"Damn!" I punch my hand against the steering wheel as the car in front of me hits the breaks at the traffic light that barely switched to yellow. If he had accelerated I might have finally left this crossroad, that I'm stuck at for what feels like an eternity, behind me. My glance wanders to the clock in the dashboard and another curse dies on my lips as I realize the time. I will be so late to pick up Grace from Peter. I sigh as his name pops into my thoughts. I haven't seen him since Grace's birthday last week and that memory still hurts because I am not proud of my behavior and how little I could hold back on my feelings when I heard Jake and Elsbeth offer Peter a job. I was just too shocked over the possibility to see him every day, not knowing how I would handle that.
I'm still glad that a few seconds later two of the older kids started a pillow fight, smashing one of my vases and sending two pictures flying from the wall. That kind of ended the party and Peter left soon after the mess was cleared. Luckily on one hand this kept my mother from talking to him but also me from hearing what he told my bosses about their offer. I haven't dared yet to ask Elsbeth about it during the last days and she hasn't said a word, which makes me worried as well.
At least I think I talked my mother out of telling Peter about my feelings by convincing her he should hear it from me. I'm not sure she will let it rest indefinitely but hopefully for a while.
I haven't talked to Peter, we just kept our normal schedule with him picking Grace up from the day nanny on his usual days which always include Grace staying with him over night. And since it was my weekend with her I was spared seeing him then too. And I would've made it without seeing him till the next weekend if it hadn't been for Judge Huber to turn a simple pre-trial motion into this huge affair, making it impossible for me to pick up Grace from the nanny today. So I had no choice but to call Peter during a break and ask him to do it. He agreed without hesitation but insisted I had to be at his apartment to pick her up before 7pm, telling me something about an important dinner. I tried not to listen as I am pretty sure he has a date with the girl I saw him with last week, the picture of them kissing in front of his door seems to be burnt into my mind.
I sigh deeply as the traffic light switches to green and I finally accelerate to cross the street just to end up in the next traffic jam a few seconds later. I fall back in my seat, sighing deeply, giving in to the fact that I won't make it to Peter in time. I reach for my purse on the passenger seat, rummaging through it to find my cell. But even after I turned it around and let all the contents fall into the seat I can't locate it.
I call out a curse as I throw the bag to the floor in front of the passenger seat before I let myself fall back against the headrest with a big sigh, suddenly knowing where my cell is as I recall placing it on my desk along with some files before I left the office. I groan in annoyance at my own stupidity but know I can't change anything, so I try concentrating on driving to get out of this chaos.
Half an hour later and way too late I finally reach Peter's apartment and ring the bell. I'm prepared for him to shove Grace into my arms and run past me to make his date. Part of me had thought I'd see him standing on the street waiting for me, but to my surprise he hadn't. I hear soft steps, that don't sound like Peter's behind the door and I gasp lightly as the woman I saw with him last week opens the door.
"Hi, you must be Alicia. I'm Karen." she greets me with a smile, offering me her hand.
"Yes, I am." I reply as I take her hand hesitantly, not really knowing how to react.
"Is Peter still here?" I eventually say as she steps back, inviting me silently to come inside.
"No, he had to leave. So he asked me to watch Grace until you arrived. He tried to call your cell too." she informs me as I walk past her.
"I forgot it at the office." I croak, trying to swallow the anger that is rising inside of me over the fact that he left my daughter with his girlfriend.
My first impulse is to run through the apartment, grab Grace and get out of here but after a second I realize that's what my mother would do and take a deep breath to calm myself down.
"Where's Grace?" I ask instead, forcing a smile on my lips.
"She's playing with her cousins in the living room." Karen tells me and I turn to head in that direction when her words sink in and I stop mid-step.
"Her cousins?" I wonder aloud, looking at her over my shoulder, seeing her nod, a puzzled expression on her face. A thought creeps into my head, but I push it away. It can't be that easy and I couldn't be that wrong.
"Do you have any idea who I am?" she asks, walking up to me.
