Alicia turned away, her back to Jon and the door. She adjusted the towel, slipped it from her shoulder to wrap about her chest, and secure it between her breasts. Over her heart. She would swear that it was broken except for the loud, solid rat-a-tat-tat she felt pounding in her temples. She hugged the towel tighter, like a shield, some protection from the cold of his response.
She had played her hand and lost. What now? If she could not convince this man of the truth, what future did they have? And most importantly, what about Hope? What about their child? She leaned her head against the cold tiles and felt the hot tears cascade down her cheeks. The only man she had ever said those words to…and that was his response?
“Go ahead. I’ll be there in a minute.” She needed some time alone to consider her options. Did she have any?
“Sure. I’ll take my stuff and get ready in the bedroom. I’m sorry.”
Alicia waited until she heard the click of the door closing before she sunk to the cool recesses of the tub. Until she gave her tears free rein. She held back the sobs, though she wanted to wail like the mothers she had seen at that wall, the ones who had lost sons, husbands, and lovers.
She, too, had lost. Lost something precious. She had lost her dreams. Dreams of marriage and family built on honesty, respect, and most of all, love. What now? Did she ask Jon to leave? Make some arrangement like so many parents did to share custody of their children?
How would she explain any of that to Hope? She could not bring herself to cut him out of their child’s life completely, not now that they knew one another. Did she walk in that room, head held high, and pretend that nothing had happened? That she had not said those words? That she did not feel them?
Why had she done it? Why had she taken such a risk? Why hadn’t she just waited, bided her time, taken things more slowly? She laughed, and it had the ring of a crazy woman to it. When it came to Jon, she had never played it safe. She had taken a stranger into her bed and her heart. The only one-night stand of her life. And from that came the best thing that had ever happened to her, Hope.
What now? Her heart hammered with each beat, her head pounded as she rose from the tub. She leaned against the wall as she stepped out. She hugged that towel even tighter as if her life depended upon keeping it in place. She went through the motions of brushing her teeth. Even then, she swore she could taste him, taste Jon’s come overpowering the mint.
What now? Each step of her bare feet on the dingy brown shag carpet in the hallway. That carpet had been there all her life. She should have replaced it long ago. She paused outside of Hope’s room. Did she dare look in? How could she not? Hope was at the center of it all. She could not forget that. What was best for her daughter was the only thing that mattered?
She closed the door softly and leaned her head against it. What now? That damned voice echoed in her heart and her head. She trembled as she took the dozen or so steps down the hallway. Dead woman walking, what now? The blood in her icy veins seemed to chorus.
She paused outside her bedroom door — their bedroom. Her head leaned against the solid wood. It seemed the only stable thing in her world just then. She felt like she ought to pray, but to whom or what she had no idea.
What now? Wasn’t that a prayer in itself? She turned the knob of the door and prepared to face the reality of what now.
What now? Jon knew that he had fucked up. Big time. But how did he make this one right? Was that even possible?
He sat on the end of the bed with the towel wrapped around him. His head almost touched his chest. Despite the warm shower that had loosened the contractures, he felt the tightening and pull from the unusual position. But at the moment, the slight pain helped him to focus.
What the hell did he do now? What could he possibly say to make this one right? And when things were going so well.
Going well? He laughed; an earth-shattering porn star blow job in the bathroom was a helluva a lot more than ‘well.’ And the way that Alicia had responded when he fucked her in the shower? It was better even than that night, and that was saying something.
Then she said those three little words. And he had ruined it all. What now?
Alicia closed the door behind her quietly. If it were any solace, Jon looked almost as miserable as she felt.
He was still stunning. Sitting naked, except for the towel, on the foot of her bed. Their bed. Was it still? Did she want it to be? Hell, yeah, that was not even a question.
The question was: how did they do this? How did they make a family when she loved him, and he didn’t love her. Or at least, was not willing to admit it. Or even accept the love she offered.
She clutched the towel tighter between her breasts as she covered the short distance between the door and where he sat. “Do you still want to show me what to do? How to help?”
She stared at the ugly brown shag carpet. She should think about buying new. Right now, she wanted to think about anything but what happened in that bathroom. Well, at least at the end. The rest of it was kinda nice. Kinda nice? Hell, it was mind-blowing. At least her orgasms were.
And she had thought that Jon was as into it as she was. But maybe that was just a guy thing. Perhaps it was true. Maybe guys did not care as much about who sucked their cocks as long as they got sucked.
His fingers touched hers, laced through them, and tugged her forward gently. He buried his face in the rough terry cloth of the towel. “I’m sorry,” was all he muttered against her stomach.
