Authors: Brandi Kennedy
Michael's laughter faded with her voice, but the lighter mood stayed with him as he ordered his dinner, paid the cashier at the window, and drove home with the salty scent of french fries permeating the air in his truck. His melancholy mood was still there though, and it made a swift return to the forefront of his mind as he pulled into the driveway of his house.
The house itself was nothing fancy; it was the personal meaning of the house that screamed "failure!" to him. Michael was a planner; the house had been purchased as a part of his plan for the future, as an investment in a dream he had once believed was possible.
He had had it all planned out since he was a young boy, watching his father dote on his mother during her last troubled pregnancy. He would be a perfect husband, just like his father – a strong man, a gentle leader, a reliable provider. His wife would be perfect, too – beautiful, supportive, wise. Together, they would raise a large, happy family in a beautifully restored version of the battered old farmhouse that had been falling apart on the edge of town for as long as Michael could remember.
Now partially restored, the old farmhouse belonged to him, but Michael felt no rush of joy in its possession anymore. He had no wife to greet him at the end of a long day, no children to run up and down the wide halls, and the old house was just an empty reminder of what could have been.
He wished he was a more casual man, one who could more easily let go of the serious intent behind the taking of his marriage vows. He wished he could just shake it off – but he felt that marriage should be forever. He felt that somewhere out in the world, he still had a wife. His mind had long since accepted the fact of his divorce from Nicolette, but his heart? No. And he was terrified that his heart would always call her what she had once promised through trembling lips to be forever – his wife.
The way he saw it, that made him more than just a failure as a
. If he truly couldn't let it go ... if he really spent his life stuck in the past, mourning a marriage that no longer existed ... then he was, perhaps, a failure as a
Sighing, Michael reached for the paper bag still resting, unopened, on the seat beside him. He stared up at his house as he unfolded the top of the bag, glowing white in the moonlight that bathed the front yard and lit the inside of the truck. He had done this once before – as an excited newlywed, listening quietly as his young wife had chattered on about how much fun their children would someday have, running through that big yard.
He pulled his burger from the bag and folded back the wrapper, closing his eyes against his memory of her words.
"We'll have all the kids close together," she had said, smiling over at him. "Like you and your siblings. I hope we have at least one boy first too, you know? To have a big brother in the family? And he'll watch out for his little sisters when they go to school, and scare their boyfriends when they start to date."
"No," Michael had retorted, trying to sound grouchy. "There will be a firm no-boyfriends rule in place. No boyfriends. Hm-mm."
Nicolette had laughed at him then, leaning over to rest her head on his shoulder. "You know that will never work, right?"
"I know," he had sighed. They had sat for a while in silence, both lost in their own imaginings. Finally, Michael had shaken his head, swallowing the last bite of his meal. "Let's just agree to have all boys," he had said, lifting his arm and draping it over her shoulders.
She had turned to him, smiling, and pressed a gentle kiss to the side of his throat. "Want to go in and start now?"
"Damn." Dropping the rest of the unfinished burger back into the bag beside him, Michael shifted the truck into reverse and backed out of the driveway. There was no way he was going into that house alone. Tonight, he was going to need someone to help him fend off the ghosts of what might have been.
He was going to need to find a companion.
Fifteen minutes later, he was parked in front of his favorite local bar, his keys clicking softly in his pocket as he slammed the door of the truck and walked toward the bar. It was exactly what you'd expect a hookup bar to be – huge, crowded, and vibrating with the volume of the music playing inside. He paid his cover charge, elbowed his way through the dance floor to the bar, and dropped onto a stool in front of a gorgeous but very busy bartender. Her name was Sherry; she was single, uninhibited, and usually more than willing to spend her night hours in his bed.
"Hiya, Mikey," she murmured, using her own shortened version of his name. She leaned both elbows on the bar and propped her chin in her hands. "What can I do ya for?" she asked with a wink and a smile, straight white teeth gleaming between glossy lips.
"Start me off with two shots," Michael said quietly, answering her smile with one of his own.
Sherry raised her eyebrows, watching him, and then tipped her head in acknowledgment. He ordered beer when he was there to drink; he ordered pornographic shots when he was there for company. "I get off in an hour. Which ones this time?"
He laughed, sitting back a little to think as she moved away to serve beers to two other customers. "I think I'll start with nipples," Michael said, winking at her when she came back. "Give me one slippery and one buttery."
"Well, won't the buttery one be slippery, too?"
"If I have my way, they won't remember which is which by the time I'm finished."
"Mmhmm. And after that?" Her cheeks had gone pink, but she was smiling as she lowered her face.
Michael waited until she looked up again, pushing the pair of shots across the bar. Lifting one glass without looking away from her eyes, he tipped the liquor into his mouth and swallowed. "I don't know. Maybe a roll in the hay."
