turned on, Tom quickly finished up in the kitchen and went to the guest room to retrieve some of his work materials from his baggage: his laptop, his phone and charger, and his wallet from the dresser in the room he hadn’t used the previous evening. He was a man on a mission, and the mission had to be dealt with stealthily – Luke and his other phone calls regarding the Kong film could wait. He had unlimited time for those things. Plugging his computer charger into a wall outlet once he returned to the living room, Tom booted up and logged onto the internet, doing a few simple searches until he found what he was looking for: there were several things he had to consider, but he was drawn quite easily to the phone number he needed.

One reason he’d been glad to spend so much time in Nasrene’s kitchen cooking breakfast was that it offered unlimited access to her refrigerator: and to the information on the door of her fridge. Namely, the reservation information for the Four Seasons Seychelles. A few quick taps on the keypad of his mobile and he was directly in touch with concierge services for the resort itself. He put on his most pleasant, attractive voice and – thank the gods the concierge on duty was a female – went to work.

It took him just a few moments, clicking around on the hotel’s website as he ad-libbed, but the task was over and done with before the water had even stopped running in Nasrene’s master bathroom.

“Mr. Hiddleston, once again, we are so sorry for the mix-up,” the young woman on the other end of the line apologized. “We do hope this won’t affect your visit.”

Tom played the situation off, insisting it had all been a big misunderstanding, and thanking the efficient concierge for her willingness to overlook the oddity of what he’d asked her to do.

“I do greatly appreciate your efforts, Ms. Sauveterre,” Tom replied, relieved that he’d pulled it off. “And I look forward to seeing you and your staff very soon.”

By the time Nasrene was running her hairdryer, he’d already finished two other calls and was making some notes to go over when he spoke with Luke.

 

 

The three gowns Nasrene needed to plan for were all part of the same occasion – a trio of wealthy mothers decided their daughters needed something more bespoke for their private school’s spring formal. The school’s invitation clearly emphasized black tie, and the mothers and daughters all wanted some striking version of black and white eveningwear – but they were offering Nasrene quite large commissions if she could make the three girls stand out just a bit more from the crowd (and from one another). In the end, she’d sketched out various black and white ideas, but had included swathes of vivid color for each look: one young woman would have a netted overlay of ruby red lace, another would have a bustier dusted with sapphire silk and gray pearls, and the third would have the inside of her gown lined in emerald sequins, emphasized by a daring slit to mid-thigh. She didn’t worry about comfort with her designs – people with the kind of money these mums threw down were more concerned with pushing the envelope and turning heads than anything practical. There were enough rich folk in this portion of South Carolina that the avant garde was appreciated – sometimes the stranger, the better.

Nasrene felt confident that her designs and the choices of vibrant colour would win over her clients and have the young ladies clamoring to recommend her to all their friends. After all, they might be wedding dress clients a few years down the road. She could afford to take the risk if the potential outcome proved lucrative.

Feeling accomplished after finishing her sketches and calling one of her local suppliers to enquire about the available colours for silk, lace, and sequins, Nasrene hadn’t realized that a few hours had passed – and that Tom was leaning casually against her studio door, watching her working with an interested smile on his face.

Finally taking notice of the tall, handsome man hanging around her doorway, she motioned him in to her workspace, finishing her call with the supplier.

“You’ve been a busy little bee, my sweet dream,” Tom chuckled, moving closer to see the designs Nasrene had created with her creative mind, her keen eye, and her talented hand. “Did you just whip these up out of nowhere?” he asked, nodding to the myriad sketches at her desk.

“I did,” she beamed back at him. She was eager to show him all the variations she’d come up with, and his attention to her work plus his incredulity at her skills was plain on his face. He was her usual Tom – asking lots of questions about the shape and colour, wanting to know where and how she got her fabrics and supplies.

Andrew had never really spoken with Nasrene about her work beyond a “looks good, babe” or “that’s a nice drawing.”

When she’d run out of things to say about her sketches, Nasrene felt Tom’s large hands softly kneading her shoulders, and she exhaled in pleasure at the release of tension. Many times, the drafting and initial colouring stage of her designs left her with hunched shoulders, a sore back, and a cramp in her hand.

“I came in to tell you that lunch is ready,” Tom leaned down to whisper against her cheek, nuzzling her playfully. “And that you’d better come eat it now because I’m starving and I refuse to wait any longer. Me hungry,” he growled.

Nasrene whirled around in her chair and elbowed him in the ribs, digging her fingers into his sides where she knew he was ticklish. “Are you going to keep force-feeding me?” she half-yelled, laughing at his own laughter from her tickling fingers. He lunged from her grasp suddenly – moving himself only am arm’s length away from her reach – and nodded at her fervently.

“I’m certainly going to put myself in charge of keeping you healthy,” he winked at her. “That’s why there’s hot wings, chips, and some cold beer in the kitchen.”

She practically ran over him to get to the kitchen.

