Mike saw the curtain move slightly in her bedroom. His throat tightened. This indeed was the hardest thing he had ever done. The only thing that even came close was putting Paddy in that box with his mother and baby sister, but the choices of seven-year-old little boys did not have the same import as forty-year-old men. Still, there were some similarities – giving up something he loved because it was the right thing.
So, why the fuck did it not feel right? Why did he want to say fuck it, unload the damned bike…all of it this time, and take up permanent residence in her bed and, yes, damn it, her heart? He knew if he suggested staying a bit longer, just until the New Year, maybe, she would agree.
But it always came back to the same thing – what did he have to offer someone like her?
Last night should have been proof enough of that. What if it had been one of the nasty ones? What if he had been so deep in his darkness that he could not tell the difference between dreams and reality? Sure, those were rare. It had only happened a couple of times.
The one in the field hospital after they lost Tommy had been the worst. The medics had had to sedate him. When the doctor came around the next day, it had taken a great deal of fast-talking from Mike to avoid being shipped back home then and there. He had finally managed to half-convince the man that it was just a normal reaction to the stress, perhaps even some kind of allergic reaction to the pain medication they were giving him, but certainly nothing to be that concerned about.
He knew, though, that after that, the brass was watching every fucking thing he did, looking for the least little sign of trouble. Honestly, that incident had been the final straw that had prompted his retirement.
The other time he had no idea what had happened. He had woken up in the dark and cold on one of the abandoned construction sites near the Hall homestead. He was barefoot and wearing only his sweat pants despite the fall chill in the air. No matter how hard he tried to remember what had happened and how he had gotten there, he could not.
Of course, those were minor enough, but everyone knew the horror stories of wives and girlfriends mistaken for enemy combatants and injured, usually something trivial. However, it was not something he wanted to think about happening with her.
The other thing that worried him was what he might say during one of those dreams. He did not know how much she knew of the extent of her son’s injuries or what happened that morning, but he did not want to cause her more pain like that either.
No, last night had been a close call — a lucky escape. The way her touch and voice had brought him back from the darkness so quickly had been a real blessing. Not just for him, either.
He closed the compartment, knowing that he was trying to delay the inevitable. But damn, he did not want to say good-bye to the woman. If before she had been some dream, an ideal against which other women were measured, an impossible longing of his heart, the past eight days had been that dream come true. Spending most of those nights in her bed, making love to her, hearing those moans, watching her sleep until he could not fight slumber anymore himself. It was so fucking much more than a guy like him deserved.
Hell, for once in his fucking life since he was a kid, he halfway believed there might be something or someone out there who was looking out for his sorry ass, who gave a shit about him. Of course, he was intelligent enough to know that was all just a delusion. Gods were nothing more than the creations of their followers.
This life was what it was. Easy for a few lucky bastards and degrees of a living hell for the rest of us. It was just that for one tiny brief moment in time, he had held something good, tasted happiness, and knew what those lucky bastards must feel like. So, of course, he was reluctant to let that all go. Anyone would be, right?
It was for the best, though. He knew his presence here was beginning to raise eyebrows in this small town. He had caught snippets of a conversation just that morning when he was getting gas for the road. The view of him and his motorcycle had been blocked by an SUV, so the men had not known he could overhear them.
He had not heard all they said, but he had gotten enough to know that her job was in jeopardy. Moral turpitude was not an unfamiliar concept in a military culture where you could still be court-martialed, lose your career, and even face jail for adultery. He just had not thought that such things were such a big deal in the civilian world. Then again, this was Small Town, America.
No, this was the only way. He could not bear it if his presence here caused her even more trouble. He looked across the road at Sandy Monroe’s house. He was confident that had something to do with things too. But he would not be the grounds these people and this town found to use against her. That much he was determined on.
He looked back at her house, the home where his friend had grown up, the place that held so many memories for her. He only hoped that the past few days had been good ones for her as they were for him. He hated feeling like a cad. Did people even use that word anymore? A player was perhaps the more modern term for it. And especially with her of all people.
He had even been tempted a couple of times last night to tell her the truth about how he felt for her. When she began to drift off, her eyes so sleepy, and she had pressed tighter against him as if she too needed to hold onto that moment, onto him. When he had pressed that kiss to her forehead and told her to rest, that they would talk today, when she whispered ‘nite, nite,’ he had come so fucking close to saying…those words.
What good would that do, though? It was not like his love meant much. The truth was it was probably more of a curse than a blessing. As macabre as it sounded sometimes, he truly did feel cursed, like everything he touched or cared about was doomed. And if those rumors he had heard were true, well, he needed to leave – as hard as this was. He had to. For her sake.
Standing by the window of her bedroom, Esther watched as he threw his duffel bag into the compartment on his bike. Looking at the matching green bag that lay half-open on her bed, she hoped there was room in there for another. What she really hoped was that there was room in his life for her.
