The Angel,The Devil,The Nerd

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Chapter 62 - A withering rose

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CHAPTER 62 - A WITHERING ROSE

ERIC'S POV

I'd been pleasantly laughing and chatting with Noah for a couple of hours at least, when Natalie came back. She'd willingly left us alone to give us some time together, which turned out to be precious, because only in a few hours I was able to see what a smart and perceptive kid my son is. Just like his mother.

He told me stories of different kinds, but also asked a lot of questions that, I'll admit, weren't always that easy to dodge, but all in all, we had fun. It felt refreshing to forget about my troubles for a while and just enjoy my son's giggles and smiles.

Already after a few hours I was able to come to the conclusion that while physically he's my exact copy, as for character, he's all his mother, which is great, because it only shows that he's practically the perfect mix of us, the amazing outcome of our love and I couldn't be more glad. His eyes might be the same as mine, but they shine with that peculiar light his mother always carried ... before the jackass that I am came into her life and fucked it up, that is.

Now, Natalie didn't even speak to me, just told Noah it was late and we both needed to rest.

"I will see you tomorrow?" Noah asked me, clearly hopeful. I smiled, my heart regaining a bit of light after all these years of darkness and just at my son giving me such a hopeful and content look, as if he was really happy to spend time with me. Even without knowing who I really am, of course.

Though I think I had the very same look when I started hanging out with my own dad. I mean, I remember feeling like a child all over again when I had the chance to spend time with him. Though for Noah it's certainly different, after all, he doesn't know who I really am.

He did ask how did I meet his mother and there, I told the truth: that we went to school together, but then it became a bit harder to lie so bluntly at the kid's face while claiming that his mother and I were and always had been simply friends.

He told me she'd had a "special friend" at first, he kind of remembered that guy that was always so kind with him and took him to the park, at fairs, always bought him gifts and so, and he was often at home with them, even while not living in their same apartment Noah did see him always around ... Chase, of course.

I don't understand why didn't Natalie just present him as her boyfriend. I can imagine the guy might have not been too glad to acknowledge Noah as his, so he couldn't pose as the kid's father, but why pretend to be just a friend, especially considering the kid, as he admitted, sometimes caught them kissing and cuddling? Sure, being just 1-2 years old, the child couldn't understand why was the guy his mother's boyfriend but not his father, and that might be a reason for their not being so open about it, but still.

Noah also told me that Chase left two years ago, because of a job he got in San Francisco, but for some time he'd still talk to the kid, only to slowly cut off the bond once for all. I asked if he was sad about it, and Noah admitted that yes, he was, but not too much, after all, he said, he still had "uncle Jake" always calling him and sending him gifts, never letting him lack of anything, which reminded me of my own uncle being such an amazing father figure for me till he could.

I miss him. I miss uncle Sam and there hasn't been a day I have quit reminding myself that it was my fault if he was killed, but, as my boss told me, blaming myself won't bring my uncle back. I've seen him in that sort of dream I had before waking up at least. I saw he was fine, he looked like the exact same as he was. That's a little bit of consolation, I guess.

Anyway, this "uncle Jake" Noah mentioned, I have yet to meet him, but I know it's Natalie's third-grade cousin, that same guy that offered to pay for her college fees years ago, when we were planning our future. Noah says he's a constant presence in their life, this Jake lives in Boston with his wife and kids and is pretty busy being CEO of his family company, but, as Noah said, never skips a call or anything. Jake apparently calls them every day and has a pretty tight bond with my son, practically, he's doing the same as my uncle did for me: being a father figure.

Though not directly. I mean, Noah doesn't see him as a father, he also knows that Jake isn't really his uncle, but he likes calling him that, he says, and Jake doesn't mind, so ... after all, he says, he has other uncles and aunts that aren't his mother's siblings, so he's got "uncle Jake and auntie Silvia", the most present ones, then "uncle Lukas and auntie Tara", who live in Boston too, then "auntie Serene", who's Jake's sister, not to mention "auntie Jamie", plus these Mr. and Mrs. Grant with whom they spend much of their time.

