Renee was not someone who admitted mistakes easily. She hated being wrong, but more than that, she hated being in the wrong.
This was a clusterfuck, as her cousin Samantha might say.
It had all started out innocently enough, two days before. She’d just stepped off the plane, returning home from her year-long study abroad in England, still feeling groggy and weary from the long trans-Atlantic flight. She wanted nothing more than to see her family and go home to her own bed, catching up on some much-needed sleep and transitioning through her jet-lag as quickly and painlessly as possible.
It seemed reasonable enough, or she’d thought, and her homecoming would’ve gone perfectly according to plan – if only he hadn’t been there.
“Renee!” her mother called out, waving frantically as Renee made her way into the terminal from the gate. Renee smiled and waved back, throwing herself into her family’s arms and hugging her parents tightly. It had been so hard to say goodbye to them after Christmas break, even though she’d been looking forward to returning to her beloved England. They’d always been a close-knit clan, full of warmth and hugs and easily-shared affection. They were the best part of being home again, and being with them would help ease the pain that leaving England – and her cousin – had wrought.
“We’ve missed you, honey,” her father said, engulfing her in a bear hug. “Welcome home.”
“Welcome back, sis,” Stacy enthused, holding out a single, long-stemmed rose, its thorns shorn from its sides.
“Stace!” Renee cried, wrapping her arms around her sister. “It’s so great to see you!” She was a bit surprised that Stacy had also made the journey to the airport, considering how late her flight had come in, but quickly dismissed it, accepting the flower with a happy smile. Mom and Dad must’ve figured this was a special occasion, she thought, breathing in the rose’s heavenly fragrance. I’m glad they let her come along.
Besides, it was summer vacation, so it wasn’t like they had to get ready for school in the morning.
“It’s great to see you, Renee,” a new voice piped up, a warm, unfamiliar hand landing on her shoulder. “Welcome back.”
Renee’s expression fell as she looked up, taking in the rather unwelcome presence of her sister’s boyfriend. What are you doing here? she wondered, frowning slightly as Ryan pulled away, wrapping his arm around Stacy’s shoulders and giving her a little squeeze as he turned an affable smile to Renee.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Stacy spoke up shyly, taking her sister’s hand, “but I invited Ryan to come with us – to help welcome you back.”
“On behalf of the band,” Ryan added quickly, revealing a gaily-wrapped gift from behind his back, pressing it into her free hand. “We hope you’ll consider rejoining our ranks.”
Renee glanced from him, to Stacy, who was gazing up at him adoringly, to her parents, who were still sporting ear-to-ear grins of their own. Am I the only one who sees what’s wrong with this picture? she thought testily, digging her nails into the wrapping paper.
“Thanks,” she replied shortly, settling her mouth into a grim line.
Her father clapped his hands. “Why don’t we head for baggage claim?” he suggested. He gave Renee a shrewd look. “If I know my daughter, she came back with twice as many things as she took.”
Renee blushed. “Guilty as charged,” she confessed, holding up her free hand with a shrug. She pressed into the assembling crowd in the terminal, her eyes narrowing into a glare as she glanced back at her sister’s boyfriend. “I suppose it’s a good thing someone thought to bring along an extra pair of hands,” she mused, not caring when the cut of her tone bled through.
But if Ryan felt the vitriol she was directing his way, he didn’t show it. He smiled, Stacy beamed, and they all trudged along after her parents, a little convoy moving through the sea of humanity in the middle of JFK International Airport.
They hopped on the in-house transit system, riding the tram from the terminal into the main building, and Renee took a moment to consider why she was having such an adverse reaction to Ryan’s presence. She liked him well enough, she supposed; they’d been friends, in some form or fashion, for nearly five years, ever since he’d moved to the neighborhood and joined Kids Inc. He’d always been a little irritating, what with his tendency to spout off about any given subject like he was an expert, and they’d always had a somewhat competitive edge to their friendship, given that they were the same age, in the same grade, and going out for the same prizes and scholarships at school, but he was also a genuinely nice guy, smart and dorky with a sense of humor about him.