"How 'bout I get you a red-headed slut?" Sherry asked, shaking her head.
A lock of red hair fell over her shoulder as if to mock her, and Michael laughed again. "As long as she lets me buy her a leg spreader," he said.
Sighing, Sherry shook her head again as she reached for a pair of tumblers and began to mix their drinks. "Only for you, Mikey," she said. "And only because I'm getting off in fifty minutes."
"What, in the parking lot? Damn, at least let me drive you home first!" He held his hands up, palms out as if in surrender.
Sherry threw her head back and laughed. "You're a disaster."
"I know. But at least I'm the fun kind."
Just over fifty minutes later, Michael and Sherry were hand in hand as they walked toward Sherry's car. "Come on," she laughed, dropping his hand and wrapping her arm snugly around his waist to keep him from falling over. "Let's get ya home, Mikey. I think that last set o' shots might'a been a mistake. Where'd you hear of those, anyway?"
Michael laughed, his head swimming and his stomach churning. "A deep throat and a tight snatch," he said, slurring slightly as Sherry propped him against the side of her car. "What makes you think either of those things is new to me?" His eyes widened in surprise as she turned to him and slipped a seeking hand into the front pocket of his jeans. Reaching out, he caught her hand, his fingers loosely circling her wrist. "Don't take my keys, Sher, I need them to get in the house."
"What if we're going to
"Nah." He shook his head, releasing her wrist to mold his hands around the swell of her round hips. She wasn't a very large woman, but she was soft and plump in all the right places; she felt good in his hands, and because neither of them wanted anything more than basic, easy sex, he felt safe enough in hers. "My bed's bigger. Let's go to my house."
"Alright," Sherry said, watching him away slightly in the evening breeze, off balance even though he was still leaning heavily against her car. "But I still need the keys to get the door open. I can't get you in the house without them, silly."
"Where's your key? I gave you a key,” he slurred.
Sherry rolled her eyes. “It’s on my dresser. That’s not helping me tonight though, is it?”
He smirked, letting go of her and holding his arms out. "Fine," he said. "Take 'em. But you could at least tell the truth. You just want to get in my pants."
Sherry laughed, stepping close again and resuming her search for his keys. Finally fishing them from his pocket, she tipped her head up and pressed a kiss to the tip of his chin. "Well, I do always have fun with you, Mikey. You got a way of scratchin' the itch without makin' me feel cheap for wantin' it scratched."
Surprised again, Michael raised his eyebrows. "Cheap! Cheap? You –" He broke off, laughing, and flapped his arms wildly. "Well, if it sounds like a bird and flies like a bird ... I guess I'm a bird."
"You can't fly," Sherry answered, giggling. "Come on, just get in here."
"That's what she said."
"Oh my God."
"She said that, too," Michael laughed, bending at the waist to prop his hands helplessly on his knees. Tears streamed down his face as he shook his head, struggling for control.
Sherry opened the car door and stood back, waiting for Michael to move. She waited silently, unwilling to encourage him further but unable to hold back a grin. Finally, still laughing quietly, Michael shook his head. He pushed away from the car, took two toddling steps toward the door, and crumpled to the ground at Sherry's feet.
The morning sun was slicing its way through his eyelids. Michael rolled over, his arm falling over the edge of the bed. The quilt slithered over his naked legs and crumpled to the floor beside the bed. "Sherry?" He rolled back, carefully keeping his eyes closed as he stretched one hand toward the pillow on the other side of the bed. She wasn't there. "Sherry!" The house was quiet around him; was he alone? Had she gone?
"Sher?" Sitting up, he covered his face with both hands, waiting until he could open his eyes before slowly spreading his fingers. The curtains were closed over the window, but the light coming in through the fabric made his eyes throb in time with his head, which seemed to be slowly collapsing in on itself while simultaneously swelling to twice its normal size. Once he could move his hands away from his eyes, he slid his palms toward his temples to cradle his head. He twisted carefully, still holding his head in his hands, to glance at the empty side of the bed. It was still unmade, the edge of a folded sheet of paper pinned to the pillowcase with a safety pin. Hadn't she stayed last night? Why couldn't he remember what had happened?
"Where the hell did she find a safety pin?" Keeping one hand pressed against his temple to be sure his head wouldn't slip completely off his shoulders, Michael stretched the other hand toward the pillow and ripped the paper from the pin. He waited to open it, though, until he had allowed himself to drop back against the softness of the pillows.
she had written, her letters bold and curvy.
"You didn't even make it out of the parking lot last night. Luckily for both of us, the security guys were still there, so I had them load you into my car and follow me to your house in your truck. Maybe you should lay off the drinking for a while – it was a bitch, stripping you by myself. Call me. S."
