A girls guide to moving.., p.28
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       A Girl's Guide to Moving On, p.28

           Debbie Macomber
 
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  Rocco impressed me. Naturally I knew Rocco and Nichole were back together and I was glad to hear it. They were good for each other. I liked Rocco and appreciated the way he treated her and Owen.

  “Then he asked me about my threat to file for custody. Rocco said he hoped I’d change my mind, but if I did go ahead with the suit that I’d lose in the end.” Jake paused and exhaled, as if this part was harder to explain. “He said that it would tear apart whatever relationship I hoped to have with Nichole and Owen. He felt certain a long, involved lawsuit would bankrupt us both and lead to bitterness and hostility, especially once attorneys got involved.”

  “He’s right,” I added, although I wasn’t sure Jake appreciated my commentary.

  “Looking at it from that point of view, I was forced to agree,” Jake said, surprising me.

  My son had a lot of emotional baggage he was dealing with in a short amount of time. The divorce, a change in jobs, his father’s cancer, and now this. Deep down, I think he believed he would be able to fool Nichole into believing he was a changed man. He hoped he could talk her into reuniting and forget about the divorce. His plan failed; she’d seen through him. What my son hadn’t expected was that Nichole would move on with her life. Move on and meet someone else, especially a blue-collar man like Rocco.

  “Rocco loves and appreciates Nichole far more than I ever did,” Jake whispered. “That isn’t easy to admit. He loves her enough to seek me out and do what he could to save us both from a long court battle in which the only loser would be me. I have to say I respect that. It couldn’t have been easy for him to let down his guard enough to confront me.”

  I’ll admit my own respect for Rocco rose several notches.

  “I don’t expect us to be bosom buddies anytime soon,” he added, “but it’s good to know that we understand each other. As Rocco pointed out, we both love Owen, and working together instead of against each other is a win-win.”

  My son had shown more maturity in the last hour than he had in years, and I was proud of him.

  A deep sadness settled over Jake as he glanced at his father. “You know, Mom, I blew it with Nichole. Dad…he always seemed to have it together. Outwardly he had the perfect life. He had you and money and a little fun on the side. You never said anything and looked the other way. I thought that was what all wives did.”

  It killed me to hear my son say that, because in essence he was telling me that by not standing up to my husband and fighting for my marriage I had approved of Sean’s infidelity.

  “I assumed Nichole would do the same,” Jake said. “I knew if she ever found out she wouldn’t like it, but that didn’t stop me. I was stupid enough to think I could have it both ways.”

  I swallowed tightly.

  “The other night I stopped off to check on Dad. You’d gone back to your apartment to collect a few things.”

  I remembered because I’d called Jake and asked him to sit with his father while I was away.

  “Dad and I had a long talk. Seeing the two of you now and how close you are is an eye-opener, and I think Dad feels it, too. He told me he realized far too late how much he loved you. He might not be able to say it now, but he’s sorry for the way he cheated on you. He told me that with tears in his eyes. He said you were worth ten of any of the other women he’s ever known.”

  Known most likely in the biblical sense, I mused, holding back a smile.

  “Dad doesn’t know where he’d be now if it wasn’t for you caring for him. I couldn’t do what you’re doing. Most likely he’d be in some nursing home and at the mercy of strangers.”

  My attention remained focused on Sean, and when I spoke it was from the heart. “I’ve always loved your father, Jake. For a long time I buried that love beneath my resentment.”

  “Dad didn’t understand until you left him how large a part of his life you were. He didn’t realize how much he loves you. He’s dying and he knows it. He accepts that he only has a few months left, and you know what he said? Dad told me it was worth getting that tumor because it showed him what he should have realized long ago. He had a wonderful, giving, loving wife.”

  That did it; I bit into my lower lip in an effort to hold back tears.

  Jake continued, “Dad gripped hold of my hand and pleaded with me not to make the same stupid mistakes he has. I told him it was too late, I’d already lost Nichole, but he wouldn’t take that as an answer. He wanted to know if I’d learned anything from my divorce.”

