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Jack heard his cell phone start up when he was partway through the slow, careful process of getting dressed. It was sitting downstairs on the coffee table where he'd left it the night before. Shirtless, barefoot and cursing, he took the stairs too fast, swung around the banister post on the landing halfway down and bumped his shoulder into the opposite wall, which meant that the half-healed wound in his left side was screaming at him by the time he picked up the phone.
T-shirt balled in his free hand and lopsided with pain, he heard Terri's voice. He'd been expecting her call. Had thought about it when he'd lain awake in the night, unable to get back to sleep.
"Sorry, did I get you out of bed?" she cooed at him, and he caught the veiled put-down like a pro baseball player catching a kid's practice throw.
Yeah, Terri, okay, I get it, you think I'm lazy. It was seven-thirty on a New Jersey Monday morning. Terri's new husband, Jay, arose at six every day, went to the gym for an hour, ate a power breakfast and still managed to make a couple of billion dollars by lunch.
"Out of the shower," he told her, after a silence that lasted a fraction too long. His side was still burning and he couldn't be bothered attempting to change what his ex-wife thought of him.
What she thought of him had become pretty clear during the process of their divorce.
The only thing that mattered in their relationship anymore was Ryan, and he mattered down to the marrow of Jack's bones. Ryan came first.
He took some cautious breaths and paced up and down the splintered old hardwood floor, willing the pain to ebb. What had he done in there? Ripped open his stitches? Did the agony show in his voice?
Terri knew that he'd just come out of the hospital, but he'd played the whole thing down when he'd told her what had happened. She no longer considered straight-talking cops to be heroes. Wall Street pirates with fat bank accounts and a polished line in doublespeak were the real he-men, as far as she was concerned.
She hadn't been like this when they were first married at age twenty, fourteen years ago. He'd never seen this side of her back then, when they were so young. Deciding that she didn't love him anymore seemed to have given her the license to fight as dirty as she could, and it set his teeth on edge.
"Did you and Jay have your meeting?" he asked.
"Family council," Terri corrected quickly, as if the distinction was important.
Jack thought it was typical of Jay Kruger that he ran his new family the same way he ran his corporate take-overs, complete with meetings and agendas and power plays, but Terri didn't want to see things this way.
He waited. He wasn't going to dutifully echo the words family council just to ease her conscience. Nor was he going to let on how emotional he felt about the possible outcome.
"Yes, we had it " she said, letting her sentence trail off enticingly.
Jack clenched his jaw. He knew this routine. She wanted him to wait and beg. It was like those pointless thirty-second pauses on reality TV shows before they announced the winner or loser's name. Did his ex really think he didn't see the emotional manipulation?
"Cut to the chase, Terri," he growled at her.
"The chase? I'm not sure that I like what you're implying, Jack. This is not a game."
"I know it's not."
"These are incredibly serious issues."
"I know they're serious issues. Tell me what you and Jay decided."
"See, and I hate to hear you sounding so aggressive. It makes me wonder if I've made the right decision after all "
His heart leaped. The right decision. Did she mean ? "Please tell me straight, and don't keep me dangling." There. She had him begging, the way she wanted. "What decision have you made?"
"I'm getting to that." Her voice pointedly soothed his impatience. "But you need to know the process we went through first. This was not decided lightly, Jack." She gave him several minutes on the nonlightness of the process, her feelings, her priorities, and yet another rehash of how she'd never wanted to hurt him, then finished, "And we feel that the most important issue in all of this, Jack, in all of this," she repeated, in case he thought she meant only forty-three percent of it, "has to be Ryan's well-being."
She spoke as if generously sharing a profound new insight. In reality, Jack himself had been making the same point to her for almost three years, as clear and direct as he could, and was never heard. He'd dealt with stalling and manipulation and outright lies. Only six months ago had he resorted to the threat of going to court. "We feel it's not in his best interests to drag him through a court proceeding," she went on.
Noooo, he thought sourly. Really? Not in Ryan's best interests? How perceptive and profound! He never would have thought to consider the issue of Ryan's well-being!
From somewhere nearby there came the sound of a car door slamming, followed by metallic clunkings, and Jack struggled to hear his ex's voice. " and Jay also wants to pay tribute to your desire to remain involved in Ryan's life."
Pay tribute to his desire to remain involved? Was she reading from a script?
"Okay " Jack said cautiously. The pain in his left side still throbbed, although it had begun to ease. He waited for the other shoe to drop.
"So we've decided to give you what you want," Terri said, and despite that little teaser from her about "the right decision" a couple of minutes ago, he almost didn't believe what he was hearing.
Give him what he wanted?
Just like that?
There had to be a catch! "Ryan can spend every second weekend with you," she announced. "Friday afternoon through Sunday evening, and three midweek nights, Monday through Wednesday, of every second week."
Okay, so there was a catch. Five nights out of fourteen, split into two separate packages, when Jack had wanted seven nights in a row. Ryan didn't need an extra session of packing pajamas and homework and going back and forth.
Still it was so much better than he'd expected.
So much betterenough that he wouldn't push for the seven consecutive nights.
Real, genuine day-to-day time with his nine-year-old son, and no battles to fight along the way. They could start the new arrangement immediately. He had seriously thought that Terri would hold firm on the current grudging one weekend in four unless he took her to court, and he'd been so torn about what was best for Ryan. He'd tried so hard not to let things get too ugly between himself and Terri, for their son's sake.
