LEONA SET THE BOWL OF POTATO SALAD down and began adding spoons to each dish spread out on the table. “Can you get the watermelon from the fridge in the garage?”
I finished pouring chips into a bowl and crumpled the empty bag in my hand to throw away. “Sure.”
“Oh man.” She pressed her hand to her forehead. “I forgot the bug repellent.”
“It’s not Maryland, it’s not that bad here. But I think Dexter bought bug spray and suntan lotion this morning.” I tried to smile at her. She had been an emotional mess all morning, running around nonstop. “Everything looks great, and the kids are having fun.”
She looked around the playground at the kids running around, the older ones shooting water guns and the younger ones playing in the sand box and water table. Felix was standing next to the water table with Aliya by his side.
“They are.” She nodded and gripped my shoulder. “Thank you for your help today and yesterday.” She smiled brightly and released me. “I’m going to set up the piñata. If you see Dexter, let him know.”
The playground was in the field behind their townhome, making the set up easy. I walked back to the house to get the watermelon, scanning the area for Dexter. A group of three boys ran in front of me, chasing Jace with a spray gun. As I left the laughter behind, the sadness I’d been keeping down the past twenty four hours began to bubble up, but I kept a firm lid on it. If I let it escape, I feared I wouldn’t be able to get it back under control.
The watermelon was already sliced and laid on a tray. Leona and I had done most of the prep work yesterday. I pulled the heavy dish from the refrigerator, balancing it on my forearms to leave my hands slightly free to open the door. As I walked through the kitchen, Dexter’s voice in the living room made me slow, but what he was saying made me stop and set the platter on the kitchen island.
“She was here all day and stayed over last night…Because why should she be at the hotel alone?”
I stood at the edge of the doorway. Dexter hadn’t spotted me yet.
He rose to his feet, voice rising. “You’re an ass. Talk to her yourself…You missed your nephews first birthday.” He walked to the laptop on the desk in the corner of the room, and his fingers moved over the keys. “You keep saying that…fine.” His fingers slid over the mouse pad, clicking different things. “Yup, it’s there, thanks.” He pushed the laptop closed and grabbed the back of his neck. “I know. Tomorrow at five A.M., I’ll make sure she’s there.”
My flight was at seven tomorrow, they were talking about taking me to airport.
“Dexter, let me talk to him.” I stepped forward, and Dexter jumped as I interrupted him. I couldn’t keep quiet, not when Gage was arranging things with him about me.
“Hold on,” he said into the phone. A slight smile pulled on his lips as he met my gaze, phone extended to me.
I hadn’t talked to him since he left, although he had texted. Stupid texts saying he arrived in New York and a goodnight text. That particularly pissed me off because he wasn’t really going to bed at that early hour.
Pressing the phone to my ear, I didn’t even wait to hear his voice. “If you want to know what I’m doing, ask me, talk to me.”
Dexter stood in front of me, smile growing as he gave me two thumbs up.
I rolled my eyes and turned away. I couldn’t focus on him, not when Gage was pulling all my strings to the point of breaking, snapping them, and I was close to cutting the rest myself.
The silence stretched, and I wanted to scream into the phone. Then he finally spoke, hesitant. “Okay.”
“That’s it?” I could barely breathe, the pressure on my chest increasing. I wished Dexter would walk away, I held back words I wanted to say because of him.
“That’s why I called Dexter and not you. I can’t say what you want me to say right now.” He sighed like I was draining him of his energy.
“Will you ever?” A chill ran under my skin, everything in me shrinking with fear of his response. I knew the answer anyways; I just didn’t want to hear it.
“We’ll talk tomorrow, just…have fun today.” He hung up the phone.
I turned back to Dexter, barely restraining myself from throwing the phone at him.
He extended one hand and carefully took his phone back. Then he held his hands up in innocence. “Remember, I am not my brother. Don’t hold his faults against me.”
He bobbed from side to side, tentatively going in for a hug. “Is it safe to hug you? You look like you could kill?”
I circled my arms around his waist, letting my body rock with his in his tight embrace. He rubbed his palm in a large circle on my back.
“I’m sorry he’s being a dick. Just give him time, it takes his thick head a little longer to realize some things.”
I stepped out of his hug with a nod before he could squeeze the tears from me. It felt like I was the one who was taking too long to realize things, to realize that things weren’t going to change. Walking back into the kitchen, I pushed everything back down and picked up the watermelon tray, smoothing out my features.
