Authors: Debbie Macomber
“Rocco, every other father there feels the same as you.”
He stiffened. “I don't think you heard me. I. Don't. Dance.”
My head went back at the vehemence in his voice. “Did you have a traumatic experience as a teenager?” I asked, half joking.
He was an impregnable force, unwilling to move.
“Rocco, listen, Kaylene came to me because she wants to do something special with you. I promise it won't be as bad as you think.”
I was growing desperate. “Tell you what. You and Kaylene stop by my apartment one night and I'll teach you.”
He blinked, cocked his head to one side as if he didn't believe me, and frowned.
“Are you willing to do that much?”
He hesitated. “You throwing in dinner with that invitation?”
His mouth quirked and his frown deepened.
“Oh all right, dinner.” I didn't like it, but he gave me no options.
“Monday. Come at six.”
He cracked a smile and his eyes brightened. “You got it. See ya then.”
“You drive a hard bargain, Rocco Nyquist.” Grumbling under my breath, I shook my head and returned to the store, none too pleased. I'd gotten roped into this and I wasn't happy about it.
Shawntelle was standing in front of the picture window with a keen eye watching me. “Who was that?” she asked, hands on her hips. “Girl, you been holding out on me.”
“Rocco's a friend,” I said simply. I didn't want her thinking otherwise.
“Sweetie Pie, that is one fine-looking man. My panties got wet the minute I saw him.”
“You say he's just a friend. What's wrong with you? You don't friend-zone a man like that. You hog-tie him down and give him a piece of whatever he's missing.”
Amused, I shook my head and explained, “It isn't like that with us. I'm helping him and his daughter.”
“I'll tell you what. You don't want him, then you throw him my way. I'll be more than happy to show that man a little bit of heaven.”
By the time I got back to the apartment it was late Saturday afternoon. The first thing I did was check in with Leanne. I knew how tiring Owen could be, and I wanted to be sure she was up to the task of keeping him longer. The truth was I would have welcomed an excuse to put off dinner with Jake.
“Mommy, Mommy,” my son cried, racing toward me. “Grammy let me make cookies.”
Owen didn't seem the least bit disappointed to remain with his grandmother while I left again. We hugged and he settled down to a Disney movie while Leanne cooked his favorite dinner.
My mother-in-law didn't ask about my dinner with Jake, and I was relieved. She hadn't shared her thoughts or given me advice. Leanne couldn't, and I appreciated her position. I knew it was difficult for her to see Jake in this kind of emotional pain. At the same time she couldn't bear for me to endure the soul-sucking degradation she'd suffered because she'd made the choice to stay in her marriage.
It was times like these that I needed my mother, only my mother was dead. Karen, my oldest sister, lived in Spokane and Cassie was in the Seattle area. I'd reconnected with Cassie two years earlier, after nearly fourteen years of estrangement. She'd been trapped in an unbearably abusive marriage and had finally escaped. Not knowing if I'd be able to reach either of them, I got my phone and dialed Karen first.
Karen's life was busy with family responsibilities. Her kids, Lily and Buddy, were involved in a number of activities, so to catch her and have a decent conversation was almost impossible. Nevertheless, I felt I had to try. To my relief, she answered almost right away.
“Nichole, what's up?”
“You in a rush?” I asked.
“I'm always in a rush. What's happening?”
“Hold on. I'm going to see if I can catch Cassie.” I put her on hold and punched the key that would connect me with my middle sister.
“Hey, Nichole,” Cassie answered.
“Do you have a minute?” I asked.
My voice must have revealed my mood because Cassie said, “Everything okay?”
“Hold on. I'm going to connect with Karen.”
With the click of a button I had both my sisters on the phone. “I'm having dinner with Jake tonight,” I said, thinking that would be explanation enough.
“Why?” Cassie asked, point-blank. Having been through a divorce herself, she had a better understanding of what my feelings were, although our circumstances were vastly different.
“Are you having second thoughts?” Karen asked. “The last I heard Jake had agreed to a settlement and all you had to do was sign the papers and the divorce was a done deal.”