  From the evidence I’d seen, Jake hadn’t. According to Kacey, there’d been women in and out of the house, some staying weeks at a time. None that lasted long, though. From the first I’d been concerned about Jake’s parenting of Owen. He’d been far too willing to shuffle his son off to sitters while he spent his weekends playing golf and socializing.

  “Dad’s question hung over me all last week, and as painful as it was to admit, I don’t think I had learned anything from the divorce until recently. When Nichole first left, I was confident I could win her back. I figured I would use my persuasive powers to woo her into giving me another chance. But even then I was going out behind her back, dating other women. It infuriated me when she refused to give me a second chance.

  “After the divorce was final I made a real ass of myself, dating women left and right, sleeping around, having casual hook-ups. The bottom line is I was miserable and I blamed her.”

  It did my heart good to hear the honesty in my son.

  “By the time Rocco came to the house for our man-to-man chat, I’d pretty much decided I wouldn’t have a foot to stand on when it came to getting custody of Owen. All Nichole would have to do was show evidence of the way I’d been living my life since the divorce. No judge in the land would give me custody of my son, and rightly so. Not that I would have let that stop me.”

  Reaching across the counter, I hugged Jake. It was a bit awkward, but I was proud of him, proud of the way he’d cut through all the bull he’d been feeding himself. For the first time in years I had hope that he would turn into a responsible adult.

  Jake returned my hug and then smiled for the first time since we’d begun our conversation. “I met someone awhile back. Her name is Carlie Olsson and she works in my office. She’s beautiful and smart as a whip. She didn’t have a high opinion of me and she let me know she wasn’t interested in dating me. I asked her out five times before she agreed to see me.” His smile widened. “That first night we talked for five hours. The crazy part is I’ve seen her every night since and we haven’t gone to bed together yet.”

  Holding up my hand, I smiled and said, “TMI.”

  Jake laughed. “Sorry. It’s just that in the last couple of years that’s something of a record. If things work out the way I hope they do, I’d like to marry her one day. Don’t worry, Mom, if I cheat on this woman she wouldn’t think twice about severing my dick.”

  Despite myself, I laughed. “Sounds like she’s exactly the kind of woman you need.”

  Jake agreed. “I have Owen Christmas morning, and I thought I’d come by and spend part of the day with you and Dad, if that’s all right?”

  “Of course.”

  “I want Owen to have as many memories of his grandfather as he can.”

  “It’ll be good for them both.” I wanted to warn Jake how quickly his father tired out, but decided against it. “I’ll make us a special dinner.”

  “Could you make that pasta dish I like so much? You remember, the one with the clams in it? Owen likes pasta and I wanted to share it with him.”

  “Of course.” I’d need to dig through my recipes and make sure I had all the ingredients. It’d been several years since I’d last cooked it.

  “We won’t stay too long, I promise,” Jake said, glancing toward his father again.

  “Don’t worry, son. It will do your father good to see Owen.”

  “I have him starting tomorrow. Do you think it would be too much to have him visit Dad then?”

  “Not at all.”

&
nbsp; “I’d like you to meet Carlie, too.”

  He said this as if he wasn’t sure I would want to, seeing how close Nichole and I were. “I’d like to meet her, Jake. And I don’t think you need to worry about Nichole, either. She’s moved on. I know she wants you to do the same.”

  He exhaled as though relieved. “I hope that we can be cordial to each other.”

  “Dropping the threat of suing for custody of Owen will go a long way toward seeing to that.”

  Jake grinned and looked almost boyish. “You should have heard what Carlie had to say when I told her what I’d threatened. She about chewed my ear off, giving me her opinion.”

  “In other words, you’d more or less changed your mind before you talked to Rocco.”

  “No, not really. Even though I knew I’d probably lose, I wanted to fight her. After talking to Rocco I realize how screwed-up my thinking was. Besides, if I’m going to have a serious relationship with Carlie, I was going to need an attitude adjustment.”

  “Looks like you’re making progress.”

  “That’s for sure. It’s been an eye-opening month for me.”

  I was grateful for everything that had opened my son’s eyes.

  “What about you, Mom? How are you holding up?”

