Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-Nine

Jason’s eyes narrowed on the words, but his expression remained unreadable.

“I fell in love with you from almost the first moment we met,” Christina said, her face flushing with the words. “But I kept putting the memory of Bill between us. Because I was still hurt, because I never wanted to be hurt again. It was an easy excuse, one I didn’t have to examine, because you made me feel things again, without even trying.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Christina saw Matthew motion to Mary—but when they each made to step out of the way, and give the two some privacy, Christina held up a hand.

“No. You don’t have to go. I put you all through this.” She turned back to Jason. “You were right when you said I played it hot-and-cold. You see, I wanted to be with you so much that it overrode my fear.”

He made a half-laugh, but there was nothing of humor in the sound. “Not for long.”

She shook her head numbly, aware that he hadn’t unbent one inch,  not even when she’d confessed her feelings. “No, never long enough,” she admitted. Shifting uneasily, she ploughed ahead. “But I’m done with that. I’m done letting Bill have any sort of control over me. He doesn’t get to be the reason my heart breaks for a second time.”

Jason’s eyes closed. “Christina…”

But she couldn’t stop. “Look, I know I screwed up. I pushed you away. I said terrible things. I never gave you a chance.”

His hands curled into tight fists down at his sides.

“I never gave us a chance.” Her eyes pleaded with his, her concentration totally alerted to every facial nuance—she was so absorbed that she didn’t see when Mary and Matthew did leave, slipping out into the kitchen. Probably, they were too embarrassed for her to stay any longer. “If you can’t, or don’t, want anything more to do with me, then that’s okay. But I promised myself I would never do what my mom did to me.”

His brow furrowed.

She lifted one shoulder. “I’d never just let the person I love walk away without a fight. You deserve a fight. So I’m here. If you want me.”

His lips twitched. “You should have gone home years ago.”

She snorted. “Don’t I know it.”

He took a short, hesitant step toward her. Christina tried not to notice how much her heart rate accelerated at the movement. Then he stopped. Far too soon, he stopped. “I don’t know Christina,” he admitted.  His hand motioned between them. “After everything, this all feels a little fast to me.”

Christina felt her throat constrict. “Fast?”

“Last week,” he ran a hand through his hair. “Last week you didn’t trust your feelings for me—or mine for you. You felt certain what we had was nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. You thought you wanted me because you shouldn’t have me—because that’s how it was with Bill. And I get it, that you threw him between us to protect yourself, but it doesn’t change the fact that, at the time, you truly believed that your feelings were nothing more than illusion.”

Christina swallowed an instinctive desire to argue.

“And now, now you’re standing here telling me after one visit with your mother that’s resolved. Just like that?”

Christina took a deep breath. “No. I’m not saying that.”

He took another step toward her. “Then what are you saying?”
“That when I saw her, after all these years, all I could think about was how much I’d let myself lose that awful night she threw me out and Bill threw me over.”

He inclined his head.

“I realized,” throwing her shoulders back, Christina plunged forward. “I realized that I’m stronger than even I knew, but that strength came at the cost of my happiness, and suddenly it didn’t seem worth it anymore.”

He smiled. “Okay. That doesn’t answer my question.”

“I’m not asking you to marry me,” Christina said.

Jason raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t think…”

“I’m not saying that I’m not damaged. I am. I’m damaged.” Her voice shook a little. “But I’m healing.”

He still didn’t look sure.

“Look, I don’t know what more I can do to convince you,” Christina snapped, her arms flying out to the sides. “I’m standing here, my heart shaking in my mouth, telling you I love you and any second now you’re going to reject me, tell me it’s too late.” She took a deep breath. “But I’m here anyway. Risking it all. For you.”

Her voice lowered. “It took me four years to get here, and I guess it seems fast to you, but don’t all decisions seem that once they’re finally made—once that flip finally shifts?”

Jason grimaced. “But that’s just it, a week ago you were this sure that we wouldn’t make it. And now…” he shrugged, but there was a look of finality about it.

“Jason…?”

“I’m sorry, Christina,” he said, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes anymore. “I’m just, it’s too much. It’s too much.” Turning on his heel, this time he didn’t wait for her to answer. This time, he was the one who walked away.

 

 

 

Sitting at home that night, Christina stared emptily at the television screen in front of her. Tears partially blocked her vision, but she wasn’t bothered by their appearance. A dull sort of emptiness had replaced the throbbing ache in her chest by now. She was still in her sundress, that same bottle of whiskey sitting unopened on the coffee table before her.

As much as she wanted to drink her sorrow away, she knew it would get her nowhere. Plus, when it came to Jason she had a habit of doing stupid things when she drank. Snorting, she rubbed her palm roughly against her wet cheek. “Probably, I’d end up drunk texting him.”

It wasn’t like she had really been that surprised when he’d walked away. She could hardly blame him. From the word go, she’d done little to elicit his faith in her feelings. She’d done it to herself.

“At least I’ve still got Mary and Matthew,” she consoled herself. She wouldn’t let what had transpired between her and Jason get in the way of that. “We’ll make it work, somehow. At some point, I’ll stop loving him—” at the words she broke off, a small sob escaping from her raw throat.

The thought hurt. Profoundly.

She wasn’t allowed to wallow long however; the sudden buzz of her doorbell disturbed her fresh bout of sorrow. Despite herself, Christina felt a fissure of hope envelope her person. Could it be…?

Throwing her legs out underneath her, she raced to the door, her fingers scratching at the lock in her hast to open the damned thing. Swinging it open, she hardly realized she was holding her breath.

Blinking in disbelief, she swayed slightly when her eyes lifted— “Jason?”

His hair was rumpled, his eyes narrow—almost angry as they gazed at her. “Just shut up, would you?”

She wasn’t given a chance to so much as agree before his mouth came crashing down against hers. In shock, she felt the imprint of his lips with wonder. Her body reacting on instinct, she felt her arms twining around his neck. There was no room in her scattered thoughts to wonder at his intentions.

“Dammit Christina,” he muttered against her trembling lips. “Do you have any idea how aggravating you are?”

“No,” she answered dreamily. “I only know that you’re here.”

“Yeah, well…” with a growl, his nipped at her lips, “I didn’t mean to be.”

“Then why?” She asked, her stomach clenching.

“Because I’m in love with you.”

She felt his hands pressing her more firmly against his body as a fresh wave of tears coursed through her tense body. “Thank God.”

“And I couldn’t stay away.”

“Now you know how I felt all this time.”

His hands came up to frame the sides of her face, one thumb rubbing circles against the delicate skin. “I only hope I’m not too late.”

She smiled. “I think that’s my line.”

He chuckled. “I don’t think I even knew how I felt until you walked out my house last week.”

She ducked her head. “I know and I’m sorry—”

“No, let me finish,” he said. “I’ve spent the last week oscillating between missing the hell out of you and cursing your damn name.”

She smiled.

Jason shrugged. “It was so easy to handle my attraction to you all these years. I chalked it up to curiosity and tried to move on. But then, after Easter…”

“Everything changed,” she finished for him.

“In ways I wasn’t prepared for,” he admitted ruefully. “Everything grew all out of proportion and then…and then you just left.”

“Jas—”

“In a weird sort of way, it put what you went through with Bill into a different perspective. I get it a little better now, because that’s how I felt this afternoon: afraid, angry even, that if you came back you’d only leave again and I wasn’t sure I could—”

“I won’t,” she swore. “I promise I won’t do it again.”

“No,” he said, his lips coming down to press softly against hers. “Me neither.”

Lifting up against the crush of his mouth, Christina sighed. They weren’t finished talking—she knew that. But the conversation could wait. For a little bit, it could wait.

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-Eight

By noon on Monday, Christina was dressed and ready to go. Pacing up and down, she considered her options. The red and yellow sundress with thin shoulder straps, bit at her skin as she prowled restlessly. Her hair, curling gently down her back, swished nervously from side to side as anxiety clawed greedily at her insides. Her eyes, expertly enhanced by aid of makeup, were clouded with fear, tension…

“It’s now or never,” she murmured to herself nonsensically—giving rise to her already heightened nerves. Grabbing for her purse, she exited her house, trying to calm her breathing with each step she took down the front porch and across the street. It didn’t help much.

The entire ride over, she rehearsed what she would say. She had her speech nicely in hand, having spent the majority of her weekend getting it perfectly prepped. Slowing down as she pulled off on their side street, she felt the butterflies in her stomach explode.

“Just breathe,” she cautioned herself as she crawled past their driveway, her eyes roaming the driveway—looking for vehicles, signs of gathering. Sure enough, Jason’s vehicle was parked out front, and the garage door holding Mary and Matthew’s SUV’s was open, showing both cars snugly parked inside.

With a crank of her hand on the wheel, she turned her car back around, and this time, she didn’t drive past their house, instead pulling up into their yard. Cutting the engine, Christina bolted out of her seatbelt, her hand jerking the door handle with enough force to make the hinge crack. Marching up to the front door, she didn’t allow herself to reconsider.

“Knock,” she scolded her fingers when they initially froze down by her side. With a twitch, they curled into a fist as she brought it down against their solid wood door.

In some ways, the reality of what happened next fully lived up to the dreams she’d been living on. It some ways.

For one thing, it wasn’t Mary who answered the door. It was Matthew.

Blinking in surprise at the sight before him, his mouth formed words but at first no sound came out as he gazed down at Christina’s strained smile.