"No." I shake my head. "But I assume you are Peter's girlfriend." I answer, my voice getting lower with every word and I turn my glance away from her. I look up when I hear her starting to laugh, now it's my turn to look bewildered.
"I'm sorry." she snorts, still chuckling while I wonder what's going on.
"What is so funny?" I snap. "Who else would you be? I saw him kiss you downstairs last week."
"I'm his sister, Alicia." she finally says in a soft voice, closing the distance between us and putting her hand on my shoulder as I try to make sense of her words.
"You are his sister?" I ask, still skeptical, not believing all the pain and heartache I felt was for nothing, just my imagination running wild.
"Yes, I am. And I know what you mean with the kiss. Sunday before last, right? You saw us on the street saying goodbye." she says and I simply nod.
"It was just on the cheek, Alicia." she smiles as she steers me into the living room, making me sit down on the couch. Her words sink in and I replay the scene in my head, admitting that it could've looked like a real kiss from the angle of my view.
"Mommy, look what we made."
I look up as a kid's voice sounds from behind the couch and I turn around to see two young boys sitting on the floor building a castle with toy blocks. Grace is sitting behind them, playing with her fave teddy.
"It looks great, Steven." Karen praises her sons, flashing them a big smile.
"That's a really big castle." I smile at them too and Grace looks up as she hears my voice.
"Dadadada!" she babbles, looking at what the boys built before she bends forward, abandoning her teddy and crawls towards the castle. She sits down just inches away from it and stretches out her hand, pushing against the bricks so the building tumbles down.
"No!" the smaller of the boys cries out, rushing forward to save at least a bit though the bricks no longer form a building but lie scrambled around.
"I'm sorry." I get up from the couch and walk around to pick up Grace and take her in my arms.
"Stupid baby." he murmurs, his chin trembling and I see a tear glimmer in his eyes.
"Connor!" Karen exclaims, glaring at her son.
"But, Mom, now we need to start again." Steven whines, getting up from the floor, kicking a few bricks away with his foot.
"Is that so bad?" Karen walks over to her eldest, putting an arm around him. "I'm sure there was some things you wanted to make better, right?" she reaches out to Connor and runs her hand through his hair.
"Maybe." he pouts, snuggling up against his mother's side.
"See." Karen smiles, pulling both her sons into a hug.
"But now you clean the bricks away and get ready for bed. Go!" she straightens up and pats them both on their behinds.
"Already?" Steven moans, peering at his mother.
"Yes, you have school tomorrow." Karen answers and the seriousness in her voice kills all resistance I can see in her son's faces.
"Will uncle Peter read us a good night story later?" Connor asks, a hopeful smile on his face.
"No, he's not home tonight. You saw him leave earlier, right?" Karen tells the boy.
"Ohhhh!" he whines, hanging his head. "But we are at such an exciting part in the book."
"I'm sure he'll be home tomorrow night to continue the story. Now go." she smiles and Connor finally kneels down on the floor to pick up the toys.
"Can I get you something to drink?" Karen walks up to where I sit on the couch, watching the scene in front of me, that took my thoughts away from the news I learned just before.
"Thank you but I better go. Grace needs to go to bed too." I smile at her, stroking over Grace's back, peering down at her face that rests against my chest. Her eyes are nearly closed and she's sucking sleepily at her thumb.
"We can put her down in her room. I'd really like to talk to you." she offers and after a second I nod, getting up to take Grace to her room.
As I get back to the living room the boys have finished cleaning the floor and just disappeared into the bathroom.
"I hope you like tea." Karen walks into the room, carrying a tray with a tea pot and two mugs.
"Sure, thank you." I sit down on the couch again and watch her pour the hot liquid into the cups.
"So, how long have you been in town?" I ask after I've taken a sip from my tea.
"Since three weeks. My husband gets transferred here in a few weeks and I already came here with the boys to find us a house. And now we are crashing with my brother since last weekend." she explains.
"Where did you stay before?" I wonder.
"With my mother." she sighs and I can't help but grin.
