“Nikki,” he said, and it wasn’t a question. “Yeah, buddy. I saw her. And I think I saw you see her.” He shook his head. “I feel your pain.”
“Vanni was furious with me. Paul was sympathetic but pissed. Well,” he amended, “they’re getting over that now. But the girl won’t talk to me. Won’t return calls. I can’t figure out what I did. I was as good to her as I knew how to be.”
“Whew, that bites,” Jack said. “But, buddy, that doesn’t mean there isn’t someone out there, just waiting for you to find her. I was forty, man. I thought I was way past having this life. Mel—she makes me feel like a teenager.”
“Yeah, maybe it’ll happen. But not while I’m like this. I’m stung. I have to get over this before I can dip into the market again. You know?”
“Hang in there, pal. It’s going to be okay.”
“Yeah,” he said. He threw back the rest of his shot and stood. “You should get home to the family. I’m going to borrow your porch for a cigar, since you have the sand can out there, then to the cabin to get some sleep.”
“Sure. I’ll lock you out and take off from the back. There’s coffee in the fridge, but that’s it. Want a beer or bottle to take to the cabin?”
“Nah, I’m good. I’m good and tired,” he said. “And I’m planning to get out of here early.”
“You bet. And, brother? Don’t lick this wound too long, huh?”
He shook Jack’s hand. “I’ll be fine.”
Joe stepped out onto Jack’s porch and looked up at the sky. He heard the door lock behind him; the Open sign clicked off. The stars were fewer, dimmer, and he hoped it wasn’t smoke in the sky. He pulled out his cigar from his shirt pocket, clipped the end and struck a match on his shoe. It flared.
And illuminated her.
She was wearing tight jeans and high-heeled sandals, a little blue knit shirt, a gold necklace. She leaned against the porch post in the corner, legs crossed, arms crossed, that shiny black hair resting on her shoulders. He took a step toward her, bewildered, and the match burned down to singe his fingers.
“Ah!” he said, shaking it out. He put his boot over it, crushing it for sure. Then he lit another match and took another step toward her.
There wasn’t much light besides the match, but he could clearly see the tracks of tears down her cheeks, her large dark eyes shining in the glow of the match. He shook it out. He put the cigar back in his pocket. “This is about where we started,” he said, not getting too close.
“I know. Do you hate me?”
“Of course not,” he said, but he kept a safe distance.
“I was embarrassed,” she said. “And scared.”
“Embarrassed?” he repeated. “Scared?”
She gave a deep sigh. “I couldn’t imagine what you thought of me. I jumped into bed with you so fast…”
“You could have asked me. I jumped into bed with you pretty fast, too.”
“Men can get away with that.”
“I didn’t,” he said. “My punishment was pretty brutal.”
“Yeah,” she said softly. “I guess it was. I’m sorry about that.”
“Okay,” he said. “Scared?”
“Oh, Joe…I was so damn scared. I thought about morning coming and you giving me a whack on the butt and saying, ‘Thanks, baby.’”
“What did I say or do to make you think it could be like that?” he asked her.
“It wasn’t you, Joe. It was me. I guess I just wasn’t ready to move on yet.”
“Did panic come with the morning?” he asked.
“Yeah. It was a nice night. A night like I’d like to have again, and I thought about what it would feel like to look forward to it and be—” She lifted her chin and sniffed. “Not in the cards.”
He laughed without humor. “So you ended it to keep me from ending it? Jesus, Nikki, all I wanted to do was make you feel like you were headed for something good. What the hell happened between us to make you think that way?”
“It was just my past,” she said, shaking her head. “You were wonderful to me.”
“And so—you never want to hear from me again?” he asked, totally stumped. “You didn’t want to even see if there was something more there? Scared of that, too?”
“I was afraid to go any further. We don’t even know each other! I want something permanent, I want a family.”
“Weren’t you listening? I don’t have any idea if that’s going to happen with us, you and me—we’re too new. But wasn’t I clear? I’m not avoiding that.”
“Joe, I think I might be clueless when it comes to love. Afraid I wouldn’t know real love if it bit me in the ass.”
He chuckled in spite of himself. “Been there,” he said. “Pretty recently, in fact.”
“I thought I was probably mistaken. At the time it seemed to me you were showing me something good. Sincere. Loving. But it could have just been…You know. Sex.”
“No complaints about the sex, then,” he said.
“It was so much more than that. For me, it was so much more than that.”
It was a huge relief to hear her say that, he actually let out a slow breath. He reached out a hand and wiped a tear from her cheek. “And you didn’t think it could’ve been more than that for me, too?”
“I just didn’t know.”
“But you came back here?”
“Well, Paul called me.”
“Paul?” he asked, astonished.
“Yeah. I think I’ve been played.”
“He called to tell me not to worry about you—that although you admitted you had it real bad for me, you were working at getting over me and I’d probably be free of you in no time. He said you wouldn’t bother a woman who didn’t want to be bothered.”
