Authors: Ava Claire
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Anthologies, #Contemporary, #New Adult & College, #Collections & Anthologies
I parked beneath the maple tree, gathering my confidence as I killed the engine. I'd get though the first course and claim I had a stomachache and bow out early. He'd get to pat himself on the back for putting forth minimal effort, and we could pretend that this half-ass relationship was something more than a farce.
I walked up the dimly lit pathway, not a leaf or blade of grass out of place. I planted both feet on the welcome mat and rang the doorbell.
I gasped when the door yanked open, like he'd been waiting and watching me from the window. If that wasn't weird enough, he was smiling. And not the phony Colgate smile on all of the Kaleidoscope promotion materials. Something real that made my heart pound and my stomach flop.
"Is everything okay, Dad?"
"Of course!" The smile broadened. He was always so intense, the fierce lines of his face harshly angular. His blue eyes were like jagged icebergs that sank any attempts to come to him with anything but good news. His salt and pepper hair, usually stiff and slicked back, was relaxed, framing his face in gentle waves. He was even in a polo and jeans. I gawked at him, feeling overdressed.
He held open the screen door. "Come on in."
"Thanks," I offered awkwardly, stepping into the entryway. The smell of garlic and bread wafted into my nostrils and I could have melted on the spot. I glanced at him shyly, not sure if I should clap my hands together with delight or pinch myself. "Is that what I think it is?"
"Chicken Alfredo," he confirmed with a nod. His smile wavered slightly. "It's still your favorite, I hope?"
I bit my lip to hide the tremor of happiness that rippled through me. He was the reason it was my favorite. I swore I could taste the love in every bite. I opened my mouth to tell him thank you when I heard the creaking of cabinets opening and closing.
I gave him a suspicious grin, putting it all together. The casual happiness, the nerves when he invited me to dinner—he was introducing me to someone! "We have company?"
The smile disappeared from his face. "Yes, but I should preface this by saying this is for your own good."
The pieces shifted, not lining up at all. "For my own good?" I brought a hand to my forehead, trying to dull the aching throb that resided behind my eyes. It always sprang to life when my dad walked into the room. "What's going on?"
He said nothing, clearing his throat as he walked past me, heading toward the dining room. "There's only one person I know of that knows you better than me, and that person is joining us for dinner."
Stacia couldn't keep something like this quiet, which meant-
The throb engulfed my entire head, squeezing my brains until they oozed out of my ears.
He invited Jason to dinner.
My ex-boyfriend stepped into view, perfect blond hair with just the right amount of gel, coiffed like he was fresh from a hairstylist's care. No polo, a black t-shirt instead, with jeans that made me think of danger and a motorcycle tearing up the asphalt. He was different, but there was the same painstaking engineering. The perfection that used to drive me wild but was now just boring and predictable.
His blue eyes cornered me like I was an escaped animal that needed to be put back in my cage. "Don't freak out-"
"I guess you
know me," I snapped, nostrils flaring. "Because I'm about to freak the fuck out."
My father made a booming sound of displeasure. "Melissa Lauren—"
"No, Dad," I stopped the scold dead in its tracks. "You don't get to wag your finger at me. The F word is warranted in this situation." I turned to him. The man who shared my DNA. The only parent I ever knew, who, at the end of the day, seemed to excel at making me feel like I was nothing. "You never lifted a hand to strike me, but your words, or lack thereof, and your actions, have hurt me just as deeply."
Shock devastated him. He was visibly stunned, like I'd just spat in his face. I couldn't find a single fuck to give that he was hurt by my words. They were words that needed to be said. Over and over apparently, because they just weren't sinking in.
"Do you have any idea what you've done by asking him here? By staging this mockery of an intervention-"
"Don't be pissed at him," Jason pushed forward. His face was all innocence and light. "He just wanted to help."
"By inviting my ex-boyfriend to dinner? The ex-boyfriend who crushed me?" I could care less about Jason. He didn't even exist in my world. I spoke to my dad and my dad alone. "I loved him, Daddy. I know you know what I mean. I see the way your face softens and your voice changes when you talk about Mom. You would have moved heaven and earth for her. Well, I would have done anything for Jason. I twisted the person I was to be perfect for him—and then he fell in love with someone else."
