Authors: Ginger Voight
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Family Saga, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Sagas
“She has nothing more to teach me,” Jonathan declared as he turned to leave, but Derek halted him with one hand on his shoulder.
“It’s this or military school, dude,” his pseudo-stepfather said.
“Fuck you,” Jonathan replied, and I sucked in a surprised breath.
“Jonathan!” Elise cried out as her son wrenched free and stalked from the room.
I drew a deep breath to center myself as I walked off to follow Jonathan. I caught up with him in the den. “That was unacceptable, Jonathan,” I said softly as I came to a halt behind him.
“I don’t give a shit,” he sneered.
“Okay, that stops now,” I said firmly.
“What are you going to do about it?” he challenged. “Leave again? Break another one of your promises? Fuck Alex this time instead of my dad?”
Though I had never struck a child in my life, my first impulse was to slap that petulant, entitled sneer from his face. I took another breath before I said anything. “I understand that you’re angry.”
“You don’t understand anything!” he snapped. “Do you know what happened since you left? Do you care? I only get to see my dad on supervised visits. I lost my home. I lost my dog.” His eyes welled up with tears. “I lost my best friend,” he added pitifully as he turned away from me.
“I know,” I said softly. “And it sucks. But this is not the way to fix things, Jonathan. The worse you act, the harder you make it for yourself.”
“Who gives a shit?” he repeated with a sad, defeated voice that broke my heart. This wasn’t a defiant, spoiled brat. This was a broken child.
“I do,” I
answered softly. “Your Uncle Alex does. And believe it or not, your parents do.”
He shook his head and stomped off toward the arch doorway leading outside.
Alex, who had clearly been listening from the hallway, entered the room. “I told you.”
My shoulders drooped. I knew it would take a long time to gain back the trust I had lost. “I never should have left,” I muttered.
“How could you have stayed?” Alex challenged softly. “Drew created this mess. As usual.”
I sent him a look. “That’s not helping,” I told him. “Everyone is so caught up with fault and blame, no one bothers looking for a solution.”
“What do you suggest, Rachel? He’s not listening.”
“Then we have to make him listen,” I said. With a sigh I headed outside to follow Jonathan. I found him slouched in one of the wrought iron chairs next to a dramatic double swing. I sat down in the chair next to him, and he turned his back to me. “Remember that book you read last year? The first one I recommended?”
,” he answered. “It was a stupid book. Superheroes are stupid. There’s no such thing.”
I suppressed a smile. “That’s why it’s fiction,” I pointed out. He just jutted out his chin. “The point of the book is that we can’t depend on other people to save us. The superheroes were the humans,
even the kids. Especially the kids. They were just imperfect, flawed humans who simply found the courage to do the right thing.” He said nothing. “But there was another element to it. The part about family. Remember how mad Alice was at her mom so she punished her by shutting her out and being mean to her? Only she wasn’t really mad at her mom, was she? She was sad about losing her dad. She needed someone to take that anger out on, and who better than the only other person who would love her unconditionally? It’s safe to be mad at those who love us, because we know they always will.”
“No, we don’t,” he said with a pointed look. “People leave. People break promises.”
“People make mistakes,” I gently corrected. “And your life is full of imperfect adults who have made plenty of mistakes. But no one has stopped loving you, Jonathan. Especially me.”
He turned away so I wouldn’t see his tears. “Well, I stopped loving you,” he said, as he crushed my heart with the cruel words I knew he didn’t mean. “Go back to Texas. I don’t want you here.”
He shot up out of the chair and slammed into the house. I sat for long minutes trying to collect myself. His words, though spoken in anger, hurt me more than I could ever admit. He was angry, and I deserved some of that anger. I did make a promise to him and I didn’t keep it. This was where I began the long, uphill climb to gain back his trust and reach the little boy I knew was still inside of him.
Max had woken up and was sitting at the island bar that separated the den and the kitchen. His presence had defused Jonathan’s anger somewhat. Jonathan was far too sensitive and naturally empathetic to upset the younger, much happier child who adored him. He sat next to his cousin and showed him the new game app on his phone. Millicent had baked some brownies, which she offered to both boys.
“Rachel!” Max greeted. I gave him a big hug and kissed the top of his head. I could tell by the look in Jonathan’s eyes that this gesture hurt him, as though I had replaced one for the other. Despite his bluster otherwise, he did still care.
This would be the foundation to build upon.
I sat next to the boys and snagged a brownie for myself while Millicent poured glasses of milk. “Do you need help with dinner, Millicent?” I asked. “Jonathan is an excellent assistant.”
“I don’t cook anymore,” Jonathan informed me coldly. “That’s for women. And servants.”