Still, she couldn’t help but glower as she stared daggers into his back now. It had nothing to do with his character, she acknowledged, her eyes following the curve of Stacy’s arm where it rested casually around his waist, and everything to do with the fact that he’d taken up with her sister over the last year, while she’d been away in England, blissfully unaware of such developments.
Logically, she knew that Stacy was her own person, and could – and would – make her own decisions, but Renee still felt peevish that she hadn’t had the chance to vet Ryan properly as potential boyfriend material. Stacy was her younger sister, after all, and it was practically in her job description to look out for her, especially where guys were concerned. Even the nicest boys sometimes made lousy boyfriends, even with their hearts in the right place.
But this? All of this had happened practically the moment she’d left, or so it felt to Renee. It was hard enough to keep tabs on their budding relationship when the primary form of communication was the telephone, but it was even harder to return after a year’s term abroad to see them practically joined at the hip. She didn’t like how close they were, or how rapidly it’d happened. Her sister was a dear, sweet, funny, loyal individual, but she wasn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. She could well imagine how easy it had been for Ryan to sweep her off her feet, and he wouldn’t have had to do much to keep Stacy’s head in the clouds.
Stacy was sweet, but she was also naïve – no matter how he treated her, she’d worship the ground he walked on, simply because he’d given her the time of day.
The family was mostly silent as they trudged to the baggage claim area, picking Renee’s things off the connecting carousel, and loading up one of the carts. Her father joked about needing a flatbed truck to get everything back to their apartment in Brooklyn, and it seemed – to Renee’s ears, at least – that no one had laughed louder at that than Ryan.
Her irritation was momentarily forgotten when her father hailed a limo to carry them all home, turning to her with a wide grin as he opened the door. “Nothing less than the best for my favorite girl,” he said with a wink, pressing a quick kiss to her cheek as he urged her in first. Ryan and the driver were busy piling her bags in the back as she, her mother, and her sister climbed in, oohing and aahing over the amenities inside.
“This is so amazing,” Stacy marveled, running her hand along the smooth surface of the island table that ran the length of the interior of the car. “Renee, you’ll really be arriving in style!”
Renee cast a tired, guilty glance at her mother. “This must’ve cost a fortune, Mom,” she mused.
Her mother squeezed her shoulders. “Your father had an inkling,” she admitted, nodding her head to the trunk, where the men were still packing, “and he didn’t want to bother with the train.” She brushed the hair away from her daughter’s brow. “Now don’t you worry about cost, my dear – no one can put a price on how wonderful it is to have you home.”
Renee smiled, furrowing into her mother’s side, momentarily feeling five again. There might have been many reasons for Renee to feel a little jealous of her sister, but when it came to their parents, there was no contest for their love and affection. Even with an uninvited guest in their party, Renee still felt like the center of attention, and like everyone was genuinely overjoyed to have her back.
The pleasant feelings lasted for most of the trip back to their neighborhood; Renee spent the entire ride propped up between her parents, her head on her mother’s shoulder. The driver was mercifully gentle in traffic, gliding in and out of smooth stops, and it was almost enough to lull her into some much needed sleep. The only thing stopping her, however, was the image Stacy and Ryan across the way. They sat quietly together – though Renee was surprised her parents didn’t object to the fact that Stacy was practically sitting in his lap – Stacy leaning into Ryan’s side, their hands clasped and resting between them. Stacy had closed her eyes, the corners of her mouth drawing up into a dreamy smile, but Ryan was awake, and well aware that Renee was staring at them. She caught his eye a time or two, challenging him, but he didn’t say or do anything, almost as if he was aware that she was sizing him up – and finding him lacking.
The car eased to a stop, and her father roused beside her. “We’re home,” he announced, glancing out the window.
“Good,” Renee murmured, reluctantly shifting her position as her parents began to pile out of the car. Stacy was quick on their heels, but Ryan lingered, his eyes settling on Renee’s in thoughtful study.