She just held him, wrapped her arms about his scarred shoulders and back, and held him close. It was a start, right? Something? Maybe not the words of love that she ached to hear, but it was better than nothing. Better than pretending to be asleep to avoid an uncomfortable situation?
She swallowed back tears, “It’s okay,” she lied. “Show me what to do so I can help out.” That would be something useful, a good place to begin, Alicia assured herself.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to,” Jon’s grip on her remained tight.
Alicia pulled back out of the embrace and knelt on the floor at his feet. Her hands tenderly cupped his face, “I know I don’t have to. I want to. Jon, I want to. If we’re going to make this work, even if the only reason you’re doing it is for Hope’s sake, then we need to talk. We need to find common ground, and we need to stop trying to protect ourselves.”
She thought that he was going to continue arguing. The silence stretched out for several long moments. But then he nodded his head and passed her a jar of cream. He showed her the motions to use and how much pressure to apply, surprisingly a lot. By the time that they got to his mid-back, Alicia was gaining confidence.
The burn scars’ ridges might feel stiff and rough beneath her fingers, but she could almost feel the flesh loosen with each stroke. This area was redder and drier. The scars were less healed than the others.
“That’s the hardest area for me to reach,” Jon whispered as she added a touch more pressure to her slow, circular strokes.
She continued the massage for several long moments; both of them lost in their thoughts. The monotony helped to clear her head. One thing kept coming back to her: Chase Logan’s words, “It’s not up to you to convince him that you love him. He’s gotta come to terms with that himself. All you can do is offer your love freely.”
She had and look where that got them. What now? It seemed that was the question that controlled her life, especially when it came to Jon. Did she pull back, play it safe, and pretend she never said those words? Or did she keep offering her love freely?
Wasn’t that what she was doing now? She could have climbed into bed and hugged her side as she had done the past few nights. Refused to talk or pretend nothing had happened. But she hadn’t, and she knew that she wouldn’t. Maybe she couldn’t.
She finished up, mindful not to overdo it. Then she bent and kissed the top of his head. “I guess we should get some sleep. It’s been a big day, and tomorrow I’m sure we’ll have a tired and grouchy little girl to deal with.”
She stood up and tucked the jar of moisturizer back in his case on the dresser. She grabbed a nightshirt from her drawer.
She turned back to face him, “Please.” He stared at that ugly brown carpet, not meeting her gaze. “Please, I’d like to hold you. Naked. If that’s okay?”
She nodded but realized that he did not see because he was still examining that damned old carpet. “I’ll keep this at the foot of the bed. Just in case Hope needs something during the night.”
He looked up and gave her that lopsided grin, “Yeah, I never knew how much having kids changed you.”
She laughed as she threw back the covers and climbed into her side of the bed. Should she scoot over, closer to the center? She did not have time to decide because his good hand reached out and pulled her there anyway.
She leaned her head in the crook of his shoulders and neck. At least tomorrow morning, she would not be embarrassed and pretend that was not how she had slept. “Good-night, Jon,” she squirmed a bit closer.
She felt the warmth of his breath as he kissed the top of her head, “Don’t think I have forgotten. I still owe you a few dozen orgasms and a couple of hours with my face buried between your legs.”
He sighed, and his arm about her tightened, “But I guess you’re right. Today had been a big day. And tomorrow will be here sooner than we think. Nite-nite, sweetheart.”
A month later…
Jon watched the girls run and climb in the park. As if the world could be that perfect. As if nothing mattered. Oh, for the world to be so simple.
But his wasn’t. Oh, sure, since that night, they had not only been sharing the same bed but burning up the sheets of it, too. Hell, his sex life had never been better.
Almost every night, he waited up for Alicia to come home. He often ran her a bubble bath, or they shared a shower. Whether it was her massaging the creams into the scar tissue or him rubbing the knots from her tight shoulders or tired feet, it almost always got around to sex.
He had kept his promise to her – a couple of times, actually. His head buried between her soft thighs, like that apple pie, made him wish for his sense of taste.
He half-smiled; of course, she had returned the favor a few times herself. Damn, the woman was talented with her mouth and hands. But he knew the truth; the reason why the sex was so fucking fantastic was that Alicia put her heart and soul into it.
Honestly, he did too. Trying to show her with kisses, caresses, and his body what he could not bring himself to reveal with words. But there was still a tension between them as if both were walking on eggshells or a field of landmines.
He knew he needed to do something about the situation. This was his fault, after all. Alicia had put herself out there, taken a risk, and he had blown it to hell just like that IED had the SUV that day.
