Open Wounds

ch 18 Open Wounds

Open Wounds

Being Thalia

Chapter 18

By avenger-nerd-mom & devikafernando

AU Fan Fiction

In the sequel to Educating Thalia, the lovely Thalia Bareo is growing up, making her own way in the world after losing both men she loved, Professors Chris Evans and Tom Hiddleston. The sassy full-figured Puerto Rican girl from Chicago holds down a job in Madrid as she tries to deal with the real world. She continues her studies and freelances as a consultant for museums around the world. Being Thalia updates are posted on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Warning: As a whole, this work contains adult content. If you proceed you have agreed that you are willing to see such content. Each chapter will not be coded with individual warnings. The overall story contains no hidden triggers.

If you are new to the series and characters, click here to the beginning of Educating Thalia.

If you are looking for other stories in the sequel, click here for the beginning of Being Thalia

Word Count: 4518

Summary: A chance encounter with Tom opens up old wounds and leads to new ones.

Previous Chapter, Girls’ Night

September 2021

Two days later, she’s made no effort to contact Tom, and he’s been wise enough to give her space. Smart man, Thalia thinks, looking down at her phone to adjust the volume. A quick tempo song fills her ears and the sounds of the park fade away as she matches her walking pace to the beat of the music.

She loves it here at El Retiro. It may be one of the largest parks in Madrid, but it has this strange sense of familiarity and cosy corners to it. Sure, there’s a grandeur hinting at the fact that it belonged to the Spanish royalty until the late 19th century, but nothing here wants to overwhelm or look overly neat. Thalia likes its proximity to the Prado and that there is so much art and history mixed in with nature. The Fountain of the Fallen Angel is one of her favorite spots in the park. Her nerdy side also appreciates the galleries, monuments and sculptures. And then there’s the Retiro Pond, a peaceful lake. She’s never rented one of the rowboats before, but she’s spent many a happy hour watching puppet shows, looking at handmade trinkets and listening to open-air concerts.

She gazes at the Cristal Palace with its domed roof and shiny surfaces with a fond smile. As she rounds the corner in the sidewalk, just beyond the bushes blocking the path, she spies a familiar sight. Shit. In a park as huge as 350 acres, their paths would cross. Now there’s no way to avoid him.

Rolling her eyes, Thalia pulls the earbuds out of her ears. Offering no greeting, she calls out, “How on earth can you have the same fitness clothes after all these years?”

Tom turns and brightens when he sees her face. Screwing the cap back on his water bottle, he bounces on his feet. “You know I usually buy two of an item if it’s something I like. These have no holes!” He proudly announces as he drops his hands down, displaying his clothing like a fashion show.

She nods and keeps walking. He falls into step next to her and she closes her eyes briefly to block out the image of the large bulge in his pants. How can that man run and not wear more protective gear? Jesus fuckin’ Christ.

“I didn’t expect to find you here,” Tom says, stabilizing his breathing after his run. He’s using the slower walk to stretch a bit and she tries–and fails–not to stare at the muscles straining beneath his sweat-soaked clothes. “I remember now, I saw you in the gym in London. Have you taken up exercising, Thalia?”

Reaching up and pulling her ponytail tight, she scoffs. “I’d hardly call it that, but I suppose. I try to walk a few miles every couple of days, and I lift weights at the gym some. I’m by no means a fitness buff, not like you, or Chris.” She says his name, not missing a beat, but she doesn’t fail to notice the step back Tom makes, as though beaten just by a name. She continues, “This is my shape, I’ve learned to live with it.” She avoids his inquisitive stare, feeling his eyes roaming over her curves, despite his hurt ego at the mention of another. “It’s not a great one, but I can try to keep it fit.”

“It works for you, Thalia. You wouldn’t be the same person if you looked like…” He points to a group ahead, wearing tight yoga pants and sports bras, girls who looked like they needed to eat. “Like them… There’s something appealing to a man, knowing a woman enjoys the riches of life, knowing he can have his way and she can take every toss and tumble.”

Thalia freezes in her path and it’s a few steps before Tom realizes she’s not next to him.

“What?” he asks, turning back to look at her.

