Authors: Angela Coffey
We met six years before in his tattoo shop, KC's INK. I'd come in to get what I call my 'freedom tattoo' between my shoulders. It was a large willow tree with a blackbird flying out of it, meant to symbolize my new beginning—a life free from the shackles of domestic abuse.
He'd smiled at me and winked, making me laugh as he introduced himself. "Hi, I'm Kayleb Cook, but most people call me KC. You can call me anything you want, pretty lady, as long as you call me."
His chiseled Native American features, tattooed body, and long, black hair took my breath away. I knew I was blushing and giggled nervously.
"Smooth, real smooth. I'm Claire Michaels; it's nice to meet you."
We made small talk, comparing musical interests and favorite movies. It turned out we'd both had a soft spot for alternative rock, mainly Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, and Smashing Pumpkins. I remember how hard he laughed at me when I talked about how much I loved 90s teen movies; he was more of a horror movie fan. I told him about my love of comic books and how I dreamed of opening my own comic book store one day. I ended up telling him about my seven-year-old daughter, and he told me about his fear of fatherhood.
I was curious about his intense expression as he finished my tattoo. He seemed to be deep in thought.
I had to ask. "Are you OK?"
"I'm fine. I'm just trying to figure out why anyone would want to hurt you. Stick with me, beautiful; I'll make sure it never happens again." He put the bandage on my tattoo then ran his finger down my cheek, whispering, "I do believe I'm smitten, Claire Michaels."
Three years later, our love was stronger than I could have ever imagined, and I truly loved my life. I was the bartender at Brown's, the local hot spot, where Kayleb's band
−named after his English Bull Dog−played. I'd changed my outfit so many times that night, but I still felt uncomfortable; none of the clothes I'd borrowed felt right. I never had time off for his shows, so I'd wanted to get dressed up for him, but casual was more my style. A true tomboy at heart, I'd take jeans and a band t-shirt over a dress any day. Dressed in my favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers shirt and skinny jeans, I traded in my red high heels for my red Converse. Throwing my long, blonde hair up into a ponytail, I lectured myself while putting on my eyeliner. "Get a grip, Claire; he picked you without all the girlie shit."
"Yes, I did." He'd snuck up behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist. "Stop stressing, pretty lady; I love you just the way you are."
I could still feel his thumb rubbing the tattoo of the Marvel character, Black Widow, on my left forearm, as well as the heat from his soft lips as he covered my freckled nose with tiny kisses.
"I like your shirt, my musical little superhero." Smiling, he'd turned me so we faced the mirror cheek to cheek. "All joking aside, I wish you knew how beautiful you are." Nuzzling my head into his neck, I gave him a sheepish smile. Lovingly, he ran his fingers from the top of my cheek, down the side of my face, and stopped over my heart. "I fell in love with this part of you." Butterflies stirred deep in my stomach as I watched our reflections. Softly kissing my cheek, his hand slid down, massaging my breast. "And it was long before I had the pleasure of knowing this part of you." Gently pinching and pulling my nipple through my shirt, he moved his other hand to the top of my jeans. My heart began to pound as he unbuttoned them, placing just the tips of his fingers underneath. The thought of them moving any farther down made my knees weak. Turning me to face him, his soft tongue gently began to take over my mouth, and his kiss became all I knew. Slowly stepping back toward the bed, he'd whispered, "Let me show you just how irresistible you are."
Later that night, I stood in the audience with my best friend Tyler, watching Kayleb move around the stage, swinging his long hair around as he sang. Although his muscular arms and sculpted abs were enough to make any female melt, it was his deep voice and the slight gap between his teeth that made my heart skip a beat. The set ended and the band thanked the audience before leaving the stage. Kayleb came back on carrying a bar stool and his acoustic guitar, and he sat in the middle of the stage. As the audience clapped and cheered him on, he put his fingers to his lips. "There's a song I want to sing just for my lady!"