"I guess you got to know her too, right?" she wonders, clutching her mug in her hands.
"Yes, I did." I sigh, recalling the times I met Jackie all too vividly.
"Well this is just a temporary solution here with Peter. The boys sleep on mattresses in Grace's room and I sleep on the couch, but I hope to sign a lease for a house in the next few days."
"That's good." I smile, putting my mug down on the table. "What did you want to talk to me about, Karen?" I ask, not wanting to do any more small talk.
"Well…" she stretches the word and leans forward, resting her arms on her knees.
"You and my brother? What is going on there? I might be wrong but I detected some jealousy in your voice when you still thought I was his girlfriend." she wonders, her eyes not leaving me.
I don't know what to answer, just shrug my shoulders lightly, only now realizing the relief I feel since I know she isn't Peter's girlfriend. A smile starts tugging at the corners of my mouth and even though I feel her gaze on me I let it spread, unable to hide it.
"So I am right." she states after she took a sip from her tea. "You were jealous, weren't you? And that's why you reacted so strange towards my brother." she adds, still watching me over the rim of her mug.
"He told you?" I gasp, shame rising inside me about my behavior.
"Yes, he told me. I don't know if Peter ever told you or if you could guess, but our parents weren't the warm and fuzzy types. Worry and insecurity didn't belong to their vocabulary, especially not while talking to non-family members. So Peter and I learned at an early age that we could only confide in one another. Luckily we preserved this closeness into adulthood." she explains and I nod, her words confirming what I had suspected.
"So you can expect that he told me everything about your relationship, including your weird behavior during the last days. But for this I seem to have the answer now, don't I?" she challenges me, a hint of a smile on her lips.
"I guess you have." I admit, not able to look at her, so I reach for my mug.
"Then why don't you tell him? It's what he's waiting for." she's leaned forward again, giving her words emphasis. I realize she's really figured me out, though we only just met.
"I didn't know the whole time. Don't ask me why I didn't. I only realized when I thought he had moved on as I saw you with him, thinking you were his girlfriend. My true feelings hit me when I thought I had lost him. How could I tell him I had a change of heart the moment he seemed happy again after all the pain I caused him?" I blurt out, looking up and holding her gaze this time.
"Okay, that I get, Alicia." she nods. "But you need to tell him now. You want to stay until he gets back from his business meeting? Grace is asleep anyhow." she offers but I shake my head, suddenly feeling my nerves as I picture telling Peter that I finally figured out what he means to me.
"No, thank you. I need to process this first. Just don't tell him anything, please." I ask her, pleading with my eyes.
"My lips are sealed." she smiles.
"Mooooom!" Steven's scream has us both nearly jump from our seats.
Karen hurries from the room towards the bathroom.
"Are you both not done yet?" I hear her reprimand her sons, but her next words drown in another scream from the nursery, telling me Grace woke up.
I get up and walk towards the noise, finding my daughter standing in her bed, holding on to the grid. Tears stream down her face and she still screams on the top of her lungs.
"Shhh, honey." I try to soothe her as I take her out of her bed. The crying dies down as I hold her close, but she's still whimpering. I start walking around the room, cradling her in my arms. I can hear Karen and her sons talking in the opposing bathroom. I can make out the words toothbrush and toilet and can't help but chuckle as I realize what Connor must've done to his older brother.
"Ok, Steven, no brushing for you tonight. I'll get you a new brush tomorrow. But now it's really time for bed." Karen calls out and I see Steven leave the bathroom.
I step outside in the hall and he passes me on his way to the mattresses in Grace's room.
"Good night." he tells me and I wish him the same, smiling.
His brother follows him, is head down, mumbling also a good night in my direction before he disappears into the room.
"Sleep tight." I tell him, smiling encouragingly.
"Really a week, Mom?" he turns and looks at Karen who just joined me in the hallway.
"Complain about it and I'll make it two. Good night now." she states, running her hand briefly through his hair before she bends down and kisses him on the head.