As if he doesn’t know. “For fuck’s sake, man, is everything ‘sex’ with you?” She raises her hands, and slaps them back down against her plump thighs. “Was that all I was, a rowdy fuck, cause I could handle your kinky shit?” She blushes as the mother pushing a stroller with toddler twins rushes past. Tom stares at her dumbfounded. “Cause you couldn’t ‘break’ me? Cuz, listen asshole, you broke me, alright? You broke me.”

Spinning on her heels, she turns to walk away, pushing through a group of runners on the path. Just get away before the tears start, please. It’s all she can hear pounding in her head when his hand grasps around her wrist.

Twirling her back to him, his hands tangle in the sweaty hair at the base of her neck, gripping her tightly. “Thalia, darling, if I ever made you feel like an easy fuck, like it was nothing but sex to me, in all the time I have known you, then I am a poor excuse for a man.” He tugs on her neck. “Look at me, dammit. Look me in the eye. Hear my words. I love you with the power of a thousand men. I would fight for you till my dying breath. You are the goddess I worship.” His grasp loosens as his hand slides over her shoulder and down her arms, taking her hand as he drops to his knee. “I kneel before you, my princess.”

Through tears, she shakes her head, laughing at the image of him kneeling at her battered tennis shoes. Part of her wants to cling to her righteous anger, to the distance she’s created between them to protect herself. It wants to lash out at him that being theatrical and spouting declarations worthy of Shakespeare won’t heal a sometimes still bleeding wound. But she can hear and see the sincerity behind his words, and it would feel cruel to dismiss him completely.

“You old fool.” She tugs on his hand, pulling him up to her side. “Get up before someone thinks you’re proposing to me.”

“Maybe I should… Maybe I should have long ago,” he admits, kissing the top of her head.

She slaps his chest, pushing him back a step. Angrily, she wipes away a tear, dirt streaking her face. “Your damn words. You can’t come back here and think you can sweep me off my feet, Tom. I’m not the same person.”

He laughs, a rich sound echoing among the trees, falling forward slightly and placing his hands on his hips. “Oh, I can see that, Thalia. You’ve become a cold-hearted bitch, ruined by love rather than lifted up by it, and it’s time to thaw you out a bit.”

“You can’t say that! You don’t know what I’ve been through-” She charges towards him, closing her fist and dropping it at her side, though really she wants to slap him.

“Yes, I can darling, because you remind me of me. Me before I met you… Before you showed me what it meant to be truly loved and cared for…” He pauses, running the back of his hand over his sweaty forehead, pushing back his long, damp curls. “Ah, yes, I remember a quote, I believe from a poem, “mi corazón fue destrozado hasta quedar irreconocible.” He tugs down on his shirt, the smirk evident he’s proud of his Spanish and his elephant-like memory. “Even then, years ago, back at university, I never let you truly in because I was scared of it all. I didn’t know my own heart, as the poem says, it was unrecognizable. And you’re right, I was an old fool. And now I literally am… Older than I was when we first met… I almost let you get away. I won’t let it happen again, Thalia. It would kill me. That much I know.”

She looks around, realizing their shouts and display have caused a small crowd to gather nearby. Her shoulders drop. She admits her defeat. “I don’t know if I can do it again, Tom. I know it will break me. I’ve seen it happen… I know what I’m capable of… I can’t, Tom, I can’t let you hurt me again. I’d rather be alone, and try to preserve our memories, than to fail with you again.” She steps towards him and rests her hand on his chest. “You have to, you have to let me go.”

She pushes off and walks away, reaching over her shoulder and flipping him off when he calls out, “I’ll pick you up at eight, for dinner. Be ready.”

***

His shoes click down the walkway, and he smiles down at his familiar gray suede shoes. He chuckles, remembering her comment from earlier. He pushes his sweater sleeves up, looking at his watch. Hell, he probably does look like a time warp, wearing some of his standards from years gone by. Eight pm. On the dot. He knocks on the door.

Tom listens to the chain slide across and his heart pounds in his ears, waiting to see her again. Although all they’ve done is fight, and she’s ignored him, it’s still been a pleasant to trip to Madrid. Just being in the same city with her fills him with hope-

The door flies open. “I’m not going anywhere with you. I thought I made that clear.”

Looking her up and down, Tom chuckles. “At least you’re dressed.” He steps inside, uninvited, and she retreats. “I half expected you to be in a state of undress, ratty old pajamas or your ‘shark week, don’t touch me’ uniform.”