“Rea.” Dexter paused me with a hand on my shoulder. “If you ever need a place to stay, or just to get away for a while, you are always welcome here.” He made sure I was looking at him before he continued, eyes clear with sincerity. “No matter where you stand with him, you’re always welcome here.”
“Thank you,” I could barely respond. Hot and cold clashed in my stomach, worry and relief mixing.
I didn’t have much time to think about it. The second I stepped out the door, I had to lift the watermelon high above my head as water soaked my shirt. Jace was holding a laughing Felix, helping him pump a water gun at me.
Dexter ran past me and grabbed a super soaker from a nearby child to chase after them.
“Do you want some, Regan?” Ms. Lawson held up a glass of dark red wine. “You deserve it after prepping, organizing, and cleaning up today’s festivities.” She tilted her drink towards Leona. “We all do.”
“I can drink to that.” Leona plopped in a chair at the kitchen table, picking up her own glass.
“Sure.” I took a glass from the cabinet, pouring a little wine into it. One drink couldn’t hurt, if anything, it might allow me to actually sleep tonight, to mute the thoughts of Gage running around my brain.
“Maaaa Maaaa,” Felix’s baby cry echoed around the house.
“Dexter’s putting him to bed.” Leona stiffened, waiting for the cry to quiet down.
“Lee, we need you,” Dexter’s voice rose above Felix’s cry.
She downed her glass and then rose to her feet, leaving me alone in the kitchen with Ms. Lawson.
An uncomfortable silence fell over us. The past day had been filled with things to do, helping us to break the awkwardness, but now, all we had was conversation.
“How do you like New York?” She sipped her wine.
“I like it.” I shrugged, then reached for more to say. “I spend most of my time on campus. I’m really enjoying my classes.” It was the truth. After I earned my GED, I was able to enroll at a community college and transfer to the university. I think Gage pulled some strings to get me accepted, but he denies it.
“And what about Gage?” She jumped right into her main concern with a smile, but all I could see was pain under it. “What is he doing? How is he?”
I hadn’t expected the polite talk to end so soon. I took a large drink from my glass, forcing the bitter taste down. I couldn’t meet her eyes. Instead, I focused on the deep purple liquid in the glass. “He seems to like it.”
“The club is doing well? It keeps him busy I guess.” She slid her hand over mine on the table.
Shocked by her touch, I slipped my hand away, tangling it with my other hand in my lap. I looked up at her, sorry that I had reacted so cold. “He stay’s busy.”
“I saw an article about him after his win, that he made appearances at some school programs for kids. I’m glad to see he still has that passion.” She stood, walking to the wine rack by the refrigerator and grabbed another bottle. Undoing the foil, she placed the electric wine opener over the top. The machine hummed as it removed the cork. “He reminds me so much of his father.”
I held my breath, unsure of how to navigate this conversation. I was curious, but wary of this lady.
She brought the bottle to the table, pouring herself a full glass and gesturing to my cup. I flicked my fingers over the top, signaling I didn’t need anymore.
“Did his father, Aaron, work with the community?”
She raised her eyebrow as she took a sip. “Among other things. I’m afraid Gage follows in his father’s footsteps a little too closely.” She set the glass down. “I was so happy when he won the title, I thought maybe…” She shook her head. “That club, how did he come about owning that? Does he have silent partners?”
My stomach twisted, knowing what she was questioning. “I don’t think it’s my place to tell you anything about him.”
She quickly spoke up. “I’m sorry, you’re right. I can only imagine what he’s told you about me.” She put her hand up, keeping me from speaking. “But it’s probably all true. I…made a lot of mistakes. I’m trying to fix them now, but he’s not ready to accept that. But really, I just want him to be happy.” She paused to take a sip, and I did too. “You must hate me. Does he talk about me any?”
I choked down my sip and met her eyes. “I don’t hold anything against you, but I’m not going to talk to you about him. It’s up to him what you know.” I also didn’t trust her just yet. She was supposed to be clean, but she had been drinking all day, and I wonder how much that affected her boldness right now.
She ran her finger up and down the stem of her glass. “You’re right. I’m glad he has you.”
It only made me sink deeper. “I think I’m going to go—”
“No, please, stay and talk. It won’t be about him. I’d love to get to know my new daughter a little better.”