“Sean asked Leanne to convince me to meet with Jake.”
“Your in-laws, right?” Cassie asked.
“Yeah. Sean told her Jake is having a hard time and doesn't want to lose his family.”
“Tough,” Cassie cried. “He's the one who couldn't keep his zipper closed.”
“Cassie,” Karen admonished. “Give Nichole a chance. Do you want a reconciliation?” she asked gently.
That was the crux of the issue. “I don't know. None of this has been easy.”
“But you've made it on your own for over two years,” Cassie reminded me. “You proved you can do it. It's just like Jake to decide he wants you back as soon as he realizes you're strong enough to stand on your own two feet.”
“Do you still love him?” Karen asked, diverting my attention away from Cassie's comment.
“I do,” I whispered. “I've always loved Jake, but I don't know if I can ever trust him again.” I didn't mention the rumors I'd heard.
“You can't trust him,” Cassie insisted. “It's a pattern. Look at his father and that's all you need to know. Like father like son.”
“That's unfair,” Karen cut in.
“But Cassie's right,” I said. “When I first told Jake I wanted out of the marriage he was incredulous. He didn't think I was serious.”
“But you showed him.” Cassie again.
“Yes, I proved to him I was serious, but it took time. For the last year I think Jake's been in denial. He seemed convinced I would eventually give in and change my mind. And to be truthful, I've wavered more than once.”
“Of course you did,” Karen said soothingly. “You love your husband and you took your vows seriously.”
“Unfortunately, Jake didn't,” Cassie reminded me.
“Divorce is so much harder than I ever imagined. Forget the financial and property settlement. That is nothing compared to what it's done to me emotionally. I feel like my heart is being ripped out of my chest.”
“How's Owen doing?” Karen asked.
Our son was another consideration. “He misses his daddy.” Involving a child in this divorce made the legal process all the more complicated. Owen needed his father and shuffling him from house to house every weekend had confused and upset my boy.
“Have dinner with Jake and listen to what he has to say,” Karen advised.
“Cassie?” I asked. Although I knew what she thought, I still wanted to hear it.
My sister was silent for a moment, and when she spoke her voice was low, as if she didn't want anyone to overhear what she had to say. “I don't know if I ever told you, but Duke reached out to me a couple of years back.”
I had no clue.
“He's in prison, which is exactly where he belongs, and you know for one insane second I actually considered reconnecting with him. The man used me as a punching bag for years. Even knowing the violence he was capable of, there's an emotional connection that nearly sucked me in. Unbelievable.” She paused and exhaled a deep breath. “All I can advise is this: Your gut will tell you the right thing to do, Nichole. Listen to your gut.”
“Thank you both.” I knew I was holding them both up and they had their families and busy lives. I appreciated their advice. Basically my sisters were reminding me of the very steps Leanne and I had compiled. I needed to let go of the past and at the same time love myself enough to do what I knew was right for Owen and for me.
“Listen,” Cassie said before we ended the conversation, “while I have you both on the phone, Steve and I are seriously talking about taking the next step in our relationship.”
“Marriage?” Karen asked.
“That's what we're discussing. I'll give you details once I have them.”
“I'll wait to hear,” I said. I deeply admired my middle sister and was grateful she'd been given a second chance at love and happiness. Steve was a widower, and I fully expected that if they did go ahead with wedding plans they'd want to start a family of their own fairly soon.
“Let us know,” Karen said. “Gotta scoot.”
“Talk soon,” Cassie promised, and she, too, cut the connection.
I sat on the end of my bed for a long moment, holding on to my cell, grateful for the chance to connect with my sisters.
Following the conversation with Karen and Cassie, I showered and changed my clothes. Despite talking to my two siblings, my stomach remained in knots over this dinner with Jake. I returned to sit on my bed and pressed my hand over my tummy. Other than a few stilted conversations when Jake came to collect Owen or drop him off, it'd been more than two years since we'd spent more than a few minutes together.
