Run. Run, get the hell out of there. Shannon was right, freako.
He couldn't breathe, and it felt like his heart was going to explode through his chest, the way it was pounding so hard.
A mental image of his heart exploding through his chest like something out of Aliens flashed through his mind and he chuckled darkly.
Wouldn't Shannon just love that? he thought bitterly, running a shaking hand through his hair. She would get to play the poor, poor pitiful widow, while lapping up the whole damn scandal and horror show. Bitch.
A face appeared in his view. Brown eyes looked at him with concern from behind gold-framed glasses, amid purple bangs that actually looked attractive. He felt a hand slide into his, and grip his hand gently but firmly.
"Hey," she said, for it was a woman. "It's okay. It's going to be okay." And she smiled soothingly at him.
And he was hooked. Damn her, he was hooked.
"I can't... I can't..."
"You can't breathe. That's okay. How's your chest feeling?" she asked, placing fingers on his neck and pressing gently on his jugular vein; probably checking his heart rate, confirmed when she watched the analog watch on her other wrist. "Heart rate's a bit fast right now. Is there any pressure or pain in your arm?" He shook his head. "What about neck pain?" Again, he shook his head. "Okay, I'm not going to totally rule out a heart attack, but we need to get your breathing under control."
"Panic attack? Okay, we can deal with that, and we will deal with it together, okay?"
He nodded. She showed him her black wireless earbud and said, "Okay, I want you to put this in your ear, and just listen to it, okay?"
"Not rock and roll," he muttered.
She laughed. "No, not rock and roll. It's piano, maybe a violin or two. I want you to focus on imagining the hands dancing over the keyboard. Focus on that, and just that. I'll give you a hint; it's a guy from Greece."
He nodded, and plugged the ear bud into his ear, watching as she thumbed through her iPhone, then her music, before settling on some artist named Yanni. A thumb scroll and press, and a moment later, soft piano music began playing in his ear. Surprisingly enough, it was actually quite pleasant.
"Focus," she ordered gently. "Close your eyes and focus on his hands on the piano."
He nodded, and focused, imagining the male hands dancing across black and white keys. He felt her take his hands in hers and tuck them against her chest, where he could feel her heart thumping steadily. Strangely, it was comforting.
Just like the warm, musky perfume she was wearing. It didn't smell expensive, but it was nice. Soft and warm. Just like her hands and her voice...
Her other hand found the side of his face and gently rubbed his jaw with her thumb. "It's okay," she said gently. "Just breathe. Focus on the music, focus on his hands." Her fingers found his jugular vein again. "Good, your heart rate is coming down. You're doing really good."
As his breathing steadied, he opened his eyes, seeing her smile, and he found himself smiling back. "What was that?"
"The End of August, by a musician by the name of Yanni," she said, rubbing the back of his neck gently.
"It was nice."
She nodded. "He does a lot of stuff like that. Should hear him when he goes electronic."
She nodded again, and thumbed through her phone again. This time she settled one called Thirst For Life. A mix of what sounded like electronic and Middle Eastern music came through to his ear, and he had to admit he was intrigued.
"It's different," he said, taking out the earbud. "I'm sorry about this."
"Hush," she soothed. "Yes, panic attacks are embarrassing, they're frustrating, and they can be pretty depressing, but there's nothing to be ashamed of. They happen, but with the right knowledge and help, they can be controlled. Do you know what triggered this?"
"I... I'm not used to public areas like this... too much all at once," he stammered, feeling his face flush.
"Okay. That's okay. I'm guessing this isn't something you do very often, or by yourself?" He shook his head. "Okay, well, I'm betting you're feeling a bit thirsty?" He nodded; his mouth did feel dry. "There's a Starbucks over there. Let's get some water, sit for a few minutes, and then we'll go shopping together."
"I don't really need anything," he admitted, letting her guide him to the store's built-in Starbucks.
"You don't, I do, but we'll do it together. Sometimes the smallest steps are the most important steps, and if being in a public area like this triggers a panic attack, then we'll deal with it together."
"Why are you doing this?" he asked as he sat down at one of the tables, watching as she went and quietly talked to the barista.
"Because I'm a pain in the ass and I have a big mouth that's gotten me into trouble a few times, but I have a bigger heart and I don't like seeing anyone suffer needlessly, especially when it's not their fault?" she asked, coming back with a large cup of water the barista had kindly given her. He watched as she took off her black and pink backpack and sat down beside him, handing him the water. "Which is probably why I'm in my last few months of studying to be an LPN."
"You're a nursing student?" he asked, drinking the cold water.
"Yup. Still have a few more months to go, then I have my practicum and then I officially graduate," she said cheerfully.
"Wow. Lucky me, but I thought nurses were younger than you when they start out."
She laughed. "You wish. No, I got a bit of a late start in life on things. Got a job working as a housekeeper for one of the hospitals and that exposed me to the nursing side of things. Saved up a bit and took care of some minor upgrading and voila! Here I am."
