VAIN – The Free Novella
The Free Novella
By: Deborah Bladon
First Original Edition, November 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Deborah Bladon
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is entirely coincidental. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events and situations either are the product of the author's imagination or are used factiously.
All rights reserved. No parts of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without written consent from the author.
From Me to You
I want to start by saying THANK YOU to all of you. Each of you has been an important part of my journey this year. I published the first of my novellas on February 21st and I had no idea what life had in store for me. I'm so grateful that you have all embraced my characters and their stories and I want to give something back to you to show how much I truly value and appreciate the time you spend reading my books.
This is the final chapter in Alexa and Noah's journey, but it's not the last you'll see of the two characters. They'll be popping up in the free novella for the RUIN series, as well as several other series I have planned for 2015. I love both of these characters. They are flawed, passionate and so desperately in love with one another.
Please enjoy this gift. I hope you embrace the final part of Alexa and Noah's story as they find their future path together.
With all my love and gratitude,
"I wish we had eloped, Noah." I rifle through the stack of papers on the desk in front of me. "I really wish I would have listened when you told me you wanted to go to Vegas."
He leans against the desk, crossing his long, muscular legs at the ankle. "We still can, Alexa. We can run away tonight."
I can't look at him. It's not because I think I'll give in to the desire to follow his suggestion. I want nothing more than to run into our bedroom, throw a few clothes into an overnight bag and head for the airport. I can't look at him because, like most evenings, Noah is walking around our apartment in the nude. That hasn't changed. If I'm fortunate, that will never change. The man is built. "I can't do that, Noah."
"Why?" he asks as he leans down. "Tell me why you can't just dump this entire idea and run away with me?"
"We already paid for everything and…" I stop myself. "You already paid for everything."
"We," he whispers the word softly into my neck. "I told you everything I have is yours too."
He's right. He had told me that. I was the one who insisted on having a prenuptial agreement in place before we exchanged vows. I have nothing to protect. I just wanted him to know that he can trust me implicitly. Noah is worth more money than I'll ever see in a hundred of my lifetimes. I want our marriage to be based on love and trust. That's vitally important to me.
"I only signed those papers so you'd agree to be my wife, Alexa." He runs his index finger over my chin. "I know how important trust is to you."
It is. These past few months have been trying for both of us. Noah's brother, Ben, had come back into his life and it had put an enormous strain on the two of us. It wasn't that I was less than thrilled that Noah was working on rebuilding the fractured relationship with his twin, it was that I hadn't learned all of the details surrounding their decade long estrangement until recently. I want to support Noah but it's been hard. I've felt hurt that he hadn't opened up sooner. I want to discuss it with him, but I just don't have the emotional energy to do it right now. The wedding preparations are pulling at every last bit of patience I have.
"Money is part of life, Noah." I stroke my finger down the jagged scar that covers his cheek. "I don't want it to be the focal point of our marriage."
"It won't be." He catches my hand in his before he brushes my palm over his lips. "I love you too much to allow that to happen."
He does. I feel it every day. When I was a young girl I imagined meeting a beautiful man like Noah who would center his world on me. I'd feel more loved than I ever dreamt was possible. I feel all of that and more now. "I love you too," I say the words even though they can't fully capture my emotions. I loved a man before I met Noah or I thought I had. Since I've been with Noah I've come to understand that I loved the idea of being in love when I was in Paris. Everything I thought I felt for Brighton Beck can't compare to everything I know I feel for Noah.
"Tell me what I can help you with." He bows his head towards the papers. "Give me a job that I can take care of so it takes some of the weight off your shoulders."
It's a kind gesture that isn't based on his desperate need to get involved in wedding details. I've watched Noah when we've met with the caterers and musicians. I've seen the way he's stared off into the distance when I've asked him which flowers he prefers to adorn the tables at the wedding reception. His heart is in the marriage, but it's not in the minuscule and never ending details of our wedding. I can't be surprised by that. We are expecting over one hundred guests and there are only two coming at Noah's request. That would be his father, Ron, and his brother. Up until a few weeks ago, Ron, was the only RSVP we were waiting on from Noah's side.
"Sadie and Kayla are helping a lot." I smile weakly with the words. They have been helping as much as they can. I couldn't have asked for two better friends.
He cocks a brow as he tilts his chin towards me. "So you're telling me there's absolutely nothing I can do?"
"I wouldn't say that." I reach to touch his rock hard chest. I still marvel at the beauty of his tattoos even though I see them every day. They are a constant reminder of the night that Noah was almost stabbed to death. For a very long time, the tattoos were difficult for me to look at because of what they symbolized. Now, I can look at them and see the beauty that is there.
His hand leaps to cover mine. "I'll take you to bed right now, Alexa and keep you awake all night," he growls.
I have to steel my breath at the promise. I want that. I've wanted it since I got home from school and walked in to the apartment to see him fast asleep on the couch. I could stare at Noah's body for hours. I could make love to him for just as long. If I'm being honest, he wears me down quickly. Noah knows my body so well that he can send me into one mind blowing orgasm after another. If I race him to our bed right now, I'll never finish grading the tests I gave my students today.
"Come with me." He holds onto my hand as he takes a step back towards the door of our home office. "Let me help you forget about everything for a few hours."
I smile at the suggestion. His stamina is amazing, and tonight, I hate to admit that I wouldn't be able to keep up. I'm exhausted from all the long hours I've put into planning the wedding and I still have at least an hour of work left in front of me. "You go to bed, Noah. I'll be there as soon as I'm done my grading." I motion towards the papers on the desk.
"I can sit here with you while you do it," he says softly, the distinctive edge of disappointment tainting his words and his expression.
"No," I answer back quickly only because it would be pure torture and an overwhelming distraction to have Noah sitting next to me completely nude while I tried to focus on my work. "I'll meet you in bed in a little while."
"I'll be waiting." His lips brush effortlessly over my forehead. "Don't be too long, Alexa. I need you."
I smile at the pronouncement. I need him too. Sometimes it feels as though I need him more than the air I breathe.
"I fell asleep before you came to bed." He walks into the kitchen dressed in a pair of worn jeans and a white t-shirt. "I wanted to show you how much I love you."
He wanted to fuck me. He's being romantic, which for Noah Foster, is a regular occurrence as of late. He's become more caring and loving the past few months as we've planned our future together. Many women complain about how the man they adore loses interest as the relationship progresses, but in my case, it's been the exact opposite. Noah is more thoughtful, devoted and attentive now. It makes sense given everything I've been struggling with. We haven't spoken about it, but my inner doubts have been constantly creeping to the surface these past eight months. I want to sit down and talk to Noah about what I'm feeling but I already know what he's going to say to me. He'll tell me he loves me no matter what and I'm the only person he'll ever need.
"I'll make it up to you tonight." I reach to grab his shoulder to steady myself as I perch on my tip toes to graze my lips over his.
"Let me taste you now." His hands grip firmly onto my ass. "I'm so hungry for you."
My body clenches in desire at his words. I want it. I want to pull off the skirt and blouse I put on less than twenty minutes ago and let Noah devour me right here on the kitchen table. I want to come under his skillful hands and tongue. I want the world to disappear for a few minutes as I feel my body give in to the pleasure. Unfortunately, everything I want is just out of my grasp. "I have to get to work, Noah."
He kisses me one last time, his tongue darting a perfect path over my bottom lip. "I do too. I have a busy day of portraits."
"Baby or toddler?" The words bite much deeper than they should.
"It's at the same preschool I was at last week. The kids are all three and four-years-old." He tosses the words effortlessly over his shoulder as he fills a tumbler with coffee. "I'll be there most of the day and then I'm meeting my father for a drink before dinner."
I nod even though his back is turned towards me. "I have an appointment after work so we'll meet back here later and figure out what to eat, okay?"
"That'll work." He turns abruptly to face me, his phone in his palm. "Do you want me to drop you off at school?"
I breathe a sigh of relief. He didn't ask about the appointment so I don't need to offer any details. I want to, but until I hear what the doctor has to say, I can't. This is a burden I have to carry by myself. "I can get there on my own."
He leans forward, kisses me softly and is gone through the apartment door before I have a chance to say another word.
"I don't understand." I pull the tissue over my nose even though it does little good. I've been sobbing uncontrollably for the past fifteen minutes. "I'm twenty-four-years-old. How is that possible?"
The doctor sits on the edge of her seat, her hand resting on mine. "When you had the surgery for the cysts, there was irreparable damage done, Alexa. I'm so sorry."
She's sorry. It's a word that can't hold all the weight of what it means for my future and for Noah's future. Everything that I'd imagined in my mind's eye is being stolen away with just a few words. I'm never going to be able to have Noah's baby. I'm never going to get to feel a life growing within me.
"If you'd like we can talk about options." Her voice is soft and understanding. I know she's just trying to help but I also know that she has two daughters. I saw their pictures scattered over the walls of her office when I first came in for an initial consultation last month. I'd stopped using birth control almost a year ago because Noah and I had talked about how we both wanted to start a family. I imagined being pregnant by now. I wanted to give this to him, and to us. We are ready to be parents. It's just a natural extension of our love.
"What about a surrogate? Can we get a surrogate to carry our baby?" There's too much hope in my words. It's a question that I've been holding within since I saw the expression on her face when I first spoke to her weeks ago. After all the questions about my irregular periods, the surgery I had when I was eighteen-years-old for cysts in my uterus and my inability to get pregnant after all these months, her expression had shifted from soft concern to painful resignation.