I stilled in the chair. Daughter. It sounded strange.
She took a sip and giggled dryly. “You know, Hun, I don’t know anything about you really, except what I read in the news. But,” she shook her head, eyes narrowing, “did you grow up in Maryland?”
“Yeah, in Baltimore mostly.”
“Me too. You know, I don’t even know what your name was before you became a Lawson.”
“Sommers. Regan Sommers.”
“Sommers?” she questioned, a frown pulling on her lips. Finishing off her glass, she reached for the wine bottle to refill it. “You’re not related to Angela Sommers, are you?”
The air was vacuumed out of the room, along with all heat, and I nodded.
“Really? I use to work with her at Indigo’s. We were servers together, good friends, too.” She smiled with the memory, then shook her head. “Shame what happened. How are you two related?”
I finished off my glass, pushing down the lump in my throat. “She was my m-mother.”
Her lips formed a silent O as her eyes widened. “No shit?” Then she slapped her hand across her lips, sealing in her response. She snapped her other fingers a couple of times and then dropped the hand from her mouth. “I should have realized. You look like her, I just didn’t— I didn’t think to put two and two together. Well, huh, that explains how you got involved with my son.” She sat back in her seat, still stunned. “Damn. Just, damn. So…did you—” she put her hand up. “I’m sorry if this comes out rude but, who raised you?” She was already pouring more wine into her glass and I didn’t stop her from topping mine, I couldn’t do anything. “It wasn’t Nikolai, I know that. But Jared maybe?”
“Jared?” I jumped to the new name.
“Well yeah, that was…” She trailed off as she finally looked at me. “Are you all right, hun?”
I shook off her question. “Who’s Jared?”
She looked around the room, possibly for escape, before chugging half her glass. “That was some guy your mother was dating when I first met her.” She waved her hand dismissively with a little laugh. “I thought maybe he was your father, but obviously if you haven’t heard of him, I was wrong.” She put the glass back to her lips and finished it off.
“What was his last name?” I twisted my fingers in my lap, sure they would shake otherwise, but my voice was even and calm.
She licked her red stained lips, setting her glass back on the table with wobbly hands. “Oh, I don’t remember.” Rubbing one hand over her temple in a circle, she cringed. “I think the wines getting to me. Don’t mind me, I’m just running my mouth about things I know nothing of. You would have been born already when I met your mom. He was just someone she was dating, and he didn’t stick around very long once she got the job with me.”
“That’s when she met Nikolai, right? At the restaurant?”
She reached for the bottle, but stopped herself at the mention of Nikolai. I had only questioned about him because she had brought him up earlier. Obviously she knew things, I wanted to find out what.
“Right.” She rose from her seat, chair dragging over the tile floor. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed. It’s been a long day, with a lot of sun.” She looked down at me with a shaky smile. “Good night and have a safe flight since I won’t see you in the morning.”
“I was raised in eight different homes.”
“What?” her ponytail swung as her head shook, but she sank back into the chair.
I took a deep breath, stilling the storm in my stomach. “I wasn’t raised by anyone I knew or that knew Angela. I was in foster care.”
“That’s awful. Well good thing you’ve found my son, you’ve got a family now with us—however crazy we may be.” Her smile seemed genuine, but I waved it away.
“I was saying that so you’d understand. I was asking questions because I don’t know anything about her really or who she was with,” my throat was closing up, but I forced out the words, “or who my father could be.”
“And that makes it even worse that I was just talking.” She leaned closer to me over the table. “Hun, I don’t really know anything. That was a bad time for me and I’m afraid I pulled Angela right into it with me. When I said we were friends, I guess I should have said we were users. We mostly got high together, until she left to go work for Nikolai and I stayed at the restaurant. I really didn’t know her for very long.” Her chest was rising and falling with her heavy breathing and she leaned back in the chair. “I’m sorry. That’s a time that’s hard for me to think about, a time when I completely lost myself, and it took a long time to find my way back to me.” She stood up. “There’s nothing I can tell you anyways, except you don’t want to know any of those people. Gage may remind me of his father, but he’s different. I know he is.” With those cryptic words, she nearly ran from the room.
I replayed the conversation in my head, over and over, but all I knew was that I wanted to find out more about Jared. And more about Gage’s father, Aaron.