"Sweet dreams." she says, closing the door behind him.
"I should go. Thanks for the tea and…" I don't really know how to phrase what I learned tonight means to me.
"…for not being Peter's girlfriend?" she winks at me, lifting her hand to caress Grace's cheek.
"Yeah." I nod, smiling.
"Don't let him wait too long, Alicia. You've wasted too much time already." she states as she accompanies me to the door.
"I won't, but I need to find the right moment." I turn to her after I opened the door.
"You better." she smiles but her tone is serious and I know she's right.
"Cheers!" Stacy toasts us with the second round of drinks. I couldn't believe it when she had called the night before, telling me she had managed to get all of our old gang together. Megan and Anna are in town for their high school reunion but jumped at the chance to get away from the wine and cheese reception that night.
"So, who's watching your little ones tonight, Stacy? How many are you having now?" Megan asks after taking a long sip from her cocktail.
"Still the three you met the last time you were here. Which was too long ago. Didn't you promise to come back at least once a year?" she chuckles, raising a finger in mocking at Megan.
"I know, I know." Megan sighs. "But you know how it is, work, kids, my husband's business trips…It's not that I don't want to come, I just never find the time."
"And we can't all move back here, like you, Alicia." Anna chimes in, winking at me.
"About that, Alicia, I'm still a little fuzzy on the details here. So, you got divorced from, what was his name again? Will, right?" Megan addresses me and I just nod, not really in the mood to tell the story of the last two years of my life.
"Come on, I'm sure Stacy told you all about that." I laugh, poking my elbow teasingly into her side.
"So it's true that Grace is from that handsome guy you ditched us for back then before you moved away from Chicago?" Anna wonders and I roll my eyes at the fact that Stacy told them really everything.
"You doubted me?" Stacy exclaims, obviously outraged but I can see the smile twitch at the corners of her mouth and a second later she breaks out in laughter. We all join in as we empty our glasses and Stacy waves the waiter for another round.
"How do you get along? Is he watching Grace now?" Megan starts firing questions at me.
"Owen is watching her tonight. He's in town for a conference." I answer curtly, looking around for the waiter as I really need a new drink if the girls are going to start to grill me.
My gaze wanders through the room, not spotting the waiter until I look to the bar where he is just putting glasses on a tray. I hope our order is among them and turn my head back to Anna as the waiter clears my view to the few guests sitting at the bar. I gasp lightly as I see Peter among them. A strong feeling of deja vu hits me as I watch him swirl his drink in his glass. I close my eyes and suddenly the scene from over ten years ago is back, me catching him watch me. I still don't know what made me get up from our table and walk over to him as I never was a girl who approached guys first, but this time it was different. Maybe it was because I had a feeling that he wouldn't come over to me and that I would miss something if I didn't make the first step. I often wondered in past years why I didn't give him my phone number or address when we said goodbye on the street that night. It somehow didn't make sense then, but now I know it would've made all the difference. I open my eyes again and feel his glance on me before I see it, just like the day we first met and suddenly I think I found the moment I've been waiting for since I left Karen last week. I see a small smile on his face and take a deep breath as I push my chair back to get up. His eyes show some surprise as I walk in his direction, hearing Stacy call out my name but I ignore it along with my nerves that start to form a knot in my stomach.
He turns in his seat as I approach him, confusion creeping up in his features as I slide on the stool next to him.
"Hi." I smile shyly at him as my nerves catch up with me and I feel my heart beat in my throat, trying to think of something to say. I peer up into Peter's eyes and the way he looks at me triggers that feeling of deja vu again.
"I thought I'd spare us some time and come over to accept your invitation to a drink." I finally manage to say, keeping his gaze, watching the bewilderment in his eyes.
"Alicia, what are you doing? Is this a joke?" he eventually hisses at me, pain lacing his voice.
"No." I hurry to say, slowly placing my hand on his that lies between us on the bar. I instantly feel the tingling in my fingertips, that soon spreads up my arm and through my entire body. A smile flits over my lips as I enjoy the familiar sensation and I close my eyes for a second. They fly open as I feel Peter pull his hand out from under mine.