“So healthy!” Nasrene squealed in delight.

Her plate was piled high with the greasy food as soon as Tom found her in the kitchen, and she was cracking the top off two bottles of beer – one for each of them.

“Wow, you really do cook a lot. How long did it take you to marinate these wings, slice and fry the potatoes, and make the dipping sauces?” Nasrene teased as she began to rummage in the fridge for some ketchup and mustard. “And by the way, we’re in America now, so you’re going to have to call these things” – she shoved a big chip in Tom’s mouth – “French fries.”

He chewed and swallowed with a laugh at her happiness, at seeing her eyes dance with each little moment he was able to take care of her.

“I must confess, darlin’” – here Tom pronounced the word as though he were indeed a Southerner from the United States – “that I ordered these food items from the local market with muh cell phone and brought them to the homestead.”

Nasrene threw another piece of fried potato at her friend. “Good lord, Thomas,” she teased. “It’s not wonder you weren’t nominated for an Oscar for your portrayal of Hank Williams!”

His face changed – instantly. Nasrene’s mouth went dry at the thought that she’d gone too far, and her tongue was suddenly on fire from the wing sauce. She felt herself bracing for an explosion reminiscent of that morning’s encounter with Andrew. But then she saw the lines begin to crinkle at the corners of his eyes, and his head dropped ever so slightly as he began to walk very slowly – predatorily – toward her. When his voice rumbled from his throat, he was most definitely not Hank. Or Tom.

He was full-blown Loki.

“You’d better pray that you can escape me, sweet little mortal,” he purred, still rounding on her, but with his own plate of food now in hand. “Because when we’re done here, I’m going to chase you out that back door, down the sand, and you’re going to positively beg me not to throw you into the ocean.”

He capped off his little performance with a dark chuckle, and then resumed eating as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened.

 

 

As it turned out, Loki did catch Nasrene after lunch, but spared her life – and her clothes – by scooping her up into his strong arms as they reached the surf. The Asgardian god’s price was a kiss to his cheek, and Nasrene gladly paid.

She thought she was safe from another appearance from the trickster god until a few minutes later when they walked along the secluded beach, looking at interesting shells and throwing sand dollars and starfish back into the ocean. Nasrene was enthralled by a pink and turquoise colour palette she’d found inside a small conch shell, and she was looking at it from various angles of sunlight, her mind automatically incorporating it into some new design ideas.

Totally in her own world, she was oblivious to Tom sneaking up behind her.

He had a huge, flailing horseshoe crab in his hands.

By the time she realized what was happening, he was almost upon her, dangling the large, brown, prehistoric-looking creature just inches from her face, and she screamed in delighted terror, taking off down the beach running away from him.

Not wanting to harm the crab (that was surely freaking out from the noise and attention), Tom gently laid it back in the surf, gave it a look that said, “see you, good sir”, and took off after Nasrene, who had a generous head start. His runner’s legs took him swiftly to her in mere moments.

The two collapsed onto the beach, laughing together and sitting shoulder to shoulder with their toes digging into the soft sand.

“It’s so good to hear you laugh, darling,” Tom said after they caught their respective breaths.

“It feels good to laugh,” Nasrene admitted, looking out at the ocean and holding her hair back with a free hand. The breeze coming off the water was playing havoc with her dark, heavy waves. “I haven’t done much other than cry for a long time, it feels. First during the diagnosis, then the recovery, and then…”

She let the statement float onto the wind, unfinished. Tom said nothing, putting a gentle arm around her. She let her head fall onto his shoulder as she continued staring out to the large expanse of water before them.

“I really have to confess something to you, though,” Nasrene continued after a moment.

Tom made to move away, wanting to look at her in case there was something serious or upsetting that she needed to get off her chest, but she didn’t break position and kept gazing at the hypnotic ebb and flow of the sea. So he simply continued to do the same.

“I’ve missed you so much – and not just in the sense that you’ve been away working – but I’ve missed being able to spend time with you in person. I’m almost scared at how relieved I was that you showed up at my doorstep, Tom,” she confided. Still she looked out at the Atlantic. “You’ve always been there for me, but it does get hard when you’re away and the best we can do for one another is email or call or text, or occasionally Facetime.”

Tom nodded wordlessly, neither encouraging nor discouraging her to continue.

“And I must say, although there’s no substitute for the real thing,” here she playfully bumped her right knee against his left, “I immensely enjoyed your turn as Pine in The Night Manager. It’s my new favourite thing you’ve done.”

He grinned, turning to her. “You liked that, did you?” He wanted her to elaborate.

Nasrene gave him a somewhat wide-eyed look, her eyes flitting down to take in the parts of him that had been so carefully cultivated on sets and in gyms and with personal trainers over the last several months.

“Your character is just so…menacing, and unbelievably sexy. It was like you were playing several people all at once – Pine and Linden and Quince and Birch. I swear you get more impressive every time I watch you.”