As long as you love me, I'll be by your side
I'll be your partner, your lover, your guide
As long as you let me, I'll be right there
Just take my hand baby; we can go anywhere
I'll be your sunshine when your tears fall like rain
Forever your rainbow, I'll heal your pain
As long as you let me, I'll be right there
Just take my hand baby; we can go anywhere
Just take my hand baby; we can go anywhere
Just take my hand baby; we can go anywhere
He put down the guitar and stood up. "Claire, will you come up here with me for a minute?"
I was so nervous by the time I got to the stage that I almost tripped up the steps. Once I was next to him, he leaned in to kiss my flushed cheek. I looked out at the audience, and people were clapping and whistling. Tyler was crying and pointing at Kayleb, who was pulling a small red velvet box out of his pocket, giving me that sweet smile I loved so much. He'd kissed the tip of my nose and got down on one knee. "Claire Madison Michaels, I love everything about you. I knew from the very first day I met you that you were the one for me. Pretty lady, will you marry me?"
I'd held out my shaky hand for him to put the ring on my finger. "Yes! Oh, my god!" I remembered jumping up, wrapping my long legs around him. He stood there holding me, kissing me like nobody was watching. It was our moment—an unforgettable, magical, romantic moment.
He carried me off the stage and walked toward the bar. I nipped at his chin. "Let's go play cowgirl and Indian!"
"Aww, you want more of Daddy's tomahawk?" He'd laughed as he put me down, "I'm going to go say goodbye to the guys first." Pointing at the back room, he smiled. "It looks like someone over there wants to talk to you."
I headed toward the back room and my daughter dove into my arms. "Aunt Tyler let me stay in the back until it was time for Kayleb to ask you." She held her hand up with a big smile. "He asked me if he was allowed to, and when I said yes, he gave me this. He said it's called a promise ring."
I'd held up Audrey's hand. "That's beautiful, sweetheart! We've got ourselves quite the catch, don't we?"
Kayleb scooped my little girl up in his arms. "It's a promise to love and protect you forever. Now I have a princess and a queen!" He kissed Audrey's cheek. "Let's get out of here ladies."
We said our goodbyes and left. On the way home, he held my hand and rubbed his thumb over my engagement ring. "My life is complete now, Claire. I was always happy, but you and Audrey changed everything; you made it brighter. You make life perfect."
I'd closed my eyes to take in the wonder of the night. Was this much happiness even possible? I enjoyed a moment of silence, and then suddenly, my head flew forward. I was horrified when I heard Kayleb scream over the sound of the squealing tires—I can still smell the burnt rubber.
Time seemed to stop and then there was only darkness. I recalled waking up in the ambulance, and I couldn't move my head. There were sounds of muffled voices, but I couldn't make out the words. Fear had overwhelmed me as I tried to catch my breath.
"Where's my daughter? Where's Audrey?" I wasn't sure if the words were coming out or just in my head. "Kayleb, where are you? Where's my fiancé? Where's Kayleb?" Tears fell from my eyes, and my stomach was tied in knots as I tried to understand what was happening. I needed Kayleb, to see him, to touch him, to feel his touch.
The EMT had tried to calm me down but he couldn't; he told me what was happening. "You've been in a car accident. Your daughter is in another ambulance with your friend Tyler. Her father is meeting us at the hospital."
''What about Kayleb? Is he all right?" The silence confirmed the answer I feared. It felt like my heart was being ripped out of my chest.
Kayleb was gone.
I sat on the teal suede love seat in the office of Dr. Steven Kelder, tightly gripping my cup of Dunkin Donuts blueberry iced coffee. I rubbed my finger over my right wrist, smiling at the Mighty Mouse tattoo Kayleb had put there for our second anniversary. We wanted to get commitment tattoos, so I got Mighty Mouse because he was Kayleb's favorite character. I love Hulk, so Kayleb got him in the same spot. After the accident, I had wings and a halo put on mine.
