Jared kept his eyes on Mary’s. To discover her staring at him that way revved his heart into high gear. The saying about blood pounding in one’s ears finally made sense. His own blood pulsed through his veins with the force of a tsunami. Every nerve screamed at him to kiss Mary, but her engagement to David Kline, whoever he was, kept him in check. If he made the first move now, she might never forgive him. He couldn’t afford that, not if he wanted to be there when her world came crashing down. Which it would if he and Will were right about David.
Instead he deliberately broke the spell by snatching another cookie. “I haven’t had homemade cookies in a long time.”
Mary blinked and averted her gaze from his. She rubbed her arms as if cold, and Jared resisted the urge to wrap his arm around her shoulders. “I cook whenever I get nervous.”
“Do you get nervous often?” The words left his mouth before he could stop them, but Mary hadn’t seemed to notice his probing. Psychiatry was similar to riding a bike—one remained skilled even after months of disuse.
“Not as much as I used to, but still more than when I was a kid, when you knew me.” She picked up a couch pillow and hugged it to her body, a classic sign of duress and appeal for help.
Jared couldn’t ignore this cry. He wanted to help her like he hadn’t wanted to help anyone since Sasha. He eased back on the couch, wishing he could shift to the club chair to better gauge her body language and expressions. But such a move might shut down the fragile rapport they were establishing. “When did you start noticing the nervous feeling?”
Mary drew in a breath and let it out in a whoosh of air. “College.”
“I didn’t know you went to college. I thought you stayed here with your aunt.” Jared silently berated himself for the comment. Good thing she wasn’t one of his unstable patients or his rookie mistake might have thrown her over the edge. Perhaps the connection with Mary that extended beyond the professional had tripped him up.
“Just three semesters at the local community college.” She kicked off her sandals and tucked up her legs underneath her. “Aunt Geraldine didn’t like that. She didn’t even want me to go to high school. Her church had a Christian high school with a small enrollment, and that’s where I went.”
“Why didn’t she want you to go to high school?”
“The older she got, the more reclusive she became. She was already in her 60s when I moved in, and not much of a social butterfly then. Once I hit high school, she rarely left the house or let me go anywhere, except to school. No after-school activities for me.”
“You never found out why?”
“I think it had to do with her daughter, Emily. Geraldine never talked about her. The one time I asked about the photograph with the words, ‘To Mom, Love Emily’ on her bedside table, she berated me for entering into her room. I never went in there again and I never asked about Emily.”
“Sounds like it wasn’t easy living with your aunt.” Jared’s heart ached for his childhood friend, to go from one love-starved household to another. Even as a kid, he had sensed that her parents found her to be more of an inconvenience than a joy.
Mary tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “It wasn’t easy, which is why when I graduated from high school and turned eighteen, I decided to spread my wings a little. I signed up for some classes at Culpeper Community College.”
“You still lived at home?”
“Yes. She was opposed to my going at all, but once she realized I’d go anyway, she compromised and offered to pay for community college if I lived at home. That was the one concession I made for Aunt Geraldine and it helped to pay for my college.”
“How did it go?”
“Great at first.” Mary tightened her grip on the pillow and her lower jaw trembled a little.
Jared kept his expression bland, but his gut told him that something about her college experience was the key to her anxiety issues. He wished with all his heart that his instincts would be wrong this time, that Mary’s story wouldn’t be so achingly familiar. “You can trust me, Mary. I am a trained psychiatrist.”
She swallowed. “I’ve never told anyone this, Jared.”
“Not even David?” He mentally kicked himself for bringing up David’s name. If his colleagues could see him now, stumbling around as if he had never talked with a patient in his life, they would laugh him out of the profession. He was breaking all the rules of doctor-patient interaction, but something about Mary turned his entire life upside down.
Mary shook her head. “No. I wouldn’t know how to write it without sounding stupid.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t think you were stupid.” Her eyes, big and fearful, with hopefulness rimming those violet irises, nearly undid him. He wanted to be the one to hold her and make everything all right. But he managed to check himself and regain some measure of composure and professionalism. “I know it sounds cliché, but it does help to talk about things. What happened that made you drop out of college?”
“I’m not sure I can say it out loud.” Her body trembled.
He gently laid a hand on her shoulder. “Nothing you say will ever leave this room.”
She drew in a breath and her story tumbled out in degrees. A walk across a darkened campus. Footsteps behind her. A hand grabbing her and pushing her into the shrubbery behind the closed administration building.
“And then his hot breath fanned my face. I can still feel his terrible lips on my neck.”
Mary’s voice trailed off.
“Oh, Mary. I’m so sorry.” He slipped his hand into hers. He knew from experience that her narrative was not finished. When she stayed silent, he prompted her. “What happened next?”
She bit her lip, a sign that she was gathering courage for the rest of the story. “Someone came along the path before anything else happened. The man shoved me down and took off.”
“What did you do?”
“I ran to my car and raced home. Aunt Geraldine was waiting at the door. She yelled at me for being ten minutes late. When I told her what happened, she shook me by my shoulders, shouting that I was lucky not to have been violated. That I was never to go back to that campus again.” Mary shivered. “I was pretty terrified about the whole thing. Her reaction fueled my terror. So I stuck close to home and ended up finishing my degree later through online courses.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Mary.” Jared spoke the familiar words with conviction. “What that man tried to do wasn’t your fault.”
“Maybe, but after that, it was so hard to be around people. I jumped if someone bumped into my cart at the grocery store. All of Aunt Geraldine’s lectures on what could happen to a girl in the world haunted me.” She looked away. “She warned me never to talk about it—with anyone. A few months later, a man was arrested for attacking another girl.” She paused. “He, well, no one disturbed in his attack on her and she was, she was…”
“He raped her.”
Mary nodded. “What I can’t overcome the fact that if I had spoken up, I could have prevented that attack.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I thought her attacker was likely the man who attacked me, too. Her attacker turned out to be someone in my science class. The girl had been a classmate, too. Maybe I could have saved her from that awful thing.”
“Mary.” Jared spoke deliberately. “You are not responsible for another person’s actions. You are only responsible for your own. Perhaps you could have prevented the rape. Perhaps not. He grabbed you from behind. Did you even see his face?”
Mary shook her head. “When they named him as the campus rapist and put his picture in the paper, I only recognized him as somebody in my class.”
“You’re assuming they are one and the same. You could be wrong.”
Tears spilled over and ran down her cheeks.
“You have to forgive yourself. You were nineteen years old, living with an elderly woman who was clearly paranoid, and that altered your perception.”
“I can’t.” Mary sniffled and leaned her head back, her eyes on the ceiling. “I should have…”
“You’ve got to stop second-guessing yourself, Mary. You need to let it go so you can live life fully.”
“The way you do?”
Jared closed his eyes briefly. “No, not the way I do. I don’t have any right to tell you how to live your life when I’m doing such a poor job of living mine.”
“That’s not what I meant, Jared.” Mary’s hand gently squeezed his shoulder. “I’ve shared about me, why don’t you tell me about your leg now?”
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.