Renee lifted her chin. “I think we need to talk,” she said, allowing her gaze to drift out of the car behind her sister.
Ryan nodded, his lips quirking into a wry, grim smile. “I had a feeling this was coming,” he replied with a sigh. “Just name the time and place, and I’ll be there.”
Renee considered his offer for a moment. “Tomorrow afternoon, Café Luxa,” she directed crispy. “1 pm sharp?”
“I’ll be there,” he promised abruptly, sliding across the supple leather and exiting the vehicle.
Renee settled back with another tired sigh, watching as her family helped the driver unload her bags and carry them up the stoop. Ryan said his goodbyes soon after, wrapping his arms around Stacy and pressing a kiss to her lips. Renee didn’t miss the satisfied look he shot in her direction before he turned away, and she felt her annoyance and irritation flare up again.
Just what did her sister see in him? she wondered, pulling herself out of the car at last, watching him walk away.
She wasn’t sure she wanted to find out.
The following afternoon, Renee slumped into a seat at an outdoor table at Café Luxa, questioning her own judgment about calling a meeting the day after arriving back in the States. Even with twelve hours of sleep in her system, she still felt markedly less than her normal self, though somewhat better than she had the night before. A long and restful slumber had put her behavior from the previous evening into perspective, and Renee couldn’t help but feel a little embarrassed and disappointed in herself. She might not like her sister’s relationship, and she certainly didn’t approve of it, but that was no excuse to have been so rude.
She sighed, absently stirring her straw around her sweltering glass of iced tea as she flipped through a magazine, barely even glancing at the articles. Every five minutes, she checked her watch, her heart growing heavier in her chest as the seconds crawled by, the minute hand creeping ever closer to one. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, she considered, chewing nervously on her lip. Maybe I should’ve talked to Stacy first.
The first hints of a shadow fell across her table just then, and she glanced up, her eyes widening momentarily as she took in the scene. Ryan was walking towards her, looking every inch the cool, calm, and confident figure. He was dressed in his customary t-shirt, jeans, and Converse ensemble, with a few curious additions: his omnipresent leather jacket and a pair of aviator shades she’d never seen before. He smirked as he drew closer, and Renee swallowed hard. Ryan’s not an idiot, she reminded herself, pointedly ignoring the way her breath seemed to grow shallow in her chest as he approached. He knows exactly what this meeting is about.
He slid into the seat opposite her. “Hey, Renee,” he greeted her. “What’s up?”
“Ryan,” she acknowledged, lifting her chin and quirking a brow. “I think you’re aware of why I called this meeting.” She allowed her eyes to run down the length of him and back with what she hoped was a very disapproving appraisal.
He sat up straighter in his own chair, peeling his sunglasses away. He eyed her for a long moment, his emerald gaze assessing. “You want to talk about Stacy,” he guessed, leaning forward. “Or, more precisely, my relationship with Stacy.”
An uneasy sensation rippled down Renee’s spine as she stared at him. “Yes,” she confirmed. “I’m curious…what is it about you that attracted her?”
Ryan snorted. “Are you serious, Renee?” he asked, his tone amused. “I’m the same guy you’ve known for the last five years.”
“Is that so?” she murmured, taking a long moment to study him. He was a little taller, his features a little sharper, his sense of style a little less tragic. She wasn’t sure she liked the way his eyes seemed to dance with mischief, especially when they were discussing such an ostensibly important subject.
She decided to test him. “I seem to recall your many flirtations with girls in the past,” she continued. “There was Riley’s cousin Suzanne – oh, and that dancer from the Russian ballet…what was her name, Katrina? And let’s not forget Michelle,” she added, dropping the name of his previous girlfriend.
His eyes narrowed imperceptibly. “So?” he questioned. “Sounds like a pretty healthy social life to me. What’s your point?”
Renee flipped her magazine shut and rested her elbows on the table. “You’re pretty much the definition of a flirt, Ryan. Why should I believe you’d treat Stacy any better than you treated any of those girls?”