The office was small but cheery. Its bright white walls were decorated with canvas prints full of quotes and lyrics. I'm not sure how many people were encouraged by them; I found them rather annoying. There's only so many times you can read
When Life Gives You Rain, Be The Rainbow
When It's Dark, Reach For The Stars
without wanting to throw up. The rug, on the other hand, was one of the coolest things I'd ever seen: it was white with vibrant slices of fruit on it and teal fringes around the edges. The ginger-citrus Yankee Candle he had burning gave the room a spicy yet crisp smell. There was a very modern theme going on. I'd bet his teenage daughter in the pictures on his desk helped pick the decor.
Gazing out the window at the beautiful blue sky, I wondered why I was still alive. My whole world crumbled that night. Why didn't I die with the two people I loved most? I would have if Kayleb hadn't spun the wheel the way he did. The truck that had dipped into our lane would have hit us head on, but Kayleb made sure it only hit his side. He saved my life. I know now there was more for me to do in life; be it God or Fate, there was a greater plan for me. I wondered if Kayleb was watching me from beyond those soft clouds. Was he watching over Audrey like he promised he would? I wondered if he was disappointed in me for wanting to move on. Did he feel betrayed? I was tired of being alone; I wanted to love and be loved again without guilt. I needed to accept that the feelings I'd developed were okay. Was Audrey upset with me for wanting another child? I'd never stop loving her, but I wanted to be called Mommy again, to feel the bond that only a mother and her child could have.
I almost left this tiny town after the accident so I'd be free of all the reminders of that horrible night. Los Angeles was only a half hour away, and there were so many more opportunities for me. I'd have a fresh start but still be close enough to the people who mattered, but everything was so different. Acceta is a small town, but it's my home. I'm used to the low-key life, not the hustle and bustle of the big city. There was no way I could leave Tyler, either, not after all we've been through in life.
Tyler and I met in the 9th grade, and even though we were complete opposites, we clicked instantly. All through high school she was the beautiful drama club girl all the boys wanted and all the girls wanted to be. I, on the other hand, was a bona fide nerd. I spent all my free time in the photography room or at home reading my comic books. Nowadays, it's cool to be a geek, but back then, getting a boy to look twice at me was impossible. For some reason, Ty was drawn to me—she became my other half—and nobody else mattered to either of us. She was with me through every important stage in my life, the good and the bad. She supported me when I refused to leave my ex-husband Cole, even though she didn't approve of my decision. Once I got the nerve to finally leave him, she was the one who took Audrey and me in. She held my hand when my daughter was born and held
as she died. She was one of the first faces my baby saw and the very last one. I know Audrey left this world feeling safe. Tyler is more than my best friend; she's my rock.
So, here I sat on the three-year anniversary of the accident, waiting to pour my heart out to the good doctor. I had been a regular patient for quite a while, but hadn't been here in over a year.
"Ms. Michaels, it's nice to see you." Dr. Kelder entered the room and sat on the matching chair next to me. "How are you today?"
I thought about it as I played with the engagement ring that was still on my finger. I hadn't taken it off since Kayleb put it on. It was simple but so pretty, a rose gold band with chocolate diamonds around it.
"I guess I'm better than I thought I'd be. I just miss them so much." A tear rolled down my cheek as I pictured my little girl; she would have been thirteen this week. "Some people go a lifetime without love, and so many women are unable to have babies. I had both, and for that, I'm thankful." Wiping the tear away, I tried to smile. "I have peace of mind knowing that Kayleb died holding my hand and Audrey was in Tyler's arms, but I wish I could have said goodbye to my little girl. I need to pull myself together though. I've exceeded the acceptable amount of mourning time, and I'm wallowing in self-pity."
"Knowing you're ready is half the battle. The loss of a loved one, especially a child, is not easy to move on from."