“And anyone who wants to eat,” Millicent retorted. “I don’t know about you, but I can’t take anyone seriously who can’t meet their own basic needs. Isn’t that right, Max?” she asked her grandson with a smile.
“Max cooks?” Jonathan asked her, incredulous. “He’s barely four.”
“So?” she challenged. “He loves to do things for himself, and help other people. He’s even my gardening buddy. He helps me plant seeds, pull weeds. So of course he wants to learn how to turn our bounty into a feast. You should come over for dinner sometime.”
He didn’t know what to make of Millicent, the no-nonsense adult who hadn’t yet disappointed him. “I guess that would be cool.”
“Of course it would be cool,” she said as she fed him another brownie. She gave me a wink and a smile when our eyes met. It was then and there I decided that Millicent DeJong was my new BFF.
Elise and Derek took Jonathan home after an unproductive hour. He had g
one into our library workspace willingly enough. But he ignored me completely by putting his ear buds into his ear and listening to music on his phone while texting his new friends. He sat in the window seat, his back to my desk, as he tested my patience like any child who had figured out they could exercise free will.
He didn’t even say goodbye; he just
followed Derek quietly without sparing me a second glance.
I was researching techniques to deal with this new dynamic in our relationship when Alex brought me a glass of wine. He placed it on my desk before he sat in the spot Jonathan had vacated. “So. Any suggestions?”
“Exorcism?” I said teasingly, which made him laugh. “Honestly, I think it’s just going to take time to win back the trust we’ve all squandered. He’s a very hurt little boy.”
Alex nodded as he rested his head against the wall and stared out at the darkening sky. “No good deed goes unpunished,” he murmured. “I thought by exposing Drew I was saving Jonathan. But if I hadn’t been so persistent, you never would have left and he would at least have one adult left he could trust.”
I took my glass of wine and walked to the window seat, perching on the other corner. “You did the right thing, Alex.”
His eyes met mine. “Really?”
I nodded. “Truth has a way of coming out, one way or the other. Drew couldn’t have kept up the charade forever. Then there would have been yet another broken marriage to devastate his son.”
“You really would have married him?” he asked softly, his eyes studying my face.
I shrugged and looked away. “Does it matter anymore?”
“I don’t know. Does it?”
“I told you. I didn’t come back for Drew. That part of my life, as far as I’m concerned, is over.”
“Good,” he said as he drained his glass. “I’m going to go see if Millicent needs help with dinner. Are you going to be OK?”
I smiled. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
He nodded and headed for the door. Before he left, he turned back to face me. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad you came back.”
He departed and I stared out at fiery pink sunset with a sigh.
My first night at Alex’s ranch was fairly uneventful. We shared a pleasant dinner that we all had a hand in preparing. He grilled the salmon, Millicent roasted vegetables and I prepared a rice pilaf. Max was in charge of dessert. With his grandmother’s supervision, he filled earthenware bowls with scoops of homemade vanilla ice cream, topping them with caramel sauce and chopped nuts. He had a proud smile on his face as he handed me the bowl, and I gave him a noisy kiss on his cheek that made him giggle.
We retired onto the
veranda, where Millicent lit some hanging lanterns. “Play, Daddy!” Max insisted until Alex pulled an acoustic guitar from the game room and serenaded us under a smattering of bright stars pierced in the midnight blue sky.
It felt like home as he
sang a familiar country classic, strumming the strings much more skillfully than I could have ever expected. Max curled into my lap as I swung us together in rhythm to the music. Alex only sang two songs before Max fell asleep against my shoulder. Millicent disentangled him to take him upstairs. I rose to follow but she waved her hand. “I’ve got him. You stay out here and enjoy yourself.” She gave me a playful wink before she disappeared into the house.
“She’s about as subtle as a wrecking ball,” Alex smirked as he put his guitar down next to the chair.
I smiled. After years of friendship with Nancy Gilbert, I was used to that approach. “She’s lovely,” I corrected gently. “I had no idea you had such a valuable support system.”
“It’s not like we spent any real time getting to know each other,” he said. “For the record, I did try to correct that.”
I chuckled. “I probably should have taken you up on your offer.”
“You weren’t the first person to make that mistake. Drew can be very distracting. He’s got the bigger house, the nicer car, the powerful reputation. It’s a shiny package that no one
I know has been able to resist.”
“Those things never mattered to me,” I told him.
“So what was it?” he asked.
I leaned back on the swing with a sigh. “It was a bunch of little things, really. I mean, yes. He’s powerful and attractive, and that’s a boost to the ego when you’ve lived your whole life flying just under the radar like I have. But he made me feel important. Like I belonged. When he’d do those thoughtful little things that showed he listened when I talked and respected how I felt, I wasn’t just this paid flunky anymore. I was a woman of value.”