Noah told me his mother and this Mrs. Grant work together and are friends, then he mentioned this Arya he loves spending time with. I asked who is she and he said she's the Grants' daughter, just a year younger than him, they love playing together.

Considering he spent a good half hour telling me about her, I gotta think that my son, just like me, has found his one and only at a really young age. After all, I was 10 when I fell in love with his mother, he's just 4, so I highly doubt it's the same, but who knows, maybe he'll grow up as a lovesick fool for this Arya just as much as I did for his mother.

I just hope, for his own good, that they can always live their tight bond. I wouldn't want my son to feel his heart being broken as much as I did, every time I reminded myself I had to keep away from her and every time I saw her swooning for my brother. Though there's no doubt, at this point, that I should have kept on yearning from afar. Other than screwing up her life like I did.

Anyway, in a couple of hours Noah told me almost everything about his life, from his staying with their neighbor during the day, while his mother works, except for when his granny visits them, then he remains with her, to the friends he has, apart from the little Grants and the ones in Boston, who are more like family, he says, I mean, as he put it, Jake's kids are cousins to him, just as much as Jake and his wife are an uncle and an aunt, then there are some Nicky and Gloria, and those too, they're family. They're all a big family, apparently. But, Noah cares to point out, the Grants are friends, his Arya isn't a sister nor cousin to him, which only enhances my theory ... like father, like son, I guess.

Now, Natalie took Noah in her arms, but before going, the kid wanted to come closer and my heart skipped a few beats as he wrapped his little arms around my neck, kissing my cheek before saying goodbye, but promising to be back tomorrow.

All his mother. He's just as sweet and adorable as his mother was, I swear. Well, I guess it's good. I mean, it's best for him to have taken only the physical features from me and not the rest. That will take him far, I'm sure.

His mother has always owned an uncommon intelligence she's never really acknowledged. She was always so insecure, so self conscious and had such a low self esteem ... she just couldn't realize how amazing she was. Jamie said that, with me, Natalie gained confidence, and maybe that's right, but I guess that's about the only good thing I ever did for her.

I watched them walk away, the only relief being the certainty of seeing them again tomorrow, though before they could get out of the room, I called: "Tallie, wait."

She froze in her spot while Noah grinned. I think the kid, even if maybe unconsciously, does crave having a dad. I mean, all his friends have it, so while he has all these men around, especially Jake, playing a faint version of that role, he must still feel different because his friends have a mom and a dad while he doesn't. Well, that's what I kind of felt when I was his age, anyway, even while having uncle Sam. I'd like to be that for him, but I'd only make it worse, considering I'm gonna need to leave as soon as I heal.

Natalie was giving me her back, so I resorted to asking our son: "Uh ... Noah, could you ... give us a moment? There must be um ... uncle Jake out there, I guess."

He giggly nodded and wriggled out of his mother's arms, making her put him down and walking out of the room on his own, though not before having reminded me he'd be back tomorrow, to which I couldn't help but grin.

Natalie moved to follow him, anxious about leaving the kid without supervision, but he ran straight to the bench not too far from the room, where he found his grandma and my dad talking.

My father apparently knows about Noah too, pretty much everybody does, I was the last one to find out, but of course, since the kid doesn't know I'm his father, he also doesn't know about his grandpa and uncle, though they both tell me they like to talk to him, especially dad, and judging by the grin that spread on his face, Charles Romano was pretty enthusiast about being grandfather already.

So, Noah ran to Penelope, jumping in her arms to kiss her, but soon shifting to my dad and grinning as he told him I don't know what. I'm glad they're bonding anyway. Dad could be recognized as the kid's grandpa, but then it'd be a bit tough to explain to such a smart child that that's his grandfather but he has no dad.

Maybe mine wasn't such a great idea after all. It might only confuse the kid, though he's really smart, he might even figure it out on his own. He does know that that blonde man that kind of resembles both of us is my father, after all, and I did see Noah pondering for a moment ...