  My thoughts instantly went to Nikolai and I felt the weight of regret settle over me. “Okay.”

  “I realize looking after Dad is taking up all your time now. What about those classes you were teaching?”

  “The session ended and I didn’t renew my contract.” The last few classes had been torture for me without Nikolai. Seeing his empty space in the front of the classroom made my heart ache. Even if I’d wanted to continue teaching, I wouldn’t have the time now. Sean needed me.

  Jake left soon afterward and Sean woke. I helped him to the bathroom and convinced him to eat some soup and bread. He made the effort, and that pleased me. I know the only reason he ate was because he wanted to show me he appreciated that I’d cooked for him.

  In the evening, I sat by his side and he reached for my hand. He’d done that several times now. Frankly, I couldn’t remember the last time my husband had wanted to hold my hand. I think it was shortly after Jake had been born.

  I knew Sean had regrets and I was grateful that he spoke to Jake about them. Our son needed to hear it and I was pleased Jake had chosen to share some of their conversation with me. In retrospect, I believe Sean counted on that. For Sean to tell me these things would have been too hard emotionally. The words weren’t important. I already knew Sean realized all the years he’d wasted. It was better we not discuss it. We would spend his remaining months free of misgivings and tension.

  After Sean was down for the night, I cleaned the kitchen and put away the leftovers. My gaze rested on the bread, my only contact with Nikolai at this point. I swallowed down the sense of loss and returned to the task at hand.

  Christmas day without Owen was going to be difficult. I’d had him for Thanksgiving and it was only fair that Jake get to have our son for Christmas. Jake picked up Owen late Friday afternoon. Leanne had called previously to let me know Jake had been by to visit his dad and it had gone well.

  I was a little nervous about seeing Jake. We hadn’t really talked since our last short conversation, when I’d told him I’d decided to fight him if he sued for custody of our son. I’d already made an appointment with my divorce attorney for after the first of the year.

  He stood outside my apartment and I invited him in while Owen ran to collect his backpack. “How’s your dad?” I asked, making conversation.

  A look of sadness came over him and I realized I should have chosen a different topic.

  “Not so good.”

  “I’m sorry, Jake.”

  “Yeah, it sucks. Listen,” he said, glancing down at the floor, “you can forget what I said about taking you to court. You’re a good mother and I was out of line.”

  This was a major surprise.

  “Owen needs you.”

  “He needs you, too.” Just not the majority of the time. In the years to come that might change, I realized, although I didn’t want to think about that now.

  “I haven’t done a good job to this point, but I want you to know, Nichole, I intend to be a better father from now on.”

  For one wild moment I was too stunned to speak. “What changed your mind?”

  “A lot of things. My talk with Rocco, mostly.”

  “Rocco?” My head started spinning. Rocco hadn’t said anything about this. He’d mentioned he wanted to talk to Jake, but I’d heard nothing since.

  Jake glanced up and shocked me even more when he added, “Rocco’s an all-right guy. If I’d loved you half as much we wouldn’t be trading our son off on holidays and weekends. Like I told my mom, Rocco and I aren’t ever going to be good friends, but I trust him to do right by you and by Owen.”

  Leanne knew about this conversation and hadn’t said anything about it to me. I didn’t know how many shocks my brain could absorb. Perhaps she assumed I already knew, I reasoned.

  Before I could question him further, Owen flew into the living room. “I’m weady, Daddy. Santa’s coming and I get to open my gifts, wight?”

  “That’s right, big man.” Jake lifted Owen into his arms and hugged him until my toddler squirmed and wanted down. “Come on, Dad, let’s boogie outta hewe.”

  I had to smile because that was something Rocco said. Under normal circumstances I think Jake might have objected, but not now. Instead he laughed and took hold of Owen’s hand.

  As soon as my ex and son were out the door I grabbed my phone.

  Me: Hey, what’s the deal? U and Jake?

  Rocco: On my way. Bring out the mistletoe and pucker up. I’m dying for a taste of U.

  Me: Not until you tell me about what happened between U and Jake.

  Rocco: Kisses first.