I took a breath, expecting this to fall on deaf ears, just like every other attempt. Dad would stand there like a stone and tell me that I just needed to try harder. Failure was never an option in his eyes.
But the look on his face was like nothing I'd ever seen before. My dad was a stoic man, never allowing emotion to truly break through. But his whole body shook, like there was something deep and powerful rumbling inside him. When he looked past me and locked on his intended target, I almost felt bad for Jason.
"You hurt my daughter?" he said tersely, launching himself forward.
Jason staggered backward, his words coming out like sputtering drips of water.
"I don't—I wouldn't—not-"
"You hurt my little girl?"
I watched my father transform before my very eyes. The talk that he never had with Jason was irrelevant. His complete ambivalence about my pain from my breakup, the shrug and words like 'unfortunate', seemed like they were said to someone else. There was no way that this man, this warrior who was glaring at Jason like he wanted to rip him apart, limb-by-limb, could be my dad.
But there he was, chest rising and falling rapidly, the muscles usually camouflaged by suits and ties fearsome. The military man was no longer grainy pictures hidden away in a box in his room, stacked beneath trinkets from my mother. That power and authority was no longer gleaned from a line of text in his bio, intended to suggest patriotism and a hard work ethic. He looked like he could do some serious damage—and his new mission was to destroy Jason Collier.
I shook myself from my stupor, springing into action. I stepped in front of my father and the tank ground to a halt. "You should go," I said to Jason. He gave no argument, becoming a flash of color that darted past my eyes and out the door. I gazed up at my father, tears burning my eyes.
"I am so sorry, Melissa." His voice was raw, his heart finally bared. The doors that were always closed to me were now open, sunshine streaming into the shadows. "I never would have asked him here if I truly knew." His face hardened. "And that billionaire—he hurt you too, and I let you come back here and work like that's all that mattered." He pulled me to his chest and the tears fell like rain. "I know I don't say it enough, but you're my daughter, Melissa. I love you. I should have protected you from this."
I pulled back, saw the soggy faces print I left on his shirt, and immediately felt mortified. "I'm sorry-"
"No, I'm the one that owes you an apology," he interjected softly. "I'm sorry that I made you feel that you couldn't come to me. I know I don't make it easy." His eyes were like liquid fire and he cleared his throat gruffly. "I'm not a machine, despite what people at the office may say and my actions may have led you to believe. I feel—but sometimes it's easier to just put that away instead of dealing with it." He tucked my bangs behind my ear and leaned forward, planting a kiss on my forehead. "When you feel like the world is falling apart all around you, you can always come to me." He held my gaze steady. "You can always come home."
It didn't matter how hard I wiped, the tears wouldn't stop coming. It was almost ironic; all this time all I wanted was for him to see me, for us to really talk, and I was at a complete loss for words.
He flashed me an understanding smile and nodded towards the dining room. "Now that the riffraff is gone, let's enjoy our dinner, shall we? You can tell me all about this Logan Mason, and after I'm done having a chat with Jason, I'll pay him a visit."
Oh dear. "I don't think Jason will be a problem again. You were his last-ditch effort."
I almost went to my usual spot. We sat on complete opposite ends of the table with this uncrossable distance between us. I picked up my plate and glass and put it beside his.
He brought over the utensils and a pitcher of lemonade. "And Logan?"
I fiddled with the utensils, my heart pumping erratically. "That's a little more complicated."
"I know that look," Dad said with a sad chuckle. "You're still in love with him."
I reached for the serving platter, suddenly wanting to stuff my face so I wouldn't have to say that I felt like I was missing a part of myself without him. That even if he went on this holy war with Delilah, I'd forgive him of every sin. I just wanted to be with him.
I spun the noodles around my fork and shoved it in my mouth. There it was. Culinary bliss. Escape.
"Wow, this is delicious!"
He studied me, wise to my timely subject change. "Okay, Melissa."
We ate in silence for a few moments, then we talked about work and movies and news and everything in between.
