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A girls guide to moving.., p.13
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       A Girl's Guide to Moving On, p.13

           Debbie Macomber
 
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  —

  Wednesday night I was eager to get to class and left home early. Nikolai met me in the parking lot and had the same grave look as the one he’d left with on Monday evening.

  “You meet this other man?” he asked me expectantly.

  I nodded.

  “You kiss him?” His gaze intently studied mine.

  “No.”

  His shoulders relaxed. “You see him again?”

  I pressed my hand to Nikolai’s cheek, my gaze holding his. “No.”

  His eyes brightened and he twisted his head so that he could kiss the inside of my palm. “I happy now like cow skip over moon. I breathe again. I think maybe I teach you. You teach me and I teach you.”

  We started toward the center. “What would you like to teach me, Nikolai?”

  He looked at me as if the answer should be obvious. “How to bake bread. Real bread. You make before?”

  “I had a bread machine. You know, the kind where it mixes and bakes it all in one.”

  A horrified look came over him and he automatically shook his head. “Never again. Promise me you not do that with bread ever again.”

  I tried to suppress my smile, with little success. “I promise.”

  “You let me teach you?”

  I agreed, but the truth was I would have agreed to just about anything he suggested, I was that eager to spend time with him.

  Skydiving? Sure, why not. Rock climbing? Always wanted to try that. Not.

  We arranged a time to meet Saturday afternoon. In retrospect, I wish I’d suggested Sunday instead. The timing was tricky. Sean was scheduled to stop by at around noon. I asked Nikolai to come at two, thinking that would give Sean plenty of time to say what he wanted, eat lunch, and be on his merry way.

  On Saturday I had lunch ready before Sean arrived. He was late and kissed me on the cheek.

  “You’re more beautiful than ever.”

  I folded my arms over my chest. “Really? I haven’t been feeling well and thought I looked deathly pale.” No reaction. Nothing had changed. My ex hadn’t listened to a single word. Ron, meet Sean.

  “You’ve lost weight recently, haven’t you?” he asked.

  I smiled. It was just as I expected.

  His gaze went to the table. “Is that sandwich ham salad? You remembered that it’s my favorite.”

  I did remember; how could I not? We were married thirty-five years.

  We ate lunch and chatted. Sean gave no hint of there being anything wrong, which left me wondering if I’d completely misread his call earlier. Between bites he chatted good-naturedly about friends from the club, and his score after golfing with Liam Belcher, a doctor friend.

  What he had to tell me about Jake wasn’t anything he couldn’t have mentioned over the phone. Apparently, Jake had changed jobs, though whether this was his employer’s choice or his own, I didn’t know. To hear Sean tell it, Jake had been lured away by another wine company. My ex made it sound like Jake was sitting on top of the world. This wasn’t news that required that the two of us meet. The fact was I already knew about the job change from Nichole.

  “Sean,” I said sternly, demanding his attention.

  His eyes shot to me.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing. What makes you think anything is wrong?”

  Frowning, I studied him closely. He met my gaze and I couldn’t see if anything was amiss.

  “If anything is wrong,” he said in that smooth, calculated way of his, “it’s the fact I miss you.”

  The only appropriate response was to laugh. “Sure you do. Perhaps my ham-salad sandwiches more, though.”

  He studied me for half a second. “This is a new you, Leanne, and I have to say I like it. How about we do this more often?”

  “Do what?”

  “Have lunch. Spend time together.”

  “No thanks.”

  He looked completely crestfallen, which was a big act. “Oh, so strong. I love it.”

  My doorbell chimed and I saw it was fifteen minutes before Nikolai was set to arrive. I prayed it was a delivery or a friend. My hope died when I opened the door to find Nikolai standing there, his arms loaded down with bags of what I knew had to be ingredients for baking bread.

  “Nikolai.”

  “I come early. It okay?”

  “Of course.” I stepped aside so he could come into the apartment.

  I reached for one of the bags, but he shook his head. “No, no, I carry.”

