Chapter 16 - Alex
I didn’t sleep very much that night.
It’s not that I was physically uncomfortable, although my joints didn’t necessarily appreciate the hard floor. Nor did I feel awkward or out of place sleeping with him.
Really, it was the opposite. It was that I was so comfortable, cocooned beneath the blankets with his body heat and listening to the steady rhythm of his heartbeat beneath my head. It was that I felt so profoundly right, sharing space and peace with him in the quiet hours of the night. Everything about it was so good, and so long in coming, that I couldn’t quite sleep for fear of missing a moment.
I still felt like it all might disappear. That, if I let myself sleep too deeply, I’d wake up back in my own bed with Parker by my side and find out all of it had been a dream.
So I didn’t sleep much, in the beginning. I dozed. I drifted in and out of consciousness. I lingered in the space between and, in my more wakeful moments, I studied the man beside me.
When he first fell asleep, he held held me close. I was tucked into the corner between the wall and his left side, and his left arm was a steel band around my waist, holding me like I’d disappear if he let go. Even after his breath evened out and his heartbeat slowed down with sleep, he held me tight against him. His right hand was gentler but still possessive, wrapped loosely around my upper arm. When I twitched or fidgeted, his fingers tightened fractionally, his thumb rubbing gently at sensitive skin.
That first hour or so, I lay in the semi darkness and sleepily tried to decipher the tattoos on his arm. They started at his right wrist and marched toward his elbow in stark black ink that stood out against his skin, even in the dim yellow street light filtering through the blinds. I counted lazily. There were seventeen bands in total. Some were broader than others, some a little sloppier, some a slightly darker shade of black. They looked like they’d all been done at different times, by different artists.
Releasing my grip on his shirt, I pulled my hand in and brushed my fingers gently over the lines, wondering what they meant. One resembled the links of a chain. Another consisted of a single ribbon, twisted and tied into a knot, its frayed edges hanging toward his wrist. There was a beaded chain bearing a cross, which I found odd considering I’d never known Nate to be particular religious. Below it was a band containing a repetitive pattern of the four suits in a deck of cards, lined up like soldiers in a row around his arm. Most of the more intricate bands were too detailed to make out in the dark, but interspersed among the more nuanced ink were plain black rings. Eight in total, some broad, some narrow, all of them featureless and severe.
With the tip of one finger, I traced the line closest to his wrist, curiosity bubbling. I doubted they were decorative. Vanity had never been Nate’s style, and there was something about the haphazard quality and strange assortment of designs that made me think they were there for some purpose...
I drifted off with that in mind, and dreamt of Nate in prison, wearing a gaudy gold cross and playing solitaire in solitary.
When I drifted back in, it was to movement. Tension. Suddenly wide awake, I held myself perfectly still as Nate’s arm tightened around me and his right hand came up to rest against against my face, his palm pressed to my cheek, fingers splayed in my hair like he was trying to shield me from something. His chest rose and fell beneath my head with rapid, choppy breaths and every so often he’d mumble something indecipherable on a rasping exhalation.
Carefully, gently, I reached up and wrapped my fingers around his wrist, pulling his hand away from my face. Then, still carefully, still gently, I shifted in his grip, propping myself up on an elbow and peering down at him in concern. His features were twisted into an expression of agonized fury, and sweat beaded near his hairline, shining in the dim light.
“It’s okay,” I whispered, reaching up and trailing my fingers down the side of his face. The second I touched him, he stopped breathing, stopped moving, and his face morphed from ferocity to tense bewilderment.
“It’s okay,” I repeated, as he turned his face into my touch. He was far more expressive in his sleep, I noticed. Just as I’d seen the anger fade to confusion, I watched as the confusion shifted slowly to wrenching hopelessness. How many times, I wondered, had he dreamt of pain, dreamt of danger, and conjured my memory to offer him comfort? How many times had he woken up to find that only the pain and danger had followed him back to reality?
My heart lurched, and for a brief, selfish moment I wondered if the guilt would ever fade. What if it didn’t? What if it just kept springing out of the woodwork like this, strangling me when I least expected it? What if, deep down, he hated me as much as he should? What if, after the honeymoon period wore off, his relief that we were back together turned to resentment that I had let us fall apart? What if he left me, just like I’d left him, and everything we could have been dissolved into a bitter solution of regret and loneliness?
