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The Eleventh Hour

 

The Eleventh

Hour

APRIL MARIE LIBS

Dedication:

 

For

my daughter, Lexie,

a brilliant shining star in

my life.

The Eleventh Hour

 

Copyright © 2017 April Marie Libs

 

All right reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information retrieval and storage system without permission by the publisher.

 

Names, characters, and incidents depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination, or are used in a fictitious situations. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, organizations, incidents, or persons- living or dead- are coincidental and beyond the intent of the author.

 

Acknowledgements

 

I’d like to thank my editing team, as always. They are the spokes in the sphere of my writing wheel. I couldn’t do it without you guys! Rita Schueler, Shelly Pearson, Dawn Durbin, and Shelly Haworth, and also my content cronies, Tracy Loi and Jill Finnegan. Thanks for letting me pick your brains 24/7. Lisa Kaelin deserves an extra special shout out for being such a valued and appreciated editor, but more importantly the best friend a girl could ask for.

Contents

APRIL MARIE LIBS i

Dedication: ii

The Eleventh Hour iii

Acknowledgements iv

Prologue 1

Hour one 5

Hour two 15

Hour Three 47

Hour Four 77

Hour Five 96

Hour Six 118

Hour Seven 138

Hour Eight 157

Hour Nine 184

Hour Ten 229

Hour Eleven 240

Hour Twelve 247

Epilogue 254

Meet Me in Heaven 257

Prologue

 

 

SHE NEVER INTENDED on becoming the other woman. In fact, Addison loathed the backstabbing adulteress that ripped a marriage to shreds, tore the once faithful man from the clutches of his one true love, watched their well-intended vows crumble to the ground, with no hope of ever being resurrected.

The thought of someone that vile, that despicable, to stoop so low to steal another woman’s loved one made Addison’s stomach clench with nauseating disgust and her skin crawl with infuriating revulsion, but yet here she was on the brink of making that very decision -- to leap over that moral threshold into adultery-hood, a land that sucked you into its cavernous, black hole; one that you could never, ever escape, no matter how high you scaled, or how hard you tried to scratch your way back to the surface.

Once you made that decision to become the other woman -- no matter how long the relationship lasted -- you would from that point forward, for the rest of your life, be “The Adulteress.” There was no going back. Once you slept with a married man, you couldn’t wipe the act clean from your slate. You couldn’t erase the moment from your timeline. You were forever marked with the dreaded scarlet letter. You could hide it with shady lies and manipulative half-truths, push it so far into the back of your brain that it collected cobwebs and mountains of dust, but you, and you alone, would forever know the truth. The decision would be etched into your soul for eternity.

Was Addison willing to mar her inner being to slide into the shadows with a man, whom she’d only met weeks before, knowing full well he had a beautiful, unsuspecting wife waiting in the wings to welcome him home when they parted?

Was she capable of the contemptible act, knowing she could potentially ruin the sanctity of a marriage and cause erectable damage to another human being that did absolutely nothing to her whatsoever?

Was he worth throwing away her moral compass, her elevated standards, every ethical value her parents took years upon years to instill?

When Addison viewed the situation with only her cerebrum, the resounding thought that immediately popped into the confines of her brain, which reverberated like a hammer being slammed into a steel drum was, Absolutely not!

But then when he was in the same room with her, her straight-and-narrow judgement that manifested itself into her trusted moral compass that had guided her thus far throughout her twenty-four years always lost direction, the magnetic needle wavering, making the line between right and wrong lose its boundaries. It was as if the world slipped off its axis in his presence, the motion of the sphere slowing in a counterproductive pattern, causing her to look at everything that she had thought and felt for her entire life differently.

He seemed to have some type of bewitching power over her that she couldn’t refuse. The jaunty charm, his bright smile, those adorable dimples flanking his wide lips, the way he made her giggle like an adolescent school girl. He never failed to make her heart skip a beat and her palms bud in sticky moisture whenever he stepped into the room.

This had never happened before -- this loss of breath, the palpitating heart, the warmth gathering in the center of her core -- over a man.

Does this fact make the decision that she was about to make any less deceitful and incriminating?

Or maybe, just maybe, this whole debacle wasn’t Addison’s fault at all. Maybe Fate made a horrendous mistake and accidently paired the wrong two people together.

Maybe something, or someone, altered Addison’s course of life and she wasn’t where she was supposed to be at the exact moment when divine intervention happened, lightening sparking, making the ground under her feet quake. Maybe the real victim in their scenario was Addy because some other woman was living out the life that she was supposed to be living.

This was the thought swirling through Addison’s mind as she perched in her car, for the umpteenth billionth time, while stuffing Pringles into her mouth as she watched Dawson arrive home from work in his shiny silver Infinity, swinging open his car door, unfurling his long, lean legs, his dark brown hair curling at his starched white collar as his wife greeting him at the door in a sunny-yellow ruffled blouse, a huge thank God you’re home smile slung across her face as she ushered him inside, quietly clicking the door shut in his wake.

Seeing Dawson’s wife with her beautifully-wild, kinky red hair, spattering of freckles, and tiny frame, always caught Addison right in the gut with a mind-blowingly hard sucker-punch right to the ribs. It made her gasp for air as she wondered what in the heck was she doing here, her moral conscious stomping her feet, screaming at the top of her lungs, You haven’t stepped over that line yet….Leave now while you still can!

But sometimes you don’t have a full depiction of the entire circumstance, and until you do, your conscious allows you to proceed forward, but reminds you to advance with extreme caution as the thought lingers in the back of your mind like a malevolent premonition, If you play with fire, you will get burned.

 

Hour one

 

 

ADDISON MAYNIRD SLUFFED her carry-on bag further up her shoulder as she yanked her rolling luggage along the blue, matted carpet of Southwest Regional airport in North Bend, Oregon, then glanced down at her wrist for the time, realizing she had a full two hours before her flight embarked for Las Vegas.

Luckily, she asked her business partner, Emily, to drop her off at the airport early, assuming the security line would be atrocious on a Friday afternoon, and she was right. It had already looped around ten different turnstiles, with twenty feet of forward momentum in between. Thankfully, she cushioned her arrival by the additional hour so she could stand in line without worry.

She considered stopping for a jolt of caffeine before she stood in line, but nixed that idea, not wanting to have to use the restroom on the flight. Instead, she followed the deluge of travelers herding toward the security check point and took her spot behind a middle aged couple at the back, who seemed to be bickering quietly amongst themselves. Wanting to give them some semblance of privacy, Addison took a few steps back, yanked the cell out of her jean pocket, tucked a chunk of milk chocolate hair behind her ear, and buried her nose in her Facebook app, but she couldn’t help overhearing the couple bark agitatedly in harsh whispers.

“No, you’re the one with the attitude problem, not me.”

“Me?” the man shot back. “You’re the one that’s been snapping at me since five a.m. this morning.”

The woman fell back a step then bent at the waist to inch closer, sneering, “That’s because you’re constantly an ass.”

“I’d rather be an ass,” he huffed, “than constantly having a resting bitch face, like you.”

Addison couldn’t help it but she chuckled out loud, then bit down on her bottom lip, chagrined at her outburst. She peeked up at the line winding in the opposite direction to see if anyone else caught the conversation. Sure enough, a tall, dark-headed man grinned at her, his eyes slicing to the couple arguing, then enlarging, as if to say, Can you believe this? his crystal blue eyes dancing in mirth.

In reply, Addison pulled up her shoulders and shook her head, replying back silently, Unbelievable.

As the line shuffled forward, the couple continued with their argument, which had now become more than malicious whispers, inching over to loud, angry insult slinging between the two. When Addison caught the tall stranger’s eye for a second time while shuffling through the turnstiles, she had to laugh when she saw him hold up a pair of ear buds before stuffing them in his ears, then pointed at her to do the same.

Not a bad idea.

Addison released her wheeling luggage and dug around in her imitation Coach handbag for her ear pieces. Once she found them hiding among her wadded up receipts and empty candy wrappers, she situated them in her ears, before scrolling through her Pandora stations for a calming, yet alternative, mix. Once the melody floated into her canal, she immediately felt her tightened levator muscles unhinge and her anxious knots unfurling. She closed her eyes for an instant, pulling in a deep breath, letting the tangle of multi-sized bodies swarming her on all sides melt away.

When she reopened her eyes, she found the stranger watching her intently. When he saw her notice him, he gave her the thumbs up signal with a tilt of his head.

She flattened her lips and nodded, conveying that she most definitely felt better after blocking out the negative banter. In reply, he winked at her, and then concentrated on the task at hand, stepping out of his shoes, lifting the black leather satchel over his head, and unbuckling his belt, placing all items into the grey plastic tub to be pushed onto the conveyor.

This was when Addison had the time to fully take him in. His wavy dark hair looked to be at that odd length while growing out -- not too short, but not yet to his shoulders, either -- that curled around his ears and at the nape of his neck. There was no distinctive style to it, other than disheveled, probably due to him raking his fingers through it -- which he was doing right at that very second. He wore pale pink hipster pants that molded to his hips and hit right at the ankle, and a black t-shirt, bolding sporting the phrase, Real men wear pink across the chest. His eyes could only be described as crystal-clear, cobalt blue, his complexion a natural olive with a warm caramel glow. There seemed to be no lines around the eyes or mouth, giving him a youthful appearance, maybe in his early twenties.

And he had no gold or platinum band adorning his left ring finger. Addison knew because she checked -- twice.

Addison slipped off her sandals and dropped them into a scuff-marked bin, stuffing her purse on top. After heaving up her rolling bag to nestle behind it, she eased them both onto the conveyor belt simultaneously. Once she felt the belt catch, she released her items and stepped in front of the scanner, waiting for the attendant to wave her through.

As she was slipping back into her sandals on the opposite end of the conveyor belt, she noticed the stranger being patted down by a female officer, his stance wide, his long arms extended, while another security member tossed several small bottles into the oversized trash can to the left.

Addison couldn’t help herself when she glanced over her shoulder while walking by, and unintentionally caught his attention. His full lips gingerly curved into a sly grin, revealing his straight white teeth, as well as a few laugh lines that materialized at the corner of his dancing blue eyes, which upped his potential age, while somehow making him even more appealing.

She grinned back, hitching her thumb into the strap of her purse, swiveled to look straight ahead, and kept walking.

As expected, the gate was packed with a mirage of travelers, some obvious business voyagers with their computers glowing on their laps, while others were headed to Vegas for an exhilarating weekend filled with free drinks, city lights, adrenalin-filled gambling, and whatever else Sin City was willing to offer.

Too bad Addison wasn’t one of those passengers.

This year it was her turn to attend the National Pastry Convention, and although Addison loved traveling, having to spend hours upon hours pounding the pathways of the convention hall sifting through venders wasn’t her idea of a good time. Especially having to do it solo to help conserve funding for her budding new bakery, specializing in cupcake pastries. Through hard work, determination and plenty of sweat equity, Addison and her business partner, Emily, have become the go-to bakery when wanting a unique, easily eaten, scrumptiously delicious cupcake sculpture. Since they had opened their doors eight months prior, they had been hired to design full-sized teddy bears, fantasy castles, life-sized puppies and everything else imaginable, all made of individual cupcakes that party goers could just pop off the display and eat with their hands. It was all the craze on the west coast, almost completely replacing the traditional pastries at birthday parties, bridal showers, and even weddings. And since Emily graduated from The Institute of Culinary Education, and Addison with a degree from The Art Institute, they were a pair made in pastry engineering heaven.

Addison laced through the rows of occupied seats, coasting around bags, stepping over sprawled legs, and found an empty chair close to the terminal, facing the window toward the Boeing 717 jet liner perched on the tarmac. The sun’s rays bounced off the aircraft’s front window, reflecting back into the airport, making Addison want to cover her eyes from the scalding rays. Instead, she ducked her head and busied herself inside her purse, searching for a piece of gum or a mint of some sort.

That’s when she heard the ruckus of men shouting behind her and swiveled in her seat to find the source. She turned to find the man from security sauntering up to the gate, a wide grin on his face as a troupe of men greeted him with excited shouts and boisterous whistles. He replied back by pumping both fists above his head in a victory stance, making the crowd go even wilder before they swarmed him, swallowing him up with smacks on the back, handshakes, and man hugs.

Within five minutes, another man entered, getting the same warm vibrant welcome from the group of men. Obviously, a guy’s trip was about to ensue. No telling what kind of trouble those men were about to dive into.

A flight attendant then announced over the crackling speaker that group A was to line up according to their boarding pass specified number. The gaggle of rowdy men headed to the front of the line and were close to the first passengers to board the aircraft. Addison, who was at the tail end of the A boarders, followed behind a large man with a shock of silver hair. Even from outside the aircraft, she could hear the loud banter, lots of laughter, jokes, and jabs being tossed between the men.

As she entered the craft, she found the group a fourth of the way back, standing in front of their seats, bending over the back to converse with their friends behind them. Addison continued shuffling behind the congested line, but could see the man from security sitting in an aisle seat. As she neared, he disengaged himself from the conversation and locked eyes with her. She could feel her body tingle with electric charged energy, and knew her face had to be flushing. She dropped her chin, shielding herself with a wave of dark hair, hoping the line wouldn’t stop right beside his seat.

As she passed, her eyes flitted back up as he pulled his bottom lip between his teeth, grinning at her impishly. She could feel his heated gaze follow her back as she chose a seat four rows down on the opposite side of the aircraft, and hoisted her carryon luggage over her head to jam into the top compartment. Buckling her safety harness, she kept her chin tucked as she reached into her purse for her Kindle e-reader, and then bent to shove her bag under the seat in front of her. When she straightened, she took a glimpse in his direction, but noticed he had turned back to his friends through the gaps of the oncoming passengers.

Flirtation over.

The handsome stranger would disembark and be long gone before Addison even retrieved her bag from the overhead compartment. Another beautiful man drifting out to sea without Addison having the guts to clutch onto his shirt and drag him back to shore. It was the story of her life. Men sent her signals all the time, but she never had the gumption to follow through with the flirtation. In a bar, when a man seemed interested and headed over in her direction, she would high tail it off to the restroom, tossing out random excuses, mortified with thoughts of what to say or how to act during initial contact. It wasn’t that she was shy, per say, she just didn’t like that first round of small talk that obviously had to ensue for a meeting to take place.

And this situation was no different….she practically ran through the aisle when passing the cute stranger, so she wouldn’t have to communicate. She dug her head into the headrest, miffed at herself for not speaking to him. Obviously, she did fine while communicating nonverbally. Why couldn’t she just throw out a simple, Hi, to open the conversational door?

Maybe she should learn sign language and pretend to be deaf. This way she could communicate with her hands, and once she and a man had established a comfortable rapport, she could miraculously be healed and speak from that point forward.

Addison wished she’d just grow a spine for a change and make the first move. This man was single, good looking, and obviously interested, right? She should just jot down her number, sashay over to him, and hand over the slip of paper with a flirty smile, miming the call me signal.

Who was she kidding? That would never, ever happen, even if her life depended on it.

She watched the slim, male steward in a maroon pants and vest demonstrate the evacuation procedures with flowing hand motions, while attempting not to have her vision slide off to the intriguing man on the left. When the male attendant made his last pass through the cabin, checking to make sure all passengers were securely fastened, Addison was about to absorb herself in her book, when out of her periphery she saw the man holding up his phone, angled toward her.

On the white screen was the word, Hi, scrawled by hand in red ink.

Her stomach curled with anticipation. Was this message for her?

When she saw him turn in his seat and lift a hand with a slight smile, she realized he was most definitely trying to communicate with her. She watched him turn back to his phone, rub his hand across the surface, and then write with his index finger. After a few seconds, he held back up his device.

White board app.

Pretty cool stuff.

