Authors: Debbie Macomber
Rocco was nothing if not blunt. “Kaylene was the result?” I asked, seeing what he meant when he said it wasn't pretty.
“I didn't believe the baby was mine until Kaylene was tested. It shook me up, being a father and all. It wasn't the way I saw myself. Up until then I'd pretty much done as I wanted, but this kid was a responsibility I couldn't ignore. Her mother wasn't much of a mother, and so I took her as much as Tina would let me. By the time Kaylene was three, she was living with me about seventy-five percent of the time. I worked for old man Potter, and we got along good. Then Tina got herself killed in a car crash, so Kaylene came to me full-time.”
“Potter sold you the business?”
“No, I couldn't afford it. He never had a family, so when he got cancer, I helped him as much as I could, taking him in for treatments and doctor appointments. I lived with him for a while there toward the end, caring for him. When he passed, he left the company to me. That's the reason I never changed the name.” He took another big swallow of his beer. “Told you my life wasn't pretty.”
I appreciated his honesty. “You're a good father and a good person.”
He shrugged. “I try. Don't think Kaylene will sing my praises, though. I don't want her making the same mistakes her mother and I made.”
The server delivered the pizza, and as if she had pizza radar, Kaylene immediately appeared. I reached for my fork and knife, and spread the paper napkin on my lap. Rocco held a thick slice dripping with cheese halfway to his mouth and then he paused. He set the slice down and stared at me aghast. “You don't eat pizza with your hands?”
I hadn't realized using a fork would make him uncomfortable. “Not generally, but I can, if it bothers you,” I said, and set the utensils aside. Reaching inside my purse, I pulled out a small bottle of hand sanitizer and gave it a little squirt, then rubbed the liquid into my hands. When I finished I took a slice of vegetarian pizza.
“Do what makes you most comfortable,” he said.
“Okay.” I reached for my fork and knife. It was the way I always ate my pizza.
Rocco grinned and I had to say his whole face brightened. “I don't think I've ever met anyone as classy as you, Nichole.”
I smiled back at him. “I'll take that as a compliment.”
“I meant it as one.”
I ate two slices of pizza and it tasted like heaven. Rocco consumed his entire pie.
Kaylene was up and down for most of the meal and complained when it was time to go.
Rocco walked me to where I'd parked my car and leaned over the top of the door after I slid inside. “Thanks for everything.”
“Any time,” I said, and to my surprise I meant it. I liked Rocco and I liked Kaylene.
Rocco stepped back, and I was prepared to close the door when he said, “If you don't mind me saying so, I think your husband is an idiot.”
I smiled, soaking in the balm of his words. “I don't mind in the least.” The truth was, I agreed with him. Jake and I could have had a good life together.
“Come golf with me,” Kacey Woodward, my best friend, encouraged me.
“I can't,” I told her, pressing the phone to my ear as I wiped down the kitchen countertops. Owen and I had enjoyed our evening together, but we'd made a mess.
“Why not?” Kacey pressed.
“Golf and the country club aren't part of my life anymore.” I'd gladly given that up. Sean was the one who yearned for the country-club life. That had never been me. Rule number two applied. New friends. For the most part, I avoided the women I'd once considered friends except for Kacey. We'd been close, and she knew me better than just about anyone.
“You aren't afraid of running into Sean, are you? That man is such a sleaze. I don't know how you stayed married to him all those years.”
Kacey had never been a fan of Sean's, which may have been the very reason she'd remained my best friend. I'd never know how many women at the club Sean had slept with, and frankly I preferred it that way. The one woman I trusted not to fall under my ex-husband's charismatic spell was Kacey.
“I'm teaching tonight and I need to prepare for class,” I explained.
“You're seriously enjoying that, aren't you?”
“I am.” More than Kacey would ever know. I loved my students' eagerness to learn and how freely they shared during class time. They told me about their lives and how much they appreciated the opportunities available to them in America. It wasn't unusual for them to bring me gifts to show their gratitude. Just that morning I'd made toast from the bread Nikolai had given me and it'd been delicious.
“Okay, then we're going out to lunch,” Kacey said.
“At the club?” I'd prefer we didn't. The women there were more Sean's friends than mine. It would be awkward and uncomfortable for everyone.
“Any place you say,” Kacey clarified.
