A girls guide to moving.., p.16
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       A Girl's Guide to Moving On, p.16

           Debbie Macomber
 
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  “I hate this!” Kacey declared, studying herself in the dressing room mirror, twisting around to study her backside. Her shoulders slumped forward. “I look like a dumpy middle-aged woman.”

  “You are a dumpy middle-aged woman,” I reminded her, shaking my head. “We both are.”

  “No one needs a friend who speaks the truth,” Kacey joked. “Come on, let’s go have lunch. I need a break.”

  I was more than happy to agree. It took far more stamina than I realized to shop for a mother-of-the-bride dress. It’d been a long time since I’d spent two or three hours shopping for just the perfect outfit. Since the divorce I rarely went out and definitely had no need for formal attire. I didn’t envy Kacey the search for the perfect dress.

  “You feeling okay?” Kacey asked as we walked out of Nordstrom.

  I still had shingles, but the antiviral medications had started to work and I was down to half a painkiller every few hours, which cut back on the nausea side effects and sleepiness. “I’m certainly better than I was last week.”

  We found a restaurant inside the mall and were seated right away. As soon as we ordered, Kacey leaned closer to me. “Guess who I saw last weekend?”

  I didn’t need to guess. “Sean.”

  “Yup, and he was full of questions about you.”

  I had no idea why Sean would ask about me, especially when we’d seen each other recently.

  “Aren’t you curious what he wanted to know?” Kacey asked. She seemed disappointed that I hadn’t taken the bait.

  I shook my head. “Not really. I can’t imagine why he asked about me, and frankly, I don’t care.”

  “Okay, to be accurate he wasn’t as curious about you as he was about the man who brings you the bread. You know the one I mean? The guy we met that time at the deli.”

  My back stiffened. This definitely raised my curiosity. “What about Nikolai?”

  “Sean was pretty sneaky about getting information out of me, but I was onto him right away.”

  “What do you mean?”

  Kacey was in her element, using her hands expressively, eager to fill in the details. “Bill and I were having drinks at the club. You know how busy it gets on Saturday nights. We were at the bar waiting for a table when Sean sauntered in. Naturally, he had a woman with him.”

  Naturally. That was information I wasn’t interested in hearing.

  “When he saw us he left his flavor of the month and came to talk to me and Bill. He made small talk for a few minutes. He asked Bill about his golf game, mentioned they should get together soon, you know, that sort of thing.”

  I nodded, anxious for her to get to the part about Nikolai.

  “Then Sean looked at me and said how lovely I looked, blah, blah, blah. It was all I could do not to roll my eyes and ask him what he wanted.” She pursed her lips together.

  “That is very Seanlike.” I always knew when he complimented me that he needed something from me.

  “He mentioned that he stopped by your apartment recently and met some foreigner. I knew right away he meant the man from the deli. I didn’t know that you were seeing him outside the classroom.”

  “I don’t think ‘seeing him’ is quite the right term,” I said, downplaying our relationship.

  “He was at your apartment, though. That’s what Sean said.”

  “Yes, he was there…he’s teaching me how to bake bread.”

  Kacey’s eyes widened ever so slightly.

  I wasn’t giving her any additional information. Nor did I mention I’d be seeing Nikolai that very evening.

  “Does he still bring you bread every class session?”

  “I haven’t been back to school since I got shingles.” I avoided the question as best I could.

  “But you are going back?”

  “Yes.” I planned to return the week before Halloween in order to give myself time to heal.

  “Well, anyway,” she continued, “Sean wanted to know what I could tell him about Nikolai.”

  I didn’t like the sound of this. “And what did you tell him?”

  “Not much. I mean, I didn’t know a lot; for instance, I didn’t realize he gave bread-making lessons. Does he do this often? If so, I’d sign up in a heartbeat. The bread is delicious, but then so is the teacher.” She laughed and waved her hand in front of her face, indicating that she thought Nikolai was hot.