I know he's just a 4-years-old, but could it be that he already put two and two together and realized who I am but didn't want to believe it? Maybe he relies on the belief that his mom would never lie to him, so if she didn't tell him the truth about me, he might convince himself his assumptions are wrong. Then again, I might just be seeing more than it is. After all, for how smart, Noah is still only 4.

When Natalie didn't turn around, still beholding our son playing with my dad, I called her again, and only then she turned to me, but slowly. She had on a deadpanned look that was clearly meant not to let seep through the slightest hint to her feelings, most probably because she's well aware of how easily I can read through her.

Inhaling deeply, I patted next to me and she walked up to the bed, but without sitting, so I grabbed her hand and pulled her down, so that she could sit beside me.

Yet, she wouldn't look at me, she kept her gaze down, her hands clasped together, as if she was wary around me, just like our beginnings. Back then, she had a reason, I guess, given the very bad reputation I had, but now ... yeah, now it was trying to shield herself from being more hurt, wasn't it?

I grabbed her hand, squeezing it in mine, she didn't oppose too much resistance, but she did kind of try to wriggle away from my grip, so I grabbed her other hand too, entwining our fingers as I spoke: "Tallie, I'm sorry. About everything I've put you through."

She shook her head, but I kept going. After all, she does deserve at least the whole truth along with full apologies. I can't tell her the details about the job I've been doing these years, but I can tell her the rest, as I should have long ago. Back then she was too fragile to endure my story, and while I know the pain I've inflicted her has only weakened her, maybe now that she's adult, she can better cope with it. Though it's sad to see that the dreamer she was once is long gone. And all for my fault.

Taking a deep breath, I spoke in a sigh, squeezing her hands: "What I did, it was only for you. To protect you. I thought-I think that you're better off without me."

She opened her mouth to interrupt me, but I shook my head and she sighed, so I took the chance to keep going, knowing that only saying it all at once would be easier, otherwise I might get lost in feelings and emotions and forget it all.

So, squeezing her hands, I continued: "When we first met, that very first time I set my eyes on you, 15 years ago, I still had hopes, but lacked of the courage to approach you. And when I finally mustered it up, my life took a detour for the worst and every hope was shattered. Including the one about being with you."

I remember it so clearly. I felt sad because I had to leave my friends back in Washington, but then I saw this cute little girl and my hopes were raised. For days I challenged myself to go talk to her, but could never find the courage. She was always with Jamie and I was a bit shy back then, so even when she was alone, I could never make myself approach her, always afraid she'd think I was a freak or something.

I remember once, there was the art fair, my class presented works, back then I liked drawing, not just things in general, I liked drawing landscapes and so in detail, and I was even pretty good at it, if I say so myself. For that fair the teacher picked our best works, mine was, guess what, the portrait of a cute girl sitting at the window in the library, lost in thought, book in hand. It was a regular day of fall, so the leaves were changing color and that she was admiring, seemingly ecstatic, but also kind of troubled.

The teacher couldn't believe her eyes when she saw that, said she'd never seen such great portrayal of a human soul, and I was just ten, going for eleven, the greatest artists that were able to do that had been practicing for years, while I did it without too much of a fuss.

I shrugged, my tongue slipping as I admitted I'd had an unaware model for that drawing, which I made out of pure instinct. I mean, I was a bit nervous about this fair and my class having to expose the works as opening, the teacher had told us to draw anything we felt like, no restrictions, and I'd been thinking and thinking of possible subjects, even drew different things, but nothing was ever good enough, till, that day, I sat in the library, taking advantage of a free period I had to dedicate some time to the project, and I was mulling and mulling when I spotted that cute brown-haired girl sitting at the windowsill, admiring the calm fall landscape of our playground.

I didn't even think it through, was just too fascinated and started drawing. By the time I was done, she'd left her spot, but I was content with my work and so was the teacher, who put it first among the others.

Now, that fair was open to everybody, obvious, and in the distance, while I was gazing at the works the teacher had made, I spotted two girls at the booth were my drawing was exposed. The redheaded one changed object of interest soon, but her friend, that cute brown-haired girl I'd been thinking of so often, remained there, seemingly mesmerized.