“So, what the docs say about your arm, dude?”
Chris’s question brought him back to the present. That was the other thing that was bothering him. He had been back to the VA twice. The doctors were adamant. Not only was his bad left arm not improving, but it also seemed that the circulation to his remaining fingers was deteriorating. That, of course, decreased the feeling in them, increased the chance of injury to them, and even infection. That arm needed to be amputated. Soon.
But he had been delaying that decision too. Trying to come to some closure, but he wasn’t sure what with.
Was it some epiphany with the survivors’ guilt that seemed to plague him even more? What right did he have to love and happiness when it was his decision that had cost other good men their lives that day? Some of them had wives and children too. Why should he be granted the opportunity to watch his Hope grow up when they never would? And why should he receive mind-shattering blow jobs when they would never hold their wives or love them again?
Fate was such a suck-ass excuse for being happy at the expense of others. Or that was what he had been telling himself for five years. Or was it that he was wasting the opportunity that Fate had given him? That he was half living. Going through the motions while playing it safe. Perhaps enjoying all the benefits without any of the responsibilities? Those three little words hung over his head like a guillotine.
It had been weeks, and he needed to do something. ‘Shit or get off the pot,’ was the expression that his first Gunnery Sergeant had used. Chad Wilson had always said that there came a moment when you just had to make a decision because not making one was usually worse.
Maybe that had been his problem that day? Perhaps he should have decided to turn around? But they had their orders, and no matter the feeling in his gut, he and his man had all been trained to follow orders.
But he could not go back to that day, no matter how much he might want to. He could, though, make the decisions that faced him now.
“They want to amputate.”
“So, what’s new with that? The question is: are you gonna let them?” his friend pressed.
He nodded his head slowly, finally coming to the only logical decision there was. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“You guess? Come on, man. What’s wrong with you? You have a beautiful little girl and a woman who loves your sorry ass. Why do you still have your head up your ass?”
Jon sighed heavily, then turned to look at his friend. “That’s the problem. Alicia does love me.”
“And you’re still an ass? So caught up in the past and guilt that you can’t accept her love and just be fucking grateful?”
Jon chuckled and shook his head, “Kacey must make a killing off that swear jar.”
His friend slapped him on his shoulder and laughed. The sound rang across the park with joy, “Let’s just say she’s planning a trip to Disney World in Florida before the baby is born. But that’s not the point. This isn’t about me and my potty mouth. What’s up with you?”
Jon shrugged and looked at the ground. The grass under their bench was wearing thin, just like he knew Alicia’s patience would one day. “She told me she loved me. That night after the wedding. Commitment ceremony, whatever the fuck.”
“You better watch it; Alicia will be getting rich off your sorry ass too if she starts one of those damned jars.” His friend watched their little girls playing for a long moment. The silence just hung like the heat of mid-day over the desert.
“I was on the other end of that one, friend,” Chris kept his eyes firmly ahead on the girls as he spoke. “I might have spent a lucky thirteen years in the Marines, but before that, I’m the product of a couple of tree-hugging, free love hippies.”
Jon’s brow furrowed as he tried to manage how someone made that transition. “I was ever bit as idealistic as my parents. I spent a whole year bumming around the world, helping in places most people never even heard of. Then another four years at college. But none of it seemed right.”
“I wanted to make a difference. Do something important. I got caught in one of those recruiting stings on campus just before I graduated. I signed away eight years of my life without consulting my parents.”
Chris chuckled, “Yeah, that went over like a fart in church. Not that I have ever been in many of those. But after getting over the initial shock of my decision, my parents have always supported my choice.”
He hit the wheels of the chair, “Even when I ended up like this in a chair and no working dick. They never once said I told you so. But trust me, the thought went through my head lots – that I got what I deserved. That I should have never been over there, defending some rich fuckers’ rights to rob other people of their oil.”
He shook his head and looked Jon directly in the eye, “But I’m getting off the point. Those words were ones I heard a lot growing up. My parents said them to us kids all the time. At least two or three times a day. And they weren’t shy about saying them or showing them to one another either.”
“So, when I came to realize how I felt about Kacey and even Noah, it was the most natural thing in the world just to blurt it out.” He began laughing and shaking his head. Even their daughters looked up from the swings just to make sure everything was alright. Chris just waved at them, and they went back to playing.
“That one took some serious explaining. I was worried for a few minutes that Noah would have the guts to throat punch the cripple. But like I told him, I might not swing both ways, but love comes in all kinda forms. So, hell, yeah, that man probably saved my miserable life, gave me something to fight for, and brought the girls into my life, fuck, yeah, I love him.”