As the airplane taxied around the runway, I prepared myself to meet Gage. I lined up everything I wanted to say like little soldiers going into battle. He was going to talk, I would make sure of that.
I had entertained the idea of staying with Dexter and not coming home, but I needed answers. I needed to try one last time.
Gage waiting at the luggage return gave me an odd sense of relief, at least he showed up. But he should have never left without me to begin with. The sight of him cracked the dam of my emotions. The pressure of them constricted my heart with an ache that made it hard to breathe.
He took his hat off, rubbing his hand over his hair and then pulled it back on. The small gesture gave me a small comfort; I wasn’t the only one nervous. Good, I had wanted to make him sweat.
Giving me a small smile, he wrapped his arm around me in greeting and kissed the top of my head. A rage simmered inside my veins as we waited in silence for my luggage on the carousel.
He grabbed my suitcase when it appeared and then gestured toward the sliding doors of the airport, out to the parking lot. I followed him to the SUV and he opened the door for me before walking around to his side.
When the car turned on, he turned down the volume, taking quick glances to me as he maneuvered out of the parking space. “I didn’t think you’d actually get on that plane. I thought you would have stayed there.”
“I thought about it.” I looked out the window, away from him. The careless way he said it, made me feel stupid for being here, unwanted.
“I would have deserved it.”
“What do you deserve?” I turned to look at him, emotions boiling to the surface. “What have you done?”
His lips pressed tight, and he watched the traffic as he turned onto the main road. “I don’t deserve you or the patience you’ve shown.” He pulled his glasses off and looked at me. His eyes were bloodshot and tired. “I don’t deserve your forgiveness.”
“Why?” His words tangled around my heart, pulling at it, hurting it. I strained to talk through the tightness in my throat. But as I thought over what he said, my anger flamed higher. “What are you doing, and why shouldn’t I forgive you? Is it never going to change? Are you not willing to try?” I gripped my stomach—it was churning.
He tightened his hold on the wheel, knuckles turning white, and shook his head without speaking.
His non-response only drove home my worst fears. This talk wouldn’t be us making things better. “Then why did even bother picking me up? You might as well let me out now.”
“Don’t be irrational, you have no where to go.”
That was a punch to the gut. He didn’t care that I’d leave, as long as I had somewhere to go. He really would have been happier if I stayed with Dexter. “Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.”
“I know you can.” He glanced at me with a watery smile. The emotion in it scared me more than anything else. “I wish you didn’t have to.”
I was drowning in my sadness, it bubbled in my chest and choked me. I shook away his words. Whatever was happening didn’t make sense. I needed to stick to my plan and get answers.
“Where have you been?” I questioned.
“The club.” He gave an automatic response. The response he always gave for everything.
“The club, that’s all I ever hear from you. What is going on that takes so much time? That would make you leave your family so suddenly?” Tears burned my eyes and throat.
“It’s complicated.” He pulled his gaze from the road to look at me and shook his head, voice soft. “Just know I’m sorry. I never wanted it to be this way…yet, here we are.” He swallowed, throat moving with the force. “Let’s save this for when we get home. We need to talk.”
All anger drained from me, leaving me empty and cold. It didn’t sound like we’d be having a conversation; it sounded like he’d already made up his mind.
I walked into the condo and silently sat on the couch, waiting for him to begin speaking, heart stuck in my throat.
He sat next to me, leaning forward on his knees as he stared at the ground. “I’m sorry. I’ve made so many mistakes in this. I just wanted to keep you.” He looked up at me, red eyes glossy with tears. “I wanted to keep you safe. I wanted to keep you to myself. You were the one good thing I had still, and I thought I could keep it all separate. But this life won’t let me, and I’ve done too much to deserve anything good.” He grabbed my hand, wrapping it in his clammy grasp. “But God I love you. If you don’t believe anything I say, believe that.”
I held my breath, body shaking as I waited for his next words. Words I knew were coming. Words that would kill the life I thought I had. I wanted to stop them—stop him from speaking them.
“But, it’s not fair to you. None of this is. You’ve got this life you’re making, and it’s a good one. You’ve got school, and friends, and your career. I—”
“No.” I pulled my hand from his, tears slick on my face as I shook my head. “You don’t get to say this. You’re what I want, none of the other stuff. You know this. Just talk to me, tell me what’s going—”
“I can’t. Not after what I’ve done. You need to get away, and I have to let you go.”