“Umm,” twisting her fingers together in front of herself, Christina felt her own eyes wandering, unable to meet that penetrating look. Suddenly, she didn’t know what to say. Clearing her throat, she prayed for confidence: “Sorry to barge in unannounced—”

“Matthew? Who’s at the door?” But before Christina or Matthew could answer her, Mary’s short form rounded the opening.

Stopping mid-stride, that lady’s mouth fell open. “Christina?” she whispered unbelieving.

Seeing her, Christina’s eyes watered. “Hi Mar.”

“Oh honey,” Mary breathed, rushing forward on instinct.

“I’m sorry.” This wasn’t how Christina had planned to start off the conversation. Swimming in a sea of uncorked emotion, she found the rattle of her breath, the wobble in her knees distracting. “I’m so sorry—”

That’s as far as Christina got before Mary’s arms were pulling her forward, throwing Christina into that woman’s embrace.

“I was so ghastly to you both—and I didn’t mean it,” Christina cried, her body sinking into Mary’s hold. “I’m not sure if you can ever forgive—”

“Hush,” Mary insisted, her words half-smothered. “There’s nothing to forgive. You have nothing to apologize for.”

“Yes. I do.”

“No.” Mary shook her head forcefully. “If anyone needs to be forgiven it’s me. I should never have said what I do.”

Pulling back a little, Christina saw the tears she’d heard in Mary’s voice. Her eyes flitted a little to the left, including Matthew. “But you were right. I was doing everything you feared I would. Recreating my past, confusing everything—and all because I was so afraid to lose you…”

Mary squeezed a little harder. “How many times do I have to tell you, you can’t possibly lose us?”

“I know,” Christina said. “At least, I know that now. I just—I couldn’t bear the thought of having you turn your back to me. So I turned mine to you. I thought, if it was my decision, it wouldn’t hurt as much.”

“I hope you were wrong,” Mary muttered, letting Christina go at last.

Christina smiled at the disgruntled note in Mary’s voice. “Dead wrong.”

“Good, because we’ve been absolutely miserable without you. Haven’t we, Matthew?”

Half afraid of what she’d find there, Christina forced her gaze up to his. But Matthew didn’t even need to speak—it was all written there, clearly on his face.

“And worried,” he added, but without any reprimand in his voice. “How was your trip?”
Christina felt her chin wobble. “It was…”

The sound of a third set of footsteps on the tiled foyer brought her up short. Her eyes—wide and searching lifted to find Jason coming into view. At the sight of her, his body seemed to almost jolt in recoil—but only for a second as he came to standing beside his father. His face was devoid of expression, his eyes shadowed under the overhead lighting.

“I went home,” she said, her eyes pleading silently with his from across the way.

But it wasn’t Jason who answered. “Yes,” Matthew replied gently. “That’s what Jackie said.”

At his voice, Christina snapped back to attention. Turning to him, she winced. “I know. And I’m sorry about that too…”

Matthew held up a hand. “It’s okay, Christina. Really. We understood.”

“How—how did it go?” Mary asked nervously.

Christina blew out a harried breath. “Better than I expected, but less than what I deserved.” With a half smile at Mary, Christina continued. “And I have you to thank for making me realize that. I have all of you to thank,” she said, her eyes zeroing in on Jason.

Still, there wasn’t so much as a flicker of response.

Digging deep from breath, Christina felt her lips quiver. “Despite that, we talked—me and my mother. I’m not sure if she’ll ever truly be able to forgive me but…she’s trying anyway. And that’s more than I hoped for.”

Mary brought a hand to her chest, but Christina wasn’t sure if it was in relief or fury.         “She’ll never be like…she’ll never be what you showed me family is supposed to be,” Christina said, shrugging uncomfortably underneath the sentimentality she didn’t often express. It was hard, being this open. “But then again, I’ll never be what she’s always thought a daughter should be.” She laughed without humor. “So, there’s that.”

Mary frowned, but at a small nudge from Matthew, she remained silent.

“It was funny—I didn’t even know how much you all had changed me, changed the way I looked at my past, until I went back there.”

Jason frowned, which was the first inclination he was even listening to her. Christina tried to take heart in that small gesture of reaction. It was something.

“Oh baby…”

“No,” Christina said, cutting Mary off. “Please, let me finish. I need to say this.”

Mary nodded.

“Going there, seeing her for the first time in years I realized a few things. Like how much I hurt for her and how little she’d hurt for me. I’d spent four years using her as the center for everything I did. But she just moved on with a new life, half-forgetting she’d ever had another.”

“I’m so sorry,” Mary whispered, tears running blindly down her cheeks.

Christina smiled. “Thank you. It wasn’t until I came face to face with that knowledge—when she saw me for the first time in years, standing on her front porch…” Christina swallowed with difficulty. Breaking down now wasn’t an option. “It wasn’t a reunion for her. It wasn’t the thing dreams were made of—because those only exist when you’ve actually dreamt for something to happen.”

Reaching forward, Matthew laid his hand on her shoulder.

“It wasn’t until I was standing there, looking at her, calling myself ten times a fool because I’d hoped—” Christina pursed her lips, taking comfort in the pressure of Matthew hand, the pain emanating off his face.  “I’d hoped a lot of nonsense. And it hit me, that all these time, despite everything I’d still been fighting for her—and she’d, she’d called it long ago.”

“And suddenly I was terrified to be like her,” Christina said.

“You could never be like that,” Mary insisted, wiping impatiently at her eyes. “Never.”

“I know,” Christina returned. “It was like this flip switched and everything made sense. I couldn’t help it, comparing everything I was seeing with her with everything I knew I would see at this moment, when I would do the same thing on your doorstep.”

Matthew’s hand reflexively clutched at her shoulder.

“You’ve always been on my side,” Christina continued. “Even when you probably didn’t agree with what I was saying or doing.”

“That’s love, baby.”

“I’m sorry it took so long for me to figure it out. It took going home for me to believe it. Don’t get me wrong,” Christina said doggedly. “My mother loves me, and I think she loves me as much as she can, but there are limits to her love, and they’re shallow and unrelenting. And really, I think that says it all. She doesn’t have the capability to love like…well, like you. And I can fight that all I want, but at the end of the day, that’s the fact.”

“I’m sorry,” Mary said again.

Christina waved it away. “Don’t be. I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not. I can’t be afraid to err. But mostly, I can’t rewrite history.”

“No.”

Christina took a deep breath. Jason still hadn’t spoken. Looking up at him again took great effort, because what she would say next mattered most of all. But she did look at him. His eyelids seemed to flinch at the contact, but Christina only straightened her shoulders.

“I also realized that…that Jason, you were right.” At the words, Matthew and Mary exchanged glances. “You told me I was hiding behind my mistakes, not because I couldn’t forgive myself but because I wouldn’t.”

He inclined his head.

“…You said I wouldn’t forgive myself because I liked it that way. If I couldn’t let go of my past then I couldn’t let someone in again, and if I couldn’t do that, well then I couldn’t be hurt again by someone who was supposed to love me, and protect me.” Christina’s voice cracked a little. “I think I knew you were right even when you said the words.”

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-Seven

Saturday and Sunday saw Christina reaching reflexively for her phone, her fingers flying across the keyboard as she’d type out copious versions of: “I’m so sorry. I was a jerk. I miss you—” only to have each and every missive quickly deleted.

Her eyes grew dizzy staring down at Mary’s contact name. She wanted to reach out. She wanted to say something. But mostly, she wanted to know if she’d been right—if she’d be welcome come Monday afternoon. Faith was a hard thing to believe it, it turned out.

But there was something else, something she almost didn’t want to admit to herself. Because as much as she knew she needed to be the one who reached out first—after all, hadn’t she been the one to leave them, to lash out and run away? Still. She couldn’t help a small flicker of hope that seek her out, wonder what she was doing.

She knew it shouldn’t have, but it hurt, each hour that passed without so much as a by your leave. It felt so similar to four years ago…

“No. Banish the thought,” she could be heard telling herself.

They didn’t know she was back home. That was all. Otherwise, they would have called.

The only information they’d been able to glean was what they’d learned from Jackie, and admittedly Christina hadn’t told her much either.

It was at that reminder that finally Christina’s hand twitched, scrolling down to another name on her contact list. She had to call someone, talk to someone… It was Sunday afternoon by this point, and after going half-crazy at the mere idea of crashing Mary and Matthew’s home, after hours spent drafting and redrafting text message that she was never quite brave enough to send, she knew she needed some sort of distraction. So she called the only person who would understand. And who might unwittingly give her some reassurance.

“So you’re back.”

Sitting cross-legged on her couch, Christina pushed the phone more comfortably against her ear.

“Yeah.”

“Thank God,” Jackie sighed.

“Miss me?” Christina joked darkly. She looked around her darkened livingroom, the slight glare of passing headlights from a car going past splashed across one wall of the room.

“More like terrified you weren’t coming back.”

Christina rolled her eyes. “Ever the dramatic one.”

“You should have seen your face last Sunday.”

Christina swallowed the immediate retort on her tongue. “Yeah, sorry about that.”

“Everything OK?”

“I hope so.”

“Prevaricating again?”

Christina laughed at the irritation present in her usually chill friend. “No. No, at least. I’ll tell you all about it. Just, not now.”

Jackie made a noncommittal sound.

“How was work?”
If the question was unusual—and it most certainly was—Jackie didn’t make comment of it, at least not directly. She sighed. “So you’re still fighting with Mr. Gordman then.”

Christina sputtered. “What? No…”

“Clearly you are,” came the dry response. “Otherwise, you’d already know how work went.”

Rubbing one hand against the side of her forehead, Christina wondered if she hadn’t made a mistake after all, calling Jackie.

