Tamara Castellan's life is a catastrophe. Newly married, she secretly loves another man and wants a divorce. Chapter three of my upcoming book, Soul Tie, introduces her only sibling—beloved older brother Michael—who is deathly ill. As much as she loves and respects her brother, she cannot burden him with the truth about her life. Instead, Tamara must reckon with her hasty choices and navigate her way out of the maelstrom she created, seemingly alone.
Chapter Three (unedited):
Blaine was in the shower when I awakened the following morning. I jumped out of bed and hurried downstairs for the phone, quickly punching the number. After three rings, the soothing, calming voice of the person I most cherished replied.
“Hello, this is Michael.”
“Hi, Michael, it’s Tamara,” I puffed. “Kateryna is at her aunt’s today. How about meeting for breakfast?”
There was a pause before he spoke again. “Why are you out of breath?”
I glanced anxiously up the stairwell before continuing. “No reason.”
“What about Blaine?”
“He plays golf on Saturday with his friends.”
“Well, all right. Where do you want to meet?”
“How about that little place downtown across from the park—The Reagent?”
“Okay. Meet you there in half an hour?”
I glanced up the stairwell again. “Sounds good.”
“See you shortly.”
Replacing the receiver, I rushed upstairs to change. The water was still running, and grabbing my things, I ran for the bathroom down the hall. Ten minutes later, I was backing out of the drive and glimpsed Blaine, staring down from our bedroom window, still dressed in his bathrobe.
But it was too late. I’d managed to escape without a sermon, but there would be one later about my leaving without his knowledge or approval when I returned.
Upon entering the crowded coffee shop, I glanced around quickly for Gil. The Reagent was located only a block from his home on Magnolia Street and a favorite neighborhood hangout. But he was not in the crowd today. Michael Harrison Laurier sat toward the back, staring out the window at the park. I weaved my way toward him.
For years, whenever he waited for me anywhere, I’d always find him immersed in a medical journal or a book. But lately, he’d taken to gazing out windows. The subtle change left me uneasy, but I hadn’t thought why until now. His interest in being a mover and shaker had declined alongside his health.
“Hi, Michael.” I slipped into the other side of the booth. Upon entering remission three years earlier, his extraordinary good looks had returned. Tall, dark, and handsome, with a powerful aura of assurance and poise, he presented as the consummate physician. Today, however, he appeared rather pale and tired.
“Hello, Sis.” He smiled, but the gravity in his eyes remained. It reminded me of a rainy afternoon while Michael was away at medical school when I’d placed a blank piece of paper over the lower half of his face in every photo in the family album. As a boy, the eyes had matched his smile in each picture. But as he grew older, the eyes appeared increasingly melancholic despite the ever-present smile.
“I’m starving,” I declared, scanning the menu. My meager, late-night dinner had long since worn off.
Michael made a face and laughed. “You’re always hungry.”
I chuckled, too, but truthfully, my hearty appetite had vanished since living under Blaine’s roof. But I still enjoyed dining with friends, my brother, and the occasional lunch with colleagues and Gil at the health center.
We ordered, and afterward, Michael propped his elbows on the table and put his head in his hands, speaking to me frankly. “How have you been, Tamara?”
I shrugged noncommittally. “Busy.”
“How is Blaine?”
“He’s fine.” I nodded to emphasize my lie. Since the onset of Michael’s illness years earlier, I’d grown accustomed to shielding him from my troubles.
The server appeared with our beverages. I stirred the rich cream into my coffee with a sigh, hoping the subject of Blaine would not arise again to ruin the ambiance. As of late, a fleeting moment of peace with my beloved older brother and a comforting cup of brew was the best life got.
“When are you going to begin your treatment?” I asked, plagued by a nagging concern for his health despite the pleasant moment together tucked away in the warm coffeehouse.
“I’ve started already. Dr. Lehmann sent me his protocol to begin before I fly out for my consultation next week. He utilizes a broad-spectrum approach clustered around the immunotherapy.”
I sipped my drink in silence. Part of me wanted to feel hope for the questionable alternative of my brother’s choosing. But I also feared that the “road less taken” might backfire, and we’d lose what little time we had left together.
“What sort of things?” I asked.
The server placed my spinach omelet in front of me before smiling prettily at Michael. Her noticeable attraction to my brother irked me. We looked nothing alike, and she couldn’t possibly know I was his sister. His conservative good looks contrasted markedly with my round, youthful face, and long sandy hair. People frequently assumed I was still in high school.
“Thank you,” he replied politely before returning his attention to me. “It’s complicated. For one thing, I’ll be working with a psychotherapist.”
I glanced up in surprise, my cheeks stuffed with hash browns. It felt liberating to enjoy my meal like a peasant again. “Really?”
“Yes.” Michael sipped his herb tea and smiled, amused by my rapaciousness. “It’s a comprehensive approach as opposed to focusing on simply eradicating symptoms as my initial treatment entailed.”
