Niko looked up as Makenna entered Louanne's. It was straight up noon. She had appeared right on time. He hid a smile as she approached the table to settle in her accustomed seat. Today, she had worn a soft pastel peach suit and looked amazing. She grew even more amazing by the day.
They had been meeting like this almost every day for two weeks now. Niko genuinely enjoyed her company, but he had yet to flat ask her out on a real date. Lots of people already assumed they were dating. Niko didn't mind. Eventually, he would approach the subject. It was inevitable. He wanted to ensure he had earned her trust. From the way she opened up on many things, he was well on his way.
Makenna didn't give her lunch meetings with Niko much thought. She didn't know why she had begun to allow it or even what prompted her to keep it up. Again, she knew it was because of her overwhelming loneliness. It wasn't that she needed a man to complete her, but there were simply no other people close enough for her to share the simple things that happened in her life. Barb was her friend, but she was a work friend. They didn't associate outside the office. She didn't feel comfortable calling up Barb to cry on her shoulder. As far as Niko was concerned, she knew deeply within her heart that she was using him for his company. She had no intention of getting any closer than necessary. She had told Niko many things, but not intimate things. She didn't trust him enough to share her heart. She didn't think that day would come soon.
One thing, obviously, that Makenna had not shared was her relationship with Sirri. Sirri, on the other hand, was well aware of her lunch dates with Niko. Niko made it no secret he was casually meeting with her. Sirri kept his mouth shut. He assumed Makenna had as well, because Niko said not one word about anything he knew or didn't know. Although Makenna had failed to discuss their knowledge of each other to Niko, the thought disturbed rather than comforted him. Niko and Makenna's casual relationship was literally killing him. But there was nothing he could do about it. Nothing he could say. If Makenna didn't want Niko to know about their relationship, who was he to say anything to taint it? Even if he had to suffer and eat his heart out, he wouldn't speak of it unless she did first.
In the last two weeks, he had begun to notice that Sandra had taken an interest in him on a nonprofessional level. Twice, she had asked him out. Twice, he had refused. Sandra was young, intelligent, and attractive. He was truly flattered, but he was not interested. She made it no mystery that she wanted more than a casual relationship, but he definitely wasn't ready to leap into that. Although it probably sounded stupid as hell, he was not interested in moving on just yet, even if it was apparent Makenna had. Sirri tried to keep his head clear and focused. There were a few important events unfurling in the very near future. He had to have enough energy to complete this phase of his life. If he spent it obsessing about his love life, he would never accomplish one single task.
Tonight should have been one of the happiest in Sirri's life, but it was far from it. He sat in a crowded room with hundreds of others receiving Juris Doctor degrees. It was a day Sirri had waited years to come to fruition. All he could feel was overwhelming sadness. No one he loved was here to witness his accomplishment. His family couldn't make it and Makenna was out of reach. Both Niko and Sandra had attended. He was appreciative, but still so horridly sad. They were colleagues, probably felt more obligated to attend rather than to appear due to the kindness in their hearts. They were anxious to have another young, ambitious attorney to join their ranks. Neither of them was here because they cared about him. He had looked forward to this day for years, but now, he just wanted it to be over.
After the ceremony, Sirri wanted to go straight home, but both Niko and Sandra insisted on meeting him at the reception. Reluctantly, he made his way to the reception hall two floors up from the room where the commencement had been held. There were already dozens of people up here, but his eyes focused on only one of them. It was the only person he could see. Someone he loved showed up after all. Makenna.
Despite what he had done, despite how badly he hurt her, she showed up at one of the most important events in his life. He was completely blown away. If someone were to have asked him to describe what he was feeling at that exact moment, he wasn't sure if he could come up with a single word. Be that as it may, his heart was literally pounding in his chest. Would he have a heart attack before the night was over? Slowly, as if moving toward an improbable hallucination, he approached her. She was dressed in a floral print sundress that flowed loosely about her body. She looked young, fresh, and absolutely breathtaking.
Makenna watched as Sirri drew near. He was still decked out in his graduation garb. He looked good. Healthy. She felt the unwelcome sting of tears in her eyes. She didn't want him to see her crying. She fought it back madly. Now wasn't the time for her to start blubbering all over the place. She didn't know if her presence was appropriate or not, but she couldn't resist coming tonight. It was a very special night for him. She had debated with herself about staying after the ceremony, but she knew they needed to talk, so debate had been light.
"I didn't expect you to be here tonight," Sirri said as he stepped up to her.