“We can decide that later. Come into the city.”
After agreeing, Kacey hesitated, which could mean only one thing. Something else was on her mind, something she was reluctant to say over the phone. I waited, weighing if I wanted to know what she had to tell me. No doubt it was a matter involving Sean. Sensing her hesitation, I said, “I know you called about more than golf or lunch. Just tell me.” She'd be uncomfortable until she did.
“Tell you what?” she said with a hint of defensiveness.
“About Sean's latest flavor of the month.” I knew Kacey all too well. “You aren't going to rest until you do, so spill it.”
“Oh Leanne, that man has everyone talking. He's got this woman living with him and I swear she can't be a day over thirty-five. He's parading her around the club, and I'd be shocked if her brain was any bigger than that of a hummingbird.”
I smiled because when it came to beautiful women, I was convinced Sean's brain wasn't much larger. But actually, when it came to cheating, he was a Mensa member with the clever lies he told.
“We'll do lunch and you can tell me more.” We set a date and I disconnected.
I finished wiping down the counters, turned on the dishwasher, and checked the time. Nichole got a substitute-teaching job for the day and I was scheduled to pick up Owen from his preschool class at two. I didn't have nearly as much time to dedicate to my lesson as I wanted.
The dishwasher went into the washing cycle when my phone rang. Thinking it was Kacey again, I reached for it and held it to my ear. “Now what?” I asked cheerfully.
It was Sean.
This was the first time I'd talked to my ex since the divorce was final nearly a year and a half earlier. My pulse raced and my hand automatically went to my throat. “Hello, Sean,” I said as evenly as I could manage.
“How are you doing?” he asked in that caring, sincere way of his. At times he could be charming and gracious, which was what had made it so hard to leave him. His ability to be tender and loving was equal to his capacity to be deceptive and underhanded. He could rip out my heart and then be the first one to pick it up and hand it back to me.
“I'm doing well.” With effort I resisted the urge to add that he appeared to be doing all right himself. “What can I do for you?” I asked, wanting to send the message that I had no intention of wasting time on idle chitchat.
“Could we meet?” he asked.
“I need to talk to you about Jake. I'm worried about him and could use your advice.”
That he would reach out to me couldn't have been easy. Still, I hesitated.
“It would be just the two of us. Let me take you to dinner.”
My hand moved from my throat to my forehead. “When?”
“Tonight, if you're available.”
“I'm not.” That seemed to surprise him, and so I added, “I have class.”
“You're taking a class. Leanne, that's wonderful. I'm glad to hear you're looking for ways to expand your education.”
“Actually, I'm teaching a class.” I smiled, gratified to have surprised him further.
“Oh, okay. Tonight works best for me. How about after your class, say around nine-thirty? Or is that too late?”
“No, that should work.”
He picked a popular bar not far from my apartment. If he hadn't mentioned our son I wouldn't have agreed. I wasn't uneasy about meeting Seanâwell, maybe on some level I was, and really, who could blame me? We shared a long history and a child. I couldn't ignore either. I assumed when we divorced that there would naturally be some contact between us.
“See you then,” Sean said, and we disconnected.
Nikolai met me in the parking lot the same way he had on Monday evening, and true to his word, he had baked me another loaf of bread. I thanked him and he walked me into class, taking the same prominent seat he had before. Everything about him spoke of eagerness. When I told him he was my star student, I hadn't been exaggerating.
We continued the lesson on idioms. With each one we discussed, Nikolai took notes in a small pad he tucked in his shirt pocket as if to keep it close. He also had a list of idioms he didn't understand that he brought to class for us to discuss.
Again, once class was dismissed, he waited until I was ready to leave and then walked with me to the parking lot.
I was beginning to feel mildly guilty that he stayed because of me. “Nikolai,” I said softly, not wanting to hurt his feelings, “I appreciate your thoughtfulness, but you don't need to escort me to and from the parking lot every class.”
As I feared, his face fell. “You no like?”
“It's thoughtful of you, but it isn't necessary.”
“I keep you safe.”
I didn't need a bodyguard. The neighborhood was decent and I hadn't heard of any crimes taking place close to the Community Center.