I couldn't help but grin, happy she liked my work, and as she remained there, admiring the drawing without knowing that was her, I kept challenging myself to go talk to her, that was my chance, I could quite simply throw there the fact that that was my work and she was the inspiration of it, but again, I was shy and my heart kept pumping so hard in my chest, even while I couldn't understand why. I was only 10, remember? I had no idea a boy could feel such things for a girl.

So I remained there, creepily watching her from afar, though I liked to think of it as being a distant admirer of her peculiar beauty, till I mustered up enough courage to walk up to her, but just as I did, her friend dragged her away to go see the rest of the fair.

That was just one time of hundreds. During the first three months in that town, before things changed so radically for me, I kept battling with myself to go talk to her, but I never could. Sometimes I'd see other kids around her and I felt this tight knot in my stomach I couldn't explain back then, but older me was soon able to label it as simple jealousy, which, despite the odds, kept eating me alive throughout the years, especially when she developed a huge crush on my own brother.

Though that drawing I made of her, the first time I entered her bedroom, I found it hung to the wall above her desk, with a quite girly frame. I didn't tell her anything right then, we were just at the beginning and knowing that she had that work only because the creep that I was had slipped it into her locker would have freaked her out, especially as I'd been silly enough to even be honest and write behind it that the subject was her.

You see, after we had our works back, after the fair, I thought I'd give it to her as a gift, but once again I couldn't find the courage, so I resorted to quite simply taking advantage of everybody being at lunch to slip the drawing into her locker, behind it, only a few words about that being her the week before, apologizing if that freaked her out, but I only meant to portray her beauty.

Truth to be told, those were aunt Lisa's words. I mean, during a phone call, back to when I could still talk to him, I told uncle Sam about this girl I had portrayed in my drawing and she had apparently liked the work, so he suggested me I gave it to her, as a manner of first approach too, but I had no courage, and hearing us, his wife, who back then was only the girl he'd just started seeing, suggested the romantic gesture I did, but adding those words, so that the girl wouldn't be freaked out about it.

I never wanted to know what Natalie had done with that drawing, more pressing issues crashed into my life and in any case I was afraid she'd thrown it away or something, but, like I said, when I first entered her bedroom I found it there, hung to the wall, as if it was something she cherished, and when I asked about it she told me she still had no idea who was the artist, she'd just found it in her locker years before. Though I couldn't hold back a half grin that gave me away, gaining me a playful slap on the stomach, but also a quite fervent kiss in both appreciation and thanks.

Now, as I talked about my hopes being shattered, Natalie sucked in a breath, squeezing my hands, I guess figuring I was now ready to tell her about my troubled past, which I was ... sort of. I mean, it's not necessary for her to know every detail, she just needs the highlights, right? She already knows about my stepfather and mother being responsible, but she doesn't know what. I guess I can tell her I've been abused, but there's no need for her to know how, is there? I've already put her through too much.

So, taking a deep breath, I kept talking, still squeezing her hands, our fingers entwined, which I miss so badly that I couldn't even describe it, I swear. These years without her have been unbearable, but I went on with the idea that it was for her own good. Keeping away from her could give her the chance to a better life, a life that didn't involve me and was therefore happier. Though I guess I didn't consider her feelings.

I mean, look at her, maybe Noah gave her strength, but those hazel eyes that once shone with such a beautiful light are now so dull and lifeless. To a distracted eye, she'd look okay, well, out of this predicament, but one just needs to look better to see that at this point, she's like a beautiful rose that's been slowly withering, losing her petals.

I'm not saying her beauty has been fading, God, no, she's always the same gorgeous princess I fell in love with, but it's undeniable that her light has been fading. That light that always surrounded her. That light that I guess was swallowed by the darkness I embodied, because I did that to her. It's only my fault if she's been suffering like that.

If only I'd kept my distances, if only I'd taken what I deserved and left my heart bleeding without her, these seven years would have been Hell only for me, not for her too. If only I hadn't been so selfish, I wouldn't have dragged her into my personal inferno and she'd be fine. She'd be living a perfect life. She wouldn't be hurting like this. There would still be that blinding light in her eyes, she wouldn't be a withering rose.