“Excuse me?” he replied incredulously. “What makes you think my past has anything to do with my present? And what business is it of yours, anyway?”
She leaned closer. “Stacy is my baby sister,” she reminded him.
Ryan had the audacity to roll his eyes at that. “In case you haven’t noticed? Your ‘baby sister’ is fifteen years old now,” he informed her. “She can make her own decisions about her own friends – and her own boyfriends.”
Renee could feel her blood heat at his implication: that her sister’s relationships were none of her business. That’s not the way it works, she felt like saying, though she stayed the words – and the fist that had curled into her side under the table.
“Oh?” she shot back, redirecting her ire into cold sarcasm. “Then which of my sister’s many charming qualities attracted you?”
Ryan shook his head, unable to hide his bemusement. “And that would be your business because…?”
“Because this is not a game to me, Ryan!” Renee cried, shooting up out of her seat and slamming her fist on the table. “My sister’s feelings are not something to be trifled with, and it’s my job to protect her from scum like you!”
Ryan’s eyes flashed as he stood as well. “I am not scum,” he retorted, his features promptly dropping any hint of joviality. “I don’t know where you’ve been getting your information, Renee, but I’ve never mistreated a girl, and I would never do anything to hurt Stacy!”
She didn’t know what came over her in that moment.
“Oh no?” she challenged, her hands shooting out, grabbing fistfuls of his shirt, dragging him closer and angrily pressing her mouth to his. Shock at the unexpectedly intimate touch coursed through her, all of the alarms in her brain going off at once, but like a live wire, her entire body seized up, running cold then hot then cold again.
Vaguely, she became aware that he was pushing away from her, so she let him go, almost afraid to open her eyes. “Oh, shit,” she breathed, the full force of her own stupidity hitting her all at once.
“Jesus, Renee, what have you done?!” Ryan exclaimed. She winced as she worked up the courage to look at him, only to notice that his eyes were wide as they stared into hers, a mixture of anger and panic filling the dark green depths.
She swallowed hard, but her throat was dry, as if it was lined with cotton. “I – I – ” I didn’t mean to, she was trying to say, but the words wouldn’t come, choking up around the sudden lump in her throat.
Ryan managed to recover first, picking up an errant napkin and angrily wiping his mouth. “Congratulations, Renee,” he said curtly, his tone somewhere between fury and tears. “I guess you finally have what you wanted.”
“What – what are you talking about?” she blurted out, suddenly fearful that he had misinterpreted the vengeful kiss. I’m certainly not in love with you, she added silently, though she felt anything less than certain of that under the surge of total panic that was fast taking hold of her system.
Ryan balled up the napkin and dropped it on the table, picking up his sunglasses in one angry motion. “You just destroyed my relationship with Stacy.”
With that, he turned and walked away, leaving Renee to contemplate her misguided actions – and the crowd of people who had just witnessed her hurting her sister in a way she never thought possible.
Renee lay awake in her bed that evening, replaying the horrible scene from Café Luxa over and over in her mind. Tears trickled from the corners of her eyes and her stomach tightened into knots as she stared up at her darkened ceiling. Oh, God, what have I done? she asked herself for the zillionth time, feeling the anger and guilt bubble up in her chest. She hadn’t been thinking clearly – she’d let her emotions run away with her – and in one ill-conceived move, she’d ruined the very thing she’d set out to protect.
Her sister would die if she knew about this. Renee could barely even look at her without wanting to burst into tears. She didn’t know how she would live with the guilt of kissing her sister’s boyfriend, but she didn’t see how she had any other choice. Best case scenario? Ryan’s final, cryptic words would come true, and their relationship would end soon – though she prayed to God he had the grace and foresight not to mention who he’d screwed up with.
Worst case scenario? Ryan and Stacy would date long enough to get married, and then she’d be stuck with this terrible secret for the rest of her life, the words ready to leap off the tip of her tongue each and every time she’d see them: Christmas, Thanksgiving, other holidays, the birth of their first adorable child –
Oh, get a grip, Renee commanded herself angrily. You’re getting way ahead of yourself here. People do dumb shit all the time when they’re teenagers, and it never ends up ruining lives.
