Authors: Olivia Jaymes
Tags: #Comtemporary, #Romance, #Fiction, #Short Read, #Military, #Kindle World, #Applewood, #Chicago, #FBI, #Career, #Nephew, #Nurse, #Deceased Sister, #Emotional, #Second Chance, #Emptiness, #Lifetime, #Family, #Care, #Years, #Adult, #Erotic
“IT WAS AWESOME, Mom. Kenny and I made picture frames for the haunted house.”
It was a week later at the worksite and Mika was looking forward to a hot bath and a glass of wine. Between being a mother, a teacher, and one of the festival coordinators she was officially exhausted. She’d been here every night of the week along with Cal and the awkwardness between the two of them had only grown, stretching her nerves to their breaking point.
Of course Alex and Kenny weren’t tired in the least. Both of them were practically walking on air—or strutting might be a better description. The male gene that liked to hammer at things had been well satisfied this evening and the boys along with Cal looked none the worse for wear. Mika had to admit that Charlotte had been right. Letting the boys spend some time with Cal wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
It only felt that way to her.
Charlotte reached down and gave Kenny a big hug. “Daddy’s waiting at home for us so we need to skedaddle. Now what do you say to Mr. Faulkner?”
Kenny turned and grinned. “Thank you! When can we do this again?”
“Kenny,” Charlotte admonished but Cal just smiled indulgently.
“Anytime. You and Alex were good helpers and there’s plenty of work to be done. Next time we’ll sand and stain what you’ve done so wear old clothes.”
Charlotte corralled her son and headed for the door. “It’s been a long week and I feel like I could sleep for days. I don’t know where you get your energy, Cal.”
“Good clean living.”
Mika rolled her eyes at his teasing words. She hadn’t spent time with him these last years but she highly doubted that was the case.
“Mom, can Alex spend the night?” Kenny asked. “Please? He hasn’t spent the night in a really long time.”
Four or five weeks wasn’t all that long but in a young child’s life it felt like a lifetime Mika supposed.
“Can I, Mom? Please?” Alex pleaded, knowing full well how she folded like a cheap tent when he looked so adorable.
Charlotte laughed and shrugged her shoulders. “It’s okay with me if it’s okay with you.”
“I suppose, but promise me you’ll be good.”
Both Alex and Kenny celebrated with a high five and then Charlotte herded them out of the door with a wave. “See you tomorrow!”
Charlotte’s exit left just Mika and Cal standing in the parlor area. Silently she began to pack up her things, not sure what to say after eating crow about Alex. To her surprise he hadn’t bragged about her capitulation, simply nodding and thanking her for thinking it over and giving him a chance.
A chance? Was that what this was?
“I hope you were able to get some work done tonight and that the boys weren’t too much trouble.”
She shoved a half empty water bottle into her oversized bag, hating that her voice sounded shaky. She didn’t want to be as affected by him as she clearly was. Just his nearness was enough to make her nervous.
“They were fine.” His voice was deep and soft and her stomach twisted in her abdomen as she remembered him saying much more personal things in her ear during intimate moments. “They’re really good kids. You’ve done a good job, Mika. You should be proud of yourself.”
Parenthood wasn’t awash with opportunities for praise and she didn’t fight the warm glow that took up residence near her heart. She tried so hard to be a good mother to Alex but she wasn’t always sure she succeeded.
“Thank you, Cal.” She slung her purse over her shoulder, her fingers tight around the soft leather. “I guess I’ll see you Monday night.”
She didn’t even get to the door before he stepped into her path. “Wait. I think it’s time for us to talk, don’t you? Really talk, Mika. Get everything out into the open at last.”
That was the last thing she wanted to do. His presence these last weeks had taken her out of her comfort zone and she hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since.
“I really need to get home–”
“Stop, Mika.” Cal placed his hand on her shoulder and his touch felt electrified. It had been too long. Much too long. “Please. We can’t go on like this. I have some things I want to say and I think you do too.”
Her chest felt tight and her stomach tumbled and churned. She hadn’t realized how much she’d repressed her emotions until Cal had come back and dug up the past.
“I can’t think why this is a good idea.”
Cal squeezed her shoulder, a half-smile on his lips. “Walking on eggshells around each other isn’t going to make this any easier. I’ll let you yell at me all you want—how does that sound?”
She was past that. At least she thought she was. But she wasn’t sure she could keep up a serene facade in front of others.
“If people see us together…”
“I get where you’re going with this, although I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks. How about I pick up some takeout and we go down to the lake and talk? Unless things have changed no one will bother us there.”
The lake had been their “special place” and it brought back too many memories that she’d rather not dwell on.
“No, how about we just eat here?” No one would question this as they already knew he had volunteered. “I can run down the block and pick up something.”
“I’ll do it. You just relax. You look like you’re dead on your feet. Do you ever sleep?”
Cal didn’t wait for her answer. He’d already pulled open the front door and stepped into the darkness before she could protest.
Now that he’d left she could make a run for it of course, but she knew him well enough to know he’d just follow her to her house. She could clam up and let him talk without saying a word. Not letting him know how much he’d hurt her. How often she still thought about him in those few moments of quiet she had after Alex went to sleep.
Or she could finally tell him that he’d broken her heart in a million pieces and she’d never been able to glue it back together again. He’d ruined her for any other man and she hated him for that.
Shutting the door behind him, Mika leaned against it and felt the sting of tears prick her eyes. She had no idea how to deal with this or what to say. She only knew that being this close to him wasn’t a good idea.
She couldn’t allow herself to fall in love with him again. She wouldn’t survive it this time.