"Is it what you want, though?"
"More than anything. I love helping people like that. Kindness, compassion, even just a smile and someone telling you that it's going to be okay, with all the technological advances, I think that sometimes that gets left behind and forgotten about."
He nodded, taking the time to study her a bit more closely, now that his heart wasn't threatening to burst through his chest. Her skin was a warm beige, and her purple hair was pulled back in a low ponytail, but left her bangs framing her face. Her nails were bare of nail polish and there was only one ring on her right hand; a black band with red stones that went all the way around. Her left hand was bare, suggesting she was single. He didn't know why that was suddenly so important to him; it wasn't like he was looking to hook up again, not after Shannon.
"Hey, what's with the scowl?" she asked, grinning at him. "Something I said?"
He smiled and shook his head. "Sorry, nothing you said. Just bad memories."
"Boy am I familiar with those. How's the water?"
He glanced at his cup. "Done."
"Good. Step one is done. Next is step two."
"Shopping. Let's go."
"Anyone ever tell you you're a demanding little thing?"
She grinned at him again. "I'm a future nurse; I have to be. As for little, buster, I may be shorter than you, but I can still bring you down to my height in two seconds flat."
"Yeah. It's called aiming low."
"So you fight dirty."
"No, that's not fighting dirty."
"What do you call it then?"
"Survival of the fittest. It's not my fault you guys have a vulnerable spot I just happen to know how to exploit!"
"You and every other female on the damn planet," he grumbled as she tucked his arm in hers, tugging him towards the interior of the store, swinging her backpack across her shoulders.
"Yup," she said cheerfully, causing him to laugh. "I'm Cindy, by the way, offering him her right hand.
"Jacob," he said, shaking her hand. "And since I don't need anything here, allow me to pay for your groceries as a way of expressing my gratitude," he said on impulse.
Cindy studied him for a moment then nodded. "This time, yes, because I'm a student on a budget. Next time, we split the check."
He grinned. "You seem awfully sure there's going to be a next time."
"Pinkie Pie optimism," she said cheerfully. "Party on!" she yelped, punching the air with a closed fist.
And he laughed.
Cindy didn't know what had gotten into her, but from the moment she saw Jacob struggling to breathe, his face pale and sweating, hands shaking, and eyes darting everywhere, she found herself wanting to help him. Something was wrong, and he needed help, but more importantly, he needed someone to be kind. Fortunately she had a habit of remembering what she read, and she'd read up on panic attacks not that long ago, mostly out of boredom. Music, focusing, breathing and heart rate, dehydration, those were all things she'd read about, but the most important one was patience and understanding.
Jacob was not a model handsome man, but there was something about his blue eyes and dark hair that made him appealing, at least to her, anyway. He had a Jason Isaacs thing going, and she had to admit she was a sucker for that guy. His skin was soft, like his hair, and he had an afternoon stubble, but the best part was he had a really nice smile, and as she just found out, an even nicer laugh.
She told herself she was just helping out a potential patient, helping him deal with a panic attack that could have been a heart attack, but there was something about him that made her want to make him smile.
So yes, she imitated that goofy pink pony, made smartass wisecracks, all just to see him smile, maybe even laugh. And he did.
It's been five years, her heart whispered. Five years of keeping our head down and us closed. Five years of avoiding anything serious or permanent. Five years... Charles can't find us, and Jacob may not be like Charles. And besides, we know the signs, right? Right?
Jacob never knew grocery shopping could be fun, but Cindy made it fun. She also taught him what it meant to shop on a budget, which she stuck to, even though he was paying.
Skinless chicken breasts with mayonnaise, ranch dressing, and seasoned breadcrumbs? Forty minutes in the oven and you not only had dinner, you also had lunch.
Pasta, salad dressing, cucumber, sweet peppers, and cheese? That's lunch and snack for two to three days.
Diced up breakfast sausages? Hey, that's not just for breakfast, and it goes with anything.
Tea? Cheaper than coffee, and you can microwave water at the school cafeteria. Plus, tea could be very good for you. If you need sugar, try the Bulk Barn; they carried restaurant sugar packs cheap, which meant less mess and less bulk.
Simple things, he realized, things Shannon would hate but are a normal part of Cindy's life. This girl works for a living, and she's not afraid to get her hands dirty. She's nothing like Shannon, nothing at all.
He almost didn't want Cindy to finish grocery shopping, but she did, and as per their agreement, he paid for her groceries, which turned out to be just under the hundred mark.
Then he followed her out to the parking lot, curious about what she drove.
"What do you drive?" he asked.
"A bike," she said, going around the corner.
Jacob stared at the thing she called her bike; he didn't know what else to do. It was a hybrid bike, with a covered cargo trailer attached to the back, complete with warning flags. There were bags on the front and back of the bike, a bottle holder, cellphone holder, mirrors, and flashlight on the handlebars, and flashers in the wheel spokes. It was a bike, all right, tricked out to the max.