Thalia rolls her eyes, but he can see the vein in her neck, pulsing, her eyes with a slight glaze to them. “I’m not playing games, Tom. This is not me playing hard to get.”

He turns quickly, stepping behind her. “Oh, I know you’re not. You’re behaving like a petulant child. I have half a mind to put you over my knee.”

Tom pushes her gently from behind, out the door, bending to grab a pair of her shoes by the entrance.

In the hall, she stomps her bare feet, reaching for the door as he slams it shut. “My keys!”

With his back to her, he hides his grimace. He turns the knob. Locked. He looks at her sheepishly, over his shoulder. “I didn’t mean for that to happen.” He pivots to face her. “I am truly sorry about that, but I guess you’ll have to go to dinner with me now while we wait for a locksmith.”

She silently seethes. “Dammit, Tom, why can’t you just take ‘no’ for an answer?”

He hands over her shoes, hiding a smile when she bends to slide them on, her fight slightly abating. “You won’t like my answer to that, darling.” He brushes dirt from the shoes off his hands. “Have a spare?”

“Yeah. In my purse, which is in the house, too, you idiot.” She ignores his comment about not liking his answer. “You’re not going to leave me alone until we go out, so let’s go. Get it over with. Where are we going?”

Tom steps back, eyeing her appearance under the pale porch light. An old pair of university sweatpants and a t-shirt with a slogan written in a language he doesn’t recognize. She’s making things more difficult than they need to be, but she’s forgotten a relaxed, Sunday morning style was always one of his favorites, next to dressed to the nines, or absolutely nothing at all. “Well, darling, given your appearance, I suggest someplace dark. Don’t want to scare the kiddies,” he laughs.

“Fuck you,” she laughs back, running her hands through her hair and pulling it into a low knot, twisting an elastic band around it to hold it in place. An errant curl, one that never seems to do what she wants, pops free and hangs in her face. Fighting the urge to tuck it back, he shoves his hands into the pockets of his well worn jeans. “There’s some food trucks out this time of night, just around the corner.”

He shrugs. “Whatever you want, Thalia… Or we could get a ride back to my hotel? The restaurant there is wonderful. We could order room service?”

Her cheeks turn red and she scoffs. “I’m not going to your hotel room, Tom.”

Seeing a neighbor peeping from behind her curtains, Thalia leads him back onto the street. He watches her hard, controlled moves. “Afraid you can’t control yourself alone in a room with me?”

She ignores him again and turns left. On the crowded sidewalk, Tom keeps a few steps behind, watching the locals move about their lives. At the traffic light, he realizes she’s on the phone. He can’t make out the words, but he hears the time. “A las diez.” Tom steps up beside her and listens inquisitively to the conversation, wondering how good his conversational Spanish really could be. Llave. Key. She must be making arrangements to meet the landlord, to get back into her apartment. He really is sorry about that. It was purely an accident. The light changes and they cross the street, away from a residential area into an neighborhood of shops and restaurants. He watches as she waves to a few people who call out to her, and stops to pet a dog as she chats quickly with someone in passing. He realizes he’s never seen her fit in so well in an environment before. It’s like she’s home. If he wasn’t so damn jealous, he’d be proud she found it on her own.

Surprised when she takes his hand, she pulls him down the sidewalk. “Hurry up, slowpoke, I wasn’t hungry before, but smell that? Hope you got some money with you, since you locked me out!”

They walk up to a small food truck with a brown canopy overhang. A short line waits their turn as Tom does his best to make sense of the Spanish. “Bocadillos? Those are sandwiches, right?” She nods. “And calamares? That’s not shrimp, is it? No, that’s not right? What is it?”

She giggles. “Fried squid! I know, weird, right? It’s really good.” In answer to his silent question, she continues “This guy I used to know insisted I always had to try new foods.” She shrugs, bumping his shoulder before wrapping her arms around her waist. He wishes he had a coat with him to keep her warm from the cooler evening air. “This was a no brainer. Fried. That smell! Doesn’t matter if you’re from Chicago or Madrid, anything tastes better fried!”

Tom laughs and nods his agreement. “Okay, so we know what we’re ordering. What shall we get to drink?”

