A girls guide to moving.., p.25
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       A Girl's Guide to Moving On, p.25

           Debbie Macomber
 
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  “Okay.” With Christmas approaching, there could be any number of details we needed to sort through. We had our parenting plan in place and this was his year to have Owen for Christmas Day. I didn’t like to think of not having my son with me, but I was a fair person.

  “I’m not doing this to start a legal war between us, Nichole. I want you to know that.”

  “A legal war?” I repeated, both flustered and alert at once. “What do you mean?”

  “The bottom line is I don’t feel good about you dating Rocco. I don’t know how involved you are with him or if you’re sleeping with him—”

  I cut him off. “What’s between Rocco and me is none of your business.” I could feel my anger rising and struggled to hold on to my temper. My hand tightened around my latte. I didn’t care if Jake liked Rocco or not. Jake had no say in who I dated.

  “The man has a police record.”

  “I know that.” Jake wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. From the beginning, Rocco had been honest with me.

  “He’s spent time in jail.”

  “I know all that,” I repeated, a bit more forcefully this time. “He paid for his crime and has moved on. He learned his lesson. Rocco isn’t the same man he was fifteen years ago.”

  Jake’s gaze narrowed and his face was full of accusation. “I knew you were going to defend him. You’re in love with him, aren’t you?”

  “That’s not your concern.”

  “And that’s where you’re wrong. It is very much my concern.”

  “I think we’re finished talking here.” I started to get up, but Jake firmly grabbed hold of my wrist.

  I wanted to jerk free, and I would have if not for the unyielding hard look in his eyes. “Sit down, Nichole. We need to finish this conversation. Otherwise I’ll have my attorney do it for me.”

  My heart was pounding erratically and my breathing had gone shallow as I sat back down. Jake released my wrist and I sipped the latte because my mouth had gone surprisingly dry.

  “Who you date is very much my concern, because of Owen. I don’t want my son associating with a man who has a criminal record. If that makes me a bad guy, then so be it.”

  All at once I knew where this was coming from. Jake was afraid Rocco was stealing Owen away from him. “You’re jealous because Owen loves Rocco,” I said, hoping to reason with him, “but Jake, our son loves you, too. Owen is only three. The capacity of his heart is huge.”

  Jake shook his head, refusing to listen. “Rocco is a negative influence.”

  “How can you say that? Rocco has been great with Owen from the moment we met.”

  “It’s more than that,” Jake insisted.

  “What do you mean?”

  “Okay, fine, if you must know, I want our son to have bigger aspirations than driving a truck,” he said, and shook his head as though disgusted by the thought.

  It probably wasn’t a good idea to laugh, but I couldn’t help myself. “Owen is three years old,” I reminded him. “He’s going through a stage where he loves big trucks. I think it’s a little premature to worry about his career choice now.”

  “You think this is funny?” Jake demanded, his voice as hard as nails.

  “Frankly, yes.”

  “Trust me, it’s not, Nichole. You have an option here, and if you think this is a bluff then you’re dead wrong. I’m as serious as I’ve ever been in my life.”

  “What is it you want from me?” I asked, finding this entire conversation preposterous. I could only hope that, given time, Jake would realize how ridiculous he sounded.

  “I want you to stop seeing Rocco.”

  I was stunned. “No way. I refuse to let you dictate my relationship with Rocco or any other man just because you don’t happen to like the fact he drives a tow truck.”

  “It’s a lot more than his occupation, Nichole. It’s his past.”

  I refused to hold Rocco’s past against him. “Everything you mentioned happened years ago.”

  “I don’t care. Either you break it off with Rocco or I’m going to file for full custody of Owen.”

  Unable to speak, for one wild moment all I could do was stare at my ex-husband. Anger gripped me, followed by shock. I’d stood up to Jake from the moment I’d learned he’d cheated. I’d been strong, but when it came to my son and the possibility of losing him, I was immediately filled with terror. Jake knew Owen was my weakness. I couldn’t lose Owen. I couldn’t let Jake take my son away from me.