I wanted to tell him that he was perfect already. What more could be achieved by intensive introspection? Yet despite his faultlessness, fate had struck him a lethal blow.
“Are you going to continue working?” I asked instead. He’d once confided that his position at Wood’s Crossing Regional Hospital, where he oversaw and taught medical students and performed surgeries while maintaining a large patient clientele, barely left him time to go to the bathroom.
“I’m undecided about that.”
His reply startled me. During his last treatment, he’d refused to forsake his responsibilities, including any time he could spend with his former fiancé, Sasha.
“I may need to step back.”
It wasn’t easy to imagine my conscientious, over-achieving brother pulling back from anything.
“He tells me I’ll have to make changes.”
Again, I thought of the photos and the smile that did not match the eyes. “Slowing down a little wouldn’t be a bad idea,” I agreed.
“Probably not.” His stare drifted out the window again. The turbulent weather had returned, and the waving treetops seemed to cast a spell over him.
The sidewalks began to glisten with rain, and I grimaced with the sudden realization that Blaine would have to cancel his golf plans. If anyone’s life needed altering, it was mine, but I lacked the courage and could manage little more than surviving another day. The dreadful thought of Michael’s demise sank me even deeper as I sadly spread raspberry jam across my sourdough toast.
“Dr. Lehmann enquired about my personal life. He asked if there were any siblings I was particularly close with. Of course, I mentioned you.”
“Why’d he ask that?” Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance as it continued to rain.
“I’m not sure.” Michael sipped his tea with a reflective expression. “He also asked me if I’m tired.”
“What did you say?”
“I acknowledged that I’m spent.”
“Are you getting enough rest?”
“Of being a wunderkind.”
I wiped my face in agitation with my napkin. “What?”
He laughed, but his expression remained serious. “You know, kind children who become wonders.”
My kindhearted brother had excelled from an early age and graduated summa cum laude from medical school at only twenty-three years of age. He’d been a source of pride and bragging on my part for years. I’d never contemplated if his fast-tracked, praiseworthy life might harm his health. I lapsed into silence, my mood grim as I considered Dr. Lehmann’s interest in any siblings. At twenty-six, I was already weary.
“Speaking of pushing too hard, you’ve been busy, Tamara. How does Blaine feel about that?” Michael asked.
I shrugged. “Blaine thinks I should take a leave of absence from my graduate program.”
Michael stared, attempting to read my expression. “That might not be such a bad idea. What is Kateryna . . . only eight years old? You have plenty of time to complete your master’s.”
I wanted to explain to him that I needed to get the degree. Sooner or later, my marriage to Blaine would implode. But that admission would open a door to the truth, and I couldn’t risk that.
“I spend a lot of time with her,” I countered instead. Blaine was the one who neglected his children. Yet the solution inevitably lay in my constant physical presence in the dark-paneled Craftsman in stultifying Stardust Park.
“I know you do,” he agreed. “But Kateryna is not typical of a girl her age. She’s suffered a lot of upset, especially before the Castellans adopted her. If you took a year or two off, it might be beneficial. You certainly don’t have to worry about your financial situation any longer.”
Nothing was certain, and Michael had inadvertently opened another can of worms—Blaine’s assets. Everything remained in Blaine’s name after a year’s passage except for a joint checking account. His promise to amend the finances had yet to materialize. If I were to escape, it would most likely be with a suitcase of clothing—or in a casket. I frowned to realize how far my thinking had descended, now half-believing Betty had willed her own demise to escape her intimidating husband.
“Are you all right?” Michael asked, visibly concerned.
“Well, it was just a thought,” he added, noting my lack of enthusiasm. “I’ve always pushed myself hard but now realize I could have taken everything a little slower and still arrived at the same destination. You’re fortunate to have your family and the stability that comes with it.”
I shook my head. “You know how much I hate Stardust Park.” That much I could admit without setting off any alarms.
Michael was quiet as he sliced into his sausage patty. He resided in a small, older bungalow near the hospital. While engaged to Sasha, they toured several homes in Wood’s Crossing to purchase after their marriage, including one right around the corner from my current residence. After their engagement fell through during Michael’s illness, our mother revealed Michael’s strong objections to that location.
“It is a bit ostentatious,” he admitted with a hint of a smile.
“And I don’t feel like it’s my house,” I further explained. “I feel as though I’m living in Betty’s house.”
Michael nodded sympathetically. “Second marriages come equipped with unique challenges. Perhaps Blaine might be amendable to the idea of your redecorating.”
“You mean like ripping all the paneling out?”
Michael shook his head. “That might be a bit drastic.”
“You mean he’d blow a fuse,” I said. “I wish I lived in the historic district.” The original part of town held a magical connection to a different time, and the stately homes, surrounded by giant, picturesque old trees, imbued me with a nameless hope.
