Alicia choked back tears as she watched them, two heads bent over the book. One sandy brown curls and the other a road map of red and silver scars. In the two weeks since that night, Hope had not missed a day reading to her father. Jon continued to come to the diner every afternoon, always after the lunch rush. He was there to greet Hope, chatting with her for a couple of hours, then slipping away when Alison took the little girl home.
The trouble was they were no closer to a solution. Hell, Jon avoided the subject when she tried to bring it up. She had discovered that he was staying in the chain motel down the street. He lived a few hours away in the mountains across the state line. He had only been in town for one of his regular check-ups at the VA hospital that first time he came to the diner. Even before she had told him that he was Hope’s father, something had kept him here.
Alicia was getting more confused by the day, perhaps the moment. The very thought of Jon returning to his home frightened her. It was not just that Hope had come to depend on him in a way that she never had poor Steve.
The homeless man had reappeared the day after their walk in the desert. She had almost not recognized him. Not only was he clean, but shaven and wearing new clothes as well. It seemed that he had found work rather than spending the past few days in the bottle again. He was helping a widow out around her ranch.
He had brought another pink fluffy unicorn for Hope. He had smiled as she raced through the door, sing-songing his name. He had stayed for pie and a story before explaining to her daughter that he would not be around as much since he had a job now. Her daughter beamed and hugged the man that, for a time, had filled the hole in her little heart.
Alicia had thought that perhaps Fate once again had taken a hand in their lives. While she was incredibly happy for Steve and hoped that this time he indeed did manage to get back on his feet, it also meant that the way was cleared for Jon to take a more prominent role in their child’s life. But as she had tried to tell him that night, Hope needed more than another male role model, a couple of hours every afternoon, and someone to listen to her read.
‘And you? What do you need? What do you want?’ That voice had been getting louder in her mind these past few days. What did she need? She had not been with a man since that night. Seven years was an incredibly long dry spell for anyone. And since that kiss in the desert, the toys in the drawer next to her bed, and her fingers simply were not up to the job. Even when she did resort to them, it was his face that filled her fantasies, that fueled her orgasms.
Of course, it had been him that she had fantasized about for seven years. Her one perfect lover. But it was different now. It was not that handsome Marine with his high-and-tight and sad blue eyes that had sent her soaring these past few nights. It was him – the scarred and profoundly wounded man whose kisses had been like coming home that night.
But his words echoed in her mind: ‘I won’t be some pity fuck.’
Alicia felt her nipples harden within the confines of her utilitarian white cotton bra. They were almost painful as she watched him smile, that lopsided one that she had come to love. Love? Was that it? Had she fallen in love with the father of her child? Or had she been in love with him all along?
But the wounded warrior sitting patiently with their child was no fantasy. He was very much a real man. One whose scars went deeper than skin and muscle. She had known it that night. What for her had been a perfect lover, who had given her a surprise gift to cherish, had even then been a wounded man, trying to escape the betrayal of the people he cared about in her arms and bed.
His words that night only confirmed how much worse those wounds had gotten over the past seven years. Unlike the scars that covered his head, face, and neck, the ones to his pride were open, suppurating, and festering wounds.
He had taken her genuine attempt to seduce him as pity. And the truth was she had neither the experience nor confidence to try again.
It left them at a stalemate. None of them got what they needed. Hope still lived with the Daddy hole as Alicia had come to think of the bond she shared with her daughter. She had only traded one male role model for another. Jon was alone in a crappy motel. And she was so sexually frustrated that she had gone through a pack of batteries and risked carpal tunnel. Still, she wanted him.
She swallowed the pain and brushed away the tear that had escaped its prison. She forced a smile and turned back into the kitchen to oversee the finishing touches in preparation for the dinner rush in an hour.
Jon swallowed the lump that seemed to be perpetually lodged in his throat these days. As much as he loved spending time with his daughter, it was not enough. Not enough time. And certainly not enough to simply be her friend. Another male role model, as Alicia had called it.
He hated to admit it, but she had been right. It was not enough for Hope either. He saw that now. In the days since Steve had reappeared, only to say goodbye, he had seen how the child reluctantly transferred her hopes and dreams to him. But he could tell that she feared he too would abandon her.
Nothing was further from his mind as he listened to the story. This one tore at his heart. The tale of a Daddy monkey frustrated with his child for doing all the wrong things. Things that children do: throwing things, jumping, and swinging.
How many times had he gotten into trouble with his mother the same way? Except this Daddy monkey apologized for yelling as his Little Monkey. He knew that Marianne Buford Walker Tyler never would.
Jon longed to be different. To be like the father in her story. To wrap this miracle of Hope in his arms. To hold her tight and never let her go. To whisper, ‘I love you, little monkey’ in her ear. To hear more of those nightly prayers. To tuck her in at night and wake her in the morning. He wanted to be more than just Jon. He needed to be her father. Her real father in more ways than simply the blood running in her veins.
He had turned the situation over and over in his head for two weeks. There was not much else to do in that tiny motel room. Even his morning runs in the desert were consumed with the dilemma. Well, not entirely.