Tom still had the grace to blush at Nasrene’s compliments. He hid his pleasure at her praise by scooping her up suddenly, carrying her in his arms back toward her house. He didn’t miss the little gasp that escaped her.

“So you didn’t like me before now, eh?” he teased, walking with her in his arms as though she weighed no more than a feather. Nasrene buried her face in Tom’s chest, feeling a little sudden embarrassment at the way she’d glossed over his leaner self from a few years ago. “Boy you’re really giving it to my ego today, young lady. First you kill my Hank impression, then you tell me I’m only just now a slight looker, huh?”

He had her holding on tightly, stuttering her discomfort in his arms, all the way back up the dunes, past the back porch, and straight into the house. She was desperately trying to find words to rectify the situation, even though they both knew Tom was having a go at her. When Tom put her down gently in the living room, she’d finally gathered herself enough to respond with something appropriate to soothe his injured self-esteem.

“You were wonderful before, Thomas. Now, you’re simply devastating.” To prove her point, she stuck her tongue out at him in a very unladylike manner.

And then her mobile chimed from the coffee table. Nasrene had an email alert.

Tom had stretched himself out on one of the chaises longues in her living area and was watching Nasrene’s face change from confusion to frustration to sadness, all in a matter of moments.

“My…well, our…goddammit,” she struggled. “The reservation I’d made for the honeymoon at the Four Seasons has somehow been upgraded,” she said in a bewildered tone. “I forgot to call and cancel the vacation package earlier. This is so odd that they’d just bump me up for no reason…”

When he saw her start to punch in numbers on her mobile’s keypad, Tom sat up and cleared his throat.

“Nasrene-my-dream, darling,” he stood. “End that call for a moment.”

She looked at him in confusion, wondering why he was asking her to –

Oh.

OH.

“I called and changed the reservation earlier today while you were in the shower, sweet one.” Her eyes shot to his, and he could see not a little fear at his presumptiveness.

“Bear with me, darling. I got your reservation information from the printout you’d left on your fridge, and I went ahead and called, pulled a couple of strings, and got the lovely woman on the phone to change the name the reservation was under. You’ll find your information is under Mr. and Mrs. Hiddleston, now.”

Nasrene took a breath. Still no words.

“I also took the liberty of upgrading the package to something more, uh,” he fidgeted a little with his hands, as he was wont to do sometimes when nervous, “lavish.”

She hadn’t moved, but her eyes widened with each new admission from Tom. Only one word escaped Nasrene’s mouth.

“Why?”

“Before you get upset, darling…hear me out. I upgraded to an oceanfront villa so there would be two bedrooms. You’ll have all the privacy you need and I promise I won’t get in your way if you don’t want me to.”

Nasrene remained silent, her eyes widening slightly at the revelation about the oceanfront villa. Tom continued, trying to soothe her. She seemed about ready to bolt from the room.

“I’ve gone ahead and given them my credit card information so there’s no tie to Andrew or his family’s money, and I can assure you that I can offer you a much better experience with the new amenities that I’ve had reserved for us.”

The word registered in Nasrene’s head. Us.

“You just admitted to me on the beach that you missed me, Nas, and that we don’t get to spend much time together these days. I know that’s my fault. But I made a pledge to you last evening – and to the man that hurt you, this morning – that I will take care of you. Let me do this for you, little one. I can afford it. I want to do it. I want you to leave this world behind for a bit. I want to take your hand and have a holiday with you, and to see you living without stress.”

Her eyes were filling with tears, and Tom could see from the slight upturn of her mouth that Nasrene was beginning to smile, to warm to the idea. He continued, desperate to sell her completely on the idea.

“They have spa services that are world-class, I’m told. Perhaps some of your muscle pain in your legs and abdomen could be soothed with massage and hot stones, darling? There’s wireless so we can both work. They advertise a gorgeous view and a sundeck where you can sketch and colour. I’ve checked with guest services and they can send up a fabric steamer if you want to work on some of your gowns while we’re there.”

Tom’s heart was thudding in his chest, his anxiety nearly through the roof in fear she would rebuke him. He didn’t think he’d be able to take it if she did. So he pressed on as Nasrene grabbed for a tissue from one of her end tables and dabbed at her eyes.

“I’ve been given assurance that there are extremely reputable doctors on-site and also a phone call away if you feel ill or if something makes you uncomfortable. Don’t worry about not feeling well, lovely dream of mine. I will see to it that you’re just fine.”

He was about to continue his incessant babbling, drawing from the mental list he’d made of every comfort he procured for her, when Nasrene put a gentle hand on his forearm to stop him. It took her a moment, and she had to swallow a few times and wipe her nose, but when she’d composed herself, Nasrene’s eyes were more clear and beautiful than Tom had seen them in a very long time.

“Let’s go on a honeymoon, Mr. Hiddleston,” she whispered softly.

Her smile could have lit him from the inside out.

Chapter Text

Why are you getting so worked up over this?