“You should have seen him this week,” Jackie went on to say. “He wouldn’t even hear of hiring a temp to do your work.”

Christina’s brow furrowed. “What? Why?” He always used a temp.

“He said that if you weren’t there, he’d just do it all himself. He didn’t trust anyone to do your job.”

“Oh please…”

“I’m serious. He stayed late every night, filling in for you.”

Christina made a face. “He probably put everything in wrong.”

“Probably.” There was the slightest hesitation on the other end of the phone. “What happened, Christina?”

Blowing out her breath, Christina shrugged. “I fell in love with the wrong guy.”

“With Jason, you mean?”

“Yes. No, I mean…” Christina sorted out her thoughts. “A long time ago I fell for the wrong guy.”

“Yeah,” Jackie said, her voice soft, understanding. “I sort of figured—”

“And then I took it out on the wrong guy.”

“Jason.” This time it wasn’t a question.

“And Matthew. And Mary.”

“So you’re hiding.”

“Pretty much.”

The phone was silent for a minute. “You sound better this week.”

“I feel better,” Christina said, and she knew it was true. She felt steady, sure of herself. Except… “I—Jackie, I said some pretty terrible things to them. All of them. Right before I left.” Her lips twisted painfully. “I’m not sure actually that they even want to hear from me.”

“I’ve never pegged you as a coward.”

Christina sat up with a jerk. “I’m not! I’m just, I’m trying to figure out what to do, how to make it up to them.”

“Do you remember what you said to me, when Max and I first starting dating and I realized I’d made a big mistake by pushing him away?”
“Not exactly…”

“Well, I do. You told me that all those grand gestures in romantic comedies—how had you put it, with the man standing there holding a rose as fireworks exploded in the sky and limousines did synchronized turns in the parking lot?—you told me that was all bullshit. That I should just be real.”

“I should be a motivation speaker,” Christina joked.

“You were right. So I called him that night and I just talked to him. I told him what I was feeling.”

Christina squirmed a little in her seat. It was always so easy, doling out the advice.

“Take your own council,” Jackie instructed then, as Christina knew she would.

“Right.” Christina looked longingly over at the chest to the right of her couch. Just thinking about going to the Gordman’s tomorrow had her tongue itching for a drink of whiskey….

“Look, no one likes to be the one who has to apologize.”

“It’s not that.”

“Then what is it?”

Christina wasn’t sure how much to share. It wasn’t in her nature. “What if it’s not enough? My apology?”
Jackie digested this for a moment. When she spoke next, her voice was challenging. “Well, then what will you have really lost?”

Christina pulled a face. “I’m not following…”

“It seems to me, if you do nothing, you’ve lost them anyway.”

 

 

 

Monday morning came with the blink of restless sleep. Groaning, Christina turned to her alarm clock. It was far too early…not quite five o’clock in the morning, but after half an hour spent tossing and turning, she gave up hope and lay there instead looking up at her ceiling. The pure whiteness of it offered a brilliant backdrop for her daydreams, which all consisted of her forthcoming confrontation.

She’d walk up to the house and before she could even knock, the door would be flung open and Mary, standing there with an apron tied around her waist, would run forward, throwing her arms around Jackie—

Half-strangled, wet laughter would float out of her mouth. Then she’d feel the weight of Matthew’s hand against her back, his voice in her ear as he’d whisper: “Glad to have you here.”

It was only when Mary finally pried herself away that Christina would spy Jason standing there, a little ways back.

“I’m sorry,” she’d mouth to him over Mary’s shoulder…and then, in an instant, she’d be in his arms, her mouth crushed under his—Mary and Matthew quietly giving them their privacy….

“Yeah right,” Christina muttered, throwing her blankets off and rolling out of bed. Shuffling to the bathroom, she put a firm hold on these dreams as she turned on the shower.

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-Six

Adjusting the headrest of her seat back, Christina wasn’t sure what was biting at her stomach harder—the simple feeling of travel anxiety or the dawning realization that, after almost a week in South Carolina, she was minutes away from liftoff—which meant she was mere hours away from Minneapolis.

Which meant Matthew and Mary.

Jason.

“God,” she whispered painfully, her eyes closing at the onslaught of fear, nerves, utter anticipation which kicked through her bloodstream at the thought. Again, she wasn’t entirely sure which emotion gripped her harder.

She was desperate to see them. To apologize, to look into their faces and know that they forgave her and that everything would be all right again…

“You old sap,” she muttered, buckling herself snugly into the place. To the wide-set man stuck beside her in seat 8B, she probably looked like a totally buffoon. She wasn’t in a frame of mind to care.

She was desperate to see the Gordman’s…and absolutely terrified. What is she was wrong? What if, like her mother, they couldn’t get past their disappointment? What if they were wrong, and they didn’t love her as much as they claimed? What if she was just deluding herself that they were different than Natalie? What if she was setting herself up for failure?

And then there was Jason.

“I wouldn’t blame him if he laughed right in my face,” she told herself, her fingers flipping angrily through the pages of the in-flight magazine. He’d accused her of playing it hot-and-cold. Wasn’t she about to prove him right? She’d all but sworn that she couldn’t have a relationship with him and…and know she was getting ready to throw herself at him. Total spaz move.

“God, you’re an idiot,” she realized, tossing the magazine down on her lap in disgust. “Why do you think he’d even care?”

A week spent with Natalie DeLuca had done something miraculous to Christina. It had opened her eyes to history. Or maybe it hadn’t been so miraculous after all. Maybe she’d always known, but this had just put it all into a tangible sort of expression. Sitting at the dinner table four of the last seven nights had forced her to see what her teenaged self had been unwilling to accept—

Natalie DeLuca loved no one as much as she loved herself.

She was a selfish woman—whereas most parents wanted their children to have better lives then they had, Natalie couldn’t have stomached the thought.

It’s not that she wanted Christina to have a bad life, but there was a limit to where her goodwill ended and her jealous began.

“Which is why she married dad,” Christina muttered to herself, but there was no anger in the accusation, no hurt or bruising.

Christina no longer wanted to fight for her mother’s affection. She no longer felt like she needed to. Natalie would always be Natalie—Christina couldn’t morph her into someone she wasn’t anymore than Natalie had been able to do with her daughter.

But that had never been a problem for Christina’s father, who lived to come home to his wife, who could always be found at dinner leaning eagerly across the dining room table, waiting for his beloved to tell some drawn-out story of her afternoon at the country club or latest fashion trip or whatnot.

He truly treasured her.

“He was happier to see her each evening than me,” Christina surmised, completely ignoring the stranger beside her. He, however, was staring with his jowl-jaw across the way at her. Any minute now, he’d be flagging down a flight attendant, asking politely to be transferred to another section of the plane. “And he hadn’t seen me in four years.”

Granted, John DeLuca had sounded absolutely bemused, stunned—half expecting a stranger’s voice, when he’d called her that first evening, after Natalie had informed him of their daughter’s unexpected return home. In fact, he’d been almost pathetically eager to see his daughter.

That had healed a lot of hurt.

But, much like Natalie, John didn’t love Christina most. As much as he glorified in seeing his daughter (how many times had he just reached out to touch her? To hug her in some way?) John had never counted the cost of losing her to Natalie.

He loved Natalie best.

He wanted Natalie to be happy (which, as it happened, was all that Natalie wanted to, so their marriage remained blissful after all these years…)

“It’s a strange thing, isn’t it?” Christina asked, turning abruptly now, to stare at the balding man squirming so blatantly beside her.

“Huh?” His voice squeaked in surprise.

Christina didn’t bother to explain. “It’s like, I don’t know, you hold all of these terrible memories in your mind. These things that happened and you can’t get over them until, I don’t know, until one day you go back in time, so to speak, and you realize,” she spread her arms out rather majestically. “You realize, there’s no point in being angry anymore. There’s no point replaying all that old shit. You can’t change people. You can’t change things. You can only accept ‘em and move on and…” Her voice petered out, her thoughts scrambling to make sense of all the emotions stemming through her body.

“And?”

Christina was vaguely surprised to see he was even bothering to listen to her. “And you finally understand that you can be worth more and still be willing to take less at the same time.”

Because that’s how she felt.

The stranger nodded slowly. “But why would you settle for less?”

She inclined her head a little to one side. “You wouldn’t, not unless you were getting all the rest from someplace else.”

Which brought her straight back to Matthew and Mary.

“And Jason,” she whispered.

“Who?”
Smiling half-apologetically, Christina waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, nothing. I’m sorry. I’m just babbling.” She threw him a long look. “It’s been one of those weeks. I’m still trying to process it all.”

He smiled encouragingly. “Well, it’s a long trip, if you need someone to talk to…”

And that, apparently, is all it took for Christina to turn toward her plane companion and tell him everything. Absolutely everything. From her affair with Bill to her anxiety with Jason to her blowup with Mary and Matthew.

Her travel companion—whose name she later learned was Gary—sat patiently while she let the story tremble loose and jumbled from her mouth. Her hands waved frenzied throughout the long, drawn-out tale. But alas, she came to an end.

Shrugging, she said: “…so, that’s why I decided to come back home.”

Gary nodded thoughtfully. “And it was successful?”

Christina started to speak and then stopped. She took a moment to consider before responding: “Yeah. I guess. I mean, my mom is always going to be who she is but…”

He waited.

“I think I’ve finally learned to accept that. I’ve learned to accept who she is. And she’s learned to accept me, too.”

“Ah.” He leaned back in his chair in a satisfied sort of way. Christina wished she could feel half so contented.

She shrugged impatiently. “So, yeah, I’ve gotten one thing accomplished at least.”