She was not that naïve little college girl anymore. She was not chasing after the quarterback, hoping for some crumb of gratitude for writing his papers. She was a woman, a grown woman, a woman that had raised a son on her own, had borne the prejudice of this small town for most of her life. She was also a woman yearning to break free of all of it.
She might not know how long this thing between them would last. How long this passion would burn brighter than the North Star. But one thing she did know was that she wanted to find out. For once in the past quarter of a century, she was going to take a chance. Live her life and taste passion and adventure.
That was the decision that she had come to in the early hours of the morning, lying replete in his arms. Women like her never used that word…replete. They never tasted passion like that – and certainly not with men like Master Sergeant Michael O’Malley. But she had, and she was not ready to let it slip through her fingers. Not yet, anyway.
Turning back towards the bed before she lost her courage, she reached for the top drawer of the nightstand. She started to pull out the leather-bound volume, the latest in the collection that gathered dust under the bed.
Instead, her fingers found the cold metal of the tablet that she had bought last month. It had been a whim. She had encouraged her students to explore this brave new world of cyberspace. Their assignment to create a blog — an online journal like the leather-bound ones that had been her solace for all of her life.
Maybe this was right too. Perhaps this new adventure demanded a new type of journal. Instead of digging deeper for the safety of her old leather friend, she boldly brought forth a new one. Tucking it into the top of the bag between some old jeans and a sweater, she closed the zipper and slung it across her shoulder.
She made it smoothly across the room and out the door. But she felt her bravado flee when she stood facing the closed door of her son’s room. She took two steps, her fingers wrapping around the doorknob. She wanted to turn it, to step inside, and for one more brief moment, commune with him.
But she dared not. Her life now was about seizing the moment. The here and now. And outside, she knew that Michael was finishing up his preparations. Any moment now, he would come looking for her, to say their final farewells.
It was not that she missed her son any less. That void in her soul still stretched out like a black hole in the fabric of time and space, at least in her life and soul. But even that seemed different somehow. She shook her head. Maybe it was just her mind justifying this choice, but somehow or the other, it felt right. Like it was what Tommy would want for her.
She could only hope that she could convince Mike that it was the right thing. It was time to get that show on the road too. She walked down the hallway with the same determination that she had when facing the inquisition yesterday. Was it just yesterday? She crossed the living room and stood for a moment in the doorway. Her hand hovered over the handle on the screen door.
She could still back out. Stash the duffel bag under the couch before Mike came back. Pretend that everything was fine. Send him on his journeys alone. Keep her pride and dignity. Never admit the truth…that she had nothing left in this place, that she wanted nothing more than to see where this thing between them took her.
She pushed that handle and rushed onto the front porch. The sound of the door slamming and locking behind her played like a rock anthem sung on Sunday morning by the choir of the AME church. Flying across the yard with the duffle bag bouncing about her back, she stood before him in seconds.
She had practiced this speech a thousand times. She had awoken in the night and laid in his arms writing and rehearsing each word. But now faced with the questions in those blue-gray eyes, all her carefully crafted words fled like baby birds on the first stiff summer wind.
“What is that?” Mike eyed the bag.
“I thought…” she began, searching for the words once more. Her speech about taking chances, seeing where things led, new beginnings, and all her pretty words deserted her. In the end, she was left with only, “I’m coming with you.”
She watched him. He seemed frozen in place. One muscled thigh on either side of the motorcycle. His hands on the shining metal of the handlebars. His face an unreadable mask. Her heart stuttered in her chest. Her breath caught in her lungs until she was sure her lips would turn blue. Still, neither said anything. They simply stared at each other.
Mike stared at her gape-mouthed. He must have heard her wrong, but then why was the woman doing standing there holding a packed bag. He shook his head, thinking perhaps it was all just a dream. He would wake up soon. He was sure there was some other explanation for her standing there holding one of Tommy’s old bags.
He sighed as his promise to his dying friend came back to haunt him. He had promised Tommy that he would look after her, after Esther. His mother had been the last thing the young man had thought about as he lay dying in Mike’s arms. What would he think if he knew how Mike had ‘taken care of’ her these past few days? He highly doubted that his friend had intended for him to take up residence in his mother’s bed.
However, the truth was that Mike did not regret a single moment of the past few days, especially not the ones spent loving her. The other reality was that she did need ‘looking after.’ Oh, he knew she would berate him if he dared suggest such a thing. But the dark circles beneath those deep brown eyes were almost gone after just a few nights in his arms. Not that he was utterly selfless in loving the woman until neither could move, and exhaustion overtook them.