Nasrene found herself leaning against the wall that separated the entryway to her home from her rather spacious kitchen. The wall was actually doing a marvelous job of holding her up, because she was feeling rather anxious and upset at the moment.

Mustn’t let this show, she scolded herself. For heaven’s sake. You’re acting almost as emotional as you were when Andrew left.

The sight before her had managed to cause tears to well in Nasrene’s eyes: Tom was packing. At her stubborn insistence. He’d agreed to fly home and take care of some necessary unpack-wash-repack duties before their upcoming trip to the Seychelles. He also had a checklist of items regarding work that needed taking care of. A meeting or two with his team, signing off on some documentation that would lock in the next contractual obligation, etc. His list never ended, but he could take care of things in groups to open up free time on his schedule as needed.

Nasrene knew he needed to get home and regroup. She knew he had things to attend to in his job, just like she did in hers. But he was leaving – so soon after his arrival. He was leaving just as she’d begun to feel cared for and looked after. He was leaving her all alone with the fact that she had to wait a week before seeing him again. It didn’t help that her would-have-been wedding date was looming upon her, also. It was within that same one-week timeframe. Just as quickly as the bronze-skinned beauty had begun to feel a measure of relief about her life, it was being torn from her in much the same manner.

“I think that’s everything, my sweet dream,” Tom murmured as he rummaged in his carryall bag for his wallet, and to make sure he had chargers for his electronics. “I’ll call you right before I board in Charleston, and then once I get to Newark.”

Nasrene meant to give him a clear, assured smile and a response, but she could only manage a shaky answer as a few traitorous tears slid down her face.

“And then when you land back in Heathrow?” she whispered, biting her lip as the tears began to flow more copiously.

Tom’s head shot up at the tremor in her tone, and aching concern bled onto his features. He rushed over to her immediately, dropping his bag.

“Nas, darling,” he cooed softly at her, taking her in his arms just as he’d done on the eve of his arrival. “Why the tears, sweetheart? Is something wrong? Are you feeling ill?”

Embarrassed, Nasrene tried to wipe away her tears, struggling to catch her breath without breaking into a full-out sob. She shook a little in Tom’s arms, and she felt his embrace tighten protectively around her. The part of her that was internally screaming GET YOURSELF UNDER CONTROL was being drowned out by the rising anxiety in her chest and stomach.

She didn’t want him to go.

She would be all alone.

She would miss him.

What if he couldn’t come back?

What if their trip was canceled because of some mishap in his schedule?

None of these concerns were voiced because Nasrene felt herself slipping under the icy waters of fear; being the coward she’d become these last several weeks, she let herself succumb, crying quietly – but hard – into Tom’s warm, safe chest.

This was the place on Tom’s body that Nasrene had discovered of late – it helped to soothe her racing mind and assuage her broken heart. Again, again last evening, Tom had found his way into her bed and pulled her to him, seeming to know instinctively that she needed looking after in the loneliness of nighttime. It became more personal than the previous night.

Nasrene had found herself gently placed on her back, her long hair swept across the smooth, cool fabric of her pillow, as Tom curled into her from his left side. His left arm wandered above the both of them to tangle gently into her dark tresses, and his mouth found her temple, where his lips remained pressed until Nasrene began nodding off. For the entirety of the night – anytime she stirred or woke – the elegant, thin fingers of his right hand were splayed protectively across the mostly smooth expanse of her stomach. When she did awaken, Tom would gently trace reverent fingertips against her flesh, swirling the pads of his digits in light caresses here and there. And when she settled, his hand would still against her in a solemn vow of safety and security.

He was doing what Andrew could not: acknowledging the hurt that Nasrene suffered at Mother Nature’s cruel hands, and showing her hurt his own version of respect.

As she clung to Tom now, with a taxi awaiting him just outside her front door, Nasrene fixated on that feeling of comfort, of safety, that Tom had given her for the last several hours. In that small portion of time, he’d managed to get her to open up about her total condition. He allowed her to be weak without punishing her for it. He convinced her to stop pining for a man who didn’t want her anymore. And he surprised her with a vacation she no longer had doubts about needing. But she knew as soon as he left – no matter that she would see him again in just seven days – she would fracture completely.

He couldn’t have come to see her at a better time, and now, he couldn’t be leaving at a worse one. Even though she insisted she was a big girl and he had things that needed seeing to.

“I’m sorry I’m being so ridiculous,” Nasrene half-laughed, half hiccupped, pulling away from Tom so that she could begin the painful process of watching him leave.

He tsked her.

“Nasrene you’re not. Are you absolutely sure it’s all right that I go home for a bit and situate myself? You know I don’t have to…”

She wiped her eyes and nose as delicately as she could, wanting to seem put-together and in control. Like a real adult woman. She even managed a cute little scoffing noise at Tom’s suggestion.

