A girls guide to moving.., p.27
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       A Girl's Guide to Moving On, p.27

           Debbie Macomber
 
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  Cassie muttered something under her breath that I wasn’t able to make out. Then she started into a tirade that lasted a good ten minutes. “Are you telling me that you’re going to let Jake manipulate you like this? Come on, Nichole, you’re a better woman than that. You’ve been strong and fearless to this point—”

  “But this is my son,” I cried, cutting her off.

  “He’s bluffing. You know Jake. Do you honestly think he’s serious? And so what if he is? No judge in his right mind would give Owen to his father when the boy clearly is better off with his mother.”

  “Yes, but—”

  “What is wrong with you, little sister? Come on, girl, show a little backbone.”

  Me? I didn’t get it.

  “Don’t you dare let Jake make this kind of demand,” she continued. “That weasel has no more interest in getting custody of Owen than some stranger off the street. He knows you love Rocco and he has a convenient excuse to make both of your lives miserable. And fool that you are, you let him.”

  “But I can’t risk losing my son, and he knows I can’t afford to pay for an attorney to fight him,” I wailed.

  “Of course you can’t. But he can’t, either, so call his crazy bluff.”

  “Call his bluff,” I said, sobbing.

  “You heard me. Just do it. He’ll back down so fast your head will be left spinning.”

  I wondered if that could possibly be true. So much was at stake I feared what would happen if I did challenge Jake.

  “You hear me?” Cassie said.

  “Yes, only—”

  “Only nothing. You stand up to Jake.”

  “Okay.” I was willing to do just about anything to make this pain in my heart go away.

  “Now that we’ve got that settled, let’s get back to Rocco.”

  “Please.” I knew he was angry with me, and getting him to trust me again wouldn’t be easy.

  “Steve and Rocco hit it off. Those two bonded so fast you’d think they were brothers. Rocco told Steve he’d never loved a woman until he’d met you and that you’d turned his world around. He’s crazy about you and I swear if you don’t find a way to make things right between you two Steve might not ever be able to forgive you.”

  “What do I do?” I pleaded.

  “First off, apologize and then explain. If you’d told him the truth up front, you could have avoided all this. Don’t be a schmuck, Nichole. You’re smarter than this.”

  “What if Rocco won’t have anything to do with me?” And, frankly, I wouldn’t blame him if he turned his back on me, which I suspected he would.

  “Be patient. He loves you. Keep remembering that, no matter how stubborn he is.”

  “I will,” I promised. Already I felt worlds better.

  “You finished crying your eyes out?” Cassie asked.

  “Yes,” I said, smiling for the first time in nearly two weeks.

  “Then go out there, little sister, and kick some butt.”

  I laughed softly. “Thank you, Cassie.”

  “Hey, what are sisters for, anyway? Love you, Nichole.”

  “Love you.”

  We disconnected and I immediately contacted Jake.

  He answered, short-tempered and waspish. “What?” he demanded, as if it’d been a real inconvenience to hear my voice.

  “I have two words for you, Jake. Just two words. Lawyer up.” With that, I ended the call. Dear, sweet heaven that felt good. I pumped my fist in the air, grabbed my coat, and headed out the door.

  It went without saying that if I were to call Rocco he wouldn’t answer. I needed to be smart about this, so I called Kaylene. I needed to find Rocco. I sat in my car and punched out her number.

  Her attitude wasn’t any better than Jake’s when she answered. “What do you want?”

  “Where’s your father?”

  “What makes you think I’d tell you? You’re the last person he wants to see.”

  I knew she was right. “Because I love him.”

  “Not funny.”

  “Kaylene, please, I need to talk to your dad. Is he at the house or is he working?”

  She hesitated, as if unsure what to tell me. “You hurt him. He loved you.”

  “I know and I’m sorry.”

  “It’s too late. He doesn’t want to see you.”

  “I know.” God willing, I hoped to change his mind.

  “He broke a bunch of stuff because of you.”

  Shawntelle had already told me he’d gone on a rampage. “I’ll do everything within my power to make it up to you both.”

