“No, no. Actually, yes. I was thinking about your sister today.” I feel myself tense as I think about Ashley, who I still miss so much. Beside me, Damien pulls me closer. My mother, of course, doesn’t even pause in her diatribe. “And I was thinking about your father, too. So I—”
“My father?” That little revelation pulls me from my memories of Ashley. My mother never talks about my father, who left when I was eighteen months old. I don’t think I even realized that I had a father until my sister, Ashley, showed me a picture of him when I was five. She’d been almost seven when he left and could still remember him in bits and pieces, and, although our mother didn’t know it, she had a hatbox under her bed full of photographs of the two of them together. And even a few of him holding little baby me. She mailed me that box before she committed suicide, and though I still have it, I haven’t opened it since her funeral.
Thinking about her and my father now makes my stomach twist. I’ve lost so much. And so much of the pain in my life—so much of the impetus behind Ashley’s suicide—ties straight back to my mom.
I can’t help but wonder if my dad left because he couldn’t bear a life with Elizabeth Fairchild, or if he’s just as bad as she is.
Damien’s hand caresses my cheek, and it takes me a moment to realize that he’s brushing away a tear. I take a stuttering breath and focus on the phone again. “Why on earth were you thinking about my father?” I demand.
“I just—” She cuts herself off. “I don’t know,” she says, starting over. “It doesn’t matter. I suppose I was just missing you.”
“Oh.” I know she’s expecting me to say that I miss her, too, but I don’t. I miss the idea of her—of a mother who loves me and cares for me even half as much as she cares for herself. But I gave up that fantasy long ago. Instead, I just say, “Well, thanks for calling.”
“Nichole—” There’s an urgent tone to her voice.
“I—nothing. Just—just goodbye.”
“Kiss, kiss,” she says in that automatic way she has. And then the line goes dead.
I turn to Damien, who looks as baffled as I feel.
“What do you think that was really about?” he asks.
“I don’t know.” I shake my head, wishing I could erase the past few minutes. I don’t want that woman in my head, and I damn sure don’t want to spend the rest of the weekend wondering what prompted her to call.
He takes my hand and pulls me into his arms, and I want to collapse against him. To get lost in his touch and let the man and his love for me wash over me, healing my wounds and shielding me from all the pain and bullshit.
I want it—and at the same time, I so desperately want to be stronger. And I am stronger. I’m so much stronger than I used to be.
So why in every crisis is my first instinct still to collapse into Damien’s arms?
I draw in a breath then ease back from him as I drag my fingers through my hair. “Just give me a sec. I—I want to splash some water on my face.”
It’s the truth, but it’s hardly all of the truth. And when I get to our bathroom, I turn on the water, then bend over the sink. I clutch the counter, squeeze my eyes shut tight, and try my damnedest not to cry.
I’m standing like that when the sound of running water suddenly ceases. I open my eyes, and look up at Damien’s reflection in the vanity mirror. There’s worry on his face, and also a hint of pain that cuts through me.
My mouth is suddenly dry, and a single tear escapes when I blink. “It’s not you,” I whisper. “Just the opposite. I need you so damn much, all the time, for everything.”
“And you think that’s bad? Do you have any idea how much strength you give me? Baby, I want to do the same for you.”
“I know—and you do. God, Damien, you give me so much strength. You’re my blood, my heart. You’re everything.”
“And you think that makes you weak? Nikki, you know better.”
“I do, but it’s just, I don’t know. Sometimes I want—”
In the mirror, I see his eyes narrow. Then he picks up a small glass holding toothbrushes. “Is this what you want?” he asks. “Should I throw it? Should I hand you a shard?”
The thought is far too appealing, but I shake my head, and when I do—when I push back that horrible urge—I feel stronger. “No,” I say firmly. “That’s not it. I’m just afraid that I can’t stand on my own.”
“Oh, Nikki.” He presses a kiss to my shoulder. “You can. You do. But dealing with something on your own doesn’t mean you have to actually be alone. I’ll always be here. Don’t you know that?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then embrace it,” he says. “Don’t run from it.”
I stay like that, facing the mirror with Damien standing behind me, a strong presence at my back, watching me. Protecting me.
And I think that, yeah, I’m being a fool. Because he’s right. Damien fights with me, not for me. He’s my support and my strength, but he’s not my secret weapon. And that’s a distinction that matters.
Slowly I lift my head. Even more slowly, I meet his eyes. “I want you,” I say. “I need you. I need you to help me cope.” I turn in his arms, then tilt my face up so that my lips are only inches from his. So that we are breathing the same air, looking deep into each other.