"I think Noah should be here when we talk about that." She lifts a brow as she says the words. I know the meaning behind the gesture. She's been encouraging me to talk to Noah about this for weeks but I've been hesitant. Instead of gifting him with the news that we're going to be parents, I have to tell him that it's not in the cards for us right now. That's not the wedding present I wanted to give him.
I bow my head down. "We're getting married very soon."
"Does he know about any of this?" It's a complicated question. It's much too complicated for her to even understand. "Maybe you should bring him in this week to speak to me."
I wish it was that easy. I wish I could call Noah on the spot and tell him to meet me here but this isn't something you spring on the person you intend to spend your entire life with. Noah is soft, kind and since he began spending his days with children, it's awoken a deep love for them that can't be denied. He even bought a tiny pair of shoes three months ago that he told me our firstborn would wear. How am I supposed to shatter that dream?
"I'll talk to him," I say it with every intention of making it my reality. "I need to talk to him."
"He can help you through this, Alexa." She pats her hand over mine. "This is something you can help each other deal with and any decisions you two make, I'm here to help."
I know her words are genuine. I just don't know how I'm going to tell the man I'm about to marry that the one thing he longs for more than anything in the world isn't within his grasp.
"Do you think Hunter would love you no matter what?" I brush a piece of hair from my cheek. "I mean do you think there's anything that you could do that would make him love you less?"
Her eyes dart up to meet mine. "What have you done?"
I'm not going to be offended. If it was anyone else jumping to the conclusion that I'd done something horrible that's jeopardizing my relationship with Noah, I'd be upset. This is Sadie though. She's the most dramatic person I know. "I haven't done anything."
"Why are you asking me that then?" She pulls her gaze back down to the ribbons in front of her. Sadie is my matron-of-honor and she's taken a very hands-on approach to my special day. Today she's busy adding ribbons to vases that will be the centerpiece of each table that the guests will sit at while they feast away on the three course dinner we're having catered. Sadie's a firm believer in gifts from the heart which is why she's decorating extra vases so each female guest at the wedding will have one to take with her when she leaves the reception.
I let out a small sigh. "I just want to make Noah happy."
"If you stay away from Brighton Beck for the rest of your life Noah will be happy." She doesn't even flinch as the words leave her mouth.
I, on the other hand, drop the vase that is in my hand. Miraculously it doesn't fall to the floor into a million pieces. Instead, it rolls to the edge of the table before I stall its path with my hand. "What did you say, Sadie?"
Her hands stop in mid-air. I can tell by the way her shoulders surge forward that she's on the brink of tears. It's a motion that I've become all too accustomed to over the years. I know Sadie almost as well as her husband does. "I know you had an affair with him when you were in Paris."
It was one of those foolish things that I've done that I almost instantly regret. Sleeping with Beck had been a decision born out of fear and loneliness. I'd fallen into bed with him when I was feeling desperately alone in a strange city. The fact that he was beautiful to look at and understood me in a way that I needed at the time, didn't hurt. Now, almost two years after the ordeal, I can finally look back on it and not hate myself completely for my lack of better judgment.
"Who told you that?" I don't ask her because it matters at this point. I ask it more as a point of reference. I want to know who thought it was their place to tell her about that. It was my secret to share and I definitely would have chosen any time other than right before my wedding.
"Noah let it slip," she whispers. "He told me he's been worried about you and since Brighton is living in New York now, he thought that might be part of it."
I feel like the child who is left to sit on the bench at recess while all the others race to the playground. I'm the outsider in this and it hurts. "Noah talked to you about me and Brighton?"
"You were never going to tell me, were you?" The pain that is woven between the words is sharp and thick.
I run my hand over my forehead. This wasn't how I imagined the conversation going. I've always confided in Sadie. We've shared every part of our lives since we've been children. I hadn't told her about Beck and I because he was already in a relationship at the time. I love Sadie but her friendship doesn't come without a price. She's judged me in the past for my poor choices and I can see the gavel being lowered again now. She's disappointed in me.
"Noah said it's been over for a long time, Alexa." Her voice cracks as she continues, "I don't think you were ever going to tell me. Kayla knew, didn't she?"
Lying at this point will only serve to soften the inevitable blow that will hit her full force when she realizes I chose to tell Kayla about my relationship with Brighton. "She knew," I whisper the words with the hope that their volume will somehow mute how brutal the force of them is. This is going to hurt Sadie. I know it, but I can't come back to this later. If we're going to do this, it has to be now. I want everything out in the open so I don't have to revisit it when someone decides to let it slip that Kayla was the one whose shoulder I leaned on when I came back to Boston after my time in Paris.
She looks up and I'm instantly awash with guilt. Her eyes are clinging to the tears that are just about to roll down her cheeks. I know that the knowledge that I shared this with another friend is more painful than the realization that I slept with a man who was already in a relationship with someone else.
"I'm sorry, Sadie." I try to keep my voice calm. I'm about to break apart inside. Not only have I disappointed the best friend I've ever had, I have to do the very same thing with the man I intend to marry. Today is quite possibly the worst day of my life.
She sobs quietly, her voice a murmur beneath her heavy breath, "I would have helped you, Alexa. I would have helped you deal with it all."
She's right. I don't doubt that at all. Sadie would have helped me deal with it after she berated me for making such a poor choice. I've always looked to her to help steer me in the right direction in my life so when I know I've fallen off that course I'm going to avoid telling her. It's inevitable. At least it was up to this point. I need to grow up and face the consequences of my actions.
"I was ashamed," I confess. "I was embarrassed that I made such a bad decision."
"We all make mistakes." She pulls the back of her hand across her cheek. "I've made mistakes too."
She's right. I know it logically but staring at my inconsolable best friend I know that my choice to not tell her about Brighton and I was the biggest mistake I could have made.
"You haven't seen him since he's been back, have you?" she asks without any sense of curiosity in her tone. There's only one right answer to that question and I know exactly what it is.
"I haven't seen him in forever." My eyes flash over the vases on the table. "Noah and I are getting married soon. I have no reason to see Beck now or ever."
Her brows furrow for a split second and I wonder briefly if she's questioning me. "Why did you ask me about Hunter loving me no matter what I do? Has something happened that makes you doubt whether Noah will love you?"
This is the point where I should tell her that I can't have a child of my own. This is where I come clean and confess. I can't. I won't. There's one person who needs to hear that from my lips before Sadie does. I have to tell Noah and I need to do it before we walk down the aisle.
"Sadie called me." I hear the words the moment his footsteps stop in the hallway.
I nod before I realize that I'm in the dark. There's no way he can see more than the outline of my frame on the bed. Our room is dark. I'd come straight home after meeting Sadie at Axel NY to work on the vases. She wanted me to stay to join her for dinner but I told her I had to talk to Noah. I'd waited for hours for him before stripping off my clothes and crawling beneath the covers.
I hear the gentle tap of his shoes against the floor as he enters the room. "Alexa, are you awake?"
The fearful part of me wants to pretend to be asleep. That would offer me at least a few hours of emotional rest before I have to talk to Noah not only about the news that the doctor shared with me, but about his decision to tell Sadie about what I'd done with Brighton. "I'm awake," I say back into the darkness because I need to own up to everything. I need to clear the air now before I break from the weight of the worry that is pulling at my every nerve.
"I had no idea until tonight that you hadn't told Sadie about you and Brighton."
It's a silly thing. Words shouldn't sting as much as they do, but whenever I hear Noah say my name and Brighton's within the same breath, it tears me apart. I know that relationship hurt Noah even though what I shared with Brighton ended months before I ever walked into Noah's life. The reality is that he was Brighton's close friend and that bond had been broken irrevocably when Noah realized we had been lovers. It left a hole in his life that his brother was beginning to fill, but it would never be the same.
"How did it come up?" I ask because I want a picture in my mind of that moment in time when Sadie realized I had withheld a fundamentally important detail of my life from her. I want to know how Noah felt it was his place to confess that sin to my best friend.
"Turn over." He taps his hand against my hip. "I want to look at you."
That's not really what he wants or it's not the only reason he wants me to turn to face him. He wants me to look at him so I can feel grounded when he tells me this. He knows he's my center. He knows when I'm flailing and he's always there to hold onto me to help me through it. That's what makes Noah Foster so different than any man I've ever been with. He thinks of me first, even in the worst of times.
I turn slowly and stare up into his face. He's seated on the edge of the bed now, his right knee bent so he can look straight at me. "I'm sorry I told her. I honestly thought you had."
"Why would you think I told her?" I spit the words back too quickly. They come out sounding as though they're laced with more anger than they actually are. How can I blame Noah for sharing something that I should have shared more than a year ago? It's not his fault that I didn't have the courage to tell Sadie.
He reaches for my hand. "It's hard to explain, Alexa."
"Please try." I push because I want to understand.
He nods. "I want Brighton to be no one to you."
"Noah, you know that he's…"
"I know that he was once someone you loved," he interrupts. "I know you love me now and I also know that you never loved him as much as you love me."
It's true. It's also a vast understatement. Anything that I felt for Brighton doesn't even register on the scale of what I feel for Noah. They are so far apart in depth that they can't be compared at all.
"In every important way you are the only man I've ever loved, Noah." I look directly at his face when I say the words. "You own my heart completely."