Fortunately, I am happy to say, that moment of turmoil only lasted a couple of seconds before I broke through it. Maybe we were doomed, and maybe we weren’t. The future didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that exact moment, and in that exact moment I had to at least try. I couldn’t fix what I had broken. Not in a night. But I could try to hold it together-- prevent it from falling even further apart.
“Nate,” I murmured, shifting up and pressing a light kiss to the corner of his mouth. His brow furrowed, but he didn’t move. “It’s okay.” I kissed him again, slowly, lingering, and finally he responded. His hand tangled clumsily in my hair and his lips parted, pulling me in. Then he froze, with a sharp intake of breath, and our hearts slammed in unison as I pulled back and saw him staring up at me with an almost feverish intensity.
He didn’t speak. Just stared up at me in groggy bewilderment. His fingers trailed through the tangled strands of my hair, and his gaze shifted to his own hand as he wound a lock around his finger. His other hand found its way beneath the hem of my shirt and my heart flailed as calloused fingers drifted up my spine and then settled, warm and solid, against the small of my back.
“I’m here,” I said, answering the question he couldn’t voice-- the question he was trying to answer with his hands, testing my solidity, my presence, the tangible reality of my existence... “I’m right here.”
He shook his head minutely, brow furrowing as his hand shifted to the nape of my neck, pulling me down, not for another kiss, but so that my head was tucked beneath his chin.
Once upon a time, my mother loved me with all of her heart and she hugged me tight each night before tucking me in. Once upon a time, my father thought terrible things had happened to me, and when he found out I was safe he had pulled me close and held on to me with trembling intensity. I have been loved as a sister, a daughter, a friend, and a girlfriend. There is no shortage of affection in my story.
That moment, though, towers above all the others by a factor of hundreds. I have never in all my life felt so profoundly important. So needed. So cherished. So protected. His touch was so gentle, I don’t know how it was that I could feel the desperation in it, but I could. It bled into me by osmosis, at every point of contact. His hand on the back of my neck, our tangled legs, my chest pressed against his side, the warmth of his breath on the top of my head, and the prickly curve of his jaw against my palm. I needed him like I needed air, and he needed me like he needed water. We both needed our love like we needed the long, dark quiet of the night-- restful serenity.
I closed my eyes and listened to his heart hammer against my ear. When he finally spoke, I almost missed it. His voice was lower than a whisper, just a breath of air in the vague shape of a word.
What a loaded question for 3 o’clock in the morning. Why was I there? That answer warranted its own set of flashcards and two hours of face-to-face honesty in the cold light of day. But he needed an answer, so I did the best I could.
“Because it’s where I want to be,” I said, and maybe flashcards weren’t really necessary. Maybe it was just that simple.
* * *
I woke the next morning alone, and for several long seconds I had no idea where I was. All I knew was that the ground was hard beneath me, but I was warm and content and safe. I blinked my eyes open and found myself buried under a pile of blankets on the floor of a nearly-empty bedroom, and just like that the memories came back.
They came back syrupy and languid, though, and I smiled sleepily and stretched beneath the covers before lifting my hand and peering at my watch. 5:43 a.m. I could hear a shower running behind the far wall, and I was momentarily disappointed. The night was over. I would leave. Nate would go about his day. And where would be when dusk fell again?
Rolling onto my side, I turned my face into the pillow and pulled in a breath through my nose. On the surface, his scent was a little different-- like he’d switched shampoo or started wearing cologne. Underneath that crisp overtone, though, it was still him. Still that same subtle, woodsy current that made me heady with a confusing mixture of urgent desire and lazy contentment.
I knew I should get up and get dressed, but I couldn’t make myself leave the warm cocoon of blankets. So I drifted, listening to the distant sound of water splashing against ceramic and the whir of the bathroom vent. I didn’t realize I’d fallen back to sleep until a hand closed over my shoulder, jostling me gently.
“Al,” Nate muttered, and his hand shifted up to brush tangled hair away from my face. “Wake up, sweetheart.”
I blinked my eyes open and couldn’t help but smile at the shape he cut, crouching over me in the grayish-blue light of dawn. The harsh lines of his face were offset by the soft light, and his icy gray eyes appeared almost black in the shadows. He smelled like soap and aftershave, and his damp hair was a finger-combed mess atop his head.
“Morning,” I said happily, reaching out and grabbing a fistful of his shirt.
“Morning,” he grinned back, shifting onto his knees with my insistent tug and bending over me, elbows braced on either side of my head.
We kissed. Nothing crazy. Nothing earth shattering. Just a pleasant exchange of affection to start the day. When he pulled away I moaned in displeasure, grabbing his shirt in both my hands.