There was a mixture of emotions flitting across his face. His eyes appeared to be misting up as well. "I know, but I really didn't want to miss seeing you graduate. Can we go somewhere and have that talk? I have something to share with you as well."
He thought of Niko and Sandra half a nanosecond. "Yes. We can. Give me a minute to get rid of this robe and cap."
Little did they know, but there was an unseen witness to their discussion. Niko had been close to approaching Makenna, but stopped when he saw she was speaking to Amandurre. The slimy bastard was moving in on her. Hadn't he already told him that she was out of his league? Apparently, Sirri Amandurre thought he could take something away from Niko Milionis, but he was wrong. Dead wrong. Niko nearly began moving toward them again, but when he caught wind of their words, it struck him. They already knew each other. From the look and sound of things, they had been more than friends. Motherfuck!
Makenna and Sirri walked a few blocks to a nearby coffeehouse. They had come to this place often when they first began dating. Although it was normally jumping with activity, there were dark, relatively private corners to be had. They were lucky to nab a booth that was intimately lit with a large candle. After each placed an order, they sat silently facing each other, neither sure how to begin.
Sirri gazed at Makenna for a long time. She seemed nervous and antsy. "Makenna, are you all right?"
His question rattled her. "I'm fine," she answered, her voice barely a squeak. "We just have so much to talk about."
He nodded. "We do. First, I would like you to know how much I appreciated your presence tonight. I had always wanted to share tonight with you. Your support was pivotal in my finishing this degree. Thank you for that, Makenna. It meant a lot to me."
His words touched her. For a moment, she forgot what he had done. "I only wanted to witness your success. I always knew you could do it."
He wanted to take her hand in his so badly he ached. "You did. You and my family. My most steadfast cheerleaders. I messed up more than I can fathom."
Before he could speak further, the server brought their coffee. Makenna didn't touch hers, but Sirri attacked his with relish. Perhaps the caffeine would give him a boost of courage.
"I'm sorry about a lot of things, Makenna. One being that I never told you about my marriage to Mel. Maybe if I had, what you saw wouldn't have happened."
"I'm here now," she said gently. "Tell me."
He sighed deeply before taking another sip of his drink. "When I met Mel, I had been in this state a total of three days. This area doesn't accept diversity very well. I should have done my research, but I thought I would fit in easily enough. I was wrong. People can be cruel…prejudiced." He clenched his jaw as the memories came flooding back. The cruelty he had faced still hurt, even after all this time. "I knew no one. I was very green and vulnerable. I needed a friend. Mel was my co-worker, and it didn't seem to bother her that I wasn't born on American soil. She was nice back then, nothing like she is now. She even looked different."
Pausing for a moment, Sirri reached for a napkin. He had been one who would tear them to shreds when he was nervous. He held onto the napkin loosely, fighting the temptation to begin riddling the innocent piece of paper. He was in pain, desperate for something else to experience it, even an inanimate object.
Makenna absorbed his words while she watched him playing with his napkin. She knew of his nervous habit. It was hard to reconcile the Sirri she knew with the one he was describing. She never once thought of him as vulnerable or lonely. He always appeared to be almost…gregarious and outgoing.
Feeling her eyes on him, he placed the napkin aside shamefacedly. Some things never change. He swallowed hard before he continued, "For months, she was my only friend. I was grateful for that. So when she wanted more than friendship, I felt completely obligated. I owed her, because she seemed to be a steadfast part of my life. Everything about me was unstable. Nothing was secure. Not only that, but I was always taught by my parents to do the right thing. I thought I was."
Unconsciously, he picked up the napkin again, clutching it. He glancedat her. There were so many emotions brewing in her eyes. They were the most expressive part of her body. What he saw in them now was disbelief. He understood. He was telling her about the man he had once been. Being a solitary person taught him all types of valuable lessons.
He couldn't help but wonder what was truly going on inside her. He could sit here and guess all day, but he didn't know. Was she thinking he was making excuses to try and cover his ass? He could never do that to her. Never.
He waited to see if she would speak. She didn't. Once again, he opened his mouth to spew the poison that had invaded his body like a black disease. "We dated for several months before we were intimate. After that, Mel changed. She became possessive and manipulative. I was naïve enough not to recognize it. When I had doubts about her, I would be haunted by images of being abandoned, left out in the cold. No one accepted me until I met her, until I became her lover. I was a weak man, Makenna. Weak and so unsure of myself. I am ashamed of that now. Very ashamed."