I thought I'd do good by leaving, but look at her, I've only enhanced her pain. I don't even deserve her love, do I? She needs someone that can take care of her, someone that can give her everything and beyond. Not me. Not a son of darkness that's only fucked up her life.

Now, I was saying, taking a deep breath, I kept on talking: "I moved to our town that I was ten, as you know. Just as you know I moved because my mother married Robert Dillinger, a mighty businessman people in town practically worshipped, for how much he'd done for them." I paused, to give her time to take in my words, and she nodded, as if to tell me she understood, so I took a deep breath, to give myself enough strength to talk.

It's not about those memories being painful, it's more about not wanting to drag my princess down the gutter with me by digging up such things. I never wanted to tell her because she's always been such a sensitive soul, every time we touched the subject, even if she didn't cry, I could see tears in her eyes and she'd go hide wherever not to let me see her true pained state, so I held it back, not wanting to trouble her.

After all, that was my past, those were my demons, my war, and I was the only one entitled to bear the memory, there was no need for her pure soul to be tampered with such story. I wanted to preserve her pure spirit, but I only caused her pain.

Swallowing, taking a bit of strength from her squeezing my hands and coming a bit closer, I continued: "The truth nobody ever knew or wanted to know is that Robert, my stepfather, was part of a vast and sustained criminal organization that had roots in a large number of towns and cities in the East Coast. Sure, he was only a small fish in a very large aquarium, but he still was a shark among bigger and more dangerous sharks." I paused once more, but resumed when Natalie nodded, though I could see there was anxiety in her eyes, she was just trying to be strong for me, I bet.

I would have stopped, but, squeezing my hands, she silently pushed me to keep going, so I did: "Robert was good at what he did. He could be so sly, so much that people never suspected there was such a bomb in their own town's belly. On the surface, our town always looked like a very peaceful place, practically Heaven on Earth, no crimes apart from a couple of burglaries, nothing to worry about, people easily being able to live their lives without fearing anything ..." Yeah, practically Eden. With a much bigger snake hiding in the shadows.

"In truth, our town was the base for very much illicit businesses, to put it simple. Businesses that needed a quiet place and our town was the perfect spot, considering no federal bureau would have ever guessed that a huge criminal organization had its heart in such a small and peaceful town." Natalie swallowed and I stopped, afraid she was already upset, but there was no sign of tears in her eyes, actually, her look was blank, though I guess she forced it to be that, in fact she hinted me to keep going.

"Robert needed some sort of trophy family to show he was truly a respectable man, but couldn't risk her being from town, otherwise his house of cards would soon fall." I sighed, soon adding: "That's why he took advantage of his trips to ... search a suitable wife." I gritted my teeth at the thought. I've been hurled into that Hell only because that bastard needed a wife and my shitty mother couldn't keep her legs closed.

Natalie moved closer to me, better entwining our fingers together, finally talking after so long, but only to assure me that: "You don't need to dig it up for me, Eric. I don't want you to think of such painful things only for me."

I leaned my forehead on hers, inhaling deeply as my hand moved to caress my cheek, while I pointed out: "I should have told you years ago. I shouldn't have left you in the dark. But ..."

"You didn't want to upset me, I know. And I don't want to upset you now. You need rest." I shook my head, pointing out that I've had too much rest already, I was fine, my bones were sore, yes, but they would heal soon enough, despite everything, mentally I was still in perfect conditions, so I could handle digging up the past, for how painful that was, but Natalie moved all of a sudden and wrapped her arms around my neck, letting out a small sob, but without crying as she pointed out that she only needed me close, knowing the truth could wait, now it was time to think about healing.

I opened my mouth to argue, but once more she prevented me, voice cracked by tears already: "I know you'll leave once you've healed. I know there's nothing I can do to change your mind, but ... if you could just ..." She let out a light sob, so I pressed her against me, rubbing her scalp soothingly, but she kept talking: "You want time with our son, and it's fine and due. But can you also grant me time with you? Just enough to be able to pretend the dream we had is real. That's all."