“And what’s next?” But she had a feeling he already knew what she’d say…

Christina half-laughed, her glance exasperated when it met his. “Pray Jason hasn’t given up on me.”

“You still doubt them?”
“Not Mary and Matthew.” She looked down at her lap. “But—Jason is different.”

“I see.”

“That is, I want Jason to love me differently. Oh, I know he’d always be there for me, if I needed him. But…”

“But you want more than that?”

She nodded. “And you know what? I think I may have had it. Once.”

He smiled, but there was something slightly sad about it. With a flick of his wrist, he looked down at the watch he wore. “Well, we land in less than twenty minutes.” There was something so pointed in those words, especially when he looked over at her, his eyebrows rising.

She stared back, nonplussed. “Yeah?”

He whistled, not bothering to answer her directly. “You can only delay the inevitable for so long.”

“That’s what I’m terrified of.”

He patted her hand. “I assure you, it’s more scary not knowing.”

She nodded. “I suppose…” and then, it hit her. A niggling notion at the back of her mind. Jerking herself upright, she blinked across the way at Gary. “Wait. What day is it?”

“Friday?”

“No, no,” she said, batting at the words as the thought morphed into a full-fledged idea. She was already hatching plans as she pulled up her phone’s calendar. “Hah!” Her fingernail tapped against the screen. Looking over at Gary, she shot him a dazzlingly smile. “Do you know what Monday is?”

“The 4th?”

“It’s Labor day.”

“Right.” But he didn’t look like he was following her.

“The Gordman’s never miss an opportunity to celebrate a holiday.”

“I see.” But clearly he didn’t.

“And I’ve never been allowed to miss spending it with them.”

Then his face cleared. “I see.”

Her face lightened. “Now I just need a reason.”

“Excuse me?”

“For showing up.” Her exasperation was perhaps a bit excessive, all things considered.

His wide forehead crinkled. “But I thought you just said…”

But Christina was busy scanning her work calendar, looking for any possible excuse for turning by their house unexpectedly. But there was nothing unusual on the schedule—no business trips or tax appointments, no budget meetings…. Her breath sagged out of her with defeat.

Then she felt Gary’s hand coming to rest against her forearm. Glancing up in surprise, she met a patient smile.

“Can I offer one piece of advice?”

She nodded slowly.

“As a man who’s been married almost fifteen years—don’t get distracted by flimsy excuses.”

“No, I won’t—”

“Because usually that’s when the greatest of intentions fall apart.”

Christina laughed softly at his knowing response. “You know this from experience?”

He winked. “You don’t stay married for long if you don’t pick up a few tips along the way.”

Just then the pilot’s fuzzy, disembodied voice came over the loudspeakers, informing the passengers of the approximate time, temperature, and estimation of arrival as they approached their destination.

Christina’s face cleared. Her fingertips reached forward, just brushing over Gary’s shoulder. “I—thank you, Gary. I’m sorry you got stuck with me,” she said amusedly, “but I’m so thankful you had nowhere else to go.”

He chuckled. “Now don’t go apologizing. I rather enjoyed the company.”

She inclined her head. “Thank you for saying that—even if you’re lying.” She wrinkled her nose. “You know, I never even asked your reason for flying?”

“Work conference.”

“God,” Christina made a face. “Now I feel like a complete ass.”

He raised one eyebrow.

“I didn’t even ask what you do for a living.”

He smirked. “I’m a psychologist.”

Her smile slipped. “You’re joking.”

“’Fraid not.”

She closed her eyes. “Please tell me I’m not going to be some case study?”
He really laughed then. “No, no. Nothing like that.”

She blew out a breath. “Well,” she said, with a sideways grin. “No wonder you’re such a good listener….”

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-Five

At first, Christina wasn’t sure she could have heard her mother correctly. But as the seconds ticked past with a sickening sort of silence, she felt lighthearted as the weight of what Natalie said finally sank through. Reaching the front door, she pressed against it for a moment, gathering her equilibrium. Twisting her neck, she stared across the kitchen, her eyes pleading for answers as they found her mother’s gaze.

“What?” she whispered.
But Natalie DeLuca wasn’t about to fall apart. Other than a simple shrug of her shoulders, she went on as though nothing explosive had been said. “Your phone—you switched providers or something.”

“You called me?”

Natalie made a face. “Well, don’t be childish! Of course I called you.”

Pushing off the door, Christina felt first one ankle and then another rotate toward her mother. “There’s no of course about it. I waited. For four months, I waited for you to reach out to me. You never did.”

Natalie’s eyes shimmied a little to Christina’s left. “It took me some time.”

“Time?”
“To come to grips with what you did.”

Christina’s breathing was harsh, so loud in her ears that she held up a hand to silence her mom. “When?”

Natalie sighed impatiently. “When what?”

“When did you call me mother!” Christina’s voice was insistent, her face pinching impatiently.

Natalie’s shoulders hitched up a little, her eyes still straying away from her daughter. One hand came down to play with a ring on her right hand. “It must have been sometime near December.”

Christina felt her chest constrict. Her heart pick up. “Nine months.”

“Give or take.”

“You waited nine months—nine months to contact me, to see if I was okay?” At the words, a little of Christian’s strength flooded back. Her shoulders straightened. “You waited nine months to decide I was worth a phone call—a measly phone call! Nine months.” The words tripped spasmodically out of her mouth. “Do you have any idea what it was like for me—out there all alone, terrified?”

Natalie’s hands clenched into fists. “You did that to yourself.”

Christina scoffed. “Of course I did. But still…”

Natalie’s voice hardened. “I need that time, Christina. To process what you’d done, to come to terms with the daughter I thought I knew, the daughter that had betrayed everything I believed in.”

Christina heard those words through a distance. Surprisingly, they no longer possessed the strength of that one long ago night.

Natalie’s voice continued. “I wasn’t in a frame of mind to, to—” her hands flapped about the air wildly as she fought to find the right words.

“To care about what happened to me.” There was no accusation in Christina’s voice, only a matter-of-fact answer.

Natalie’s eyelids flinched at the words. “Say what you want, but I did try.”

Christina nodded. “Only it was too late. I’d already changed phones.” Christina waited for a split second before adding: “Yeah, you tried. Only, you didn’t try that hard.”

Natalie stiffened noticeably. Her eyes narrowed to slits, her voice hissing in defense. “I did the best I could with what information I had.”

Christina smiled faintly. “Yeah? Well, it wasn’t enough. You didn’t love me enough.”

Natalie’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not sure what you—”

But Christina wasn’t finished talking. Her voice rose, cutting her mother off. “I know that now.” And suddenly, she did know it. There was something about coming back home, staring into the eyes of the mother she’d mourned for years that solidified it all for her.

She smiled whimsically. “For years, I thought I didn’t deserve to be loved. Because of what I did, because of what you and dad did to me. So I pushed people away. I kept them from getting too close.” Christina took a deep breath, her words quivering. “But then I met this family.”

Absently, she brushed aside a stray tear, her fingers cold against her skin there. “I met this family, and they wouldn’t stop pushing and prying until I let them in.” She smiled softly. “But even then, I would only allow so far. I never truly believed in their love. And I was just so damned afraid of losing them, like I’d lost you and dad. I refused to let them get close enough to hurt me.”

Natalie’s tan paled a little over the words.

“So I started pushing them back, pushing them away,” she realized. Her lips trembled. “But still they loved me.” Everything looked clearer from a distance somehow. Christina could see that now, how much Mary and Matthew loved her. How desperately they’d hurt for her. “Despite everything I said and did, no matter how much I fought it, they still only wanted to protect me. Me.”

After the things she’d said to them, the way she’d spoken, Mary’s first call had been to Jason, to tell him she was worried about Christina. And, according to a message left by Jackie that very afternoon, when she’d walked into Mr. Gordman’s office to deliver news of Christina’s absence, he’d only sighed at her bumbling explanation. “Tell her,” he’d said quietly. “Tell Christina she can take all the time she needs. We’ll be here when she gets back.”

She had almost missed it. All that love.

Natalie’s voice ripped Christina out of her revelations. “So I’m the monster—because I didn’t coddle you enough, I didn’t shield you from the consequences of your actions?” She nodded primly. “I see.”

“No,” Christina countered. “No, I didn’t say that.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“I’m saying that you were wrong. You and dad. You were wrong to cast me aside at the first sign of fault, as though I weren’t still your daughter, as though I weren’t hurting and scared; I’m saying you were wrong to wash your hands of me when I failed you—”

“You turned our world upside down!”

“Mine too,” Christian admitted. “And I paid for it. I paid for it for so long. Too long. Believing myself unworthy, measuring others’ love by the standards that you had set by me.” She sniffed. “I don’t know mom, maybe it’s too late for us, maybe the hurt here can never be healed….”

Christina took a deep breath, her voice shaking in the suffocating silence reverberating off her parent. “Because I look at you and all I see is your disappointment. Still. After all this time. I’m standing here in front of you, a half-forgotten child and that’s all I can read on your expression.”

Natalie’s eyebrows lifted.

“But I hope it’s not too late for them. For Mary and Matthew.” And Jason. God, she prayed it wasn’t too late for Jason. “I hope I didn’t ruin my chances with the only real family I’ve ever known—and all because I couldn’t reconcile the differences between them and my past.”

At last, Christina ran out of breath. Hell, she hardly knew what she was saying anymore, what the point of it all was. She only knew a feeling of cathartic joy as she heard the words, felt them pass through her lips, and knew the truth in their depth and heaviness. She wanted to keep repeating them.