“It is my honor, but if you no wantâ¦”
I didn't mean to offend him, and from his expression I could see that I had. “Nikolai,” I said, starting again. “I know your job requires you to be at the deli early in the morning. I hate the thought of you losing sleep when you could be heading home instead of waiting for me.” There'd been a couple times that it was close to nine-thirty before I was able to leave class.
“I sleep like tree every night. No worries.”
I thought, confused, until I remembered this had been an idiom we'd discussed in class. “Oh, you mean you sleep like a log.”
“Yes, yes. Like log, not tree. I can still walk with you, okay?” His face was full of hope.
“If you want,” I said.
His smile became huge, as if I'd just announced he'd won a million dollars in the state lottery.
He stepped back when I opened my car door.
“Leanne,” I reminded him.
“Yes, Leanne. You lookâ¦” He paused and searched for the right word and then shook his head at a loss.
Knowing I would be meeting Sean, I'd taken extra care, dressing and applying makeup. “Pretty,” I suggested.
Again he flashed me one of his big smiles. “Yes.”
I was far too old to blush, but I felt the heat seep into my cheeks as I accepted his compliment even though I'd given him the suggested word. The appreciation in his eyes stayed with me as I hurried to meet Sean.
By the time I had parked and walked to the lounge it was a few minutes past nine-thirty. Sean had chosen well. I was afraid the bar would be busy and loud. Instead the atmosphere was subdued and low-key. While the room was crowded the noise level was held to a minimum.
Sean stood when I entered and then walked around the table to greet me, holding out his hands.
“Leanne,” he said, eyeing me appreciatively. “You look stunning.”
I smiled and took my seat. Compliments rolled off his tongue with practiced ease and I was never sure how sincere they were.
“You've lost weight.”
I had, but I doubted that he would notice the five pounds. However, I wouldn't keep that weight off if I continued to eat Nikolai's delicious bread.
Sean already had his drinkâa dirty martini. He held up his glass for the waiter, who immediately stepped over to our table. I ordered a glass of white wine, which was more to my liking. Sean had never approved of the fact that I didn't appreciate hard liquor. He would have preferred if I drank martinis or some fruity cocktail. I imagine his latest conquest slurped those down with no problem.
We made small talk until our drinks arrived.
Sean's easy smile disappeared, replaced with a troubled look. “I asked to see you because I'm worried about Jake.”
“How do you mean?” I leaned forward, holding on to the wineglass by the stem, concerned for our son.
“He isn't doing well, Leanne. I found him drunk earlier in the week. You know that isn't like Jake. He was angry when I confronted him and then he broke into sobs. I don't believe I've ever seen him like this.”
“I know that recently he and Nichole have reached a final settlement agreement,” I supplied. My heart ached for Jake; I knew he didn't want this divorce. As much as possible I had stayed out of it, refusing to take sides. I wished with all my heart that I could believe Jake would remain faithful from here on out, but I had my doubts, not that I shared those with Nichole.
Sean nodded. “That must have been what set it off. Jake is a broken man. He doesn't want this divorce. He'll do anything to get his wife and son back, and it's breaking his heart.”
“What about hisâ¦little friend?” I asked, carefully choosing the term for the woman he'd been involved with.
Sean answered with a shake of his head. “Jake was never serious about that woman. She meant nothing to him.”
“He got her pregnant,” I reminded him, stiffening.
Sean signed. “He took care of that, and the girl. She's out of his life. Jake knows he made a mistake.”
“A doozy,” I said, and sipped my wine. “The fact that he got rid of âthe mistake' doesn't matter to Nichole. Jake was unfaithful and she doesn't think she can ever trust him again.” I knew from experience this was a key issue in any possibility of a reconciliation.
Sean hung his head, as if the weight of his own failings fell heavily upon his shoulders. “I blame myselfâ¦”
“It doesn't do any good to cast blame now.” I carried my own fair share. If I could help our son I would. “What would you like me to do?” Although I asked, I knew.
He raised his head, sighed, and said, “Will you talk to Nichole?”
Just as I thought, but I felt at a loss as to what I could possibly say. “What do you suggest?”
“Just what I've told you. Jake wants his family back and he's willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. Nichole will listen to you.”
He made it sound as if this decision rested with me instead of with Nichole. “It isn't as cut-and-dried as it seems.”
“Nichole admires and respects you. You've been like a mother to her,” he argued. “If anyone can get through to her, it's you.”