  Kaylene remained uncertain; I could hear it in her voice. “My dad really cared about you.”

  “Please,” I whispered, closing my eyes and hoping with everything in me that she would help me.

  “You promise not to tell him I gave you the information?” I could feel her wavering.

  “I promise.”

  “Unless it turns out really well. Then you can tell him, okay?”

  “I’ll do whatever you want; just let me know where I can find him.”

  Kaylene paused. “The only reason I’m telling you is because he’s been in a wicked mood ever since you two split. This better help, because if it gets any worse, I’m moving out.”

  “You can live with me,” I promised. If she didn’t tell me soon, I was going to scream.

  “Dad went out to have a beer.”

  I inwardly groaned because I knew exactly where Rocco had gone. I thanked Kaylene, inserted my key in the ignition, and headed out. I was a woman on a mission and I refused to be thwarted. The weather was foul, with an ice storm threatening. I didn’t care if there was a tornado warning blaring; I was going to find Rocco.

  I drove to the tavern, parked, and squared my shoulders. I was ready to face the beast. I walked inside and it took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. It seemed the entire place went still. I saw Rocco sitting at the bar with his back to me, his shoulders hunched, discouraging conversation. He must have noticed the change in the atmosphere, because he glanced over his shoulder. His gaze landed on me, but I saw no sign of recognition. His expression remained blank as he turned back to drinking his beer.

  I sauntered up to the bar like I did this every day of the week and took a seat two stools down from Rocco. The bartender looked at me and then at Rocco.

  “What can I get you?” he asked.

  “Give me a shot of fireball whiskey,” I said, looking for liquid courage. I’d never had a straight shot in my life. Sam had ordered it the night we’d played pool. The bartender set the glass down in front of me. I took my first sip and thankfully didn’t choke, although my eyes started to water. I swear it made my teeth go soft.

  I didn’t look at Rocco and he didn’t look at me.

  Five minutes passed before Sam came and sat on the other side of me, leaving the two empty spots between me and Rocco open.

  “How’s it going?” he asked.

  I shrugged. “Not so well lately.” I chanced a look in Rocco’s direction. He gave no indication he’d heard me, not that I expected he would. “I made a stupid mistake,” I added, watching Rocco out of the corner of my eye.

  Nothing.

  “What kind of mistake?” Sam asked.

  Before I could answer, Rocco slid off the stool, slapped some cash down on the counter, and reached for his coat.

  I was not letting him go until I’d had a chance to talk to him. Grabbing my purse, I set money on the counter and followed Rocco outside. He started walking away at a clipped pace.

  As best as I could, I kept up with him until he finally whirled around and faced me, his eyes as hard as the threatening ice storm.

  “What?” The lone word was shot at me with the strength and speed of a bullet.

  For one crazy minute all I could do was stare at him. It took every ounce of restraint I possessed not to launch myself into his arms. When I spoke, it was directly from my heart. All I could do was pray he saw that and knew I was sincere.
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  “I love you, Rocco.”

  He shook his head. “Not good enough.” He turned and started to walk away.

  Well, that hadn’t gone the way I’d hoped. I raced after him, my boots slipping and sliding on the slick sidewalk. “It damn well better be good enough,” I shouted.

  He increased his pace.

  “I just put Owen’s and my entire future on the line for you.”

  Nothing. He showed absolutely no response.

  “Did you hear me?” I shouted.

  Nothing.

  He rounded the corner and I saw his truck parked three spaces down. He had his keys in his hands. He flicked a button and I heard the car beep, indicating it was unlocked. He walked around to the driver’s side and opened the door.

  I was growing desperate. He had to listen. He had to understand.

  “Jake was going to fight me for custody—” I didn’t get any further when my feet flew out from under me and I lost my balance. My arms flailed in a whirlwind motion before I went crashing down on the sidewalk. I landed on my side, hitting my shoulder hard. For a minute I was too stunned to move or speak or even breathe.

  Rocco was already seated in his truck. He had the engine running. For the longest moment neither one of us moved.