“Do you have cash?” Thalia asks. “I can order these, and you can go over there, and order two horchatas to drink. The seasoning on the squid is a little spicy, and the horchata soothes the sting a bit.”

He nods, pulling out his wallet and handing her some Euros. “Dos horchatas. Fine, I’ll order those, as long as you tell me what it is when I get back?”

Accepting the money, she nods and waves behind her. “First one to get their order goes to find a table back that way.”

He walks away and easily orders the drinks, which appear to be like a creamy milkshake. Tom wanders back in the direction Thalia pointed out and searches for an empty table. Instead he finds Thalia already seated at one, with a tall handsome man leaning on the back of her chair, talking to her in a very friendly manner. His stomach twists and he takes a deep breath. In all his ‘sweep her off her feet’ thoughts, he never once considered she might be seeing someone else. Stupid git. No wonder she’s been spurning his advances. Maybe she’s just trying to be nice and let him down easy. Her stepmother hadn’t said she was seeing anyone, but with an ocean between them, maybe they weren’t as close as they once were…

Thalia looks up and sees him maneuvering around the other tables. She waves to him, and her male companion leaves. Tom tips his head to the gentleman and he feels a fire in his gut. He sits across from Thalia, but she doesn’t acknowledge the fact she was just talking to someone else. She pushes the cardboard box across the table to him, and reaches for one of his drinks. “Mmm… perfect,” she say after a long draw on the straw. “Try it; I think you’ll like it.”

Tom follows her lead and slurps on the straw; it’s a bit thick and he chokes for a minute on the taste. “Mmm.. That is good. It has a hazelnut flavoring. What is it?” He sets his cup on the table, and opens his food box to find the sandwich and more patatas bravas.

Thalia dips one of her potatoes in the aioli before answering his question. “It does, a little. It reminds me of almond milk, but it’s like a milkshake from tiger nuts, which are only found here in Spain. Because it’s always served cold, but has the sugary taste, it will cut the spice of the calamares.”

Tom watches as she picks her sandwich apart, sitting the bread on the side and eating the fried squid with her fingers, dipping each piece into the aioli. He’s not sure why it bothers him a bit she’s become more health conscious… Maybe because if she lost weight, other men would realize how damn sexy she is, when he feels he should win her because he saw it from the beginning? “Who was that man?” he blurts out, unable to take it back as the jealousy hangs between them.

“Him?” she points in the direction of the man who walked away. “That was my friend, Henrí. He had to rush home with the bag of groceries for the family dinner.”

“You seem to have made many new friends. What of the lovely young woman from the tapas bar the other night?”

Thalia begins to talk about her life and work in a Madrid, and the topic stays light, nothing serious. Tom loves listening to her talk, her Puerto Rican accent thicker now that she uses her Spanish on a daily basis. As the sun sets, he asks polite questions, careful not to dig into any topic too deeply. Before he knows it, they’ve both finished their food, and she’s asking the time. “I have to get back to meet my landlord,” she reminds him.

He nods, and rises from the table, collecting their trash. She quickly grabs the pieces of bread before he can put them away. She stands up and dodges with him between the tables on the courtyard, following him to the trash can. When he turns, he sees she’s torn off a piece and is nibbling on it. He smiles.

“What? You didn’t think I’d waste good bread, did you? It’ll be perfect, toasted tomorrow with my morning coffee.”

He chuckles, “Oh, Thalia, darling, maybe you haven’t changed as much as you think!”

She blushes and accepts his arm when he offers it to her, linking hers in his. The streets are less crowded, less noisy as they make their way back to her apartment, having eaten before the dinner crowds are actually out in Madrid.

At the street corner, Tom holds her back from stepping in front of a cab zooming past. “The city reminds me of New York, never truly sleeping, since the nightlife doesn’t begin until much later,” Tom comments.

Thalia shakes her head, tearing off another piece of bread and slowly chewing it. “I still haven’t adjusted to it. At work, they finally gave me a master key so I could come in early before everyone else. Half the time, I’m ready for a nap on the couch in my office just as everyone else is starting to show up for work around 9:30, 10 am.”

“Not so much for the nightlife anymore?” He asks, resting his other hand on top of her hers, laced over his arm.

“My barmaid days and hours are over. I still might have late nights where I’m studying something for a presentation or a project, but honestly,” she yawns to prove her point. “This is after my bedtime. Guess I’m the old fool now.”

