For Delilah, who nudged, saying she was anxiously awaiting the next installment, since the last chapter I’d posted was back in May! To her, and to all (four?) of you who are following, thank you for reading! :)
Bucky’s expensive loafers slapped down the front steps. Seconds later his red convertible purred down the driveway and onto the road. Trig waited until the sound of its motor faded into a night full of cricket-chirps.
Tabi stood in the same spot on her front porch, shifting on her feet and deep-breathing. He could tell she was calmer with Bucky gone: she’d stopped working her hands open and closed. They studied each other in silence. And then, there it was: the familiar, magnetic pull.
His body reacted to her as it always had, only it was a stronger response than he remembered. She was breathtaking, but even more so; the reality of her dwarfed the myth of memory. A sudden sensory-rush overwhelmed him. He wanted to taste her soft, lightly freckled skin on his tongue. He wanted to drink her warm, apricot scent, to fill his lungs with the aroma that tantalized him from a few, short feet away. He wanted to feel her body alive against him as he locked her in his arms, to run his fingers into her red-golden hair. He wanted her in a way that he’d never wanted any other woman before her or since. Damn! The slight change in her breathing, the dilation of her pupils, the softening of her lips, told him she felt it for him, too. That aroused him even more.
But it seemed she didn’t let herself feel it for long. The shutters closed, and her eyes clouded. Before he could go to her, her expression had altered to… pain? There was a depth of emotion he couldn’t read — maybe it was because of the rapidly encroaching twilight. He harnessed his hormones and cocked his head to the side. Something bad had happened to her in the time since they’d broken up. It almost seemed as though she was upset with him.
She didn’t say anything. That was okay. He’d start:
“So. ‘Morna,’ huh?”
Tabi shrugged. “I decided to change my name.” Her chin tilted up in defiance, but she’d kept her voice hushed. Then she bit her lower lip. “Did you say anything… to anyone?”
“About your real name? Or about us? No. Neither.”
“Okay, good. Thank you.” Her eyes went out of focus, as she became lost in thought. Suddenly, she flicked a glance over her shoulder, through the open doorway of the house’s darkened interior, and when she met his gaze again her eyes were wary. “Why are you here?”
Unsure of where she was at this point in her life, he was careful to keep his return stare neutral. “Like I said, I was passing through. Yeah, really,” he added, answering her raised eyebrow. “I just stopped off to deposit a check and get some cash. I was on my way to visit my folks.”
“So it was an accident,” she said slowly, “that after six years you just wandered into the place I’ve been working at — for four months – at the exact time some yahoos were trying to…?”
“Pretty much.” He nodded.
She paused and processed. “Oh! Wow.” Her eyes went wide with surprise, and she sounded unsure whether to be relieved or insulted by his honesty. “And now you’re here… why?” This time she meant at her house. “Did your evening with Special Agent Green fall through?”
She must have seen them talking, he realized, though how she’d picked up on Green’s body-signals from all the way across the parking lot was beyond him. But the hint of acid in Tabi’s tone made him smile: she was jealous.
“I came to see you. Make sure you’re okay. After today.”
Her brows shot up in surprise at first, and she didn’t say anything. Then her jaw hardened again. Pain — yes, definitely pain — flashed behind her eyes. A wave of hostility rolled off of her, lashing him before it ebbed. She swallowed. “I’m fine.”
“Didn’t look like it when I got here.”
“I had it under control.”
“For a second you did, and then he would have hit you. Who is that guy? Are you seeing him?” The words came out with more force than Trig had intended.
She looked taken aback, then irritated. “He’s an ex. And he wasn’t going to hit me. He just gets a little… wild… when he loses control.”
“Wild, like angry. Has he lost control with you before? Is that why you have a restraining order against him?”
Tabi knit her brows in confusion, and then pieced it together. “You heard us arguing. You misunderstood. He has a restraining order against me.”
Now it was Trig’s turn to be confused. But Tabi shook her head. She wasn’t going to explain. “Long story,” she said. “Suffice it to say when he took it out he was covering his ass.” Trig was even more confused.
“Besides,” she added, “getting help from the legal system isn’t my thing. Especially not for all the help a little slip of paper gives you.” She chuckled bitterly. “No, I’ve never really been able to rely on law enforcement for help, have I?”
Trig felt the sad echo of her troubled upbringing blend with the mystery of whatever problems she had in the present — he was certain her name-change wasn’t arbitrary, as she pretended. But, no, she wouldn’t have felt she could go through legal channels to get help.
“Is that why you learned aikido? To deal with Bucky?”
Tabi turned her head, pressed her lips together, and grimaced, as though blocking a bad memory. “You mean that move I did on him. Look, I take a street defense class that teaches a variety of MMA techniques. And Bucky’s not the reason I take it. He’s nothing; I can handle him.” Her eyes were hard when she looked back at him. “But it’s really none of your business, Trig.”
But maybe he wanted to make it his business.
“Tab, something’s going on with you. Please tell me what it is. Talk to me.”
“Trig,” she said softly, “I stopped being your responsibility a long time ago.”