  Sean stood and his gaze drifted from me to Nikolai and then back to me. Nikolai saw him, too, and stopped, nearly dropping one of the grocery sacks. He caught it in the nick of time.

  “Nikolai, this is my ex-husband Sean.” I placed heavy emphasis on the ex part.

  “Sean, this is Nikolai Janchenko. He’s one of my students in my English-as-a-second-language class.”

  The two men stared at each other. The air in the room grew thick and tense.

  “Nikolai is teaching me how to bake bread,” I explained.

  “So that’s what was different with lunch,” Sean said. “It was the bread. I don’t know when I’ve ever tasted better.”

  Nikolai’s head swiveled toward me with a look of shock.

  “Sean was just leaving,” I said meaningfully.

  My ex-husband smiled, kissed my cheek before I could stop him, and left the apartment.

  Nikolai carefully placed the grocery bags on the kitchen counter. He kept his back to me.

  “I apologize,” I said, and meant it. “I didn’t expect Sean to be here when you arrived.” Naturally, my ex had been more than forty-five minutes late. I should have known better than to trust the time he told me.

  When Nikolai turned to face me I was stunned by the hurt and anger I read in his eyes. “You give him bread I bake for you?” he demanded.

  I didn’t understand the problem. “Well, yes. You give me so much that I have no need to buy bread.”

  “This man…this Sean,” he said, sneering his name, “his heart black like charcoal.” He bit out the words. “And you feed him bread I make with my own hands for you. Bread from my heart. This is the bread you give to other man.” His face was full of pain. He shook his head as if he couldn’t believe what I’d done.

  I moved closer to Nikolai, “I’m sorry…I didn’t realize…I didn’t think.”

  “You make chicken stock of me.”

  I had no idea what idiom he was confusing now, but whatever it was, he was deeply pained.

  He stepped away from me as if it was all he could do to remain in the same room. “I go now.”

  “You’re leaving?” It took a moment to realize he was serious. His reaction stunned me.

  He made it to the door. “I go. I think hard before I say words I no mean.”

  He left everything he’d brought with him on the counter, and when the door shut, I closed my eyes and sank onto a chair, washed in guilt and regret.

  This was the second weekend in a row that Jake had Owen. Last weekend he’d picked up our son at the daycare center on Friday afternoon and then dropped Owen off at his grandmother’s.

  Jake was avoiding me and that was fine. I knew about avoidance. I’d been avoiding Rocco all week. He’d phoned three times and left messages, which I hadn’t returned. Once, when I inadvertently did answer, I’d quickly put him off, promising to call him back. I hadn’t. The reason was I didn’t know what to say. The kisses we’d shared had bewildered me. What I hadn’t explained to Leanne was how shocking it was to feel anything sexual for another man. My divorce had been final only a couple weeks. Yes, it’d taken two years, and yes, this was what I knew had to happen. But it seemed I should be grieving more over the death of my marriage.

  Saturday morning I arrived at Dress for Success and was busy sorting through the donated items when Shawntelle arrived with her cousin.

  “Hey, girl, what’s up?” Shawntelle said as she sashayed her way into the shop. She looked good in tight jeans and an oversize shirt. “M
eet Charise.”

  “Nichole,” I answered, introducing myself.

  “Charise just got her GED and is signing up for bookkeeping classes same as I did,” Shawntelle said, nodding toward her cousin.

  Charise rubbed her palms together in a nervous gesture. “I figured if my cuz could make a success of herself, then so could I.”

  “Hold on. You got a job?”

  “Sure did. Thanks to you.”

  “Me?” This was a surprise. “What did I do?”

  Her face broke into a smile, her teeth gleaming. “Rocco. He called and said he was looking for a new bookkeeper and asked if I wanted to apply for the job.”

  “Wait. When did that happen?”

  “Last week.”

  “Last week,” I repeated. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

  She shrugged. “I thought Rocco would.”

  That might have something to do with the number of phone calls from him.

  “I thought he told you.”

  “Ah…I’ve been busy all week.”

  Shawntelle hugged me tight, nearly squeezing the breath out of me. “Working for Rocco is just the start I needed.”