"Brighton is back in New York." He pats the edge of the bed. "He's here."
"You've spoken to him?" I ask not because I care about what Brighton may have said to Noah about me, but because I know that it brings Noah's insecurity back up to a rolling boil. He's conquered most of the feelings of inadequacy he carried with him for years because of his scar. I still see glimpses of self-doubt at times when he catches someone staring at his face. I try my best to shield him from that but it's part of his life and it will always be.
"Briefly," he offers as he studies my face. "You haven't."
It's not a question and I'm grateful for that. It's not that I would have had to lie to answer it. I haven't spoken to Brighton in a very long time. It's that I would have been hurt if Noah would have questioned me about it. I hope that we're at a place in our relationship now where he knows that I'd confide in him immediately if Beck reached out to me. I can't imagine responding to Brighton in any way without first discussing it with Noah. I wouldn't do that to him, or to us.
"You were worried enough about him that you brought it up to Sadie." I push the words out. "Why would you think I would care at all that Brighton is here? Why would you think that, Noah?"
"You love Sadie." He pulls my hand onto his thigh. "You have been close to her for your entire life."
"I have," I concur. I can't argue that point. Sadie is someone I treasure.
"I guess I just assumed you told her because you two share everything and I thought that if Brighton didn't matter to you anymore, that you'd have no reason not to tell her," he stalls briefly. "I mean, you told me months ago you were going to talk to her about it and since Brighton is part of our past, I thought you'd get it over with and put the past completely behind you."
It's a fair assumption. The last time Noah and I had talked about Brighton was when I told him I needed to tell Sadie about the affair before she heard it from someone else. I hadn't done it. It wasn't out of any reason other than not wanting to disappoint her.
"Why didn't you tell her when you said you would?"
I feel a slight bite of resentment at the question. I don't want to throw anything back at Noah but I'm tempted. Just because I hadn't found the courage to confide in Sadie, it didn't mean that Noah had carte blanche to confess my deepest sin to her. "I'm ashamed of what I did."
"You didn't know he was involved with someone else when you slept with him, Alexa." The words are forceful and direct. He means each and every one of them.
"I want Sadie to see the best in me." I don't say it as a cop out or as an exit to get me out of the conversation. I say it because it's the truth. I do want that. I want Noah to see the best in me too that's why I've always carried the unspoken burden of shame that I slept with his closest friend. "I had forgotten all about it when Ben came back into your life and then with all the wedding plans."
His chest heaves slowly as he takes in my words. "I want you to forget about Brighton forever."
"I already have." I reach to cup his strong hand in mine. "He means nothing to me. I just want him to be a part of my past."
"I'm sorry that I told her," he says the words slowly. "I feel like your mind is a million miles away lately. I thought you might have talked to her about what's weighing you down."
"I've had so much to think about." If there was ever an ideal segue to lead me into talking about our future and our options for having a family this would be it.
He leans forward and brushes his soft lips across mine. "Don't think about anything but me right now."
I moan into his mouth, pull my hand to the back of his head and give in to my need to feel completely and wholly connected to the man I adore.
"Noah, please," I whimper the words into the sheets that are now a tangled mess on our bed. I'm not sure that Noah can even hear my voice through the unending grunts falling from his lips into the darkness.
His body pauses briefly. "Alexa, tell me you want this as much as I do."
How do I express that there's nothing on earth that comes remotely close to feeling as good as being taken by this man? "Noah, I…" my voice stops as he pushes his cock to its depth within me before pulling it out and over my engorged clitoris.
"I need to taste you again."
I don't have time to react before I feel his moist lips on my core. He runs his tongue over the length of my folds. I'm still tender from when he ate me to two exquisite orgasms after ridding himself of his clothes and climbing into bed with me. I'm so sore, but my body has no limits when it comes to Noah. I take everything he gives to me. I'm addicted to him.
I moan loudly into the sheets as he plunges his tongue into me. I scream when I feel his thumb circle my clit and I call out his name as I crash through to the other side of pleasure again. I come so hard that I feel my knees give way, dropping my entire body into the sheets.
"I have to come, Alexa." His breath is on my back before his lips find the soft flesh of my neck. He bites the edge of my ear gently. "I'm going to fuck you so hard."
He will. It's what I long for. He's already teased me with his cock. Now, he's not going to hold back. My center aches at the promise. "Do it, Noah," I challenge through a heavy breath.
He flips me over and pushes my legs apart with his large hands. I watch in silence as he runs his fingers over my pussy before wrapping them around his thick cock. "I love you so much. You're so beautiful."
"Noah," I cry out his name as he pushes himself into me, hard and fast. The burst of pain that's always there when he takes me so unabashedly only adds to my arousal. I dig my heels into the mattress, trying in vain to keep up with the unyielding tempo of his hips.
"Fuck, Alexa. Fuck," he says hoarsely. "It's so good."
"So good," I repeat back in a moan. "Fuck me, Noah."
A deep, low growl flows from his lips as he lifts both my legs, bending them towards me. His cock slides even deeper within me and I almost come from the sensation. "I love fucking you."
"I love it…" I can't say another word as I watch him throw his head back. His hands grip tightly to my thighs as he pumps his release into me.
"What's your schedule like tomorrow?"
The question startles me. After Noah came he'd held me. I must have fallen asleep. "What time is it?"
"It's nine." He hands me an apple and a bottle of water. "I can make you something to eat if you're hungry."
I shake my head. I don't even know if I have the strength to eat the apple. I almost wish Noah would have let me sleep through the night. I've had to chase after any rest I can find these days. Between planning the wedding, work and feeling constantly stressed over my inability to get pregnant, a full eight hours of sleep is a novelty at this point.
"You're tired, Alexa." He sits next to me. "Are you feeling okay?"
It's the question he always asks me right before he launches into a discussion about whether or not I might be pregnant. I know I need to have the discussion with him but tonight I can't. I'm too exhausted both emotionally and physically to delve into that pool right now.
"I'm okay." I take a small swallow of water before I hand the bottle, and the untouched apple, back to him. "I think I just need to sleep."
His eyes scan my face looking for any clue that may give him insight into whether I'm being transparent or not. I know that he suspects that I'm holding something back. He can read me better than anyone. "What are you doing after school tomorrow?"
I lay my head back down onto my pillow, pulling the twisted blanket over my body. "I'm not doing anything. Why?"
"I want you to come down to the preschool with me," he begins before he reaches over to smooth the blanket over my legs. "They have an afterschool program. There's someone I want you to meet."
Walking into a room filled with even more children isn't the way I want to spend my late afternoon. I've been struggling emotionally every day when I go to the elementary school where I work. Seeing the faces of all the children and knowing I can't have one of my own is brutal. I can tell this is important to Noah though. "I can do that. What time?"
A wide grin charges over his handsome face. "Close your eyes. You need to rest. I'll text you the details so you have it on your phone."
I nod slowly as I feel my body drift into a deep, and much needed, sleep.
"This is Max." Noah's hand sweeps across the top of a small, brown-haired boy's head. "He's working on a sculpture."
I smile down at the sweet, little boy's face. "Hi, Max. My name is Alexa."
"Alexa," he repeats back. "You're going to marry him."
"I am." I reach to take Noah's hand in my own. "What are you making?"
"A puppy." He holds up a lump of modeling clay. "I can't have a dog where I live."
"That looks great." I nod towards his hands and the indistinguishable sculpture he's working on. "I'm sorry you can't have a puppy."
"At the last place I lived, they had two dogs." He doesn't look up from the table as the words leave his lips. "I miss them."
My eyes dart up to Noah's face. I furrow my brow, looking for a silent clue as to what Max is talking about. He can't be more than four-years-old. If I had to venture a guess on my own, I'd say that Max's family moved from one building in the city that allowed dogs into another that didn't. I've heard enough of those types of stories from the children I teach. Animals don't always fit in with the plan of every building's management style.
"Noah, look what I made." The tender voice of a young girl pulls at me from behind. I turn quickly to see a pink sweater, purple sweatpants and long brown curls. Her blue eyes fly over my face before they land squarely on Noah.
"What do you have there, Chloe?" Noah lets go of my hand as he kneels down next to the small girl. "That drawing looks amazing."
"It's not better than mine." Max is on his feet, one of his clay covered hands touching the shoulder of Noah's light blue t-shirt. "Noah likes mine."
"I like them both." Noah reaches for the paper that Chloe's pushing towards him. "You both did a great job."
"My brother is rude." Chloe's small hand touches Noah's arm. "He knows mine is better."
I can't help but supress a giggle. Watching Noah as the central attraction in the attention tug-of-war that is going on has reminded me of how much I miss having Noah come down to my school to help out at the afterschool program there. It was something he embraced wholeheartedly when I first brought up the idea, but after I stopped volunteering myself because of my time constraints, Noah hadn't gone back either. Watching Noah with these two children now, is reminding me how giving and caring he can be.
"What do you think?" Chloe turns towards me, her free hand reaching for the belt of my trench coat. "Do you like mine more?"
I stare down at her precious face and I feel awash with all the yearnings I've been holding back for the past few months. I don't want to burst into tears in this middle of this crowded church basement so it takes all the internal strength I have just to reach down and cradle her tiny hand in mine. "I think you're very talented, Chloe."
She stares up at me, soaking in the words. "You're pretty. Are you Noah's lady?"
I nod my head slowly, biting my lip to hold in all my crumbling emotions. "I'm Noah's lady."
