Authors: Ginger Voight
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Family Saga, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Sagas
I think I had been dreaming of Jason, which wasn’t unusual. I often dreamed of my baby boy as if I had never lost him at all. He would giggle heartily with those big chipmunk cheeks squished together in a happy smile that warmed my very soul. I knew from the first moment that they had put him in my arms that he was what I had been born for, to be his mother and to keep him safe.
Only I hadn’t done that, had I?
I had stayed in a loveless, emotionally abusive marriage to preserve some semblance of family, and it would cost me everything. I could still feel the chlorine burn my nostrils as I coughed up the water after diving in to save him, only to lose him in the end.
It felt so real… as if it had just happened.
Daylight cracked into my subconscious mind as I struggled to come back from a place hidden deep inside myself. I saw Alex hovering over me, his hands on my chest and tears in his eyes as he tried to pump air back into my body.
Jonathan sobbed as he paced right behind his uncle, and I had to process what happened. The events flooded back as my consciousness returned, and I shot up to find Max.
“Where is he?” I asked, and Alex pointed to where Millicent rocked the little boy in her arms as he coughed and sputtered.
“Oh my God,” I exhaled as I wilted back to the ground. Alex pulled me into his arms and sobbed softly. “Jonathan saw you go in, so we all ran down to find you. You saved hi
m, Rachel. You saved my baby,” he cried as he rocked me back and forth.
I had no strength to hold him, though I really wanted to. I understood his terror better than anyone. “
Oh, Alex,” I said softly and he just held me tighter.
“Rachel?” Jonathan said uncertainly from where he stood behind Alex.
I looked into his face, which was no longer defiant or even stoned. He had, in a very real way, been scared straight. I held out my hand and he ran to me. Alex moved away so I could hold my favorite boy close.
“I’m so sorry,” he sobbed
as he climbed into my lap like a small child. “It’s all my fault.”
Shh,” I told him as I used what little strength I had to comfort him. We could hear the sirens blast from the front yard, and Alex left us so he could fetch the paramedics. Police removed Justin from the premises as all of us rode in the back of the ambulance. Jonathan refused to leave my side. The gruff exterior had eroded, leaving behind the scared, lonely little boy I had stupidly abandoned mere months before.
took less than an hour for Elise to find us at the hospital in town. I cuddled Max on the emergency room gurney in a curtained-off cubicle. He was traumatized but otherwise fine. We had found him just in the nick of time. Millicent figured out that he discovered the pool gate was unlocked, no doubt left that way by Justin himself, so he went inside to play with one of his favorite toys poolside. The water I slipped on was from the splash after he had reached too far and fallen in. Obviously he had stopped thrashing and gone under around the time I headed outside to look for him.
Alex crumpled into a nearby chair and wept silently
how close we came to the unimaginable. Millicent hovered over him with her hand on his shoulder as she did likewise. I cuddled both my boys close and thanked God repeatedly that everyone was OK, the lump on my noggin aside. I didn’t so much care about myself; I would have given my last breath for either one of them.
But Fate had cut us a break for once.
Our relief was short-lived as Drew exploded through the curtain. “How the hell could you let that little punk get my son high?” he demanded of Alex, not even caring what his brother very nearly lost.
It was more than Alex could take.
He was still emotionally distraught and all his defenses were down. It was primal as he lunged at Drew and they fell out into the hall in a fistfight years in the making. I drew the boys into my chest so they couldn’t see anything, but all of us heard each sickening punch as they landed.
“You selfish son of a bitch!” Alex growled as he wrestled Drew to the ground and put him in a chokehold. Drew easily maneuvered free and landed another uppercut right across Alex’s jaw. Orderlies and security guards rushed the scene to pull them apart. Millicent pulled the curtain back so the boys couldn’t watch. Elise tried to disentangle Jonathan to hold him, but he refused to leave my side.
“I don’t wanna go,” he wailed into my shoulder as his arms locked around my neck.
“I know,” I said. “But your mom is worried about you.” My eyes met Elise’s. She glared at me, resentful that I would have won his allegiance when she still struggled to do so. “Maybe if you go with your
mom, it’ll help Alex,” I reasoned.
He was uncertain as he pulled away.
He flinched with every blow he overheard as his family dissolved in chaos just beyond the curtain. “Okay,” he relented, but I knew he was far from convinced. He could hear Drew screaming from the other side of the curtain that he’d never let Jonathan go back to Alex’s ranch again.
was able to remove him from the situation before it got any worse. Likewise, Millicent took Max and followed a nurse to a private room just before Drew tore back the curtain and towered over me. “You’re coming home,” he told me.