  I wasn’t amused. I’d never considered myself a jealous woman. Sean had cured me of that years earlier, or so I’d thought. I didn’t care that Kacey was my best friend or that she was married. I resented her telling me she thought Nikolai was hot. “I can ask him if you want,” I said, discounting my uneasiness. I didn’t want Nikolai anywhere near Kacey and immediately felt silly because there was no way Nikolai would get involved with a married woman. Besides, I knew Kacey was only teasing me.

  “Getting back to Sean,” Kacey said. “He seemed concerned.”

  “Concerned?”

  “He’s afraid you’re at a vulnerable point in your life and could easily be misled, especially by an immigrant. He came right out and said that he didn’t trust the way Nikolai looked at you. He suggested Nikolai might be dangerous and then lowered his voice to warn me Nikolai could be part of the Russian Mafia.”

  “Oh please.” I laughed out loud. That was insane.

  “I know, I know,” Kacey said, laughing lightly. “It isn’t like you’re involved with him.” She hesitated and studied me closely. “Or are you?”

  That was a question I was determined not to answer. I looked up, hoping the waiter was about to deliver our meals. Naturally, he was nowhere in sight.

  “What else did Sean want to know?” I asked, avoiding a direct answer.

  I should have known Kacey wouldn’t be easily put off. “Are you two involved?” she pressed.

  “Nikolai and I are friends.”

  “F-r-i-e-n-d-s?” She dragged out the word. “Close friends?” she added.

  “What do you mean?”

  “Friends with benefits?”

  My mouth sagged open. “You know me better than that.”

  She laughed. “But there’s something going on between you two.” Kacey was almost giddy with excitement. “I knew it. Sweetie, if I was you I’d drag that man to bed so fast it’d make your head spin like that girl in the movie The Exorcist.”

  “Kacey,” I snapped. “Please.” She had me blushing. I’d never been one to treat sex casually, and I wasn’t about to start at this point in my life.

  “That man is gorgeous, and if he makes you happy, then so what?”

  The waiter came with our salads and I was so glad to see him I was tempted to jump up and kiss him on both cheeks. This conversation had quickly grown uncomfortable.

  Kacey reached for her fork and speared a fat shrimp. “I think Sean’s jealous, and frankly, I couldn’t be happier. After everything he put you through, it’s time he got a taste of his own medicine.”

  “I was never jealous of Sean’s women,” I said, and I was being honest. Perhaps in the very beginning, the first or second time I’d discovered he was having an affair, but I soon learned jealousy was a useless emotion. I’d closed myself off from any feeling toward my husband for so long that nothing seemed to faze me.

  “I’m happy for you, Leanne,” Kacey said with all sincerity.

  I looked over at my friend and told her what was most important for her to know. “I am happy, Kacey.” And I was far happier than I had been in a very long while.

  We parted ways after lunch and I returned to the apartment, exhausted. I took one of the pain meds and despite my best efforts I fell asleep, only to wake when the doorbell chimed.

  It was Nikolai.

  I hadn’t meant to sleep nearly that long and immediately felt guilty. I’d wanted to refresh my makeup and fix my hair before he arrived.

  Nikolai stood on the other side of the threshold with a large takeout bag in his hand and wearing a huge smile.

  “I come too early?”
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  “No, no, it’s fine.” I ushered him inside and he set the bag on the kitchen countertop.

  “I’m sorry. I was out this afternoon and then I fell asleep.” I felt the need to apologize for my appearance. But Nikolai had seen me when I was at my worst and it hadn’t bothered him.

  Nikolai brought me close and his large hands framed my face. He brushed the hair behind my ears and then slowly lowered his mouth to mine. The kiss was slow and deliberate, and I melted in his arms. Oh, the things this man made me feel. It was as if my insides turned to mush every time he touched me.

  When the kiss ended, he pressed his forehead against mine. “All day I think about you. I think three hours then I see you. Then two hours, and then I think only one hour. The last hour take longer than all the other hours.”

  I leaned forward and kissed him, slipping my arms around his solid frame.

  “You too good for me,” he whispered. “I not know why you kiss me.”

  “Stop,” I demanded, and pressed my fingertips over his lips. “Don’t even think that.”

  Nikolai grinned and rubbed his nose against mine. “I kiss you like Eskimo,” he whispered.