Ah, hell hell
This was really, really good.
On top of the pain in his side and last night's sleeplessness and bad dreams, the news had him battling his emotions, desperately trying to keep them at bay. He felt his throat tighten, felt the physical wash of relief that made his legs go weak. His eyes began to sting.
He was not going to give in to this! The police counselor kept telling him he was bottling things up, that something would have to give, and that it wouldn't be pretty. She was probably right, but he was not going to pop the cork on that bottle now, in front of his ex on the phone.
With the effort of keeping himself in check, he tightened his stomach muscles, and the pain gave another sharp rip at his guts.
"That's good, Terri, that's great," he managed, heading for the kitchen.
He just needed a glass of water, to loosen up this lump in his throat.
In that direction, he heard a door open, and a clatter.
"But we'll need to work out the exact details " His ex-wife's tone gave out a warning, like a parent saying, You have to do your homework first.
"Of course." The emotion pushed harder into his chest, and the pain knifed his side. What had he done to himself, coming down those stairs? The doctor had said he was very happy with the way the injury had been healing since the surgery.
"I'll pick him up from school Thursdays because he has violin," Terri was saying.
"I can take him to violin," Jack managed to answer.
"Well, no, because I need to take notes from his teacher on his practice schedule," she explained, as if such a task was quite beyond Jack's abilities.
"Let's talk later, okay?" he said, through teeth clenched from the pain in his side.
"I guess you need to get dressed "
"Something like that." He disconnected the call and rounded the corner into the kitchen, intending to lean over the sink and just pant and gasp and swear and groan for a while maybe let the cork out of that bottle as soon as he'd safely put down the phone. But there was a strange woman standing there with a dilapidated toolbox open on his equally dilapidated kitchen table, and the sight of each other brought both of them up short.
She dropped something back in the toolbox with a metallic clatter, gave a loud, startled squeak and clamped a fist over her heart. "Oh. Didn't hear you!"
Jack gulped back the jagged rock in his throat, dropped the phone onto the kitchen bench and said, "Uh, hi."
Why was there a woman in his kitchen? She had goose bumps on her bare arms and an aura of energy in every limb, and he was confused.
This should be Cormack O'Brien, here to begin work on the kitchen and bathroom remodeling, not this curvy little thing, underdressed for early April in a red cotton T-shirt and blue denim shorts. She had dangling red earrings that swung back and forth when she moved her head, dark curly hair, brown eyes and tanned skin. She also had an alarmed look getting stronger on her face, and he did not want her here to witness to witness
With a heroic effort, he tightened every muscle in his body, shook out his T-shirt ready to put it on, and managed to look just as if he was okay.
"You're Jack," Carmen said, taking a large step backward, for safety's sake, her heart beating a little too fast as she looked at the new arrival in the kitchen.
She really, really hoped this man was Jack, shirtless owner of the house, because she wasn't convinced she could tackle him to the ground and put a knee in his back if he was an unwanted intruder. He was tall and strong, and with that bare chest, knotted arm muscles and a crumpled garment dangling from a tight fist, he looked wound up and ready to snap.
"I'm Carmen O'Brien, Cormack's sister," she continued quickly. "The other C in C&C Renovations. Cormack is sick and can't work today."
Although she was the one making explanations, Jack Davey looked like the one who thought he didn't belong. "Right," he said. "Right."
"And you're Jack." She managed to avoid making it a question.
"Yes, that's right." He lowered the T-shirt or rag or whatever it was. He was only half-dressed. His feet were bare, and the snap on his ancient jeans was undone. couple of days. He had cool gray eyes with little crinkles at the corners that she wanted to trust. The crinkles had to say something good about his smile. But he looked so far from smiling right at this moment, he scared her.
With the T-shirt out of the way, she saw the red slash of a barely healed wound slicing across his tanned rib cage, which maybe explained the scary vibes. She wondered what on earth he'd done to himself. Heart surgery? Was that why he looked so serious and struggling and grim?
"I'm sorry about this," he said through a tight jaw. She saw his throat work and his body spasmed. "Side's hurting a bit."
"Oh, of course, it looks nasty."
"I'm sorry," he said again.
"No, no, it's fine. I'm not who you were expecting. I mean, I guess we startled each other." She hadn't been expecting a half-naked, freshly scarred, well-built, thirtysomething man who looked like a bomb about to go off, here to greet her this morning.
"You need to get to work. I'll, uh "
"No rush. Although it would help me to warm up a bit." She tried a grin as she rubbed the goose bumps on her arms. "I'm dressed for working hard in the middle of the day, not standing around doing nothing early in the morning."
He nodded vaguely, and looked past her, toward the sink. What was wrong with him? "Um, are you okay?" she tried.
"Fine. I'm fine."
It was such a lie, he could barely get the words out, poor guy. His face was so tight, and his gray eyes were like slits, he'd narrowed them so much. She gentled her voice and told him, "No, you're not."
And then it happened. His stomach began to heave. He pressed the shirt to his face. His shoulders shook. Sounds broke from his mouth.
He was crying.
Crying, with great, deep, scratchy, painful and achingly poignant sounds, and fifteen years of family grief and struggle had taught Carmen an instinctive response that came without her even thinking about it. She stepped close to him, took a hold of his big, warm body and let him sob his heart out in her arms.