“Oh, Thalia, I’d never call you old. You’re still just a young thing. Probably too young for me, but that never stopped me before so-”

“Tom. Tonight has been pleasant. Please don’t.” She warns.

Crossing the street to her apartment building, Tom can feel her tense in his arms at the dark shadow in the hallway. “Relax. It’s probably just your landlord.” Memories of that fateful night long ago when she was nearly raped in a closed off stairwell flood back through his mind. His own body tenses. “Thalia? Is that why you have an exposed apartment?”

She breathes out slowly. “I guess- yes, I suppose so. I can escape in either direction, and I have a plan. I don’t go anywhere anymore without knowing what my escape plan would be… Wow,” she looks up at Tom. “I’ve never said that to anyone before, but it’s true.” Her voice drops. “I still have nightmares sometimes.”

He pulls her close to him and kisses the top of her head. At the archway, they realize the landlord is speaking to the other tennant, so they hold back, and Tom asks about the history of the space. Thalia shares what she knows, explaining it was once part of a large family manor that has been split into smaller flats. “These here have walk-ups.” She indicates the other buildings close to hers. “I have two rooms upstairs, an office and a bedroom, with a private balcony, overlooking a courtyard. It’s still small, but it’s the first time in nearly three years I’ve had something that was my own.” Her shoulders lift and she drops them. “I like getting to make my own rules, leaving dishes in the sink, the bed unmade, only doing laundry once a week.”

He nods, remembering the feeling well of being young and on his own. He nods to the man, jiggling his keys to get their attention. Thalia speaks to the man in Spanish, letting go of Tom’s hand to pick up something she sees shining on the side of the walk. She yelps in surprise and stands back up, blood rushing from her fingertips. “Son of a bitch!” She yells in English.

Tom grabs her wrist, looking to the ground to see a piece of broken glass. He yells at the man to hurry, remembering the Spanish phrase and he ushers Thalia inside as the door pops open. The man follows them into the house, pointing ahead to the kitchen, whispering words of comfort. Tom thanks him for his help, his Spanish butchered as he leads Thalia to the sink to clean the wound. He commands with force his thanks to the gentleman for opening the door, but issues him to leave and to clean the grounds on his way out.

“Tom, Tom. Relax. I’m fine. It’s only a flesh wound.” When he doesn’t laugh at her attempt at British humor, she looks to see the blood is still flowing as she wiggles the three cut fingers.

“Dammit, Thalia, now is not a time for jokes. Where’s your emergency kit?”

She pulls her hand free from his, running it under the water herself, and with her other hand, reaching for a clean washcloth. “In the bathroom, under the stairs.”

When he returns to the kitchen, he finds her sitting at the table, her hand wrapped and holding her hand upright, over her heart. “Good girl, I read that once too.”

“Probably just bullshit,” she says, pulling the cloth away. The bleeding seems to have stopped and the cuts aren’t as deep as he’d thought. He sits in the chair across from her, pushing as close as he can, his knee between her thighs. He’s aware of her close proximity and he strains to keep his breathing controlled, though he knows every cell in his body beats like the tell-tale heart. “Let me clean it.” He holds her hand tight and she tries to pull away.

“Tom, it’s okay.”

Under his grasp, he can feel her pulse racing. He lifts his face to look at her. Really to look at her closely for the first time. He’s struck by her beauty, the little freckles on her cheeks. He lifts his hand, reaching out to touch a tiny scar on her lip, and pulling his hand back. The air is thick between them, and the desire to kiss her overtakes his body, but he knows if he tries it now, she’ll simply throw back up the wall she’d had between them, the one she slowly let him chip at tonight. He’s barely made a dent.

He shakes his head. “I don’t remember that scar,” he says, looking back down to her hand as he runs an alcohol cleaning wipe over her injuries.

Her voice is shaky. “I coached t-ball one summer for a group of seven year old girls. A bat in the mouth equaled about ten stitches.” She runs her finger on the spot. “One of the dads on the team was a plastic surgeon. He insisted on doing the stitches right. Can hardly see it, can you?”

He takes the opportunity to touch her, tenderly placing his knuckle under her chin and turning her head in the light. “I can barely see it at all.” He nods, his eyes landing on the photos on the fridge. His heart freezes and he pulls his hand back, reaching for a band-aid and unwrapping it. “The little girl’s team, I suppose?”

