The Angel,The Devil,The Nerd

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Chapter 64 - Harping on hope

a/n: hehe,finally I found the line to follow :D but...warning: the first POV is pretty emotional :P

let me know what you think :)

CHAPTER 64 - HARPING ON HOPE

NATALIE'S POV

"Did I interrupt something?" I asked as I neared Eric's bed, just as my cousin went out. He was sitting almost perfectly, after almost a week of convalescence, sure, he still had gauzes all over his chest, but he'd already abandoned the wheelchair in favor of crutches, well, not always, but he prefers them.

I can't deny this week has been great for me. And Noah. Because while he still doesn't know the truth about Eric, he's really glad to spend time with him. We're always here, every day, we barely leave him when he needs to be checked up, and even then, I'd escort him with the wheelchair.

I've been trying to forget the awareness that the sooner he heals, the sooner he'll leave me, I'm just focusing on these moments we have. I know it'll only hurt worse, and at this point, I also know that Noah will be hurt, because he's already very fond of Eric, but at least for a while we can pretend we're a real family.

You should see Noah every night, forcing himself to remain awake as much as possible because he doesn't want to leave Eric. We've practically built a new routine here in only a week, namely, we spend every night from four to ten pm, which is Noah's bedtime, in Eric's room, just chatting and laughing together, as a real family. In the morning Eric has his physiotherapy and I go with him while mom and Charles remain with Noah, taking him around the city, just not to let him stay all day in the hospital. He's a child after all. In the afternoon, my son doesn't want to hear reasons, he's keeping company to his new friend, as he likes to call Eric, when he's having lunch, then Noah has his nap and comes back by four. You see? A new routine. Oh, of course, he doesn't miss his calls with his Arya.

Jamie and Aisha had to leave a couple of days ago, they both had work, even though Hunter complains about his wife overstressing. As for Aisha ... she seemed more than a bit sad when she left, but, she will be coming back. As soon as she settles everything in LA, that is. She's moving in to Denver. For Kyle, obvious.

As it's in their character, mostly hers, they've both done everything in a rush, so Kyle broke up with his girlfriend, Fanny, also confessing her that he'd cheated on her with his ex, whom he was still in love with, and she loved him as well, so they couldn't spoil this other chance to be together, as he put it ( I know because, busy as he was working overstressing overtime to remain close to his brother and assist him in everything he might ever need, Kyle broke up with Fanny by the vending machine, and I was cuddling Noah as he took his nap while doctors were visiting Eric, so I heard everything). Hence, at least one couple of our group is getting a happy ending.

Aisha confessed she's always regretted breaking up with Kyle, over the years she's had a few boys, but no one was like him, she said. And because she hasn't changed in that, she's always impulsive, when they confessed they needed each other in their lives, she didn't think it twice before deciding to quit her job and move here in Denver. She told me she didn't even considering asking Kyle to move, he had his residency that would last a few years, she couldn't ask him to start it over, and she didn't truly love her job anyway, better said, she did love it, but she could do it anywhere, Denver included.

So, my friends left, I told my mom she could too, she has her job and Michael, but she didn't want to hear reasons, she had reliable staff at the hotel, she could afford being away for long, her vice would keep her up to date anyway, and as for Michael, he's a really patient man, she said, he knows she's not on vacancy, she's staying close to her daughter.

As for Charles ... well, come on, I didn't even try to ask him about it. I barely manage to get him to rest now that Eric is awake and recovering. It's his son we're talking about, Charles won't move of an inch till he doesn't see him healed. We do get to distract him a little when he spends time with Noah. Charles knows that's his grandson, and he confessed to me that there's so much of his son in that kid, that he can't help but need to be the most possible with him, because it feels like he can make up for the time he didn't get to spend with Eric when he was Noah's age.

As for my cousin ... because he's got a big company to take care of and a family at home, he's practically always on the phone, be it with his vice, his uncle, or his wife and kids, especially Leanne, but when he isn't, I find him having hush-hush conversations with Eric. I have no idea about what because every time I enter upon them talking, they immediately quit. And this time was no exception.