"Why don't you own a car?" he asked, watching as she loaded her groceries into the trailer.
"Insurance, license, gas," she said, ticking off her fingers. "Not to mention a higher risk of getting killed by some drunk dingaling."
"You can still get hurt on the bike by some dingaling," he said.
"True, but if I do, ninety percent of the time, it's someone else's fault."
"Okay. What about all this hardware?"
"Four hundred for the bike, one fifty for the trailer, about two hundred or so for the gear, oh and a toonie for the air. No insurance, no license, no gas, no bullshit. Plus, I can go where I want, even through a park." She unlocked her bike and tossed the locks in the cargo trailer.
"What about the rain?"
"Rain gear and a motorcycle helmet," she said easily, tugging a pair of bike gloves on. "And I even have these nifty gloves that have turn signals in them," she said, demonstrating.
"That is neat," he admitted, watching as she took out a black bike helmet from within her backpack. She put on a pair of clip-on sunglasses on her glasses, then put on the helmet.
"Oh they are. Tell you what; open your phone to Contacts," she said on impulse.
"Okay?" he said, doing that. She waggled her fingers at him, and he gave her the device. As he watched, she inputed her name and a phone number.
"If you ever want to talk, or you need help, call or text me," she said, giving him his phone back. "I'll do what I can, even if it's just listening."
"Do you do this kind of thing all the time? Giving your number out like that?" he asked, watching as her phone went in the holder, and one of the earbuds went in her ear.
"Truth be told, no. I'm pretty picky about my privacy, but hey, I'm willing to take a chance," she said. She scratched her lip then muttered something. "What the hell. C'mere."
And he found himself being engulfed in a warm hug. There was nothing sexual about it, just comforting, and he found himself hugging her back.
All too soon she let him go, smiling gently. "You'll be okay. Remember, baby steps."
He nodded. "Thank you, for everything."
"Catch you on the fly," she said, getting on the bike.
He watched her leave, then headed for the black Camaro that was waiting for him in the parking lot, getting in the passenger side. The driver was his hired driver and personal assistant, an Italian man by the name of Garrick, who glanced at him.
"You good, boss?" he asked.
"We are now," Jacob said. "And I'm hoping we will be more so, in time."
"Hope is always a good thing to have," Garrick said. "Where to?"
"Home. I've got work to do, and I think I've had enough adventure for one day. You want coffee? I understand Tim Hortons is pretty good."
Garrick raised an eyebrow in surprise, but shrugged, and turned on the car, heading for the nearest Tim Hortons. "Yeah, Timmies is good. They got a nice dark roast that'll put hair on your chest."
Jacob nodded. "Two large ones," he said, digging out his wallet and pulling out a ten.
"Two large dark roasts coming up. You meet someone?"
Jacob grunted. "Oh, I met someone alright. When we get back, I've got a name and number for you to run."
"What I do the best, boss," Garrick said easily, glancing at Jacob as he worked on his phone, assigning a picture of a bright pink rose to a contact listed only as Cindy.
Two hours later, in the comfort of his home office, he got up enough nerve to send a text.
"It's Jacob. I forgot to tell you that you have a beautiful soul," he texted to Cindy, feeling like a high school kid texting his crush. Except she wasn't supposed to be a crush, but a friend. He wasn't looking for anything more, not with Shannon still in his life, the miserable bitch.
A moment later, he received a reply that had him raising an eyebrow.
"Thank you. It's a bit battered in some places, but we're good. My gut is saying you're a decent guy. Prove me right, and we'll have a grand ol' time. Prove me wrong, and you'll wish you'd never laid eyes on me."
"Cuts both ways."
"Indeed it does. I'm no player, and I take my relationships and friendships seriously, just like I do my studies."
"Good, but do you take time to play?"
"Coffee, dinner, maybe a movie or two?"
Instead of an answer, he got a picture of a cheerful pink pony blasting off a party cannon. That must've been Pinkie Pie, he realized, chuckling.
"I'll take that as a yes," he sent back.
Her response was an image from Casablanca, with the quote of "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
"Indeed it is," he texted, grinning. It took him a few minutes but he quickly found a picture of rainbow roses, which he sent. "Until next time."
Cindy grinned as she sent the text, then put her phone away. She was back at her apartment, which she shared with her roommate, Tasha. Technically she was studying, but truth be told, she was hiding from Tasha and her two girlfriends, who were also friends with benefits. Based on the amount of giggling going on, and what she saw in the living room when she went by the last time, plus the booze, she was sure there was going to be a kitty pile soon. As a general rule, Cindy had no problems with gays or lesbians, but lately Tasha had been trying to push her into trying the whole girl-on-girl thing, convinced guys were only good for making babies. The problem was, Cindy knew what she liked, and a prior experiment with sex, for which she had been an unwilling participant, had left a sour taste in her mouth for anything she wasn't genuinely interested in.
No, a kitty pile just wasn't her thing, more so when alcohol was involved. Jacob, on the other hand, he could be her thing.
But time would tell.