She wasn’t afraid anymore. Mary and Matthew would be there when she got back home. They’d be there waiting for her. Despite her words, she knew she wasn’t too late. At least, not for them. Now, it only waited on Jason.

Her stomach pinched. Had his patience worn out? Had his interest waned in the midst of her self-prophesied drama? He’d waited a long time for her, what if the reality of her brokenness proved to be too muc—

Mentally throttling the thought, Christina gathered what little composure she had left. Jason would have to wait. She couldn’t afford the lack of dignity it would cost her to break down in front of her mother. Not now. Not after all she’d said.

Hefting her chin up to a haughty angle, she smiled not unkindly. “I won’t keep you any longer, mom. I know you have things to do yet tonight.” With a tremulous smile, she edged back toward the door yet again. But she was amazed at the strength she felt her legs, the grace she felt crawling its way up her spine. On that knowledge, she stopped halfway and with a zip of her finger, opened her purse. Digging through the contents, she pulled out a small business card. Two sidesteps took her to the kitchen table, where she laid it down with a pat of her hand.

Still, her mother didn’t speak. Pausing as she straightened back up, Christina glanced over her shoulder. Her mother still hadn’t moved—the only sign of change lay in the creases curving down her cheeks.

“It’s got my phone number on it,” Christina said, nodding toward the card. She was back at the door again. “For what it’s worth,” she added, her voice soft now, “it was nice to see you, mom.”

Pushing open the screen door, she was halfway over the threshold when she heard it. The words were so small, she almost missed them. “You look just like me. I’d always forgotten how much.”

Christina bit her lip, her legs stilling—that was as close to any capitulation as Natalie was bound to get. Tossing her head, she saw with some surprise that her mother had moved at last. Standing at head of the table, she held that business card in her tight grip. Her right index finger skimmed across the edges of it. “You won’t change it again?”

Christina didn’t have to ask what she meant. “You’ll call?”
Natalie didn’t lift her eyes from the stylish font on the cardstock. “I’m sure your father would love to see you.”

There was a short pause.

“I won’t change it.”

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-Four

It all looked the same. Parking her rental car safely to one side of the residential street, for a moment Christina didn’t get out of the car. Her eyes focused on the two-story brick home to her right. The same blossoming bushes adorned either side of the paved walkway leading up to the covered porch. She was pretty sure those were even the same cushions on the patio furniture, only slightly aged by the sun. The only thing different was the car parked in the driveway. Same manufacturer, new model.

It was only when she started to feel like an intruder—was that a neighbor’s blinds twitching just across the street?—that Christina slowly levered herself out of the car. Her hands clutched the sides of her purse as she looked up and down the empty roadway before crossing the street. Her legs trembled when she reached the short driveway, but her eyes never betrayed her trepidation. Instead, they stared straight ahead.

She hadn’t bothered to call and warn them. Hell, she wasn’t even sure what either of their phone numbers were anymore. And honestly, she’d been too afraid to find out they’d changed them—this would have somehow put to bed any half-smothered hope that they still cared, even a little bit.

More than that, she had been paralyzed by the fear that they’d tell her not to bother coming at all.

These thoughts took her to the front door; she was vaguely shocked she’d made it that far without being seen. Natalie DeLuca was not one to be taken by surprise. It would have suited her just fine to meet an unexpected visitor halfway up the drive, but when Christina gained the doorway, she was forced to ring the doorbell.

Oddly, that hurt worst of all. That this was no longer a home she could just enter without thought of her welcome.

Standing there, feeling the heat of the late afternoon sun, Christina counted slowly in her head, anything to distract her nerves. She was at four when she heard the sound of shuffling footsteps. At seven, the door before her swung open.

If Christina had hoped to surprise a look of amazement on her mother’s face, she was doomed to be disappointed. Other than a quickly stifled quiver over her harsh features that woman didn’t so much as blink at the sight of a daughter she hadn’t seen for almost five years—a daughter she’d all but given up on ever seeing again.

“Christina,” she said primly, her lips spreading out in a thin line.

Registering this lack of greeting, Christina tried to hold her temper. She really should have known better, anyway. What had she expected? That perhaps her mother had missed her as much as she’d been missed; that perhaps she’d regretted her daughter’s exile all these years—had she expected tears?

“Mother.”

At the terse exchange, neither of them spoke for a moment—the screen door still standing closed between them. Christina’s eyes were hidden behind her sunglasses, silently imploring Natalie to do something. To make a sound, to bite her lip, to burst through the doorway…but nothing happened.

After a few moments, Natalie’s only change in expression was that of a pointedly raised eyebrow. “Is that it?”

Christina blinked. “Excuse me?”

“Well? I assume you came here for a reason—or do you just intend to stand here all day? I’ve got things to do,” she said, waving absently behind her.

Despite herself, Christina heard a gurgled sob escape her tight throat. Clamping down hard, she swallowed past the rest of it. “You haven’t changed, I see.”

At the words, Natalie DeLuca crossed her arms over her chest. “I wasn’t the one who needed to.”

Christina nodded slowly. “Of course not.”

Natalie heaved a great sigh. “What do you want, Christina?”

Christina laughed humorlessly. “Honestly, I don’t know.” She sighed, one hand cradling her hairline. “I’m not sure why I came here. I thought—” She raised her arms impotently and then she let them fall again.

Natalie inclined her head. “You thought what?”
“I guess I thought you’d invite me in.”

“Oh for goodness’ sake…” With a long suffering sigh, Natalie pushed the door open. Stepping out the way, Christina watched her mother begrudgingly wave her forward. “But I don’t have all day. We’ve got plans tonight…”

Stepping inside the bright kitchen—same floral curtains at the windows, same oak cupboards with that same hideous ceramic cookie jar shaped like an apple on the counter—the laugh that burst out of Christina was filled with resentment, self-loathing. “And Natalie DeLuca doesn’t break her commitments.”

Her mother’s lip thinned. “Jokes, Christina?”

“No mom, just a long-lost daughter. Hardly of importance.”

Natalie’s back straightened at the words. “It was your choice to drop in like this.”

A sputtered laugh. “God! Of course—”

“You will not take the Lord’s name in vain in this house!”

But Christina didn’t hear her. Turning away, her arms crossing down at her hips, she took in the spotless countertops, the unadorned refrigerator door, anything to keep from staring at her mother. “I don’t know what the hell I expected coming here, anyway. I guess, that my presence would actually mean something to you. That it would be enough.”

“Ah,” Natalie said slowly, her tongue clicking against her teeth. “So now I’ve disappointed you?”

Christina shook her head. “I should be used to your indifference.”

“I see. So I was a terrible mother, then? Is that it? You threw dirt on our family name, forced your father to work alongside a man he learned to loathe, and all because, what? Because I didn’t hug you enough?”

“You never even checked in on me!” Christina said, hurtling the words at her mother and hating the hurt threading through them. With an impatient flick, she brushed back threatening tears. “In all these years—I could have been dead for all you knew, but that was hardly a concern. Not to you. After you threw me out, that was it.” Closing her eyes, Christina snapped her fingers. Then she said the words she’d dared to never say: “You never even called.”

With a sigh, she made a half turn, heading back the way she’d come. Her fingertips were just reaching for the door handle when she heard a small voice say: “Well, it would have been hard to do, when I didn’t have your number anymore.”

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-Three

Staring blankly down at her computer, Christina felt her right cheek twitch a little with feeling. Her eyes scanned over the information displayed on the bluish screen, her finger hovering over the print button—there it was, in black and white, a plane ticket to South Carolina.

A plane ticket to go back home.

“This is stupid,” she muttered to herself, her words slurring a little. Beside her, on the kitchen table, was the same bottle of whiskey she’d been drinking that fateful night when Jason had showed up outside her door. It seemed she was doomed to drink it in his honor. “You’ve already purchased the ticket. Just print the damn thing.” On the words, her finger did as commanded.

Tipping back another long swig of alcohol, she listened as her printer sputtered and coughed into life, the zip-zip of it as it slowly stained the paper with the airline company’s logo…

Technically, it was Sunday morning. 12:42 a.m. to be precise; which meant she would be boarding a plane to go back to a place she’d always sworn never to set foot in again, in less than twenty-four hours.

She giggled. Actually, she’d be leaving in less than fifteen hours. Thirteen hours and eighteen minutes. “Christ,” she muttered, rubbing her wrist over her mouth. “I should probably get some sleep.” But she didn’t move. Her thoughts just kept playing on repeat—those terrible moments echoing around her skull as she’d heard Mary’s concerns, the feel of Jason’s lips followed by the desperate cling of her own.

She hadn’t meant to buy a ticket. At least, not really. Well, kind of. The thing is, she’d considered the idea as she’d driven herself home, laughing a little hysterically over the mere notion, but then, as soon as she’d returned home, she found herself booting up her laptop, and then, well…

Jason was right. Mary was right. Christina knew it. She’d never really denied it, either. She was recreating her past, deliberately or otherwise. And she was doing it to protect herself, however twisted and demented that sounded. If she chose to keep people at a safe distance, they couldn’t hurt her. If she chose to keep a part of herself hidden, she could never feel lonely.

But she did feel lonely. And she was still hurt.

Snatching the ticket off the printer tray, Christina folded it carefully before placing the piece of paper in her purse. Just thinking about going home made her stomach churn (though, she supposed the alcohol may have had something do with that, as well).