  The doorbell rang, and when I opened it Nichole was there with Owen.

  “Owen wanted to check to see if you’re feeling better,” Nichole explained.

  I noticed that her attention went past me to Nikolai. She stepped forward and extended her hand. “I’m Nichole. We met a while back.”

  Nikolai smiled. “Yes, yes, I remember.”

  “I’m Owen,” my grandson said proudly. “I dwive a tow twuck.”

  Getting down on one knee so that he was eye level with Owen, Nikolai extended his hand. “You fine young man to be so smart to drive big truck.”

  Owen frowned and looked up at his mother. “He talks funny,” he whispered, as if Nikolai couldn’t hear him.

  “I only learned English five years now. I am citizen.”

  “Am I citizen?” Owen asked me, pronouncing the word with the same voice inflection as Nikolai.

  “Yes, you are,” Nichole assured her son.

  Owen had on his zippered one-piece outfit that Rocco had ordered for him. He’d worn it every day since Rocco had taken him for a ride. Nichole told me that she was hardly able to get him to take it off for bed, Owen was so proud and excited. I wished Jake showed as much interest in his son as Rocco did.

  The time Jake spent with Owen had shortened every week he took him. In the beginning Jake would bring Owen home around seven on Sunday night. Last Sunday he had him back to Nichole around three. I could see this was becoming a pattern. It was almost as if having Owen over the entire weekend had become a nuisance.

  Nichole and Owen left after a few minutes. Nikolai gripped hold of my hand. He tapped his finger in the space between my eyes. “You frown. You not like your grandson visit?”

  “Oh no. I love Owen and Nichole. She’s like a daughter to me. I was just thinking about Jake, Owen’s father. I’m worried he isn’t taking his responsibility toward his son seriously.” Owen spoke frequently about Rocco and Kaylene and said little about his own father.

  “You worry?”

  “Yes, I worry, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

  “Come. You sit. I bring dinner so you not cook.” He glanced toward the large bag he’d brought with him. “I no cook, either.”

  “From the deli?” I asked, as he led me to the small table I had in the kitchen area.

  “No, from Sun Young. From class. He sorry when I tell him you have shingles. He say he cook for you.”

  “So it’s Chinese food.” One of my favorites.

  “Special Chinese soup because you good teacher. Sun Young say no one else get this soup. He make for you…just you.”

  “And you,” I added. I didn’t want to eat alone. “Please stay, Nikolai, and join me.”

  He hesitated. “Sun Young cook for you.”

  “I couldn’t possibly eat all that myself and I’d end up throwing the rest away. Please,” I added again.

  Nikolai exhaled a sigh. “I cannot tell you no. You ask and I have no heart to refuse.”

  “Good.” I brought two bowls down from the cupboard and set them on the table. While I got out the silverware, Nikolai reached inside the bag and removed the container.

  Before we ate, he gripped my hand and bowed his head in silent prayer. I was touched he would do that. I knew so little about him and I wanted to know more.

  “What brought you to America?” I asked.

  “Airplane.”

  I laughed, which confused him. “I meant, why did you come?”

  “For opportunity. To bake my bread, to start new life. I am alone, but I have American friend in Ukraine. Like soldier but not in uniform. He help me, arrange for me to come to Oregon because I help him. Because I help him he able to help me.”

  “What did you do, Nikolai, to help this soldier?” I speculated this was some undercover operation. Oh heavens, I knew next to nothing of foreign intrigue.

  “What I do?” he repeated and looked away. Slowly he shook his head, dilemma written in his face. “I promise not to say, not to anyone. I sorry, but I make promise, then I keep promise. I cannot tell, not even for you.”

  “I understand.” A man who kept his word was an honorable man and I appreciated his integrity.

  “I not talk about this, okay?”

  “Of course.” I wasn’t sure I understood what role he might possibly have had. I decided it didn’t matter how or why he came to America; I was simply grateful he was here. I dipped my spoon into the soup and looked down. Nikolai had mentioned his wife and that he’d been married. I wanted to know more about her, but felt funny asking. “Tell me more about Magdalena.”