“You were always a woman of value, Rachel,” Alex corrected softly.
I smiled. “I know that. But it meant a lot to me that he saw that, especially after our first rocky meeting.” Off his gaze, I explained, “
When we met face to face for the first time, he looked almost… angry… that I wasn’t something or someone else. Initially I thought he was taken aback by the surprise of my more ample figure. My friend Nancy had tried to hook me up on more than one occasion, and I could always see that disappointment in their eyes when they realized I wasn’t, in fact, the raving beauty she had talked me up to be. I see now that Drew was just angry that he had to romance the likes of me to move forward with his plan. I mean, Jonathan already told me that he didn’t like fat folks, so I’m sure he was disgusted with the reality of what he was about to do.”
I took another deep breath. I hadn’t voiced these feelings since I unloaded everything to Nancy when I first returned to Texas. Somehow I felt more vulnerable admitting
all this to a man, especially one that looked so much like the asshole I was lamenting over. “Anyway, he talked down to me and I held my ground. Then we had this moment between us. He touched my hand and pulled me close, and something sparked in his eyes. I thought I won him over and won his respect, and even his interest. I guess I needed that more than I ever wanted to admit. After years of denying that part of myself, it was exciting to explore.” I hesitated before I admitted the one thing I hadn’t yet uttered out loud. “It made me feel alive.”
“And it didn’t help that I was a raging asshole,” Alex filled in. “Next to me, he looked like a sweetheart in comparison.”
“Bingo,” I admitted.
He came over to the swing and sat next to me. “I was thrown too, I guess. You looked so much like Nina that first day we met, right down to the ponytail that she always used to wear. It was just easier, and safer, to get mad.
I had to make you everything that she wasn’t, even though I knew from the beginning you were just like her.” After a moment of silence, he held out his hand. “Start over?” he asked.
Again it harkened to that first night with Drew, when something
inside me fired to life the minute our hands touched, like an errant ember landing on dry brush. The last thing I needed was to confuse the current situation by entertaining such a scenario with Drew’s brother. But I swallowed all the feelings down as I took Alex’s hand with a shaky smile.
We went our separate ways after we went inside. I took a long, hot bath in my private bathroom, sinking into the
clawfoot tub with wrought iron detailing. I breathed deep the fragrant citrusy, sudsy bubbles courtesy of the organic bubble bar I found in a basket on the counter. I fell asleep twice as the water turned tepid. I ended up retiring early, wiped out from the emotional day.
The next day
our respective work days began in earnest. Alex was at the track by daybreak, and Millicent took Max to his doctor’s appointment. I stayed behind because Jonathan was due around noon, and I figured we could make some headway if it was just the two of us at the house. But when I opened the door that afternoon, it wasn’t Elise and Jonathan on the threshold.
It was Drew.
I sucked in a breath as I looked up into those piercing blue eyes that held me captive in their gaze. I hadn’t seen him in months, but his effect on me was no less devastating. My body still burned from his possessive imprint as his eyes traveled over my face and down across my body, which was firing to life just from the echo of his touch. “So you are here,” he said as he pushed his way into the house. “I thought it was a joke.”
I stared after him helplessly.
“Drew, I really don’t think you should be here. Jonathan is due any minute…,” I started, but he was quick to cut me off.
“Jonathan’s not coming. I’ve petitioned the judge to prevent Jonathan from being educated here in the home of the man who blew his life apart. Twice,” he added bitterly. “If you want to teach Jonathan, you need to do it either in Elise’s home or in mine.”
I crossed my arms in front of me. “That’s not happening,” I told him.
He sneered at me. “So you’ve switched teams, is that it?”
“No,” I answered. “I’m on the same team I’ve always been on. Team Jonathan.”
Drew chortled. “You really are a piece of work,
,” he emphasized spitefully. He glanced around his mother’s family home with pained nostalgia on his face. “But I suppose one Fullerton brother is as good as the other. He’s got the fancy home, the big bank account. Nothing as big as mine, of course, but few things are,” he added with an evil sneer. “And of course, a motherless son. That’s the most important piece of the puzzle, is it not?”
I glared at him. “Get out, Drew.”
He stalked toward me. “Truth hurt?” he asked when he stopped a mere inch apart from where I stood.
“You wouldn’t know the truth if you tripped over it,” I gritted between clinched teeth. “Your jealous ranting is wasted when
I know you never really wanted me in the first place.”
“You think not?” he asked in a low voice. His eyes were lethal as he closed the gap between us, until his massive, rock-solid chest was pressed against my tightly clenched arms. “Did it only take three months to forget what it felt like to have me inside you?”