“Call in sick today,” I urged. “We both can. We can take Matt to a movie or something. It’ll be fun.”
Nate grinned down at me, damp tendrils of hair falling over his forehead. I reached up and pushed them back, scowling because I knew what he was going to say.
“Matt needs to go to school,” he said, pulling my hand out of his hair and pressing a kiss to my knuckles. “And I need to go to work. I need money. Unless, of course, you want to keep sleeping on the floor every time you come over.”
Every time you come over.
So there would be more times. I was guaranteed more.
“Fine,” I said, pushing him back and sitting up, pulling the blankets to my chest to ward against the chill. “Raincheck.”
“Raincheck,” he confirmed, sliding a hand into my hair and kissing my cheek before pushing to his feet. “There’s an extra toothbrush in the bathroom drawer you’re welcome to use. I’m gonna go start a pot of coffee.”
With that, he left me alone in the bedroom. Slowly, stiff and sore, I climbed to my feet and found my jeans, wincing as I pulled the cold fabric over the goose prickled skin of my legs. Using the hair tie around my wrist, I pulled my mess of curls into a bun on top of my head. Then I did my best to straighten the blankets and sleeping bag until they resembled something that someone might call a bed.
I was about to leave the room when something made me stop and turn. I leaned back against the door and surveyed the featureless square of beige carpet and the whitewashed walls. My eyes lingered on the duffel in the corner and the sleeping bag and cheap wool blankets against the opposite wall. I confirmed it later, but I knew even then, without investigating, that Matt’s room looked very different. On instinct, I knew there’d be a bed and a dresser, posters on the walls, and clothes hanging neatly in the closet. I knew there’d be a little lamp on the bedside table and books and stuffed animals on a bookshelf by the door.
I knew that, had I never come around, Matt’s room would have acquired more toys, more picture, and more books. I knew the living room would eventually have a couch and a TV, and the dining room a small kitchen table. And I knew that, had I not come around, this room would never have changed.
I took a mental snapshot and filed it away.
* * *
There was a cup of coffee waiting for me when I emerged from the bathroom ten minutes later. Nate leaned back against the stove with a bowl of cereal in one hand and a second cup of coffee steaming on the counter by his hip.
“Thanks for this,” I said, picking up the coffee and eyeing the surface. He’d doctored it up until it was a pale shade of beige.
“I assumed you still take your creamer with a little bit of coffee.” Nate pointed his spoon at the cup after swallowing a mouthful of cereal. “I hope it’s okay.”
I shot him a fabricated glare and took a sip, closing my eyes with a sigh. Perfection. “It’s good.” Circling the counter, I slipped up onto a stool.
“You want anything to eat?” he asked. “I got cereal, frozen waffles, and eggs. Your options abound.”
I shook my head and took another sip of my coffee. “I should probably be going soon,” I said reluctantly. I really didn’t want to go. A part of me was still afraid that if I left he wouldn’t let me back in.
Nate just shrugged a shoulder and took another bite of his cereal.
“How are you feeling this morning?” I asked.
“Fine,” he mumbled around a mouthful, waving the spoon. When I raised a challenging eyebrow he swallowed and shook his head to emphasize his point. “I’m good, Al, it was just a headache.”
“I’m pretty sure you threw up meals you ate last year,” I argued, frowning at him. “How often do you get headaches like that? You should see a doctor. They can prescribe--”
“Al, it’s fine,” he rolled his eyes. “Seriously. They only come every few months and they’re not usually that bad. I’d have been fine if you hadn’t showed up and started yelling at me.”
“I didn’t yell,” I said defensively, raising my chain. “I spoke at a reasonable volume. It’s not my fault you didn’t tell me.”
“I was worried you’d short out if I threw you a curveball,” he said, grinning smugly as he set the empty bowl aside and picked up his coffee. “I figured none of those notecards covered what to do in the event of a ‘my victim has a raging migraine and I need to shut up before I kill him’ contingency. Honestly, Al, I was just trying to help you out.”
“Oh, how generous of you!” I returned, taking another deep sip of my coffee and glaring at him over the lip. “But you know I’m pretty well versed in ‘Nate is refusing to cooperate’ by now. I don’t need a notecard for it.”
“Oh, it’s that common an occurrence, is it?”
“Yup,” I set the coffee down on the counter and tipped my chin up.
“So what, pray tell, does one do to cope with such a massive inconvenience?”