Then more hand erasing ensued, before she read, You should download app, and then a shake of his head and more wiping.

Never mind.

No Wi Fi.

Addison grabbed her phone and typed in her IPhone notepad, Will this work? And blew it up to eighteen point text.

He gave her the thumbs up signal, erased his words, scribbled something on his screen, and then held up his cell.

Las Vegas?

She nodded, then sent, You?

Yep. Bachelor party. He erased his words and then sent, Bachelor, with an arrow pointing to the stout, blonde man sitting across the aisle from him.

She wrote back, Sounds fun.

How about you? Business or Pleasure?

She typed back, Business, adding a frown face, but then deleted it, not wanting to appear too cheesy.

Are you a gambler? he asked.

Feeling bold, she typed back, Depends what the reward is, and then felt her cheeks heat as he grinned devilishly.

She could only imagine what was running through his mind so she quickly added, If it’s the spa, then I’m all in, so she didn’t look like such a tart.

He laughed.

Addison grinned back at him. She loved this way of communicating. She could write down her thoughts and then edit them if needed. This was even better than sign language!

Feeling gutsy, she asked, What hotel are you staying in?

The Wynn. You?

Venetian.

That’s close, he shot back, and then, You should come party with us.

Maybe…she typed back, attempting to tease, which awarded her another boyish grin, the crinkles at his deep blue eyes only adding to his allure.

At least it’s not a no, he sent back.

But then the friend sitting next to him stole the phone out of his hands. He attempted to get it back, but the guy tossed it across the aisle to another friend. There was no way he’d get it back now without unbuckling his seatbelt and causing a scene.

Addison couldn’t help the disappointment that flooded through her at their conversation coming to a close. Tucking her phone beside her leg, she tried with all her might to get engrossed in the book that she was reading, but her eyes kept involuntarily darting up to watch the group of men order cocktails, tease the female flight attendants, and harass one another with comfortable comradery.

When the plane eased onto the runway, the tires bumping along the concrete path, Addison thought for sure she would see a message from the seat up ahead, but as far as she could tell, he never received his phone back.

As the plane came to a final halt and the overhead speaker announced it was safe to move throughout the cabin, all passengers unclicked their seat belts and stood as they gathered their belongings, the aisle immediately filling to capacity. Hurriedly, Addison reached down for her purse and accidently dumped half the contents on the floor underneath the seat, bonking her forehead on the tray table in the process. Pushing her sun-streaked, brown hair behind her shoulders, she inwardly groaned, plopped back into her chair, and fumbled around, collecting her lip gloss, her wallet, her keys, along with all the spare change floating around on the floor. Once finished, she stood, craning her neck to see further up front, but was shielded by towering frames, as well as lowering luggage pieces, and was now officially barricaded in her row, completely stuck. Finally, she asserted her authority and stepped out into the pathway. Jimmying her suitcase overhead, she yanked and pulled, but the luggage wouldn’t budge. Finally, the man behind her helped dislodge the suitcase and eased it down to the floor. After thanking him profusely, she shuffled up the aisle as quickly as the line would allow, hoping with all her might that the man she had flirted with would be waiting.

 

Hour two

 

 

ADDISON FELT LIKE she was swimming through throngs of limbs and torsos, weeding through the mass of bottlenecked passengers tugging their carryon cases behind them. Multiple times, her bag got wedged between two moving barriers as she pushed her way to the right, before weaving to the left, all the while craning her neck, reaching to the tip of her toes, searching for the tall, dark-haired stranger. When the flow of traffic swelled, before releasing into the open air, she moved off to the side, once again on the balls of her feet, her head swiveling from one side of the terminal to the next, but didn’t see anyone even remotely resembling the man she was searching for. She picked up her pace, practically jogging down the congested hallway, zipping through families, swerving around children, excusing herself over her shoulder as she trotted further up the pipe. Not her proudest moment, but she even shoved a teenager aside, who was strolling gingerly while ogling his phone, to make sure she ducked onto the tram before the doors skated closed.

As the tube coasted toward baggage claim, Addison reached in her navy handbag for her compact, clicked it open and checked her reflection. Not too bad, she decided. Although her rich caramel hair was a touch on the wilted side, and her lipstick was nowhere to be found, she still looked halfway decent. Her almond shaped eyes still held the emerald shimmery shadow, and her lashes -- her most cherished trait from her Asian linage -- were still long, dark, and full, almost touching her eyebrow bone. After patting her slender nose and cheekbones with a touch of translucent powder, she flipped the compact shut and shoved it back into her purse.

When the doors smoothly glided open again, Addison power walked over to baggage claim, even though she hauled her only luggage behind her, her eyes scanning the passengers as she paused at each protrusion in the conveyor belt. When she hit the end of the line, she paused and listened intently. Although she heard the hum of the moving belt and a murmuring of multiple conversations happening simultaneously, she didn’t hear the loud raucous group that she so desperately desired.

It was official.

The cute stranger had disappeared in a puff of allusive smoke.

Once again, Addison let a captivating man slip right through her fingertips. She knew she had him tentatively hooked, but was never strong enough, never bold enough to set the lure, the coveted fish releasing from the bait to be snagged by another, more proficient woman.

Deflated shoulders slumped, she headed in the direction of ground transportation. As soon as she pushed through the double doors, the Nevada heat slapped against her chest, seeping into her lungs clogging her airway passages. She swallowed the thick cotton air, along with the lump of regret as she shuffled over toward the taxi line.

 

Although Addison had been to Vegas several times, she had never stayed in this ritzy of a hotel before, and wouldn’t be now if it weren’t for her college roommate’s father having an excessive gambling compulsion. Her father had withered away so much money at this particular resort that he and his family were offered unrestricted, free hospitality whenever they were in the city, from executive suites, to elegant dining, to luxurious spa treatments, to front row sought-after tickets to any show available on the strip. And since Jessica was coming to the city for the weekend to visit Addison, she would be a beneficiary to his gambling addiction.

Jessica, a tiny ball of fire who had energy oozing out of her pores, was waiting for her in the expansive, gilded, intricately painted, domed lobby. When she caught sight of Addison, she squealed, her small hands fluttering in the air by her cherub face as she took off in a sprint toward her and didn’t stop her high pitched squeak until she had vaulted herself into Addison’s arms, wrapping her child-sized legs around her waist.

“Addy, Addy, Addy!” she shrieked as she peppered her cheek with woodpecker kisses. “You’re finally here!”

“I’m so glad to see you!” Addison squeezed her juvenile frame, breathing in her heady, exotic scent. Jessica did nothing half mast, and that included her layering of perfume. “It’s been too long, my friend.”

“Way too long,” Jess agreed as she released her legs, slipped to the floor, her platinum blonde pixie cut dipping over one eye. “You look amazing.”

“You’re full of crap, but thanks.”

Latching onto her suitcase, multiple bangles jingling, Jessica called, “Come with me. I’ve already checked us in.”

Feeling like she was in an Italian cathedral, they swept past one marbled pillar after another, the floor underneath so shiny that it reflected the worn soles of their shoes, the ceiling so intricately detailed that it would take hours upon hours to fully appreciate. They wound through the outskirts of the casino, the glass chandeliers dimming as they neared the belly of the gambling hub, hearing the ching, ching, ching of slots and cheers from lucky winners, breathing in the trail of lingering alcohol, intermixing with the aftermath of stale smoke.

This city never failed to uplift Addison’s spirits. Even though she wasn’t a gambler herself, the promise of reaching toward a dream, hoping with all your heart that the risk would be lavished with reward was something that she wished she could do, but couldn’t. She’d learned the hard way that when something looked too good to be true, it usually was, and gambling was no different. Sitting in a lavish hotel, with never-ending complimentary sparkling wine, while money rained down on you, just for pulling a shiny silver lever, wasn’t realistic….and if anything, Addison was realistic. Some even called her grounded beyond repair, which took that nice humble word and twisted it into something completely negative, but she was who she was and she couldn’t change what was engrained in her soul.

Addison’s maturity probably stemmed from having to grow up much too fast, since becoming parentless on the eve of her eighteenth birthday. Her father died during a covert military operation in Iraq, her mother, heartbroken, fled back to her home country of Beijing, demanding that Addison come with her, but for once in her life, she refused. It was the pinnacle in her high school career, at the cusp of her senior year. She wouldn’t leave the only country she knew and flail around in a foreign land, chewing through a new language, only to return to the states six months later, when she turned eighteen and could officially emancipate herself.

Thankfully, Emily’s parent’s agreed to take her in. Without having any parental guidance at her fingertips, Addison knew her teenage years could veer off in one of two directions. She could fall under the radar and make one bad choice after another, or she could eradicate that theory altogether and become an adult herself. By the time she walked the stage of her graduation with no blood relatives there to support her, she already had a full academic scholarship to the Art Institute in New York City and never looked back.

 

Their suite at The Venetian, of course, was top of the line with the exterior wall a solid sheet of tempered glass, monogrammed fluffy white robes and towels, his and her separate, floor-to-ceiling marbled bathrooms, and the most beautiful bouquet of salmon-hued orchids, permeating the room with a rich, sultry fragrance.

Dumping Addison’s suitcase on the couch, Jessica strolled over to the crystal-glass brandy canisters sitting on the desk and poured two fingers into separate glasses. “Are you too exhausted to go out tonight?”

Addison plopped down in a Queen Ann’s chair. “You would think I would be after traveling, but actually I’m kind of wired.”

Handing over her glass, Jessica, cheered, “That’s what I like to hear.” She took a seat next to the luggage, curling her short legs underneath her. “What are you up for? I know you don’t like gambling.”

Addison took a sip of the amber liquid, enjoying the burn as it slid down her throat. She eyed her friend over the rim of her glass coquettishly. “I think we should check out The Wynn hotel,” she suggested with a sly grin, hiding her curved mouth behind the transparent barrier.

Jess’ chin tilted. “O-kay. Any reason?”

Addison shifted diffidently in her seat. “Maybe…”

Her friend’s eyes bulged. “Addy! Who’s there?”

“I don’t know,” she replied back honestly.

Jessica’s brows furrowed. “What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“Well, I don’t know his name. I met him on the flight out….well, not officially.”

“So, you met a hot guy -- or you just drooled over him from afar?” her longtime friend inquired with a knowing smirk.

“We actually conversed,” she answered, “I swear,” but left off the tidbit about doing it from across the plane over a hand-held virtual white board.

“Finally!” she squealed. “Tell me about him!”

“I don’t know much, other than he’s really cute and he’s here with some friends on a bachelor party. He asked me to come over to The Wynn and hang out.”

“Excellent! Has he texted you about where to meet?”

“That’s the problem. His friend stole his phone before we had a chance to exchange numbers.”

“Pfft,” Jess scoffed. “You call that a problem?” She dropped her glass down on the table and plucked Addison out of her seat. “You go get all dolled up and I’ll take care of the rest.”

 

Within the hour, Jessica had her parading through the rich, burgundy-carpeted casino at the five-star hotel, clad in her dressy jeans, shimmering gold camisole top, along with the four inch heels that Jessica insisted she purchase from the overpriced boutique before heading over. Since Addison was just in town for the convention, she had only thought to pack sensible shoes, comfortable flats, well-worn flip flops, and her trusted tennis shoes, but did throw in a couple of cute tops and her bathing suit, thank goodness.

After the fifth loop around the entire casino, Addison’s ankles were aching and the balls of her feet were screaming with pain. When she traipsed by the Player’s Lounge for the umpteenth billionth time, Addy shuffled into the bar and collapsed into a high topped chair, exclaiming, “Put a fork in me; I’m done.”

“Ah, come on, Ad. We can’t give up now. He has to be here somewhere.”

“He’s the one that’s supposed to be wading through the crowd at our hotel looking for me.”

Jessica pulled out a seat and dropped into it, saying, “Sometimes men just need a gentle shove.”

Addison laughed. “A gentle shove? I think you wallop them over the head and drag them back to your lair.”

One shoulder elevated to her ear. “What can I say? I’m a true feminist.”

A man caught Addison’s attention in her periphery, due to him walking backwards, literally. It didn’t take but a split second for her to realize it was the guy from the airport. He was still dressed in the same pink pants and black t-shirt, but now sported a black baseball cap, slung low, the curls of his hair escaping behind his ears.

When they caught eyes, he paused, a slow grin saturating his face. “I thought that was you.”

Feigning surprise as her heart skipped a beat, she gripped Jessica’s knee and squeezed, attempting to sound casual. “Oh, hi! What are you doing here?”

And then mentally slapped herself in the forehead for being so stupid.

“I’m staying here, remember?”

She blinked in rapid succession. “Yes, yes. I remember now.”

He held out his hand. “I don’t think we’ve officially met. I’m Dawson Preston.”

She latched onto his hand, hoping he wasn’t disgusted by her sweaty, moist palms. “Addison…” she fumbled for her own last name, which made his smile widen, “…Maynird.”

Jessica cleared her throat as Addison clung onto his hand, still pumping his arm. Breaking through the fog, Addison continued, “And this is Tink.”

He removed his hand with a chuckle. “Tink? Like in Tinkerbell?”

Addison shut her eyes and shook her head. Why on earth did Jessica’s college nickname just pop out of her mouth?

Thankfully, Jess took it in stride, claiming, “The one and only, but you can call me, Jess.” She linked her tiny hand in his. “Nice to meet you.” She stepped back into her chair. “We were just getting ready to order a drink, would you like to join us?”

His hand disappeared in the pocket of his jeans, removing a handful of colorful poker chips. “Just let me cash these in and then I would love to.”

As he sauntered out the wide opening of the bar, Addison exhaled her bottled breath as she wilted into the chair. “I’m totally screwing this up, aren’t I?”

“Look, you just need to relax.” She waved over the bartender and ordered two cherry tootsie pop shots. Once the stubby glass filled to the brim with orange liquor was set in front of them, Jess pushed one in front of Addison, and then lifted hers in a toast. “To dropping inhibitions and letting people see your true beauty.”

Addison lifted hers in reply. “Easier said than done.”

After they threw back their drinks, Jessica looked to the door before leaning in. “Addison if only you saw the beauty that we all see; You. Are. Gorgeous. I just wish you could see it yourself.”

“Pfft.” Addison waved off the thought, just as Dawson peeked around the outskirts of the bar.

“Ask him if he came out ahead,” Jessica whispered.

Thankfully to have an opening remark, Addison smiled at Dawson as he neared. In turn, his lips quirked up, the warm crinkles at the corners of his eyes making an appearance.

“So, how’d you do?” Addison asked him as he pulled up a seat and relaxed into it, his ankles casually tucked under the metal railing at his feet.

“Broke even, which in my book is definitely a win.”

“Are the rest of the guys still playing?”

“They met some girls at the craps table and took the party upstairs.”

“Not the bachelor, I hope,” Jessica chimed in.

“Definitely not the bachelor. He’s head over heels in love with his high school sweetheart and would never do anything to jeopardize that, no matter how intoxicated he gets.”

Jessica nodded. “Good for him. How do you two know each other?”

“We’ve been best friends since grade school. Most of the other guys here are buddies from high school, as well.” He leaned up and reached into his back pocket. “What would you ladies like to drink?”

“I’ll take a gin and tonic,” Jessica threw out before asking the bartender, “Where’s the closest restroom?”

“Around to the right, past the sports book.”

“Great.” She dug in her clutch for money, but Dawson lifted his hand. “This one’s on me.”

“Okay, great. Thank you,” she says before scooting off to the right.

Addison didn’t want the conversation to die out now that Jessica was gone, so despite the fear gripping her lungs, she asked, “So, do you live in the North Bend area?”

“No, but close. I have a place on Coos Bay.”

“Oh, I love that area,” she genuinely cooed. “Are you on the water?”

“Not on the main sound, but my house does back up to the goose neck.”