"He's lucky." She squeezes my hand softly. "He's really lucky."
"I am too." I kneel down to run my hand over Noah's face. "I'm so lucky."
"It's a great facility, Mrs. Penner." I curve my hand towards the dozens of children milling about the small space. I'm being polite. After Noah introduced me to the director of the preschool, I'd watched her wince as she heard the sound of something crashing to the floor. Luckily, it turned out to only be an easel that one of the children had brushed against as they ran past it. This center is definitely overcrowded, dark and in desperate need of some repair.
She looks at me as if I'm speaking a foreign language. "Noah, you haven't talked to her, have you?"
The mere fact that she says the words as she's staring at my face suggests that I'm the third wheel in this conversation. My eyes dart up to Noah's face but his gaze is locked on where a group of children are playing.
"What is it that he hasn't talked to me about?" I ask mainly because Noah isn't offering to fill in the vast blanks that are littering this conversation.
"What?" Noah's head spins back around so quickly I'm certain he's going to experience whiplash. "What did you say, Alexa?"
"It was nice meeting you, Mrs. Penner." I reach to shake her hand a little too exuberantly. "I need to talk to my husband-to-be, if you don't mind."
Her eyes jump to the back of the room before they return to me. "It was good to meet you too, Alexa. I hope we'll see more of you."
I nod because offering anything more isn't possible right now. I still have no idea why Noah asked me to come down to this facility. All the children's voices, combined with the feeling that Noah is keeping something from me, is pushing me into a place I don't want to be. I'd edgy and irritated. I take a deep breath before I turn to Noah. "Can we go, Noah?"
He leans down to brush his lips quickly across my forehead. "I'd like to stay and help."
I know the polite and expected thing to do is to offer to do the same. I should throw off my coat, jump into the fray and do it all with a smile on my face, but I can't. "I have a lot of work to catch up on. I should probably get home and get started on that."
"I need to explain a few things, Alexa." His hand sweeps over my back. "We need to talk."
I feel an instant pit at the bottom of my stomach. It's not as though I expect Noah to drop a bombshell on me. I know him well enough to know that he would never do that to me. This is something different. I can hear it in his voice. "Tell me what it is, Noah."
"I can't do that here." His voice is calm and centered. "Go home and work. Once I'm done here I'll be there. "
I search his face for a clue. I want and need a hint about what he's thinking and feeling but I just find a wide grin. He loves this space. He loves the children in this space. I see it in his expression and in how comfortable he is here. "I can stay if you want me to."
He arches a brow and his lips part as if he's about to say something but he stops himself. His eyes scan the area behind me as he takes in a heavy breath. "No, it's fine. You go home."
I sigh. It's not because I'm frustrated with Noah. I'm disappointed in myself. My selfish desire to become a mother is clouding my sense of fun and adventure. If I stay, I'll be gifting both Noah and I with an experience we can share together. "I'll stay."
"Go home." He adjusts the collar of my coat. "Maybe you can come back another day when you're not dealing with so much."
It's as though he can read between the lines of my hesitation. "You're sure?" I ask it more for myself than for him. I need to know that he's not disappointed in me.
"I'm very sure." His lips feather across mine before he turns quickly and walks back towards the children, leaving me standing in my own circle of regret.
"Do you remember the first day we met?" His hand brushes over my leg. "It was the day you came over with a sandwich."
It's hard for me to imagine a time when I won't remember that day in pointed detail. I can recall every part of it including the outfit I was wearing, the fact that Noah was completely nude and even the fragrance of his skin. It was, in every way imaginable, the most important day of my life.
"I thought you were a call girl," he adds before I have a chance to react.
I smile as he throws his head back in laughter. We talk about it often and every time we both end up laughing at all the misunderstandings that punctuated our first meeting. When he'd opened the door of his apartment in Boston that day, the world completely stopped for me. I was thrown into the whirlwind of his life. "You were the Noah Foster. You thought every blonde, blue-eyed woman was a call girl."
"I'm not the Noah Foster anymore." He cocks a brow. "I just want to be your Noah Foster."
The words pull on all of my strained emotions. "That's all I want, Noah."
"You must have felt lost today." He pulls my body into his. "I should have explained what was going on before I asked you to come to the preschool."
I position my leg over his. He'd pulled me onto the couch once he got home so I could rest in his strong arms. After I'd watched him strip naked, I'd followed suit. Now, we're laying together, our bodies completely entwined even though we haven't made love yet.
"Did you like the twins?"
His question catches me off guard. I was waiting for an explanation as to why he wanted me to visit him there. "The twins?"
"Max and Chloe." His breath sprints over my cheek. "They're pretty sweet, aren't they? They're only three-years-old."
I smile at the description of the two beautiful children I met earlier. "They're really adorable. I didn't know they were twins."
"I didn't either until Ben came down to see me there the other day and I introduced him as my twin brother," he says effortlessly.
My breath stalls at his words. Noah and his brother have worked hard to repair their broken relationship. I've known that they've been spending time together over lunch and an occasional beer after work. Noah even mentioned going down to the hospital to see Ben in the ER one day but this is different. Noah asked Ben to go down to the preschool before I even knew that it was a place that held any significance to him. How can I not be hurt by that?
"You asked Ben to go down there too?" I want to subtly point out that I don't see a difference between Noah inviting me and inviting Ben, save for the fact that Ben got his invitation before me. "What's going on, Noah?"
"You know how Ben started the Foundation in honor of our mother?" His voice is steady. "I wanted to run something past him."
The Foster Foundation is Ben's brainchild. It's designed to help individuals who can't afford medical care. Given the fact that Ben is a highly respected doctor it made sense for him to want to contribute something back to the world in a way that encompassed his true passion. Kayla, one of my best friends, is working hard on getting the project off the ground. Her love for the Foundation and for Ben, has cemented our friendship even more.
"What did you want to run past him?" I ask the question because it's expected, even though I want to ask why Ben took precedence over me. I'm not jealous. I will never be envious of Noah's time with his brother because it's filling a void within him, but I am irked that I was pushed back in line.
"I'm going to be donating some money there to help with things like supplies, repairs, things like that," he stops as his eyes fly past me. "I mean I want you and me to donate some money there. I asked Ben if he wanted to as well."
It's a tender gesture that isn't surprising to me. "I think that's a great idea. You've been volunteering your time there, haven't you?"
"It didn't start out that way. I was walking past that church one day a few months ago when I noticed a few women coming out with kids." He runs his hand over my back. "I was curious so I went inside."
Noah may have told me this already. All I can recall about the preschool is that he's gone there several times to take pictures of the children. I can't say for certain that he didn't tell me that he stumbled upon the place. In my mind I just assumed that he was hired to take school photographs, much like he did at the school where I work back in September, shortly after classes returned in the fall.
"You just walked right in?" There's no actual surprise in my question. Noah Foster may have been fearful of throwing himself into unfamiliar situations at one point but that's not who he is anymore. If he's interested in something, he'll do whatever it takes to find out everything he can about it. That insatiable need to always be on the cusp of learning more is one of the reasons I love him as much as I do.
"I did." A deep rumble runs through his chest. "I set off a panic when I walked in."
I let out a small chuckle. Noah is intimidating. He's six feet four inches tall and all muscle. That combined with his scar and the myriad of tattoos that cover his arms, it's hard not to be wary of him. He sticks out like a sore thumb regardless of what type of crowd he finds himself in the middle of.
"Did they call the police?" I tease as I run my finger along one of the fine lines of his tattooed chest. "Did you get arrested?"
"They were ready to call in the troops." He hugs me tighter. "I had to do some fast talking to stop them."
I smile at the lilt in his voice. He's happy. "What did you say?"
"I told them who I was." He taps his finger on my shoulder. "I didn't pull out the Noah Foster card. I said I was a photographer and wanted to do some free portraits of the children for their parents."
I close my eyes at the gentle confession. Noah has become much more giving and generous the past few months. He volunteers his time and talents to help as many people as he can. He'll often forgo payment from his clients if he knows that they're directing money they could be using to pay for essentials. His heart is much bigger than he'll ever admit to anyone, even me.
"That's why you started spending time there?"
"I did it because I felt guilty about something." His breath skips across my forehead. "It's time for me to explain it to you."
"I don't understand what all of this is." I scratch the side of my head. "These look like receipts of some kind."
I pull more of the papers from the large envelope that Noah handed to me after telling me to get dressed. He'd also put on a pair of jeans. The gesture itself would seem ordinary to most people, but it's very telling in the world of Noah Foster. This is serious. It's so serious that we are now seated in our home office with no promise of the intimacy that was expected just a few minutes before when we were huddled nude on the couch together.
"This is a receipt for a dentist." I hold a document in my hand. "This one is for a school in New Orleans."
I hear him pull in a deep breath as I watch his knees bounce next to me. It's a thoughtless motion that overtakes his body when he's anxious. I've seen it before. The fact that I've just now picked up a receipt for a soccer camp helps to push me even further into the maze of confusion I'm already wandering aimlessly in.
"Noah." I turn to look at him. "What is going on?"
He swallows hard. I watch his throat move as his eyes close briefly. "I should have told you about this, Alexa. I wish I had told you."
I look back down at the mountain of receipts that now litter the desk in front of me. I can't put the pieces of this paper puzzle together. They don't make sense to me. Many of the receipts are for businesses in Louisiana. Noah hasn't been there since I've known him. He's never spoken of knowing any person who lives there. Noah isn't the type to have friends sprinkled all over the country. He has me, he has his father, Ron, and now he has Ben.