I was hoping you’d ask. “It’s pretty simple,” I said, slipping off the stool and rounding the counter. I fluttered my eyelashes at him in a blatant attempt at sultry seduction as I plucked the coffee cup from his hands and set it aside on the counter. “The trick is to play to my victim’s weakness.” I stood on my tiptoes and linked my arms behind his neck, leaning against him so that we were pressed together from thigh to chest.
“That’s incredibly manipulative,” he said dryly, but his hands had found their way to my ass and his eyes were dark with need as he dipped his chin so that our faces were just inches apart.
“It is,” I admitted, raising a shoulder and letting it fall. “But the important thing is that it gets the job--” his mouth crashed into mine, stealing the rest of the words from my mouth as his hands tightened, pulling me up and against him. He tasted so fucking good-- like coffee and toothpaste-- and his languid exploration of my mouth contrasted perfectly with his fingers digging into me and the rasp of stubble against the sensitive skin around my mouth. God, it was perfect, and I didn’t want it to end.
If it was up to me, it never would have. We’d have just kissed in that kitchen until the sun expanded and gobbled up the earth. Fortunately, I guess, Nate’s always had a foot planted on the ground, ready to pull us back down when we get lost in the clouds.
We were both panting when he gently pushed me away, and I rubbed my tingling lips with my finger, grinning up at him.
“I gotta get Matt up for school,” he said. “He was ten minutes late, yesterday, and I really can’t afford to fuck it up again.”
“Okay!” I tried for bright, even though I was monumentally disappointed. “I assume... I assume you want me to go?”
He looked pained as he reached up and scrubbed a hand through his hair, glancing worriedly at Matt’s closed door. “I just don’t want to freak him out,” he said, shaking his head. “After a while, if everything works out, we can be a more open. It’s not like I don’t want you in our lives. I just don’t want him to think I’m trying to replace his mother or something, so soon after... And I really don’t want him to get attached to you too soon and...” he trailed off, shaking his head.
He looked so fucking anguished, I swallowed my own complex feelings, leaned back in, and pressed another firm kiss to his lips. “It’s okay,” I said, honestly. “I understand. You’re just being a good dad.”
His face twisted at that, and I kissed him again. “Seriously,” I said firmly. “You are. We can stick to lunch dates for a while, okay? We should probably figure out who we are before getting too involved in each other’s lives, anyway.”
Of course, that wasn’t what I wanted. And, judging from the frown in Nate’s eyes, it wasn’t what he wanted either. Nonetheless, it was the right thing to do. We weren’t kids, anymore. We had responsibilities and experience. We both knew what the right answer looked like, and we had enough at stake to choose it.
“Lunch dates,” Nate said dubiously. “My lunch break is only thirty minutes.”
“Mine’s an hour,” I returned quickly, grinning up at him. “I’ll come to you, it’s only a ten minute drive. We can eat in the car, or go to that coffee place next door to the shop or something.”
Slowly, he nodded. Then, so cautiously... “Wanna start today?”
It was crazy. After everything we’d been through together, and everything we’d been through apart, we’d just arranged what was, effectively, only our second date.
* * *
When I returned home, my father was sitting at the kitchen table, reading the paper and nursing a cup of what had better be decaf, per his doctor’s orders. He looked up in astonishment as I walked in, still shaking off the bitter cold.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked, clearly bewildered. I’d waited until after he and Tom were in bed before leaving the night before.
“Out,” I said sheepishly, unsure how to broach the subject with him. Hey, pops, remember that boy I dated in high school? The one you didn’t approve of? The one I thought cheated on me? Turns out he’s not the bad guy in the story.
“Out, hm?” he asked with a raised eyebrow, sipping his coffee and setting down the newspaper to give me his full attention. “It’s 6:30 in the morning, Alexandra.”
“I’m 24 years old,” I huffed, pulling a granola bar out of the cupboard. “I can go out without your permission, you know.”
“I didn’t say you needed my permission,” he answered with a bite of iron in his tone. “I’m just curious where--”
“I was with Nate,” I blurted, spinning around to face him. He stared at me strangely, head cocked to the side.
“No, Daddy, the other Nate.” I tried not to roll my eyes as I bit into the granola bar to distract myself from his scrutiny.
He didn’t look as disappointed as I thought he would. Or as concerned. He just nodded thoughtfully and took another sip of his coffee.
“You took him that box we pulled together?”
“Yeah,” I mumbled, suddenly embarrassed. Why had I blurted it out like that?
“Did you two finally talk?”