Addison assumed that was the finger of water funneling to the larger body, but didn’t want to ask.

He startled her out of her reverie. “How about you?”

“I rent the main floor of a little house in North Point. It’s not much to look at, but it’s a place to rest my head and has a great location. It’s not by the water, though. Do you have a boat at your place?”

“Actually, I just bought one from a neighbor who’s transferring to the Midwest. I’m looking forward to putting some miles on it.”

“I can imagine,” she replied, obviously with longing, because he asked, “So you’re a boater yourself?”

“Used to be…”

Their drinks were then delivered. Addison was glad to have something to do with her hands. She picked up a red stir straw, dunked it into her drink, and clinked the ice cubes in circles.

“Will you hand me one of those, please.”

Addison plucked up another straw, handed it over, and was surprised when he tucked it behind his ear.

She tilted her chin with flattened lips at his straw’s destination.

He shrugged. “I figured I’d better keep track of my drinks with being around this crowd.”

“Just one drink then?”

He grinned devilishly as he retracted four more straws from his pocket and tossed them onto the counter.

Addison was laughing as Jessica saddled back up to the bar. She was so short she had to climb the rung to sit back in her seat. “What did I miss?”

“Dawson’s keeping track of his drinking by hording cocktail stirrers.”

She nodded slowly. “Not a bad idea.” She tugged one out of the container, tucking it between her barely-there breasts. They all laughed when it slipped right through the material and landed on her seat.

 

After another beverage, Addison was thoroughly enjoying the evening as she eased into her flirty girl persona that she so wished would become a continuous part of her repertoire. Dawson made it easy, though. He was a great conversationalist, and she was really appreciating his company. She loved the way his eyes danced over to hers when something funny was said, and how they seemed to linger there, making her stomach curl with anticipation. She wasn’t quite sure if he was flirting with her or not. Who knows? Maybe he was just that super nice guy who wanted to make everyone in the room feel comfortable.

Feeling bold after her second cocktail, Addison stepped it up a notch and laid her hand on his knee. “Don’t feel like you have to stay here with us, Dawson. We know you have a party to get to.”

“Speaking of that, how about you two come on up and meet the rest of the guys?”

She leaned back, waving him off. “We don’t want to intrude.”

“Yes, we do,” Jessica chimed in with a grin.

Dawson stood, offering Addison his hand. “See, now you’re stuck, because you can’t let your friend run off with a man she just met, now can you?”

 

The Presidential suite at the Wynn was twice the one at the Venetian, with a separate master bedroom and bathroom, sparkling kitchen with stainless steel appliances that opened to a vast living area, occupied by a cream leather, wrap-around couch, pristine glass and mirrored butler-style coffee table, and sixty inch flat screen TV anchored to the shimmering, striped wallpaper.

The area was alive with approximately thirty or so bodies, all of which had smiles slung across their faces, a cocktail in their hand, as George Ezra soulfully crooned from the dock station. As soon as they entered, Dawson placed his thumb and forefinger in his mouth and whistled sharply. When all eyes were on him, he made the introductions as he held a pointed finger above their heads.

“This is Addison.” He paused for a round of waves and greetings. “And this is Tink.”

“Tink!” they all jeered, obviously loving the nickname.

Jessica lifted her hand in a wave and immediately headed for the throng of men circled around the coffee table playing some type of card game. Their bodies parted ways on the couch so Jessica could take a seat.

If only Addison had the gumption to take life by the reigns, like Jessica did.

She glanced over at Dawson, hoping he didn’t see her inferiority complex, like a lighthouse’s yellowed beam slicing through the darkened night.

When he smiled down at her, offering her a beer, her kinked shoulders released slightly. “Sure, I’d love one.”

She followed him through the room into the kitchen, thanked him for the Bud Light after he twisted off the top, and then again when he plopped down on a bar stool, pushing one out for her.

Her eyes scanned the room. “Which of these guys is the bachelor?”

He pointed to an oversized chair on the far side of the room. There was a short, stalky blonde man slumped in the seat as he deliberately studied the beer bottle he held in his hand. He opened his mouth wide before necessary, watching the bottle with intensity as he lifted the drink upward. It wobbled from side to side and then up and down, but eventually landed at the corner of his mouth as he tipped it upside down. The majority of the alcohol tumbled onto his face, trickling down his chin to saturate his red shirt, but he seemed pleased with his feat, grinning into his empty bottle as his head swayed in a circular motion.

Dawson chuckled. “That’s Shawn. Can you excuse me for a second?”

“Sure.”

She watched as Dawson returned to the refrigerator, pulled something out, and then crossed in front of the bar, moseying over to his friend. He leaned down, speaking to him for a moment, and then withdrew the empty bottle from his hand and replaced it with a bottled water. After chucking the beer in the wastebasket, he returned to his seat.

He pointed to the tall dark-haired, muscular man sitting beside Jessica on the couch. “That’s Moose.” His arm moved to the other side of the sofa. “And that’s Terrance,” he said pointing to a black man with the magnetic smile. “And that’s Jimmy,” he finished, referring to the large framed man kneeling in front of the table. “All the rest of these guys are college friends of Shawn’s that I don’t know very well.”

“And what about the girls? Do you know any of them?”

“Nope. Those are the women from the craps table. I was playing black jack.”

“Tink! Tink! Tink!” chanted from the men on the couch demanded their attention. They both watched as Jessica brought her drink to her lips and chugged the rest of her beer, finishing with a swipe of the back of her hand and huge grin as she slammed her empty bottle back onto the table. All the men hooped and hollered, throwing a hand up for high fives across the board.

“Jessica seems to be fitting in just fine,” Addison observed. “What are they playing?”

“It’s called In Between. Have you heard of it?”

“That’s a poker game, right?”

“Yeah, but instead of betting money, you wager with drinks, instead. If you win, you divvy out the drinks to whoever you want. If you lose, you take them yourself.”

They watched Jessica slam another beer, making Addison comment, “Looks like my friend could use a few pointers.”

“Either that, or the new kid is getting picked on.”

Addison smiled as she ogled Jessica further. “I have a feeling Jess will give them a run for their money….as long as she sticks to beer.”

“She’s so small. I can’t believe the alcohol doesn’t go straight to her head.”

“I’d say it was the years and years of practice in college.”

“Is that where you two met?”

“Yeah, freshman year, actually. She lived down the hall from me.”

“And did you hit it off right from the start?”

“Not in the slightest. Jess was the continual party girl who had her parent’s platinum credit card stuffed in her bra to use at her discretion, and I was the stressed-out student freaking out about losing her scholarship. We didn’t even talk until finals week when I was knee deep in books and she had a banger going on in her dorm room down the hallway. Eventually I lost it and stormed to her room to beg her to keep the noise down, when she unexpectedly swung open the door and jumped into my arms, giving me a spider monkey hug.”

Dawson chuckled. “A spider monkey hug? Exactly what does that entail?”

“It’s where someone jumps up on your body and wraps their arms and legs tightly around your frame.”

“Huh. I bet it’s kind of hard to stay mad at someone who does that.”

“Exactly. I couldn’t help but laugh, and when she invited me in, I accepted.” Addison picked at the label on her beer. “How about you and your friends? Did you know them in grade school, or did you meet in high school?”

“Shawn and I grew up together. We went to the same school from kindergarten on up to our senior year. We hooked up with Jimmy and Moose the first week of our freshman year, and Terrance transferred in our sophomore year.”

“Did you all attend the same college?”

“Nope. All went to different universities.”

“Wow. It’s amazing you haven’t lost touch through the years.” Where did you graduate from?”

“West Virginia. You?”

There was a loud rap at the entry door, interrupting their conversation. Jimmy stood, lumbering over to the foyer. He came back with a woman swathed in a black trench coat, platform heels, a fully made face, platinum blonde, poker-straight tresses, toting an outdated jam box by the handle. Addison could smell her spicy perfume wafting through the air from the kitchen.

Jimmy announced boisterously, “It’s stripper time!” as he threw both hands in the air triumphantly.

The men responded with cattle calls, raucous whistles, and over-energetic clapping as the woman found the nearest receptacle and squatted down beside it.

“Do you want to get outta here?” Dawson asked.

Addison’s eyes sliced to Jessica, and when she found her perched on Moose’s lap with her arm draped around his shoulder, she accepted. They made their way through the room as the men removed the coffee table, lifting Shawn, still sitting cockeyed in the furniture, to takes its place. As they walked past the stripper, Dawson paused, removing his wallet. He slipped some bills into her palm, murmuring something that Addison couldn’t hear.

He then cupped Addison on the small of her back, escorting her to the door. Once outside, Addison paused.

“So, where to? The casino?”

“Actually, there’s a bar on the tenth floor that overlooks the city. How’s that sound?”

“Perfect.”

They strolled down the corridor to the bank of elevators flanking both sides of the hallway, Addison trying her best not to hobble on her sore feet. These new shoes were a complete disaster. She gritted her teeth through the pain, trudging forward, attempting not to look like a knobby-kneed, newborn fawn taking its inaugural steps.

When they finally reached the lounge, strung with twinkling outdoor lights, Addison gimped over to the overhang, selecting the closest table. She pulled out a seat and melted into it. Immediately, her feet throbbed with relief, a sigh escaping from her parted lips.

Dawson, who took the seat adjacent to her, ordered, “Give me your foot.”

“What?” she asked, confounded.

He answered by pointing to her foot and patting his thigh. Against her better judgement, she eased her aching foot up into his lap. He latched onto the ankle strap and gently tugged it over her heel, releasing the shoe from her foot.

Addison couldn’t help it, she closed her eyes, sucking in a relaxing breath, her toes wiggling freely in the balmy night air. When she reopened her eyes, he was grinning at her with a one sided smile. He crooked his finger in her other foot’s direction, making her readjust in her seat as she changed legs. This time when he unleashed the sandal, he trailed his thumb from the heel of her foot all the way to the tip of her toe, making her shiver involuntarily.

She pulled her leg out of his lap. “Thank you for that.”

Dawson handed her the shoes by the straps. “I don’t understand why you women put yourself through that kind of pain, just for a pair of shoes.”

“Believe me, I usually don’t. Jess talked me into these contraptions,” she said as she studied her heels while dangling them from her fingers.

“I think you should do yourself a favor and retire those things after tonight.”

“Sounds like the best idea I’ve heard all day.”

As she tossed the heels onto the floor beside her chair, the waitress arrived to take their orders. Once she trotted back off to the bar, Addison asked, “So, are you the best man at your friend’s wedding? Is that why you got stuck paying for the stripper?”

“I didn’t pay for the entertainment,” he explained. “I picked up the tab for the room.”

When Addison’s brows dropped in question, he said, “but I did give her a tip to keep it PG rated with Shawn.”

“Wow. That was nice of you. I’m sure his fiancé appreciates that.”

He shrugged. “Shawn and Dana have been together forever. In that time frame, she also became one of my best friends, too.”

“Well, she’s lucky to have you.”

His lips tugged upward slightly, before asking, “What do you do back in Oregon?”

She paused while the server delivered their drinks, then took a tentative sip of Baileys on the rocks before explaining, “A friend and I started a bakery together.”

“Nice. How long has it been open?”

“Two years now. Emily’s parents were gracious enough to front us the money so we could get started right out of college.”

“Where did you graduate from?”

“The Art Institute in New York.”

He took a swig of his beer, before inquiring, “So you use your artistic talent on cakes?”

“That, and I sell my paintings in the store, as well. We were hoping the people that come to see my work will end up buying a pastry and vice versa.”

“So how’s that working out for you?”

“We’re selling more cakes than artwork, but I’m hoping that will balance out in the next few years.” She swiveled her drink on the table, creating wet ringlets. “So, how about you? What do you do for a living?”

He crossed one ankle over his knee, her eyes automatically dropping down to the curly, dark hairs peppering his lower leg as he rested his hand at the cuff of his pants.

“Furniture…concrete furniture, actually.”

Concrete Furniture? That sounded dreadful. She scratched at her neck and replied back, “Oh, nice,” her eyes darting off to the side.

He laughed. “That’s the reaction I get ninety percent of the time when asked that question.”

She feigned confusion. “What?”

“Not couches or chairs, or anything like that. I design concrete desks, end tables, bases for glass coffee tables and things of that nature.”

“Interesting. How did you get involved in that industry?”

“My father had a concrete business. When I got involved after college, I needed a desk for my new office. I wanted a concrete top, so I designed a metal frame and had our shop pour the slab on top. A decorator friend of my mother’s got wind of it and began peddling them to her clients.”

“So do you still work for your father?”

“No, we sold the company after he passed away.”

Her heart ached with that familiar pang of loss. “I’m so sorry.”

His eyes glazed over before slanting off toward the glittering lights of the strip, casting a shadow over his face as he murmured, “Thank you,” and then tilted his drink to his mouth. When he turned back in her direction, his wave of heartache seemed to have dissipated. “So, you said you were in town on business?”

“Yes, headed over to the convention center bright and early tomorrow morning.”

The waitress reappeared asking if they needed another round. Dawson looked to Addison.

“One more, but then lets head back downstairs,” she answered. “I hate that I’ve taken you away from your friends.”

Dawson turned to the server. “We’ll take another round and then our check, please.”

As the waitress trotted off, Dawson continued their conversation. “Is this convention an annual thing?”

“Yes, but it’s not always in Vegas. Sometimes it’s Orlando, other times it’s in Denver.”

“Which is your favorite city?”

“I’m not really a gambler, so I’d say hands down, Denver.”

“Do you ski?” he asked.

“Not unless you call the bunny slope skiing. How about you?”

“I hit the slopes whenever I can. It’s actually kind of a passion of mine, but I don’t have the time needed to consider myself any good.” He leaned his elbows on the table, eyeing her curiously. “So, you don’t gamble and you don’t ski. What is your passion?”

Her stare inverted to the table, trying to come up with something exotic and thrilling to say. When her brain came back empty handed, she spoke the truth, no matter how boring and mundane she sounded. “Painting, reading, long walks at nightfall….and people watching.”

Oh my God! Did I really just say that?

He grinned. “People watching, huh?”

She laughed nervously. “Um, yeah. It’s actually kind of fun.”

He leaned in closer. “So how do I get started?”

Addison couldn’t believe she was having this conversation with anyone, much less the man she was attempting to flirt with. She knew her face had to be filtering through fifteen shades of red.

“You just pick someone out in the room and come up with their story.”

“Their story?”

“Yeah, why they’re here, who they’re with. That kind of thing.”

“Okay, then.” He nodded seriously. “Why don’t you go first so I get a better idea of how it’s done.”

Addison chewed her bottom lip as her eyes darted around the perimeter of the bar. When they landed on two men in crisp suits, one older and grey, one younger with gelled, jet black hair, both looking to be of Italian descent, she said, “Look at those guys over there.”

Dawson swiveled in his seat, taking in the two men holding neat whiskeys in one hand, with a cigar perched between two fingers with the other, a cloud of smoke billowing above their heads.

Addison leaned in conspiratorially. “The older gentleman is a mob boss and he’s teaching the kid the ropes to the organization.”

Dawson grinned as he nodded his head, conveying his understanding of the game. His eyes then scanned the room before pointing to a younger couple who seemed to be in an intense conversation across the room. “Honeymooners who just lost their entire house payment at the roulette table downstairs.”

Addison laughed. “I think you’ve got the hang of this.”

He continued further, “And those people over there,” he motioned to the left at a couple who were both staring absently at their phones, not communicating in the least as the man jiggled his leg nonstop. “That guy just quit smoking and he wants to rip everyone’s head off, including his wife’s.”

Laughing, Addy nodded. “You may be right on that one.”

“Are you an author, too? This seems like something a writer would do.”

She waved off the thought. “I’m absolutely horrendous with anything to do with the English language. I hate talking, much less writing.”