"I've been helping someone." He pushes the air in his lungs out slowly between his lips. "I had to. I've felt so guilty."
Just as the words leave his lips, my eyes settle on a paper with the name of an elementary school printed across the top of it. It's a child. Noah has to be helping a child in Louisiana. "It's a child," I whisper the words as much to him as to myself.
"A girl." His hand darts to my thigh. "She's not my daughter, Alexa."
It was there, pulling at me before he said it. He knew it. He could see it in the way my hands are shaking and in the tone of my voice. "Who is she?"
"Her name is Paisley." He tilts his head back slightly. "I've never met her. I have no idea what she looks like."
"Who is she?" I repeat because the sparse details he's thrown at me aren't quieting my mind at all. Judging by the vast array of papers I'm looking at, Noah has paid for dozens upon dozens of expenses related to this child. "Tell me who she is, Noah."
He leans closer until his forehead is resting softly against the side of my head. "She's the daughter… Paisley is the daughter of the man…Alexa," his voice breaks.
I turn slowly, pulling my lips over his cheek as I cup his head in my hands. "She's the daughter of that man you killed, isn't she?"
He nods as his hands circle my waist, pulling me tightly to him.
"When did you start this?" I reach up to take the cup of tea from his hands. He'd excused himself after we'd held onto each other for more than five minutes in silence. I hadn't pushed for more. I knew he needed a moment to compose himself. When he offered to make me a cup of tea thirty minutes ago, I'd let him walk out of the room knowing he'd use the time to take back control of what he was feeling.
"Do you remember the day that Camilla and Abe were at my place back in Boston?" He pulls on the fabric of the jeans he's wearing as he lowers himself into the office chair next to me. "It seems like a lifetime ago."
I remember the day vividly. I'd gone to get Noah to take him to New York with me and Camilla had answered the door. The fact that we looked so much alike was shocking enough to me. Learning that she had recently given birth to a baby boy had jarred me even more. It was the day Noah broke my heart. He had pushed me out of his life and I'd run here, to Manhattan. "Yes," I offer because finding anything beyond that to say is out of my grasp right now.
"She told me about Paisley that day." He taps his long, elegant fingers along the edge of the steel desk. "She said that she'd just found out about her."
Camilla had been in a complicated relationship with the man that Noah had killed in self -defence. They were living together at the time, unbeknownst to Noah. When the man had attacked them both with a knife, Noah had reacted instinctively to save not only his life, but Camilla's too.
"Paisley was from a previous relationship then?" It's the only assumption I can make given the fact that I know so little about all the players.
He nods briefly, tilting his chin towards the floor. "Paisley's mother, Josie, was in touch with Camilla. Paisley took his death really hard."
"Camilla told you that?" Even saying her name now lives a bitter taste in my mouth. I'm not the overly jealous type but she's the only other woman Noah has ever loved. He killed for her.
His hand floats to mine, covering it lightly. "Camilla threw out a few details here and there. I ignored it because it was too upsetting but a few months ago I finally had my attorney find out more about them."
I can't say I'm surprised by any of it. Noah has carried a heavy burden of guilt over the night of the stabbing within him. Whenever he talks about it, his expression shifts to instant regret and remorse. He's told me more than once that he wished he would have thought more clearly in the moment, but Camilla's life was in grave danger and he reacted instinctively. He killed to save her. I tell myself that he would have done the same for anyone else, because I believe the words to be true.
"What did he find?" I ask, sounding much too relaxed for the situation. I'm gripping Noah's hand just as tightly as I'm holding onto every word he's sharing with me.
"He found a young mother who couldn't afford to feed herself, let alone a daughter." He rubs his hand across my forehead. "Josie had put Paisley in foster care because she couldn't provide for her. They'd been homeless for months."
I'd silently wondered about the people left behind after Noah took the life of the man who had attacked him and Camilla. I didn't even know the man's name. I'd asked once and Noah had walked out of the room. Pressing for more information wasn't going to change what had happened. I felt it was only going to push Noah into a corner he didn't want to be in. I had no place reminding him of what he'd done. He knew it. He's the one who lives with it every day of his life.
"I arranged to help them so they could be together," he says the words without hesitation. "I do it because it's the right thing to do."
The statement leaves little room for argument. It's not that I would disagree with him. I can't. If Noah feels it's his place to help this child, I can't dissuade him from that. I wouldn't want to. "I understand, Noah."
"I've felt like shit not telling you about it." His hand pulls mine into his lap. "It's my fault that Paisley will never know her father."
"You did what you had to do," I remind him. "You and Camilla would have died, Noah."
He nods before pulling my hand to his lips. "My attorney handles it all. My accountant helps him. These receipts are just that, receipts. I'm not a part of their lives. I don't want to be. I just want her to have a chance at a good life."
The explanation is heartfelt. I pull my hand from his so I can push the papers back into the envelope. I want to ask him why he didn't tell me about it sooner but I'm guilty of carrying the burden of a secret too. Mine is worse in so many ways and if I'm going to cast blame towards Noah, I have to be willing to stand up to his scrutiny too.
"There is something else I need to tell you, Alexa." He pulls on the edge of my office chair. "This is even more important."
We're in bed now. After Noah had picked up the envelope and tucked it back into a filing cabinet in our office, he'd taken me into the bathroom to have a shower. He'd lovingly washed my body and my hair while I clung to his waist. There was so much unspoken between us. I want to tell him about my inability to have a baby. I want to know why he chose to keep Paisley a secret from me and I want to discuss how we're supposed to celebrate our impending marriage with all of our friends, when we can't even confide in one another.
"Most of the children in the preschool and in the after school program are in foster care. Max and Chloe are too. Their mother was an addict. She abandoned them and then they were pushed into the system after their grandmother died. Helping at the preschool helps me feel like I'm doing good for those kids and for Paisley. Kids are so important."
I rub my hands against my temples. I've had so many opportunities to tell Noah about what I'm struggling with. I've been given moments in which I should have confessed to him that he'll never see me pregnant or be able to rest his hand against my swollen belly to feel the kicks of our unborn child. Instead, I've remained silent and have let him pour his heart out to me.
"Are you okay?" His lips flutter over mine. "I've upset you, haven't I?"
He has. I have. I feel as though I've failed Noah in some way and not just in the fact that I can't give him a child. I've let him down. There's absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t have told me about Paisley. "Why didn't you tell me about her Noah? Why didn't you tell me you were sending money there?"
His eyes flash over mine briefly before they settle on the wall behind us. "I didn't start sending money until we were engaged, Alexa."
I'm not sure if the words are meant to offer comfort to me, but they don't. They actually sting more than I could have imagined they would. He'd already pledged his future and his life to me when he began paying for the care of another child. How is that supposed to help me understand any of this? "What did you say, Noah?" I ask because I need more time to process what he just said.
"Alexa." My name leaves his lips beneath a heavy sigh. "This is so complicated."
I rake my hands through my still damp hair. "How is it complicated, Noah? You had no reason to hide this from me."
"You're wrong." His voice is firm and determined. "I had every reason to keep this from you."
My anger only swells with the proclamation. I feel attacked. I sense I'm on the precipice of him throwing jealousy or pettiness back in my face. I was angry when he gave Camilla a place to retreat to in his home in Boston. I was livid when he'd thrown me out that day beneath an explanation of wanting me to have a full life. I haven't been able to fully let go of all the insecurities that were born inside of me that day. It's been hard to not flinch whenever he mentions Camilla's name. I didn’t respond when he showed me a picture of her son Abe on his smartphone that Camilla had texted to him a few months ago. Even though she had recommitted herself to her marriage, it was still hard for me to accept their friendship but Paisley was unrelated to that, so in my mind there was no reasonable explanation for Noah not telling me about her.
I shift quickly on the bed, wanting to get up and walk out of the room. "Don't tell me this is about Camilla."
"Camilla?" he hisses her name out between tight lips. "Why bring her up?"
"You brought her up first," I push back out of my juvenile need to hurt him. "She knew about this, didn't she?"
"No," he begins before he stops to pull the sheet over his nude body. "No one knew about this but my attorney and accountant."
That wasn't the response I was expecting and it's left me hanging. "You are paying to help care for someone else's child, Noah. How could you keep that from me?"
"Alexa." He doesn't look at me as my name floats into the silence of the room. "Alexa."
"Just say it." I push my hands into the mattress hoping that it will help me find my emotional center. "Just tell me why you decided not to share something so monumental with me."
"Fuck," he spits the word out. "Why do you think?"
I can't answer. I don't know what I can possibly say to that. I shrug my shoulders and shake my head.
"I was scared you'd take off." He turns away from me, swinging his long legs over the side of the bed. "I was terrified you'd leave me if you knew I stole that child's father away from her. I ruined her life. I know throwing money at the situation isn't going to bring him back. I have to fucking live with the knowledge that I killed her dad for Camilla. It makes me sick."
"I don't know who else to talk to about this." I'm doing it again. I'm skipping past Sadie to confide in Kayla. I'm not doing it because I think Sadie will judge me. This isn't like my clandestine affair with Beck. I'm doing this because Kayla loves Noah's brother. She's going to be a part of my family and I need the soft support she always offers me. Kayla has never judged me. She never will. I know that.