I'd just kissed goodnight a sleepy Noah that was leaving with mom for Kyle's apartment, where we're all staying, well, where I pretty much go only to take needed showers and then come back here, where I'm practically living for the time being. So, I'd just kissed my son goodnight and I did what I always do, just entered Eric's room, to spend the rest of the night with him, or, better said, to spend the rest of the evening, then I sleep on the armchair beside his bed, when I don't fall asleep beside him, that is, considering most of our time together is spent in making up for all the cuddles we've missed in seven years.

When I entered his room I found him deeply immersed in a pretty serious conversation with my cousin, Eric looking a bit grim, Jake just slightly less. Just as they saw me, they quit talking and my cousin left swiftly.

Now, as I asked that, I walked up to the bed and grazed Eric's cheek as I placed a tender kiss on his forehead, making him smile. I bet to distract me from the answer I was expecting, before I could pull back Eric grabbed my hand, entwining our fingers, as with the other he grabbed the back of my neck and pulled me closer to capture my lips in his, which had me smile inevitably and respond gladly, going to sit beside him so that he wouldn't move and stress his wounds, though our kiss did get intense, as usual.

In the end, I pulled back, but only slightly, and we both grinned, nose against nose. The most careful side of me sometimes tells me that I should watch out, because he'll leave again and the small scraps of my heart that are left will shatter inexorably. The pain I felt before will be nothing compared, and this is a worry also my mother and everyone around me shares, because I heard them mentioning it.

Only some days ago I heard mom talking to Jake, saying she was glad I'd refund some light in my eyes, that my heart seemed to be healing slowly, thank to the time I'm able to spend with Eric, despite everything, but, as she put it, she's afraid I'll face an even worse depression when he'll leave, already the first time I was reduced to nothing, I nearly let myself die because of the depression spiral I'd fallen into, the second time was even more painful, but I had Noah, so that kind of saved me, she said, but this time ... she fears I'll fall back into that spiral. And maybe it's not that untrue, I know it'll hurt to say goodbye, but I need this.

I need this gazing into his eyes as we both grin like lovesick fools, I need our cuddles, I need to pretend we're still that high school sweethearts couple that could barely endure a few hours far from each other. I need to feel his touch on my skin, be it even only one like this, so shallow and yet scorching.

Eric has always been able to make me feel like that. His touch has always burned my skin, he's always been addictive, annihilating, and intoxicating, starting from that very first kiss we shared and that left me in such a haze. Not the peck he gave me after I hugged him for the very first time, but the real kiss we shared in front of the school. That time was, my therapist would say, the very first approach to that kind of pain.

Because Eric took my heart, my soul, my everything only with a kiss, he reached my deepest chords and tied them to himself, this way, when he pulled back, he also pulled those strings, and it hurt, because by taking that something he left me empty, had he pulled back in time, he wouldn't have gripped my heart and soul, he wouldn't have tightly tied my deepest chords to him and it wouldn't have hurt that badly to have them pulled. Had he left me a safe line, I could have still mended, but like that ... that time I went back home crying and kept on crying all the afternoon, at least till mom came back home, then I forced myself to put on a façade of wellbeing, not to worry her.

But I'd been crying my heart out on my pillow all the afternoon, and I didn't quite know why, I just knew that it hurt to feel rejected by him. It hurt to feel used, because I thought he'd only wanted an easy make out session while I ... well, I'd given up my heart and soul to him, and he didn't want me, so it hurt.

I even hated him in the beginning. Because he could have spared my heart, he could have used anyone else, he didn't need to do that to me, he could have picked one of those girls that threw themselves at him, not me.

He broke something inside me, or I felt like he did, maybe it was just my teenage mind, amplifying the thing because he was the very first boy to touch me, even only like that, but it hurt nevertheless. I was also scared that time, because only with a kiss he'd annihilated my every ounce of strength and I'd been at his mercy, and part of me had me cry also at the idea of him being able to use me how much he wanted, because if I'd been so weak once, I could always be.