While his cooking might leave much to be desired, he had managed to get her to eat more the past couple of days too. Especially once he quit torturing her with his poor samples of the culinary arts and taken to picking something up from the diner before she got home. Of course, laughing as they worked side by side in the kitchen to prepare dinner a couple of times had been another dream come true for Mike. Like something out of one of those old sitcoms that featured happy families.
What was he going to do? What was the right thing? What was best for her? That was all that mattered. Not just because of the promise he had made to his dying friend either, but because he loved her. He wanted what was best for her, even more than himself.
She had a life here. She owned a house. She had a respectable job. This was where she had spent much of her life. Where she had raised Tommy. But was that enough?
Mike found the strength to move then. Throwing one leg over the bike, he dismounted. In seconds, he stood before her, so close that he could feel the heat of her body in the crisp morning air. So close that he could smell the clean, enticing scent of cocoa butter and woman. So close that if she merely took a tiny baby step, he could wrap his arms about her, seek the passion that only she had ever given him.
He reached out and took the bag from her. But that was all he did. His eyes searched her face. He did not know what to say, what to tell her. He should say something, try to convince her that this was crazy and foolish. That he was no good for her. That she would be better off staying here.
But he knew that she would not be. Somehow he knew that this was right. He might still have his concerns. His worries. Feel that she deserved so much more than he could give her. But once more he was just not strong enough, honorable enough to turn her down. To turn down his chance to taste a bit of happiness, even if only for a few more days or weeks.
He was sure that eventually, she would see the folly of her decision for herself. Realize that he was not what a woman like her wanted or needed. But until then, he was going to enjoy as many moments as he could with this woman.
He shifted the weight of that bag from one shoulder to the other. His throat tightened, and his heart stuttered in his chest. Somehow or the other it seemed more than a mere piece of luggage. He remembered the old man’s words… “Here’s the best advice this old man can give you. You look this world over until you find you one. Then you do whatever you have to do to hold onto her because that’s the only peace you will ever find in this world. In the arms of a good woman, a woman who knows your pain and loves you anyway.”
If the Colonel’s words were not enough, Mike could almost hear Luke. “Somewhere out there is a good woman like my Kim Lee that needs you to save her from life’s pain just as much as you need her to push those demons aside and save your sorry soul. Trust me; shared burdens ain’t nearly as heavy as they feel right now. The love you find in the arms of a good woman will save you like not even god can.”
Shared burdens? Was that what this was? Why these past few days had been the happiest of his fucked-up life? Like this damned duffel bag, was it as simple as taking some of her burdens and sharing some of his own?
He looked across the street at Sandy’s house, down the road just a bit, he could see the general store and feed and seed. He heard those hate-filled words, ‘nigger bitch,’ ‘that woman better watch herself in this town.’
No, his life might not be easy, his path uncertain, and he certainly did not think he could claim to ‘save her from life’s pain’ the way Luke had Kim Lee, but damn it…it was time. She did not belong here. Sebida had never been the ideal that she had sought. Not for her or Tommy. Her son had managed to find his way out in the Marines.
And while Mike had no idea where this damned thing would go, could not make this amazing woman, whom he truly loved, the promises she deserved, he could at least get her the hell out of here. Perhaps show her some of the world. And sure as hell hold her and make love to her for as many days and nights as she would give him.
Mike turned back to the motorcycle and opened another compartment placing her stuff inside it. He closed the lid and swung one of his legs across the bike once more, taking his seat. “Then get on,” was the only utterly inadequate reply he could come up with as he held out a hand towards the woman he loved.
Esther smiled and breathed again, a great gulp of air that seemed to hold a finality all its own. She raced the few short steps to the motorcycle and threw one of her jean-clad legs across the seat behind him. She climbed into place, wrapping her arms around his waist and rocking her hips against the leather seat, trying to find a comfortable position.
His hand snaked around to rest on her upper thigh. “If you want us to get out of here today, then be still, woman, because rubbing against me like that ain’t gonna do either of us any good for a few hours,” he smiled as he turned in his seat and placed a brief kiss on her lips.
Reaching behind him, he pulled out a red, white, and blue helmet. He placed it on her head and adjusted the strap beneath her chin. “This will have to do until we can find a place to get you your own.”
Esther opened her mouth as if to argue. His gaze met hers in a warning. There was no way they were leaving this place without her wearing a helmet. As if she could read his mind, Esther smiled and asked, “So, where to next, Master Sergeant… Mike?”
Mike sighed as he stared down the road. He tried to remind himself that her presence was just temporary. But damn, did her arms wrapped about his waist feel right somehow.
One thing he knew, he had had enough small town ‘hospitality’ to last him for a while. “How does New Orleans sound to you? I have a friend there who remodels abandoned houses for Veterans and their families. Maybe he could use some of your building skills, except this time, I think we’ll find you a hammer and save the wear and tear on your hairbrush.”