  “As soon as I present the courts with the evidence of Rocco’s past you won’t have a leg to stand on. Sorry to use the cliché, but you know what I mean.”

  “Are you serious, Jake?” I was light-headed from the shock of it. No way on earth could I afford the attorney fees to fight Jake. All at once I felt sick to my stomach.

  “I had the papers drawn up already.” He pulled them out of his inside jacket pocket and handed them to me. I unfolded the sheets and read the contents. This wasn’t a threat or a joke—Jake was serious. My head was reeling; I was unable to believe my ex would follow through with his threat.

  “Will you do it, Nichole, or do you want this to get ugly?”

  I stared back at him for a long time, taking into consideration what it would mean to get caught up in a legal battle.

  “If you think I’m doing this for selfish reasons, you should know I’ve met someone, too. Carlie’s a good person; we met at work, and she’d make Owen a wonderful stepmother. This isn’t a bluff, Nichole. I don’t want to file, but I will.”

  Jake was serious.

  “Either you break it off with Rocco or we’re going to court. I won’t have my son spending time with a felon. And it isn’t just Rocco, it’s the men he hires who are on work release. It isn’t safe for you or our son to be around this man. What are you thinking, Nichole? Don’t you understand the risk you’re taking with Owen?”

  I closed my eyes, battling down my outrage. “I…I won’t let you manipulate me with threats.”

  “Fine, then. I’m filing the petition.” He stood and I knew he wasn’t bluffing.

  “Okay, okay,” I said in a panic, unable to breathe. “I’ll do it.” I was sick to my stomach and my head was throbbing. Everything Jake said about Rocco was true. He did have a record; he hired men on work release. I knew how all that would look before a court of law. I’d always been strong, standing up to Jake. I’d made difficult decisions before. Owen made me vulnerable, and Jake knew that. My son was everything to me. As much as I cared about Rocco, I wouldn’t risk losing custody of Owen.

  “I want to be sure we’re clear,” he said. “You are agreeing to sever your relationship with Rocco?”

  My heart was in my throat and I nodded.

  “Say it.”

  “I won’t be seeing Rocco again.”

  “Thank you,” Jake said, his voice softening. “I know you think I’m doing this for my own selfish reasons, but I’m not. I’m doing this for the sake of my son.”

  —

  I sat in my car and phoned Leanne to ask her to pick Owen up from daycare for me. Something in my voice must have alerted her to the fact that I was terribly upset.

  “What’s happened?” she asked.

  “I…I need to talk to Rocco.” I still hadn’t completely wrapped my head around Jake’s ultimatum. One thing was certain: I needed to end it with him. My stomach was in knots, and the sooner I severed our ties the better. If I thought about it too much I might be tempted to stand up to Jake and take him on. I would if it was anything but custody of my son. The risk was too great.

  I drove to Potter Towing and sat in the car for several minutes, wondering what I could say, how I would find a way to do this. Rocco had always been honest with me, never hiding his past. From the first he’d been completely open. It killed me to know I was going to hurt this man who’d only been decent and kind to Owen and me.

  He deserved the truth, but I didn’t dare tell him, for fear of how he’d react. I was afraid Rocco woul
d confront Jake and it would be a standoff much like there’d been the night I picked up Owen when he was sick. Jake would look for a way to taunt Rocco into a fight and then have him arrested for assault. I could see it as clearly as an Oscar-winning movie.

  The crux of Jake’s demands wasn’t his fear of Rocco corrupting Owen or me. Jake was jealous and he couldn’t bear the thought of me loving another man. Nor could his ego take the fact that Owen looked up to and admired Rocco.

  Once the trembling had subsided I climbed out of my car and went into the office. The minute Shawntelle saw me, she left her desk and hurried out of the glassed-in area. “You okay, girlfriend?” she asked. “You’re pale as a ghost.”

  I tried to smile. “Rocco around?”

  “He’s out on a run, but he should be back in the next thirty minutes. Come sit down. I’ll get you some water or coffee or whatever you need.”