That time he mended, though, giving the starter kick to our love, but I gotta be honest, I came to hate him too when he left me for real, especially the second time, because every time was worse, it only hurt worse, and I got to hate him for having taken my heart even if he knew he'd hurt me. I hated him because I loved him and there was nothing I could do to change it, no matter what.

I hated him because he'd kept himself far from me for years for that same purpose, only to spoil everything in the nick of time, namely, only a few months before the end of school, after which I would have left ... yes, yes, I've come to think this too. That if he'd let me be for the rest of those months, I would have been saved, I would have been saved from all that pain. These seven years wouldn't have been an ongoing heartbreak.

But ... neither I would have had such supreme happiness when we were together. Neither would have I ever felt true love. And in any case, I still believe it, after all these years and after all this pain, I still believe we were meant to be together. Fate has divided us more than one already, it seems dead set on keeping us apart, but I know that in the end, we'll be together.

That's what keeps me from the abyss for now. I believe and want to believe that even if Eric will leave, sooner or later, be it in 50 years, be it even in Heaven, we'll be reunited, because that's what soul mates do and that's our destiny. We are meant to be together. This is only a glitch in our path.

I need to believe this. I need to believe in a future, for how far, that will have us together again. I need it. Because I need to grip on something. I need to harp on this hope at least. Otherwise I will fall apart. Otherwise I will crumble down without any chance to get back up. My heart needs this relief before dipping into pain again. A life without my Eric isn't a life. I know I'm selfish because I've got Noah, I'm not alone, I've got a whole group of friends that care about me.

But Noah and Eric, they're both pieces of my heart, pieces of me, and while Noah has saved me from such deep depression, I still need his father. To be complete, I mean. I need that other piece of my life without which I'm empty. And because he'll leave, I need to believe we'll be reunited at some point. Leave me this hope at least.

Now, every time I enter this room, I push back every sad thought and focus on these essential moments. That's why, nose against his, while my left hand was entangled in his, I caressed his cheek with my right one and, leaning my forehead against his, I felt the strong urge to remind him, in case he forgot, that: "I love you so much, Eric."

He grinned against my lips and pecked them, hand still grazing my neck, then responded: "I love you too, princess. More than life itself."

Of course I grinned too and kissed him. So much for asking what were him and my cousin talking about. We lost ourselves in our kiss so much that we didn't even hear the door being opened and only when the room was filled with a boyish giggle did we finally part, though abruptly, so much that I practically pushed Eric into his pillow, I mean, he'd been sitting up straight, back leaning against his pillows, well, I pushed him back there in the heat of the moment but also because he needed to rest comfortably, and when I heard that giggle I abruptly placed my hand on his chest and pulled back, only then I apologized for having been careless of his wounds, but Eric shook his head, grinning.

Behind me, mom arrived, a bit breathless, hand on her heart. Noah grinned mischievously as mom recounted me how he'd wriggled out of her grip out of the blue just as they were to step into the elevator. I gave him a dirty look, placing my hands on my hips, in that posture that has him recoil because he knows he's in trouble, but this time he downright ignored me and sprinted to the bed, jumping on it and making Eric whimper a little as he found himself wrapped up in Noah's little arms, though he remained interdicted only for a split second, then he returned the hug. Can't deny it was a heart-melting sight.

"I did not say goodnight to my friend!" Noah justified, voice muffled by Eric's neck, who chuckled, unable to hide the joy on his face. Both mom and I grinned, that was so sweet. And ... maybe, it made my son forget about seeing me kiss his dear friend. Really, sometimes I forget how adorable my little boy is.

Meanwhile also Charles reached us, saying he'd been waiting in the car for a while now and was wondering where were they, so mom briefly explained. Me, I was too taken by the incredibly cute sight of my men being all comfortable with each other, Eric cuddling Noah as the child giggled, even admitting he'd missed him.