"I'm listening, Lex." She reaches for my hand across the small table in the crowded café we decided to meet at. "You can tell me what it is."
"You know that I need you to make me a promise first, right?"
She smiles softly, her blue eyes opening a touch wider. "I won't tell Ben. This is between you and me."
I nod though a small sigh. I'm grateful that she offered before I had to beg for it. Kayla and Ben are just finding their path and I don't want to jeopardize it in any way by putting her in the middle of something. I need her to be my friend right now, not Ben's girlfriend. It's selfish but I'm clinging to the hope that she can offer me some insightful advice about how I can tell Noah about what the doctor told me.
"Noah and I are dealing with some stuff right now." It's vague. Shit, it's so vague.
"Is it wedding stuff?" she asks quietly. "Is it something I can take care of for you so you don't have to worry about it?"
I see the genuine want to help in her expression. She's stepped up to the bat to help me in every possible way with my wedding even though I passed her over for maid-of-honor in favor of Sadie. She told me she understood but I see something whenever I bring it up with her. I know it hurt her. I know it pained her to be pushed back into second place in the best friend department of my life.
"I have time to help." She glances down at the watch on her wrist. "It's Friday. I have the entire weekend free."
"I can't have a baby," I blurt the words out without thought. I'd wanted to tell Noah first but after what happened last night, I didn't know how to broach the subject with him. I felt a distance between us now that I didn't even realize was there until he confessed to providing financially for Paisley.
Her grip on my hand tightens. "What do you mean, Lex?"
I close my eyes to ward off the fast approaching tears. I haven't said it aloud to anyone yet. "I saw my doctor. I can't have a baby, Kayla."
Her eyes mist over before she pulls her free hand over her forehead. "I know you've been trying."
I nod gently. "I stopped taking using birth control after Noah proposed to me."
"There are a lot of different options. Did you get a second opinion?"
It's a question anyone would ask and I have to admit, I've thought about it too. "I haven't talked to any other doctors. I want to tell Noah first."
Her shoulders surge back. "You haven't told Noah yet?"
I'm instantly hit with a wave of regret. Hearing the words from her mouth makes them that much more poignant. "I haven't told him, Kayla."
"He loves you, Lex." I hear the smile in the words. "I don't know any man who loves a woman more than Noah loves you."
I take the words to heart. Kayla has become closer to Noah as she's gotten to know Ben. Noah and she have spent many hours together, talking about the difficult relationship the twins had after their mother died. She's come to see the softer parts of him that I've always known are there. Noah considers her as much his friend as mine now. "I know he loves me."
"You can't keep this from him, Lex," she murmurs. "You have to tell him before the wedding."
"I'm scared." I hear my voice crack just as I feel all the tumbling emotions I'm trying to contain. "I'm scared it will break him inside."
"Think about how you'd feel if Noah kept something like this from you." She pulls in a short breath. "Just think about how hurt you'd be if you knew Noah had a secret that could change your life and he chose not to tell you."
The irony of her words isn't lost on me. I pull every bit of strength I have left within to the surface as I turn to smile weakly at her. "I know. I'd feel like shit."
"Tell him today, Lex." She lightly kisses my cheek. "He loves you. He'll understand."
"How did you know I'd be here?" His deep voice is behind me before I have a chance to catch sight of him in the crowded preschool. I'd come straight here after seeing Kayla.
"Noah." I turn towards him.
His hands are on my waist in an instant, pulling me into him. "My beautiful, Alexa. I'm sorry."
"No," I say softly amid the loud hum of all the children running past us, each engrossed in their own activities. All of them are oblivious to the two of us. "I'm sorry, Noah."
"I wanted to tell you about Paisley." His lips feather against my ear. "I can't forgive myself for what happened to her father."
"I would have understood." I mean each of the words without reservation. I would have understood. I do understand. Noah's guilt will always push him in ways that I can't fully comprehend. I've never taken another person's life so I have nothing to gain judgement from. There is no way I can begin to stand in the place he is to determine what I would or wouldn't do. He's dealing with a difficult situation with honor and integrity. I would never fault him for that. I do understand that the goodness that is within him will always rise to the surface and he'll do whatever he feels is right.
"I can't even understand it myself." I feel his lips curl into a small smile against my neck. "I'm trying but it's hard."
"Noah." A soft voice pulls at us both from the left. "Come see the picture I painted."
I look down towards where a small blond boy is standing next to us. He's pulling frantically on the leg of Noah's dark pants leaving a trail of red paint. I smile at the sight.
"I'll be right there." Noah pats him softly on the head. "I need two minutes, okay?"
He doesn't say a word before he skips back into the crowds of the church basement, his brightly colored hands waving happily in the air.
"You wanted to tell me more about this place." I pull back from our embrace. "I want to learn more."
"I can come home with you now so we can talk." He circles his hand around my shoulder. "I just need to grab my gear."
I move to block his steps. "No. We're staying."
"We're staying?" he parrots back with a wide grin on his face. "You're staying?"
"We are staying," I correct. "We can talk after we're done here."
"I'd really like that," he says the words hoarsely even though there's no need for them. I can see how much it means to him just by the look in his eyes.
"I didn't see Max and Chloe today." I can't hide the disappointment in the words. I'd thought a great deal about the twins after Noah had introduced me to them during my last visit to the church basement.
His shoulders surge forward a touch before he turns to look at me. "They were taken away from their foster mother two nights ago."
He looks up from where he's sitting on a chair next to our dining room table. "I'm not sure of the details. Mrs. Penner told me when I got to the preschool today."
"Do you think they're okay?" I move to sit next to him. "Did she say if they were okay?"
He scratches his left ear, his eyes scanning my face. "She didn't have any details. I asked but she didn't know."
"How do we find out?" I push out of sheer necessity. After spending more than two hours with the children in the afterschool program today, I'd be struck by how amazing they all are. Many of them are from fractured families and have seen things that no person, let alone a child, should witness, yet they have a compassion and positive outlook that is addicting.
"I can make a few calls." He taps his finger on the edge of the table. "They're special, aren't they?"
It's an understatement. They are beautiful, little souls. "I don't know what it was about them, Noah. I only saw them for a few minutes but there's something."
"I feel it too." His heart jumps to his chest. "Maybe it's because they're twins."
"Maybe," I offer back. I know it's more than that. Noah had printed off two images of them for his portfolio and he'd left the pictures on the desk in his office. I'd stared at them for hours the other night. They were captivating. The smiles on their small faces had been haunting me since then.
"I want to talk about last night," he begins before he shifts back in his chair. "I'm sorry I sat in the office until you fell asleep."
I had wanted to get out of the bed and track Noah down so I could tell him that I wouldn't have run for the hills after hearing that the man he killed had a daughter. I also wanted to give him the space he needed. Chasing after Noah Foster to get him to talk was typically a losing battle. Giving him time was the way to draw him back in on his own terms. "I knew we'd talk today."
"I know how much you love children, Alexa." The words leave his lips so effortlessly. "They're your entire life."
He can't know how much weight that statement actually holds. "I love children."
"You work with them all day." He smiles at me. "I always catch you looking at babies when we pass by strollers on the street."
I bite my lip to stop the onslaught of emotions I feel surging inside of me. "I love children," I repeat.
"You've told me so many times about how you think I'm going to be a great dad." A slight blush rushes over his handsome face. "It's the most amazing thing anyone has ever said to me."
I feel my entire body shake at the words. He would be an incredible father. "Yes," I say in nothing more than a whisper.
"I don't know what I'd do to anyone who takes that chance away from me," he stops to stare at me. "If someone took away my chance to be a dad, I'd be stripped of everything. They can have my money, my own life, but to take away my chance to be a father to my child, that's the coldest thing a person can do."
I don't move. I can't. All I can do is stare at his mouth as he confesses everything he's feeling inside. It's everything that I've known but have been too afraid to face on my own.
"I took that chance from someone." He shakes his head briefly. "I took away Brent's chance to be a father when I killed him."
The fact that Noah has finally shared the name of the man he stabbed should bolster me emotionally. It means he's feeling closer to me. It means he's opening up. That's what it should mean. All it means to me, in this moment, is that he took away a man's chance to be a father, just as I'm taking away his chance to be a father now.
"I've had to fight with myself to come to terms with that, Alexa." He reaches to cup my limp hand. "Admitting it to you was too hard."
I look down at his hand. My eyes lock on the long fingers, and the trimmed fingernails. I focus on the way his hand flexes slightly as he pulls on mine. "I can't marry you, Noah."
His hand stops. The brief silence in the room is suffocating. "What?" I hear the emotion in his voice.
"I can't do it." I yank my hand from his. "I can't. I'm sorry."
"Please, no." The words are engulfed in a sob. "Alexa, please."
"I'm sorry." I don't look at him, as I stand from the table, turn on my heel and walk away from the man that I love.
"I'm sure, Lex." Kayla adjusts the belt on her dress. "You can stay as long as you want."
I nod because I haven't been able to pull more than two words out of my body since I arrived on her doorstep last night.
"I've been moving my stuff into Ben's," she stops before she walks over to the closet. "I have some clothes left here though. You can find something to wear in here."
"I'll go pick up my things." I know it's my voice saying the words but they sound foreign and empty. "I need to arrange that with Noah."
"I can do…" her voice trails. "I think it would be good for you to talk to him."