His brows dipped. “You hate talking?”

Way too many personal things were tumbling out of Addison’s mouth. She made a conscious decision right then and there to quell the overflow.

Peeling the label all the way off her bottle, she rolled the logo between her fingers as she mumbled, “It’s not that I hate talking, necessarily. It’s just that I’m not very good at it, I guess.”

When he didn’t comment, she peeked up at him through her lashes and found the warmest smile. “I think you’re doing a pretty good job right now.”

Addison’s face heated at the compliment, so she took a sip of her drink, draining it completely, just as the waitress appeared with their bill. Without accepting cash from Addison, Dawson paid the tab, stood, scooping up her heels. Instead of handing them over to her, he fish hooked the straps and stood in front of her chair, turning away from her.

He glanced over his shoulder. “Get on.”

“What?” she questioned.

“Jump on my back.”

When she still looked at him in puzzlement, he explained, “I’m sure you don’t want to walk barefoot across this sticky floor and there’s no way I’m letting you put these torturous things back on again.”

She smiled at his thoughtfulness, stood on the foot rail of her chair, and vaulted herself onto his back with a squeal, which made him chuckle. She wrapped her legs around his midriff, her arms around his neck, and dipped her head to the side of his head. His wavy hair was soft against her cheek. She couldn’t resist and surreptitiously buried her nose into his mane, sucking his in masculine smell.

“Did you just smell me?” he teased jestingly.

Mortified, she jeered back, “Ah, nooo!” making him laugh as he shook his head.

He bounced to move her further up on his back, clung onto her thighs, and began moving, the heels dangling from his fingertips knocking against her calf.

“Do you want me to hang onto my shoes?”

He swiveled his face her way, his sweet whiskey breathe gliding over her lips. “No, I’m good.”

When they made it to the carpeted hallway, he eased her down, but still kept watch over her shoes. Once the elevator doors smoothly slid open with a ping, they shuffled onboard and were forced to part ways when another couple accompanied them on the way down. Dawson leaned against the railing facing her, so she mirrored his stance across the confined space, their eyes locking with easy familiarity. When the man’s hand lowered to his wife’s well-endowed bottom, Dawson jiggled his eyebrows playfully at Addison, making her blush.

The couple finally disembarked, leaving the two standing five feet apart, grinning at one another. He crooked his index finger in her direction.

Me? she asked silently while tapping at her chest.

Yes, you, he answered with a nod of his head, his grin widening.

She slowly strode in his direction, her heartbeat thumping in her ears, kaboom kaboom, kaboom, anticipation lodging a boulder in her tightened throat. When she was an arm’s reach away, he swiveled her around to face the opposite wall. Now he was behind her, his hands still gripping her waist. She could feel the heat of him ease up to her backside, until he was firmly pressed against her, making her heart rate triple its normal frequency.

He lowered himself until his face was nestling the side of her head and sucked in a long, deep, deliberate breath, and then dipped to her ear, causing a shiver to radiate down her spine.

His warm breath tickled her lobe as his fingers grazed down the length of her arms. “Now will you admit you were taking me in, Addy?”

She dropped her chin as heat flooded to the center of her core. He gingerly spun her back around, tilting her chin up to meet his gaze with a gentle fingertip. She could feel her face bloom crimson at the intimacy of the conversation.

His thumb whispered against her lower jaw as his piercing blue eyes bore into her. “You are the most unassuming, beautiful woman I have ever had the pleasure to meet.”

When her gaze dropped in embarrassment, he teased as women do, “My eyes are up here, Addy,” tapping at his temple.

She laughed, so thankful his humor lightened the moment, as the door chimed before sliding open.

When they reached the room, the party was in full swing, strobe light throbbing, drinks flowing, and bodies gyrating to the beat of the music. As soon as they stepped over the threshold, Jessica untangled herself from Moose’s arms and bee bopped over to them, latching onto their wrists and tugging them to the epicenter of the group. At first, Addison barely moved, in fear of looking ridiculous, but when she found Dawson banging his head as he wildly strummed at his air guitar, her inhibitions flew right out the window. She followed suit, jumping up and down with one arm pumping the air above her head, the heat of the masses, along with the pulsing music drenching her with adrenalin. She watched Shawn ping pong around the crowd, stumbling into people as he thrashed to the beat, and Moose toss Jessica up into the air, catching her like a two pound ragdoll.

They danced until they were breathless, sweat clinging to their clothing, and then when the melody took a more mellow turn, Dawson took ahold of Addison’s hand and pulled her against his chest.

Cradling his right hand around hers, he wound the other around her back, tugging her close as they swayed to the sultry whine of Alicia Keys. Addison cuddled into his chest, loving the way he rested his chin on the top of her head and hummed the lyrics of the ballad. She nuzzled in closer, the pulsing vibrations of the base and his thumping heart soaking her in peaceful contentment.

When another slow song followed, Addison could feel Dawson lower his cheek against her temple as he murmured, “Are you good with this?”

She tilted her head back, gazing up at him. “Yeah, I’m good.” She smiled. “I’m enjoying myself. I haven’t danced in a while.”

“Shame.”

“Pardon me?” she questioned.

He moved their entwined hands to his chest. “Life without music….it’s a shame.”

“So how often do you dance?”

He grinned. “As often as possible.”

She couldn’t help her mouth mirroring his. “Like once a week?”

“At least once a week.”

“At bars?”

“Sometimes, I love live music, but even at the house I like to bust a move whenever possible.”

She held in her laughter. “Is that so?”

He flattened his lips, merriment exploding in his dark blue eyes. “Wouldn’t you, if you had my amazing skills?”

A giggle sprung from her lips as she remembered his head banging, feet stomping escapades from just a few minutes ago.

He feigned hurt. “Hey, now. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you know.”

“You keep telling yourself that,” she shot back, which made him throw his head back in laughter.

When the song ended, he stepped back, his hand still cupping one of hers. “How about a water?”

“Sounds perfect.”

Tugging at her camisole for ventilation, Addison followed Dawson into the kitchen, accepted an ice cold Evian, chugged several cold gulps of water, and then lifted her dark tresses off her neck, setting the cool bottle against her dewy flesh.

“Would you like a band for your hair?”

“That would be great, but I don’t want to walk all the way back to my hotel room.”

“I have one you can use.”

She balked at him with a grin. “You do?”

He smiled bashfully. “A friend gave me one so I could do the man bun thing, but I can’t bring myself to do it.”

Addison laughed. “Is your hair even long enough?”

He shrugged. “I have no idea. I’ve never tried. Come on. Let’s see if I can find it.”

They snaked through the crowd, entering the master bedroom. Dawson eased up the dimming light lever and skirted around the mammoth, four poster bed into the bathroom, with Addison on his heels behind. He ducked down and began riffling through his shaving kit underneath the sink.

“So how did you end up with the master suite?”

He grinned up at her. “As I said, I bucked up for the room, but unfortunately, it comes with a bed partner, who happens to be drenched in sweat, covered in alcohol, and not speaking coherently at the moment.”

“Ah, you get to snuggle up with Shawn tonight, huh?”

He hooked his thumb over his shoulder. “I’m thinking Shawn’s going to be cuddling The Porcelain God over there and I’ll have the room to myself.”

“That’s assuming he doesn’t toss his cookies in bed,” she joked.

He scrunched up his face, grimacing with a shiver. “You bring up a good point. I’ll be sure to have a trash can ready.” Standing up, he handed over the hair tie.

“Thanks,” she said as she accepted the band and noticed a very faint tattoo on his wrist traveling up his forearm. She cradled his hand and ran a finger up the pale-blue words, scripted in foreign tongue. Her eyes skipped to his other arm and found the same type of inscription.

“I can’t believe I haven’t noticed these before.”

His eyes dropped to his arm, his voice lowering. “That’s why I chose this color.”

Still holding his hand, she asked, “Because you didn’t want people to see?”

“I didn’t get these for anyone, other than myself.”

Her line of vision moved up to his. His eyes looked intense, his pupils widening with the bright lights of the vanity, making them appear almost raven black. “What does it say?”

“It’s just a quote.”

She pushed further. “What type of quote?”

“I guess you could say…inspirational.”

He withdrew his hand from hers, dropping his eyes as he closed the door to the cabinet, ending their conversation.

Taking the hint, she bent over, clumped her wad of tangled, sweaty hair into both hands, and then stood erect, knotting it on top of her head, before securing the band. Tugging out a few strands at her ears, she took a quick glance in the mirror.

“That just dropped the temperature ten degrees. Thank you.”

“No problem.”

“Are you letting your hair grow out?” Addison asked.

He leaned a hip on top of the counter, lowering his head to her level. “For the time being.”

“So you’re letting it grow out until…” she let her voice trail off for him to finish the statement.

“Until I get tired of dealing with it, or my mother gets her wishes.”

“So mom’s not a fan?”

His chuckle was low and deep. “Not in the slightest.” He eyed her enticingly. “And what about you…what do you think?”

Her gaze fluttered to his hair shooting out from underneath his ball cap. “I think….I think it looks good.”

“Good, huh?” he murmured as he removed his hat, tossed it on the counter, and raked his fingers roughly through his hair. He then gripped two fingers into the bodice of her camisole and gently tugged her closer. “What do you suggest?”

Their bodies were oh so close, but not touching. She could smell his musky cologne and resisted the urge to inch in even closer. Gathering courage, she reached up to touch his locks, her vision taking in the deep, rich color and wavy texture.

“I think you should leave it the way it is,” she murmured as her eyes traced the features of his face to land back on his smoldering eyes.

He responded by taking a tendril of her hair and winding it around his forefinger, his vision taking in her parted lips, before easing back up to her eyes. “Do you want to know what I think?”

His voice was a soft caress, making Addison’s knees go weak. Her tongue moistened her bottom fold as she shook her head, completely stupefied in a his alluring, spell-bound trance.

He looked almost pained as he whispered back, “I think we need to check on Shawn.”

Addison could feel every tightened muscle in her body deflate as she stepped backward. “Yeah, yeah, of course.”

As they started out of the bathroom, Addison leading, she stopped dead in her tracks and covered her gaping mouth when she found Moose had Jessica clutched in a passionate embrace. He had her lifted off the ground, her legs wound around his muscular torso, their mouths rooting for each other as they both moaned loudly between their panting breaths.

Snickering, Dawson latched onto Addison’s hips from behind, and pulled her back into the bathroom, and then soundlessly eased the door shut and bolted the lock. He flipped on the fan to drown out their voices.

“Well, it looks like Jess and Moose have hit it off,” he joshed with his back plastered against the door.

Addison grinned. “You think?”

He bit his bottom lip playfully, before saying, “So much for checking on Shawn. It looks like we’re stuck in here for a while. Any suggestions on entertainment?”

Addison could feel the innuendo laced around his question, and knew she had to be blushing. “We could scrub the grout,” she teased to flush the heat from her face.

He laughed, bending to pull two towels off the rack hanging above the toilet and tossed them on the ground, close to the glass enclosed shower.

“Might as well make ourselves comfortable,” he said before settling himself on one of the towels, his legs elongated toward the vanity, his back leaning against the pristine, crystal-clear glass of the shower door.

Perching alongside him, she straightened her legs and peered over at him. “So…”

He grinned devilishly, mimicking her. “So…”

She could feel her cheeks burning rosy red. Of all her attributes, her glowing complexion exposing her chagrin was at the top of her list. She averted her eyes and crossed her legs.

“God, you’re adorable,” he murmured.

She peeked over at him. “You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you?”

He quirked a smile. “Absolutely.”

Nudging him with her shoulder, she teased, “You’re so mean.”

“I can’t help it. Your cheeks turn ruby red every time you get embarrassed and I’ve quickly become addicted to it.”

She blushed again, making him grin.

“See, there it is again.”

She swatted at his leg in jest. “Stop it.”

Gripping onto her hand, he turned it palm side up. Taking his index finger, he lazily traced the curvature of her fingers, starting with her thumb as he concentrated intently, gingerly moving over each digit until he reached her pinky.

His dark eyebrows rose as his eyes slanted in her direction. “Would you like me to read your palm?”

“So, now you’re a palm reader?”

He flattened his lips and nodded solemnly. “A skill handed down from my great, great grandmother.”

She withheld her giggle. “Okay, then, let’s hear it. What does my future hold?”

He settled the pad of his index finger against the indention of her wrist, focusing in on that area. “See these lines right here?” He glanced over at her, attempting to hold in his smile. “This is your creative aura.”

“Is that so?”

He nodded seriously, returning his vision to her hand. “And since there’s four lines crammed tightly together, that means you’re extremely gifted in the arts.”

When she giggled at the severity of his tone, he looked over with a feigned stern look. “My readings must be taken seriously for me to continue.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” she played along.

He cleared his throat as he turned back to examine her hand again. He studied further. “And this line here is your money line, which is also very lengthy and thick.” He leaned in closer. “I see artwork flying off walls.”

She laughed, but when the tip of his finger continued caressing her palm, making her feel tingly and light headed, her smile dissipated.

He seemingly got lost in the movement of his finger sliding over the ridges and grooves of her hand as his voice lowered an octave. He traced the contour starting at the fleshy pad, winding around her thumb. “This mark here represents your life line. You can see it curves around to the front of your hand.” He peered over in her direction, his lips drawn tight. “You will have a long, healthy life.”

His chin tilted down as he studied further until his middle finger glided to the center of her palm as he paused, blinked several times, then husked, “This is your marriage line.”

He angled his head down even further so that his dark hair fell against his forehead, concealing his eyes. “See how this line is connected to the line running parallel to it?” Another long pause. “That means you’ll find your soul mate.”

After a lengthy, thick silence, he folded her fingers into her palm with his head still bowed. He then lifted, gazing over at her with stormy eyes, smoldering with a fury of emotion, but she didn’t know what churned just beneath the surface.

To lighten the mood, she teased, “Let’s hope your great grandmother taught you well, because I liked that reading a lot.” She grinned wickedly. “A whole lot, actually.”

He smiled, but the motion didn’t seem to reach his eyes. Addison wondered what had caused the ache that seemed to flash across his face.

After a few beats of silence, he said, “Now, you do mine.”

She removed her hand from his, stating, “I don’t know what I’m doing, though.”

He tilted his head with a smirk, silently saying, As if I do.”

“Okay.” She pulled in a breath as she flattened her palm, asking for his hand. Inwardly, she told herself to be funny, be cute, make him fall for you, as you are for him.

She traced the contours of his palm as she lifted it and bent closer, pretending to really examine the indentions before speaking.

“I see a woman…”

His voice cracked adorably. “A woman?”

She nodded solemnly. “With your piercing blue eyes.”

“A relative?”

Shrugging, she focused in on his palm, her mind reeling to come up with something to say. “She’s talking to someone….behind a desk.”

He leaned in close, studying over her shoulder, as if in awe. ”It’s like you’re looking into a crystal ball, which is much cooler than palm reading.”

She withheld her smile. “She just withdrew her cell. She’s pulling something up…it looks to be a calendar.”

“Making a lunch date?”

“No.” She leaned in closer.

“Is it my mom making a haircut appointment for me?” he asked, a smile tugging at his lips.

She shook her head, swallowing her grin. “She’s typing now.”

“What does it say?”

“It says….wait.” She dropped their hands into her lap, feigning disappointment. “The image is gone.”

He pretended being crushed, before saying, “You really have a gift, Addison. You may want to think about throwing in your apron and hitting the carnival tour, instead.”

“That sounds half horrendously-horrible, half crazy-exciting.”

He removed his hand, slouching down further against the glass. “It would be fun to travel the circuit. No worries. Just the open land and a tent full of dreams.”

“Wow,” Addison commented. “That was kinda poetic.”

“I’m a man with many talents.” He wiggled his eyebrows, making her laugh.