Times like this, I wonder if I should tell my son who is new friend really is. Maybe I should. After all, Noah is already very fond of Eric and him leaving will hurt my son anyway, especially because he's such a sensitive boy, which Eric says he took from me, but I tell him I have the proof that he is just as sensitive.

So, Noah will be hurt anyway, maybe he'd deserve to know that the man he's become friends with is actually his father. But then I think that losing his dad now that he's found him would hurt worse than losing a friend and in the latter case, I've already been reminding him that we'll leave Denver at some point, so we won't see Eric anymore, he always asks why is new friend can't come with us or even only visit us in New York and the excuses I've used, about Eric being too busy are never enough. It's fifty-fifty.

Either way, my son's gonna be hurt. He's already mentioned he'll miss Eric, I mean, every time I try to prepare him, reminding him that we'll have to say goodbye to our friend sooner or later, Noah whines that he doesn't want to leave, only yesterday he even proposed we move to Denver if Eric can't come to New York, and when I pointed out that our friend won't remain in this city and I don't know where will he go, Noah almost burst out crying, whining that he doesn't want to separate from his friend.

It's absurd in some sense, because it's not like my son has no friends, but it seems that there's a deep unconscious bond between them. I wonder if Noah would be like this if he knew who Eric really is. Maybe he should know. And yet ...

Anyway, mom and Charles conveniently disappeared, so I sat down at the edge of bed, beholding my men chatting animatedly about I don't know what. When they turned to me, Noah wrapped his small hand in his mouth, snickering to himself as Eric grinned, so I asked what were they talking about and they glanced at each other, then nodded in sync and, Noah giggly informed me: "I know why you kissed."

I blinked my eyes, confused, and glanced at Eric, who winked, I guess to tell me he hadn't revealed anything delicate ... but I was contradicted when our son clapped his hands, beaming: "You are in love!"

I remained there interdicted, mouth hung open like a fish gasping for hair, my eyes travelled from Noah to Eric and vice versa and our son giggled when Eric better hugged him, looking at me as he explained: "Uh ... it kind of slipped, I swear. He asked why were we kissing and I ... didn't find any other answer."

I gave him a semi-dirty look but in the end I grinned, nodding as I admitted to Noah that it was true, Eric and I were in love with each other, but then the child asked why weren't we together and we glanced at each other for a moment, not really knowing how to explain that, till Eric, with a bit of difficulty, roughly admitted there were a few obstacles to it, didn't exactly say what, even if Noah looked at him confused, tilting his head to the side, but he mentioned that it wasn't exactly in our power to decide. Our son was puzzled, clearly he couldn't see a reason why, if we loved each other, we couldn't be together, I bet that in his childish mind he saw things black and white, so it was incomprehensible to him.

"But why?" He kept asking, so I went closer and grabbed his small hand, giving him a tight smile as I tried to explain: "There are ... troubles that can't be solved and ..."

I paused not to let neither of them know that my voice was cracking for the pain that fact gave me. I swallowed the lump that was already forming in my throat. I said I'm pushing back the idea these days, never said it was easy. So I had to turn my head not to let them see the tears already prickling behind my eyes, which I shut, biting my lips harshly not to let out one single drop, I even leaped to my feet, giving them my back as I embraced myself, trying to shield myself against that wave of pain I know all too well and that menaced to bring me to my knees. As usual.

Hence, I inhaled deeply and, eyes still shut, trying to sound as calm as possible while my voice was cracking, I claimed I'd go tell something to my mother, what I didn't say was that my heart was shattering for the nth time and I didn't have the strength to remain there without bursting out crying, and of course, I couldn't let my son see me cry, especially not now that he knew what was between me and our "friend".

This. This is what I've lived for the past four years. Every time I risked crying in front of my child because of that unbelievably powerful wave of pain that hit me when I less expected it, I fled to another room with whatever excuse, trying hard to keep control of my sobs at least, so that Noah wouldn't hear me.