Somehow, this didn’t comfort her.
She shook herself, rolling over on her side. Besides, Stacy’s fifteen. If she were seriously considering marrying this guy, I’d tell her to seek counseling immediately!
Renee frowned. “Like I have any room to talk now,” she whispered mournfully, curling into a ball as she contemplated her bedroom wall. Maybe that was the worst part of all – how could she, in good conscience, ever give her sister any sort of advice again? Not only had her idiotic move ruined whatever relationship Stacy shared with Ryan, but it had potentially done some serious damage to their sibling bond.
It was a fool’s bargain – did she confess, which could only hurt her sister, or did she keep her mistakes to herself, only to let the guilt slowly eat away at her?
Renee sighed. No matter what I do, someone’s going to get hurt, she reminded herself, dread filling the very core of her being. And the longer I keep this a secret, the more it’s going to hurt if it ever comes out.
But, all of the reasoning in the world didn’t help – she knew what she had to do.
“I have to tell her,” she whispered, so softly she could barely hear the words cross her lips. A fresh wave of tears burned behind her eyes, but she pushed through the nauseating trepidation that curled through her stomach. You have to tell her, she echoed silently, screwing up her nerve. Maybe she’d buy a plea of temporary insanity? As long as she realizes that you’re not after her boyfriend…
Renee drifted into a fitful sleep sometime later, not even realizing she had dozed off until she was abruptly awakened with a sharp knock on her door. She had only just turned over and opened her bleary eyes when a cheerful voice filled the room.
“Wake up, sleepyhead!” Stacy announced, smiling happily from her doorway. “Mom made your favorites this morning – blueberry pancakes.”
Renee forced her lips into some semblance of a smile, though she felt anything but hungry. “Great,” she mumbled, trying but failing to match her sister’s enthusiasm.
Stacy’s smile slipped slightly, and she tilted her head as she gazed at her sister. “Is everything okay, Renee?” she asked quietly.
Renee’s stomach lurched. “Yeah,” she managed to choke out. “I’m just – tired.”
Stacy nodded sympathetically. “I can imagine,” she murmured. “These last few days must’ve taken a lot out of you.”
You have no idea, Renee thought sourly.
Stacy shrugged. “Well, Mom said to come down when you’re ready, okay?” She smiled again, turning to close the door before thinking better of it and peeking into the room once more. “Renee? I just wanted to say – I’m really, really glad you’re back.”
Renee flopped back down to her mattress, absolutely sick to her stomach. Oh, Stacy, she thought mournfully, why do you have to be so nice to me when I’ve been such a shitty sister to you?
Renee dawdled in her room as long as she dared – she certainly didn’t need another ‘helpful’ visit from her sister to further fray her nerves – before slipping down the hall and joining her family for breakfast. Her father beamed at her from the other side of a tall stack of pancakes, while Stacy was lost in her own daydreams as she lazily swirled her pancake pieces in a pool of maple syrup. Her mother waved to her with the spatula from her spot next to the stove, where she was singing along with the local morning radio show and keeping a watchful eye on the next batch.
“Good morning, honey,” her father greeted her. “Sleep well?”
Renee shrugged. “I guess I’m still trying to get used to being on this side of the world again,” she replied wanly.
He frowned. “I knew it probably was a bad idea to go out yesterday afternoon. Who were you meeting, that it was so terribly important?”
Renee shot a pained glance at Stacy, who mercifully was still lost in her own world. Before she could open her mouth to explain – not that she wanted to discuss her disastrous meeting with her sister’s soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend with her father, of all people – the doorbell rang, surprising them all.
Stacy snapped back to reality. “I wonder who that could be?” she mused aloud, making move to stand up.
“I’ll get it!” Renee burst out, making a beeline for the hall. She glanced back, her cheeks flushing a dusty rose as she realized her family was staring at her in bafflement. “I mean – since I’m already up and everything…”
Stacy and her father exchanged a curious look, but returned to their pancakes without protest.