“I promise, Tom. Please don’t let my waterworks convince you otherwise,” she laughed a small, shaky sound. “It’s probably just hormonal anyway. You know, crazy woman and all…”

If she thought his previous tsk was a little playful, the next was decidedly not.

Holding Nasrene gently in place by the shoulders, Tom forced her to look in his eyes when he made another more forceful scolding noise. She felt herself stiffen slightly at the sound and obey.

“If I ever hear you say that about yourself again, darling, there will be consequences,” he murmured, pulling her forward to brush his lips against her forehead. She supposed he did it so his words wouldn’t frighten her, but he continued after his kiss.

“Unless you’d like for me to demonstrate what that means right here in this foyer, I suggest you learn to speak as highly of yourself as I think of you. Do you understand, Nasrene?”

She felt herself blushing – something she always used to do when she was in trouble with Mama or Baba. The nodding of her head was automatic, but not to Tom’s taste.

“Say it, please.”

Nasrene swallowed as Tom lowered his hands from her shoulders to take both of her trembling hands in his own, stroking his thumbs across her knuckles. His raised eyebrow practically advertised that she should answer him, and quickly.

“Y-yes,” she whispered, transfixed by the blue of his eyes. She bit her lip as the flush traveled all over her body.

He grinned a delicious, indulgent grin, but corrected her with a wink.

“Yes what?”

Her eyes darted hither and thither, trying to decide how she was supposed to reply. The words came fumbling out of her before she could compose herself.

“Am I to call you Tom when you ask that, or…?”

With a charming little chuckle, Tom whisked Nasrene into his arms and cradled her there while he replied.

“You may call me whatever you like, my little dream. Tom works. You can call me sir if you think your transgression has been particularly naughty. Are we clear?”

She was busy trying not to fixate on that sir word he’d just suggested.

“Yes, Tom.”

He was staring at her heatedly, seriously, and she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do next, but just before she became uncomfortable with Tom’s close proximity and the way he was holding her possessively – hadn’t she wanted that when she was sleeping? – he broke into that trademark laugh of his and Nasrene felt herself relax. Whatever spell she’d been placed under was broken and the two friends resumed the moment as usual.

Nasrene had stopped crying, she noticed with relief, and she somehow felt that she’d better keep herself in check or Tom would be upset with her for lying to him that she was okay with his going home for a bit. With Tom struggling to get his bags inventoried and Nasrene focusing all her energy on remaining calm at his quick turnaround for departure, both parties were suddenly fumbling around for the right thing to say and do. She was making sure he had his passport and asking for his flight numbers, and he was checking and double-checking that she was going to be okay.

Neither of them meant for it to happen.

But just like that, right before he stepped out to the waiting car, they both reached for one another for a goodbye kiss. As though this happened every day, anytime either of them left the house.

Tom accidentally dropped one of his bags as soon as their lips met, and Nasrene’s arms traitorously wound around his shoulders in milliseconds.

They both broke apart as if scalded – but Tom’s arms had found their way around Nasrene’s waist and weren’t budging. Hers stayed where they were, too.

A momentary burst of laughter escaped them both at the strangeness of the situation, but it died a quick death as Nasrene watched Tom staring transfixed at her swollen mouth.

He moved in, nuzzling his nose against Nasrene’s, silently asking for permission this time.

He kissed her until the cab driver began honking the horn. By the time he was safely stowed in the cab, pulling away from the beach house, he was sure of it.

If you thought you loved her before, the taste of her solidifies it.

 

 

She’d resolved to get at least one of the gowns done that day, if for no other reason than to fully occupy her mind in between the calls and texts she was getting from him. Each one was a reminder of how much further and further away from her he was, and she didn’t like it.

But at least I’ll be seeing him in a few days, she told herself, trying to be positive.

The luxurious red lace netting had arrived from her supplier first, so that was the first gown Nasrene began piecing together for the black tie event at the prep school. She knew she wasn’t of the right frame of mind for more delicate handiwork at the moment, such as the dress with the sapphire bodice or the one with the lining of emerald sequins.

There was so much to do: measuring, cutting, pinning, sewing, trimming, hemming, more piecing, delicate stitching…the work would take her all day, and she was glad for it.

To try and prove to Tom that she was fine with his return to London, she sent him intermittent photos of her work every few hours. He kept track of her progress with interest, being classic Tom. He asked her questions at each stage of the process and more than once expressed the idea that she’d be a wonderful costumer for film and television.

Instinctively, she knew that if she balked at this – and did it where he could read, see, or hear it – he wouldn’t like it. So she kept her thoughts about her talent (or her seeming lack thereof) to herself.

Nasrene paused work on the black tie affair with a little bit of lunch, managing to eat some chilled shrimp with mango salsa while Srikanth Facetimed her after his school day was over.

“Everyone good there?” Nasrene asked her little brother, who was working on some ridiculous new idea for a comic book that he and his school friends dreamed of writing. “All good, yeah,” Srikanth replied. “You look tired, khāhar joon. How are you doing?”

