Very Bad Things
Epilogue (round 2 of the National Belltone Spelling Bee) is defined as a brief description of the fates of characters within a novel. On the day of the big competition, epilogue hadn’t been my word to spell, yet the term comes to mind as I consider my future with Leo.
Perhaps our fates have been on your mind as well…
“Sometimes, for no discernible reason, I wake up at 3:00 am and gaze at Leo. Without him knowing, I softly stroke his face and kiss his lips.” –Nora Blakely
A few days before Christmas
I pulled into the parking lot at Club Vita, my stomach fluttering at the thought of seeing Leo. I’d been gone for two days on a shopping trip to Austin with Aunt Portia, and even though I loved spending time with her, I’d missed him terribly. This was the first time we’d been apart since the Halloween party.
At least the gym was closed for the night and we’d be alone. But I’d arrived earlier than I told him. I nibbled on my nail. What if he didn’t like surprises? What if he had too much work to do and I’d just be in the way? I peered up at his bedroom window, hoping to catch a glimpse of him.
I knew Sebastian was gone. He was out with Cuba at the Briarcrest Academy winter dance. It was the annual football and cheerleader formal, and while most guys took dates, Sebastian and Cuba hadn’t. I didn’t think for a minute those two would be alone at the dance though. Nope. They never were. Girls were always calling or texting or following Sebastian around, especially since he’d started doing band gigs at Gilligan’s. Cuba wasn’t any different. I’d watched him enough to know he had a new girl every month. My gut knew he didn’t care about any of them. My heart recognized that something in him was broken.
I carried Aunt Portia’s bags to her car, kissed her cheek, and promised to call her in the morning so we could talk about the big Christmas dinner Leo had decided to have at the Tate loft. She was doing the desserts, Leo was cooking the turkey and stuffing, Sebastian volunteered for the mashed potatoes, Teddy and his sister were bringing the green bean casserole, and believe it or not…Cuba was coming as well.
Maybe he’d bring an exotic Brazilian dish. Yeah. The more food, the merrier.
Honestly, I’d been floored when Leo had acquiesced to Sebastian’s plea to invite Cuba. He’ll be alone on Christmas, Sebastian had told us. And those were the magic words for Leo to agree. He might be a tad possessive of me, but he couldn’t stand the thought of someone without family during the holidays. He also knew I wasn’t going to add Cuba to my bad list. I loved him.
Yes, Cuba and I had flirted at the park and at Emma’s party, but the entire time, I’d sensed it was all just an act. I could have been any attractive, warm-bodied female. When I’d turned down his threesome idea, he hadn’t cared. Not really. He’d moved on to the next available person in line, which turned out to be Emma Easton. In fact, the rumor at BA was he’d been seen having sex with Emma and another girl from the party. In the pool house. Classy.
Thinking of Emma brought back the memory of the pool-push incident as Mila liked to call it. Apparently, she’d used her phone to video the entire episode of our embarrassing girl-fight. I kept waiting to see it on YouTube because Mila may look sweet as pie, but underneath she had the soul of a little vixen. As far as Cuba and Emma went, I guess they’d hooked up after she’d dried off? Who cared? I was just thankful it wasn’t Sebastian who had a thing for her.
I’d gotten brave and invited Dad to Christmas dinner as well. He’d said yes. We’d see if he really showed up. I’d been meeting him for lunch after my therapy sessions once a week. Sometimes we didn’t say much, but it worked for us. He was giving me his time. Something he’d never done before. I knew his faults and that he wasn’t likely to change, and he knew the terrible truth about what had happened to me. Our reconciliation would be a good thing and would take time and effort on both our parts. I didn’t have a crystal ball; I didn’t know where our talking was leading, but I wanted to spend time with him. I needed to see where it might go because I wanted him as part of my Christmas. I wanted him as part of my future.
As far as Mother went, I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to forgive her, mostly because it’s hard to forgive someone when they haven’t asked for it. Yet, because my heart knew that letting go of the past was the best way to move forward, I was trying. I’d hardened my heart against her years ago, but I think…I think I was beginning to feel pity for her instead. She had nothing, not the love of a husband or a daughter or a son.
Like a shell, she was empty and cold.
She’d never be one of the beads on my happy necklace.
Mother was yesterday’s garbage, and I wouldn’t ever let her influence me or make me into someone who did bad things. I would never let her steal the light from me again, never let her break my spirit.
But, just maybe, I could release her. Forgive her for not loving me.
I’d learned that you can’t let the shame of your past affect your future. I had Leo and it was enough. Deep inside my soul, I was putting one foot in front of the other, taking each day as it came, and I knew I was moving in the direction I wanted to go, in the direction of happiness. The sun felt brighter, the birds sounded sweeter, and the world was mine. Why? Because I loved us enough to work on making myself better.