"Sometimes I feel guilty for wanting to move on, to be a mom again. I met someone, and he has a five–year-old son I absolutely adore. I feel like I'm betraying Kayleb and Audrey by wanting to be with him. It sounds crazy, but I'm also afraid that if I give myself to another man, something bad will happen. What if I have another child and lose it? It would absolutely kill me to go through all that again."
"Fear is normal, but you can't stop living life. Don't you think Kayleb would want you to be happy? He died happily in love; don't let yourself die sad and lonely. You're young and beautiful. There is plenty of time left for you to be a mother. So tell me about this person of interest."
"His name is Gavin Price. My friend Tyler tried to hook us up two years ago. They got to know each other because he stops at her coffee shop every morning on the way to work. Through small talk, she found out he was a photography teacher at Acceta Prep School, divorced, and a single father of a three-year-old boy. It had been only a year since the accident, and I had no interest in dating anyone. But since one of my hobbies is photography and that's what he teaches, she decided to play matchmaker. Honestly, the only reason I agreed to go on a date was because he's absolutely gorgeous. We went on a few dates, but when he tried to kiss me, I freaked out, and that was the end of that." I had to smile a little. "Nobody wants to date an emotionally messed up chick who's afraid to be touched by a man. He stayed close though, and now, two years later, except for Tyler, he's my best friend. Tyler calls us the three amigos. I think it's pretty fitting. The way he acts makes me think he wants more, but he might just be a big flirt. Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever get another chance."
"You said he has a son, where is the boy's mother?"
"God knows. She bailed when Miles was two months old. Left a note saying she was going to New York City. She said she never wanted to be a mother, and Miles was Gavin's problem to deal with." I took a sip of my coffee and a deep breath. "Honestly, the bond I've formed with him scares the hell out of me. I love my little monster. If another woman comes into the picture, it will crush me."
"All I can say is be honest. Tell him exactly how you feel. It's really the only way to know where things are. It's a risk you have to take if you want to be with him."
I knew he was right, but it was easier said than done. What if I’d missed my chance? I could lose my best friend.
"How is work going? Are you still working for the lawyer you were unhappy with?"
I had quit the bar after the accident and got a job as an assistant at Genniti, Genniti & Marks. They were the only good lawyers in Acceta, and the Genniti brothers knew it. Jana Marks was their older sister, a married mother of four who was a pit bull in the courtroom and a total sweetheart once she left it. Joseph Genniti was a middle-aged, overweight, alcoholic. He had two kids, three ex-wives, and a serious hatred of women. Three divorces later, you'd think he'd pick up on the fact that
might be the problem. I worked for their younger brother, Anthony Genniti. As good looking as he was, he's an alpha male douchebag who thought just because he gave me my paycheck, he could put his hands on me. I could tell he was one of those guys who pictured a woman naked as she walked by them. Toward the end, I'd started carrying mace in my purse. I was so happy to be out of there.
"When I got the settlement from the accident, I bought KC's INK and re-opened it. I don't do tattoos, but I rent out two chairs. I recently added an expansion and turned it into a comic book store. I always wanted to do that, but my ex-husband told me I was stupid for it, that comics were for children and men. I have to say it's great being my own boss."
"Well, I'm glad you are following your dreams. I think it's time for a change in your personal life now. You know you're ready. Pick a good place to start. Take baby steps if it makes you more comfortable. Why don't you think about moving your ring? If you don't want to take it off completely, maybe put it on the other hand or on a necklace. Think of it as a new beginning while still embracing the past you love."
I had plans to meet Tyler and Gavin for dinner, so I said my goodbyes to Dr. Kelder and headed home to get changed. We passed on our usual Ace's Diner to try La Pinnoti, the new Italian restaurant. It's one of the few fancy places in town, so I figured I'd dress up a bit. I dug through my closet and settled on a tight little sleeveless red dress Tyler had left at my house. My black boots made me look somewhere between sexy and a hooker, but I knew Gavin would love it. I threw on some eyeliner and red lipstick, and I was out the door.