My head snapped up, and I caught a faint smile before he schooled his face into that infuriating, bland expression of understanding that was so important in his line of work.
“We did,” I said cautiously.
“Good.” Without another word, he lifted the paper and went back to reading.
I was going to be late for work if I didn’t get upstairs and shower, but I circled the counter and sat down at the table across from him, waiting expectantly until he lowered the paper with a sigh and raised an eyebrow at me.
“What’s on your mind, sugar?” he asked.
“Deb talked to you,” I said cautiously.
“How much do you know?”
He sighed and lifted a hand, scrubbing it over the thinning hair on top of his head. Then he sighed again, meeting my eye and shaking his head slightly.
“Honestly, sugar,” he said. “Probably more than you.”
That took me aback. I was just asking about Matt. What else was there?
“You know about Matt?”
He lifted a shoulder and let it fall. “I know about Matt.”
“You know that he--”
“I know about Matt, Alexandra.” He gave me a firm look, as if it would be some sort of sin to give voice to the truth. Tim raped Deb.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, although I already knew the answer. Confidentiality. Trust. A divine fucking responsibility.
“Deb spoke to me with the understanding that I would keep her secrets,” my father said gravely, fixing me with a look of challenge.
“How long have you known?”
His face twisted.
“Years, right?” I pressed. “You’ve known since she was still pregnant.”
He didn’t bother to deny it, and I felt my heart crack. For a moment, I was furious. Not because he had committed some terrible wrong, but because for the first time in days I had someone other than myself to blame for my mistakes.
I wanted to rage at him. You let me leave him in there to rot! I wanted to scream. You let me hate him! You let me ignore him! You let me forget him!
My father’s face had drained of color, and I realized I couldn’t take it out on him. For one, he didn’t wholly deserve it. His job would always be of utmost importance to him, and the sacred bond of trust between him and his parishioners was vital to his role as a clergyman. Beyond that, though, he was my father and I loved him and I didn’t trust his heart with an argument. The catharsis wasn’t worth stressing him out and risking his health.
“It’s okay,” I said, sinking back in my seat. “I understand.”
We drifted in silence, and I was just about to leave when his voice brought my attention back.
“Aly...” he broke off, rubbing his hand over his forehead.
He shook his head, a tortured look on his face. “I don’t know what to say to you, sugar,” he sighed. “You need...” again, he broke off, looking up and narrowing his eyes at me across the table like he could see straight through to my soul. Read my intent. Divine my future.
“You’re freaking me out,” I said honestly, reaching across the table and covering his hand with mine. “What’s going on?”
He looked down at my hand and his lips pinched together as if he was fighting tears. Then he looked back up, and I saw them standing in his eyes.
“I didn’t like that boy Parker,” he said.
I sat back, shock washing through me. “You said you loved him,” I argued.
“I loved him for you,” he said, shaking his hand. “He was wealthy and stable and he would have given you a very nice life.”
“But you didn’t like him?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t like him.”
“Do you like Nate?” I asked. Not that it would have changed anything. I didn’t date on my father’s terms. Still, I wanted to know.
He nodded slowly, his gaze drifting into space before snapping back to me. “He’s a good man, Alexandra.”
“Good...” I said nervously, because I could hear a but coming.
“A very good man,” he said, shaking his head and once again staring into space. “But he didn’t come from good beginnings, Aly. Your life hasn’t been without its trials, but he... I’m worried...” he rubbed his temples and looked back at me, visibly deflating. “You need to talk to him.”
“We have talked,” I said.
“No, sugar,” he said, leaning forward and taking my hand. “You need to talk to him. If you get involved with him again, and you want it to be serious, you need to start on honest footing. You need to understand the history he’s carrying, because if you’re going to be together it’s going to be yours to carry too.”
“Is this my father talking or the preacher?” I asked, genuinely perplexed. I hadn’t gotten much of Pastor Winger since my mother died. My father generally knew better than to pull this crap with me.
“Both,” he said severely, frowning at me. “This is serious, Alexandra.”
“Daddy, we’re going on a couple dates,” I said, trying to sound exasperated. “It’s not like we’re getting married.” We both knew I was lying, though. It was never going to be a couple easy dates. Not with Nate. It was going to be something huge, or it was going to be nothing. And I already knew it wasn’t nothing.
My father just frowned at me, shaking his head slowly. “Just take my advice, sugar,” he said finally, picking up his paper to indicate our conversation was over. “You owe it to yourself to to find out what you’re getting yourself into.”