Alicia wanted to accept his offer. It hid her sin. And if she were honest, it kept this man around. In Hope’s life, yes, but also in hers. And somewhere since that afternoon, when she stared into those eyes that she had never forgotten and never would, Alicia had realized that she wanted that. Each day she had sighed with relief when he walked through the door at the diner. Each day she watched the clock, wondering if this would be the day he disappeared from her life as he had that morning. Without a goodbye.
But she knew that it was not enough. Not for her daughter. She did not need another ‘male role model.’ He had those – Damien, DeShaun, Steve, teachers, and others. She understood what Hope needed was a father, a Daddy, a Papa. Someone that she knew would always be there.
“Marry me?” The words were out of her mouth before they had even registered in her brain.
“What?” He drew his hand back, and she felt bereft. Not just the rejection of her proposal, but her.
“I’m sorry. I suppose that was stupid,” she lied to cover her hurt. “It’s just that I do know how Hope feels. She doesn’t need another Steve, even one who won’t go off for days and abandon her for the bottle and drugs. She has male role models. What she needs is a sense of belonging. Someone that she knows is hers. That she has ties, commitment to. She needs a father.”
She barely breathed as she plunged further into her story. “Obviously, she has that. I do not doubt that you want to be that to our daughter. And maybe if she were older, this would be easier.”
She chuckled at the thought, “But explaining a no-strings and no names liaison even to a thirteen or sixteen-year-old might not be as easy as it sounds. So, how else do we tell her that you’re her father? What story do we make up? What lie do we tell Hope?”
She knew that she was rambling. Speaking her thoughts aloud before they took root, or she could examine them. It was something she usually only did with Alison. And often not even then. Alicia had learned to guard her heart. From the painful death of her father, the rejection of her mother, to winning and keeping the love and approval of her Abuelita, the only person she had left.
But this was new. Raw. Even that night, this man had made her feel things she had never imagined. Something that not even her steamy romance novels alluded to. Or perhaps it was that words could never capture the vulnerability she felt.
“I guess we are back to ‘what now.’ We know that Hope needs a father; you want to step into your natural role as that father. But how? How, Jon? How do we tell our little girl that you’re her Daddy?”
Jon forced his mind away from the images that danced through his head. That had sprung from his seemingly fertile imagination like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. Pictures of their family. Hope, a confident, laughing, content little girl secure in two loving parents.
And her, Alicia writhing beneath him as she had that night. Her moans filled his mind and soul to overflowing. Her body ripening again. He had missed so much. Hope’s first kick. Her birth. Had she been an easy baby? Or had she had colic, whatever that was, as his mother complained he had? Her first word was certainly Mama; she used it often enough now. What would it have felt like to hear Da-da for the first time? Her first step? All of that was gone. But in his mind, there were others — other babies.
Jon bit back bile, swallowed the pain as he realized what bothered him most, what held him back from accepting her proposal, from jumping for the golden ring that she held forth so casually. In his mind, in those dreams, he was whole. It was not the scarred shell and half-man in that imaginary family photo. It was not a mangled hand that rested on Alicia’s round tummy. It was the handsome Marine he had been that night.
That was why he avoided mirrors. Not even years of therapy, not just the overworked, overburdened, and often burned-out ones at the VA either, but the best that his parents’ money could buy. Not even they could help him to accept what he saw each time he looked in a mirror.
No, while his daughter might accept him as he was, he could never live a lie with her. See pity in Alicia’s eyes. As much as his soul might cry out and long for those dreams, that tiny ray of Hope, he could not settle for crumbs from the table of the woman he loved. It would kill whatever little spirit remained in his scarred shell of the man she had once known.
“I don’t know.” He sighed as he released the last visage of that impossible dream. “What have you told her about her father?” He forced his mind to the realities of the situation.
“You might not believe this, but nothing. Absolutely nothing. Until this damned homework assignment, Hope never asked. Alison’s ex never had anything to do with her sons. And a couple of her other friends from kindergarten had single moms too. So, I guess it just never occurred to her to ask.”
“And when she did? I’m assuming she did for this assignment.”
Alicia dropped her head, her hands once again rubbing along her jeans. “Not really. She never showed me the paper,” Jon heard the pain of that admission in her voice. “She did ask about her father a couple of nights ago, but I changed the subject. I know that was wrong, but I could not lie to her. And I didn’t know what else to do.”
‘Could not lie to her.’ The words played in Jon’s mind too. Did he want to build his relationship with his daughter on lies? But Alicia was right – the truth was not for the ears of a six-year-old. A desperately lonely and broken man accepting whatever comfort he could find in the arms of a stranger, angel though she be. It might make a good Penthouse Letter, but not an appropriate introduction to your child.
They were back to where they began. ‘What now?’ How could he be the father he wanted to be to his child, the father she so obviously wanted and needed, without lying to her?
Jon examined her proposal from a new perspective. It was clearly the way out. But could he do it? Could he marry the woman he loved only for their child? Could he live with her day after day, night after night, wanting something he could never have? What choice did he have? Hell, maybe this was some new torturous punishment for his failings as a man and a commander.
“How would it work? This marriage, I mean. I’m assuming it is in name only.” He tried desperately to hide the pain and self-loathing from his voice. To keep it casual, as if it were not the most crucial question of his fucked up life.
Alicia looked up; in the moonlight, the scars danced across his cheeks. Her fingers ached to trace them, to soothe away the pain, to repeat their daughter’s first question to her father. Does it hurt?
But even in his seeming acceptance of her proposal, she felt the rejection. She stayed her fingers as she forced words from her mouth. She was sure that she was rambling. Thinking aloud once more. Disjointed meanderings of her mind because her heart was broken by the cold of this man’s words.