I gasped slightly, taken aback by his bold comment. He took advantage of that opportunity to grasp my wrist in one powerful hand and yank me against his body, which was both hard and forbidding. His mouth hovered over mine by a mere breath. “I haven’t forgotten,” he said as his other hand ran down my back and over the curve of my hip. “I dream about you every night. I still feel you wrapped around me, pulling me in deeper and deeper inside of you until I lost myself in all that you are.”
My resolve slipped under the assault of his seductive words.
I shook my head. “Drew, please.”
His eyes glittered. “I’ve heard you beg me before. Remember?”
I shuddered in spite of myself. As mad as I had been, as hurt and betrayed, Drew still haunted my dreams. I hadn’t forgotten how I came alive at his touch. Just being this close to him had me flushed with forbidden excitement. I wanted him despite past history and despite my better judgment. I had to remind myself that this was likely another game.
But the hard, insistent bulge pressing against my leg suggested otherwise.
I opened my mouth to protest, and his lips crushed mine. I could taste strong bourbon on his tongue. It was early in the day for him to be drinking. Clearly he had been in a downward spiral similar to his son. It fueled his possessive kiss with anger and entitlement. I began to struggle against him the minute his hand clamped over my breast. “No,” I murmured against his mouth as I tried to pull away, but he held me fast.
“Tell me you don’t want me,” he demanded. “I can feel it in the way your body responds to mine, like it knows whom it belongs to.”
“I belong to no one,” I insisted as I tried to pull away, but he swept me into his arms.
“You think not?” he challenged
again as he carried me toward the staircase.
“What are you doing?” I squealed, too afraid to kick myself free and send us toppling down the stairs.
“Claiming what’s mine,” he informed me coldly as he reached the landing. Without asking me which room was mine, he walked straight for it, kicking the door open with one foot. “Alex is nothing if not predictable,” he sneered. “Putting you in our mother’s childhood room,” he supplied as he marched toward the bed and dumped me on top of the covers. He ripped off his shirt as he stood over me, and I was too stunned to move. His body was even more toned than the day I left, if that was possible. It was as though he had handled my “betrayal” with a relentless workout regimen. His muscles rippled under his satiny smooth skin. I was rooted to the spot until he unfastened his slacks, revealing that line of dark hair that led to the raging erection detectable through the fine fabric. I scrambled to get away.
He landed on top of me, forcefully pinning me to the bed. “Tell me you haven’t dreamed about this every night for the last three months,” he commanded before he kissed me hard, his tongue forcing through my clenched lips. He used his knee to part my legs and fit his hips between my thighs. His hands tore open my shirt, sending buttons flying onto the hardwood floor.
“Drew, no,” I begged as I tried to wiggle away from him. I was panicking now. The only thing that scared me more than his conquest was the fact something inside me wanted to be conquered. My ego had shattered when I thought he had simply tolerated me to further his own self-serving agenda. Now, with his passion raging out of control, I could feel that he meant the words he said… that he did burn for me every bit as my body burned for him.
Worse, he knew it.
“No?” he echoed as his hand cupped my breast. His mouth clamped over the hardened peak through the lacy bra, and I gasped from a mixture of shock and excitement. Color exploded in my brain as fire raced through my veins all the way to my core. He had been right, I had dreamed of being in his arms almost every night since I left. I ached inside from an acute longing only his body could satisfy.
as much as I wanted him, I didn’t want him like this. I braced my hands on his chest to push him away. “No!” I cried out as I dodged every whiskey-drenched kiss.
Before Drew could silence any further objection with his demanding
mouth, he was yanked backwards off the bed. I pulled my shirt closed with one shaking hand as I watched Alex square off against his intoxicated brother.
“The lady said no,” Alex told him. “You should honor that.”
“What would you know of honor?” Drew demanded. “Isn’t this the bed where you seduced my wife?”
“No,” Alex answered calmly. Then, evilly, in a whisper, he said, “It was yours.”
Drew reared back to punch Alex, but he caught his brother’s fist easily, spinning his arm around to force him to the ground. “You should stop drinking, old man,” Alex advised. “That’s the only time I could ever pin you.”
Drew shoved Alex off of him and onto the floor. He glared at me as he rose to his feet
as he glared back at me. “Pack your things. You’re coming home with me.”
I stared at him incredulously. “Are you kidding?”
“No,” he answered as he reached for his shirt. “You came back for Jonathan, right? We already know the best environment for him is for me to have custody and you to live full-time in the house with us. You’ll come home. We’ll get married. I’ll get custody. Everything will proceed as planned.”
“I’m not marrying you just so you can get custody, Drew. This is life, not a game.”
“Life is a game,” he corrected as he buttoned his shirt. “Don’t you want to play it with a winner?”