* * *
CAL SWALLOWED THE last bite of cheeseburger and tossed his crumpled napkin into the styrofoam container. Currently ensconced on one of the old velvet couches in the parlor area, they’d eaten in mostly companionable silence broken only by a few innocuous questions here and there. Mostly reflections on past haunted houses and Halloweens or maybe the weather this time of year and how it compared to last year.
They were circling each other like a couple of boxers in the ring but no one wanted to throw the first punch.
Reaching across, Cal pilfered a fry from the still large stack and added insult to injury by dipping into her well of ketchup before popping it into his mouth. Her mouth fell open in shock and he couldn’t contain a bit of evil laughter to top off his stunt. If that didn’t get her talking nothing would.
“I can’t believe you stole one of my fries.” Her pretty face was screwed up into a frown. “Eat your own.”
“I did,” he laughed easily. “And they’re all gone. But I’m still hungry and you’ve barely touched yours. Are you not hungry?”
Mika’s cheeks flushed a lovely pink and he could tell he was the reason she was too nervous to eat.
Good. She wasn’t unaffected. That was something anyway.
“I ate quite a bit actually.” Mika pointed the half-eaten cheeseburger. “Maybe I’m saving room for dessert.”
Cal chuckled and reached into the brown bag, pulling out a gigantic slab of chocolate cake. It was her favorite.
“You mean this? I bought this for me.”
He couldn’t even keep a straight face while he said it but she scowled in mock anger just to tease him right back.
“There better be two forks in there, buster, or this could get messy.”
He reached into the bag again and then held them up in triumph. “Relax, missy. There are two. There’s enough fudge cake here for three or four people.”
She plucked the plastic fork from his hand. “Or two hungry ones. I love Julie’s chocolate cake. It’s the best in the county.”
She took a big bite, her eyes closed in ecstasy. There was no better time to piss her off than right now.
“So we need to talk about the past. We need to make our peace.”
Her lids snapped open and her mouth tightened. “I know you think we should do this but I think it might be a mistake. What point is there after all these years?”
“Because you’re still angry with me. I’ll take the blame, Mika. I can see why you would hate me and I understand why it’s difficult to have me around now. But please understand that back then I didn’t think I had any choice.”
The happiness that she’d radiated only moments before was gone and she tapped her fork against her thigh, obviously trying to find the right words to express how little she thought of him.
“It’s not all your fault,” she whispered, her head dipping down so she was staring at the cake. “For a long time I thought it was or maybe just hoped it, but Charlotte talked some sense into me last night. I know that we both screwed up. But it was easier after you left to just blame you and make you out to be the bad guy.”
“I did the same thing,” Cal offered, still not convinced she didn’t want to see him drawn and quartered. The last time he’d been in Applewood there had been so much fury and hurt in her eyes when she looked at him. “I kept telling myself that you were never sincere about moving to Chicago to be with me, that you never wanted me to succeed. It was easier than admitting that I was being selfish while you were being altruistic.”
Mika lifted her head, a snort on her lips. “I’m no saint, Cal, so don’t paint me into that corner. I stayed with Sarah while she was sick because she was my sister and I loved her. And when she died I took over caring for Alex. It wasn’t charity. It was what any decent family member would do for another.”
“Not everyone would have done what you did,” he said gently. “Trust me, I’ve seen the lowest of the low in my job. What you did was selfless. You put aside your own life and happiness to do this amazing job. Now that I see Alex I know that you did the right thing. It wouldn’t have been the same if you brought him to Chicago.”
She’d promised to follow him there when Sarah passed on but then Alex had only been a baby. Her parents hadn’t been in the best of health and caring for an infant was asking too much of them.
So she’d adopted him and decided that bringing him up in Applewood was the best thing. A place where she had a job and family and friends to give her all the support she needed with the challenge.
Her lips trembled and her face had gone pale. “Every day I thought about you. Every single damn day I wanted to come to Chicago. But it was never the right time. We were…I don’t know…comfortable, I guess. It was simpler here. Alex was happy. My parents were happy.”
Reaching out, he placed his hand over hers, the skin soft under his fingertips. How could he have forgotten how wonderful she felt?
“How about you? Were you happy?”
“I’m not unhappy, but honestly I stopped thinking about my own happiness a long time ago.” Her lips were turned down at the corners and she looked so sad Cal had to steel himself from pulling her into his arms. “I put Alex first and I know that it was the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean that it didn’t hurt. I thought about you…so many times. I don’t want you to think it was easy for me. That’s why I kept telling you I was coming to Chicago. I wanted to believe that I really could. That is the truth, but it only made you hate me. You thought I was stringing you along.”
Cal had thought it and hearing her now made him ashamed that he’d ever believed she’d do something like that. He should have known that she was torn by her loyalty and love for her family and her love and desire for a future with him.
“I was a complete asshole and I’m sorry. Really sorry. I put you in an impossible position and I didn’t see it at the time.”
“What about you, Cal? Were you happy?” Their fingers tangled together and the warmth from her skin penetrated straight to his bones. “For the longest time I didn’t want you to be but now I truly hope you have been. I want you to have a good life. While mine hasn’t been perfect it’s been good.”
Rubbing his jaw, Cal let out a bark of laughter. “That’s a good question. One I’m not sure I know how to answer. There have been happy times. There have also been times in my life that I wouldn’t want to repeat for anything in the world. Doing this job…being undercover for months or years…living a lie twenty-four seven does things to you. You can lose yourself so easily. Sometimes I wonder if I even know who I am anymore. All I know is that I was caught up in the political games and the competition. Bringing in the bad guys wasn’t the point any longer. Winning was everything.”
“I’m pretty sure I’ve lost.” Cal hadn’t heard from his superiors in weeks. “They’ll probably ask me to resign so they don’t have to fire me. It’s over for me there.”
“How can they do that? What happened?”