And this time was no exception, so I dashed to the door, but before I could go out, Eric called my name and I froze right in front of the exit, tightening my own embrace to protect myself. I couldn't turn around and tell him what I thought, I couldn't do the same as I did seven years ago, when I'd snuggle up to him on the sofa and confess him why did I feel sad or if there was anything wrong, only to then have him cuddle me till I felt better.

I couldn't now. Like I couldn't in these seven years and like I won't be able to for the rest of my life. I will have to endure a whole life without him. I will never be able to roll over on bed and find myself in his arms anymore. I won't have him cuddle me whenever I feel down. I won't wake up with a smile because I know he's there with me. I won't wake up to his smile. I won't get over every single issue because I know I have Eric beside me. He's ... he's gonna leave me and I can't endure that. Not again.

I thought that, harping on hope, believing that fate will bring us back together just as it's divided us would help me feel less broken, but now I think that I won't grow old with my one and only true love beside me like I thought I would and ... I won't live my last days with him, I won't come home to him excited to tell him something big that happened, I won't have him cradle me in his arms when I'm crying. It's a life without him. It's a life without my life.

And I can't endure this. I can't take this anymore. I have no strength left. All there is inside me is shattered. These years I've forced myself to be strong for the sake of my son, but at this point ... what did I ever do wrong to deserve this pain? What did ever Eric do to deserve such life? Why can't we just be as happy as we were one? Did all of our luck run out in those six weeks?

I barely heard Eric asking Noah to leave us alone for a moment, but I felt my son brushing my hand for a moment before heading out, so I turned to the opposite side not to let him see me in such miserable state, though I watched him sprint to the vending machine, were mom and Charles were conversing.

I didn't even turn to look at Eric, I just inhaled deeply as ever to muster up some strength to speak, yet my voice came out broken anyway: "Don't say anything. Please."

"Tallie, I ..."

I shook my head, tears now streaming down my cheeks as I cried silently. Ignoring reasons for being upset has never been my strong point. When I was a kid I've never been able to ignore the thought of my father abandoning me, now I wasn't able to ignore the thought of Eric too leaving me. When everything is over, when the worst has happened, there's still one thing left in Pandora's box: hope. That's what I've learned from my favorite TV show, that's what I've been harping on all these years, but hope is dying and I'm dying with her.

I have been dying every day since seven years. A piece of me has died every moment I reminded myself I might have not been alone, but I missed the most important piece of my life. My life itself. Embodied in one single person only. Now two, yes, but while the newest one has saved me, I still can't live without the other one.

"I only need a moment to recollect myself." I breathed out, half shaking because of the silent sobs. This is too much. Why me? Why him? Why us? Couldn't we have our share of happiness? Is it really so stupid to want that?

I could hear Eric shuffling on bed, probably trying to stand up, and I knew I ought to stop him before he hurt himself by straining his wounded bones, but I didn't even have the strength to move, so, remaining there, I thought I'd stop him with words, for how cracked my voice was: "I'm fine. Well, I will be. I just need a moment. I'll be back."

But before I could get one foot out of the room, I felt myself being yanked back and I ended up in an all too familiar embrace that gave the go to my endless and painful sobs to erupt as I cried my heart out on his chest, arms around his torso. Only when Eric jumped on one leg only, seeing as the other one is still too wounded to even place it down without crutches or anything, did I recall he couldn't stand without help, so I forced myself to quit being such a selfish puss and ordered to my tears to stop as I pushed Eric back on bed, where he sat, but grip me tight not to let me leave. So there I remained, standing between his thighs, arms around his shoulders, his around my waist, as I tried to give myself strength.

"I'm sorry, princess." He mumbled in my ear for the nth time. I only shut my eyes, pressing my lips and my eyelids not to burst out crying again ... useless. I couldn't hold them back, so there I remained, crying like a baby, Eric soothing me by rubbing my back up and down and placing small kisses on my temple.