Nasrene had to smile at her brother’s term of endearment, even though he was only half-paying attention to the conversation in favor of his comic book dream.

“You know, Srikanth-jan,” Nasrene teased a little, “Pixar already beat you to it with Sanjay’s Super Team.”

Srikanth snorted in irritation, pointing a finger at Nasrene while she munched on her shrimp. “You just like to rile me up, sister. You want to talk to Mama or Baba?”

She was afraid if she saw her parents, she might cry, so Nasrene just shook her head and smiled at her brother. She knew he was aching to end the call so he could fly through his homework and get to work on his comic, anyway.

“Keep me posted on your new ideas, will you?” she asked him.

“I will, Nas. I love you.”

She told Srikanth the same and then signed off, finishing the last of the shrimp at the same time.

Not wanting to return to the black, white, and red gown in her study, Nasrene decided to finish the last of the lace detailing on her wedding dress.

Even though there’s no point anymore, she kept telling herself.

But it was so beautiful, and she’d made it exactly as she wanted it to be. It was the dress she’d dreamed of as a little girl, albeit with slight alterations through the years to account for her growing tastes. She was never one to want to show a lot of skin, especially in front of her family on such an intimate occasion, so the dress actually covered Nasrene everywhere. But the lace was so fine, and the material so sheer, that she looked as though she was showing off her feminine back, her arms and shoulders, her sleek collarbones, her ample cleavage – all dusted in pearls and finery. It wasn’t a bouffant dress, either. She went for a theatrical, draped look that accentuated all the parts of her she thought Andrew loved.

No one in the Tarkington family seemed to love anything about her, upon reflection.

Jeanette had seen the gown when it was half finished a few months ago and exclaimed that Nasrene simply wasn’t white enough to carry it off. She’d actually used those exact words. Used that slicing, old money tone to tell Nasrene her skin tone was too dark and contrasting with the fabric she’d chosen.

“You’re better off in a champagne or rose color, dear,” her almost-mother-in-law had sniped at her, trying to pass off the cuts as sage, motherly advice. “White just won’t do.”

“I wanted to wear a red saree, Mrs. Tarkington, but you nixed that idea, also,” she’d told her in barely concealed hurt.

Andrew’s mother had said nothing else, her cruel barb already lodged firmly in Nasrene’s heart.

Perhaps finishing the dress would also be like sticking it to Andrew’s mother, then.

This novel idea, which had never before occurred to Nasrene, spurred her onward to finish the last of the lace edging at the hem, train, neckline, and sleeves of the gown. When she completed the last stitch and secured the final tiny scalloped edge, Nas gazed out her windows to see the sun beginning to set and the ocean lulling itself into an evening shade.

Evenings were the worst for her. Nighttime was the romantic part of the day, when the lights were dim and lovers conversed over glasses of wine. Plans were made for evening dates. Lovemaking began as a hint during these hours. Darkness for the loved and in love held a certain seduction.

All Nasrene could think about now was dancing in the moonlight with Tom, pressed against him as he calmed her and forced her hand – he crumbled her resolve to hide things from him. He took her to bed as a friend during his visit, but…they’d kissed today. And the way he’d held her the last two nights, protecting her from the world, felt an awful lot like the love she’d wanted to feel from Andrew.

She looked down at her empty ring finger. Curiously, she didn’t feel much. She did wonder where in the Atlantic her run-of-the-mill engagement ring was, though.

She looked around her empty studio, and then got up to move through the house and turn some lights on. The emptiness of the house made her chest ache. Nasrene could still smell him here. Moving to her bedroom, she stared at the rumpled place in her bed where Tom had slept for two nights. Two nights where she didn’t soak her sheets with tears. Two nights where she’d been held, and looked after. She’d felt wanted. Before she knew what she was doing, Nasrene was shedding her clothes and grabbing her silken sleep set from its pile on her bed. She wanted to wear something that still had Tom’s scent on it – it was what she’d worn when they’d last been in this room together and he’d swept the material of the chemise upward so he could place a loving hand across Nas’ abdomen as they slept.

As she dressed, she suddenly felt a sharp pain in her abdomen. Mother Nature chose to laugh at Nasrene’s hurt at that moment – her emotional hurt – by reminding Nasrene of her physical condition.

She could always tell a few days beforehand that her period was imminent. The unique pressure in her backside, her vagina, her uterus. The cramping that had become more severe the older she got. Sometimes she felt as though the illness was taunting her, trying to leak painfully, insidiously from various orifices of her body.

Surgery was no longer optional. Nasrene had scoffed initially at the idea because she thought she could withstand a life of pain if only for the chance of having a child with Andrew – however slim that chance was. Now there seemed to be no reason to wait. Andrew was gone, and Nasrene had resigned herself to the idea that she would be childless.