  “Water,” I said, more to hold on to something than because of thirst.

  Shawntelle brought me into her office and sat me down in the chair across from her desk. Rocco had been good enough to give her a chance, and I loved him for his willingness to hire her.

  Shawntelle brought me a bottle of water and handed it to me. I sipped from it.

  “You feel better now?”

  Did I? Doubtful. “Yes, thanks.”

  “You look like someone died,” she said, and then slapped her hand over her mouth. “Did you lose someone, sweetie? Me and my big mouth. I can’t seem to keep my foot out of it. I’m sorry.”

  “No one died.” Something had, though. It was my heart. I had to remind myself the sole function of my heart was to pump blood, not to become emotionally involved. Especially if that meant I was going to be hurt or hurt someone else.

  “I’m still seeing Jerome,” Shawntelle said, blushing a little, “and I haven’t let him talk me into going to bed with him, either.” She laughed and sounded a little giddy. “Not that I haven’t been tempted. I’m telling you right now that man could get a gold star for the way he kisses. I swear his kisses are strong enough to melt the panties right off me.”

  I knew exactly how she felt. Rocco’s kisses did the same for me. A stab of pain went through me at the thought of never being in his arms again.

  “I’m thinking of introducing him to my kids. The way I figure it, if he still wants me after meeting all five of them, then he’s worth keeping around. If he runs as far away from me as he can, I’ll know all he wants is mattress time, and I ain’t putting up with that.”

  “Smart girl.”

  Shawntelle rose from behind her desk. “I think that’s Rocco rolling in now.”

  “Thanks,” I said, and finished off the water. I tossed the plastic bottle into the recycling container and walked out of the office and into the parking lot.

  Rocco must have had a premonition, because he didn’t smile when he saw me. He climbed out of the tow truck and walked toward me. The wind was cold, but the chill I felt had nothing to do with the weather.

  “Nichole?”

  “Do you have a minute?”

  “Sure.” He started toward the office, expecting me to follow.

  “It would be best if we could do this privately,” I said, and already my voice had started to tremble.

  “All right.”

  I felt him distancing himself from me emotionally and I had yet to tell him the reason why I was here. Looking around the yard, I bit down on my lower lip. I’d lost count of the number of times Rocco had taken Owen out driving trucks. Owen sat on Rocco’s lap and Rocco let my son steer while Rocco discreetly kept his hands low on the wheel. Owen was going to miss Rocco as much as I would.

  Rocco led me into one of the empty garage bays.

  “What’s up?” His eyes bore into mine.

  I couldn’t look at him, so I focused on the concrete floor. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately and I feel it might be a good idea if we didn’t see each other for a while.”

  My words were met with silence until I couldn’t bear it any longer and looked up. Rocco didn’t show any emotion one way or another. He didn’t try to argue with me, didn’t ask questions. He seemed completely accepting of my decision. In fact, he said nothing.

  The silence between us was terrible. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, not knowing what else to say.

  “Basically you’re saying you want to take a break.”

  I nodded.

  “No.”

  “No?” I asked, and blinked.

  “We’re done.”

  The complete lack of emotion on his part shook me. I was stunned with disbelief. “That’s all you have to say?”

  “Did you want me to beg you to reconsider? Is that what you want?” His eyes were hard and cold.

  “No,” I whispered, hardly able to get the word out.

  “Do you think this surprises me?”

  I didn’t know how to answer.

  “I have been more or less waiting for you to break it off from the beginning, but especially after last Friday.”

  He thought this had to do with what I’d learned about him: his one-woman, one-night policy. That so wasn’t the case, but I couldn’t tell him otherwise.

  I fought back the urge to argue, but he apparently didn’t want to hear it anyway.

  “You said what you came to say. Now go. Get out of here.”

  All I could do was stare at him.

  “Leave,” he said, forcefully.

  The anger in him caused me to take two steps in retreat.

  “Get the hell out of my life,” he blared.