He snuck a glance at the woman half-hidden by the kitchen door. She consumed him in other ways. Even just sitting here next to his daughter, that brief glimpse was enough to get him half hard. For two weeks, his libido that he had thought almost dead had flared to life like a wildfire flamed by the wind from the embers of a cold campfire. His good right hand was in nearly as much pain as the mangled left one from overuse. And still, he was unsatisfied.
It was her touch that he craved. Her kisses. The feel of her lush body writhing against his as it had that night. The night that their child was conceived. And that night under the blanket of stars in the cool desert air haunted his dreams. He wanted her. Fuck, he needed her.
As many times as he ran the situation through his head, he still could not come up with a winning battle plan. Like that other time. Sometimes there was simply no way out. That was how he felt now.
He could not walk away from his child. Not now that he knew her. Knew how very much she needed him. How much he needed her. Wanted her.
But this male role model thing was not working. It was not what Hope needed. Or what he wanted.
They could not tell a six-year-old child that she was conceived during a ‘no-strings-attached’ one-night stand. No matter how perfect that night had been. Or the fact that even before he knew of his child’s existence, the strings of love had woven about his heart, drawing him back to this place and her.
Alicia? She was right about something else too. He could not imagine being married to her in name only, a convenience. Not when he had ached for years for just one more of her touches. A single kiss. That night in the desert had fueled and flamed the love that had seen him through his darkest hours. Added new memories to the ones that he held so sacred.
No, the only thing that made sense, the only solution that was open to him, was to marry the woman he loved. So, why did that feel like he was walking into another ambush? He had been the lone survivor of the last one. But he was not sure he could bear this one.
Pity-fuck. Could he live his life knowing that the only reason she married him, that she stayed with him, that she shared his bed was their child?
Because he knew the truth, no matter what she said, she was just being nice. Compassionate and understanding as she had taught their daughter to be.
And he was glad for that, in both of them. It was indeed a quality that was woefully lacking in this world. But it was no reason to share a man’s bed. Well, not one that he wanted from her anyway.
The story was over. It had been over for a couple of minutes. Hope sat as quiet as he was, seemingly as lost in thought too. It was the first time he had not seen that smile on her beautiful face. “What wrong, sweetie?”
He would do anything to see that smile back. His heart ached, and the blood pounded in his head. Hope looked up at him with those same warm brown eyes of her mother, glazed over with unshed tears this time.
“Mama and I are invited to Miss Mandy’s wedding.” His daughter paused, “Commitment ceremony she said was the right name.”
Jon frowned, uncertain who Mandy was or why she called it a commitment ceremony instead of marriage. “Why is that a problem, Hope?”
“I don’t want to go. All the other kids will be there. Miss Mandy and her partners are celebrating love, she said. She says that is what is important. And Mama says that family is the people we choose. But everyone else will be there with their Mamas and their Papas, and I don’t have one.”
Jon watched those gargantuan tears spill from the corners of her eyes. For the first time, he gave in to the need to wrap his arm around his daughter. He drew her close as he sought words for the jumbled thoughts in his head – like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing.
He remembered what Alicia had said that night. That Hope had never even asked about her father until recently. That she had other friends from single-parent families. So something did not make sense. What had changed? Logic and his instincts told him it was something more than a homework assignment and a commitment ceremony that was troubling his daughter. But what? And how did he find out?
“All of them?” Jon tried to keep it simple.
The tears sped up as she shook her little head. The curly waves that were so like his own before the burn scars or high-and-tight cuts danced about her face. “I guess not.”
His gut told him that he was onto something, “Then what does it matter if it is just you and your Mama?”
“Cause Amy will be bringing her new daddies. She has two of them. It’s not fair. I don’t even have one.”
Her innocent words ate at his soul as she pulled from his embrace and rushed over to Alison. “Take me home, Ali,” he could barely hear her whispered plea.
The waitress finished pouring another cup of coffee for the only other customer this time of day, an elderly gentleman whose wife had died a few months back that sought what human contact he could find at the diner most days.
The woman smiled and nodded as she turned towards the kitchen, “Alicia, I’m taking Hope home now. I’ll stay with her until DeShaun gets home from practice. I should be back before the worst of the supper rush.”
Alicia came through the swinging door that separated the kitchen from the dining area. She frowned as she looked at their daughter, “What’s wrong, baby? I thought you were reading to Jon.”
Their daughter nodded but kept her head down, “I finished the story. I want to go home now.”
A deep frown creased her forehead as Alicia stared over at him. He nodded as she turned her attention back to their little girl, “Okay, if you’re sure. I’ll be home in time for prayers, I promise.”
“Alright, Mama,” Hope whispered as she took Alison’s hand and practically dragged the woman out the door.
Alicia checked the older man’s cup, smiled at him, and said something that Jon was not paying close enough attention to hear. His thoughts were all over the place. Most of all, they had walked out that door with his daughter.
She had the coffee pot in her hand as she took a seat across the table from him, just as she had that night. “What happened? I thought things were going good with you two.”
“Who the hell are Mandy and Amy? What the fuck is a commitment ceremony? And how exactly does a child have two fathers?”
