My head was pounding as I swam through the soup of sleep and dreams and into consciousness. The night had been long, and I had spent most of it either crying or shouting into my pillow. God, how I wanted this nightmare to be over! I forced myself to struggle to a sitting position, and it was only then that I realized my head wasn’t the only thing that was pounding. Someone was knocking on my door. Crap! I really wanted to wallow in self-pity right now. I didn’t have the time or the inclination to deal with whoever was out there.
I flopped back down onto my bed and burrowed under the covers. The knocking stopped, thank heaven, but then my phone started buzzing. Damn, but someone was persistent! I groped on my side table, swearing as I knocked both the cell and the lamp onto the floor. I scrambled out of bed and snatched up the phone, hitting the answer button without bothering to check to see who was calling.
“What?” I barked.
“Open the door,” Jason demanded.
I froze, but my heart throbbed at the sound of his voice.
“I can’t talk right now,” I managed to say. I didn’t have the energy for this, or for him.
“Let me in,” he insisted. “I have news. It’s important.”
I didn’t want to let him in, didn’t want to see him or deal with whatever it was he had to say, but nothing seemed to quell my inherent thirst for answers, not even my own abject misery. I stomped over to the door and flung it open.
“I’m glad you removed the ‘hidden’ key,” he said by way of greeting. “Wow, you look terrible.”
“Thanks. I feel terrible. What do you want?” I said, keeping a firm grip on the door so he wouldn’t be able to step into my apartment unless he pushed me out of the way.
“We got him,” he said.
“Who?” I asked, confused. I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Milston. We got Milston.”
The room spun and I found myself reaching out to Jason to keep from sliding to the floor. He gripped my arms, providing the stability I needed until the wave of dizziness passed. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of hurt that he hadn’t pulled me against him, but I reminded myself that was the last thing I wanted.
“So, it really is over,” I whispered, trying to process the idea that I was finally free of the horror that had lapped at my heels for so long. I was safe, and my father’s reputation would be restored. Now everyone would know what I had come to learn – he had been a good man; flawed, to be sure, but good. Like Cara, he had his justice and now he could rest in peace.
I waited for it to hit me, but I wasn’t feeling the relief that I had expected. Surely it would kick in, wouldn’t it? Surely it would replace the emptiness I felt yawning down deep into my very being.
“It’s over,” he agreed. “Milston confessed as soon as he realized Gloria was still alive and out to kill him. Guess he thought prison was a safe place to be while on her hit list.”
“Unless she winds up in the same penitentiary,” I said.
Jason smiled. “Now that would be poetic justice. If only we could arrest that piece of crap Elroy and lock him up with them.”
“Why can’t you?”
“Damned statute of limitations. But believe me, if he doesn’t keep his nose lily white from now on, he’ll be very, very sorry.”
If Elroy could have seen the hard glint in Jason’s eyes, he would’ve been certain to keep said nose pure as ivory.
“At least his political career is kaput,” I said. “His days as a ‘beacon of truth and light’ are over.”
I stopped talking, examined my feelings again. Still no exhilarated relief. What was wrong with me?
“I should go,” Jason said. “Good luck, Jessie. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
He turned to walk out the door.
I shuddered as an unassailable truth hit me. All this time, I had believed that as soon as this nightmare was over, as soon as I had my life back, everything would return to normal. But it wasn’t going to happen. What good was having my life back when I’d lost what mattered most? I had made a horrible mistake! By rejecting Jason, I had thought I was protecting myself when, in reality, I had been causing irreparable harm. Jason had reacted viscerally to my story, and had hurt me badly, but he knew it and was sorry. I had been punishing him for his error by not allowing him to apologize. Self-preservation hadn’t been my motive; it had been all about making him suffer!
“Jason,” I whispered, reaching out to stop him and running my fingers over the broad planes of that beautiful face. “I need . . .”
He didn’t let me finish. With infinite care, he grasped my hand and held it against his heart for the merest hint of a second before releasing it. I let it drop to my side.
“I have to go,” he said.
And with that, he was gone.
“This is ridiculous,” I said, swirling the amber liquid around and around in the shot glass I held in my hand.
“Yes, it is,” Gail agreed. “You’re supposed to drink that, not play with it.”
She was absolutely resplendent in a gold sequined tank that showed off her powerful shoulders and looked fabulous against her caramel skin. Next to Gail, I felt even more rumpled than usual in my worn Levis and white crew-necked tee with the barely visible ink stain below my left breast.