The hardness in her eyes dissolved into profound sadness, as if she wished she could unload her burden. Her eyes were liquid pools of hazel, hovering in shimmery suspension. A pang twisted his heart, and Trig found that he was sad, too. His arms suddenly ached to hold her. Hold her until she told him everything.
“Look, it’s been a long day… and… I have to go.” She choked the words out and turned toward the door.
“Tabi, please—.” He took a step toward her. She held up her hand.
“Why not?” He took another step. Close enough to touch her.
“It was really… hard… seeing you. And I can’t… I won’t let myself….” She gulped, and her next words vaulted out as though she needed to exorcise them before she lost courage: “Iwasn’tgoodenoughforyouonce, andI’mnotgoodenoughforyounow, andIcan’tletmyselfthink…!” She gasped a staccatoed breath as tears broke free and rolled down her cheeks. “I have to go!”
Trig felt like he’d been shot in the chest by a cannon. As she whirled to step on the doorframe he grabbed her arm.
“Is that what you think?” he whispered. “That you weren’t good enough for me? Tabi, I was the one…!” He thought back to the last time he’d seen her, the way they’d ended things, realized how it must have seemed to her. “Oh, baby!” He tried to pull her into his arms, but she resisted.
“No! Too much has happened,” she sobbed, backing away. “After you left, everything changed.”
“What changed?” he whispered back. “What happened?”
Suddenly a beam of light flashed through the house. Something moved in the dark behind Tabi. Trig auto-reacted, grasping her arm and yanking her off the doorstep, shoving her behind him. He heard her gasp in surprise.
A young boy in pajamas materialized in the doorway. He was holding a worn, grayish bear and a flashlight.
Trig felt like a viewer who’d pushed a wrong button on his TiVo and was watching a scene unfold in slow-motion. He was suspended, removed from the actual present, observing something with which his brain was still playing catch-up. Something he wasn’t sure he wanted to see.
Tabi, slicking her fingers under her eyes to hide evidence of her tears, going to the boy’s side. Pulling the boy into a hug against her abdomen. Kissing his wispy, blond hair.
Tabi was a mother. His heart knocked slow and hard against his sternum. The scene kept playing.
“Hey, sugar,” she cooed. “Did you wake up?”
“Yellow Bear got scared,” the boy confessed. He looked up at Tabi. His full lips held the hint of a sheepish smile. Then he noticed Trig. The boy’s smile faded and he half-hid behind Tabi’s leg, peering out from her hip with solemn gray eyes.
Trig stared back. The boy had to be older than two… probably older than three…. Was he older than four? His heart knocked faster.
“Tabi?” His own voice sounded strangled.
Tabi whipped her head to Trig, her eyes desperate. She opened her mouth to say something, but the boy tugged on her shirt and she looked back to him.
“I thought Bucky was here,” the boy whispered to Tabi.
“Mr. Gibbs,” Tabi corrected, stroking his hair. “He was, but he left. Now, go upstairs, sugar. I’ll be right up to tuck you in.”
The boy pleaded with his large, gray eyes.
Familiar gray eyes.
It was like a drum roll inside his chest, and the stifling July air was closing in on him.
“But I’m scared, Mommy!” the boy whimpered.
Trig managed to find his voice. “How… old…?” came out in dry croaks.
Tabi’s attention was pulled from boy to man, and back. She raked her fingers into her fiery mane and held her head. “Tanner! Trig!” she yelled. “Augh!”
At her cry something snapped in Trig, and the scene shifted to present-moment speed, but it was all still too fast for him. He looked wildly from her to the boy, words unable to form in his brain. Pictures of him from childhood loomed crystal clear every time he glanced at the kid. Fuck! That was the only word that presented itself. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! His pulse pounded in his ears as he waited for her response.
She straightened up, her posture rigid, wary. She studied him for a moment, and then her jaw tightened. When she spoke her voice was clear, but her eyes were hard.
“No, Trig. Whatever you’re thinking… no.”
No. The boy wasn’t his. She’d just said so, twice. No. He controlled his breathing and got his heart rate back down to a just-above-normal pace. His “oh” — which was all he could think to say just then — came out a sigh of relief, though for a second a twinge of disappointment injected him. His gaze riveted to the boy once again, and he ignored the surge of doubt. But he couldn’t stop staring at the kid.
“I have to go,” he heard Tabi say. “Thank you for saving my life today.” Her tone was strangled. He ripped his stare from the boy and was struck for the third time that day by Tabi’s beauty. Only she looked miserable. Fresh tears welled in her eyes. “Goodbye, Trig.” She took the boy’s hand in hers.
A million-and-one questions zoomed through his brain, along with the sense that he’d just been handed a “get out of jail free” card. It felt wrong. But he’d never been more overwhelmed in his life.
And she’d said “no.”
He ignored his questions and took the card.
Turning on his heel, he walked off the porch, hearing the house’s front door click shut behind him. He didn’t look back. He made it down the long driveway to his car, got in, and drove straight through, for twenty hours, to his parents’ house in Spring, Texas. The whole way there all he could think about was Tabi.
And the little boy who looked exactly. like. him.