She’d promised herself she’d never allow her mother the pleasure of kicking her off the premises again, of dismissing her daughter as though she didn’t exist, as though she wasn’t a scared kid who’d desperately needed a little grace. She’d promised she’d never put herself in a position to watch the triumph glint off those cold eyes when she watched her child crawl back home—

“You must really love him,” she whispered to herself, her eyes half-closed in her stupor, her hand reaching lazily for the bottle. “Or you’re an undiagnosed masochist.”

 

 

 

The next morning, her head buzzing somewhere between a hangover and a jangle of tense nerves, Christina carefully packed her suitcase. She made more than most private receptionists at Mr. Gordman’s, and with it she’d purchased herself a beautiful wardrobe. If there was one thing Christina never skimped on it was personal appearance. Her makeup was top of the line, and her clothing designer labels. Now, spreading them out across her bed, she deliberated: she wouldn’t be showing up on her mother’s porch in anything less than couture.

Finishing that task, she sat down at her computer and opened up a blank document. Her fingers trembled, but then what was that saying—in for a penny, in for a pound? So, sitting there, her back ramrod straight, she wrote one of the most difficult letters she’d ever forced her mind to conjure—and then she called Jackie.

It was on the third ring that the other girl answered the phone. “Hello?”
“Hey Jacks,” Christina said, using the nickname with a forced casualness that wasn’t lost on the younger woman.

“Hey—”

“I hope I didn’t catch you in the middle of something?”
“No. I was just sitting here…” which was exactly what Christina had been hoping to hear.

“Good. Actually, I’ve got a favor to ask of you.”

“Yeah?”

“Can you come over here?” Christina asked. She checked the wall clock hanging on an otherwise empty wall in her livingroom. “Like right now?”

“Uh, yeah,” Jackie said, her voice betraying confusion and more than a hint of hesitation. “Everything okay?”

“Five minutes?”
“Five? Jesus, you know I’m almost on the other side of the cities from you?”

“Ten then?”

A long sigh. “Ten it is.”And somehow, in between the Sunday morning traffic, Jackie managed to slip her car into park outside Christina’s home just shy of twelve. Christina had left the front door unlocked and slightly ajar. “Just come inside,” she’d to Jackie as that girl had been making her way gingerly up the walkway.

“All right. That’s it.” Stumbling just inside the long, narrow hallway at the entrance to Christina’s apartment, Jackie slipped off her shoes. Talking as she walked, she placed her hands on her hips as she called out: “What the hell’s going on?”

But when she advanced onto the living room and saw the stuffed suitcase sitting tidily off to one side, the humor lacing those words died instantly. Her eyes darted to where Christina could just be seen through the open doorway, carefully rearranging the chaos of clothes littering her bedroom.

Without bothering to ask, Jackie walked inside the room. “Christina?”

At the warning note in her voice, Christina dropped a now impossibly wrinkled shirt back onto her unmade bed. Her eyes were blot shot, her usually groomed hair sticking up in static patches, her skin almost translucent.

“I need you do to me a favor.”

“You already said that,” Jackie reminded her. Her eyes skipped over the bed. Shirts and skirts and whatnot swirled dizzyingly before her. It was so unlike the Christina she knew—ordered, precise—she could hardly take her eyes off the mess.

“I’m taking a trip.”

The left side of Jackie’s lip twitched. “Uh, yeah. I can see that.”

Christina moved restlessly. “Unfortunately, the trip came sort of…unexpectedly.”

“Okay.”

“And I didn’t have time to tell Mr. Gordman about it.”

Jackie’s eyes narrowed in confusion. Christina sounded guilty. “What do you mea—?”

“Typically, Mr. Gordman requires my vacation requests in advance,” Christina continued ruthlessly,  her hands picking up accessories only to drop them back on the bed. Her eyes stared somewhere above a sparkly belt and a corduroy hat.

Jackie nodded slowly. That was pretty common practice in every department at the company. “Okay,” she repeated.

“But as I said…there’s not been time.”

Jackie’s confusion on grew. “You can’t just call him?” Like she’d done with her? As close as Jackie and Christina were, it was nowhere near the level of familiarity that Christina shared with their boss. Both women knew it.

Christina absolutely would not meet that probing gaze. She flapped a hand dismissively. “Oh, you know how he is. I’d be grilled all day and night—” she laughed woodenly. “Force to check in every couple of minutes. I don’t have time for that.”

Jackie had the distinct feeling that Christina was lying to her. “Right.”

“Look, I wouldn’t normally ask you to do this, but it’s kind of an emergency.” If Christina didn’t do this now, she’d never have to courage again. Thrusting forward a slip of paper, she pressed it into Jackie’s hands. “I need you to give my request to Mr. Gordman tomorrow. Please apologize on my behalf. Explain the situation.”

“I don’t know the situation.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Christian said nonsensically. “He does.”

Jackie nodded. This was getting weirder and weirder. Christina could have easily emailed this to him. She could have just as easily called him as Jackie. She could have…

“And if he won’t accept that,” Christina said, her voice interrupting Jackie’s private thoughts. “Then please hand him this.” Holding out her hand, she held out a sealed envelope.

“What’s this?” Jackie asked, but she had a feeling she knew.

Christina shrugged. “My resignation.”

“Christina?”

The blonde didn’t answer, her hands going to fold up another article of clothing.

“Listen, you said this is an emergency,” Jackie reminded Christina, her voice coming too quickly. This was definitely off. Something was wrong. “He’s not going to require your—”

Christina head bobbed up sharply. “Just in case, okay?”

“In case what?” Jackie’s voice was elevated now, her arms reaching out to the sides. “Christina, what the hell is going on?”

“Nothing. Just…”

“Why didn’t you call Matthew?” Jackie asked. “The real answer this time. Why did you call me?”

Christina blinked down at her bed, her fingers robotically working on another shirt. “It’s not that kind of emergency.”

“What?” Jackie’s face contorted. “You’re not making any sense.”

“It doesn’t matter. Matthew will know.”

“So why give me this?” Jackie asked, waving the envelope between them.

“Because he might demand it.”

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-Two

Standing there in under the bright overhead lighting in the large open hallway of Jason’s home, Christina heard her voice—hoarse with unshed tears, tight with the knot of knowledge of what would come next, tell Jason everything she knew would end things between them:

“…I was young and stupid and he said everything I wanted to hear. Not that, I knew what I was doing. I did. He had a wife, children—”

            Her mouth shook so hard over the words she had to stop frequently and repeat herself.  For his part, Jason didn’t interrupt her, but his eyes showed his frank shock and discomfort as she continued:

“It went on for a while. Too long. Right there under everyone’s nose. Until, until one night at my parent’s home…”

            Her hands fluttered around her body, their movements growing more and more agitated as the story spilled out into the open, her sobs growing sporadically as she reached the conclusion:

“My parents kicked me out. They, they told me I was no daughter of theirs and…and you know what, that’s not even the worst part. I was okay with that. At first. I thought they’d come around once Bill and I showed them how serious we were…”

            And on and on she talked, the story bubbling, rambling out of her at odds and ends until she’d finally run out of story to share.

“So I moved here, got a job with your dad’s company and,” she shrugged, “well, you know everything else.” With bravado she was far from feeling, Christina brought her eyes back up to Jason’s face as she waited, her knees trembling, for him to speak.

Silence met the end of her story. Jason’s nostrils were flaring as though he were slightly out of breath. His forehead crinkled as he processed everything she’d just told him. And then, finally he held up a hand: “So, are you still in love with this guy, this Bill?”

It was the absolute last thing she’d expected to come out of his mouth.

“What?” She screeched. “No! What, how could you even possibly think that—”

Jason frowned. “Well, I’m not really sure what to think. Are you afraid that I have a secret wife in the background?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Christina snapped, brushing away at the tears trickling down into the side of her lips.

“Then what does that story have to do with us?”

Her eyebrows arched. “Were you listening to me?”

“Of course,” he said, and his tone gentled. “And I’m sorry that that happened to you—”

She dropped her eyes. “Don’t. Don’t be sorry on my account. I was no victim.”

“It doesn’t sound like it from here,” Jason assured her.

Slicing her hand through the air, Christina’s voice sharpened. “I’m not sure if you’re deliberately missing the point or what…”

Jason smiled sadly. “No, Christina. I’m not mocking you. But you’re right, I don’t understand. You made a mistake. You did a terrible thing. Terrible things happened to you as a consequence—and I am sorry about the way it all happened. But that was in the past…”

“Your mother is afraid that I’m going to recreate my past.” Her words fell hard and flat between them. And then, a small bubble of laughter rose in her throat. “And really, she’s probably right.”

Jason rubbed a hand against one side of his face. “Yeah?”

“I should have never let anything happen between us. It’s history repeating itself. My bosses son—pretty similar line to my father’s business partner, don’t you think? It’s a conflict of interest, something taboo.”

Jason’s lips twitched. “Don’t you think that’s a bit melodramatic?”
“Not at all.”

“I lost my parents’ respect. I lost everything because of what happened with Bill. I promised I would never do that with Mary and Matthew. I swore it.”

“Christ,” Jason said. “How many times do you need to hear them say that you don’t need their permission? That it’s our choice, not theirs?” His voice grew with his proclamations: “That they approve of our dating?”

“After tonight?” Christina asked.

Jason sobered up a little at the words. “Yeah, what happened tonight?”

“Your mother’s worried about you. She’s worried about you dating me.”

Jason’s eyes narrowed. “That wasn’t the impression I got when she called me ten minutes ago. She seemed worried about you.”

Christina sighed. “You honestly think, after everything I just told you, that nothing would change between us? That your impression of me would be the same as it was last night?”

Jason’s arms swung out widely at his side. “Yes. I do.” Pausing, he considered. “Except, I guess now I know a little more about why you’re so guarded.”