“I don’t know why I’m even here,” I said.
“You’re here because you’ve been moping over a man for a week now, and I can’t stand by and watch any longer.”
“And this helps how?” I asked, looking around. Pulsing lights pounded against my eyes while throbbing drumbeats vibrated in my chest. The young and beautiful swarmed around and over me like gnats as they ordered and picked up drinks, rubbed bodies, and all but made love on the dance floor. God, I felt old!
“This helps because it’s therapeutic. You get to tell me all about the scumbag who did you wrong and,” she turned me around on the bar stool to face a trio of impossibly gorgeous, and equally impossibly young, men who were looking Gail over with obvious interest, “if you play your cards right, you just might get something even better.”
“Gail!” I hissed. “They’re babies.”
“Not from where I’m sitting,” she said with a lascivious smile. “They’re over twenty-one and we’re under one hundred, so it’s all good.”
“I am sooo not going there,” I told her.
“Prude.” She turned back to the bar. “So, tell me what happened between you and the jackass. What horrible thing did he do to mess this up?”
“He didn’t, I did. Well, he did do something horrible, but he was sorry. I wouldn’t let him off the hook.”
“Care to elaborate?”
So I did. I gave her the whole story from beginning to end. All of it – Jason, my father, Milston, Elroy, my mother. She already knew a lot of it from the news and social media, but I didn’t leave out anything. I was drained by the time I finished, and so was my glass.
“Wow!” she said. “You don’t do things halfway, do you, kid?”
I snorted. “Definitely not.”
“So, what are you going to do now?”
“What can I do?” I asked. “Besides get drunk and whine about my problems like a silly co-ed?”
“For starters, you can go find Jason.”
“What good would that do?” I asked, despair weighing heavily on me. I had had several chances to clean up the mess I had made of things, and I had wasted every one. He was tired of me and my baggage. “It’s too late. I tried to fix things and he walked away. I blew it.”
“Is he dead?”
I looked at Gail, shocked. “Of course not! Don’t say things like that.”
“Has he moved off-planet?” she asked, ignoring me.
“No, but . . .”
“Has he contracted some terrible communicable disease that makes it dangerous to risk speaking with him?”
I glared at her.
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’, so it’s not too late. Go talk to him.”
The past five days had been a nightmare of self-pity and regret. Losing Jason and knowing he would still be with me if I had only let him in was killing me. I wanted him so badly. Could it really be as simple as Gail was making it sound? Could I really just walk up to him and ask him to take me back? To forgive me when I had refused to do the same for him?
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, I do. This ain’t my first rodeo, girl, and you need to get right back up on that particular horse.”
“But what if he doesn’t want me?” I asked, putting into words the most unbearable outcome I could imagine.
“But what if he does? Do you really want to waste any more time regretting something you didn’t do?”
She had a point. And I had never been a coward.
“Alright,” I said, feeling emboldened by Gail’s no-nonsense advice, and probably by the alcohol. “I’ll do it.”
Click . . . click . . . click, click, click
Jason jabbed at the remote control, rejecting all one hundred and seventy-five channels that whizzed before his eyes across the TV screen. Nothing captured his attention. He hungered for some relief from unrelenting thoughts of Jessie, but nothing could drive her from his mind. Not even for a few minutes. It was easier during the day, he had work and he had Dalia. But after Dalia and Tess had gone to bed, he was left without distraction and the terrible loop played over and over again in his head. He revisited his first meeting with Jessie and remembered how much he had thought he disliked the cold, pushy journalist with her obvious agenda. He thought about that first kiss and the punch to the gut that had come with it. He relived the first time they had made love and he despaired at the look in her eyes when he had made the biggest mistake of his life.
It had taken every ounce of willpower he possessed to walk away from Jessie last week, but she had been emotional, vulnerable. More than anything in the world, he had wanted to pull her into his arms. How easy it would have been to pretend her desire had been real, but it would have made things so much worse if he had taken advantage of her. He snorted. As if worse were possible.
He remembered the dark time after Rachel had left. He had been crazed with jealousy, wounded pride, and guilt. He had thought his heart had been broken, but now he knew better. This was what a broken heart felt like. There was actual, physical pain, as if someone had smashed his chest with a wrecking ball. His days seemed endless and meaningless. If it hadn’t been for Dalia, he wondered if he would have even bothered to get out of bed. Thank God for his little girl!
