Sweet Rome


PAGE 01



Prologue
Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Present Day…
I sprinted down the hospital hallways, panting, my heart pounding in my chest.
Five missed calls. I had five f**king missed calls. Something was wrong with Mol, and God, I felt sick at the way I'd left things between us. Everyone talks about never leaving arguments on a bad note just in case one of you never comes back. Folks never listen, but now, the thought of never seeing my girl again had me almost turning myself inside out with regret.
My feet faltered as I ripped my way through corridor after corridor, pure dread stealing my goddamn breath. What if something bad happened? What if the surgery hadn't been a success after all? What if something had gone wrong after we fought? And I left her on her own, got pissed at her depression and left her on her f**king own, alone with only her dark thoughts for company.
Forfeiting the busy elevator, I climbed the stairs two at a time, all the way to the fourth floor, practically smashed through the entrance to the ward, and sprinted to Mol's room. I passed the nurses' station without stopping and heard my name being called, but I ignored it to get to my girl, to get to my Mol, to see with my own two eyes that she was okay.
The door to her room was closed, so I slammed down on the handle. The door swung open, the wood smashing against the wall. My blood froze in my veins as I stared at the empty room: fresh sheets on the bed, the floor reeking of Lysol, and her packed bag gone.
My hands began to tremble and my heart seemed to stop.
No! No, no, no, no… she couldn't be…
Stumbling backward on shaky feet, my back hit the doorframe and I could feel my legs giving out, my ass hitting the floor a second later with a dull thud.
"Romeo?" I could hear a voice beside me, trying to get my attention, but I couldn't focus; everything was hazy, stilted.
A hand pressed firmly on my arm, shaking me out of my stupor.
"Romeo?"
I couldn't move, couldn't speak.
"Mr. Prince!"
Looking up, I saw Marnie, Molly's nurse, standing above me, staring down at me with a worried expression.
"Where-" I cleared my clogged throat. "Where is she? What happened?"
Marnie's face blanched. "Oh, no, darlin'! You think…? No, no! Molly is fine. She's fine."
My heart lurched back to life at her words. "What?" I whispered, needing to hear her again.
"Molly is fine, but…" Her eyes softened and dimmed with sadness.
"But what?" I demanded, getting to my feet. Her jaw began to click with nerves. "Christ, Marnie! But what?" I snapped more forcefully.
"A couple'a hours ago, your momma paid Miss Shakespeare a visit."
My heart sank and an uncontrollable rage surged within me. "She did what?" I asked. Marnie stepped back in fear.
Shit.
I backed away, fists clenched. "What did that bitch do?"
"She… She attacked her, hit her… She was arrested, Romeo. Molly had to make a statement to the police."
"Fuck!" I swung around and punched the wall, the thin plaster cracking under the pressure, my breath and anger way out of control. "Where's Mol now, with the cops?"
Marnie briefly looked down at the floor before meeting my frantic gaze. "Darlin'…"
"What?" I questioned curtly. I didn't like her tone. It seemed like she was trying to be soothing or something, prepping me for a fall.
She stepped forward, hands outstretched, placating. "Darlin'… she…"
Groaning and losing patience, I took a long look around the empty room. As my gaze landed on the narrow bed, I couldn't help but remember Molly's broken face as I left tonight. It was like she was done: with me, with our entire f**ked-up situation… with life.
Wait.
As I cast one last unseeing look out the small window, it all became clear…
My gaze swung to Marnie's, and she visibly sagged where she stood. The gesture alone gave me my answer.
She'd left me. She'd run. She'd f**king run away.
"I'm so sorry, Romeo. She made sure no one saw her leave. Earlier, she told me she couldn't cope, and I guess she just broke down. We checked the security cameras. She walked right outta the front doors and got into a car." Her eyes regarded me sympathetically. "She had all her belongings with her."
My heart crumpled in my chest. Unable to speak, I backed down the corridor, pulling out my cell. The other nurses on duty watched me go with varied looks of pity. I pressed on Molly's name, but it went straight to voicemail, so I left a message:
"Molly! Where are you, baby? I'm so sorry for what I said and for leaving you like that. I've just heard from the nurse about my momma. My God, Mol, they said she attacked you… again! Please tell me where you are… You just left the hospital without telling anyone. Please, call me."
I ran toward my Dodge, mind buzzing as I tried to think of the people I should call and the places I should look.
I had to find my girl.
"Mol! MOLLY!" I yelled, bolting up the stairs of the house, ignoring the screams and yells from girls as I passed each floor. She had to be here. Where else would she damn well be?
I stormed into her room, and, instantly, a wave of despair hit me. She wasn't here. Everything was still as it had been: bed slightly crumpled from where we'd made love before the homecoming dinner, her class notes scattered all over her huge desk-and, God, that book she was reading like it was the friggin' Bible in the center, pages folded over, colored labels scribbled with her thoughts, line after line of highlighted paragraphs… and that small, treasured polaroid picture as the bookmark.