“I’m not going with you, Drew,” I informed him.
“You’d stay with him?” he thundered. “After this?”
“It was an accident,” I tried to explain, but he wasn’t having it.
“My ass!” he exploded. “He allowed that juvenile delinquent into his home …” he started, but I was quick to cut him off.
“That juvenile delinquent was in his home because Jonathan invited him there. He was pissed off
by the things you told him about his mother and his uncle,” I spat. “That was information he shouldn’t even have. No ten-year-old kid needs to know about this stuff, especially since he did what any ten-year-old kid would do. He pushed the limit to punish the people he thinks betrayed him. And Alex damn near lost his son over it.”
Drew backed up, shocked by my accusation.
“I could have died, too, by the way, but we already know that means nothing to you, don’t we? I was fixing your mess, again, and this time it could have cost lives. This is all your fault, Drew. You think you can live above the rules but behavior has consequences. Welcome to cleaning up your own goddamn mess.” I turned to Alex, who stood a few feet behind his brother, nursing his bloody jaw. “Let’s go home,” I said.
I knew I had struck below the belt, but I didn’t care anymore. The only things that mattered to me were the lives of the children I loved. I honestly couldn’t believe I had shed one damn tear over Drew Fullerton.
Desire for him had possessed me like a sickness; that was all that it was… and all it ever could be.
Paparazzi had gathered by the time the hospital released Max and me, so we had to fight through the throng of pushy press to a rented car that would take us back to the ranch. We were all subdued as we entered the house that looked a lot different than it had that morning.
Millicent fussed over both Max and especially me, since she was nursing my concussion. She insisted we stay in the family room where she could keep an eye on us while she prepared dinner. Alex was quiet as he helped her, and we all ate dinner around TV. Normally we had a strict “no TV” policy during dinner, but I think all of us needed the distraction.
Max was asleep by eight o’clock, tuckered after his traumatic day. Millicent, likewise, turned in,
unwilling to leave Max for even a second. She left me in Alex’s care, and he turned on a comedy movie, to help take our minds off of things. Only neither of us laughed much as we watched. Warding off the grim reaper didn’t exactly invite mirth. Finally he switched it over to the radio and dimmed the lights to help minimize my headache. He fetched a bottle of whiskey and sat next to me with two crystal tumblers.
After I let the first taste burn down my throat, I sent him a chagrined smile. “This doesn’t solve anything.”
He toasted me. “No, it sure doesn’t,” he agreed before he drained his glass. He quickly poured another before he leaned back against the cushion next to me. Long moments passed as I watched him stare into the liquid in his glass. “I know that was hard for you today,” he said softly without looking at me.
I closed my eyes
, thinking back to the court hearing where he had spilled the beans on how Drew selected me for the teacher/wife-for-hire position he needed to fill to get sole custody of his son. He knew everything there was to know about me because Drew had already thoroughly vetted me in ways I never could have predicted. I knew that Alex had harbored guilt over those shocking, painful revelations. And now I had virtually lived through it again while staying in his house. He was a man who understood great loss, which bonded us on a sad, profound level.
“I just couldn’t go through it again,” I
confided in a whisper. “I saw Max in that pool and the last four years evaporated.” Tears streamed down my face as I held the whiskey glass to my lips with shaking hands. “I’d rather die trying than live one more day with my failure to save a child.”
He took the glass from my hands and put it on the table in front of us. When he leaned back, he pulled me into his arms and I let another torrent of emotion free against his shoulder.
I cried for Jason. I cried for Max. I even cried for Alex and all he had gone through with losing Nina and his mother. The dam had broken. Now that the crisis had passed, I could fall apart.
Only this time
, oddly, I had Alex Fullerton holding me together.
He rocked me gently as I sobbed until there were no tears left to cry. He handed m
e tissue from a nearby box, I laughed at how ridiculous I was to have done this not once but twice on this very same couch with this very same man.
“I promise there will be a day we can sit on this couch together and I won’t drench your shirt,” I said before I blew my nose. “I’m really not a weak little crybaby, I swear.”
He brushed my hair from my eyes. “I don’t think you’re weak, Rachel,” he said softly. “I think you may be the strongest woman I’ve ever known.”