Additionally, the hormone pills Dr. Alekhan wanted Nasrene to begin taking were making more and more sense. She’d been right – the pills wouldn’t stop Nas’ condition from worsening, but they would make her periods more bearable, less severe. Nasrene decided she would wait on the pills until after her honeymoon – no, her vacation – was over. Past experience had proven to her that going on hormones made her even more of an anxious, emotional wreck than she already was. There was no sense bringing that along to the Seychelles with her.

If she hadn’t already frightened Tom away, that would surely do it.

 

 

She didn’t have the stomach for any dinner, but she’d felt perfectly fine to pour herself a glass of merlot. Thinking that she could dull her discomfort with some rich, ruby-red alcohol, Nasrene sipped from the large wine glass and curled her long silk robe around her legs, watching the lapping waves of the tide from her back porch.

It was unfortunate, but for the last twenty-four hours, Nasrene found herself thinking about Andrew’s ring anytime she looked at the ocean. What had she said about it?

Throw enough money at something and the lavishness will outweigh the lack of sentiment behind it.

Could she say the same thing about her endearing friend? The man who now routinely made cool millions for each film in which he starred? The one who convinced her, with impressive ease, to go on a vacation that was far more lavish than what she’d originally wanted?

Throw enough money at something and the lavishness will outweigh the lack of sentiment behind it.

Except for the fact that there was a great deal of sentiment behind Tom’s generosity with Nasrene. He hadn’t upgraded her reservation to try and impress her. He’d done it as he said – so that she could have the space she needed. He’d thought of practically everything: her workspace, her comfort, and the fact that there would be medical attention present if she even thought she needed it. Tom had planned for practically everything.

Her breath hitched in her throat at the notion of him, so far away from her now. Presumably back home in Hampstead. Working out his schedule. Maybe he was having second thoughts about their arrangement? Perhaps their kiss this morning – accidental though it was – was actually a veiled attempt at a goodbye and Nasrene just hadn’t picked up on it.

She took a large sip of the merlot as a telltale sting hit her eyes, the tears coming back. Andrew had taken much more than her heart when he’d left – he took a great deal of her self confidence, too. Here she was, knowing in her heart that Tom would have never suggested the Seychelles if he hadn’t meant it sincerely, but second-guessing herself. He was a busy man. Plans changed all the time.

Yes, the kissing definitely sealed her fate: Tom was telling her goodbye, that he couldn’t deal with her problems…

Nasrene’s phone lit up on the little wicker table beside her.

Tom was requesting Facetime with her.

When the connection stabilized, her breath caught in her throat at how handsome he managed to look, despite – she did some quick math – it being well past 1:00 am his time.

“Tom, you must be exhausted,” she breathed, trying to keep the creeping hysteria out of her voice. Instead, she concentrated on the bit of scruff she could see on his cheekbones and chin. He’d put on his glasses and was looking sleepy, grinning at the beautiful sight of his Nasrene before him.

He felt like he’d been separated from her for a month, instead of a few hours.

“Wanted to let you know I’m home safe and sound, Nasrene-my-dream,” he responded, his voice low and gravelly.

She said nothing, just taking in the handsome sight of him – even jet-lagged and rumpled, he was still, always, the most gorgeous creature she’d ever seen.

“I miss you, sweet.”

The sincerity in Tom’s tone caused the dam within Nas to burst as she realized he was painfully honest – and that there was no way he had any intentions of canceling their vacation or keeping himself away from her intentionally. She could actually hear it in his voice.

“I’m so sorry, Tom, I just…” she cried, turning her face away from her mobile to wipe at her soaked lashes. She took some deep breaths and tried her best to give her friend a sincere smile. But it was hard. She had physical evidence now, right in front of her, that he was far away.

“Nasrene.”

The tone of his voice stifled her crying immediately, and she looked into Tom’s beautiful, tired eyes to see concern staring back at her. She bit her lip and sniffled a few times. Tom continued.

“I need for you to explain why you’re so upset, darling. You cried a lot this morning, and now that I can see your incredibly stunning face again – finally, after several taxing hours – you’re covered in tears once more. Have I done something?”

He looked worried, and hurt. She started to reply, but hesitated. The truth had cost her so much in the last month. Doing the right thing had lost her a fiancé, a life. She had no desire to alienate the sweet man talking to her, who in the space of a few days had begun to restore her life with a vengeance.

But in the end, it all came tumbling out. She supposed it was a good thing that she trusted Tom enough to be straight with him and just…confess.

“I miss you too,” she whispered, blushing a little. “I don’t like that you’re gone, Tom…” she faltered before continuing, “and just when I was starting to feel a bit better and you were getting me to sleep at night, and then the kiss this morning…”

“Did you like that, beautiful?” He was looking at Nasrene with such love in his eyes.

She nodded, but he coerced her into a verbalization.

“What was that, my little dream?” he winked at her, causing her to giggle a bit.

“Yes, Tom. But it made things worse. I just don’t like that we’re separated so soon after you came back into my life,” Nasrene admitted. “And I’m sitting here all day in my house wondering if you’re going to cancel the trip or pull back from me because of everything I’ve told you. You know everything now.”

