Return to Sender

Prologue

“Ariana, what if I told you I loved you,” Jonah whispered in my ear, bringing me out of my sleepy haze.

 

I held impossibly still in his arms, hoping he thought I was still asleep. I told him from the beginning not to fall in love with me, and I promised I would never fall in love with him. I supposed we were both liars now.

 

“I know you’re awake.” He kissed my head.

 

I held back my tears and nestled into his chest, knowing this would be the last time. His chest hairs, peeking out from his button-up, tickled my nose. I would miss this. I would miss him more.

 

“Ariana?”

 

“Jonah, go back to sleep, you have to be back at the hospital in two hours.”

 

He frequently crashed at my place to catch a few z’s during his grueling year of clinical rotations at Pine Falls General in his last year of med school. My apartment was closer, and he was . . . well, he was infectious like a disease, but one you never wanted to be cured of. We were supposed to have remained friends only. That morphed into kissing friends. Then he started showing up at my door late at night or even in the middle of the night saying he needed to see my face or asking if he could just hold me. He’d slept on my couch so much the past several months I should have started charging him rent. I should have never let him in, but there was no saying no to his jade-green eyes and those dimples. Don’t get me going on his boyish charm.

 

“I love you.” He nuzzled my ear.

 

I tried to wiggle out of his arms. “Don’t say that. Please,” I begged.

 

He wrapped his arms around me tighter. “I’m not Kaden or your father, and you aren’t your mother.” The edge in his tone said he couldn’t believe I hadn’t subscribed to his way of thinking by now. Believe me, he had been difficult to resist, but resist I must.

 

I gripped his shirt and twisted it in my hands. My tears dripped on the soft fabric.

 

He stroked my long strawberry blonde hair. “I know you miss her.”

 

I wasn’t crying because I missed my mom. I was crying because I already missed him. My relationship with my mother was complicated. She’d put me through so much. I wanted to believe she had done her best, though her best was far below average. But she did end up being right about men: they were nothing but heartache waiting to happen. Maybe Jonah wasn’t my father, who I’d never known except for the mysterious letter I received once a year that always went unopened and returned to sender. But for all I knew, Jonah could be a Kaden—seemingly wonderful and true to his word, until I’d found out it was all a lie. Thank goodness my engagement ring had needed to be sized. Had it not, I might have never figured out Kaden was engaged to another woman at the same time he was engaged to me.

With more force this time, I wrestled out of Jonah’s arms and sat up on the couch, running my hands through my hair, wishing more than anything that he would have kept to the rules we agreed upon when we became friends. More than that, I wished he could have his wish—me. “You don’t want me,” I said. “I don’t fit into your doctor world. I didn’t even go to college. You’d be better off with Dani or Kinsley.” They were my best friends, and technically my aunts, even though they were younger than me. I blamed Dani for bringing Jonah into my life in the first place. She’d met him along with her own unrequited love, Brock, at school in Boulder. Brock and Jonah were premed while Dani was studying sociology. She was out to save every foster kid she could. She felt she owed the world at least that after Grandma Kay and Grandpa Sam fostered and then adopted her and Kinsley. She credited them for saving their lives. I got pulled into their mix when Brock and Jonah started doing rotations at Pine Falls General last year.

Jonah sat up and leaned against the arm rest, scrubbing a hand over the dark stubble on his face that offset his sandy brown hair. “As much as I admire and respect Dani and Kinsley, they aren’t you. Don’t dishonor me or you by using your lack of a degree as an excuse. You know that I love what you do.” He ran his finger down my bare arm. “Ariana, I’ve accepted an internal medicine residency offer in Ann Arbor.” He paused. “I want you to come with me.”

I propelled myself off the couch, my heart about ready to beat out of my chest, and headed toward the kitchen to make coffee. It was too early in the morning for this kind of talk. I couldn’t stand the thought of him leaving, but I knew it was for the best. “I can’t move to Michigan with you.”

He stood and followed me the short distance to the kitchen. He folded his arms and sighed. “You mean you won’t.”

That was exactly what I meant, but I blamed it on my grandma. “If I leave, Grandma Kay would have to sell her glass art studio.” I currently ran the studio and taught most of the classes we offered there. I grabbed the coffee pot to fill it with water.

Jonah took it right out of my hands, set it on the cluttered counter, and gently turned me toward him. He tipped up my chin with his finger, making sure our eyes met.

I stared into his bloodshot eyes, wishing things could be different, but life had taught me they never were. We would eventually end, just like over half of the population. I couldn’t bear us hating each other, or worse, him proving my mother right. It was best to end it while all my memories of him were fond ones. Like I had always planned on doing for both our sakes. But I hadn’t planned on him. I got lost in him and waited too long to walk away.

He rested his hand on my cheek. “You’re making excuses.”

 

“I love my job and my life here.” That was true.

 

“I know that, and we would try and come back here eventually, but you can open a studio in Michigan or wherever we end up after my residency.”

I turned away from him and grabbed the pot. “Life isn’t that simple. And I don’t have that kind of money.”

 

“I do.” He leaned against the old Formica countertop.

He wasn’t helping his plight. It was only a reminder that he came from a “normal” family. His parents had been married forever and were both successful dentists in St. Louis. His mom certainly hadn’t blown up her wedding dresses like mine had, or toured the country with her daughter in tow seeing how many worthless men she could marry in the span of fifteen years. To top it off, his parents didn’t think too highly of me. They’d made that very clear when they visited last month, even though they believed Jonah and I were only friends. They thought it was a crime that I bucked social norms and skipped out on higher education.

I turned on the water. “I’m not taking your money.”

“What if it was ours?”

My head popped up. “What are you saying?” Wait. I didn’t want him to say it. I dropped the pot in the sink and rushed to place my finger on his soft lips. The ones I had reveled in feeling against my own many times. “Please don’t ask.” My voice cracked.

He removed my finger with a hefty exhale. He clasped my hand and let our hands fall together to our sides. “If I don’t, I’ll always regret it.”

“Even if you know the answer will be ‘no’?”

“It doesn’t have to be,” he pled. “We’re good together and you know it.”

A hundred memories of us played at high speed in my head. They were all wonderful, from taking late-night hikes to eating ice cream in our pajamas at the nearby café. I remembered the first time he’d called and asked me to ice cream, I told him I was in my pajamas and the bra had already come off. He’d said, “Perfect, I’ll meet you there in my pajamas, and I won’t wear my bra either.”

It hadn’t been only fun and games though. He was there for the difficult times too. He’d held my hand when my mom slipped into a coma, and never left my side until well after she took her last breath. He stayed even though my mom never hid how displeased she was about our friendship, and her final words in his presence were begging me to promise her two things. First, that I would never open the annual envelope I received from my father. And second, that I would never get married, especially to a doctor.

 

“We are good together now,” I countered, even though I couldn’t make eye contact with him. I didn’t want him to see the shadow of doubt that filled my own. He was making me question the cold hard truth I had on my side. I’d seen for myself and had firsthand experience how devastated a man could and would leave you, given the chance. The first man that should have loved me left me before I was even born.

“That’s your mom talking.”

With my free hand, I held onto the counter for support. “Every man in my life, I’ve had to return. I refuse to let you to be one of them.”

He pulled me to him and leaned his forehead against mine. His breath cascaded down my face like a warm waterfall. “What do you think you’re doing now?”

“Saving us.”

“No, Ariana.” He kissed my nose. “You’re throwing us away.”

“I told you not to fall in love with me,” I cried.

His tears mingled with mine. “By then it was too late.”

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