A girls guide to moving.., p.18
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       A Girl's Guide to Moving On, p.18

           Debbie Macomber
 
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  “I show you,” he said.

  “Okay.” I stood beside him and watched as he expertly filled the cabbage leaf and then folded it with such precision it didn’t need anything to hold it together. He set the first roll in the prepared pan. “You try.”

  “All right.”

  Nikolai stood behind me, his hands resting on the curve of my shoulders. I flattened the cabbage leaf and was about to scoop the pork into the center when he leaned forward and kissed the side of my neck. The spoon splattered against the pan.

  “Nikolai!”

  “Sorry. I not able to stop. I am so happy. I’m with you, my Leanne. I smell food from my country and I think I not ever been this happy.”

  “I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy, either,” I whispered, abandoning all pretense of rolling the cabbage leaf. Twisting around, I pressed my head against his chest. I could have stood with Nikolai’s arms around me for an eternity and been perfectly content for the rest of my life.

  He kissed me and I kissed him, and all thought of the cabbage rolls was abandoned until I heard my doorbell.

  Nikolai groaned as though resenting the intrusion.

  I didn’t appreciate the interruption. I sighed, not eager to leave Nikolai’s arms. Worse, I had a premonition it was Sean.

  I was right. My ex had called twice in the last week and I’d let the calls go to voice mail, unwilling to talk to him. The pain from the shingles still bothered me and I wasn’t in the mood to deal with Sean. As far as I was concerned, we had nothing to discuss. I should have known better. Sean wasn’t the kind of man who took kindly to being ignored.

  When I opened the door, he was holding a large bouquet of flowers in front of his face. He peeked around the arrangement with a huge smile.

  “Surprise,” he said, as if I should be overwhelmed by his thoughtfulness.

  “Hello, Sean,” I said, with little enthusiasm.

  He stared back at me with that hurt-little-boy look, as if shocked by my lack of welcome. “Can I come in?” he asked pointedly.

  I stepped aside and he walked into my apartment. Nikolai came to stand behind me, hands on my shoulders. I noticed that he’d removed the apron and that he stared back hard at Sean.

  Sean didn’t take kindly to finding Nikolai with me, either. “This is that Russian again, isn’t it?”

  “Nikolai is from Ukraine,” I corrected, when I felt Nikolai’s fingers tighten on my shoulders. Ukrainians weren’t Russians and didn’t like to be referred to as such. “What do you want, Sean?” I asked, getting to the point.

  “I heard you had shingles.”

  “I did two weeks ago. The pain is mostly gone now.” It was worse at nights, but I preferred to downplay any discomfort, especially to Sean.

  “I brought you flowers.” He lifted them slightly, in case I hadn’t noticed them earlier.

  “Yes, I see.” Once Sean left, I’d give the arrangement to an elderly neighbor lady who would appreciate them far more than I would.

  “You didn’t answer my calls.” His voice was full of accusation, as if he assumed I would fall all over myself to talk to him.

  “I’ve been busy.” Although Sean spoke to me, his gaze landed squarely on Nikolai, his eyes narrowed and wary.

  “I wanted to ask about Nichole,” Sean said.

  Why he would come to me about Nichole was a mystery, and not one I was willing to solve. “She has her own cell. I’ll give you her number if you’d like.”

  “I have it.”

  I knew he did. “Then I suggest you contact her yourself.”

  Sean shifted his feet. I hadn’t invited him to sit down and I hoped he got the message that I’d rather he left. In the last few weeks he’d paid more attention to me than he had in the last two years of our marriage, and certainly since the divorce was final.

  “I wanted to ask you about this man she’s dating,” Sean said, looking concerned. “That tow-truck driver.”

  “Rocco is none of your business.”

  “Rocco,” he repeated, as if it was a swear word. “Jake tells me this…Rocco has a negative influence on Owen. As Owen’s father, he’s deeply concerned. I wanted to know if you’ve met him.”

  “I believe this is something you need to discuss with Nichole and not me.”