A few tears began to slip down her cheeks again, the weight of her confession lifting.

“Oh, Nas,” Tom answered, wishing more than anything in that moment that he could gather her to him and console her troubled mind. “I didn’t want to leave, darling, but you seemed okay with it.”

His voice dropped. “Did you lie to me, Nasrene?”

Her eyes widened a bit at his question, and Tom could see the answer all over her face.

“Why didn’t you just tell me to stay, darling? You know I could have,” he soothed, but the stern look on his face didn’t waver.

Nasrene took a moment to sip her wine and look out at the darkening Atlantic before turning her attention back to the man who was forcing her to break through the wall she’d tried to build.

“Tom,” she sighed, “I’m already a jilted woman who’s ill and looks pathetic to nearly everyone around her. I didn’t want you to see me in that same light, pining after my best friend who I hadn’t seen in months and then falling to pieces when he needed to resume living his life. I don’t want you to know that I feel as though I am barely functioning.”

“Stop that,” he growled.

She did.

“It’s half past one, darling. I can be repacked and back at Heathrow after I’ve slept a bit, and then I can have myself on the next flight back to Charlotte and Charleston International.”

Nasrene sobbed a quiet sigh of relief at the notion that he would get back to her as fast as he could if she needed. And she needed.

“Would you like me to stay there with you until we go, Nasrene? Would that be okay?” Tom asked, a slight sound of entreaty creeping into his mellifluous voice. “Be honest with me.”

“Yes, please.”

The weight lifted off her chest immediately. Tom could see the physical change that came over her, and he gave her a heart-skipping smile.

“Would you like to come get me tomorrow?”

“Very much, Tom.”

“Good. Now listen to me, Nas. Take me back into the house with you, and make sure you lock those French doors behind you.”

Nasrene did as she was told, closing down the house as the moon rose ever higher in the night sky.

“I know it’s not very late there, my little dream, but we need to get you calmed down and relaxed, okay? Get the house shut down and let’s get you into bed, darling.”

She didn’t care that he was an entire ocean away anymore. He was coming back to her tomorrow – for him, where he was, that was today – and he hadn’t told her she was crazy or needy or far too emotional for his taste. Tom hadn’t said she was troublesome. He immediately changed his plans because she needed him to.

It was going to be okay.

Holding her phone at eye level so Tom could still talk to her and keep an eye on her, Nasrene made her way into her bedroom, turning on the dim little lamp at her bedside so she could see enough to get situated.

“Comfortable, Nasrene?” he asked, and she could see the appreciation on his face when she removed her robe and revealed the same black silk sleep set she’d worn the night before when Tom had pressed her to him as they’d slept. Seeing the generous expanse of smooth, dark skin bared to him – Nasrene’s long arms, petite shoulders, graceful neck and stunning legs were bare where the little camisole and shorts didn’t cover her – Tom whistled a low, appreciative sound.

“I truly am an idiot for leaving. Look at you.”

Nasrene laughed a bit at Tom’s expression, shyly brushing long waves of dark hair from her eyes and still holding her mobile in hand.

“If I haven’t ever said this to you before, Nasrene, I’m very sorry. But you are most definitely the most beautiful woman I know.”

The smile she gave him was the happiest one he’d seen since his arrival at her home two days previously.

“Lie down on my side of your bed, little dream.”

She did, curling into the divot of the mattress where Tom’s tall, muscular form had rested. On impulse, she inhaled deeply and was rewarded with a rush of Tom’s scent to her brain. It warmed her all over. “It still smells like you,” she murmured, closing her eyes and nestling herself under the duvet.

“Now put your hand on your tummy, just like I’ve done.”

The deep velvet sound of his voice snaked up the length of Nasrene’s spine, and she shivered in quiet delight. He sounded so commanding, so in control of her, and yet she could hear the love in his tone whenever he spoke to her.

“Now I want you to sleep, my sweet little dream. Pretend I’m there and I’ve got you pressed against me, my arms around you…”

She held up the phone with one arm and gave Tom a lazy smile. He could see, even in the dimness of the room, that her pupils were well dilated. Her question came out lazily, as though she was already halfway to dreamland.

“So I’ll see you in a few hours? You promise?” she whispered.

“I’m on my way, Nas. I promise you.”

She felt immeasurably better than she had all day, thanking him for coming back to her aid so soon, and apologizing for any inconvenience she caused him. He wouldn’t hear of it, insisting that she just focus on sleeping so she could come collect him at Charleston International several hours later. She nodded dreamily, giving him that unbelievable smile she seemed to reserve only for the people in her life she loved most, and ended the call with a quiet little thank you.

Tom only replied in his head, and only after the call disconnected. He wasn’t going to mess this up with Nasrene, whatever it was. Whatever it had hope of becoming.

I love you so, my precious girl.