Makenna reacted to his words with what she thought was well hidden shock. It seemed as if he was speaking about a different person altogether. Sirri? Weak? No. It was Mel. It was all Mel. It had to be. He might have been hungry for love, but not to such an astounding degree as this. If anything, Mel had done more damage than she first thought. Suddenly, Makenna hated Mel more than she did before.
He attacked the napkin with relish. He was ripping it to pieces without realizing he was doing it. "We married after Mel became pregnant. I'm not sure that I ever loved her, but again, I was taught to always do the right thing. Then, it was to marry her, to take responsibility for our actions. To this day, I'm not sure if it was me who fathered her child. She miscarried three months into the pregnancy. Although I had doubts that I was the child's father, it left me devastated. It took months for me to get over it."
Her heart literally fell to her feet. He only married Mel due to her pregnancy. It was an obligation thing. The idea didn't sit well with her. It didn't sit well at all. For a moment, she was tempted to get up and leave this place. She didn't want to hear anymore, but she couldn't move.
Sirri opened his mouth, but shut it again. Somehow, he had the feeling that he had hurt her more with his admission. "Makenna," he called tentatively.
She jumped as if shot. "No. Please. Go on," she said shakily.
He nodded and swallowed yet another lump that had formed in his throat. "Very well. The miscarriage didn't settle her down. The games continued. I was certain she was running around, but I had no proof. Whenever I tried to leave her, some drama would erupt to keep me at her side. Like before, I felt obligated to be with her. One year after the miscarriage, I finally had had enough and confronted her. She then told me she was pregnant again. I couldn't leave her, not with the most remote chance that she was carrying my child. I later found out she had lied about that, too. It was the last straw. I left when she told me the truth, not looking back, not until…"
He grew silent for a moment, searching for words. Makenna was stunned. His admission tore her insides to shreds in more ways than one. He hadn't gotten to the heart of it yet. She could say nothing now, only listen. After weeks of battling it and winning, she suddenly felt overwhelmed by nausea.
Noticing an immediate change in her demeanor, he pressed onward. He had to get this out. "Most of what occurred between Mel and I was due to my fear. You taught me more about love than I have ever known in my lifetime. I didn't know if I was fit to be a good husband. Now that I think about it, I probably messed up on purpose so I wouldn't mess up later. I have so much more to learn about myself, my heart, and my motivation."
"You could have talked to me, Sirri," she said, each word dripping with deep hurt. "You didn't have to fuck her. You didn't have to ruin us. If you hadn't wanted to get married, we could have waited. There were dozens of other options."
She was crying now. He felt lower than before. "I wanted to marry you," he stated emphatically. "I wanted to be with you for the rest of my life. I wanted it, but I didn't know if I was good enough for you. My choice, my failure, had nothing to do with you. It was me. It was all me."
Makenna shook her head. "You don't get it. Do you? Your choice, your failure, has everything to do with me. It was a dumb ass move, Sirri. You didn't trust in our love enough to talk to me. Instead, you acted like a typical man and allowed your penis to think for you."
He could hold back no longer. Not caring about the consequences he would face, he reached across the table and took her hand. To his surprise, she didn't pull back. "I trusted in our love, but I didn't trust in myself. Although I long to, I cannot erase the past or change what I did. I don't expect you to understand. I don't expect or deserve your forgiveness."
She sat back exhaustively, her hand falling away from his naturally. "Then what is it that you want? What did you expect to result from this?"
He gazed at her intensely. "I want you to know that this was not your fault. This had nothing to do with my not loving you. I would like for you to give me a chance to fix the mess I made."
She thought of what he had said. She thought of what he had yet to know. She could say nothing now, not with his startling confession. Knowing him like she did, she found it hard to believe he was so vulnerable and naïve. It all hurt so much. Would he simply feel obligated to stay with her? Her psyche hadn't been constructed like Mel's, but it didn't matter. She held a secret, one that could not be revealed now. Not after tonight. Not until the dust settled.
"This is one thing you can't take back," she whispered. "You can't fix this mess. I wish you had come to me."
"So do I," he said. "But I didn't. I can never take it back. I wish there was another way for us. I wish for that more than anything." He looked away from her for a long moment to gather his wits. He then suddenly remembered there was something she wanted to talk about as well. They hadn't touched upon it. "What is it that you had to tell me?"
Sheer panic entered her body and made her heart pound in her chest. In all the drama, she thought he had forgotten. "Nothing. I had to tell you nothing."
He didn't believe that. "Makenna, what are you hiding from me?"
His intense gaze grew more intense still. The pounding of her heart made her feel ill. She shook her head. "Nothing."