  “Have you met Rocco?” he said, a bit louder, more insistent.

  “I have.”

  “What kind of name is Rocco, anyway?” He shook his head, as if he found it distasteful.

  “Italian, I believe.” I immediately regretted giving my ex any additional information. As far as I was concerned, this conversation had gone on long enough. “As you can see, Nikolai and I are busy. I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s time for you to go.”

  A hurt look came over Sean. He looked down and slowly exhaled. “I have something to tell you, Leanne, but I can see now isn’t the time. Would it be possible to have a conversation later…just the two of us?”

  Again Nikolai’s fingers tightened, pinching my shoulders. “I’ll call you when it’s convenient,” I said, and it would be a long time before I found it convenient.

  Sean turned toward the door and then looked back. “You’ve changed, Leanne.”

  “Yes,” I agreed. “I have.”

  He nodded, cast a frosty look toward Nikolai, and then left, closing the door behind him.

  I released a deep breath, relieved he was gone. Nikolai dropped his hands from my shoulders. As soon as the door closed he started pacing my living room, his fists knotted at his sides. He spoke heatedly in his mother tongue and shook his head.

  I watched for several moments before I spoke. “Nikolai.”

  He whirled around to face me and spat out, “I no like this Sean, this man who no love you. He no real man. He pretend man.” Nikolai continued to pace. “I no like he come to you. He up to something.”

  I shook my head. “Are you jealous?” I asked him softly.

  Nikolai didn’t hesitate and quickly nodded. “I look at this man and I see blue.”

  “You see red,” I corrected gently.

  “That color, too. I not like him close to you. I want to be the one close to you.”

  “You are close to me,” I assured him. No matter where this relationship led, I would always treasure Nikolai. He’d given me so much. When I’d separated from Sean I felt like a dried-up prune, useless, old, used up.

  How thankful I was that my daughter-in-law had given me the courage to do what I should have done years earlier. And I was grateful for our guide, the list of things to help us adjust to our futures. Until Nichole, I’d been resigned to remaining in a loveless marriage, not realizing that year by year I was slowly dying.

  Nikolai seemed to need an outlet to vent his anger, and he continued pacing. I stood in front of him, blocking him.

  “Stop,” I said, planting my hands in the middle of his chest. “You have no reason to be jealous. Sean means nothing to me. Whatever love I felt for him died a long time ago.”

  Nikolai studied me as if to gauge the truth in my words. “I not know this jealous before. I had no reason to know this word. Magdalena only love me and I only love her. Sean not like me and I not like him.”

  He’d accurately stated the truth. I could see the dislike in Sean’s face as he’d studied Nikolai. And Nikolai didn’t bother to hide his disdain for my ex-husband. I could only imagine Nikolai’s response if I were to mention that Sean thought he might be part of the Russian Mafia. To even suggest it was preposterous.

  “I see him watch you,” Nikolai whispered. “He see you happy and he jealous.”

  I couldn’t keep from laughing. “You’ve got that all wrong. Sean has no feelings for me. Not love, not hate. We were married thirty-five years and after the first few years all there was between us was indifference.”

  “I don’t know how you mean indifference,” Nikolai said, frowning.

  “It’s not important. I don’t want to spend the rest of our evening talking about Sean.” I’d learn
ed my lesson, though. The next time Sean called I’d answer no matter how I felt at the time. I didn’t want any more of these unexpected visits.

  As for his concern about Nichole seeing Rocco and the influence Rocco had on Owen, that had all been a convenient excuse. I didn’t know what was up with my ex-husband, but clearly something was. Whatever it was, I didn’t have time to think about it now.

  Perhaps Nikolai had been right when he suggested that Sean didn’t like the idea of seeing me happy. Sean’s ego was too big to deal with that. When I left him, my husband assumed that I would fall apart; that I wouldn’t be able to survive without him dictating my life, my friends, how I spent my time.