It cut me like nothing I'd ever felt before. I hadn't kept her safe like I'd promised. I'd failed her.
Fighting the urge to break down, I slumped down on her bed and stared at the silver moon through her white curtains, wondering out loud to the large, empty room, "Where the f**k have you gone, baby?"
Two pictures on her night table caught my eye. The only two pictures beside her bed-hell, in her entire room. One of the two of us kissing before one of my games, her dressed in my Tide jersey, her legs wrapped around my waist and her arms gripping my neck as she smiled in happiness against my lips. The second was of Mol as a kid, with her Grandma, back in England. I couldn't help but crack a small smile as I picked up the image of the tiny girl with too much hair, freckles, and the biggest f**king glasses I'd ever seen. But that smile soon turned into a whole world of pain. She'd gone. She'd f**king broken her promise and left me. No girl, not one person left who was mine. She'd been put through too much, and when the shit hit the fan, she'd cut and run.
As I stroked my thumb over that cute, smiling, five-year-old face, a tear trailed down my cheek and splattered onto the glass. I didn't know what to do without her; she'd become my whole friggin' life. I could barely think back to the days when she wasn't by my side, loving me and giving me what I needed. Christ, it'd been that way since the day she literally ran into my life, trampled on my shit, and stole my dead f**king heart.
The bedroom door cracked open and Ally, my cousin and one of Molly's best friends, crept into the dark room. "Hey, Rome," she said, her voice soft and guarded. I didn't look back at her-couldn't-and eventually she sat down beside me, not uttering a word.
I was still staring at the picture when Ally reached over and took it from my hands. "She's definitely one of a kind, isn't she?" she said with a sad smile.
I huffed out a strained breath and nodded, taking back the frame, feeling a lump clog up my throat.
Ally sighed and grasped my hand tightly. "She ran?"
My silence gave her the answer, and my head fell forward with dejection. "What the f**k am I gonna to do without her, Al?"
"She'll come back. I'm certain. She just had too much to deal with. Hell, I bet she never thought people like your parents even existed, never mind that she'd be on the receiving end of their shit. Most folk don't believe people are capable of such cruelty. It's just we know better, that's all."
"I can't do this without her. I can't f**kin' live without her by my side." I finally looked at Ally, whose brown eyes watched me helplessly. "I like who I am now with her, because of her. I hated the man I was before."
"She will come back," she reiterated, this time with stern conviction.
I wasn't so sure.
"I can't stop thinking about the day we met. It keeps playing on a loop in my mind."
Ally laughed and laid her head on my shoulder. "I remember it, too."
"There was always something about her, you know? Something I wanted, needed. Even back then. I knew she'd understand me if I just let her.
I could see something special in her, and she in me."
"Then hold on to that because Molls sure felt it too, still does. She's just clouded by grief. Think of everything you guys have been through. She won't leave you permanently after that. You're meant to be."
Lying back on the unmade bed and staring at the ceiling, I let the anger buried inside me rip loose, growling a loud "fuck!"
My hands tightened, cracking the photo frame's glass, but I ignored the slicing pain in my palm, too concerned with cleaning Molly's beautiful five-year-old face, now smeared with my blood.
"Christ, Shakespeare," I rasped, fixated by those caramel eyes. "Where the hell have you gone?"
"Rome?" Ally said quietly.
"What?"
"You're getting all angry again." She paused for a long moment. "I don't want you going back there. You've been so much better lately."
Sucking in a pained, stuttered breath, I said, "Because of her. I've been better because of her."
"Then tell me about it.
Tell me how y'all fell in love. I know a little bit, but not the whole story. Talk to me."
Slowly sitting back up, I looked my worried cousin in the eyes. "I'm not sure I can, Al. It's all so raw."
Ally rubbed a soothing hand down my back. "It'll be good for you. You need to remember why you changed, what brought you guys together. It's good to talk. I can't see you go back to Rome, pre-Molls. It was like you'd been numb your entire life, never letting anyone in, and meeting Molly woke you the heck up."
Feeling a burning in my chest, I glanced over to the balcony-our balcony-and my eyes blurred at the onslaught of memories racing through my mind.
"I… I guess it all began months ago. I recall it so clearly. It was just like any other normal, typical day…"
1
The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa
Several months ago…
I felt it the minute it left my hands. It was perfect: the spiral just right, the speed and angle faultless. I watched, holding my breath, as the ball sailed through the air, gliding smoothly down the field, then landed right into the outstretched hands of Gavin Sale, the wide receiver.