My eyes dart up and over her face. She'd held me when I cried last night and although she'd asked a few pointed questions, I'd offered no answers at all. I can't give Noah a child. Yanking that dream from his grasp isn't a grounded foundation for any marriage. I needed to let Noah go now so he can find a woman who can give him everything he needs.
"You haven't talked to him, have you?" I ask out of curiosity more than anything else. I'd heard her smartphone ringing over and over again before she told me she was going to sleep on the couch. Then I'd heard the muted whispers of her talking to someone. I'd assumed it was Ben but it was impossible to know.
"I'm worried about you." She avoids the question with effortless ease. I don't have the emotional energy to push back though.
"I'll pull myself together." I push my legs out from under the blanket. "Then I'll talk to Noah about my stuff."
"You need to talk to him about the wedding, Lex."
The wedding. My beautiful wedding. It was supposed to be the day I promised myself to the only man I've ever really meant to be with. It's days away now and I have to call off the entire thing. I rest my hand over my mouth trying to hold back my sobs. "I will."
"I have a lot of errands to run." She reaches past me to pull a scarf from a chair next to the bed. "I'll be going over to Ben's after that, unless you need me to come back here."
"I'll be fine," I say with no conviction at all. "I'll take the day to pull myself together."
"Call me if you need me." She brushes her lips across my forehead. "I'm a call away."
I nod as she runs his hand over my hair before she turns to leave.
"Have you eaten anything since you got to Kayla's place?" The concern in Sadie's voice is palpable even though the phone line.
"No," I offer back in all honesty. It's Sunday afternoon now and since I'd arrived on Friday night, I had only been able to stomach water. "I'm not hungry, Sadie."
"I'm going to have some food from Axel NY delivered to you."
"Don't bother," I push back. The thought of trying to eat only makes me more nauseous than I already am. I haven't slept more than a few minutes at a time and the last time I did drift off I awoke in a panic knowing that my life with Noah is over. I'm feeling not only physically ill from the realization, but emotionally spent as well.
"It's not up for discussion, Alexa." Her tone is firm. "I'm coming to New York tomorrow. I'll be there by noon."
I'm grateful for that. I need her. I have to work tomorrow but knowing that I'll be able to sink into Sadie's arms at the end of the day will help get me through the hours teaching that I'm not looking forward to right now. "Thank you."
"Once I'm there we can talk about how to handle the wedding cancellation."
Sadie and Kayla are the only two people I've told about my broken engagement. I avoided calls from family and friends checking up on last minute details. I need an anchor to help me tell everyone I love that my future has shifted to a place that has no purpose or direction anymore. Sadie will be that anchor.
I only nod through tears, well aware of the fact that Sadie can't distinguish my reaction at all.
"I love you, Alexa," she says in a quiet voice. "I love you."
"I love you," I offer back through a sob. "Thank you for helping me."
"I've got a delivery from Axel." A deep voice calls through the door of Kayla's apartment.
Sadie made true on her promise to make sure I ate something before another day passed. I look down at my body which is dressed in a pair of grey sweatpants and an oversized sweatshirt I'd pulled from the remaining things I found in Kayla's closet. After finding the strength to shower, I'd pulled my hair into a tight ponytail at the top of my head. I was presentable enough to open the door to retrieve whatever nourishment Sadie decided that I needed.
I swing open the door quickly, my eyes resting on the broad expanse of his chest which is covered in a black t-shirt.
"I have a sandwich for you." He holds a brown paper bag towards me. "This is for you, Alexa."
My eyes flash up to his beautiful face before they settle back down on the bag. "Noah."
He pushes past me stepping over the threshold and into the apartment. "I know how much you like sandwiches."
I don't. I don't hate them either but they aren't really just a thoughtless lunch as they are to most people. Sandwiches mean more to Noah and I than they should to anyone. I still bring him one every now and again as a reminder of our first meeting. He still refuses to eat them so I always do.
"I'm not ready to see you." I pull in a heavy sigh. "How did you know I was here?"
"Kayla told me." He doesn't mince words at all. "She's worried about you. Sadie is too."
"Sadie told you to bring that to me?" I nod towards the bag he still has in his fist.
He looks down to where my gaze is cast. "I called Sadie and told her to tell you that food was coming from Axel."
It's surprising. Sadie has no filter when it comes to keeping secrets. She can't hold them for more than a few seconds. It's one of the main reasons I haven't confided in her about any of this up to this point. I'm both shocked and impressed that she didn't share that Noah would be bringing me food.
"I was going to call you tomorrow," I whisper the words into the air between us.
"The only reason I didn't come over here on Friday night was because I wanted to give you space." He places the bag down on a table near the door. "I can't be away from you another night, Alexa. Come home with me."
"I can't." I take a step back as much to gain physical distance from him as to quieten my own desire to race into his arms and the suggestion to go home. "I can't, Noah."
He moves towards me. "When you walked out I thought it was because you couldn't stand the thought that I killed someone's father."
I'd thought about that. It had dawned on me after Kayla had left me to the comfort of her darkened room. My mind traced back to the conversation I'd had with Noah about how guilty he felt for killing Brent. I didn't want him to believe that my need to end our engagement had anything to do with what happened that night so many years ago. It was all grounded in the knowledge that I'd never be able to give him a child. "No. That's not it, Noah."
"I know." He looks down at his hands. "I know what it's about."
He thinks he knows. He's going to offer me an explanation about how I'm having cold feet because I don't do well under stressful situations. It's the same conversation we had months ago when I couldn't decide on a wedding dress. I was ready to call off the ceremony then too because I was feeling overwhelmed with meaningless details. This is very different though.
"You don't know," I push back. "You have no idea why I called off our wedding."
"Do you love me, Alexa?" He takes a full step closer. "Tell me if you love me."
I move back, my hands searching the wall behind me for stability. "It isn't about love, Noah."
"Answer the question."
"I'm ending this because of how much I love you." I bite my bottom lip to ward off a sob. "I love you too much to marry you."
"You love me," he begins before he scrubs his hand over his forehead. "I love you. We belong together."
"I can't be your wife," I spit the words out in a heated rush. "I can't do it."
"It kills me that you didn't think you could talk to me about this." His hand pats his chest. "This is me, Alexa. There is nothing you can't tell me."
"I'm talking to you about it now."
He rubs his hands together in front of him. "I know about the doctor. I know what she told you."
I reach to grab hold of the wall as I feel my knees give in to the weight of his words. "Who?"
He's beside me in an instant, pulling me into his arms. "Kayla told me."
I bury my face in his chest. I should be angry with her. I should call her and scream at her but right now I feel grateful that she overstepped that boundary. "I asked her not to."
"No." His hand cups the back of my head. "You asked her not to tell Ben. She hasn't."
It's splitting hairs but being upset about it won't change the reality of where Noah and I are now. "The doctor said…Noah, she said…I can't have a baby."
"Alexa." He pulls back, tilting my head up towards him. "How could you deal with this all alone? Why didn't you tell me?"
"You talk about being a dad." I cling tightly to his shirt. "You bought those little shoes."
He looks down at me, his eyes filled with tears. "I want to be your husband. I want to be married to you. That's what matters more than anything to me."
"You want a baby of your own," I throw the words back at him because I can't hold onto them anymore. I need this to be over. I won't carry the weight of this with me a moment longer. "What if I can never give you a baby?"
"What if our baby is here already?" He cups my chin in his hand. "What if both our babies are already here?"
"We're not cancelling the wedding, mom." I roll my eyes at Noah as I hold my phone away from my ear. "We're postponing it."
"I don't understand how you can do that on such short notice."
I haven't explained anything to my mother. I know that my call caught her off guard. Noah and I had sent out a mass email to everyone on our guest list telling them that we had decided to postpone the wedding for six months. I wanted to tell my mother in person, but since it wasn't possible for me to travel back to Boston right now, the phone had to do. Arranging to become Chloe and Max's foster parents was our sole focus right now. "I have to, mom."
"Did he cheat on you?"
"Wow," I breathe a heavy sigh. "Seriously, mom?"
"If he cheated on you, you need to dump him today." I can hear her tapping her fingers against the edge of the phone. "A man who does that will never change."
"That's not it, mom."
"What other possible reason could there be for you calling off your wedding less than a week before it's supposed to happen?"
I stare at Noah, watching the wide grin that has been present on his face since I came back to our apartment with him five days ago. "We need to wait for our children to be there, mom. We can't have a wedding without them."
I hear the unmistakable sound of the phone dropping from her hand. I hear the muted sounds of her exasperated questions as she reaches for it again.
"Children? Alexa, what are you talking about?" Her voice is breathless. "Are you pregnant?"
"No." I answer without any sense of sadness at all. "I'm better than pregnant. I'm the luckiest woman in the world."
"Tell me how much you love me, Noah."
"More than life," he breathes the words into my mouth. "I'll never stop loving you."
I push my body back so I'm straddling him. "Promise me that you won't."
A deep moan escapes him as I glide my wetness over his engorged cock. "I can't. I can never stop loving you."
"This would have been our wedding night." I move slightly, taunting him by pushing myself into his crotch. "Will you still fuck me like this once we're married?"
He grabs my hips in his hand. "You're teasing me. You think because I blew my load down your throat a few minutes ago that I can't fuck you senseless right now?"
His words only spur me on more. I loved giving Noah pleasure. Listening to him coax me into taking his cock into my mouth had only made me more wet than I already was. When he'd come in my mouth, I'd touched my clit pushing myself into an intense orgasm too. I should be exhausted but all I want is to be fucked by him.