Our eyes locked and held for a moment.
He only looked away to take my hand in both of his. “If I had lost Max, I don’t know what I would have done. He’s the reason I breathe. You may not know this but you saved two lives today.”
I shook my head. “You saved me, remember?”
I asked, thinking of how desperately he had tried to resuscitate me. There was a look of panic on his face that wasn’t just from the near loss of his son.
He had been afraid to lose me, making him quite possibly the only unrelated adult in my life to feel that way.
His eyes traveled back up to meet mine. “I already told you. I think you’re worth saving.”
I reached for a hug, and he squeezed me tight.
The hug lingered as he rubbed my back absently with his fingers, and his lips pressed against my shoulder. We drew apart slightly, and I gently traced the dark bruises on his face. They hurt me just to look at them. We had always been fighting the same war, but for the first time we weren’t fighting alone. I fell into those silvery blue eyes. “I think you’re worth saving, too,” I whispered.
His gaze landed on my parted lips.
A long moment passed as I felt his longing pour out of those sad eyes. I tilted my chin ever so slightly and his mouth covered mine in a warm, inquisitive kiss. He wasn’t possessive. He didn’t dominate. His kiss was tender as he took time to savor my lips, as though he had been waiting to do it for a very long time. I parted my mouth under his, and he deepened the kiss with a soft moan.
He pressed closer to me as my fingers tangled in the ebony curls at the nape of his neck. His hand cupped my face as passion ignited between us. Suddenly close wasn’t close enough, and I could feel his control slip as he searched the recesses of my mouth with his tongue.
Just as my response grew more urgent, he dragged his lips away to rest his forehead against mine with a trembling sigh. I wanted to tell him that it was okay, that he had nothing to be ashamed of or feel guilty for. We were two free agents battered by the fates, who had somehow landed in the other’s arms. It was right to feel good, even for a moment. I wasn’t Elise. This wasn’t yet another betrayal. We were just two lonely hearts that had somehow found each other right when we needed each other the most.
But I said nothing at all
as he gathered me into his arms and we cuddled together in the still quiet of the night.
Predictably Drew petitioned the court to block Jonathan from going back to Alex’s home for instruction, which put a small kink in the weeks following the pool incident. But all the legal wrangling was definitely fatiguing the judge, who didn’t give a damn about the Fullerton family name nor the complications that came with it. Judge Schultz was only interested in results. So far my instruction was the only thing that had yielded them, regardless of environment. I turned in folders full of completed assignments, including those I had made him do over again as I wrestled him back under my authority.
And since Alex had Justin arrested for trespassing and had filed for an emergency restraining order to keep him away from
Max, Alex’s ranch was the only place Jonathan could have my instruction and be kept safely away from his worst influence. As the parent with sole custody, Elise’s agreement sealed the deal, despite Drew’s petition. Given he had been arrested for disturbing the peace at the hospital, the judge even pushed back with ongoing supervised visitation. He was savvy enough to know Drew’s own manipulations had caused the brouhaha in the first place.
Jonathan was back at the house by the first Monday in July.
By then, Alex and I were tentatively moving forward in the new romantic aspect of our relationship. The second kiss had happened a lot easier than the first. The night after we returned from the hospital, we ended up on that couch alone again, to watch another movie, sitting close as we shared a bowl full of popcorn. I fed him the first bite, and he fed me the second, until the bowl was forgotten between us as he reached for that kiss neither one of us wanted to deny.
It was as though we were bringing each other back to life, two wounded souls clinging to each other amidst the storm.
The first tentative kiss led to another, until we no longer hesitated as we reached for each other. We reached for comfort. We reached for safety. We reached for understanding.
The true miracle was that we found it reaching right back.
As the days passed, we hadn’t progressed beyond heated make-out sessions on the couch. We went super slow, which only served to make it hotter.
e knew better than to act on these new feelings during the day in front of Max or Millicent. It was much too soon to introduce anyone else into a relationship neither of us fully understood yet. We carried on as usual, though we sat a little closer, and smiled a little easier, and would always find our way to the family room each night to sit close together and indulge the kisses we had withheld all day. We had tried to escape to the media room at one point, to neck like teenagers in a theater setting, but it was too cold and informal. We always ended up right back in the coziest, and most inviting, room in the house.