She angled on one hip, tucking her knees, turning toward him. “If you were a carny, what would you do?”

His forehead burrowed as he thought for a moment, before replying, “I would never have the courage to train wild animals, so I’d probably be a flame thrower, or sword swallower, or something like that.”

“Because those things would be so much less dangerous,” she added facetiously.

The conversation buzzed back and forth between the two for hours. By the time Addison said she needed to get home, their bottoms were numb and their eyelids were drooping. After creeping through the darkened bedroom and out to the main area, Dawson offered to walk Addison home. He escorted her all the way through her hotel, back to the main elevators at the far end of the casino.

He punched the glowing circle and then turned toward her, saying, “I had fun tonight.”

So he wasn’t walking her to the room. Bummer.

“I did, too. Thanks for inviting us to the party.”

“Sounds like we’ll see each other tomorrow.”

Addison had heard the guys talking to Jessica about coming over to the pool, but Dawson was just now mentioning it. Was this his way of inviting her?

“Um, yeah. If you want me to come,” she said, hoping she didn’t sound too pathetic.

“It’s totally up to you. You may be too tired after the convention.”

Not the answer she was hoping for. She decided to play coy. “I’ll just play it by ear.”

This didn’t seem to affect him in the least. “Okay. Sounds good. Goodnight, Addison.”

She lifted her hand in a feeble wave as he walked away, calling, “Night.”

 

Hour Three

 

 

ADDISON WOKE IN a fog, stale alcohol on her breath, feet tingling with numbness, throbbing legs feeling like a jiggling mound of jello, her brain a bleary mess of confusion. It was close to four a.m. by the time Dawson walked her back to the hotel last night, and she was paying for her partying ways when her alarm clock buzzed two hours later.

Throwing back the duvet, she shuffled toward the master bathroom, eyes at half mast, a yawn seizing her sleep deprived face. Cranking on the showerhead, she plopped down on the closed toilet lid and began peeling off the wrinkled top she wore last night, and unfortunately, then slept in, as steam filtrated throughout the room. Her earrings came next, along with her panties. Stepping underneath the hot pins and needles, she let the scalding water rain down over her head, most likely smearing her makeup that she’d been too tired to remove.

She knew she was being highly unprofessional staying out until the wee hours of the morning, considering this was a business trip, but she just couldn’t bring herself to come home last night. When Dawson was in the room, everything else faded away, including her self-preservation for her early morning rise. Even now with every muscle in her body aching, her brain fuzzy with the aftermath of alcohol, and her face puffy and swollen, she would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Dawson had a way of making her feel comfortable in her own skin. He created an environment where she felt safe, allowing her to let her guard down, relax, and just be herself. He even seemed to love her crimson, blushing cheeks, and actually complimented her on the trait. No man had ever made her feel so content, so calm in his presence, and she was just so thankful that their paths had crossed at the airport.

She was looking so forward to this afternoon, since the boys had invited her and Jessica to hang out at the VIP pool at the Wynn. Maybe, just maybe, this would be the day that Dawson would actually kiss her. She already had that tingling, butterfly sensation in her stomach every time he touched her -- his hand brushing her lower back, shoulders touching, hands grazing -- she couldn’t imagine what it would feel like when they actually touched lips. She just had to hope that she wouldn’t fumble through the process and accidently bump heads, or worse yet, lock teeth. That would be completely and utterly mortifying, and so not how she visualized the experience. She pictured Dawson to be gentle, but yet passionate, the right mix of sweetness, with the perfect amount of heat.

In past experiences, Addison found that men were either too passive while kissing, or they attempted to swallow her face whole, leaving her to lap up their salvia with the back of her hand when finished. In her limited experience in the bedroom, she found the exact same state of affairs. Men were either excessively aggressive, or simply not enough. She didn’t know if this was because she was over-analytical and persnickety, or she was just choosing the wrong person to fall for. Whichever reason, she hadn’t yet found that right mix, the perfect chemistry with a man, in and out of the bedroom.

She was hoping that Dawson would be the deal breaker, giving her a measuring stick to qualify what was a good sexual encounter, and what was a poor one. So far, he proved to be just that on the social scale, and she was looking forward to delving into their relationship further.

When she was fully ready, she traipsed around the bed to the nightstand. With paper and pen in hand, she jotted down a quick note for Jessica.

 

Jess,

 

[_ I’ll be at the convention center until two- maybe even three- pending on the number of venders this year. You can wait for me here in the room, or if it gets too late, just head on over and I’ll meet you at the Wynn. _]

Hope you had a good time with Moose last night…You sure sounded like you did. LOL

 

See you later,

 

Addy

 

Ripping the note off the pad, she laid it against Jessica’s unused pillow. She then wrapped her sling bag around her neck, grabbed her coffee cup, and hurried down to the lobby.

 

Addison whipped through rows and rows of venders as if she was sprinting in a dead heat at a competitive track meet. She sailed past merchants selling utensils, stainless steel pots, pans, and baking sheets, rolled through booths containing industrial mixers, blenders, and beaters, and soared through aisles peddling the latest and greatest set of oven mitts and quirky quoted aprons.

She bee-lined straight to the merchants selling industrial ovens and combed through every feature on every model available. But the problem was, there were over twenty venders listed selling ranges and the process took much longer than Addison expected.

Luckily, she had thought to bring along her swim suit and cover up, along with a pair of flip flops, because it was almost three p.m. by the time Addison rolled into the regal, European-style pool and spa at the Wynn. White lounge chairs with mammoth umbrellas lined the clutter-free concrete deck surrounding the luxurious-sized, sparkling pools, decorated with a gold sunburst, exploding with navy and red serpentine rays, with lush green, sculptured gardens accenting the secluded area. The ambiance was one of elegance and quiet seclusion, that is until Addison heard the high pitched squeal of Jessica being throw up into the air by Jimmy, before splatting on her back, Nestea plug style, causing a hush to fall over the men standing in the shallow end. But when she bobbed back up to the surface laughing hysterically, they all clapped and hollered their approval.

Immediately, Addison sought out Dawson, who was leaning against the pool’s edge, his arms casually splayed out over the rim. When her shadow cast over him, he squinted upward, a warm smile seeping across his handsome face.

“Hey, you’re here.”

She grinned down at him as she attempted to appear witty. “Did you ever doubt me?”

“Actually, yeah, I did, especially with your late arrival home.”

“Sleep deprivation is usually not my thing, but as they say, when in Vegas…”

His grin widened as he stood, and then catapulted himself out of the pool agilely. He was wearing white trunks with coconuts sprinkled throughout and a brown braided necklace, his hair slicked back, glistening from the pool water. He smelled of chlorine and sweat, a lethal combination. To sum it up, the total package was astoundingly sexy, good enough to eat.

“Can I get you a drink? We have a tab already started.”

“Sure, a sangria would be great.” She swiveled in both directions. “Is there a place I can change?”

“Through those double doors and then turn right.”

“Okay, great. Thanks.”

She whisked off toward the glass doors, her excitement at seeing Dawson bubbling to the surface. She had to tone it down a notch, before she actually skipped off to the restroom, like an overzealous adolescent.

Veering into the closest changing stall, she slipped out of her white jeans and navy jersey top, and stepped into her black one piece, sporting cutouts of either side of her ribcage. Gold hoop earrings came next, followed by her gilded flip flops and her sheer, black sarong. As a last touch, she secured her brown locks into a pony tail, high at the back of her head.

Securing her sunglasses as a hairpiece, she skirted back out to the pool deck, where Dawson was waiting with an ice-filled wine glass.

“You can throw your stuff in our cabana,” he offered as he escorted her to the closest shelter, draped in thick, white, waterproof cloth flanking three sides.

Tossing her bag into the wicker chair, she accepted the drink and took a tentative sip. It tasted heavenly, so she took a larger gulp, withholding her need to sigh as the refreshment quenched her dry, parched throat.

“It’s perfect. Thank you.”

“How was the convention? Did you get everything in you wanted to?”

“Pretty much,” she said while tilting her head back and forth. “We’re interested in purchasing a new deck oven. The one we currently have, we bought used, and is in need of massive repairs. So we’re chewing the numbers to find the most cost effective way to upgrade.”

His dark eyebrows elevated. “Did you come up with a solution?”

“Not yet, but hopefully tomorrow I’ll be able to nail down an answer.”

He lifted his bottled beer. “Cheers to that.”

They clinked glasses, took a sip, smiling at each other over the rim.

She reached across the distance and touched his woven necklace. “I like that.”

He followed her field of vision. “Thanks, I got it in Hawaii last year,” and then added, “I’m allergic to nickel, so this is about all I can wear.”

“Nice choice. It looks good on you.”

“At least one person agrees with me. The guys have been throwing me crap about it all day.”

“Their men -- they have no idea what looks good.”

He winked, making her grin. “I appreciate the vote of confidence.”

“Anytime.”

“Would you like to get in the water?”

“Sure.”

She followed him out into the blinding sun, pulling her sunglasses onto her face. When she neared the shallow end, Shawn, who was in much better shape today, along with Jimmy, Terrance, and Jessica, entangled in Moose’s robust arms, all greeted her.

“So, are you ready to hang up your baker’s cap and play for a while, Addy?” Jessica called out.

“That’s the plan,” she answered as she took a seat on the edge of the pool, dangling her bare feet into the tepid water.

As Dawson eased himself into the pool, Jessica swam over and lifted herself out to perch alongside Addison. The boys picked back up with lightly tossing a nerf football one-handed, while nursing their beer with the other.

Addison nudged Jessica with an elbow, whispering, “So…how’d it go with Moose last night?”

She peeked over at her in quandary. “You know how it went; you and Dawson eavesdropped on us the entire night.”

“We did not!” Addison scoffed. “We were trying to give you privacy, but we couldn’t help overhearing, since you guys were so loud and obnoxious.”

Jessica laughed boisterously, not ashamed in the slightest about her one night stand. “We were kinda annoying, weren’t we?”

“Ya think?”

“It must have been those shots I downed. I’m usually not like that, I promise.”

“Yeah, right,” Addison balked. “Remember those notches you cut in your bedpost to keep track of your sexual escapades back in college?”

“Hey now, my guess is you and Dawson weren’t being too angelic in the bathroom, either.”

“You think wrong, my friend. Nothing happened.”

Jess lifted her glasses onto her forehead. “Are you serious?”

“Totally.”

“Not even a kiss?”

“Nope.”

She dropped the frame back in place, mumbling, “Holy shit.”

“I know, right? It’s not like I didn’t give him multiple signals, either, but obviously, he likes to take things slow, but I appreciated that.” She lifted a hand. “Appreciate is not the right word; it’s not strong enough. Let me rephrase. I loved that about him.”

As Jessica shook out her wet hair, making it spike in all directions, Addison watched Shawn step to the opposite side of the pool with Dawson. They were having what seemed to be an extremely deep conversation, but unfortunately, Addison wasn’t gifted with the ability to read lips, so she just watched their body language. Dawson’s hands stayed fisted, crossed over his chest, as Shawn tilted his chin up to speak to him, since his counterpart was a whole head taller than he was. Dawson’s hands elevated, his head moving as he spoke, before dropping his arms to his sides, his hands landing back in the water as they flexed and then fisted several times. A long heartbeat of a pause where both men stood their ground without speaking. Both of Shawn’s hands then anchored against Dawson’s biceps, before giving him a good shake and then pulled him in for a slap on the back and a one-sided hug.

“Well, that was interesting,” Addison said with a dip of her head.

“What was?”

“Dawson and Shawn over there.”

Jessica’s head skated in their direction. “Why is that interesting?”

“I don’t know. It just looked like the conversation got a little intense.”

“The man’s getting hitched in less than two weeks; my guess is, things are going to be intense until the big day comes.”

Addison shrugged. “I guess so.”

Moose interrupted by easily plucking Jessica off her perch and dragging her out to deeper water. The rest of the boys assembled in a circular fashion around Addison’s legs. Jimmy, their bigger friend with a receding hairline, was full of one liners keeping them in stitches, while Terrance poked fun of him the entire time. Dawson stayed on the outer perimeter on the far side of the group, laughing and teasing his friends with an easy comradery.

Although Addison was having a fabulous time, she couldn’t help when she stifled a yawn with the back of her hand. This is when Dawson lifted himself out of the pool, offering to help her up.

“Come with me.”

Hearing this, the boys dissipated, lending them some privacy.

“Where to?” she asked.

“To lie down in the cabana. You have to be exhausted.”

“You’re right.” She stood, and then bent down to retrieve her glass. “Let me just run back to my place for a quick nap and I’ll meet up with you guys later.”

“Okay, that will work. Let me get my shirt and shoes and I’ll walk you back.”

She watched as he sauntered back over to the cabana, lifted a towel to scrub the water off his trunks and body. Shrugging into his tan t-shirt, he pushed his hair off his forehead and slid his feet into his flip flops as Addison stepped into her peach strapless cover up.

They angled around people lounging on the deck nibbling fresh fruit and waiters balancing trays of cocktails as they weaved their way to the hotel doors. Once inside, the air conditioning immediately washed over them, making Addison shiver.

“Are you cold?”

“No, I’m good. Just adjusting to the cooler temperature.”

As they entered the dim casino with the now familiar sounds of machines bleeping, chiming their reward, Addison asked, “So where did you end up sleeping since Jess and Moose stole your bed?”

He cupped the small of her back, ushering her ahead as a swarm of people filtered through, answering, “On the pull-out couch with Shawn, so it wasn’t exactly comfortable. Jess and Moose left pretty early to head back to your place, though, so I called housekeeping, had the sheets changed, and then got a good nap in before the rest of the guys woke up.”

They pushed through the doors to the street. The sun was blinding compared to the hazy casino, and Addison felt the need to shadow her eyes, even though she had pulled her sunglasses back down to her face.

As they skirted around the escalator that led up to the pedway crossing the street, Dawson asked, “Are you hungry?”

Actually, Addison was famished since she didn’t want to take time to eat at the convention. “Yeah, food actually sounds really great.”

They swooped into a sports bar that had a huge screen anchored to one wall with stadium chairs implanted on risers layered in front. Planted around the main area were individual rooms with couches, coffee tables and smaller televisions that were rentable per person, by the hour. Since she and Dawson were just having a light snack, they chose a table in the open dining to the left of the stadium chairs.

Dawson pulled out her chair and held onto the back until Addison was seated. As they scanned the menu, she noticed that everything listed had to do with being at a ballgame: tailgating, pre-game, starting line up, game time.

“I have to say,” she commented, “whoever came up with the idea for this restaurant was a genius.”

Dawson laid aside his menu, glancing around the area. “Build a bar with a wide range of beer and big screen televisions and you can’t go wrong, especially in Vegas.”

“Have you ever been to this franchise before?”

“We came here a couple of years ago for the NFL playoffs, but they were charging five hundred bucks per person to rent one of the rooms over there, so we left.”

“Just to watch the game?”

“Yeah. Pretty crazy, especially since we had seven guys.”

Addison’s eyebrows spiked. “That’s over three grand for one of those miniscule rooms.”

He chuckled at her outrage. “That’s why we left and watched it for free at the sports book back at our hotel.”

The waitress arrived, asking for their orders. Dawson looked to Addison. She ordered a Coors Light and Dawson ordered a Red Bull and Vodka.

“Would you like to order any tailgating food?” the waitress inquired.

“We’ll need a couple of minutes.”

“Sure,” she said before tottering off.

“Do you just want an appetizer?” Dawson asked, “or are you really hungry?”

“Let’s just split a couple of items listed under tailgating.”

“Okay. So what are you thinking?” he asked without looking at the menu.

Addison laid her food options aside, too, thinking his smoky blue eyes were much more appealing than anything the menu had to offer.

“I like fries…with cheese.”

He bit his lip and grinned, which was the cutest thing Addison had ever seen.