They already had a table when I got there, and I headed toward them. They looked like the perfect couple, both utterly gorgeous. Tyler has long, wavy, raven black hair that falls to the middle of her back. Her fair skin makes her big, emerald-green eyes stand out. She has full lips, perfect for the red lipstick she always wears, and men are always looking at her curvy body. She's never liked the attention; she hasn't had a boyfriend in years. She prefers the scruffy biker type and there aren't a lot of men like that in Acceta. She always says she's saving herself for Jared Leto...as long as he keeps his beard.
Gavin has a bit of a bad boy look to him and is the proud owner of a black and silver Harley Davidson Road King. He has soft, honey-blond hair, about chin length; I love running my fingers through it and tucking it behind his ears. His beard is just long enough to pull on but not what you'd call a full beard, and I melt when he smiles so big that his dimples show. His eyes are enchanting, a crystal blue with specks of green and beautiful blond eyelashes that most women would kill for. Its crazy how just pulling his hair back and putting on a dress shirt can instantly turn him from a biker to a prep school teacher. I can't believe this incredibly sexy man wanted me, and I blew it by pushing him away. Now I'm in the friend zone. At least it's a flirty friend thing; it makes most people assume we're a couple.
"Hey there beautiful! Nice legs, I mean nice dress." He gave me a wink and pulled out my chair, kissing my cheek as I sat. "I have good news, baby girl. I got you a meeting with the gallery owner I was telling you about. They're having an expo the night before Halloween, and if she likes your stuff, you're in. She gave me her number to give to you, and I hope you don't mind but I gave her yours."
Tyler laughed. "Come on Gav, we all know the number was for you."
"Thanks Gav, I don't even know what to say. Although I must say I'm impressed by your ability to dazzle women into doing things for you." I gave him an evil smile and blew him a kiss. "So tell me, did you use those eyes of yours, your adorable dimples, or did you introduce her to your little friend?"
"No worries, love. All nine inches of my not-so-little friend are waiting patiently to dazzle you!"
Tyler shook her head. "You two should just do it already because you make me want to puke."
"So I saw my shrink today. Let's just say I'm done stressing over things. The past is the past, and I can't keep delaying my future on account of it. You can't betray the dead, and I'm not trying to die alone and full of regret because I'm too afraid to change my ways."
Tyler reached over and hugged me. "I'm so proud of you, Claire. I know it hasn't been easy, but it's time. We need to get our shit together before we're officially considered cougars."
"Umm, does the single dad get in on this club? Even better, I could break it up." He gave me his mischievous smile and raised an eyebrow. "I do have to bail on you ladies, I've got parent/teacher conferences this evening."
Tyler stuck her tongue out. "You just don't want to pay for dinner, you cheap ass!"
"Here woman." Gavin threw his credit card at her as he stood up. "I'll get it back tomorrow, and no shopping after dinner, either." He wrapped his fist inside my long, blonde hair and gently pulled my head back. "If you want to buy something I can rip off with my teeth then feel free."
"Maybe I will. I know you like me in red. So tell me, hot stuff, do you prefer satin or lace?"
Releasing my hair, he whispered in my ear, "I hope you know you're driving my not-so-little friend crazy right now."
"Well, aren't you a class act, Mr. Price?" I smiled, trying to ignore the butterflies fluttering in my stomach.
Tyler stuck her finger down her throat. "Enough already."
He kissed my forehead and gave Tyler a hug before he left. We had another glass of wine and went our separate ways.
Somehow, on the way home, I ended up at Brown's. I hadn't stepped foot in there since the night of the accident; it was too painful. Dr. Kelder had a good point about moving on with everything, and this was the first step. I took a deep breath and walked in the door, scanning the room for a familiar face. I saw my old boss, Dave, by the pool table trying to pick up a young twenty-something. He looked the same as he did the last time I saw him, like George Clooney in
From Dusk till Dawn
but with an Irish accent. He had all the girls with daddy issues eating out of his hand. He ran toward me and scooped me up.