"Show me," I challenge him. "Show me, Noah."
His eyes widen at the words and he has me on my back before I can offer any resistance at all. "I'll make you feel how much I love you."
His hands grip mine pulling them over my head. "Noah," I whisper as I shake my head. "Noah."
"Hold it. Hold the pillow and don't let go," he growls into my cheek. "I own your pleasure, Alexa."
I whimper as I feel his lips leave mine before they trace a moist path towards my right nipple. He bites the tender flesh hard enough to pull an audible gasp from within me. "Don't bite me."
"I have to." His lips move farther down. His tongue traces a line over my stomach before I feel his breath on my core. "I need to taste your sweet pussy."
I scream when I feel his teeth grip my already swollen clit. "I'm so close already."
He doesn't respond. The frantic movements of his head are a clear match for the skillful manipulations of his tongue on my tender flesh. He hones in on my clit, teasing and taunting it until I feel the unmistakable surge of pleasure drive through me. My hands jump from the pillow and into his hair as I come hard.
"I told you not to let go." His lips are on mine now. I can taste the sweetness of his breath and my own scent on his tongue. "I have to fuck you harder now."
I moan from the promise. My hands leap back to the pillow as I feel him inch my legs apart. His hand reaches to cup my ass, angling my body so he can drive his cock to its depth.
"Alexa." My name is nothing more than a heated whisper across my cheek as he pushes himself balls deep into me. "I'm going to come so hard."
I brace myself for the onslaught of his thrusts. I arch my hips off the bed and take everything this beautiful man is offering to me.
6 Months Later
"Do you think I look as pretty as mommy?" Chloe tugs on the edge of Noah's tuxedo jacket.
The entire room bursts into laughter. I turn to look at Sadie and Kayla who are standing next to me, both of them looking radiant in the royal blue dresses they each chose. After a lot of evenings spent together, and a few bottles of wine, we decided in unison that they would be co-honor guards as they called each other. It meant both of my best friends could be there to stand up for me at my wedding.
"Mommy and daddy both think you are the most beautiful girl in the room." Noah reaches down to kiss her forehead. "We just need to finish this up, princess, and then daddy can dance with you."
She jumps up and down briefly, the small tiara on her head wobbling precariously.
"You'll now exchange rings …"
"Can I dance with mommy then?" Max steps between Noah and I, interrupting the justice of the peace. "If Chloe gets to dance with you, I can dance with mommy, right?"
"We can dance all night." I run my hand over his hair. "Mommy can't wait to dance."
"Okay." He takes a step back, reaching for Noah's hand as he does.
"We're ready now?" The justice of the peace flashes us both a sympathetic smile.
"Yes," we say in unison.
Noah reaches behind him to take the rings from Ben's hand. His father, Ron, was supposed to be his best man when we initially planned on marrying six months ago, but now, it only made sense to have Ben stand up next to his twin brother. They had become increasingly closer as the months passed. It felt right to have him as an integral part of this very important day.
The justice of the peace takes the rings into his hand as I stare at the face of the man I love. I listen as he slides my wedding ring onto my finger, promising to love me until the end of eternity. I do the same with his ring, marveling at how perfect it looks on his hand.
I reach forward when he kisses me, his tongue darting over my bottom lip as his hands cup my cheeks. I taste my tears mingling with his in our kiss. I hold tightly to his lapel, not wanting this moment, this dream or this life to end.
"Our social worker told us that we can start the actual adoption process within a few months." Noah's hand wraps around my hip. "She doesn’t see any bumps in the road though. The twins will be officially our children then, although they already are in here." He taps his chest.
"They're so beautiful, Alexa." Sadie runs her hand over my shoulder. "You're such a good mom."
Each time someone says the words to me, my heart bursts wide open. Even after Noah and I had sought out the opinions of two fertility specialists we weren't devastated by their news. Having our own baby wasn't part of our path together but being a family with Max and Chloe is. The twins had settled into our lives and our home with ease. We'd taken every necessary step to become foster parents and I'd taken on a lighter schedule at work to give me more time at home with the children. Becoming a mother to two raucous four-year-olds was a gift that never stopped giving. I was grateful each morning when I woke up to look at their beautiful faces.
"You're sure you don't want us to stay at your place when you leave for your honeymoon?" Ben walks over to stand beside Noah. "The twins love their Uncle Ben and Aunt Kayla."
Noah's eyes dart to my face before he answers, "Alexa and I can't be away from them for more than a few hours. It's a family vacation."
It hadn't even been a question when we were planning the finite details of our wedding and honeymoon. The twins were included in every aspect of planning the big day and when we asked where they wanted to go on our family honeymoon, neither Noah or I was shocked when they suggested the beach. A week in Hawaii was the break all of us needed. I'd never longed for a vacation more than I had now.
"Daddy said you have a present for us." Max is pulling on my hand. My mother had taken him and Chloe to change from their wedding attire into their pajamas. She was taking them back to the apartment to sleep while Noah and I celebrated with our guests.
"I do." I crouch down to pull him and Chloe into my arms. "We can't bring the present with us to Hawaii though."
"Mom," Chloe pushes my hair away from my shoulder. "That's not fair."
"Grandma is going to stay at our place and take care of your present until we get back." I glance up at Noah. "Daddy and I think you're going to love what we got you."
Max claps his hands together, turning sharply in his slippers. "Daddy, daddy. It's a dog, isn't it, daddy?"
Noah crouches down too, pulling his arms over mine. "It's a puppy. A new puppy for our new family."
"We have the best family ever," Chloe screams as she wraps her arms around my neck. "We are the best family."
"We are," I say softly as I stare at Noah's face. "We are the best family ever."
Preview of FUSE – Coming Soon
"I don't have trouble finding women who want to fuck me," he says the words with so much effortless ease it's as though he actually believes them. "Once I tell a woman who I am, I'm usually in bed with her within the hour."
Um… what? Is this real? Is this what my friends meant when they told me to stay clear of men who are New York born and raised? Is he serious? "You're not serious?"
"I'm Beck. Brighton Beck." He extends his hand and it hangs in the air between us.
"Good for you." I move my eyes from his outstretched, vacant hand to his vibrant blue eyes. "I'm new here so that means nothing to me."
A slight smirk pulls at the edge of his full lips. "New here?"
"Not just here." I wave my arm around the crowded bar. "I'm new to Manhattan."
He nods as if that small detail is going to give him more understanding. He doesn't want to know about me. That's not why he's here. I've been watching him since my shift started. I'm the third waitress he's hit on. Both of the ones before me were blonde with big blue, puppy dog eyes. I didn't realize he had no preference until he waved me over. The fact that I'm a brunette with brown eyes cements the fact that this man is after one thing and one thing only. He wants a fuck partner for the night.
"Is there something I can get you?" I look past him to where a new group of frat boys has just settled into a booth. It's not my station, unfortunately. I've learned quickly that flirting will get me a full tip jar by the end of the night and frat boys don't hold too tightly to their wallets once they have a few beers in them.
"What's your name?" Brighton shifts slightly on the stool he's perched himself on. "I bet you have a beautiful name."
He'd lose that bet. I have a name that my mother thought was perfect until I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. "My name is Zoe."
"Zoe?" He skims it over his lips. "That's gorgeous."
"Do you want anything?" I stare directly at his face. He's actually gorgeous. His hair is dark and a tousled mess. His jaw is covered with the beginnings of a beard. If I wasn't so focused on keeping my mind in the game of life right now, I might take him up on his offer to spend the night together. I haven't slept with a man in months and jumping into bed with a guy like this would be a nice distraction.
"You," he says a little too happily.
I shake my head. I don't need this. "I have other customers to tend to, so unless there's something I can get you…"
"My girlfriend got married today." He slams his hand down on the small, circular table so hard the empty glass in front of him teeters slightly. "She got married to my best friend at the hotel across the street an hour ago."
I'm not a bartender. I don't hear the stories of woe and trouble that dot the landscape of the bar on any given day. I usually take orders, drop them off and collect my tips at the end of the night. I'm not equipped for this. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"She wasn't really my girlfriend." He reaches up to run his finger over his lips. "I slept with her in Paris."
"What's her name?" I ask before I dive into the more important question. "Do you want a refill?"
"Alexa." He nods briefly, pushing the glass towards me. "Whiskey."
I place it on the tray I'm holding before I turn to walk away. "I'll be back in a flash."
"Have you ever been in love, Zoe?" I feel his hand on my elbow. "Have you ever loved someone so much it tore you apart inside?"
My breath stalls at the question. He can't possibly know what he's asking me. I should ignore him and walk away. I can send his drink back with one of the other girls he was hitting on. They'll take the tip and maybe give him the comfort he needs. He's obviously falling apart inside.
"Do you know what it's like to lose someone?" I can feel him lean closer to me as he asks the question. "No one knows what I feel inside."
"I know." I turn back around and look directly into his face. "I know exactly how it feels."
About the Author
Deborah Bladon has never read a romance hero she didn't like. Her love for romance novels began when she was old enough to board the bus, library card in hand to check out the newest Harlequin paperbacks. She's a Canadian by heart, and by passport, but you can often spot her in New York City sipping a latte and looking for inspiration for her next story. Manhattan is definitely her second home.
She cherishes her family and believes that each day is a gift for writing, for reading, and for loving.