It was progress.
Chilly from the brisk evening breeze, I hurried to the gym door, a handful of wrapped packages in my hand. Today had been a successful shopping day with a pair of handmade boots for Sebastian, some music CDs for Teddy, and a book of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics for Leo.
I smiled to myself, picturing him reading to me aloud while we were in bed, something he’d taken to doing since we’d been together these past two months. I’d lie there and watch his mouth, relishing every syllable that fell from his sensuous lips.
It seemed we talked constantly to each other, whether it was mundane and silly or vital to our future. I don’t think he’s a man of many words. He says what he needs and moves on. Yet, we couldn’t get enough of conversation. I ached to hear his voice tell me about his day. I devoured his facial expressions when he told a story about something Teddy had said or done.
Aunt Portia claimed that being able to have meaningful conversations with the person you loved was a gift. She said it meant we would make it, that we would grow old together, still talking about the things we loved.
I think she’s right.
I jangled the keys as I opened the front door, hoping to get Leo’s attention. I walked into the darkened foyer and looked around, expecting to see him come running down the stairs. He didn’t. Disappointed, I went up the stairs to the loft where I’d been living.
I passed the eight-foot, live Christmas tree we’d put up over Thanksgiving. Usually I couldn’t pass it without going over and admiring all the homemade ornaments Leo’s parents had made with them when they were kids: cute pictures of them glued to snowflakes cut-outs, pictures of them smiling (or crying when they were babies) as they sat in Santa’s lap. Such a happy family. No wonder Leo missed them every day.
But I didn’t have time for gazing at ornaments now. I needed to see Leo.
Loud music blared from his closed door and I considered knocking, but I didn’t. I rushed in and bam! someone scooped me up and swung me around, making the packages cascade to the ground. I squealed in delight and wrapped my legs around his hips.
“About time you got here. Been going insane without you,” Leo said in a growly voice that sent shivers down my spine. He kissed me hard, his eager mouth searching, his tongue demanding entry. Passionately, I gave it right back to him, eating him up, returning his ferocity. Hard and fast. It was always like this with us, and I’d never get enough.
He pushed me up against the bedroom wall, pinning me there. He moaned. I moaned. Leo.
He came up for air but barely moved his mouth from mine. “Mmm, I needed that,” he murmured, closing his eyes briefly. “So damn glad you’re here early.”
I stared at him for a moment, taking it all in: the overly long blonde hair, the shadow on his hard-as-granite jaw, his pale-blue eyes that seemed to see right to the heart of me.
This man loved me.
“Miss me?” I said, giving him a swift nuzzle on his neck.
He pressed his hardness firmly against my center. “How’s that for an answer?”
“How’s it possible that two little days seemed like a million years,” I said a bit breathless, tightening my legs around him, arching closer.
“Thought I was gonna have to come to Austin and get you,” he said, his heavy-lidded eyes never leaving mine. “I don’t like sleeping without you, Buttercup. Not a bit.”
“Then let’s move to the bed,” I said with urgency. “I’m ready.”
He chuckled and gave me a quick peck. “Hold on, there’s something I want to show you first.” He set me down and stepped away from me.
“Uh, okay,” I said, sighing heavily. What could be more important than us making up for lost time?
He smirked at my surly expression, kissed the tip of my nose, and grinned like he had a secret.
“Come over by the window.” He laced our fingers together and led me over to the floor-to-ceiling window that looked out over Dallas.
I let him guide me, watching how his powerful body moved across the floor in his low-slung jeans and black wife-beater. I wanted to rip that shirt off him and lick all over his dragon. I wanted to toss him on that bed and show him a few new things I’d thought of this weekend.
Because smart girls are creative.
And he wanted me to look out the window.
We reached it, and he held me tight with one arm while his other hand pointed up at the dark sky. “I know stars are important to you because your face gets all dreamy when you look out this window…and sometimes…I can’t help but wonder what you’re thinking about when you gaze up at them.”
“About you. About us,” I said, my heart full. “Stars give me hope.”
“And you’ve never given up wishing on stars. You told me so.” He paused and glanced at me sheepishly. “Honestly, you’ve inspired me a little, and well, I’ve been doing some reading up on stars myself.”
I blinked. I inspired him? He was the one who loved others selflessly. He was the one who’d taken over the care of a child at eighteen. He was the one who’d seen past my bad list. He was my inspiration.
“What did you find out during your research?” I asked.
He pointed up at one of the constellations. “That group of stars over to the left is called Orion the Hunter. It was named after a fierce warrior in Greek mythology.”
I looked up and nodded, recognizing the familiar group of stars in the winter sky.