“I don’t know. I guess we shouldn’t rush things too quickly. Do you live around here? Maybe continue as we have for a bit. You could ask me out, I guess would be the first step.”
It sounded so mundane. So normal. A date. A first date. With the father of her six-year-old daughter. It was not the first time in the past seven years that Alicia had felt the shame of the situation. She knew that Abuelita would have been so disappointed in her. Love her, yes. Support her, for certain. But she knew that the woman who had raised her would have been terribly hurt and disappointed by the situation.
But then she had never had to face that reality. Her grandmother, her beloved Abuelita, had died the night that Hope was conceived. The truth was that her body might even have been cooling while Alicia lay beneath this man. Enjoying her one perfect night.
It was another layer of her guilt. Though she never made a habit of checking on Abuelita after closing, something her grandmother had resented during her convalescence. Alicia still blamed herself for not checking sooner, not until after the breakfast rush.
Another truth was – she did not regret, was not ashamed of, what happened that night. Her one perfect night with this man. The daughter that had given her life purpose and Hope when she was lost in her grief. No, she was not ashamed of her child or the one time in her life that she had taken a chance.
But that was not true either. She was taking a chance now. Perhaps an even bigger one than that night.
What did she want? His words from that night rang in her mind – picket fences, half-a-dozen babies, a mini-van, a dog, maybe even a cat. And she wanted them with this man. Some part of her knew even then that was what she wanted.
But hearing the pain behind his question, Alicia knew it was more about what she could have than what she wanted. Her brow furrowed as she realized it was not rejection that she heard but fear. She remembered how he had tried to draw his hand back when she had taken it earlier. How he almost always kept the hood of his jacket up. Oh, it was fear of rejection, but his, not hers, that stood between them.
The biggest chance of her life, the biggest risk was – could she make this man understand she still wanted him? Scars and all. Was she up to the task? Or was she setting herself some impossible task like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again? Would she be crushed under it? Did she dare take that risk? Or did she play it safe?
She had not played it safe that night. And she had the most beautiful, wondrous daughter to show for it. So, while the risk might be soul-crushing, the rewards were worth it.
Alicia stepped forward, closing the distance between them. She reached for his hand once more. This time she made a conscious choice to grab his injured left one. She lifted it to her breast and held it there as her other hand pushed the hood back from his head, the scars gleaming even more like silver threads in the moonlight.
“Is that what you want, Jon? A marriage of convenience? In name only? Because make no mistake about it, I won’t have Hope seeing her Mama and Papa sleeping in separate beds or rooms.”
She lifted her face, stood on her tiptoes as she brushed a soft kiss on the left corner of his mouth that was drawn down.
“Don’t you want me anymore?” She moved closer still, her hips plastered against his. She smiled as her tongue traced along the ridges of his lower lip. The hard bulge she felt against her answered her question better than words could. “This marriage will be very real, Jon.”
She took a risk, releasing his hand. Hope sprang anew when he did not move it from her breast. Her hand cupped that bulge in his jeans. She stopped toying with the seduction, found that she was the spider caught in her own web. Her lips covered his mouth. She forgot the scars, the pain, the risks she was taking. The moment her lips took his – she was home.
He tasted just the same. She had missed the taste, the feel. What would he think if he knew that not only had she not made love to another man since that night, she had not even kissed one? Her hand wrapped about his shoulders and neck, drawing him deeper into her web. She felt him resist for a moment.
Then he took control, and she was lost. Just as she had been that night.
Jon was lost in the feel of the woman he loved. He could remember the taste and smell of her still. Even as his mind drowned in her words, his body could not fight her allure. He took control. He did what he had ached and dreamed of doing for seven long years.
His tongue danced against hers. His hands roamed her body that Alicia offered so freely. He moved his injured left hand to her bottom. While his right took its place, cupping and kneading her breast. It was not as much about shame as it was sensation. He wanted to feel, truly feel it all. And the sense was dulled in what remained of that mangled appendage.
Her breasts were fuller. Gone were the pert B-cups. What overflowed his palm was soft, ample, and most definitely a C. Was that the result of her pregnancy? Had she breastfed Hope? That fertile imagination, he never realized he had, drew the picture in vivid, live-action color. His cock hardened even more at the thought.
When her hand covered the front of his jeans, cupped his hard length, he almost came. He did roar into her mouth and grind shamelessly into her touch. He was a fool. He wanted this woman. He always would.
But why, his mind screamed. Why would a woman like Alicia ever look at someone like him? That thought was more effective than an icy cold shower. It allowed him to step back, break the kiss, and take control.
He studied her stunned features. She was breathing as erratically as he was. Those magnificent tits that he had held in the palms of his hand a moment before were heaving. Her lips were swollen. Her hair mussed, falling about her face in soft tendrils from the ponytail. He longed to touch it. To drew this woman back into his arms and never let her go. But…
“I won’t be some pity fuck.” The vitriol of his words shocked even him. And the look of pain that crossed her pretty face stung his soul. He wanted to reach for her, apologize, take the words back. But he could not. They were the truth. And he needed her to understand that.
He had survived his mother’s social climbing, her constant diatribes reserved for her imperfect son. He had survived his wife’s and best friend’s betrayal. Hell, his body, if not his mind, had survived the blast that claimed six of his best men.
He could not marry her, sleep in the same bed with the woman he loved, night after night, and make love to her because she felt sorry for the poor, scarred, lame Vet. He might not have much pride left. As much time as he has spent in those damned open-backed hospital gowns, his dignity was long since gone.
But he could not do what she asked. He could not live with her pity. He shook his head, “I’m sorry, Alicia. But there must be another way.”