"I'm trying to give me a second chance to get something right this time, to correct a mistake I made the night we first met. Will you give me this chance?" I whisper, casting my glance down. I sense him lean back, sighing deeply. It seems like he wants to put some distance between us and I fear when I look up I will see him get up and leave. I barely dare to breath as I wait for a reaction from him, but as he hasn't moved after a moment I look up and find him watching me.
"Well, in that case let's start over. I'm Peter and what would you like to drink?" he asks, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he leans closer again. He shifts his hand that once more lies next to mine and our fingers touch slightly, sending more tingling up my arm. I search Peter's eyes and from the way he looks at me I know he's feeling it too.
"I'm Alicia. And why don't you choose?" I smile back thankfully and he waves the bartender to order two glasses of red wine.
"So, what should we toast to?" I ask once the wine is placed in front of us.
"How about we toast to second chances?" he wonders, rising his glass.
"I like that." I smile as we clink the glasses, breathing in deeply in relief that he's playing along with this.
"So what did…."
"Won't your friends…"
We both start talking and chuckle as we realize it, exchanging nervous glances.
"Would you like to dance?" he eventually asks into the silence that settled between us.
"Sure." I nod smiling, feeling my heart race at the prospect of having his arms around me. He gets up from his chair and offers me his hand which I take without hesitation so he can lead me out on the small dancefloor.
A slow song starts as he pulls me close and I link my hands behind his neck, resting my face against his chest.
"Alicia?" he whispers once the song ended and I look up at him, letting my hands run down his chest. "Is there anything you want to tell me?" he mumbles, his hands reaching for mine.
I draw a deep breath, suddenly feeling a lump in my throat. For days I have wrecked my brain how and when to tell him that I finally realized how much he means to me but now that I have the perfect opportunity the words fail me. An irrational fear creeps up in my mind that he might reject me though all the signs indicate the opposite. I peer into Peter's eyes, detecting anticipation and a glimmer of doubt in them. But these emotions are pushed aside by the intensity of love in his glance. I lean in, attempting to kiss him, showing him how I feel without words but he turns his head away. I freeze mid-motion, hanging my head and try to step away but he holds me back by my hands that still rest in his. He loosens his grasp around one of them and soon I feel his fingers on my chin, lifting up my head. I want to avoid his gaze but we are too close, so his face fills up my entire view and I have no choice but to look at him. To my surprise I don't see any rejection in his eyes but the same display of love as before and a small smile flicker over his lips.
"I need to hear you say it, Alicia." he whispers, running the back of his hand along my jaw. I shudder at his touch, closing my eyes briefly and when I open them I see the need in his.
"I love you, Peter." I finally say, lifting my hand to caress his cheek. I can feel the tension leaving his body as I let my hand run down his chest.
"I know it took me along time to realize that…" I start but he places a finger on my lips to silence me.
"Not now, Babe." his smile widens and I feel his hand travel to my neck, pulling me closer but he stops before our lips touch, leaving it to me to close the last distance between us. I lean in slowly, pressing my lips softly to his, enjoying the contact. I sigh lightly as I feel his fingers caress my neck, his tongue teasing my lower lip. I greet it with my own, deepening the kiss. Every sound around us, the music and the laughter of the people seems to die down as we continue to kiss until the need for air has us break apart. He presses a kiss to my forehead, his arms encircling me once more and I rest my head against his chest as we resume to dance. He places kisses on my hair from time to time and a feeling of happiness spreads through me, that I haven't felt in a long time or probably never before.
I lift my head and kiss him briefly, enjoying the feeling that I'm able to do that now as often as I like. Peter cups my cheek, running his thumb softly over my lips.
"I love you." he whispers, his words mirroring the glance in his eyes. I lean in once more, capturing his lips in another kiss. I know there's a lot we will need to talk about in the coming days and weeks but for now I just enjoy the moment and the promise it holds for our future together.