She sobbed more loudly, better sinking in my arms, and while I couldn't hear any other similar sound, I knew she was crying silently for the nth time, because her voice was broken as she spoke: "It ... i-it will only hurt more when you're gone, but ... if ... i-if you could just ... grant some relief to my heart. If ... if you could just give me a few moments of bliss before leaving me again, forcing me to an entire life without you, I ..."

Her voice broke once for all and she was no more able to be silent as she cried. What else could I do, other than keep her in my arms, trying to soothe her? God, I was so selfish. I broke her so violently, so ruthlessly. All I ever wanted was to feel loved. All I ever wanted was to feel like I wasn't an entire waste of life. All I ever wanted was to relieve that lovesick heart that had been broken so many times. I never thought I could break her too.

Sure, I knew I'd hurt her, just rested on the hope that things were on their way to changing so maybe life could be better for real, but I never thought I'd be responsible for my one and only love being so broken. I never thought I'd be holding in my arms, more than the girl herself, the pieces of her that it was me myself to shatter.

And the worst is, I have no idea how to fix this for her. None at all. You'll tell me, just stay. That's what she wants and needs, that's what your son would need too. And that's what I'd want too, but if I stay, we're gonna have to be on the run. If I stay, I'm gonna have to force her and our son to leave everything they know to escape to very bad people wanting my head.

And if I decide we can act as if there was no bail on my head, then it's pretty sure I'm gonna get them killed. Because sure as hell those bad people are gonna catch up with me sooner or later, and just like my stepfather, they're gonna target who I care for most.

So I can't stay. God knows how much I'd want to, but it would only screw up her and our son's lives even more. I can only be bad for them. I'm like a virus that can only destroy everything they have and are. I mean, look at her, her life was peaceful till I entered it. She was perfectly fine till I came in like a hurricane. Sure, she had her issues, but overall she was fine. I only ruined her life. I can't do that again. Especially not if you count that being with me could shorten that said life. She has so much to look forward to, she's just 25, a whole life is ahead of her, I cut off her wings once, I can't do it again.

Maybe I should have let myself die years ago. Maybe I shouldn't have fought, maybe I should have quite simply joined Robert in his visit to Satan, other than dragging myself to the street to seek help, being lucky enough to find my boss. Or maybe I should have picked differently. Maybe, when in that dream I had, uncle Sam gave me a choice, I should have decided to follow him, instead of coming back to fuck up my princess' life even more.

I thought that going back would have dried some of her tears, but I didn't think it through. I didn't realize that leaving again would hurt her worse. Yeah, I should have foreseen it, right? I should have known she'd be hurt. God, why does she even love me? I'm not good for her. I should have realized that years ago. She's so much beyond my league. She deserves more, much, much more. I only ruined her life. She shouldn't love me. I don't deserve her. She should be that far light I dreamed of when I needed to pull myself up, she should have never been such a concrete reality for me.

If only I could go back in time, I'd fix it. I don't regret our moments, God, no, she's been the only bliss in my shitty life, but to what cost? I've drained out that light she used to shine with. I've dulled her smile and made of her the miserable little thing she is now, despite the strong mask she puts on every day. A mask she wears for our son's sake, I know that.

Yeah, that kid too. I fucked up his life since the beginning. He's bound to grow up fatherless just because his real dad is a jackass that's only ruined his and his mother's lives.

Maybe my mother was right. Maybe she should have got rid of me years ago. This way I wouldn't have done so much damage. I should have faced death like an old friend, other than escaping it so many times. This way all those people would have been so better off. I mean, dad and Kyle, they were perfectly fine without me, entering their lives has only hurt them. And Natalie ... I should have let her fear and hate me. I shouldn't have changed her mind. I should have never entered her life at all.

Now there she was, crying in my arms because I broke her so many times already that I don't even know why does she still love me.

"You should hate me." I mumbled, more to myself than to her, but she heard me and pulled back to look into my eyes, a gaze I avoided as I explained: "For all I've done to you. You should hate me. I'm not even worth your ..." I was cut off ... by her hand coming in contact with my cheek all but gently.