“Cheesy fries, huh?”

“Nothing better. How about you?”

“I’m a wing kind of guy.”

“The real question is….are you mild or hot?” Addison could feel her face rush with heat at the question, and wished she could retract her words.

His smile widened into a devilish grin. “What do you think?”

“I think…” her eyes inverted to the table, “…you’re a little bit of both.”

Dawson leaned forward anchoring his elbows on the table, hands folded on top. “Do you know what I think, Addy?”

She shook her head, attempting not to squirm under the heat of his gaze.

“I think you are completely and utterly intriguing.”

The way his eyes narrowed with intensity and his sharp annunciation of each word made Addison’s spine curl, moving her closer in his direction.

The waitress arrived with their drinks, and then Dawson ordered on their behalf.

When she retreated, he asked, “Do you like to travel?” before taking a sip of his drink.

“Honestly, I was a military brat and moved constantly, so to answer your question, yes I like to travel, but not on a continual basis.”

“I bet that was hard as a kid, always being uprooted.”

She swirled her beer bottle in slow circles. “Yeah, it was, not only for me, but for my mom, too. She got to the point of not wanting to establish friends, knowing that we’d have to leave them eventually. She thought it was all just a waste of time and kind of became a hermit, living and breathing only for my father’s return.”

“How did that affect you?”

She shrugged. “It made me sad for her, and guilty for wanting to establish friends of my own.”

“I can imagine.”

Wanting to veer the conversation over to him, she asked, “How about your childhood?”

His head wobbled. “Pretty run of the mill. Stayed in one place. Parents had a solid marriage. Had friends that have stuck with me through the years.”

“I’d call that anything, other than run of the mill.”

“I guess you’re right with the divorce rate the way it is.”

The food arrived and they busied themselves as they watched each other across the table. It was that newness to their relationship and the high level of attraction that made anything Dawson did look sexy, even eating. Addison watched him lick his fingers, and envisioned her doing it for him.

As if hearing her thoughts, he grinned. “Would you like one?”

She shook her head, claiming, “I’ve never understood the concept of wings. There’s hardly any meat on them.”

He laughed as he wiped his mouth with his napkin. “And I don’t understand why anyone would take a perfectly good French fry and slather ballpark cheese all over it.”

They teased and laughed until the bill arrived. After settling their check, they traipsed back out into the scorching sun, taking a left toward the Venetian hotel.

 

As Addison levered her card into the slot of her room, her nerves were jittering on high alert, wondering what the protocol would be for this situation. Maybe the polite thing to do would be to invite him in for a drink to thank him for lunch and walking her home.

Who was she kidding?

She wasn’t trying to be polite, she just didn’t want him to leave, and the thought of having him in total privacy was an added bonus.

Granted, he did walk her home with the premise of her taking a nap, but still, couldn’t they share an afternoon nightcap first?

What the heck, she decided, and turned to face him.

“Would you like to come in and check out our suite?” She hated that her questioning tone ended up sounding like a high pitched squeak, so she cleared her throat before adding, “Or maybe a beer, or something?”

He dipped his hands into his pockets, his eyes grazing over his tan flip flops before elevating back to her level. “Yeah, sure.”

After giving him a quick tour, she reached in the miniature refrigerator for two beers, setting hers on the table, before saying, “I’m just going to change. I’ll be right back.”

“Sure. No problem.”

He took a seat in the chair at the desk, swiveling to peer out the floor-to-ceiling window, leaning the frame back as far as it would allow. With one last glance over her shoulder, Addison scooped up her wheeling luggage and rolled it into the restroom, silently clicking the door closed behind her. Hurriedly, she unzipped her suitcase and loomed over the abounding crater as she yanked one garment after another up into the air, before chucking them back into their hole where they belonged, exasperation seeping in. She didn’t pack anything that even remotely resembled a casual outfit that might also be perceived as somewhat sexy. She grabbed her Art Institute scooped-necked, thin t-shirt, threw it over her head, and stepped into her black bootie shorts. She glanced in the mirror, scrutinizing herself, then gave the neckline a couple of hard yanks until the material bared one of her shoulders. She considered spritzing on a splash of perfume, but thought that would be a little overbearing. After taming her hair into a casual, messy bun on top of her head, she sashayed out of the restroom, attempting to appear confident, when in actuality her tensed stomach was roiling with nerves.

He spun when he heard her enter the room, his gaze sliding down her body, before he peered back up into her eyes. She gripped the neck of her beer bottle and climbed onto the bed, sitting crossed legged.

He grinned at her, making her hands fly to her hair, asking, “What?”

“Nothing. You just look adorable.”

Adorable?

Not the look she was going for, but when he eased out of his seat and moved toward her, she felt that being adorable wasn’t so bad after all.

He sauntered to the foot of the bed, reaching across the distance between them to trail a light fingertip from her temple, down to her jawline. “You’re supposed to be sleeping.”

She tipped her beer in his direction, clarifying her plans. “Drinking, and then sleeping.”

He chuckled under his breath as he sat on the bed beside her.

“How about you? Aren’t you tired?” she asked.

“The guys were passed out ‘til noon, so I got plenty of sleep. You, on the other hand, not so much.”

“I have to say, I do need a nap, but I’m not one of those people who can’t just jump into bed and nod off to sleep. I have to settle down first.”

He crossed his feet at the ankles. “So, how do you do that?”

“At home, I crawl in bed with the lights out, no tv or any other distractions.”

He stood, strolled around the bed and tugged back the covers, gesturing for her to crawl underneath the blankets.

Well, this is starting to get interesting…

She took a long draw from her bottle before sitting it on the nightstand, and then shimmied under the covers he tented with his hand. Once she scooted down until she was nestled against the fluffy down pillow, he tucked her in and then lumbered over to the door, flipping off the lights. He walked across the room to the blinds next, and filtered out the sun by closing them soundly.

Now, the only cusp of light seeping in was from the cracks and crevasses of the drapery, creating the perfect intimate setting. When he crossed back over to the bed, she scooted over a touch, as an invitation, which he accepted.

“How’s that?” he murmured softly once he settled at her hip.

She peeked at him through her lashes. “Good.”

“Now what?”

“Deep, relaxing breaths.”

He nodded, encouraging her to continue with her nighttime, relaxation routine.

She eased both arms over the blanket, anchoring it in place. She kept her eyes locked on his as she pulled in a gust of air, held it in her lungs, before letting it slide out through her nose. She performed that maneuver two more times, her eyes never wavering from his, and then laid still, itching to reach up and wind her hands into the back of his hair.

“What’s next?”

She attempted to think of something seductive to say, but when she drew a blank, she spoke from the heart. “I say my dad’s prayer.”

His forehead creased. “Okay.”

“Okay, what?”

“Let’s hear it.”

“You want me to say it now?”

“If that’s what you do at home, then, yes.”

She pushed the covers under her breasts and linked her fingers on top, the tender memories of her father tucking her in at night as a child floating to the surface.

When she spoke, the words were no more than a delicate whisper.

“Now I lay me down to sleep.

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

And if I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

“You say that every night?” he murmured in question.

When she nodded, she couldn’t help it, her eyes glazed over with moisture. “My dad and I said that prayer together, up until he passed away.”

His face pulled taut as he reached his hand to the top of her left breast, settling his palm flat against her chest, as if cradling her heart to comfort her for her devastating loss, a loss that only he, who also lost a father, could understand.

That one simple gesture moved Addison more than words could express. It was the most compassionate, caring, intimate thing anyone had ever done for her.

She pulled both lips into her mouth and bit down to keep from crying as moisture pooled in the corner of her lids.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

She answered his unasked question. “He stepped on a landmine in Iraq.”

“And your mom?” he asked quietly.

“She moved back to Beijing brokenhearted.”

“When?” His question was no more than a husky rush.

A tear leaked out the corner of her eye and rolled down her temple. “Before my senior year of high school.”

As if he could feel her pain, his eyes clouded over with hers as he took his thumb and erased her sadness. “I understand your loss,” he murmured, “the pain and loneliness that comes with it.”

She blinked back her tears. “I know….and thank you.”

His chin tilted, asking silently, For what?

She laid her hand over his against her breast. “For understanding.”

He nodded solemnly, and then a slight lift of his mouth. “So that’s where you got those beautiful eyes…your mother?”

“The shape comes from her, but the color is all dad. It’s the only reason I love looking in the mirror every day, to see a part of him looking back at me.” She then added demurely, “Did you get any traits from your father?”

His thumb ran over his full lips. “My mouth. My height,” another slight grin, “and my ears.”

“Your ears?”

He took both hands and pulled back his hair, exposing his small ears that stuck out the slightest bit.

She grinned. “Their cute.”

“Cute?” he balked.

“Okay, then sexy.”

His warm, genuine smile widened. “That’s so much better.”

An involuntary yawn overtook her facial muscles. “I’m sorry,” she bungled as she attempted to cover her oval mouth.

“It’s okay. You need sleep.” Leaning over her, he grazed his thumb along her cheek. “Sleep tight,” he whispered before placing a light kiss on her forehead.

 

Addison woke from her drooling, comatose nap when Jessica burst through the door. “Sorry, Addy!” she called before slamming the door shut in her wake as she skidded around the entry wall on the way to the restroom.

Arms outstretched, Addison elongated her body, pointing her toes underneath the covers. Sitting up in bed, she glanced over at the alarm clock, glowing six p.m. She slid her feet to the cool marbled floor and scurried over into the half bath, closest to the entry door to relieve her full bladder. Traipsing across the room, she tapped on the bathroom housing the shower.

“Can I shower first, since I take longer to get ready?”

The water hitting the basin was her answer, making her roll her eyes as she bolstered her backside alone the vanity.

“I promise I won’t take long,” Jessica called out before Addison heard the shower door clank shut.

Plodding over to the closet, she pushed through the hangers, deciding what to wear. Since she only packed two decent tops, one of which she had already worn, the decision was made quickly. She removed her rose-colored, silk, sleeveless blouse, along with her silver iridescent sandals, and then dug through her suitcase for her white jeans and a clean pair of underwear.

She was waiting by the door when Jessica swung it open, completely nude with her hair wrapped in a towel knotted on top of her head.

“That didn’t take too long, did it?”

Addison’s eyes darted to the floor as her hand shielded her vision. “Jess, put on some clothes, will you?”

“Jeez, it’s just a body, Addy, and you have one just like it, in case you didn’t know.”

Picturing Jessica’s childish frame against the curvature of hers, she called out, “Not really,” before snipping the door shut behind her.

 

Addison got ready in record time, wanting to spend every spare moment she had with Dawson. She knew her time with him was dwindling quickly, since they both flew out the following day, but she also knew, without a doubt, she wanted to pursue whatever was happening between them back in Oregon.

But the key to this equation was…is Dawson willing?

At this point, Addison felt the answer to that question could go either way.

Yes, Dawson did give her his undivided attention since they hooked back up at the bar, and she never found his eyes wandering to any of the other beautiful women sashaying by. He also flirted with her until her stomach did nauseating flip flops, teased her until she squirmed in her seat, and genuinely seemed to enjoy her company.

But something was missing.

Why had Dawson not made any type of romantic move in the slightest?

She was highly attracted to him, and he seemed to find her pleasing, as well.

She sent all the right signals.

He had boundless opportunities.

But yet, he never once leaned in for a kiss, or even held her hand, other than the night in the bathroom while reading her palm.

Addison was an advocate of taking things slow, but come on now, they were both single adults, living it up in the bright lights of the city. A little make out session wasn’t too much to ask, was it?

Although Dawson’s lack of physical intimacy was a gigantic red flag flapping in the wind, Addison pushed those negative thoughts aside, sipping her chocolate martini as she and Jess waited for the boys in the hotel bar.

“So…” Jessica began the conversation.

“So?”

“Did you get any action when Dawson walked you home?”

“Nope.”

“My God! What is the man waiting for? An embossed invitation?”

Addison laughed. “I’m not really sure, but if that would help, I can run to the store and get one.”

A finger came up as Jessica leaned toward her. “Do you want me to ask him what his deal is?”

“No!” Addison spouted, mortified at the thought. Since Jessica was already tipsy, she knew she was capable of anything. “I don’t want you to say anything. I like that he’s taking things slow.”

“This is beyond slow, Addy. You’re on a weekend trip to Vegas, which is almost over, I might add. He needs to stop pussyfooting around and make his move.”

Addison shrugged as her eyes cut across the room. She couldn’t stop the grin that split across her face when she saw Dawson saunter through the lobby, wearing shorts sporting the American flag, a white v-neck, and navy boat shoes. Seemingly unbeknownst to the women checking him out, he jostled with Jimmy, before running his fingers through his hair, shoving his shiny, dark locks off his forehead.

Jumping off her stool, Jessica waved the men in their direction. Moose immediately saddled up to Jess, giving her a quick kiss on the lips, while Dawson stayed glued to his clump of friends, giving her a light wave from across the distance.

When all the guys headed in the direction of the bar, Dawson lingered behind, laying his hand on the back of Addison’s chair.

“Were you able to nap?”

“Yes, and I feel much better.”

“So, you think you’re capable of hanging with us now?” he teased with a one sided smirk.

“Do I detect a challenge in your tone?”

His chin tilted. “Yes, I guess you do.”

With a glint in her eye, she replied back, “You’re on.”

He chuckled under his breath as he sauntered over toward the bar, but then turned back toward her. “Can I get you anything?”

“No, I’m good, but thanks.”

Addison knew if she wanted to keep up with the boys tonight, pacing would have to be the key ingredient, but Jessica seemed to have a totally different idea altogether. Addison watched as she tossed back two shots while bellied up to the bar with the men, and then slam her own drink before ordering another. With drinking all day and her slight frame, Addison knew she was already beyond tipsy, and made a conscious decision, right then and there, to keep a watchful eye on her.

After scarfing down a table full of appetizers and a few more beers, they headed out to the cab line, needing to get to the Bellagio before eight, since Jimmy, Terrance, and Shawn had signed up for a Texas Hold’em tournament there.

At 7:45, their taxicab squeaked to a halt outside the Bellagio’s wall of glass doors. The poker players dashed out of the car, calling their goodbyes over their shoulders, leaving Moose, Jessica, Addison, and Dawson to meander around the strip alone.

Although Jessica and Moose seemed like they were sharing their fiftieth date as they strolled wrapped in each other’s arms, she and Dawson were still like adolescent children sharing a game of Kick The Can on the playground. His hands stayed buried in his pockets as he teased her, bumping into her shoulder lightheartedly, as she returned his banter, shoving him gently in return.

Although their connection was fun loving and playful, Addison craved for so much more, and looked forward to the night ahead, hoping to delve into something deeper.

After circling the perimeter of the casino, the men decided they were going to teach the girls how to play craps. After zeroing in on a table with enough space to accommodate their group, they dug into their pockets for a wad of cash. Dawson eased between a middle-aged woman and an Asian man, while Moose manhandled his way to the rail on the opposite side of the table.

Making room for Addison, Dawson leaned down to be heard over the roar of the crowd. “All you really have to know is how to bet the pass line to get started. The rest you’ll pick up on after you play for a while.”

Addison watched in awe as various players tossed money across the table while barking out instructions as a man in a striped vest drug the chips and cash with a rack, knowing exactly what each player wanted, while digesting fifteen different orders simultaneously.

“I don’t know. It doesn’t seem that easy.”

“It is. I promise.” He pointed to the dealer. “When that man turns that big hockey puck over to off, you place your bet on the line that says Pass. That’s it.”

She looked up at him skeptically, making him laugh.

After exchanging his cash for chips, he tossed three reds out onto the table, then held up his palms. “See. That’s all I have to do to make a bet.”

“What about all that stuff going on in the middle?”