  It embarrassed me to admit that I’d wanted the same for him. When I packed my bags to leave Sean, my head had been in a strange place. I desperately wanted Sean to miss me and the comforts of the home I’d meticulously maintained for him. I dreamed about him struggling to figure out how to wash his own clothes and cook his own meals. I wanted him to miss me to the point he would be willing to admit that the thirty-five years I’d dedicated to him and his career meant something.

  It was ridiculous, of course. One of the first things Sean did after my departure was hire a housecleaning service. From what Kacey told me, he ate most of his meals at the club. As far as I could tell, he’d garnered the sympathy of our friends by telling everyone I’d walked out on him—leaving him, in his words, “high and dry.”

  The divorce had given him the opportunity to parade his “flavor of the month” around publicly. He was living the good life and doing it without me. That didn’t bother me now. I’d found my own happiness.

  The naked truth was Sean and I did much better apart than we ever did as a married couple.

  My sister’s wedding was set for the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. I was thrilled for Cassie and excited to be a part of her wedding.

  I’d been angry and hurt when my eighteen-year-old sister had run away with Duke and not eager to forgive her when she returned all those years later with her daughter, Amiee. Cassie had been a stranger to me; I no longer knew her and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. My judgmental attitude shocked me now. I was filled with regret at the way I’d been willing to write her off and keep her out of my life.

  And yet Cassie had been the first one to reach out and support me when she learned about Jake. I’d gone to her often for advice. She’d been generous with her love and support. We were close now, closer even than we’d been as children. She knew about my relationship with Rocco and had invited him and Kaylene to attend the wedding with Owen and me.

  I’d driven up to Seattle for a visit. My other sister, Karen, had managed to get the weekend off as well. It would be the first time the three of us had gotten together since last August. We talked nearly every week, but it wasn’t the same as being together.

  We all crowded into the house Cassie had built through Habitat for Humanity. I’d missed seeing my sisters. Missed the camaraderie we shared and was so very grateful to have Cassie back in our lives.

  I sat with my legs folded on the carpet in Cassie’s living room with Owen tucked in front of me. I didn’t expect him to stay content for long. He was still shy around Amiee, Cassie’s teenage daughter. That wouldn’t last long, though.

  “I don’t want you two to get stuck with dresses you’ll never wear again,” Cassie had insisted. “So wear whatever you want and it’ll be fine.”

  That worked great for me. I had a number of fancy gowns that would be suitable to wear as a bridesmaid. Jake had always made sure I had the best for the annual Commander’s Ball at the country club.

  I’d decided to wear the midnight-blue one I’d worn the year before I got pregnant with Owen. I saw it in the back of my closet and tried it on for fun. I’d been surprised when it was a perfect fit again. The baby weight was gone. Guess that was what a long, drawn-out divorce will do for a woman.

  Cassie turned to me with a regretful look. “Nichole, I think I made a big mistake.”

  “Really. How so?”

  “When you mentioned you hadn’t gotten the wedding invitation, I checked my address book. I think I might have mailed it to your old address in Lake Oswego.”

  “Don’t worry. I know when the wedding is.” Jake hadn’t forwarded it on, which didn’t surprise me. He’d been short-tempered and nasty to me ever since he learned about Rocco.

  Fifteen-year-old Amiee sat down next to me and pretended not to notice Owen. My toddler covered his eyes and then cautiously peeked over at his cousin. Amiee reached for his toy tow truck, which got an immediate reaction from Owen.

  “Mine.”

  “Oh, sorry,” Amiee said, pretending she didn’t know. “It’s such a cool truck, I thought I’d like to see how it runs.”

  “I show you.” Owen sprang out of my lap as if he’d been sitting inside a jack-in-the-box. The two of them went into the kitchen, where the floor made it easier to scoot the truck around.

  “You doing okay?” Karen asked. She’d been worried about me since the divorce, and our regular long-distance conversations weren’t enough to ease her mind. We were all busy, but Karen and Garth, her husband, had recently started their own business having to do with listing and selling commercial real estate and were busier than ever. Both Lily and Buddy had stayed in Spokane with their father for the weekend.