Oh, yeah, Natalie slapped me. I bet I'm the second person she ever hits, the first one being Dana seven years ago. My face was still turned to the side, and I'll admit I did feel the sting, but I focused on her outraged voice: "Stop it. You've been making the same mistake every time. That's what makes you so selfish."

My mouth hung open, though I didn't know what to reply, so she kept going anyway, her voice cracked: "You say I should hate you, and I've tried to. I've tried to force myself to hold it against you, but I always knew you forced yourself to give up to your dreams because of me. I know you left to save me. But you never realized ... and that's why you've been so selfish."

She sighed, wiping tears away as her chest was shaken by a deep sigh. "You're selfish, because you never think that there are people that love you and suffer without you. You're so damn selfish because you've never once realized that losing you hurt more people than you imagined. You just took for granted I'd be the only one to miss you, and ..." She gritted her teeth. "... and maybe even me, you took for granted I'd move on easily."

Her lips twitched into a bittersweet half smile as she fixed her hazel eyes on my blues, making my heart sink, especially at her words and at the pain her tone hid: "Live your life, you told me. But did it ever occur to you that I have no life without you? Did you ever even consider that mine wasn't just teenage caprice? I poured every single beat of my heart in every single I love you that I told you. Did you ever even consider that while being late to it, my feelings were just as strong as yours?"

She scoffed. "No, sure you didn't. You just took for granted that you were the one to love more between us, maybe you even thought I was just a silly girl convinced that her first love was the true one, maybe you even thought I was blinded by the thrill of being in a relationship for the first time."

I frowned, arguing that I never had doubts about her feelings, I knew she loved me, but she cut me off: "Yes, you did. But you never really convinced yourself that I would have been willing to leave everything for you just as much as you did for me." She let herself inhale deeply before continuing: "You never thought I'd be willing to sacrifice my dreams for you."

"That's not true. I knew you would, that's why I ..."

"That's why you prevented me, right?" Her jaw clenched, clear sign she was getting mad among her pain, and she pulled back completely, standing up even, pacing around the room as she spat bitterly: "You see? You were selfish! You didn't even give me a chance to choose! You simply abandoned me! Didn't even let me have a saying in the matter."

I sighed, sitting up. "Tallie, I ..."

"No. No Tallie. You didn't even consider I could have something to say about it!" She threw her hands in the air, raising her voice as she spoke: "Maybe I had a different opinion! Maybe I didn't want to flee. Maybe I was willing to leave everything for you. Did you ever consider that?"

I sighed once more, better adjusting myself on bed, despite my bones being all crunchy, as I replied: "How could I ever ask you to leave everything for me? I left purposely to ..."

"I cannot live without you! Will you ever realize that?!" She practically screamed, her voice so broken that it was heartbreaking, especially if added to the desperate sight she made, with her cheeks streaked by tears that were still falling even while she spoke, hand on her heart, so distraught: "My stupid life has no sense without you! I have nothing if I don't have you!"

"You have Noah." I injected, which seemed to calm her down a little ... till she burst out crying even more desperately, my own heart dropping with hers, especially as she crumbled down the floor, sobbing uncontrollably. Forcing myself to move, I did my best to stand up and go to her, but my leg didn't want to collaborate.

Every move I made, I felt unbearable pain, but I managed to push it back as I slid down the bed to bypass the fact that with my leg so injured, I couldn't stand up. That shouldn't mean I'm half paralyzed for life, it's just the fresh wound to need rest, but I couldn't care less anyway, so I forced myself to try and stand up, which I did, though I had to stand on one leg only, considering my right one seemed blocked.

I leaned on the edge of the bed to keep balance, but for how much I tried, I couldn't move more to embrace my princess that was crying on the floor, shattered. "Tallie, listen to me. You need to move on."

"I haven't in seven years, what makes you think I can now?!"

I inhaled deeply, trying harder to move closer to her, enough to be standing in front of her, but still having to hold myself against the edge of the bed, which caused my injured bones to protest, but I pushed back the pain and tried to console my princess: "You know that if I could stay, I would. I couldn't ask anything else but to be with you and our son."