“That’ll come later.” He nodded his head in the direction of the Asian man bending to scoop up the shiny red dice. “And that man right there is now,” he made air quotes, “the Shooter, and rolls the dice for his Come Out roll.”

Addison observed the man as he rolled the shiny pieces between his palms several times as he eyed the table intently, then blew between his fingers, before chucking the squares across the green mat. When the dice bounced across the surface to end up totaling seven, the whole table threw up their hands and cheered, slapping their neighbor on the back, while shouting out praise, bolstering the shooter’s confidence.

When the dealer tossed three chips in Dawson’s direction, he turned, saying, “You can’t get any easier than that.”

Across the table, Moose was already knee-deep in bets as he tossed several hundred dollar bills onto the table. Jessica tossed her head back squealing in delight when the next roll ended in her date’s favor. When it was Moose’s turn to shoot, he handed the dice over to Jessica in a flattened palm. She kissed each dice individually before shaking them in her hand and flinging them across the table.

“Another winner!” the dealer called as he doled out more stacked chips.

Although Addison knew the game looked way too good to be true, she shoved her fingers into her back pocket and withdrew a fifty dollar bill, which was much more than she’d ever gambled in one sitting. The dealer then tossed her ten red chips in exchange for her cash, and she carefully placed a two-stack at the Pass line, just like Dawson had instructed.

She watched the middle-aged woman to the right lift the dice to her ample breasts, where she proceeded to rub them, before flinging them across the table.

When snake eyes appeared, the dealer yelled, “Sorry folks,” as he raked up the thousands of dollars’ worth of chips littering the green felt.

Dawson gave her a quick squeeze on the neck as consolation before reaching for the dice the dealer pushed in his direction.

“Come on; come on,” he murmured lowly as he jiggled the dice one handed. When he splayed out his palm, the dice exploded from his fingers, smashing into the opposite wall of the table with such force, they ricocheted back to the middle of the felt, knocking several chips off their perch.

“Eleven!” the dealer chirped as the crowd roared their approval, but unfortunately, he crapped out on his next roll, and so did she, along with the next two shooters. In seven rolls, she had completely lost her money.

“Easy come, easy go,” she quipped as she dusted off her hands and stepped back from the railing.

“Let me just cash these in—“

“No, no. Stay and play,” she protested.

Without giving it a second thought, he shoved his pile of chips toward the dealer to cash out. As he pocketed the crisp, green bills, the next shooter rolled three sevens in a row, and then really got on a hot streak, making the table an abundance of money as Addison watched in bewilderment. At this point, Jessica was jumping up and down squealing like a stuck pig as Moose high-fived every person in a three foot radius.

“I’m so sorry you got out on account of me.”

“It’s all good,” he said with a nonchalant shrug.

They weaved through the crowd gathering around the table, over toward their friends on the opposite side. When the shooter continued raking in cash for the entire table, Addison couldn’t stand watching any longer. She tapped Jessica on the shoulder, whispering that she would meet her at the lobby bar whenever she was ready. In turn, Jessica waved her off quickly, leaning back over the rail.

When she reached up to tell Dawson the same, he cupped her lower back and ducked his head down to her level. She moved in close, “accidently” nuzzling his ear. He smelt heavenly, fresh and clean with just a touch of virile cologne.

“I’m going to head to the lobby bar,” she said over the jeers of the players. “Why don’t you jump back in the game? The shooter still seems to be going strong.”

He tucked his head, speaking directly into her ear, his tepid breath tickling her lobe. “That’s okay. I’ll just go with you.”

She sought eye contact. “You don’t have to do that, Dawson.”

“I know I don’t.” He grinned down at her, making her heart melt when he added, “I want to.”

For the first time since meeting, he wound his fingers through hers and held her hand at the base of his lower back, his body acting as a shield to cut through the crowd. Once they broke through the throng of gamblers, he released his grip and matched her stride as they walked the rest of the way side by side.

“So, you really don’t like gambling, do you?”

She shook her head. “I just can’t seem to jump into the notion that you can get something for nothing. You have to work hard to be rewarded; that’s how I was raised, anyway.” Her hand flew to her chest, realizing her blunder. “Not that gambling offends me, or anything like that….”

He smiled down at her. “I have to say, I do enjoy a good round of poker with the guys and a little black jack here and there, but it’s not something I do often, either.”

“What time do you guys head out tomorrow?” she asked as they angled into the bar.

“Not until the afternoon. What about you?”

“I’m headed to the convention in the morning to hopefully close the deal on the oven, and then going to the airport sometime before two.”

“So another early morning rise?”

“Looks like it.”

“I’ll try to get you home much earlier this time,” he stated as he lifted his hand to signal the bartender.

What she wanted to say was, You can have me all night long, but the good girl overpowered her inner evil, as it always did, and she replied back demurely, “Thank you for being so thoughtful.”

They sat at the bar, their seats scooted so close together that their calves rubbed, talking, laughing, sharing childhood stories, and reminiscing about their college days. The time flew by much too quickly, and before Addison knew it, it was zeroing in on one in the morning, with still no sign from Moose or Jessica.

Dawson glanced down at his wrist watch. “How about we start walking back. We can catch the water show on the way, if you’re interested.”

“Sounds great. Let me just text Jessica.”

She withdrew her phone from the back pocket of her jeans and rapidly shot out a text. When she didn’t see an immediate reply, she tried calling her, to no avail, and then, finally, settled for sending out another message. This one stating to meet them in the front of the Bellagio in the next half hour, so they could walk back to the hotel together.

They skirted through the hotel and out the casino door, strolling in a ginger pace to the moving pedway. As they glided along, they saw there was already a crowd gathering two people deep around the waterway, patiently waiting for the show to begin. They strolled to the opposite end, further down the sidewalk, and stood behind the crowd.

The night air was still balmy, but with enough of a breeze to cause Addison to shiver, due to her sleeveless, thin blouse. This caused Dawson to step in behind her to block out the wind, settling both hands on her shoulders, providing just the right amount of pressure, making her inwardly sigh at the contact.

He dipped his head from behind her, whispering against her ear, “All I have to offer you is body heat.”

Boldly, she took a step backward, scooting until she was pressed up against his frame. Tilting her chin up, she angled toward him. “That’s better. Thanks.”

As the light show began with synchronized jets of flowing water, colorful lights, and dramatic music all happening simultaneously, Addison couldn’t even enjoy the spectacular event. She was too involved in feeling every single sensation happening between she and Dawson, almost like little heated pin pricks diving into her flesh -- his hand pressing into her shoulders, his mouth grazing against her hair, his chest and torso aligned with her back, her bottom sung against his upper thighs.

Never in her life had she been this turned on without any real skin to skin contact. She could feel the heat pooling in just the right places, in her core and around her breasts, as she resisted the urge to swivel in his arms and press her lips to his neck.

Their stance must have been causing Dawson some discomfort, too, because she could feel his chest pulling in deeper, more elongated breaths.

As the colorful lights bled over to lavenders and blues, the music switching toward a softer melody, Dawson slid his hands down her arms -- giving her immediate goosebumps -- to cradle her hips as he dipped his head lower, his chin resting at her temple.

This gave her the confidence to arch her back, pushing her bottom further into him, which caused a low groan to escape from his lips. Pushing the envelope further, she entwined her fingers through his and wrapped his arms completely around her waist, eliciting another low moan to seep from his mouth.

He squeezed her body tightly against him, groaning huskily, “God, you’re killing me, Addy,” into her hair.

She turned her face as far into him as she could, their lips only inches apart now, providing him complete access to her mouth, pleading with her eyes for him to kiss her.

When he still didn’t make a move, she whispered, “You’re the one killing me.”

He turned her by the shoulders, cupping her neck as his thumbs encased her ears. He gently stroked across her cheeks as his eyes seared into hers with heated intensity. “You don’t want me to do this,” he husked, his jaw tense, his teeth grinding.

She latched onto his bent arms. “I do, Daws, please,” she begged.

He lowered his forehead to hers, his lids falling shut for a moment as he breathed in deeply, rocking his head back and forth against hers. He then pinned her with his penetrating eyes again, before lowering his mouth to rest against hers.

Their lips didn’t move, as if testing the waters of their first intimate contact, as his eyes stayed focused on her, staring, pleading, begging her to decode some type of message that was impossible to understand.

Instead, she reached her hand up to wind her fingers into his thick hair, demanding more, needing more, as she sighed, “Dawson, please,” one more time against his lips, letting him know just how desperately she needed him to deepen the embrace.

He responded by angling his head, opening his mouth, sucking her bottom fold between his lips, his teeth grazing against the tender flesh. She groaned her approval, making him slide his tongue into her wet, willing mouth and explore her further. He paused to breathe her in, held the air tight in his lungs, and then dove back in hungrily as he exhaled, making her want to climb up onto his frame and wrap her legs around his waist, so he could feel the heat of her core, and know what he was doing to her body.

He pulled away, his breath labored, his eyes hot and ravaged. “Addy,” he whispered hoarsely, “I—“

But then they were barreled into the side by an overly intoxicated Jessica.

“Addy!” she gasped out of breathe as if she’d been running. She gripped onto her arms. “Ya gotta take me home.”

Dawson spun her around by the shoulders, concern etched on his face. “Is everything okay?”

“Yous don’t understand,” she slurred as she slapped at his chest. “I needs Addy,” her words were a convoluted mess, seeping together making her hard to understand. She flip-flopped around to Addison again. “Take mes home.”

When Dawson spun her back around a second time, the movement must have been too much, and she projectile vomited all over him.

Moose then appeared, out of breath himself, as chunks of vomit dripped from Dawson’s chest onto his canvas shoes underneath.

Jessica was now bent over her knees crying.

He gently rubbed her back. “Why did you take off like that, Tink?”

This question made her wail even louder as she buried her head into Addison’s chest.

“What happened?” he pleaded with anyone who would listen. “We were totally having a good time and then she just took off like a bat outta hell.”

“She hates throwing up in front of people,” Addison explained. “She probably wanted to make it back to the hotel before it happened.”

Jessica nodded against her chest with a whimper as Addison draped an arm around her back.

“Can one of you guys call us an Uber?”

Luckily, there was a driver just a stone’s throw away and they were able to get Jessica back to the hotel without having another incident. But when Moose tucked her under his massive wing to walk her up, she pushed against his chest, clutched onto her mouth, and sprinted inside. The big lug of a man actually looked wounded by the rebuke.

“Don’t take offense. Jess just has this thing about public intoxication, especially when it involves her.” Addison hooked her thumb over her shoulder. “I guess I need to go tend to her.” She looked to Dawson, who dropped his eyes to his ruined clothes.

“And I’m going to head back to my place for a shower.”

When he didn’t expand on that thought, Addison said, “So, I guess I’ll see you later?“

Dawson nodded without replying, lumbering off toward his hotel with a slight waddle, his arms held away from his dripping clothes.

Hour Four

 

 

LATER….

What does that word even mean?

Later tonight, or later tomorrow? Or maybe even later in this week?

Why did Addison have to leave her goodbye with Dawson so vague?

In hindsight, she should have tagged on the word tonight and then she would feel so much better about sitting on the bathroom floor, rubbing Jessica’s back while she threw up for the umpteen billionth time in the past hour.

How could someone so tiny even produce that much vomit? she debated, before pushing herself off the cold tile floor and shuffling out to the sink for another damp cloth to wipe down her face.

Holding onto her forehead, Addison lifted her off the rim of the toilet, and pressed the rag against her mouth, moving it back and forth to remove any sticky upchuck. She then held it dangling from her thumb and forefinger and dropped it along with all the other soiled linens on the floor in the corner.

“Do you want to try and go to bed again, Jess?”

When she nodded with her mouth ajar and her eyes sealed shut, Addison lifted her arm and draped it around her neck to help her stand. About a foot from the bed, Jessica took off in a stumble and face-planted onto the mattress. Addison lifted her dangling feet, and placed them on the bed, and then skirted around to her side, and climbed underneath the covers.

She lifted her phone from the nightstand to check for any missed calls or texts, which she knew would be fruitless, since she and Dawson had never exchanged numbers. Addy thought for sure tonight was the night that the formality of a number swap would take place. It might have, too, but thanks to Jessica, she would never know what the true outcome of the evening would have been.

Yes, they shared one deliciously passionate kiss that made the hairs on her arms stand on end, but she wanted so much more than that from him. This was the night that Addison was hoping to get some type of signal that he was as into her, as she was him. She wanted a flutter of a promise to move forward with whatever they were sharing in Vegas, back in Oregon, and she wanted to squash the lingering doubts twisting around in her mind about his disinterest.

But now she had nothing, other than the word ‘later’ hanging over her head.

At three a.m., Addison swallowed the fact that Dawson wasn’t going to make an appearance that evening and turned on her side in an attempt to fall asleep. At this point, she knew she’d acquire four hours of rest, at best, but liked that notion so much better than the thought of missing out on seeing Dawson before he left the city.

 

 

THE MORNING PROVED to a madhouse at the convention center, with people like her, wheeling and dealing before darting off to the airport to catch their flight home. Another customer caught the attention of her sales agent first and proceeded to chew his ear for forty-five minutes straight, while Addison tapped her tennis shoe, glaring at her watch every other minute.

When she stepped up to the table, she threw down her gauntlet right out of the gate, stating sternly as she handed over her offer, “This is what I’ll pay for the TLX model, including delivery.”

When the premature balding agent chuckled at the figure, she added, “I’m not spending another dime more.”

He pursed his thin lips before countering, “Raise the figure ten percent and you’ll be in the ballpark.”

She knew she came in with a low ball figure, but this way she had some wiggle room. She knew how to play this game. “As I said, I’m not budging on my offer.”

“I’m not at liberty to give that kind of discount.” He pointed to the line to the left of them. “You’ll have to wait and speak to my manager.”

She eyed the five people in front of her. “Can you just give me his business card and we’ll negotiate over the phone.”

“There’s no way you’ll get him to bend without speaking to him in person.” He shrugged. “But you do whatever you feel is best.”

God, she needed that oven desperately. Their dinosaur was on its last leg and wouldn’t make it through to the end of the year without blowing thousands on repairs. She’d just have to suck it up and wait. Dawson said he wasn’t leaving until the afternoon, anyway, but she wasn’t sure whether that meant 12:15 or 4:15, but either way, she should be able to make it back to their hotel in time to, hopefully -- fingers, toes, and hair crossed -- say goodbye and exchange numbers.

By the time she made it to the front of the line and settled on a selling price, it was close to ten thirty a.m., and after that, she had to fill out paperwork, make the first payment, set up delivery, and then go through a quick training session on the equipment.

At 11:45 she barreled out of the convention center, clutching her yellow folder containing the sales contract and line jumped at the taxi depot. As she slid into the beat up black sedan, she heard all types of jeers from the individuals standing in the roped line beside her, but she didn’t care in the slightest. She had only one goal in mind, and that was getting to Dawson before he left for the airport.

She slapped the top of the seat. “The Wynn, please, and make it fast.”

The heat outside was stifling, and she relished the cool blast of air pounding into her hair from up above. The Hispanic driver peeled out, tires squealing, making Addison reach for her safety harness. She wasn’t scared necessarily, just thankful, as he zipped by cars as if they were standing still, weaving through three lanes of traffic, laying on his horn whenever another vehicle crossed his path.

Relief washed over her as he abruptly screeched to a halt in front of the glass doors of the underground lobby. Pushing bills into his palm while simultaneously kicking open her door, she bolted out of the car, whooshed through the double doors, and jogged over to the bank of elevators at the end of the hallway.

Continuously jamming her finger into the glowing button to summons the elevator, she stepped on board when the doors glided open, and then continued her finger jabbing technique on the number twenty.

Squeezing through the crack before the doors fully opened, she power walked down the hallway, but then skittered to a stop, her face falling in defeat, when she found a maid’s cart jetting out of their doorway.