  His eyes grew sad. “We meet at school. I sixteen, she fifteen. She come from poor family. We marry and live with my family. I bake bread and she help my mother at the house. She sad we have no children. She sick long time.”

  “When did she die?”

  He reached for my hand. “Long time. Twenty years now. I alone twenty years. I love Magdalena. She only woman for me, I think. Then I meet you.”

  “I was alone thirty years,” I whispered, my throat thickening. The emotion wasn’t because of Sean or the sad state of my marriage. It was what Nikolai had said about meeting me.

  He frowned, not understanding. “You married. How you be alone?”

  “I was married, but I was alone. My husband didn’t love me. He loved other women.”

  Nikolai scowled. “He fool, that man. I not understand how he not love you.”

  “Pimple on a log,” I said, not wanting to belabor the point of my marriage. I’d started a new life now and didn’t want to look back.

  “You mentioned your mother. What about your family in Ukraine?”

  He looked away and cast his eyes down. “My mother die long time. My brother die. He in Army and my sister angry; she move away and not speak to me for long time. Before I leave for America I call and tell her I go to Oregon and she cry. She sorry, but she bitter woman. She think our mother love Magdalena more than her, but she wrong.”

  “I’m so sorry.”

  “No, no. I not alone. I have friends. I have new life. I work for deli now, but I dream of baking bread for more than people who come to deli. I think and plan and work hard for this new life I plan. I tell you one day what I dream. Okay?”

  “Okay.” If he continued to look at me with those intense dark eyes I feared I would throw myself at him. Steeling myself against the strong attraction I felt for him, I said, “I have a new life, too.”

  Nikolai’s grip on my hand tightened. “You alone no more, either. You have Nichole and me and class. First time I see you it like someone stick a fork in my heart. I can hardly find seat to sit in desk.”

  I remembered the first class with Nikolai. The entire class period he didn’t speak. I was afraid he was so new to the country that he didn’t know any English. He did, I learned later. In fact, h
is English was better than most everyone else’s in the class. That first class, however, all he’d done was stare at me. It was after that night that he’d started to meet me in the parking lot and bring me bread.

  He told me I was no longer alone and I believed him. Nikolai, for whatever reason, loved me. Me, who for far too many years had felt completely unlovable and unloved.

  Rocco and I either talked or texted every day since our first official non-date when I’d met his friends. Unfortunately, due to our schedules, we hadn’t been able to see each other. I hoped we’d be able to square things later this afternoon. He’d texted to ask for help with Kaylene’s Halloween costume and I was happy to lend a hand, glad for the excuse to see him. Besides, there was something important I needed to set right with him.

  Since my position as a substitute teacher was full-time and I volunteered one Saturday a month at Dress for Success, that gave me only one free weekend a month when Jake had Owen.

  Kaylene had attempted to make her own rock-star costume with limited success. Her version and Rocco’s version clashed, so I’d been called in as mediator.

  Rocco had to work half a day Saturday, which was for the best. I figured the costume making would go better without him and agreed to drive over to his house. Rocco and I could talk later.

  I didn’t let Owen, who was with Jake, know, because he’d be disappointed not to see Rocco and Kaylene. He’d been reluctant to go with Jake as it was, and I didn’t want a battle on my hands. I’d already called Jake twice to see how Owen was doing. Jake was polite, but I could tell he didn’t appreciate the second call.

  I arrived at Rocco’s around ten on Saturday. Kaylene had the door open before I made it to the front porch. I liked the house. It was an older two-story, probably built around the early 1960s, with a big hedged-in porch and dormers. It reminded me of the house I’d grown up in in Spokane, minus the gazebo my father had built for my mom.

  “My dad’s impossible,” Kaylene complained, even before I entered the house. “He refuses to let me wear the costume I made. He said I looked like…well, it’s probably better I not say.”

  “Let me take a look at it and we’ll see if we can reshape it into something he finds presentable,” I suggested. I shrugged off my coat and purse and brought out five gossip magazines I’d picked up at the store. I figured the photos would give us both ideas.

 
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