"Then why don't you stay? We can work it out together." She looked up at me in time to see me shake my head, but seeing me standing, even if weakly, she leaped to her feet, even while being just as weak, though emotionally, and pushed me back on bed, although I only sat down, my breaths a little frantic at the effort I'd made to stand. I guess I'm worse than I thought.

Calming down my breaths, even while squinting my eyes for the pain, I snaked my arm around her as she sat beside me, making her lean her head on my shoulder, also calming down enough not to be sobbing anymore, though while her voice was low, it was still cracked as she sort of whined: "Why did you make me fall if you knew you'd hurt me?"

I inhaled deeply, forgetting about the physical pain as I better pressed her against me, leaning my chin on her head after having placed a kiss on her hair. "I just wanted a chance to be with you, princess. That's all. I was selfish." I sighed. "I shouldn't have let you fall at all."

I'd barely finished the sentence that she gripped me tighter, her arms around my gauzed torso. "Don't say that." She chastised me. "I don't regret what we had."

I half smiled as I rubbed her arm up and down a little, placing another kiss on her hair. "Neither do I, princess. You were the only light of my life. I could never regret being with you." I sighed. "But if I hadn't entered your life, you ..."

"We were meant to be." She cut me off, looking up at me, so that our eyes met. Hers were still watery, but it looked like just being in my arms gave her a tiny bit of peace. Though she had that look on every time I pulled her in for a hug, back to when life smiled at us, which makes me think that maybe I was able to give her some happiness in return, at least, I didn't just take, draining her light out.

Hand on my chest, Natalie continued: "We were always meant to be, Eric. Don't you remember? Even without that project, we would have gotten closer and I would have fallen for you, you would have made me fall in love with you. By simply showing me the real Eric. The one I've been loving beyond every limit and label since seven years and always will. Despite everything."

That made me smile. A pretty romantic idea that became sad if we thought about the odds, but it was nice to hear nevertheless. Though she wasn't done talking: "All my life, I'd only been walking towards the moment we'd be reunited. Because that's what soul mates do. They stick together despite the odds or while being separated, they always find their way to be back together."

Her eyes watered a little and I opened my mouth to argue, but she prevented me, though sounding broken once again, even though she pressed her face against my palm when I caressed her cheek: "We are soul mates, Eric. Meant to be together. You're more than the other half of me, you're what completes me. That's why in these seven years I've been empty. I missed you."

I swear, my own eyes watered, even if I'm not the kind to be so easily touched. Unable to say anything, I quite simply wrapped also my other arm around her, hugging her tighter as I rested my chin on her head, the smile on her lips reaching my heart before my eyes.

We both knew that was temporary, but for now, just for now, maybe we could be reckless and enjoy these last moments together. I know we did the same four years ago and the result was Noah, but ... well, these moments wouldn't bring any sibling to the kid, don't worry. The moments my princess and I would enjoy till I was forced to leave her and our son once again would be only as tender as this one.

Placing a small kiss on my gauzed chest, Natalie gave me a smile that was enough content to obscure the deeper bittersweet taste of our moment, as she reminded me: "I love you with all my heart and soul and mind, Eric. I'll never stop."

I smiled as well, kissing her temple as I confirmed once more and never enough: "I love you with all my corrupted being, Tallie. Always have and always will."

Her smile widened for a moment, especially as she better sank in my arms, which was pure bliss, I swear, because I've been craving moments like this for years, and I've also regretted not cherishing enough the ones we had.

Closing her eyes as her head was still resting on my shoulder, Natalie entwined her fingers in mine as she spoke, making me promise: "Don't leave me just yet, okay? Give me at least a few days of bliss."

I argued that she'd be more hurt after that, but she pointed out: "I know. But at least I'll have fresher memories."

I inhaled deeply and agreed. After all, I need this too. I need as much time with my princess as I can get. Not to mention my son. I'll have to leave them, so I better stock up for a life of emptiness, I guess.

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