At night, dreams of Alex had replaced dreams of Drew
. I was still fuming at him for attacking Alex when he needed his brother the most. I knew then that their relationship was beyond saving. Drew’s conversion into his father was obviously complete. He was self-absorbed and manipulative, and clearly the only way I mattered to him was how he could control me to get what he wanted with everything else.
I had already been there/done that with Zach.
It often amazed me how much Alex knew what I needed, even during the last week of June which was typically so difficult for me. On Jason’s birthday, June 21, he took us all out to dinner and a family movie to keep me suitably distracted. On June 27, the anniversary of his death, Alex even knew enough to let me have time alone to personally grieve. He left homegrown roses in a vase on our shared desk with a simple note that said, “
Thinking of you
what I was going through because he had been there himself. There were quiet hugs and tender touches to let me know I wasn’t alone anymore, which was more healing than I could have ever dreamed. I didn’t walk alone with my pain anymore. I had someone to help carry the load. I didn’t even have to ask for time or space or understanding. He simply gave them.
Alex focused on being my frien
d and treating me with respect. So much respect, in fact, that he wouldn’t press our romantic liaisons past deep, hungry kisses that I began to long for deep in my soul. He was giving me something that I had always wanted, but never found. He wasn’t self-absorbed like Zach, or controlling like Drew. In fact, I saw a wonder in his eyes that I thought had been lost when Nina died.
He even started taking pictures with us again.
My feelings deepened by the day.
Physically, though, we stalled at first base. A
s June waned, this left me frustrated and agitated as I went to bed alone night after night.
On our last weekend together before Jonathan returned, we
sprawled together on the sofa, lying side by side, holding each other close as our kisses traveled around to sensitive ears and along the slopes of one another’s necks. I could feel his body harden against me as he held me tightly to his body, but he made no move to go any further than juvenile necking.
When I finally slipped my hand into his shirt to touch his muscular chest, he pulled my hand away. “Not yet,” he whispered as he looked deep into my eyes.
“Why?” I had murmured as I crooked my leg over his hip to draw him closer. Even though I could feel the answer to my question, I asked it anyway. “Don’t you want me?”
He groaned as he gripped my hair in one hand. “God, you know I do. I’ve wanted you since I first
laid eyes on you.” His eyes traveled across my face until they landed on my slightly swollen lips. “Kissing you is like a dream.”
“Then what’s the problem?” I asked as I arched my back toward him. I wanted his hands on my body. I ached to feel him, skin against skin.
He caressed the curve of my face with his hand. “It wasn’t even a month ago when you were right here on this couch, crying on my shoulder over Drew,” he said softly. I looked away but he forced me to look into his eyes. “You’re not the kind of woman who sleeps around. And I’m not the kind of man comfortable serving as a stand-in.”
“That’s not what you are,” I told him. “If anything, you’re better suited to me than anyone I’ve ever known. You certainly love me better than anyone I’ve ever known.”
“But you still love him,” he said sadly. I closed my eyes so he went on. “And that’s OK. That’s the kind of woman you are. You don’t fall in love easily, so you won’t fall out of it any easier.” He kissed my forehead. “It’s one of the things I love most about you.”
I pulled him close. “Oh, Alex.”
“I’m falling hard for you, Rachel. Harder than I’ve ever fallen for anyone in my life. If I invite you into my bed – into my heart – and you go back to him…,” he trailed off.
“That’s not going to happen,” I
insisted. “Whatever happened in the past doesn’t matter. I don’t live there anymore. I live here, in the now. With you.” I caressed his face, my palm tickling from his stubbly beard that I had grown to love as he buried his face in the crook of my neck. “And right now I’m falling just as hard for you.”
They were scary words to utter, but I couldn’t hold them in anymore. I started falling for Alex the first night I heard him singing a lullaby to his son. Every day after that, he had sewn himself even deeper under my skin. Not only had he uncovered Drew’s deception, sparing me from another loveless marriage with a controlling man, but he had literally brought me back from the brink of death.
Every day, in every way, Alex Fullerton had proven to be my hero. How could I not love him? And why on earth should I be afraid to tell him?
He groaned as he tightened his arms around me. “
Oh, sweetheart,” he murmured. “I’ve dreamed of you saying that for months.” Our lips met in another fiery kiss. He moaned deep in his throat as I brazenly explored his mouth with my tongue, arching my full, aching breasts into that powerful, sinewy chest.
He dragged his lips away with great effort. I nearly whimpered from my frustration, which made him smile. “If
it’s right, it’s worth waiting for,” he said. He planted a lingering kiss before he said, “Goodnight, Rachel. See you in my dreams.”