  I tried to get up and failed, sliding to my butt. I could feel the cold and ice seep into my jeans, but still I couldn’t move. My heart ached in equal parts with my shoulder and hip. All I could do was stare at Rocco, sitting in his truck, glaring at me.

  Rocco climbed out of the truck and came to stand on the curb. “You hurt?” he asked, his voice devoid of sympathy.

  “I could use a hand up.” I stretched out my arm. My entire body throbbed, but it was nothing compared to the pain in my heart.

  Rocco helped me to my feet as his gaze assessed me. “You sure you’re not hurt?”

  I nodded, although I wasn’t sure of anything at the moment. We stood on the sidewalk doing nothing more than staring at each other. I tried to speak and couldn’t. Tears fell down my face, but I refused to look away.

  I could see Rocco fighting within himself. He stepped back and I was convinced he was going to leave me. “I told you we’re done.”

  In response, all I could manage was to shake my head.

  He turned away.

  I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t watch. Looking down, I closed my eyes. Tears dripped off the end of my nose, falling onto the sidewalk, freezing instantly. That’s what Rocco’s heart was doing. He was freezing me out.

  “Is that what you want?” I asked, stopping him. The door to his truck was open.

  He stood still with his back to me.

  “You said…you didn’t know what it was to love someone to the point you’d be willing to die for them.”

  He didn’t move.

  “I love you enough to risk losing custody of my son. If that’s not good enough for you, Rocco, then nothing ever will be. Go ahead, turn me away…” I had to stop because my voice wobbled terribly. “But if you do…if you do…” I couldn’t say anything more.

  Then, with a groan, Rocco turned back to me and within seconds his arms wrapped around my waist. He held me against him as if the world was about to come to an end, his grip so tight I couldn’t breathe. Sobbing, I buried my face in his neck.

  I don’t know how long we stood like that. I didn’t care if we ever moved. After what seemed like an eternity Rocco released a shuddering breath and eased his hold on me, letting my feet settle back down on the sidewalk.

  “Please,” I whispered. “Please love me enough to give us a chance.”

  He closed his eyes as if still fighting within himself.

  “Rocco, please,” I whispered again.

  He exhaled, squeezing his eyes shut, as if getting the words out brought him horrible pain. “God help me, I do love you.”

  “I was afraid and I was stupid. I’m fighting Jake…I don’t care how much it costs. I can’t lose you.”

  His grip on me tightened as his hands bunched up my coat. I sobbed once and clung to him. He kissed me then, his lips punishing, but I didn’t care. Just being in his arms was like heaven; it felt like I was coming home.

  He broke off the kiss and his eyes held mine steady. “Jake threatened to take Owen away from you?”

  My hands framed his face. “He’s going to file for custody. I’ve decided to fight him.” If what Cassie said was true, Jake would back down. Either way, I wasn’t going to let my ex-husband manipulate me.

  Rocco kissed me again. “That’s why…”

  I nodded. I couldn’t stop looking at him even when my eyes blurred with tears.

  “Let me deal with Jake,” Rocco said gently, and his kiss was a promise.

  I couldn’t let him do that. “This is my battle.”

  “No,” he insisted. “It’s ours together.”

  We started to leave and when I took my first step pain shot up my leg and I nearly collapsed. Thankfully, Rocco had his arm around me and caught me before I fell again.

  “You’re hurt.” His concern was immediate.

  “No,” I countered. “I’ve never felt better in my life.” Ten broken bones would have been worth it if that fall brought Rocco back to me.

  It shocked me how quickly Sean’s health declined. Other than that one week in which he worked part-time, he never returned to the office. He worked from home for another week and then gave it up entirely.

  As we headed into Christmas I found myself spending more and more time with him until it became far more convenient for me to stay at the house full-time. I worried when I left Sean at night, fearing that if he fell he wouldn’t have the strength to get up off the floor. What shocked me was how few real friends he had. I knew if our situations were reversed I could always count on Kacey. A couple of the guys from the club came to see him, but that was it and they only stopped by the one time. Even people he’d worked with for years made only token visits.