The sudden knock on the door made him jump as it jerked him out of his thoughts and back into the cozy living room.
“What now?” he groaned to himself as he rose and made his way to the front door.
“Jessie!” he gasped after flinging it open. She was the last person he had expected to see standing on his front step at ten o’clock on a Friday night.
He drank in the sight of her, loving her make-up free face, her messy ponytail, and her easy-going tee shirt and jeans. She was perfect.
“Hi, Jason,” she said, her smile shaky. “Long time, no see.”
Hope bloomed, but he tamped it down, knowing it was irrational. Jessie had made herself perfectly clear more than once. She was through with him. Forever. That day a week ago hadn’t meant anything, except that she had needed someone to reach out to and he happened to be the only warm body around. He had destroyed their relationship with his inability to let go of the past. He could only thank God that Dalia hadn’t been involved.
“What do you want?” he bit off, wincing inwardly at how harsh his voice sounded.
“Can I come in?”
He stepped away from the door, giving her room to enter. She looked around at the small living area, taking in the warm ivory walls, pale blue sofa, and rich hardwood floors covered with colorful rag rugs his mother had made. He wondered what she saw, gazing at his home – comfort, as he did, or an albatross?
“Nice,” she commented around the fingernail she was worrying with her teeth, like a dog gnawing on a bone. She seemed to realize what she was doing, dropped her hand, and clasped it in the other.
“Where’s your . . .” she began, just as he said “Why are . . .”
They both stopped and an awkward silence hung in the air.
“Go,” he said, surprised at the sudden fury washing through him. How dare she come and make him hope again? “Say what you need to say and then go.”
He cursed himself as he saw the flash of pain spark in those amber eyes. He didn’t want to hurt her any more than he already had but, dammit, she had hurt him, too.
“Where’s your daughter?” she asked.
“She went home. What do you want, Jessie?” He was weary of the emotional roller coaster. Why couldn’t she just say what she needed and go?
“I’m sorry.” She said, looking at him, eyes huge as if she were afraid he was going to rip her to shreds.
The spark of hope burned a little brighter, overshadowing the anger.
“Sorry for what?” he asked, and held his breath as he waited for her answer.
“I’m sorry that I wouldn’t forgive you. I’m sorry that I ruined what we had.”
Her voice caught and he could see the shimmer of tears in her eyes.
“I told myself your standards were way too high, that you would never be able to love someone who wasn’t perfect. I thought I was protecting myself, but I was lying. I wanted to make you suffer, and I’m so, so sorry.”
Tears were now rolling freely down her face.
“Jessie?” He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. She was apologizing to him? “Jessie, stop.” He couldn’t bear to see her in so much distress over something that was his fault. “I was the one who was wrong. I was the one who needs forgiveness. You could never, ever be anything but perfect to me. I love you. I love you and I let you down in the worst possible way.”
Her eyes blazed and she spoke with so much vehemence he feared Dalia would wake up. He didn’t dare quiet her, however. There was too much at stake.
“Actually,” she continued, her voice softer, her expression thoughtful. “I think we both messed up.”
She studied him, as if uncertain of his response. She looked so scared, so vulnerable that he couldn’t resist. He pulled her to him, wrapping both arms around her and drawing her against his chest. He could feel her heart racing like a hummingbird’s as she clung to him.
“God, Jessie, I’ve missed you so much,” he whispered against her hair.
“Me, too.” She laughed through her tears, raising her head to look at him. “I was so afraid you would never forgive me.”
“And I thought you would never forgive me.”
He smoothed the dampness from her cheeks with his thumbs, loving the feel of her velvety skin. “Stay with me tonight.”
“But Dalia . . .”
“I think it’s high time the two of you met. After all, you’re going to be a big part of our lives from now on.”
“But, what will she think?” Jessie hissed.
“She’s five. She won’t think anything.”
“Tess is considerably older than five. She’ll think we’ve had a great night of screaming-hot sex.” He couldn’t help but grin at the thought of Tess walking in to see the three of them around the breakfast table. “And she’ll think it’s about time.”
“I love you, Jason,” Jessie said, stroking his hair. Her eyes were filled with so much emotion it was hard for him to breathe.
“I love you, too, Jessie. I’ll love you forever.”