“He did that? Why’d he do that?”
“To make me think about what I might be giving up, maybe.” She wiped the other cheek. “So. You’re over me?”
“Not quite,” he said. “I’m still working on it.” He looked down for a second, thinking. “What did you come back for?” he asked her. “To clear the air? Get it over with? More sex? After which you’ll take off before I’m awake?”
“Then Vanni called me. She told me she’d been thinking about things, and decided I must be out of my mind. She told me a lot of the same things you’d already told me—about coming together to help your friends, about being there for Paul while he buried Matt. She knew that if she ever needed your help for any reason, you’d be there for her. And I thought, what the hell’s the matter with me? I’ve always wanted to be with someone who thinks like that, acts like that.” She looked up at him with those wide, damp eyes. “She told me you’d be here—bringing Paul the plans. Should I have stayed away? Would that have been for the best?”
“I don’t know, Nikki,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m not going to kid you—the way you ran out on me…That was awful. Then I wrote you that it broke me apart and you still wouldn’t respond. What am I going to think, huh? You’re not the only one who doesn’t feel like getting hurt again.”
“You wouldn’t know it by the way I acted with you, but I’m inexperienced. I’ve never done that before. It turns out I’m lousy at one-night stands. All paranoid and spooked.”
“Yeah? Me, too,” he said. “I never thought of it as a one-night stand. Not even that one night. I was destroyed to find you gone. More destroyed to hear it made you cry. I couldn’t believe anything happened to make you cry. I’m still having trouble with that.”
“Look, here’s what happened to me. He said he loved me. We lived together for years. I kept saying to him, I need a commitment, I want a family. And he kept saying, I might need a little more time on that. And then he finally told me—he had a vasectomy behind my back a couple of years ago because he was afraid I’d get ahead of him, stop taking my pills and sneak a baby out of him. That’s when I knew—there was no love, no trust. He was a liar and he was just using me. It was a horrible thing to face up to.”
“Jesus,” Joe breathed, almost speechless.
“I thought he loved me and was trying to come to terms with the whole forever thing,” she said. “He’d been through a rocky divorce about ten years back. It made sense to me that he’d be nervous. I didn’t know he was lying.”
“Nikki, I’m sorry. That was bad, what he did. He should’ve been honest.”
“Yeah. And then there was you. In five minutes I knew you were more honest and straightforward than he was, but I doubted the signals. I wanted to fall for you—but I don’t know you.”
He reached a hand toward her shining black hair. So soft. “By morning, there wasn’t an inch of me you didn’t know.”
“You have a big mole on your butt,” she said. “You should probably get that looked at. And a scar on your shoulder. And I think you had your appendix out.”
He smiled at her. So, she had been paying attention. He wasn’t the only one, then. “I was twelve.”
“What happened here,” she said, reaching out to his shoulder.
“I got shot in Fallujah. Mike Valenzuela kept us all alive till Jack could get us out of there. Six of us were bleeding all over the place, there were snipers everywhere, but we got out. Paul gave up a spleen. It was ugly. It ended the Marines for me—I’m out of the reserves now. Paul too.” He smiled. “See? You know things about me.”
“Not enough,” she said softly.
Joe leaned toward her and kissed the path of a tear on her right cheek. He threaded a hand around the back of her neck and kissed her temple. “Here,” she whispered. Her finger was touching her lips. “There’s a tear.”
He leaned his lips toward hers and barely touching them, ran his tongue over her upper lip. “No, there’s not,” he said. “I think you’re done crying now.” He put his hands around her tiny waist and pulled her onto his mouth, kissing her deeply and tenderly. She answered him with desire, hot and strong, opening her lips under his. He thought he might feel tears in his own eyes, she felt so wonderful in his arms, tasted so magnificent on his lips. He wondered if this was just another of his fantasies; he further wondered if it was real, if it would disappear once again before he could grab on to it. Feeling her body against his, her tongue in his mouth, her hands running up and down his back, he hoped beyond hope that she was real and he wouldn’t wake up and find she’d just been another dream.
“I thought you were gone forever,” he said against her lips.
“I wish I hadn’t gone. I wish I’d stayed.…”
He covered her mouth in a deep, desperate kiss that lasted forever, holding her so close he was afraid he’d crush her. He wanted to say things to her, but that would mean releasing her lips, and he couldn’t bring himself to do it. All those weeks, all those long nights of wishing he could have made things different for them. All that regret, thinking that if he hadn’t moved so fast, he could have brought them together differently, with more success. He should have taken his time, courted her, wooed her. He was a fool, not getting her phone number and last name before he got her body. He should have brought her slowly and confidently into his heart, erasing her doubts. And yet he couldn’t imagine how it could have been different—they’d both been so steamed up. So ready.
He was ready again.