The fridge is covered with photos of Thalia’s life without him. Postcards and family photos. A wedding announcement of a friend, a newspaper clipping about her father. Without having to look too closely, he spies a photo of her with the young girl and the man he lost Thalia to years before. In another photo, the little girl is sitting at a table in front of a birthday cake, with a giant balloon behind her, announcing she’s eleven. Wrapping her fingers quickly, he continues his work in silence, pushing his chair back and standing up when he’s finished.

Her eyes close and she hangs her head as he walks to the sink to wash the medicinal smell from his hands. While he dries his hands, she speaks quietly. “That’s why we’ll never work, Tom. That’s why we can’t start something new.”

“Why, Thalia?” he says, throwing the towel on the counter.

“You’ll never forgive me, Tom. You’ll never forgive me for the time I spent with Chris.” He swallows hard at the mention of the other man’s name. “You can’t even stand his name on my lips. How could you ever forgive me for his hands on my body? The things we did together; the things I learned from him?”

She lifts her face to his. “You can’t, can you?”

Click here to read Chapter 19, Opportunity Calls

Copyright © 2019 avenger-nerd-mom and devikafernando.  All rights reserved. Intellectual property of avenger-nerd-mom

Changes

ET ch 18 may 3 2017.jpg

Educating Thalia

Chapter 18

Collaboration by @avenger-nerd-mom & @devikafernando

AU FICTION

A collaboration involving Professor Hiddleston and Professor Evans- The two are rivals at a posh New England university and have no idea they both have taken interest in the lovely Thalia Bareo. She’s a grad student with interests in language and history; a sassy full-figured Puerto Rican girl from Chicago.  Story updates are posted on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Word count: 2173

Warnings:  Language, Adult Situations, fluffy, angst, parenting, aftermath of divorce

Summary: Chris deals with the demons from his past and puts his foot down. It’s time to make some changes and move forward.

Click here to the introduction of Educating Thalia

Sitting in the driveway, he waits to see if she’ll answer the text.  He meant it when he typed if she didn’t answer by three pm, he’d knock on the front door.  She still has about twelve minutes to respond.

Leaning his head back, he admires the small craftsman cottage in the peaceful neighborhood. The dream house.  Thinking over bittersweet memories, he remembers painstakingly putting in the rose bushes and placing the pavers just so to create the winding walkway.  Looking at his lightly calloused hands he realizes he’s forgotten how much he enjoyed ‘doing things’ with his hands.  Creating something to last.

The door opens and she walks out in a tight jeans and a sweater shawl wrap.  Rolling the window down, he simply says.  “You look good.”

She freezes, obviously stunned by his compliment, before approaching the car tentatively.  Chris reaches over and turns down the radio, noticing the monitor in her hands.  “Wanna sit in here with me where it’s warm?” he offers.

“Chris, you can’t just come by unannounced,” she responds pulling the shawl tighter and looking around to see if anyone is watching.

“Maura, you didn’t answer my phone calls and texts.  She’s my daughter.  I get to see her.”  He grips the steering wheel keeping his temper under control.

“You smell like a bar,” she replies.  “Stale cigarette smoke,” she sniffs.

“Yea. Because I was pissed as hell you didn’t let me get Avery last night.  I’ll admit, I got a little drunk. Stayed with a friend.  Totally sober now… What was the excuse this time?” he asks bitterly.

His ex-wife kicks at the tire of the car.  “Avery had a birthday party at Susie’s house; they were swimming and it would have been bed time after so-”

“So?  I could have taken her there and brought her back to my house.  We’ve been to Mark and Patty’s house a million times.  And a birthday party, Maura?  You’d have had that on the calendar for weeks. You couldn’t give me a heads up, and we could have changed dates?”  He turns off the ignition and gets out of the car.

“What are you doing?” she asks, stepping back.

“Don’t act that way, like I’d hurt you, in case the neighbors are watching.  I’m not playing games.  I’m going inside to see my daughter.”  Chris pushes past her and follows the winding path up the snow covered steps.  He waits for her at the door.  “May I enter my house?”

She runs her hand through her short blonde hair and sighs.  “Of course.”  She tilts her head.  “Do you want to take her tonight?  Can you get her to preschool before eleven tomorrow?”