“Well, why not ask Blaine about it? He might like the idea. It would eliminate the commute, and he could well afford the cost."
“Uh-huh.” For a moment, I imagined confiding to my brother that I wanted to live with Gil in his old house inherited from his grandparents and leave Blaine behind forever in Stardust Park. If only life could be that simple—that I could shuck off my dreadful lapse in judgment and run after the happiness I desired.
“Ask him,” Michael encouraged.
“I wish I didn’t have to,” I replied. “I wish I could afford to buy a house there myself.”
Michael appeared puzzled. “Yourself?”
“I don’t like asking people for things.”
My brother was silent, attempting to read between the lines. “There’s a bit of an age difference between you two. Sometimes that results in the younger being too much in the child’s role,” he finally remarked.
I never felt like a child around Gil—quite the opposite. Had I always behaved like a child with Blaine, or had that role encroached sometime after the courtship? I frowned, trying to recall. In retrospect, the part of a foolish schoolgirl seemed to fit best in the months we’d dated. Thrilled to be seen on the arm of a distinguished federal judge respected by everyone in the county, I’d hypnotized myself into a disastrous marriage.
“Tamara?” Michael leaned across the table.
“What were we talking about?” I asked.
He picked up the ticket and reached for his wallet. “Never mind. Do you feel like a short walk through the park before we call it a day? It stopped raining.”
“All right.” I rose from my chair and followed him, feeling safe close by his side as we crossed the street to Sentry Park. Autumn leaves lay scattered across the wet green grass as we passed, and I wished I could hold onto the moment forever. The thought of him no longer in this world did not seem possible.
But as we walked, I detected a difference in my brother already. His stride could have been more resolute, and he gazed into the distance instead of looking ahead. The silences between us stretched out as we approached the bridge until we no longer spoke at all.
The creek raged below from the recent storms. Drops of water showered down in the wind from the trees above, landing like tears on our faces. He leaned over the railing and stared below.
“You’re not very happy, Tamara,” he said at last. “I sense it.”
I stood next to him, my hands buried in my jacket pockets. “I’m still getting used to things. It’s not easy."
He turned and faced me. “You’re not wearing your wedding ring.”
“I don’t like it,” I replied. “You know I never liked rings.”
He sighed and shook his head.
“All right, I’ll wear the ring.”
“It must bother Blaine.”
“I doubt he’s noticed.”
“I’ve noticed. You haven’t worn it in months.”
“That has nothing to do with anything except the fact that I don’t like rings. I never have.” I hated lying to him.
He reached out and brushed the droplets of water from my hair. “All right, I’ll take your word for it. You don’t like rings.”
As we returned to the entrance again, I felt an incontrovertible weariness overtake me. The news of Michael’s recurrence had further disrupted my already broken sleep. I often awoke at night, startled and anxious with some nameless dread. The slow dissolution of my impetuous marriage, the complex responsibilities of two disturbed children, and an arduous graduate curriculum threatened to sink me like a stone.
“See you soon?” He turned to me a final time, his striking visage inexplicably fragile.
“I’ll call you,” I promised.
Michael hesitated, looking away momentarily to gather his thoughts. “We should spend more time together, Tamara.”
“I’d like that.”
“I’ve been preoccupied,” he explained. “We’ve missed out on opportunities to connect during the past few years, and it’s my fault. I’ve allowed my obligations to consume my life. Please forgive me.”
“Michael,” I began anxiously, “Don’t worry about me.”
“I know something’s bothering you, but you’re unwilling to confide in me.”
My breath caught in my throat. Michael had sensed more than I’d realized, and it hurt to be shut out. “I’m still trying to get my bearings,” I explained. “I rushed into things without thinking about all the responsibility.”
Still reeling from losing her biological and adopted mothers, Kateryna presented a challenge, as did Justin’s bitter withdrawal from everyone in the family. But my biggest problem in the marriage by far had proved to be their disparaging father.
“I can’t talk about it right now,” I said. “I need a little time to sort things out. I’d just burden you with problems I don’t even understand myself.” My words sounded muddied and untrue.
“Tamara, please don’t spare me any grief because I’m ill. Nothing sounds the death knell in a relationship so much as a loss of trust. If you feel you can no longer confide in me, we’ll lose all intimacy between us.” Michael fished his car keys from his pocket and unlocked the door after casting me a doubtful look. “We’ll just become two perfunctory people exchanging pleasantries.”
“That will never happen.”
He shrugged and slipped into his car. “I may be at death’s door, but I’m still your brother. Never forget that, Tamara.”
“I’ll talk to you soon.” I waved gallantly, trying to appear more light-hearted than I felt.
He turned the key and leaned out the window a moment. “Promise?”
“I love you, Michael.”
He smiled, his eyes matching his expression. “I love you too.”