"I don't want you to cry, princess. I don't deserve your tears." He reminded me, but I didn't listen, so he placed one more kiss on my temple, squeezing me against him. "Cheer up, baby. Things might change."

"How?" I whined, he cracked a very tiny smile and kissed my temple for the nth time as he explained briefly that my cousin and my other friend, Lukas Grant, were working to get him out of trouble, they were still at nothing for now, but they were both trustful they'd solve it soon.

That was what the hush-hush conversations with my cousin were, Eric explained, they didn't want to raise my hopes only to then have to crash them, that's why they hadn't told me anything about it: "I thought it was better, baby, but now I see your pain is so palpable and ... I can't see you like this."

I cracked a very bitter smile, still remaining in his arms. "You always forget that one detail, Eric." He frowned, pulling me back to look at me, so I forced myself to smile a little, for how weak I was, and, leaning my forehead against is, I explained: "You always forget that I've been living on hope. Just that. Hope that someday, that same fate that had divided us would bring us back together."

That hope has been killing me every day and it's always hard to harp on, but I can't give up on it. You see? I have my moments. One moment I'm smiling, trying to keep hopes high, the other I'm crawling into that endless abyss called deep depression. That's why I still need therapy, my shrink says. So a couple of years ago she gave me the contact of a friend of hers that lives in New York, and that's who I'm seeing now, though not often, just one time per month, twice when she sees me really down.

Eric closed his eyes, inhaling deeply, and hugged me better as he kissed my cheek. "We have at least one hope now, baby. Let's harp on that." That had me smile a little more truthfully, but he soon added: "Though if that doesn't work, promise me you'll move on. For the sake of our child at least."

My eyes filled with tears again and Eric cupped my cheeks, as if to stop those drops from falling, kissing every single spot. "No, don't cry again, baby. You know our Noah needs you. And he needs a father."

"He has it!" I pulled back. "He has a father and it's you! Nobody else could have that role!"

He sighed, pulling me back in his arms, but shaking his head as he reminded me that while we had at least one hope now, there was still the chance that things wouldn't work, so we needed to be prepared, and I couldn't just go on like a ghost forever. Our son is too smart, at some point he'll figure out there's something troubling his mother, he already does.

"He's told me he's caught you crying a couple of times." Eric cupped my cheeks, looking straight into my eyes: "He needs you at your best, baby. Do it for him at least, okay? If everything goes south, don't let yourself go again, alright? Be strong for our son."

Be strong. I almost wanted to laugh at that. Be strong. How can I? I've got no strength left, how can I be strong? But, because the doctor also said we shouldn't upset him, I nodded, promising to myself and him to do my best and go on if it was the case. Though I harped even tighter on that hope now. I trust Jake and Lukas, I'm sure they'll do everything they can to help us. And if they can't, then no one can.

I pecked Eric's lips as he wiped away my tears, but once more Noah interrupted us, coming back in a rush and asking why was I crying, I said I wasn't, but he wouldn't believe me, he even gave Eric a dirty look.

"What did you do to my mama?!" Noah accused, crossing his small arms over his chest. I turned around in Eric's arms and shook my head, assuring my son that everything was fine, I just had something in my eye and Eric helped me take it out. I don't think he really fell for it, but he seemed to want to believe me.

To distract him, and actually because I thought that, whatever happened, he deserved the truth, I asked him to climb the bed and come close to us, which he obediently did, going to wrap his arms around Eric from the other side, though warning him that even if he liked him, he would not tolerate him "making his mama cry", to which Eric half smiled and, smacking a wet kiss on my cheek, he assured our child that all he wanted for me was happiness, and surely tears weren't allowed, so the kid grinned and nodded, better hugging Eric as he agreed, saying that he was right, tears weren't for me.

I grinned more truthfully as I beheld my boys smiling at each other and being all cuddly, but I had to let it out, so, while I leaned my head on Eric's shoulder and our son mimicked me, making us both chuckle, I began talking: "Noah, there is something you should know. It's important and it's about our friend here, can you promise to listen carefully."