His heart beats wildly.  Not expecting a sudden show of kindness, he simply nods his head and blinks back his tears.

“Don’t try to trick me with your beautiful lashes there, Professor,” she says as she steps into his space and pushes up his glasses to wipe away a tear clinging to the long black hairs.  He holds her wrist and gently pushes it away.

“You don’t get to console me anymore, Maura.  I’ll find someone else for that…”  The image of just the right person for that flits across his mind, tanned skin and curves, challenging brain and sweetest laugh…  Crossing over the threshold the smell of fresh paint assaults his nose and he cringes.  “You never liked the beige color, did you?” he scoffs.

Shaking her head, she laughs quietly.  “No, I didn’t; the dining room is now the buttercup yellow I always wanted.” Hanging her sweater up, Maura points to the stairs.  “She’s in her room, probably just waking up from her nap.  Just throw some clothes in her back pack; whatever you’ll need for your place.”

She tries to push her body to him again but he ignores her advance and takes the stairs two at a time to reach his little Avery faster.  Quietly entering her room, he watches her sitting in her big girl bed whispering to her dolls and their dog, Tramp.  Her jumbled words don’t make sense to him and again the tears fill his eyes and he sniffs.  Turning around at the sound, she bounces gleefully and claps her hands.  “Oh, Poppa!  Is ‘at really you, or am I dreamin’?”

Chris rushes to her bedside and drops to his knees, wrapping his big strong arms around his favorite little package.  “No, Bug, it’s real.  Poppa’s here.  Momma says you can come stay with me tonight.  Would you like that?”

“Oh yes! Yes, please!” she covers his face with tiny kisses and his face stings from the salty tears of happiness.  “Don’t cry, Poppa, you’ll get my fav’rite shirt wet.”

Maura’s voice sounds from the door.  “She wears it all the time.  Refuses to take it off, Poppa.  You’re gonna have to buy more just so she has one to wear when I have to wash the other.”

Chris looks over his shoulder and smiles to his ex, while she starts gathering a few things to put in an overnight bag.  Pulling back from his little one, he looks at her shirt and laughs as he reads, ‘Daddy’s Favorite Girl” on the front with a kitten wearing a crown.  “I can do that, no problem, Bug.”  She jumps off the bed and lands in his outstretched arms and the dog hops down too, barking and wagging his tail.  “Poppa, Tramp misses you too. Can he come?”

The battle over keeping Tramp had been almost as tiring as deciding the best residency for Avery.  And neither are still fully worked out.  Tramp was their first child, the stray they adopted shortly after they bought the house, long before they even thought of having children.  Chris looks to the pretty blonde hopefully, but the words choke in his throat.

“Fine, you can take the dog too.  He actually goes to the groomer tomorrow.  Can you get him there by noon?”  she smiles.

“I’ll just be your taxi service tomorrow, getting everyone where they need to be,” Chris replies, standing up with Avery still in his arms.  Balancing her on his hip, he reaches down for her favorite doll and blanket, making sure those are along for the evening as well.  Eyeing a sparkly dress in her closet he tells Maura to pack that also.  “I’m taking my girl out for dinner.  We’re gonna dress up fancy.  What do you say to that, Bug?”

“Oh, Poppa!  You’ll be so handsome; I wike it!”  The little girl giggles and blows a raspberry against her father’s cheek, giggling louder when his beard tickles her lips.

Maura leads the way out to the hall, the overnight bag in one hand, and another bag in the other.  “Here’s some more clothes and things I’d already packed for you to keep at your place.  She needs to feel comfortable there too, Chris.”

Chris rolls his eyes.  “She does Maura; she’d even feel more that way if you’d let her stay over on a regular basis, like the court papers say.”

She purses her lips together.  “We go back to the mediator early next month.  Maybe we can get it all figured out by then.  It’s just I worry that-”

Setting her down to the ground, Chris leans down to tell Avery, “Hey, run on downstairs and get some cans of food for Tramp, his leash and put your boots on.  I need to talk to Momma for a few minutes.”