  Me: We’ll see.

  That was one argument I was happy to lose.

  —

  Christmas Day was spent with Rocco and Kaylene at their house. Since a fair number of Rocco’s employees were ex-cons, many of them didn’t have family connections, so Rocco put out a spread for them. Otherwise they would end up spending the day alone.

  When I volunteered to help with the buffet, Rocco was more than happy to have me there. A good portion of the morning and early afternoon was spent with the two of us in the kitchen, cooking up spaghetti sauce, along with garlic rolls and a tossed green salad.

  I was busy cutting up lettuce for the salad when I whirled around and nearly bumped into Rocco. He caught me by the shoulders and paused, smiling down on me. The look in his eyes was enough to make my toes curl. Before I knew it we were in each other’s arms. After only the slightest of hesitations, he kissed me. It was the kind of kiss that, in the words of Shawntelle, had the power to melt the panties right off a girl.

  “Dad,” Kaylene cried in complete disgust. “Don’t you two have more important things to do than stand in the middle of the kitchen making out?”

  Rocco’s eyes connected and held mine like a vise. “Can’t say that I do.”

  “You’re embarrassing.”

  “Get used to it,” Rocco told his daughter as he kissed me again, practically bending me in half over his arm.

  “Dad, I’m serious.”

  Rocco reluctantly broke off the kiss. “I am, too,” he whispered, looking deep into my eyes. “Very serious.”

  The teenager made a huffing sound and returned to the other room.

  Despite all the pauses in the meal preparation, Rocco and I managed to get everything on the table in time. I’d brought homemade cookies and candies made from the very recipes my mother had once used. It was fun to learn that Karen and Cassie had baked many of the same recipes I had. Each one of us had happy memories of the goodies our mother had once lovingly prepared.

  The first person to arrive was Shawntelle, along with Jerome. I hadn’t seen her since our come-to-Jesus talk. The minute she walked in the house,
she threw her arms in the air and headed straight for me.

  “I knew you weren’t as dumb as you look,” she cried, wrapping me in a bear hug strong enough to lift me two feet off the floor. “You aren’t no fool. You know a good man when you find one, same as me.” She set me back down and grabbed hold of Jerome’s hand, bringing him forward to meet me. “This is Jerome. He met my kids, all five of them, and he’s still with me,” she boasted.

  Jerome was tall and thin and about as opposite of Shawntelle as a man could get. I doubted he could get a word in with that woman around, but it was clear from the way he looked at her that she was everything to him.

  “Hi, Jerome,” I said, grinning at them both. “Speaking of the kids, where are they?”

  “With my cousin. Remember Charise? I had to bribe her to watch them for a couple of hours, but Jerome needed a break.”

  “You needed the break,” Jerome countered.

  Rocco joined us and slipped his arm around my waist. “What’s this I overheard?” he asked, studying me. “You and Shawntelle had a long talk?”

  Shawntelle piped up, eager to tell the story. “You bet we did. I gave this woman a piece of my mind because it was clear she was missing parts of her brain and needed my help.” She had her hand on her hip as she spoke. “Got to say it’s a good thing she listened, too.”

  “Good thing is right,” Rocco agreed, and tightened his hold on me to the point that I was plastered to his side. This was Rocco’s way of saying he wasn’t going to let me go ever again. Not that I would argue. I liked being exactly where I was.

  Within the next hour the house was full of employees and friends. Sam and a few other guys from the tavern that I’d met stopped by, too. Both Rocco and I were busy with our duty as hosts.

  Everyone seemed to know who I was, although I hadn’t met more than a couple of his employees previously. My guess was that Shawntelle had more to do with this than Rocco. By the end of the day I knew all their names and felt like I had learned a little about each of them.

  Rocco had taken a chance on each one and none had failed him. He explained that he was a good judge of character and it didn’t take him long to determine who would last and who wouldn’t. It was clear to me that every man and woman would have gladly sung Rocco’s praises. He was more than their employer. He was their friend, and for a couple perhaps the first person willing to look beyond their mistakes and give them a second chance at being independent.

 
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