He shook his head, and those grey-blond curls that hung to his shoulders danced about them, “But what surprised me was that those words made Kacey just as uncomfortable.” He paused for a long moment, once more, lost in his thoughts and memories. He finally met Jon’s gaze, “It ain’t just us guys that have a corner on survivors’ guilt.”
Chris sighed, “She’s afraid that she’s betraying Thomas’s memory by caring for Noah and me. It was a rough patch, pretty touch, and go there for a while. And trust me, I was beating myself up pretty good over being such a loudmouth.”
“So, what happened?”
Chris waved for the girls to join them, “Nothing happened, dude. I learned to pour my love into that little girl. Noah’s come around. A bit, at least. You know those half hugs that guys give one another. And our friendship seems stronger than ever.”
His friend shook his head and stared off into the clouds. Jon would have sworn he saw tears there, “What do words matter anyhow? She’s with us. We’re a family. And the baby will cement that. Isn’t that what’s really important? Actions, not words?”
It was the same argument that Jon had been having with himself for weeks. What did it matter whether he said those words? Or even if she ever did again. What mattered was that they were there for one another and their daughter?
So, why did watching his friend laugh while he wrapped the sweater about the little girl make his chest so damned tight? That argument hadn’t held much weight before, but after this latest conversation, it seemed even more hallow—just another thing to add to his growing pile of things to regret.
Alicia was putting Hope to bed when Jon got out of the shower. Alison had insisted on closing the again tonight. While Jon appreciated the extra time it gave him with his family, he felt guilty; like he was forcing the woman from the only home she had known for years.
Jon sat at the end of the bed they shared. He wore only the towel wrapped about his waist as he rehearsed what he would say for the hundredth time that day. He wanted to get this right. A man only proposed once. That other one did not count. Somehow he had known even then his marriage would not last. This one would. It had to.
He had left this one too late. He had done everything all wrong. You fell in love, then proposed, got married, and had children. He still had not figured out what order he had done it all in. But there was no denying that the proposal and marriage were coming last. And he was running out of time there, too. The doctors were pushing for the surgery as quickly as possible.
“Okay, so what’s bothering you?”
Jon had been so caught up in his thoughts that he had not even noticed her standing in the doorway. She frowned as she closed that door behind her and came to sit next to him on the bed. Her hand reached out, taking his mangled one.
The doctors were right. The damage to the nerves and circulation in that hand and arm meant that the sensation in it was never quite right. But now, if he were not watching her clutch it, he probably would not have known she touched him at all.
“The doctors want to amputate it.” That was not how he had planned to begin this conversation.
“Yes, we’ve talked about that before.”
He shook his head, “No, I mean now. Well, not now. Not right this minute. But soon.”
She inhaled deeply, “How soon?”
“They haven’t given me a date exactly. But as soon as they can arrange it. In the next couple of weeks, for sure.”
“I thought it took months for those sorts of things with the VA?” He watched the light dawn in her expressive dark eyes, “Oh, it’s that bad?”
He sighed as he turned to wrap his good arm about her. “It is not life-threatening,” at least not yet, he left unsaid. “But I have lost all sensation in it, and they say the circulation is just as bad. There’s no Hope now of it improving.” That was harder to admit than he had thought.
She nodded as she studied the old brown shag carpet that he had come to love as a symbol of home. His home – with them. “Okay, so we knew this might happen, right? We just need to prepare Hope for it. How long will you be in the hospital? Will she be able to visit you there? Will you need to stay at the rehab center for long the way that Chris did?”
Her questions came at him so fast that his head hurt. He had been so focused on the proposal and arranging a quickie wedding that he had not considered how they would handle their daughter. He did not even have answers to half her questions.
“If things go well, I shouldn’t need to be in the hospital for more than a week or so. Not since I live locally now and can go back easily in an emergency. I think it is the same with the rehab, though I’ll need to check. But it seems it would be cheaper for them if it could be handled outpatient. And you know how the VA is about anything that saves money?”
“As for Hope visiting, I think so. I mean, other guys always had their families and kids visiting. So, it shouldn’t be a problem. Only during certain times, though, of course.” He sighed, “As for how to tell her, I don’t have any idea. I was hoping you would.”
She nodded and smiled, though he could tell it was forced. “The truth works best. Or so I’ve discovered.” She blushed, “Well, most of the time.”