He nodded eagerly and I glanced at Eric, who looked back at me confused, so I smiled to reassure him and squeezed his hand a little, silently telling him what was the matter. He understood, and we had a silent conversation about if I really wanted to tell the truth ... in the end, we agreed. Noah deserves it.

Hence, I took a deep breath and started: "Ok, Noah, listen to me. You remember Mr. and Mrs. Grant?" He nodded, even grinning, I bet thinking of Arianna. "Well, what are they to your Arya?"

He frowned for a moment then quite simply responded: "Mommy and daddy."

"Yes, sweetie. Just like uncle Jake and auntie Silvia are to Leanne and Mike, right?" He nodded. "Ok, so you know that a child normally has two parents. A mother and a father." He nodded once more, so I kept going, Eric silently listening. "Well, you have sometimes asked me why do you have me only, remember?"

"You said my papa could not be with us." Noah responded to my rhetoric question and I nodded, though I could feel Eric getting a little nervous.

"Yes, I said it. Your papa could not be with us, but he would have wanted to be. You know that, right?" My son nodded once more, completely taken by my words, though he was still comfortably in Eric's arms, who had one arm wrapped around Noah and the other around me. "If he could have chosen, he would have stayed with you."

Perplexed, Noah nodded once more. I inhaled deeply. "Well, I have told you a few things about him, haven't I?" Another nod. "But I haven't told you the most important thing. His name."

Noah blinked his eyes and I swear, it seemed as if he understood before I even told him, because he looked in between me and Eric for a moment and then grinned, turning to his new friend again, and my heart skipped a bit as he asked, better said, implied, actually, for how weird that is for a 4-years-old, he did a whole monologue: "You are my papa? Yes, you are my papa! I knew it! I asked granny why am I so like you and she didn't know what to say, but your papa is also like me and you and Richie says that he is so, so like his daddy but also like his grandpapa, so if Mr. Romano is your papa and I am like you and him, then you are my papa. Right?"

I was amazed. Thunderstruck. Both Eric and I remained there interdicted for a few moments, mouth hung open, as Noah giggled, and before we could regain our composure, he squeezed Eric more, even making him yelp a little because of the wounds, as he exclaimed: "I am so happy you are my papa! And you love my mama, right? So you live with us now, right? He will live with us now, right, mama?"

Ouch. That was the downside. Now how do I tell him the rest of the truth as painlessly as possible? Though Eric prevented me as he squeezed us against him: "For now I need to remain here, Noah, for the physiotherapy." Not a lie. Good start. "And ... it's not completely sure, you hear me? It might not happen, okay?" Noah nodded, seemingly mesmerized, as they looked straight into each other's eyes that were so alike. "But, maybe ..."

I saw where he was going and shook my head, saying no with my eyes. No, it wasn't a good idea to make such a promise, it might not happen and it would break Noah's heart. Eric sighed, dropping his head, so Noah lowered his head to look at him and ask to keep talking, therefore I intervened: "What Er-what papa wants to say is that ... for now, he cannot live with us."

And maybe he never will. Ugh, this was a really bad idea. Though Noah surprised us both as he shrugged, saying he understood, but: "You can visit us, right? Maybe at Christmas?"

He sounded so hopeful, how could we break his hope? But promising something that might never happen would only disappoint him, which would be worse, so I opened my mouth to say something, but Eric prevented me once more, this time not giving me time to mend, he was direct: "Okay. Deal. I will see you for Christmas."

He promised. I sent him a reprimanding look he ignored, busy as he was grinning at our son that clapped his hands, literally bursting with joy, till he once for all engulfed Eric in his bear-hug as he, melting both our hearts, exclaimed: "I love you already, papa!"

Well, who am I to break this enthusiasm? I couldn't help but half smile anyway, especially as Eric kissed Noah's cheek, admitting too: "And papa loves you, Noah. Never forget that."

They both grinned, Noah all giggly as he was truly the happiest kid on earth. I swear, I've never seen him like this. But of course, he's just found his dad. It's normal.