  “Actually, I’m doing great.” And it was the truth. I enjoyed teaching, and having a regular income had done a lot to help my budget. I was scheduled to fill in until the first of the year. I got along well with the staff and had learned that a full-time position was opening up in the spring for a French teacher. I planned to apply for it, as I was fluent in the language, and felt I’d have a good chance of getting hired.

  “Rocco’s coming to the wedding, right?” Cassie asked. “I’m anxious to meet him.”

  “He said he would.” Which surprised and delighted me. I was eager for my sisters to meet Rocco. He was becoming an important part of my life. Although he had a rough and gruff exterior, he was thoughtful and smart and a good father. Owen loved him, and I found myself thinking about him more and more. We were very different people outwardly but we shared the same core values and beliefs.

  Cassie, who sat on the carpet next to me, said, “After everything you said, I’m really looking forward to meeting him.”

  I thought I should give my sisters fair warning. “He’s not your typical guy. He’s got tattoos and he’s big and tall.”

  “But you like him.”

  “I do.” I wasn’t going to downplay how attracted I was to Rocco. Yes, he was handsome, but not in the same way Jake was. Rocco oozed masculinity, whereas Jake was suave and urbane. No two men could be more different.

  “Is it serious?” Karen asked me.

  I needed time to think about my answer. We’d agreed not to date others and to give our relationship a chance to grow. I wasn’t sure if that meant we were serious. “Not yet. We’re still getting to know each other, but it could be serious at some point. We both have a lot of stuff to work through. Two of my college friends rebounded from divorces with fast second marriages that lasted less than a year. I don’t want to make that mistake.”

  “Steve is bringing dinner over later,” Cassie said.

  Amiee stuck her head out from the kitchen. “Is it KFC?”

  “No,” Cassie answered, laughing.

  “Darn,” Amiee muttered, and retreated back to the kitchen.

  Karen, Cassie, and I spent the afternoon assembling wedding favors for the tabletops at the reception. We laughed and rolled through childhood memories, and cried when we talked about our parents, both of whom had died far too young.

  Steve arrived with Chinese takeout and we sat around and ate with chopsticks and talked well into the night. Sunday morning, Cassie cooked us breakfast and Karen and I headed back to our respective homes.

  When Owen and I stopped at a rest stop I called Rocco to tell him we were on our way back.

  “Hey,”
I said when he answered.

  “Hey.”

  The rough timbre of his voice gave me a warm, happy feeling.

  “Did you have a good time with your sisters?”

  “The best.”

  “How far out are you?”

  I gave him my best guesstimate. “Maybe an hour or more.”

  He hesitated. “Can I see you when you’re back?”

  I looked down at the asphalt and kicked a small rock. I was hoping he’d suggest we get together. “I’d like that.”

  “Come to my place.”

  “Okay.”

  He hesitated, as if unsure whether he should say anything. “I missed you.”

  I closed my eyes. Rocco wasn’t one to make flowery speeches or romantic declarations. His simple words had a strong impact on me. “I’ve missed you, too. My sisters are anxious to meet you.”

  Again, the hesitation. “You sure you want me with you at this wedding? I mean, it won’t upset me if you’d rather I didn’t come.”

  “Rocco, of course I want you at the wedding. Why would you think otherwise?”

  He didn’t answer.

  “Rocco?”

  “I’ll tell you when you get here.”

  I’ll admit he had me worried. All the times I’d talked about my sisters with Rocco, I knew he was looking forward to meeting them. He teased me that he was going to learn all the weird things I’d done as a kid from Karen and Cassie so he could taunt me.

  Rocco had one sister who currently lived in Texas. Her husband was in the military and they moved around quite a bit. Although he hadn’t said much, I got the idea that the two of them were close. His parents had moved to be near his sister, and his mother was in poor health.

  Because I was curious about Rocco’s concerns over the wedding, instead of returning to the apartment I drove directly to his house. He must have been watching for me, because as soon as I pulled up, he stepped out of the house. By the time I had the engine off, he’d opened the back door and was getting Owen out of his car seat.

 
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