  I blinked. “Go,” he demanded. “Just go.”

  I walked over to my car and stood there feeling bewildered, bereft, and alone. Five minutes must have passed before I found the strength to open my car door.

  A terrible commotion took place behind me. I knew it had to be Rocco. He had remained in the garage. I flinched as I heard something crash. The sound was followed by another and then another. Each discordant crash made me jerk.

  As I drove away the sense of loss was nearly overwhelming. Numbness had settled into my bones. I don’t know how I got through the heavy traffic of Portland’s downtown area or even how I managed to drive home. The next thing I knew I was in my parking space at the apartment complex with no memory of how I’d gotten there.

  Again I sat in my car for several minutes while the dead feeling in my heart kept me immobile. I hadn’t known what to expect from Rocco, but it hadn’t been that cold, hard resolve of acceptance, as if not seeing me again was of little consequence.

  Nichole told me about her meeting with Jake and I had to say I was furious. I should have guessed he was hiding something when I’d talked to him last Sunday. He knew Rocco was no threat to Nichole or Owen. To suggest otherwise was a new low for my son. I needed to cool off before I talked to Jake, but when I did, he was going to hear my opinion loud and clear. I’d done my best to stay out of affairs between the two, but this time I couldn’t keep quiet.

  My bigger concern was Nichole. She was heartsick, and frankly, I was worried about her. It was as if she were living in a fog. When she’d first learned about Jake’s infidelity she’d been angry and smart. One of the first things she did was call a college friend who was an attorney. She found out exactly what she needed to do to protect herself financially. I admired how she’d taken control of the situation and how she’d handled herself. I’d witnessed plenty of emotion in her then. She’d been crushed, but she knew how to take care of herself.

  Not so now. It was as if she was wandering waist-deep in regret. How she managed to teach and maintain her daily schedule was beyond me. I tried to talk to her several times, but she just stared into the distance. I sincerely doubted she even heard me.

  Sean and I had set up a visit to the funeral home on Friday afternoon to make the arrangements for his burial. Apparently, it wasn’t as simple a process as Sean had made it sound. Most likely he didn’t understand everything himself.

  Nikolai was sti
ll not happy about me doing this, but I promised I’d connect with him as soon as we were finished.

  I called him before I headed to Lake Oswego.

  “You call as soon you finish, okay?” Nikolai asked.

  “I will.”

  “You remember you with me now.”

  “I remember,” I said, hoping that would be enough to reassure him.

  “I wait to breathe till you call.”

  I couldn’t imagine what he thought might happen. It wasn’t like I would be so overwhelmed by Sean’s sad news that I’d agree to marry him again. That was so unlikely that I nearly laughed out loud.

  I met Sean at the house. He’d only been back to work that week and wasn’t working full days. From what he said, it was unlikely he’d ever return full-time. Sean wanted to work long enough to get his accounts in order before he handed them off to the new person assuming his position. I knew it was hard for him to talk about his lack of a future, so I avoided the subject.

  Sean answered the door and I could see that the house was in disarray again. I’d talked to a cleaning service that came with excellent recommendations and sent them out to clean.

  “Thank you for this,” he said, sounding more reserved than I could ever remember. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you going with me, Leanne. I don’t know that I could ever have managed it alone.”

  I looked around the house. “The cleaning service didn’t work out?”

  “No, unfortunately.”

  “What happened?”

  He shrugged and looked chagrined with himself. “I was having a bad day. One of the workers broke my favorite coffee cup and in a fit of anger I fired them.” He looked away, as if embarrassed. “It was stupid of me. I regretted it almost right away and called the service back and apologized.”

  “What did they say?”

  “Just that it didn’t look like I was a good fit for them. Can’t say I blame them; I behaved badly.”

  He impressed me with his willingness to admit he’d been wrong and the fact that he’d regretted blowing up at the work crew. I’d done my best for him. I wasn’t going to look for another cleaning service. As Nikolai was quick to remind me, Sean was fully capable of finding one on his own.

 
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