  As best I could I tried not to think about Nikolai. I wondered if he thought of me or if he’d put me out of his heart as effectively as he’d put me out of his life. A hundred times, perhaps more, I was tempted to reach out to him and call or text him. Then I realized I couldn’t, not when Sean needed my full attention.

  The Friday before Christmas Jake stopped by to see his father. Sean sat in his recliner, an afghan covering his legs. No matter how high I turned up the furnace, Sean couldn’t seem to get warm. He’d lost almost fifteen pounds by this time, as his appetite was practically nonexistent. I did my best to coax him to eat, often without success.

  “How you feeling, Dad?” Jake asked, scooting an ottoman next to the recliner and leaning forward.

  “Better today, I think.” Sean offered his son a weak smile.

  I knew that wasn’t the case. The doctor had just upped his pain medication, which he hated because he swore it made him sick to his stomach, and the nausea meds didn’t seem to have an effect. The drugs were responsible for how sleepy he was. Sean slept several hours every afternoon and was often ready for bed by seven at night.

  “Funny how life boils down to the news, the weather, and daytime television,” Sean said, making an effort to joke.

  He looked to me and his eyes grew warm with love and appreciation. I’d never thought to see that in the man I’d divorced.

  “Don’t know that I’d make it another day if not for your mother,” he told Jake. “She’s a good woman.”

  Jake looked at me and nodded. “She is.”

  “I never appreciated her the way I should have, and it cost me.”

  “And me,” Jake whispered.

  I wasn’t sure Sean heard him as he drifted off to sleep shortly afterward. Jake was referring to the fact that his own marriage had failed as he’d followed in his father’s footsteps.

  Our son joined me in the kitchen and I could tell he had something on his mind. “You got a minute, Mom?”

  “Sure. What’s up?” I asked. I was busy getting everything together to
make homemade soup for Sean that evening. Because my freezer was full of Nikolai’s bread, I’d brought a loaf of it from the apartment. If Nikolai knew I was serving my ex-husband his wonderful bread I was sure he’d be deeply offended. But I didn’t need to worry about that any longer. I hadn’t heard from Nikolai since our last heart-wrenching conversation.

  Jake pulled a stool up to the kitchen counter. “I had a visit from Rocco Nyquist.”

  I stopped chopping an onion and set my knife aside. This was serious. Pulling out a stool, I sat down across from my son. I hadn’t made a secret of how I felt about him suing for custody of Owen. As far as I knew, Jake hadn’t followed through with his threat. If he had, I was sure Nichole would have mentioned it before now.

  “What did he say?” I asked, working hard to remain outwardly calm.

  Jake looked down at his hands. “As you can imagine, I wasn’t happy to see him. To his credit, Rocco was polite. He asked if we could talk man to man about Nichole and Owen.”

  Confronting my son must have been uncomfortable for Rocco and equally so for Jake. “What did you say?”

  My son looked almost amused. “I started off by telling him exactly what I thought of him, and I didn’t hold back. I threw out the fact that I knew he’d been incarcerated. I let him know I thought he was a negative influence on Nichole and especially on my son. I wasn’t polite about it, either. I gave it to him with both barrels.”

  I could well imagine.

  The same amused look remained on Jake’s face as he continued. “Frankly, I expected to rile him. I even thought he might take a swing at me. I sort of hoped he would, but he didn’t.

  “The truth is if I’d been on the receiving end of a tirade like that I probably would have lost my cool. Rocco didn’t. He sat and listened and didn’t interrupt. When I wound down he simply asked if I was ready for us to figure things out. It surprised me, you know.”

  “So what did he have to say?”

  “Mainly, that he knew I loved Nichole and Owen, and he was sorry our marriage hadn’t worked out. I wasn’t sure I bought that, but I didn’t argue the point. Bottom line, he feels the same way about them. He loves Nichole and he loves Owen, but he made it clear that he has no intention of taking Owen away from me.”

 
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