  As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t take credit. I’d mentioned Shawntelle to Rocco and her disappointment after missing out on the job at the car dealership. It’d been the same time I told him she was hot to meet him. When he asked for her contact information I’d assumed it was because he was interested in dating her.

  Shawntelle straightened her shoulders and pride shone in her eyes. “As soon as I got the job, I applied with Habitat for Humanity. I’m looking to build a house. Now, ain’t that something? Me! I figure once I’ve got six months and a little bit of money in savings I’ll qualify. Now that I’ve got me a job I need a decent home for my children.”

  My heart filled with pride and I perked up. “My sister built a home through Habitat for her and her daughter.”

  “Get outta here,” Shawntelle cried. “Your sister?”

  “And she did it all within a year.”

  “Did she meet any handsome men? I have a weakness for beefy, muscular men.”

  I laughed because Cassie had met Steve while working on her home. “As a matter of fact, she did, and now they’re about to be married.”

  “You have a weakness for men period,” Charise pointed out, frowning.

  “That’s in the past,” Shawntelle insisted. “I’m pickier now. I’ve got standards. Speaking of which, you talked to Rocco lately?” The pointed question was directed to me.

  “Ah,” I hedged. “Not recently.”

  “What’s the matter with you, girl? He’s been in a bear of a mood all week and I have a feeling it has to do with you. You need to appreciate what you got.”

  “Yes, well…” I didn’t want to think about Rocco, let alone talk about him. In an effort to change the subject I looked to Charise. “Let me find you a dressing room to try on a few outfits.”

  “Speaking of you know who, look who pulled into the parking lot,” Shawntelle said pointedly. Her hand was braced against her hip as she stared out the window.

  I closed my eyes and groaned. There would be no escaping him now.

  “Charise,” Shawntelle called, “come look. This is going to be good.”

  Coward that I am, I hesitated and cast a pleading glance at Shawntelle. “Why don’t you go find out what he wants?”

  Shawntelle shook her head. “No way, sweetcakes, that man is all about you. He isn’t here to talk to me. Now, I don’t know what’s happening with you two, but something is. Whatever it is, settle it, ’cause I’m not putting up with another day of his bull because of you.”

  “But Charise needs my help,” I said, my heart in a panic. Flustered as I was, I desperately wanted a way out of a confrontation with Rocco.

  “I know what she needs. Now go.” Shawntelle practically tossed me out the door.

  By the time I was outside, Rocco had parked the truck. He climbed out, and when he saw me he stopped. We stood across the parking lot from each other, staring. We must have resembled gunfighters facing off against each other.

  His face was hard and anger radiated off him in waves. “You gonna run?” he asked as he walked toward me.

  “No.” I clenched my hands in front of me and stepped off the curb into the parking lot. I didn’t want Shawntelle and her cousin privy to our conversation.

  Rocco didn’t give me a chance to explain. His eyes narrowed as he spoke. “Listen, Nichole, I’m not into these games you’re playing.”

  I did feel bad. “I’m sorry, I—”

  He cut me off. “If you don’t want to see me again, that’s fine. I’ll deal with it. But don’t kiss me like I’m your last meal and then slam the door in my face.”

  I blinked repeatedly, embarrassed by my behavior and at a loss at how best to explain. “I didn’t expect that to happen…I didn’t know what to say or how to act,” I stuttered. “How was I supposed to know what you were thinking or what I should think.” The words tumbled out of me as I waited, hoping he would help me understand myself, which in retrospect was impossible. I should have been able to figure this out, but I hadn’t. And the truth was I’d missed him this week. I missed talking to him and laughing with him. That was one thing I did most with Rocco—I laughed.

  “Tell you what,” he said, the anger more pronounced now than ever. “When you’ve got your head straight, let me know.” That said, he headed back to his truck.

  Right then I knew if I didn’t do or say something I’d never see Rocco again. A hundred thoughts zoomed through my brain at laser speed. Letting him leave was probably for the best. Instantly, I was filled with the knowledge I would miss him terribly. I wasn’t looking for a relationship, and heaven knew Rocco was unlike any other man I’d ever known. We were different, but I’d never been more comfortable with any man the way I was with him. Before I could debate the wisdom of what I should do, I raced after him.