For the first time in weeks, I smiled like I meant it.
he car pulled to a stop in front of the old Victorian. It had been over a decade now, but it felt like yesterday when I looked out the window with similar apprehension. Back then I was thirteen years old. The system had chewed me up and spit me out more times than I could count. The routine was always the same. The social worker would dump me on some husband and wife that fell somewhere on the spectrum of not giving a damn and barely giving a damn. I wouldn't waste my time acting like we were going to live happily ever after, and I'd get rehomed, like some inconvenient pet on Craigslist. When the social worker pulled up to 3103 Bakers Avenue in Omaha, I'd been prepared for more of the same, but instead, the Brysons surprised me.
I was greeted by Rose Bryson and her husband Johnny, both of them with wiry red-brown hair, bright-colored clothing, and bright smiles with their rainbow colored Victorian. They were older than most of the foster parents I had been foisted on. Rose had these deep lines in her face that went deeper still when she smiled. Their kids were in college, and for the first time ever, I wasn't one of a sea of paychecks. They treated me like family from day one.
I thanked the driver and left the comfort of the car. I pushed through the old iron gate, eyeing the overgrown yard disapprovingly. I moved up the steps, pausing on the last one when I felt a bit of a dip. I started making a list in my mind.
Hire a landscaper, find a contractor to fix the stairs-
Rose opened the door before I could even knock. "Logan!"
My name remained the same on her tongue. Something happy. Celebratory. But not even Rose's love could blot out the memory of my birth mother hissing my name like a curse.
She smiled big, holding open both arms. I used to dart away from the show of affection, but with time I returned it, squeezing once before I made my escape. I held her tight this time, a sharp pain squeezing my chest when I realized how small she'd gotten.
I stepped back, eyes narrowing over her. "You're all skin and bones."
She waved away the concern. "I can still eat anybody under the table." She led the way into the house, shuffling her feet across the ancient wood floors.
Have the floors refinished.
"Don't you even think about sending a bunch of people over to the house," she scolded, reading my mind. "I get by just fine."
I took in my surroundings. It had been a couple of years since I'd been back home, but it seemed like a lifetime had passed. Everything seemed covered in dust and hanging onto its last gasps of life.
"Have you been getting the checks?" I asked, even though I knew she had.
"Of course," she said, flipping on the light in the kitchen. She pointed at the chair where she had a glass of milk waiting for me. "Not sure what you expect me to buy that costs twenty thousand dollars a month, but I deposit every one, just in case."
"Well, you could take a trip. Or come out to see me," I offered.
"You know, me and Johnny always wanted to go to Hawaii." She paused, her head lowered with so much sadness on her face that I would have given everything I had to bring him back. He was just as kind and giving as Rose, and together they managed to love each other fiercely and still have enough love to make me feel like I wasn't a mistake. That I had worth and a purpose.
He passed away two years ago, cancer eating away at him until there was nothing left but the ashes that she kept on her mantle.
My eyes darted over to the fireplace, picturing him curled up in the beat-up recliner, reading some dusty book. I brought my hand to the light, my fingers smudged with dust.
The plate of cookies snapped their chocolate chip fingers. When I met Rose's steel gray gaze, warmth flooded my face. I was a grown man, the head of a multibillion-dollar company, and one look from her made me want to hang my head like I was a kid again.
"You can go ahead and cancel the cavalry that's going to swoop in here and save me, kiddo." She pulled a chair across the stained linoleum and plopped down beside me.
"But I have means," I insisted. "I can give you whatever you require-"
"What I require isn't huffing and remodeling and robbing this place of all its character," she winked. Her wrinkle-lined face went solemn. "What I need is your love, son. And the last time I checked, that was free."
I covered her hand with my own, twinges of love and fear of every moment that passed that would lead to me saying goodbye to her, too. Love wasn't free at all. It cost little pieces of yourself every time you said those three words. It's why I'd never said them aloud. But I loved Rose Bryson. I loved her so much it brought me pain to see the flash of pain crease her face when she moved, or the tears that filled her eyes when she talked about Johnny, or the children she birthed who barely visited. But I could cast no stones—I could visit more often. I had the means...but coming home brought up too many good memories. And I couldn't remember the good without reliving the bad memories that paved the way for them to happen in the first place.