I just hope his heart won't get as much broken as mine was. As if on cue, Eric squeezed me against him, taking advantage of Noah babbling about the things he ought to show his papa when he came for Christmas, to whisper in my ear: "Let's harp on this last hope, princess. Maybe fate will be on our side this time and we'll finally be a happy family."

***

JAKE'S POV

"Tell me you've got good news." I greeted him just as I took the call, beholding my cousin and her family all cheery for once. I don't know what they were saying, but they talked for a while and I have the feeling Noah now knows who is father is. Just hope he can keep him too.

Lukas, from the other side of the line, emitted a low sigh, which worried me already. We've been working to get Eric out of trouble since a week, and we've partly managed to, some of his enemies, we sent them off track, but the Armorer ... nope, the guy's too smart to believe rumors.

So we had Lukas' friend, that Vince I've never even met but that apparently is well acquainted with that kind of world, go talk to the Armorer and propose a deal. Lukas had offered to do that himself, same as I did, but Vince insisted, saying there was no need for us to be reckless, he knew someone in the Armorer's gang, so he could easily infiltrate, but we, "yeah, no offense, but you guys reek of billions from miles away, they'd just shoot you and then pretend they want an astronomical sum to free you". I did argue the thing didn't scare me, but the guy insisted and Lukas convinced me, saying that Vince knows his way round, so I let him do.

"He's asking for the double of the bounty." Lukas informed me. I frowned.

"Well, that shouldn't be too hard. It's more or less 60 millions. We can split." I proposed. It's not little sum, but hey, our companies go with flying colors and our bank accounts are as rosy as the cheeks of a baby, so I think we can dig in our pockets a little.

Lukas agreed, but ... "Vince says it's not a good idea to accept this offer."

"Why not?" He sighed once more. Ok, bad sign.

My friend is really calm for a type, he doesn't get upset easily, so if he sighs like that, it means trouble: "Because he's accepting only if you and I bring him the money personally."

I frowned, though I had the solution: "Yeah, ok, I'm in. We can find someone that resembles you."

He snorted. "I'm not scared of coming, Jake."

"Then what?"

Another sigh. "Vince says it's a trap. They're gonna take the money and kill us anyway."

"How does he know?"

"His friend let it slip." Mmh. That complicates things.

"Then what do we do?"

Lukas remained silent for a long moment, I'd have thought he'd hung up, but I knew he was only pondering. Lucky thing his wife wasn't at range of ears. She's been asking questions, wants to know, and because Sam told Silvia, my wife too has been hassling me to know, to the point that I'm not even answering her phone calls anymore, I only call the landline, because I know it'll be Leanne to pick up the phone.

Only yesterday Silvia and I thought badly, she says I'm being reckless, I can help Natalie and Eric in other ways that don't involve me and Lukas exposing our necks to the racketeering, I say it's the only solution, she says I'm irresponsible. I hate it when she's mad at me, but right now I have more pressing manners at hand, hence, I'm gonna have to delay the moment we'll make up.

"There's one way only this ends, Jake." Lukas pointed out.

I frowned. "Exile? We said we'd try to avoid that-"

"No, I didn't mean that." He sighed, and I could picture him rubbing the bridge of his nose, like he does when he's stressed. "We need one of those movie tricks, Jake."

"Movie tricks?"

"Fake death."

I frowned. "Mmh, no, the kid has tried and it didn't work."

"That's why we need to make it public."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean the Armorer and every other has to see. They gotta witness it with their eyes."

Eh. That's easier said than done. But it's a good plan. "Ok, but how?"

He cracked a very small bitter smile. "I gave you the idea, Jake. Now rack your brains and find a way. You're the most apt to it."

I smirked. Sneaky bastard. Already knows me so well. Mmh. A public death. They gotta witness. It took me more than a while, Lukas on the phone was waiting, though I had forgotten he was still there, yet, in the end, when the bulb lit up, I grinned. "I got this."


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