  “Rocco.”

  He stopped but he didn’t turn around.

  I moved so that I stood in front of him, but he refused to make eye contact. Even now I didn’t know what to say. “I really am sorry,” I blurted out, though I didn’t think my apology carried much weight with him.

  “I get it,” he said, his hands knotted into fists at his sides. “You’re way out of my league. You’re not interested in a tow-truck driver. No problem. There’s no need to apologize.”

  “That is so not true.” I couldn’t believe he’d even suggest such a thing. This had nothing to do with his occupation or anything else. This was about me and my insecurities.

  “That’s not the way I see it.” He started to walk around me.

  “Damn it, Rocco, you’re really starting to piss me off.”

  He blinked and so did I. This wasn’t language I normally used, but I was upset. “Give me a chance, will you? I don’t know what I’m doing here. It’s been two years for me and I was married five years before that and…and I met Jake while in college and we dated for two years.” What this had to do with anything was beyond me, but I felt it was important that he know.

  He crossed his arms and waited for me to finish. His gaze wasn’t on me, but focused on some point in the distance.

  “I like you…I’m strongly attracted to you,” I continued. “I enjoy spending time with you and Kaylene. When you kissed me…” Explaining this part was probably the most difficult of all. “Your kiss felt like a bomb going off in my head.” And other places I was too embarrassed to mention. “The thing is I haven’t a clue what any of this means. All I’m asking is that you give me a chance to figure it out.”

  My words were met with silence and then, “Okay.”

  Nothing had changed about his tight features. I was more confused than ever. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”

  “What more do you want?”

  I shrugged and tossed my hands around a bit. “I don’t know.” And I didn’t. Well, other than how much I’d enjoyed fe
eling his arms around me. “Maybe you could hug me,” I suggested, and opened my arms.

  For the first time since he arrived, Rocco smiled and reached for me, wrapping me in a tight embrace. His nose was in my hair and it felt as if he was sniffing it, which was ridiculous. His embrace felt as warm and wonderful as I remembered.

  “I swear, woman, you’re driving me crazy.” He buried his face in my neck and exhaled as if he’d been withholding oxygen from his lungs for the last seven days.

  Stretching up on the tips of my toes, I slipped my arms around his neck and held on to him as he lifted me from the ground. For the longest moment all we did was cling to each other.

  “I promised Kaylene I’d take her and four of her best friends to the movies tomorrow. Do you want to come and keep me company?”

  I laid my head on his shoulder. “I’d like that more than you know.”

  Rocco kissed the top of my head. “I’ll find out what time the movie is and text you.”

  “Okay, and Rocco, thank you for giving me another chance.” The temptation was too much, and I kissed the underside of his jaw.

  Rocco froze and it felt as if he’d stopped breathing. “Be careful, Nichole. The way I feel about you, kissing me like that is playing with fire.”

  I smiled, happier than I’d been all week.

  He left then and I headed back to Dress for Success. Shawntelle and her cousin had come out of the store and stood on the sidewalk watching me. As I approached, they clapped and whistled and pounded me on the back.

  —

  It was almost four by the time I finished for the day. I should have been tired after working all week at the school and then spending Saturday volunteering. Instead I was jubilant, excited. Things were squared away with Rocco. I hadn’t realized how heavily the uneasiness between us had been weighing on me.

  Just as I was heading out of the shop my cell rang. Caller ID told me it was my sister Cassie. “Yo, Cassie, how’s it going?” We’d had this “yo” thing going since we were kids.

  “Hold on, I’m going to get Karen back on the line. I have news.”

  I could hear the excitement in her voice and suspected her reason for calling had to do with Steve. The two had been dating two years now. I loved seeing them together. My sister had been through hell and had fought her way back. She’d built a home with her own two hands and supported herself. I hoped she’d talk to Shawntelle at some point because I knew Cassie’s story would encourage my friend.

 
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