Renee moved through the front of the apartment on determined feet, already having an inkling of an idea of who could be calling so early in the morning – and who their doorman would’ve buzzed up without contacting them. So, when she opened the door and found Ryan standing there, she wasn’t surprised – even if she sounded like it.
“What are you doing here?” she hissed under her breath, shoving him back into the hallway and closing the door behind herself.
Ryan glared at her. “I came to see Stacy,” he replied crossly, pressing his hand against the door, ready to push past her.
Renee closed her grip around the doorknob and leaned back. “We should talk about this,” she advised in a low voice.
“What’s there to talk about?” Ryan questioned, folding his arms over his chest. “You got what you wanted, didn’t you?” His eyes fell away from her, his mouth drawing into a thin line.
Renee bit her lip. He looked terrible, pale and drawn, dressed in yesterday’s clothes, his eyes puffy like he’d been crying recently. Her heart wrenched in her chest. In all of her angsting about what to do with Stacy, not once had she given any real thought to what he must’ve been going through.
She felt like a jerk.
Her words had gotten her into trouble the day before, but maybe they could help now. “Ryan,” she started, “if you love my sister, you won’t tell her what happened. You won’t hurt her like that.”
“What?!” He leveled an incredulous stare at her. “It’s precisely because I love her that I have to tell her.” He shook his head, tightening the brace of his arms. “You don’t know anything about our relationship, Renee. We don’t keep secrets from each other.”
Renee looked down at her feet. “You’re right,” she admitted softly, shifting her weight uncomfortably against the door, “I don’t know anything about you two.”
Ryan threw up his hands. “Can you at least tell me something?” he inquired after a moment.
Renee nodded, but couldn’t bring herself to meet his gaze.
He took a breath, measuring his words. “I’ve been turning this over and over and over in my head, and I still don’t understand – why did you do this? I mean…if you’re jealous or something that Stacy has someone else to turn to now, besides you? Someone else to share things with, or enjoy things with? I can’t help that.”
Renee blinked rapidly. His resentment was no less than what she deserved, she realized, but that didn’t stop her from feeling about two inches tall nonetheless. “Please, Ryan,” she pleaded.
“Your guilt? Is not my problem,” he replied emphatically. “You have no say in my relationship with Stacy, and what you did wasn’t fair.”
“I know it wasn’t,” Renee said despondently, “and I’m sorry.” I don’t know how else to say it – I don’t know how else to apologize to you, she amended silently, dragging her eyes back to his face.
Ryan shook his head in disbelief. “Now you’re sorry? Do you even realize what you’ve done?”
“I never wanted to hurt you,” she began, only to feel the door slipping out of her grasp behind her. She turned with a surprised gasp, tears already welling in her eyes, and found she could barely meet her sister’s quizzical gaze.
“Renee?” Stacy asked hesitantly, her smile faltering slightly as her eyes drifted from her sister to her boyfriend. “Ryan? What’s going on?”
Renee crossed her arms over her chest as she glanced back at Ryan, fighting to keep her own panicky response intact. Only then did she see it – only then did she realize why her sister was so smitten with this boy. Ryan was staring at Stacy, looking mournful and conflicted, and Renee saw two things at once: how much he wanted to reach out for her, to engulf her in a warm embrace and whisper reassurances in her ear – and, at the same time, how much he didn’t want to hurt her.
She’d been wrong to make him into the bad guy, out to steal her sister’s heart, only to break it in the end. She’d been wrong to push Ryan into this position, to make him apologize for something he had no willing part of. Just the fact that he was there, ready and willing to sacrifice whatever he’d built with her in the name of honesty – it was clear to Renee just how much she’d let her sisterly instincts get the way of her own good judgment.
She hated being wrong.
She knew what she had to do.
She was the one who made this mess. She would be the one to fix her mistake.
She swallowed her tears, pushing past the hard lump that had formed in her throat. She took a step forward, laying a hand on her sister’s shoulder.
“Stacy,” she said evenly, “we need to talk.”