He continued. “The two stars at the top are his shoulders, the two toward the bottom are his legs. In the middle, you have the three stars that make the belt and then…and here’s the important part…there’s several stars going down from the belt. Those are his sword and that’s what I want you to see…that like Orion’s sword, you’re a star too.”
“I’m not a star,” I whispered, turning to look at him, blinking at the sudden dampness in my eyes.
“You’re better than a star.”
I bit my lip and peered back up at the heavens. “How?”
“Look at the sword. Hard,” he said. “Can you tell that one of the stars is fuzzier than the rest?”
I squinted and then nodded. Sure enough the stars going down from the belt were not as clear as the others. Not as bright.
He said, “It’s blurry because one of those isn’t really a star at all. It’s something much more beautiful.” He turned me to face him. “It’s a nebula…a real nebula…where new stars are being born every day, every minute, becoming part of our universe. That fuzzy star actually creates life. That star, just like you, is a beginning. It’s life, it’s truth, it’s hope, it’s what we are made of.” He paused and shook his head as if in amazement. “That star is creation at its best, and just like those new stars being born, so are you. You are being born again. You are starting all over, with a fresh slate, and the night sky is all yours, Nora.”
He kissed my hands with reverence. “Inside you right now is the life you’ve always deserved, a soulmate, a family, happiness.”
Tears streamed down my face at the conviction I heard in his voice.
God, how he looked at me. How he loved me. How I loved him.
His thumbs gently rubbed my tears away. “Did I make you cry? I didn’t mean to.”
“Happy tears, Leo,” I said. “It’s been such a long road, but here I am, in your arms. Life doesn’t get any better than this.”
He slid to his knees in front of me.
I stared down at him in confusion. What?
He spoke quietly, yet with assurance. “A hundred years from now nebulas will still be creating the universe. A hundred years from now…if we are still around…I will still love you. I want to be with you for as long as we both have left in this world. I want to be the one to wipe your tears, soothe your heartaches, rejoice in your successes. I want to help you destroy the demons that haunt you. Someday, the bitterness and hurt you carry will fade. I can see it already, and I yearn, and I mean physically yearn to be there with you.”
His hands tightened around my hips. Like I was his lifeline. “Let me be part of your beautiful chaos.”
He tugged something from his jeans and opened it.
The world held its breath.
With quivering hands I lightly touched the diamond solitaire ring resting inside the teal box, half afraid it would suddenly disappear.
“Nora Grace Blakely, will you marry me? I want it now, but it doesn’t have to be tomorrow or next year, but I need to know you’re mine. I promise I will never waver again, never be unsure. I was half a man until I met you. I thought I had it all together, but I was dead wrong. I want to be committed to you…long term.” He sucked in a deep breath and exhaled. “Be my star, Nora.”
I cupped his face, slid down to my knees and nodded, mute.
With shaking hands, he slid the ring on my finger.
This was our new beginning, the creation of our future.
“I belong to you,” I said softly.
His mouth tipped up in a grin. “That’s a yes, then?”
I looked into his opal eyes, the ones that had captured me in that parking lot months ago. That fateful day, his gaze had given me strength and hope. Destiny had intertwined our lives, had thrown us together time and time again.
Some people say that true love is a myth, that soulmates don’t exist. I feel sadness for those cynical souls. They’ll never know the high that comes from being with the one you’re meant to be with. They’ll never experience the absolute rightness of finding their true mate.
“Hey, you gonna answer me?” he murmured, lifting my chin up.
“Yes, Leo. Yes, yes, yes. I want to marry you. I will follow you wherever you go. I want to have little Tate babies who play the guitar and piano. I am yours.”
He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. His eyes misted as he rested his forehead against mine, as if in relief. “Best Christmas present I’ve ever gotten,” he said.
We stared at each other for a long time, our bodies fitting like pieces of a puzzle, our hearts beating as one. This was one of those extraordinary moments I would never forget; this was a moment that would sustain me in times of strife; this was the universe aligning; this was perfection.
This was love.
He breathed me in. Minutes passed, perhaps hours. I don’t know. All I knew was him and the way he made me feel. Exquisite and precious. Like I was the queen of his world. As the constellations watched from above, as the night sounds of the city buzzed in the background, as people went about their normal lives, we combusted. Like the most delicious white-hot fire.
We lunged for each other, both of us falling to the ground in a tangle of legs and arms.
He stripped me in seconds, his hands shaking with emotion.
I tore his tank off and traced every part of his tat with my tongue. I kissed his face, his neck, his shoulders, his chest.
“Forever,” he whispered against my bare skin, the devotion in his voice making my heart fly.
“Forever,” I promised.
And it was.