Alicia was not sure whether to laugh or be angry at Jon’s outburst. She compromised on a light chuckle as she poured more coffee in his half-empty cup and tried to answer his questions.
“Mandy is Hope’s teacher. She is having a commitment ceremony with her partners and has invited all the children and their families.”
“As for Amy, she is Hope’s best friend. She has been since nursery. Her mother, Kacey, was a widow. You know the score, another Marine KIA.”
She sighed as she looked down at her trembling hands. “A couple of months ago, Kacey became involved with her husband’s best friends. Seems they felt duty-bound to take care of them.” She chuckled nervously, “Well, perhaps a bit more than duty was involved.”
“Why? Why do you ask? What did Hope say?” It was strange and painful. She had always been the one that Hope came to. Now, it seemed the secrets between her and her daughter were growing. And the biggest secret of all sat across the booth from her.
He sighed as he brought the cup to his lips. The silence stretched out between them as he drank. When he looked up, his words rocked her world. “Does your offer still stand? I guess the proposal would be more accurate?”
Alicia drew air into her oxygen-starved lungs. How much time over the past couple of weeks had she spent thinking of new ways to convince him that marriage was their best option? Whatever had happened with Hope seemed to have done the trick. “What happened, Jon? What did Hope say? What changed your mind?”
He stared at the cup, avoiding her gaze. His good hand toyed with the handle while he kept the damaged one hidden in a pocket on the front of another of those hoodies he favored. “You were right. Hope does need more than another male role model in her life.”
He lifted his head slowly, met her stare. “It’s more than that family tree homework or her teacher’s wedding or whatever the fuck. Sorry, I know I shouldn’t cuss. But my daughter just told me that her best friend has two new daddies. And that it isn’t fair when she doesn’t have one. My head’s sort of screwed right now.”
Alicia let out the breath that she had not been aware she was holding. “So, that’s it. Hope does not get worked up very easily. She never has. Alison told me she was the easiest baby she had ever seen. I’ve been wondering what happened. Why, so suddenly, she was curious about her father.”
“Now, I understand. Hope is probably missing Amy too. They used to spend loads of time together after school. Kacey works for the District Attorney. She has a pretty restrictive nine-to-five job and still brings work home once Amy is in bed. So, it was just natural for the girls to come here. Between Alison, me, and DeShaun, we had it covered.”
“But Chris, one of Kacey’s new partners, enjoys picking her up after school now. He likes spending time with his new little girl. He’s invited Hope a few times, but maybe seeing Amy with her new daddy just made things harder for her? Damn, why didn’t I see what was going on? I feel stupid. A good mother would have figured it out and known how to help her child.”
His hand covered hers on the table, “Don’t you dare say that again. You’re a great Mom. You’ve raised a helluva kid all by yourself. No thanks to me.”
His eyes, those blue lakes that she could never, would never, get out of her mind or soul, held her gaze. “And you did know what to do. I was just a jerk for not seeing it. So, does the proposal still stand? Will you marry me?”
Alicia knew she had no other choice. For Hope’s sake, she would say yes. But her heart ached. This was so much less than what she wanted, had dreamed of, all her life. She nodded her head, “Yes, the offer still stands.”
She was unsure where she found the courage, but she wrapped her fingers through his as she spoke. “But let me be clear, all of the offer. This will be a real marriage. Do you understand that, Jon?”
Jon looked down at their hands, entwined on the table. Looking at those hands now, you would never know. But if it were his other hand? How could Alicia, any woman, actually want him as a lover?
Sure, the essential bits for making love had been untouched, at least by those flames. The scars covered his head, neck, and about half of the left side of his chest and back. Thirty-percent of his body, the doctors had said. But that was more than enough. The burns and scars had endangered his airway and constricted his movements.
That did not even consider the psychological damage of looking like a walking nightmare, a character from some horror movie. And that was what was fucking his head in, right now. How could he be any kind of husband and father when he preferred hiding out on the side of a mountain? Even when he was forced to be around people, he always wore hoodies, even in the middle of summer. He hid in plain sight.
Why couldn’t she see that? Take what he could offer, stability and money, and let the other just be. But was that he wanted? To be her husband and deny himself her soothing touch, those sweet kisses, the sanctuary of her body? He was so confused. He had not felt this way since waking from the induced coma. Disoriented. Uncertain.
But he wasn’t, not really. This was the best option for Hope. The only one they really had. “I understand.”
She smiled – Alicia actually fucking smiled. “Good, then you can escort Hope and me to Mandy’s commitment ceremony this Sunday.”
Panic flared at her words. “What? No! No, I can’t,” he stammered.
“Yes, yes, you will, Jon. Because it is what our little girl needs.”
He shook his head, “No, no, it isn’t. Do you want her bullied at school? Your daddy is Freddy.”
Alicia stood up, hands on her hips, as she pointed at the door. “If that’s how you feel, if you’re only interested in being her daddy when it is convenient or easy for you, then there’s the door. We made it this far without you. I’ll find some way to handle this one too.”
She turned and walked away, back into the kitchen. Leaving Jon alone with his thoughts and her words.