My gaze automatically went to the divorce papers that rested on top of the small desk I had managed to fit in the bedroom. They sat next to my lesson plans for the following week. I stared at them for a long time, closed my eyes, and asked God to guide me.
I told Jake I'd meet him at the restaurant. It seemed simpler that way. It wasn't what Jake wanted, but he'd agreed, albeit reluctantly. He'd made reservations at the best steak house in town. I dressed in a sleek sleeveless black dress that fit my hips like a second skin. I wore the pearls he'd given me for Christmas and the diamond earrings he'd presented to me after Owen was born. I took a clutch and a featherlight lace shawl and headed out the door.
When I arrived, I found Jake sitting at the bar. He slid off the stool as soon as he saw me and kissed my cheek. Leaning back, his intense dark eyes held mine. “You take my breath away,” he whispered. “You always have.”
I lowered my gaze, but he placed his finger beneath my chin and lifted my eyes to his.
“I still remember the first time I saw you,” he said, his voice low. “I felt like I'd been sucker punched. You're everything I've ever wanted, Nichole.”
I forced a smile. I'd expected he would use flattery, but I was past the point of believing what he said, no matter how much I wanted to believe it. Flattery whispered in my ear wasn't going to change my mind.
He tucked his arm around my waist and led me to the hostess desk. The young woman smiled warmly and assured us our table was ready. We were escorted into the dining room and seated in an intimate booth. As soon as we were comfortable we were handed menus.
Within minutes our waiter appeared and took our drink orders. The server went into great detail outlining each of the specials, and then he left us to make our decision. If only this issue of a reconciliation were as easy to make as our dinner choices.
Jake barely glanced at the menu. He set it down on the table and reached for my hand, lacing our fingers together.
“Thank you for this,” he whispered, and then brought my hand to his mouth for a lingering kiss.
I gently pulled my hand back. I didn't have anything to say. Although I had agreed to dinner, I hadn't decided on anything else. Jake's eyes rounded as if I'd disparaged him. I wasn't intentionally being reserved; I simply didn't know what to expect or what to read from his actions. Yes, I knew what he wanted, but he didn't seriously believe all it would take was a few words and buying me an expensive dinner, did he?
Within minutes the waiter returned with a high-end bottle of champagne. Surprised, I looked to Jake. We hadn't ordered it. It seemed Jake had earlier. If he assumed tonight was a celebration, then he was premature. My look must have said so, because he gently squeezed my hand.
The waiter poured us each a glass and Jake made the toast. “To love that lasts a lifetime,” he whispered, and clicked his glass with mine.
I started to protest, but he gently pressed his finger against my lips.
“I don't mean to be presumptuous, Nichole. My heart is full of hope and that is all this is. Hope. I'm celebrating that you're here with me, nothing more.”
I sipped the champagne and had to admit it was the best I'd ever tasted. After a discreet moment the waiter returned for our dinner orders.
Jake waited until the man had left and then he reached again for my hand, holding it in both of his. “I don't mind telling you, I haven't done well without you and Owen,” he said, and his voice cracked just enough for me to notice that he was struggling with emotion.
I squeezed his hand. “This divorce hasn't been easy on either of us. Or Owen.”
Jake kept his head lowered. “I miss my family. I can't sleep. I can't eat. I know I don't deserve a second chance, but, Nichole, I'm begging you not to sign those divorce papers.”
I bit into my lower lip. “We haven't lived together in two years, Jake.”
“I know, and those have been the hardest years of my life. When you first moved out I was sure you'd eventually change your mind and come back to me, but you didn't. And then the attorneys got involved and I did everything I could to hold up the proceedings. I thought that in time we'd be able to work this out.”
I'd caught on early to his tactics and resisted every ploy he'd used.
“At first I couldn't believe you were serious,” Jake admitted. “And then I was angry. It's only been in the last few weeks that I've realized my life wouldn't be worth anything without you and Owen. I need you both so badly.”
I needed my husband, too, and Owen needed his father, which was what made this decision so difficult.