The little girl looks expectantly at her mother, who shakes her head in agreement and the little girl and dog slowly take off down the stairs, grasping the rail tightly in her tiny hands.  As soon as she’s out of earshot, Chris hisses to his ex, “You worry what? I’ll have a string of women in my condo?  Maura, you know that’s not true.  I know why you didn’t want me going to the party for Susie’s birthday yesterday.  You didn’t want me to fuckin’ kill Mark or spill your little secret to Patty- “ The angered man ignores the shock on her face.  “Yeah, I know about that affair too, not just the trainer at the gym… And you forget I work with your friend Brianna, and I know you’ve had three other ‘boyfriends’ since the divorce was final.  You fucked up our marriage.  And instead of respecting me enough to ask out, you decided to screw it into the ground.  One date, Maura.  I’ve had one date in nearly eighteen months as I watched my marriage fall apart and I try to rebuild my life.”

“Chris, I-”

Moving down the stairs, he looks over her shoulder at her stricken face.  “No.  I’m not playing games anymore.  I pay the child support, I pay what you need, but I’m not gonna sit back and let you keep me from Avery.  Or the dog, for that matter.”

“I still love you.”  Her pink lips form a pout he once found beguiling but now it just turns his stomach.

“Well you had a fucked up way of showing it, then didn’t you?” he spits out.  His face red with anger, his hands ball into fists at his sides as she descends the stairs and reaches out to him.  He steps back.  “Stay away, Maura.  Your cute little body can’t fix this.  Share it with someone else.”

The little blonde curls bounce around the corner with three cans of food for Tramp in her hands and he hides away his anger as quickly as it grew.  Opening the coat closet, he pulls down Avery’s puffy purple and blue coat and her warm fuzzy hat while she plops on the floor at his feet to pull on her boots.  Spying an empty store bag, he takes shoes for school the next day and her silver sequined shoes to go with her dress for dinner.  “Avery!  Did you steal these from Cinderella?”

She giggles. “No, silly Poppa!  They went with my dress for Christmas.  Momma got them for me.  It’s not nice to take things that aren’t yours.”

“Hear that Maura.  Even the five year old gets it…”  He zips up the toddler’s coat, seeing the blush of embarrassment rush over his adulterous ex-wife’s face.

Standing back up, he tugs his coat back into place.  “Are my boxes still out in the garage?” he asks.  She nods.  “I’ll get a moving truck later this week.  Be back to get them.  Sorry it’s taken so long.  But I think this little show, and something a friend recently said to me, makes me realize it’s time to move on, but keep doing the right thing.  Can I go out there? There’s one or two things I want now.”

“Sure.  You know the code.  I haven’t changed it.  Just come get the stuff whenever.”  She sighs, wrapping the sweater shawl around her shoulders again.  “Maybe when you come get Avery Wednesday night, like every week?  I’ll move her to a different dance class.”

“Yes, you do that.  Wednesdays are mine until we meet with the mediator,” he nods.  He knows he’ll get more time then, and things will be better balanced.

“I’ll get her in her car seat while you’re in the garage.”  She takes the little girl by the hand and the faithful dog follows them out into the cold.

Chris quickly finds the boxes he wants and takes them to the car.  Making sure Avery and Tramp are settled in, he walks back around to Maura.  “I want us to be friends.  For her sake.  And because I’ve loved you longer than I’ve hated you.  That hate doesn’t do me any good.  It just makes me old and bitter before my time.  You destroyed me once.  If you ever really loved me, stop all this.  Focus on her first.  But I’m a good dad, and you know it.”

He hugs her lightly and gets in the warm car, backing out of the drive and away from his old life, finally ready to make some changes.

#

A few hours later, as the sun begins to set, he’s on his way to dinner with Avery.  He’s promised to take her to their favorite Italian restaurant, dressed to the nines, but he can’t help himself.  Driving several miles out of the way, he drives down Thalia’s street, absently smiling to himself.   Avery is singing along to the CD he plays and he watches Tina shuffle down the street, a bag in her hand.  He slows when the door to her building opens and by pure coincidence, the latina beauty steps out in her signature skirt and cowboy boots, her hair a wild mess of curls, a pink scarf wrapped around her neck.  She walks to a little junker car and bounces on her heels as she unlocks the door.  Turning his head so she can’t see him, it kinda tugs at him that he’s elated to see she’s not all dressed up for what he’s pretty sure is a date with the other man.

Click to Chapter 19 Night at the Movies

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