"All that trouble to get drunk and I didn't even get laid." Groaning, Michael crumpled the note and tossed it to the floor. "Christ, I can't even have a one-nighter anymore!" He threw one forearm over his face, shut his eyes against the sunlight, and went back to sleep.
When he woke again, the sun had gentled behind a cover of clouds. It was afternoon, it was raining, and it sounded like someone was trying to beat his front door in. "I'm coming, I'm coming," he croaked, his voice scratchy against a dry throat. Coughing, Michael flung himself out of bed, yanked a pair of boxer shorts on, and stumbled toward the balcony. He turned the handles on the French doors, one in each hand, and pushed them open simultaneously; the noise distracted his visitor from their knocking below, and by the time Michael made his way to the balcony railing, he was able to look down into the faces of his brothers. "What the hell, you guys?" Bracing his forearms against the edge of the railing, he arched his eyebrows and watched Drew and Evan squint up at him.
"We tried to call," Evan shrugged. "You didn't answer. But –"
"Dad needs us," Drew broke in, exchanging a look with Evan. Michael’s stomach twisted as he realized the Drew was still wearing his police uniform. “It’s mom."
"What? Mom? Hang on, I'm coming down." Turning back, Michael closed the balcony doors and stumbled through the bedroom, bending to scoop a shirt from the floor. He sniffed it, dropped it with a grimace, and snatched another from the open closet beside his bedroom door. Snagging a hopefully clean pair of jeans from the top of the dresser drawer, he clamped the shirt between his teeth and jerked the jeans on as he hopped clumsily down the hallway. His stomach clenched as his mind replayed Drew's last words.
"Dad needs us. It's mom."
What could have happened? His mother was in good health as far as he knew, still remarkably stout for a woman of her age. Had she had a fall? A heart attack? Was she okay?
He was still pulling his shirt on when he stepped away from the staircase and moved to unlock the front door. His keys were there, hanging on the hook where he always left them, another small scrap of paper folded and propped atop the hook. Snatching the paper from where it rested, he stuffed it into his pocket, the corner of his mouth lifting slightly as he glimpsed the curvy handwriting inside. Another note from Sherry. Glancing around, he made sure there weren't any more notes laying out – then he took a deep breath and opened the door. "Okay, what's up with mom?"
"She was in a wreck this morning, dude," Evan said. He waited for Michael to step back from the door, and then walked into the house.
Drew followed, arching his eyebrows slightly at Michael as he passed. His badge caught the sunlight as he turned to walk through the doorway. "You okay?"
"I'm fine," Michael answered, realizing even as he said the words that they were far from true. His hangover had been forgotten; physically, he
feel fine. But the hangover had only given way as panic had set in. Eva was the cornerstone of the Kingsley family. She was the one who planned the family dinners they still had once a week, the one who raised Michael and his siblings while their father had been working. She had been the one who most supported his starting his own business in favor of chasing a career. And she was the one person in the world who knew how much his divorce still hurt. "Is she okay? She made it, right? I mean, she didn't – did she?" He couldn't even bring himself to ask the question. But if his father had sent his brothers to find him, this couldn't be good; and it was plain that Drew still hadn’t been home after patrolling all night. This was clearly more than just a fender bender.
Sighing, Drew shook his head, adjusting the various pouches of gear on his belt as he dropped onto the edge of Michael's couch. "Look, man, relax. She's really okay for the most part. She broke her leg somehow, and when the air bag came out of the steering wheel, it broke her wrist. She’s got a little cut on her cheek. The car’s pretty wrecked though, Michael; they had to cut her out of it. I think she’s pretty lucky, and lucky that it seems have just been her."
“Just her? There wasn’t anyone else involved?” Drew shook his head and Michael sank down on the coffee table, stunned. "How'd it happen?"
"We don't know yet," Drew answered. “All I know so far is that there weren’t any other cars involved. She hit the guardrail exiting an overpass. But she was coming off the highway, so she was going pretty fast.”
"She doesn't seem to remember how it happened," Evan put in. "But she was on the phone with me before she left ... she was at a dress fitting with Harmony and Cameron, and Cass and the twins. She told me she didn't feel well, I told her to be careful coming home, and then police on scene called me back since mine was the last number she called." He brought his hand up and slipped his fingers through his hair. Michael could see the fine shiver running through the youngest Kingsley all the way across the room, but Evan was tough; he held his composure and went on. "She'll be at the hospital at least overnight. Dad and the girls are there now."
Swallowing the lump that threatened to choke him, Michael bent forward and tugged his shoes from under the coffee table. A blink of white paper was visible for only a second in his left shoe, before he crammed his foot in on top of it. He didn't have time today for any more notes.