"I think I know."
Makenna gulped. How could he know? No one did. "You…you do?"
He nodded. "I know. You're dating Niko."
Both relieved and guilty, she shook her head. "No Sirri. That's not…"
He held up his hand to interrupt her. "You don't have to deny it. He talks about you all the time. No man who speaks of a woman like that is just friends with her. I can't say I'm not jealous. But you don't have to hide it from me."
Could she continue to argue with him? If she did, she would blurt out what she was truly hiding. She never wanted Sirri to feel obligated to her. She didn't want to be like Mel. She would die first. "I wouldn't hide that from you."
Solemnly, he nodded again. "I don't trust him, Makenna. I'm not altogether certain I like him. Maybe he shows you a side he otherwise never reveals at the firm. I only hope he's good to you. I only hope he's better than I was. Above all else, you deserve that." Without another word, he stood. "Thank you for coming to my graduation. Most of all, thank you for hearing me out. I would call, but I'm sure you don't want to hear from me."
Makenna opened her mouth to speak, but closed it right back. There was no way she could say what was in her heart. No way at all. As she watched him walk away, she had never hated herself more. What could she do now? It was much too late to turn back. He would still need to know, but the opportune time had passed her by.
"I didn't expect to see you here."
The voice startled her. She looked up at Niko with something close to dismay in her eyes. He was in a suit. It took her a moment to realize that he had attended Sirri's graduation. "Oh, hi," she said absently.
"Are you okay?"
She wanted to lie, but what was the use? She shook her head. "No. I'm not."
He approached where she sat. He held out his hand. "Come with me. Let's get out of here."
As they left the coffeehouse, still hand in hand, another silent witness stood nearby. This time, it was Sirri. He watched as Niko ushered Makenna into his car. Sirri wasn't a man who cried easily, even when the situation warranted it. But the sight of the woman he loved holding the hand of another man was more than he could stand. Bitterly, grimly, he wiped the stinging tears out of his eyes.
Makenna didn't want to go anywhere with Niko, but she also hadn't wanted to stay in the coffeehouse another second. If she did, she thought she might lose her mind. It was a place she associated with Sirri, with her life before all hell broke loose. She had only hesitated a brief moment before taking his hand to allow him to take her away from the place. If she had had any idea that Sirri had witnessed their exit, she very well might have gone after him.
For a long time, they rode in silence. Every now and then, Makenna could feel Niko's eyes on her. She knew he was dying to probe into her problems, but she didn't know how much she wanted to tell him. She again knew how awkward it would be between him and Sirri.
Makenna looked up when she noticed that Niko was coasting his car over to the side of the street. It was obvious he wanted her to talk to him. She just didn't know how much she could tell him.
"We've been having lunch together for a good two weeks. I would like to think you could confide in me," he said suddenly. "It might have not made us bosom buddies, but I hope I can call you a friend."
She thought fleetingly of the words that came from Sirri's mouth. Was it true that Niko wanted more than to be her friend? Was he manipulating her as much as Mel had manipulated Sirri? The sad thing was, she needed someone to talk to. She couldn't speak to her family. She couldn't speak to Barb. She had no one.
"Sirri and I know each other," she began reluctantly.
"Amandurre? You know him?"
She nodded before fixing her eyes on him. "Yes. We…we were together. We were engaged. I saw him tonight at graduation and we talked before you came. You see, he cheated on me. We've broken up, but I…"
Makenna could say no more. Unable to stop herself, she burst into tears. She couldn't believe she had done this in front of a man she had considered an enemy. She sat and bawled her eyes out like an overgrown baby. Unyielding in her pain, she could barely feel Niko's arms as they went around her. She had no intention of letting her guard down so low, but it was something she could no longer help. She felt like an idiot, but it was good to have comfort again.
"He's a bastard idiot, Makenna," Niko said. "To hurt someone like you takes a heart of steel. I never knew the guy could have it in him. You are so very far out of his league."
She pulled away to focus her eyes on his face. There was no mirth in his eyes. None at all. Suddenly, she was offended at Niko's words. Although he had done something supremely stupid, Sirri was far from evil. "I don't know about that," she said with a sniffle. "I'm not pristine, either. I'm far from perfect. He was dumb, I'll give you that, but he's a good man."
She still loved the bastard. He would fix that. "I'm sure he is," Niko said. "You deserve so much more, though."
She shrugged nonchalantly. "Maybe…"
He shook his head before taking her hand into his. "No maybes. Absolutely."
And I'm it. I'll make you see. I'll convince you.