But Christina only shook her head. “Yeah, well your mom thought nothing would change between us, either. But tonight we both found out that wasn’t true.” She sucked in her lower lip. “You wouldn’t be able to help it—seeing me differently, worrying when I tell you I have to work late, or that I’m going out for drinks with the girls…”

“Ah,” Jason said knowingly. “So I’ll start to worry that you’re cheating on me, is that it?”

She smiled. “Maybe.”

“Because you’ve frequently cheated on your boyfriends?”
At the words, Christina squirmed a little bit. “No, technically I’ve never cheated on my boyfriends. But I was a cheater.”

Jason nodded slowly. “And that’s a life sentence?”

She laughed. It had a watery weakness to it. “You really think you could trust me now?”

Silence met her words. Jason’s eyes were shadowed with emotion, his lips thinned and his cheeks etched in concern. Never once had he tried to reach for her.

She nodded, resigned. “Yeah, I didn’t think—”

“No.” At the hardly uttered word, Christina froze.

“Excuse me?”

“This isn’t really about whether or not you ever had my parents approval or not,” Jason assured her. “Just as it’s not really about the affair you had when you were barely out of your teens.”

“No?” Christina felt some of her composure slip at the words. Her chin lifted a little. “Then what is it about?”

“You’re afraid. You’re the one who can’t, or won’t, trust others.”

She blinked.

“You’re not afraid you’ll recreate your past—at least, not in the way you’re trying so hard to convince everyone. You won’t cheat again. You can barely speak the words, they disgust you so much,” Jason assured her. His voice was low.

She loved the sound of those words. Her voice hardened at the thought. “Got me all figured out?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Jason assured her. He waved toward her general person. “I even know what you’re doing now—putting on that hard, cool persona to hide behind. But it doesn’t fool me. I’m not sure it ever did. You wear that prissy attitude like armor.”

Her eyes narrowed.

Jason took a step toward her. “It all boils down to the fact that you’re still hurt. Deeply hurt. Everyone in your life, everyone who was supposed to protect and love you, they left. The moment you made a mistake, the moment you showed yourself to be a young kid who’d done something wrong—with a man by the way, how took advantage of that innocence, the moment you made a mess, they turned their backs on you. Forever.”

Her lips quivered a little on the words, but she didn’t give him the pleasure of an answer.

“The only love you’ve ever known taught you about conditions, about terms and contracts. So that’s why you swore you’d never let what happened with your parents happen with Mary and Matthew, because you believed it could. And that’s why you hide behind your status as an adulterer, because it reminds you how fickle love can be, and it keeps you in check, doesn’t it? Never letting it go means you can never make another false move, ever again. So you cling tight to your past so you can keep this illusion of love you’ve created in response to all that pain, safe.”

Jason sighed. “But Christina, that’s not love. At least, it’s not all of it.”

Christina felt her stomach constrict. She felt her heart beating too quickly, erratically at the words, at how much she wanted to believe them. At how much she wanted to lean in and rest her head against his shoulder, let him take some of the weight hanging off her bones.

But old lessons died hard. And she knew, above all, that she could survive walking away from Jason. She could go on, walking away from his family. As long as it was her choice. The alternative—if she stayed and they left—it was unthinkable and it was the only thing she could think about. “It’s easy to say that now…”

At her words, Jason hung his head. It read with the look of defeat.

She kept her voice soft. “I know you think you mean it—”

His hands, down at his sides, clenched into fists. “I do mean it.”

“Yeah? Well, I lived it and I’m not so sure…”

“I’m not Bill.”

Christina went to reach out her hand toward him, but halfway there she let it drop back down to her side. “No. Never that.”

“Then stop comparing me to him. I’m not sending you away.”

“No,” she agreed, her mouth smiling tremulously. “Instead, I’m doing that for you.”

“Don’t.”

“I could say the same to you.” Christina whispered, her feet stepping backward until her back was at the door. Her hands reached behind her, grabbing for the doorknob. “Don’t watch me leave. Don’t wait for me to turn around. Just don’t.” With a twist of her wrist, she opened the door and, gentlemen that he was, though his face contorted with pain, Jason turned his head away as she slipped out the door.

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-One

Cranking the ignition over in her car, Christina could barely see through the blur of tears obstructing her vision as she pulled out of the Gordman’s driveway. Through her rearview mirror, she could see the front door opening, Mary spilling out on the walkway—

But Christina didn’t stop. What more was there to say, anyway? Turning out onto the street, she pressed her foot down too hard on the accelerator, her small car jumping a little with the force of her feelings.

At first, she wasn’t sure what she intended doing, where she intended going, but then she felt her fingers closing tightly over the steering wheel,  her nostrils flaring as the scent of approaching summer wafted through the open driver’s side window. It was probably best that she went home and collected herself, sorted everything out. But she wasn’t going to do that. No, instead, she was going to recreate her past.

“Well, who said Mary was wrong, anyway?” Christina muttered to herself, turning down one city-street and onto another. She’d only been there once before, and she hadn’t even allowed herself to go inside, instead insisting on waiting in the car while Mary had run inside to drop off some mail that had been delivered to their place by mistake. (How long ago had that been? Two years now.)

She’d only been there once, but she’d never forgotten the way. Parking somewhat crookedly on the street, she cut the engine of the car. For a moment, she just looked at it. Jason’s home. Two-story, white vinyl siding, attached garage, small yard. The lights were on in one of the downstairs windows. So he was home.

She wasn’t sure if she was glad of that or not.

With a jerk, she pulled down the visor to glance at her reflection in the small compact mirror attached on the back. With a frenzied sort of motion that stung the sensitive skin there, her fingers wiped for smudges of mascara underneath her eyes. Glancing at herself, Christina grimaced. Her cheeks were blotchy from tears, her eyes stained red. With a snap, she closed the visor, jerked out of her seatbelt, and felt her hand reach for the door handle—

It was perhaps the longest walk she’d ever made—longer even than that night when Bill had turned his back to her. Her feet stomped unsteadily across the empty street, her breath wrenching out her chest as she advanced upon the three short steps which would take her up on his small porch.

She had one foot on the bottom-most thread when the door opened ahead of her. Pausing at the unexpectedness of it—she’d sort of been counting on the element of surprise, Christina felt the impact of his gaze like a live thing. Tensing, for a moment she couldn’t move.

Half shadowed by the light spilling out from the room behind him, she could still see the look of mingled concern and confusion crossing his face as he watched her.

“Christina?” He asked. He was holding his cell phone in his right hand. “What’s going on?”

At the words, Christina moved. Like a shot, her feet tripped the rest of the way up the porch stairs. He knew. There was no preamble in his voice—no shock at her sudden, unannounced entrance.

His next words confirmed it. Half lifting the cell in his arm, he said: “I just got a call from my mom and she—”

But before he could finish his sentence, Christina had fetched up beside him. Shaking her head fiercely, she placed her hands on his shoulders. “Shhh,” she whispered unsteadily, pushing him gently back inside the house.

Blindly, he followed her lead until they were both standing inside the open hallway leading off from his kitchen. “Christina?”

She was still shaking her head. “I just want one last moment,” she whispered, and then her hands were reaching up around his neck. Pressing her body up tight to his, reveling in the flash of surprise she saw flicking in his gaze, Christina felt her fingers curl around the back of his head before she guided it closer to her own. “Just one last…please—” and then her lips were on his, her mouth twisting against his in a frenzy of emotion.

He didn’t resist. His hands cupped the sides of her hips, holding her steady as their tongues met under the heated exchange. Moaning at the instant pinch in her stomach, at that feeling she got whenever he got this close—like gravity had given away, Christian felt her legs brush up against his, her whole body tingling as his teeth pulled against her lower lip, his thumb brushing away the stray tears which had leaked out of her tightly closed eyes….

But then he was pulling away, his brows furrowing in consternation as he stared down at her. “What’s going on?” He asked, but this time there was no mistaking the authority in his voice, the demand for an answer.

Her lips trembled. Closing them tightly, she untangled herself from his arms. Shaking, she ran her fingers through her hair. “Jason…”

His voice threaded with a warning. “One last what?”

Her lips pursed to keep the sobs from filtering out of her mouth. Taking a deep breath, Christina moved another step back, her eyes glancing around Jason, but never looking quite at him. “This thing between us,” she muttered, her hand fluttering like a demented thing between them, “it’s not going to work. I can’t, I can’t do this.”

At the words, his eyes closed. A small crease worked its way between his brow line. But when he reopened them, Christina was taken aback by the angry radiating there.

“You know Christina,” he said, his voice low.  “This hot-and-cold thing that you do, it’s getting pretty fucking irritating.”

She sucked in a breath. “I’m not—”

“Yes. You are. You do it a lot. All the damn time, actually. Only I’m not interested in it anymore. I mean, what is it? The drama—do you thrive off it? I don’t get it.”

She could hardly blame him for that. She smiled sadly. “No. It’s not the drama.”

“Then what?”

She shrugged fatalistically. “Call it a defense mechanism.”

His eyes narrowed. “For what?”

She half-laughed. It had a raw, broken sound. “I suppose, to keep you from doing it to me first.”

He rolled his eyes. “You know what, I’m over that too.”

“Excuse me?” She sniffed

“This little game you seem to like playing, where you answer my questions with cryptic remarks but don’t actually tell me anything.” He took a slow, deep breath. “Talk to me.”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Goddammit, Christina!”

At the growl in his voice, she felt her eyes round. In all the years she’d known him, Christina wasn’t aware of ever hearing Jason raise his voice. Not to her. Not once.