It was his opening. To bring up the idea of marriage. Well, to propose. Alicia had been the one to bring up the idea of marriage all those weeks ago. Reaching behind him under the pillow where he had hidden the small black box, “Speaking of which…”
He was going to do this right. He dropped to one knee in front of her as he fumbled with his one good hand to open the damned box. Yes, it was time, past time for this surgery. He finally managed to snap the lid open, “Alicia Marie Flores, would you do me the honor of being my wife?”
Jon watched the tears gather in her eyes as she reached out tentatively for the box. But they were not the tears of joy he had Hoped to see there. Her hand trembled as she took the box from him and closed the lid. His heart stopped as his Hope died.
Alicia had dreamt of this moment. He had been right. Since she was a little girl, Alicia had wanted nothing more than a happy marriage and children. If she had gone about it in a roundabout way, nothing had changed that dream. Not since the moment she looked into those eyes and saw her past and future rolled into one.
But not like this. It was all wrong. Sure, she had been the one to casually toss out marriage as the most natural solution to their complicated situation. But over the weeks since that night in the desert, she had come to Hope and believe they could have so much more than mere convenience and great sex.
She had Hoped and, at moments, thought they were getting to it. That ‘playing house’ was more than just the easy path for their child’s sake. But this was something else. She saw that in those eyes that had always held her heart since that first gaze across the table. She had felt his pain then. And she did now.
She closed the lid of the box. Though she could not bring herself to hand it back to him or answer his question. At least not yet. “The truth, Jon. I want the truth. What is this all about? Why now? And just how dangerous is this surgery?”
She watched his shoulders slump as he exhaled deeply. He rose from the floor and came to sit beside her on the bed once more. He stared at that ugly brown carpet. She really ought to replace it.
When he spoke, she heard the slight tremble in his voice. He still would not look her in the eyes, “It is as routine as these things go. I swear it, Alicia.”
“But?” She had to know the truth, all of it.
“But life is never routine. It is not that simple. Nor that sure and safe.”
She heard the pain behind those words. She knew that he spoke of so much more than this situation or even his wife’s death. Though he often tossed and turned, mumbling in his sleep, he had never spoken about it. Whatever it was that changed his life over there.
When she asked Chris, he had dismissed her concerns, saying that Jon would tell her in his own time, or not. That sometimes, some things were best left in the past. But that was not good enough for her.
But hearing the depths of that pain now made her want to take this man, this hero, into her arms and body, to offer what respite and solace she could from those unspoken burdens. She resisted that urge, knowing that if she did, she might never get the answers she needed.
The silence stretched between them like the gulf that was growing rather than shrinking as she had Hoped. She resisted the urge to fill it with words, with more questions.
Just when she feared that they had reached an impasse, he looked up. His gaze held hers, pleading for understanding as much as his words did. “I know I did this all wrong. I’m sorry about that, too. You deserve so much more than I can ever offer.”
He paused and looked down. Her eyes followed his to the mangled hand that was the issue of the moment. Her heart quickened, and she fought the urge to give in, to offer him the assurance he needed as silence once more echoed off the walls of their bedroom.
When he looked back up, she would have sworn those eyes glistened with tears. She could almost hear them in his voice as he spoke, “Please. Please, I know this is not how you dreamt of this moment, what you wanted. I’m not…”
He stopped and stared at that disgusting brown carpet again. His pain was hers. And just when Alicia was sure that she could not take anymore, that she would succumb to his pleas, spoken and unspoken, he lifted his face.
“The truth is that I need to know that if something did go wrong, you and our little girl would be taken care of.”
Alicia wanted to scream and argue. She had managed for seven years on her own as a single parent. What made him think that she could not again? But the pain in his voice kept her from speaking, and his hand covering hers as they clutched that tiny black box spoke louder than his words.
“Please, Alicia. I might not have much to offer you or our little girl, but let me do this. Let me give you my name. I need to know that if the worst happened, then you and Hope would have the assurance of my pension and insurance.”
He sighed and chuckled in a tight sort of way that made her curious, “Besides, if worst came to worst, I’d sure as hell rather have you calling the shots than my mother.” He gave her a tight smile as he squeezed her hands around the rigid velvet box, “Please understand.”
How could she not? How could she not succumb in the end to the pain that rolled off this man as profoundly as it had that night?
But she could not bring herself to say the words. To give her consent to something that was so much less than her Hopes and dreams. So she merely nodded and forced a tight smile as she felt tears gathering in her eyes.
He beamed at her, nonetheless. She did not hear much of anything else he said as she turned her head and allowed the tears to course down her cheeks. Washing away those Hopes and dreams. Even if what he said made sense, it was not enough. Not enough for her broken heart anyway.