I knew he was right to proceed cautiously, especially with Jonathan due to return any day. We already agreed that the children came first, and there was no need to confuse them with more complicated adult stuff. They had suffered enough, and our first priority was that they no longer paid for the mistakes the adults in their lives made.
Alex and I had agreed to confine our courtship to the weekends. We were all smiles and best friends as we greeted Jonathan once he arrived on our doorstep with his suitcase. I knew I would miss how at home I felt wrapped in Alex’s strong arms, safe and protected from the harsh realities of the world. It merely gave us something to look forward to at the end of the week.
In the meantime we could concentrate on the kids, like billions of other parents all over the world.
Jonathan threw his arms around me the minute he saw me. His hair was trimmed, his clothes were different, and there wasn’t an ink mark to be found on his body. Gone was the sullen brat from before. This Jonathan was much like the one I met during spring break last year. Part of it was that he felt responsible for what had happened with Max, which was a serious wake up call. It had been Jonathan’s own confession to the judge that had been the ultimate argument to sway him and allow him back into our care. Judge Schultz advised him that as long as he kept his nose clean, he could continue coming to his uncle’s ranch.
Elise had already informed Alex that Justin was old news. He had treated the whole thing like a big joke on social media, so Jonathan wanted nothing more to do with him. I suspected three lives were saved that day, because Jonathan brought a bag full of paraphernalia out to his mother to get rid of all the things he had been using to poison himself.
The synthetic marijuana, we learned, could even be attributed to Jonathan’s drastic mood swings. Doing cursory research on what he had left behind at the house had scared the hell out of me. The use of this substance so popular among pre-teens and teens had the potential to be life threatening. It could have resulted in brain damage, strokes, kidney damage; and for several unfortunate young people, it had proven fatal. Synthetics were even linked to psychotic episodes and even seizures. I was so glad Millicent got rid of it all. I shuddered to think what might have happened to Max had been exposed to it.
Needless to say, Jonathan’s first essay was to research the dangers of synthetic marijuana, and the consequences of drug use in very young kids.
fell on a Wednesday, so we invited the Daltons back over for a barbecue. Jake and Alex set off some fireworks for the kids, basically reverting to their own childhoods years ago when they camped together each and every summer at this very ranch.
Jonathan threw himself into the festivities. He offered to help with the cooking, so he, Max and I made the festive flag cake made of cubed pound cake, strawberries, blueberries and whipped cream. I let the boys design the fruit on top to look like the American flag, and everyone praised them for what a great job they did.
Under this positive reinforcement, I saw Jonathan start to thrive again – almost immediately. The only time his mood took a downturn was when our first week together drew to a close. He pouted as he waited for his mother to come and retrieve him that Thursday evening. He didn’t want to go, and honestly I really didn’t want him to go, either.
We had had a good week where we concentrated on his studies and the family that existed within Alex’s sprawling ranch. Jonathan never spoke about his parents, and I never asked, though I suspected he was resentful of both of them for different reasons. Instead he focused on us, suggesting yet another campout, or riding the horses, or a boat ride to Catalina… anything to keep him in the midst of the
healthiest branch on the Fullerton family tree.
When Alex had offered to take the family to San Diego to attend the geek festival known as Comic Con, Jonathan jumped all over it. I didn’t think Elise nor Drew would agree to an overnight visit out of town without either of them, but I supposed stranger things had happened.
I knew Alex would work on Elise to get her permission. But I suspected Drew would be a lot tougher sell, especially since it would mean Alex and I were going away together for the first time.
Honestly the thought scared me a little, too. The slower we took our budding romance, the more pressure we put on the night where we finally let the barriers drop between us.
A weekend away in San Diego promised to be just that.
I was nervous enough just having Alex to myself after four days.
It scared me how much I wanted him to make love to me, so soon after being so cruelly used by Drew. It took years after Zach’s betrayal to open myself up to another man, and that man had been Drew Fullerton.
To trust another man so soon, especially one ensured to keep me in constant contact with
Drew, was playing with fire and I knew it.
But every time I looked into his eyes, I felt my resolve slip a little more.
He was renewing me with every touch, every kiss. He served as my life support, to cure me of my terminal attraction to his manipulative, controlling brother. Minute by minute, I felt more like myself again, which was something I lost the very second Drew fast-tracked our romance the year before.