“I’m not doing this with you anymore. Either talk or go.” With the palm of his hand, he gestured toward the door behind her. But despite the exasperation in his voice, she could see the hurt in his face, the uncertainty, and bewilderment.

So she made a choice. “Fine,” she conceded with a self-deprecating motion. If he thought he wanted to know, well, she’d show him how mistaken he would become. “If that’s the way you want it.”

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty

And so, dinner with Matthew and Mary turned out to be delightful. It wasn’t until the plates were all cleared away that the trouble began. Excusing herself from the table, on the plea of needing to use the restroom, Christina was told to rejoin Matthew and Mary in the den, where a second glass of scotch would be waiting for her.

Proceeding her into the room, Mary sat herself down carefully on the arm chair facing the large bay window overlooking the front sweep. Accepting a replenished glass of wine from her husband, she twirled the red contents slowly.

“I’m a bit worried,” she confessed to the room hesitantly.

Matthew, busy pouring his drink, stopped, tipping the bottle up as he glanced over at his wife. “About what?”

“About Christina.” She shook her head. “No, actually, that’s not true. I’m worried about Jason.”

Her husband frowned.

Mary spoke without his ever asking the question so clearly stamped across his face. “You don’t know about Christina’s past.” She considered her words carefully, her lips twisting a little. “But I do. And it’s, it’s dark and ugly.” She sucked in her bottom lip. “Painful.”

“Okay,” Matthew said slowly, picking up his drink to sit down opposite her.

Mary shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “It’s just…I don’t think she’s told him about it.”

“That’s her business,” Matthew said cautiously.

“Well,” Mary shook her head. “That’s just it, it’s something that I think he should know, something he deserves to know.”

“Why?”
“Because it…it affects him, however indirectly,” Mary said, thinking that Christina’s past would undoubtedly color her perception of romance. Speaking cryptically, because Mary was nothing if not a gossip, she continued: “It, well, it’s something that morphed her whole world. It shattered Christina, and I don’t think she’s even begun to heal from it. Certainly, she hasn’t been able to put it behind her.”

Matthew made a low sound. “And you think it’ll come between them?”
“I’m almost sure of it. We are a product of our past. Even if people do change, we take our baggage with us.” Mary made a sweeping gesture. “But what can I say? I can hardly tell Christina what to do—or how to be. I promised her that nothing would change between us; that I won’t think any differently of her, and I don’t. Really, I don’t. Only,” Mary sighed again, her words becoming as jumbled as her thoughts. “With everything going on between her and Jason….” She shrugged meaningfully, letting her sentence dangle in the air between them.

There was a beat of silence and then she added: “I don’t want him to get hurt. I don’t want either of them to get hurt.”

Matthew inclined his head. “It’s that bad?”

“People have a tendency to recreate their history. Especially when it’s left unresolved.”

“And you think she’ll do that.” It wasn’t a question.

“I think she already has, a little. It’s why she was so terrified to admit her feelings for him in the first place.”

“I see,” Matthew said.

“Knowing what I know, I’m concerned that…”

“That once a cheater, always a cheater?”
The hard, brittle question, coming from within the shadows of the doorway, had Mary spinning around, her glass dangling precariously in her hands. Echoing her movements, Matthew’s head turned sharply toward the sound, as well.

“Christina—No!”

 

 

Now it must be said that Christina DeLuca was not a woman known for listening in on others conversations. Indeed, she hadn’t meant to overhear Mary’s remarks, at all. But when she’d emerged from the bathroom, her stocking feet slipping soundlessly on the tiled flooring, she’d been unable to do anything else, as that woman’s voice had a tendency to carry.

Stilling at the ominous hum of conversation, Christina had hardly realized what she intended doing until she felt the cool metal of the doorknob pressing against her back. Huddled into the dark entryway, she leaned forward…and that’s when she’d known for sure that they were talking about her.

It shattered Christina….

            We are a product of our past.

            I can hardly tell Christina what to do—or how to be.

            People have a tendency to recreate their history. Especially when it’s left unresolved.

            Mary couldn’t have put it any plainer. She was troubled about Jason. No. Correction: she was troubled about her son dating someone like Christina.

            Standing there, shaking under the force of her feelings—the shock of realizing she’d been right all along, that she had lost the Gordman’s as surely as she’d lost her parents all those years ago once the truth had come out…. Thinking it over later, she figured that was what had spurred her on—because at that point she knew there was no going back. Things would never be the same. She’d lost the second only family she’d ever known.

Even if she ended things with Jason, her relationship with Mary and Matthew would be beyond repair. And really, what possibility did she and Jason have, if this was the kind of reception they could receive? She was double damned.

It was just like four years ago. Everything was gone, in a puff of smoke, in less than two minutes. Only this time, squaring her shoulders, her chin lifting up a notch, Christina found a strength she hadn’t possessed with her parents. This time, she wasn’t going to run off into the night without defending herself, this time she wasn’t going to leave quietly.

This time she would have her say.

Pushing herself forward, though her legs threatened to collapse under her insignificant weight, Christina heard her voice carry out in the dim room with a surprising coolness.

“That once a cheater, always a cheater?”

She barely heard Mary’s instinctive denial. Laughing roughly, she shook her head. “As you said, we are a product of our past….”

Mary’s lips trembled. She could see them quivering from clear across the room. “Christina, I’m not sure what you heard—”

“Only the things you just said yourself,” Christina assured her, nodding grimly.

“That’s not what I meant,” Mary insisted, and she did look truly upset. Setting her wine glass anyhow on the table beside her, she got to her feet. Her arms were held out in front of her, the epitomical gesture of surrender. “Christina, wait, let me explain—”

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” Christina insisted. “I do believe I got the gist of it.”

“Now that’s enough,” Matthew interrupted. “I won’t have you talk to my wife in that tone of voice.”

Christina felt her lips tremble.

“Don’t you dare yell at her, Matthew,” Mary said, turning on her husband. “She has every right to talk to me however she wishes! I deserve it anyway.” Turning back to Christina, her eyes widened pleadingly. “Christina, I’m sorry for what you think you heard just now—”

“You mean I misunderstood you when you said you feared I’d recreate my past?”

There was the slightest pause and then: “No,” Mary admitted. “You didn’t misunderstand me. But I think you misunderstood why I’m concerned. Christina, you’ve bottle this up inside of you for so long, and I’m afraid that if you don’t let it out if you don’t talk about it and let others in, you’ll never truly heal from what happened.”

“Talk about it?” Christina’s voice was incredulous. Her arms opened wide.

“To Jason,” Mary clarified. “If you keep pushing this hurt down inside of you, holding onto it like a secret, it’ll fester and taint everything around you…”

Christina nodded woodenly. “I see.”
“Sweetheart, you’re heartbreak is as real today as I can only assume it was all those years ago. So what you’ve been doing—shutting everything up inside of you, pretending it didn’t happen…it’s not working. If you can’t learn how to move past what happened…well, how can you and Jason truly make something of your feelings? It’ll always be there between you—only he won’t know it, he won’t be able to help you confront it. And you won’t ever be free from your mistakes. You’ll punish yourself with him.”

“Oh, so talking about it, that’s what’ll help?” Christina almost spat out the words. “That’s rich, Mary since you’re the only person I’ve ever spoken to about it, and here you are, throwing it between us.”

“No. Honey, no that’s not what I’m doing!”

“No? That’s what it sounds like to me. Now that you know what happened, you don’t want Jason involved with me.”

Mary gasped. “Christina! How could you think that!”

She shrugged fatalistically. “I can hardly say I blame you. After all, I more-or-less saw this coming.” Christina pursed her lips. “But for you to stand there all holier-than-thou and talk to me about honesty when you’ve been lying to me for weeks now?”

Unbidden tears clogged at her throat, half-drowning the last of her words.

“I haven’t!” Mary insisted. “Christina, that’s not true.”

“Maybe not,” Christina consented. “But with my checkered past, you don’t think I’m a good fit for Jason anymore, either.”

“You’re upset,” Mary said, her voice changing on the wings of a new tact. “I understand that. I shouldn’t have spoken when you weren’t in the room. That was unpardonable of me.”

“You want to know why I, what’s the wording you used, shut everything up inside of me?” Christina asked, her voice almost conversationally. She even smiled. “Because this is always going to be the last conversation I’ll have.”

“The last?”
“The goodbye scene.”

“Ah, the self-fulfilling prophecy then?” Matthew said quietly, but neither woman gave him much notice.

“We,” Mary insisted, her arm waving between herself and Christina. “We will never say goodbye. That’s the last thing I will ever accept from you. In fact, that’s my entire point. I want things to work out with you and Jason. I’m rooting for the two of you. I always have been. That’s why I said what I did just now. Because I’m afraid—”

“There’s that word again,” Christina muttered.

“If you can’t let go of what they did, if you can’t believe that Jason would react differently, if you can’t believe that I still love you… ”She took another step toward Christina. “That’s what breaks my heart. Not what happened. I told you, I don’t care about what happened. I only care about how you handle it now.”

“And with whom.”

Mary’s head hung in defeat. “Yes. And with whom.”

Christina wrinkled her nose. “So I guess you were wrong, after all.”

“Excuse me?” Mary asked, but she sounded exhausted suddenly.

“I did need your permission to date Jason. And by the looks of it, I don’t have it.” On that note, she turned for the door. It an ominous, damning sort of silence that greeted her words as she stalked to the door. It was only as she pulled it upon that she uttered: “Of course, you’re probably right. Haven’t I known that all along?”