Dawson was gone.

G.O.N.E.

As if needing verification, Addison shimmied between the frame and the cart, her eyes falling on the empty room. She found a spattering of smashed beer cans littering the floor around the waste can, along with a stack of empty pizza boxes, and the bed already stripped with linens heaped on the floor.

The chemical smell of cleaning products overpowered her airway as she scanned the vacant room a second time, her sunny, optimistic disposition evaporating in an instant. With shoulders slumped, she squeezed back into the hallway and shuffled down to the elevator.

 

Since Jessica wasn’t leaving until the following day, she was still sprawled out in bed, her pink sleep mask perched against her forehead.

“Hey,” she called, her voice gravelly from her marathon throw-up session.

Addison slammed the door. “Hey,” she replied back, her monotone inflection matching her defeated body language.

“Thanks for last night. I owe you one.”

“It was nothing, especially in comparison to my morning.”

Jessica sat up, scooting against the headboard. “You didn’t get the oven you wanted?”

“No, I didn’t get the guy I wanted.” Addison plopped down on the bed beside her, kicked off her shoes, and stretched out her legs.

“Why do you say that?” she asked, befuddled.

“I just went to their hotel room, and he’s already gone.”

“You must have just missed them. Moose said they’re on their way to the airport now, but how does a plane ride constitute things being over between you and Dawson?”

“Because…” she trailed off, not knowing how to answer.

“You live in the same state, Addison. This can work, if you want it to.”

“I have no idea whether he’s even into me, Jess.”

Jessica’s eyes widened like saucers. “Oh. My. God. Are you kidding me right now?”

Addison shrugged.

“That man was totally into you!”

“But he didn’t even ask for my number.”

“Probably because I tossed my cookies all over his chest, Addy,” she argued, seemingly exasperated with her thought process.

“Whatever the reason, we have no way of communicating now,” her shoulders elevated, “so I guess whatever we had is over.”

“Pfft.” Jess waved off the thought, snatched her phone from the nightstand, quickly typed out a text, and then stated crisply, “Done.”

“What’s done?”

“Dawson now has your number. I just had Moose send it to him.”

A grin percolated at Addison’s lips. Maybe her situation with Dawson wasn’t so dire, after all. He would start a conversation with a witty, charming text, and then things could fall back into place from there.

She scooted off the bed with a revived pep in her step and got down to the business of packing.

 

 

ADDISON CHECKED HER phone at least a thousand times that day -- before leaving the hotel, on the cab ride to the airport, while walking through the terminal, standing at baggage claim, in her foyer at home, while perched on the toilet, while eating a late night snack of cheerios, and still held her phone as she crawled into bed that night.

Propping two pillows behind her head, she shot Jessica a message.

 

ADDISON: He still hasn’t texted me.

JESSICA: Give it time. He will.

ADDISON: How much time?

JESSICA: Enough to get back into the swing of things at home. I’d say, he’ll text in the next forty-eight hours.

ADDISON: And what if he doesn’t?

JESSICA: Then you text him.

ADDISON: No!

JESSICA: Yes, Addy.

ADDISON: I can’t!

JESSICA: You can and you will. Now go to sleep. You have to be exhausted.

 

Sleep turned out to be an elusive figment that hovered just out of Addison’s reach, not only that night, but also the following evening, as well. On the third night, with still no contact from Dawson, instead of attempting sleep, Addison ran through everything she knew about Dawson, making a laundry list of facts in her mind.

 

Lives in Oregon.

Somewhere near Coos Beach.

Father deceased.

Sold father’s business.

Makes concrete furniture.

 

She pressed her lips into a thin line, racking her brain for any other factoids she may have lingering in the confines of her mind, but came up with no other pertinent information. Sliding out of bed, she stuffed her feet into her furry slippers and wrapped herself in the fluffy, white robe hanging on the back of her door. She padded out to the kitchen, flipped on the overhead sink light, and saddled up to the butcher’s style island with her laptop.

She typed Dawson Preston, Coos Beach, Oregon into her browser, and boom, there he was staring back at her, wearing a sky-blue button down, his hair cropped short, making his square jaw look more defined and his eyebrows darker. Underneath, the listings read:

 

Dawson Preston: Furniture designer

Dawson Preston: Opens Dawson Preston Design Gallery

Dawson Preston Design Official Website

[_ Dawson Preston: @DPDgallery _]

 

She clicked on the heading for the gallery opening and was inundated with photographs of various people dressed to the nine with crystal flutes milling throughout a stark white showroom containing gorgeous, custom-made furniture, showcasing all types of intricate pieces with concrete accents.

The caption read: New resident, Dawson Preston, opens furniture gallery on Silver Avenue in downtown Coos Bay.

Addison zeroed in on one of the pictures of Dawson, blew it up, analyzing his facial features, all the way down to the red nick on his jawline, most likely from overzealous shaving. He looked poised, but yet relaxed as he shook hands, glancing over at the camera, his dark blue eyes glimmering with enthusiasm, his stance oozing with confidence and charisma.

She wanted to plead through the screen, why haven’t you contacted me?

She knew down deep in her gut that they shared some type of cosmic connection…..or did they?

When hashing through the past weekend, Addison knew she was obviously the one that pushed their physicality to its breaking point. Heck, she practically had to beg him to kiss her. Maybe her answer was blaringly obvious, and she was just too stubborn to see it.

He’s not interested.

Period.

End of story.

Move on, and find someone who is.

She sighed loudly, clicked her computer closed, and shambled back to the bedroom, the image of Dawson’s handsome face still lingering in the forefront of her mind.

 

 

THE BELL JINGLED overhead as Addison pushed through the door to the bakery the following morning. Emily, poker-straight, blonde hair in a French braid, glanced up from one of the metal, daisy-inlaid tables dotting the west wall.

“Hey, Ad,” she commented, then lowered her brow after taking her in, wearing baggy sweats and her facetiously-chosen smiley faced t-shirt. “You look terrible.”

“Thanks,” Addison commented wryly as she swept through the pale yellow room showcasing her latest watercolors, past the glass enclosed pastry cases, through the doorway to the kitchen. Usually, the permeating scent of vanilla and sugar lifted her spirits. She loved the bakery, adored the cozy, exposed brick walls and the sparkling pots and pans hanging above the lustrous stainless steel counter…..but not today.

Their new rotating-shelf oven had been delivered yesterday. She and Emily were pumped about its arrival, being that it was their biggest purchase since opening their doors two years prior, and couldn’t wait to get started. But after the past three sleep-deprived nights, Addison couldn’t conjure up any positive emotion, much less elation over this oversized steel contraption looming beside her, eating up half of their confined space.

Addison deposited her purse on the metal file cabinet, and then jerked the top drawer open and removed a manila file folder. She slammed the cabinet door harder than necessary and flipped open the folder, tugging out the bound instruction manual for the oven, just as Emily skated up behind her.

“Good mood again, huh?”

She shot her a quick glare and then tucked her chin toward the glossy instructions.

“Are you going to finally tell me what’s been bothering you?”

Addison flipped breezily through the book. “There’s nothing to tell. Everything’s fine.”

The last thing Addy wanted to do was hash out the weekend, highlighting the fact the man she drooled over wasn’t interested in her in the slightest.

“If you say so,” was Emily’s reply, before slipping a white apron with their Sweet Thingz logo over her head, wrapping the strings around her back, then wound them to the front, making an annoyed sigh as she jerked the strings into a bow. She stomped into the walk-in refrigerator, returning with the batter she’d prepared that morning, her jilted chin held high. She spooned the smooth, pale substance into cupcake tins, her lips curving downward at the rebuff.

Addison sighed her relent as she tossed the manual onto the counter. “I was rejected by a guy.” She threw up her hands. “Are you happy now?”

Her spoon paused mid-air, creamy batter dripping onto the spotless surface. “Who was it?”

“Just someone I met in Vegas.” She pulled up a stool and relaxed onto it. “Nothing really happened between us physically, but I don’t know, Em.” She paused, running her finger over the grooves in the counter. “I guess I just thought we were connecting on a deeper level.”

“And you were wanting to try a long distance thing?”

“He’s from Coos Beach, so not too long distance.”

Her eyebrows spiked. “Wow…what are the odds of you hooking up with someone from Oregon out there.”

“Since we met on the plane, I’d say pretty good.”

Emily snorted and returned to filling the cupcake tin. “So, how do you know he’s not interested?”

“He hasn’t contacted me since Vegas.”

“Hmm,” and then, “Have you tried texting him?”

“If he was interested, he would have messaged me first.”

“I don’t know, Ad.” She slid the full tray aside and reached for an empty one. “Maybe something came up, like a sick grandparent or a work related disaster, something that kept him from reaching out to you.”

Addison shot her a do-you-really-believe-that look.

“Hey, it happens in the movies all the time.”

 

Emily shooed her out of the bakery early, telling her to go home and paint, which usually lightened her stress level, calming her frazzled nerves.

That was completely Addison’s intention when she jumped on Interstate 5, but instead of heading north to go home, she veered off to the left and drove south, instead.

I’m just going for an afternoon drive, she reassured herself as she looped onto the highway.

Twenty-five minutes later she was cruising along the downtown streets of Coos Bay with the windows rolled down, briny air and sun streaming in through the opening. Her head swiveled to each side, taking in the quaint white and blue planked buildings, along with the painted bricked facades dotting the roadway. Many held overhangs and awnings, giving the area a comfortable, homey feel. She took a hard left on Waterfront, easing off the gas to take in the coastal scenery. To her right was the wide expanse of the aqua-blue ocean, as far as the eye could see, with angry swells beating against the pale grains of smooth sand. A variety of businesses peppered the roadway on her left, patio inspired restaurants, water sport rentals, seafood houses, along with a spattering of surf shops.

As Addison neared the end of the strip, the green sign at the next intersection caught her attention. She slammed on her brakes, making the car behind screech to a halt as the driver laid on his horn in aggravation. She quickly flipped on her blinker, her heart palpitating rapidly as she eased her way onto Silver Avenue, which happened to be the exact location of Dawson’s gallery. Now at a snail’s crawl, she inched her Taurus down the street congested with more businesses, her head whipping from one building to the next, her breathing so labored at this point that it seemed to vibrate against her eardrum, creating a hollow echo reverberating in her head.

And then saw it.

An oval sign with silver, script letters outlined in black.

 

DPD

Dawson Preston Designs

 

She drove past the building, rubber-necking at the light stone structure with tall, narrow windows and black awnings. Looping around the block, she performed the exact same maneuver, and then on the third time around, she pulled into a parking spot two buildings down. She levered the gear shift to park, flipped off the ignition, eased down in her seat, and chewed the inside of her mouth.

This is foolish, she told herself.

Leave now before he finds you.

When she made no move for the ignition, her conscious screamed, Stop your crazy stalking; this is ludicrous!

The longer she sat there, the more adamant her ear-piercing conscious grew, but still, she stayed riveted in her seat, her eyes darting around the perimeter of her vehicle.

What if Dawson comes strolling down the street?

What if he tapped on my window?

What would her excuse be for being perched in the sweltering heat, wearing sweat pants and a black t-shirt, slumped so far down that her forehead was barely visible?

She could feel the beginning beads of sweat start to dampen her hairline, the air so thick it was like swallowing yarn. She could roll down the windows, but thought she might feel too exposed. She debated on letting the car idle, but knew she couldn’t afford the extra gas money. Finally, she took one more long, hard look at the building, ingraining it in her memory, and then clicked back on the engine and backed out onto the street.

 

Addison was ashamed to admit it, but she made the exact same journey on her lunch break the following afternoon. Her plan was to just drive by, but once again, she had no control over her bodily functions and pulled into a parking spot in front of an old fashioned ice cream parlor. She wasn’t sitting there long before a man in a business suit exited from Dawson’s gallery, followed by a younger gentleman in a pale yellow button down, khaki pants, sockless, wearing loafers.

Dawson.

When they turned to walk in her direction, Addison sank so low, her butt was resting on the floorboard, her back arched over the seat. She could hear their murmur of deep baritone voices as they passed her vehicle. When the sound faded, she peeked her head over the door frame and watched as they moved three cars further, before climbing into an Enclave. Once she was positive they had backed out of the space and had pulled away, she eased back up to her seat, grabbed her purse, and swung open her door, before she lost her nerve.

With her chin tucked, she sped walked to the front door of the gallery, swung it open, and stepped into the room, welcoming cool air wafting against her face. Her eyes swept over the light filled, ultra-modern space, her vision stopping on each piece of furniture. Sleek black and grey leather couches. Smooth metal, twisting art sculptures. Custom designed concrete tables with bronzed and silver stands. Metal and exposed aggregate sofa tables with accenting end tables. Coffee tables with concrete so smooth and lustrous that it could pass for granite.

“Looking for anything specific?”

Addison startled, her hand resting against her heart. Her eyes darted to the silver-haired women with black reading glasses perched on top of her head. Her mane was so thick the glasses almost disappeared.

“Um, no,” she answered. “Just browsing.”

“Are you from Coos Bay?”

She must have seen Addison furrow her brow, because she followed with, “We just get a lot of visitors from out of state.”

“I live north of here. A friend told me about this place.”

She smiled, her hands clasped politely at her delicate, chain linked belt. “Excellent. Please thank your friend for us.”

Addison nodded, murmuring, “I will,” and stepped further into the room, her fingers gliding over a wooden table rimmed in pebbled aggregate. She peeked back over at the woman, who was still watching her, her chin tilted, a smile still tugging at her lips.

“Do you use multiple designers?” Addison asked as she picked up a small glass figurine, which was much heavier than it looked.

“No. We only have one, and he owns the gallery, as well.”

“Dawson Preston.” She let the name roll off her tongue for the first time in over a week. She loved the feel of it sliding through her lips.

“Yes, do you know him?”

Addison carefully lowered the glass sculpture. “No, just heard of him.” She scanned the room, commenting, more to herself than anyone else, “He’s very talented.”

“Yes, he is. I’d like to take credit, but that would be complete fabrication.”

Addison’s head snapped in her direction, making her smile widen.

“Dawson is my son.”

Addison swallowed the growing lump in her throat. Her saliva must have gone down the wrong pipe because she gagged, a coughing spell taking over her features. The woman whooshed to her side, patting her gently on the back until her spasms faded.

“Can I get you a glass of water?”

“No, no. I’m fine. I really need to be going anyway. I’m just on my lunch break.”

The woman escorted her to the door. “Maybe you can stop back by when you have more time.”

“Yes, I will.” Addy turned to her, taking in her dark blue rimmed eyes, an exact replica of Dawon’s. “Thank you so much for your time.”

“No, thank you for coming in.”

 

After work the next two evenings, Addison bee-lined for her vehicle and jumped on the expressway. She knew her stalker tendencies were getting out of hand, but she just couldn’t help herself. She usually sat in her car for about an hour outside the gallery, before slinking back up toward North Point.

But tonight, the activity seemed to have picked up a bit, so she stayed longer than normal, watching a stream of potential customers trickling in and out of the store, her battery operated fan clipped to the steering wheel, blowing against her dewy face. She stuffed her turkey on rye into her mouth, and then washed it down with a can of Mountain Dew, categorizing Dawson’s customer base-- white-collared men and women, somewhere between the ages of thirty and fifty.

As the sun lowered behind her vehicle, Addison glanced down at her watch. Realizing it was almost eight p.m., she shoved her sandwich baggie into her lunch pale, along with her empty soda can. As she was zipping up the nylon, she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye, and looked up to find Dawson locking the front door to the gallery.

Addison’s palms began to sweat as her heart rate fluctuated higher. She knew this was a pinnacle fork in the road when it came to her stalking. What she did in the next few minutes would decipher if she’s really just a naive, wet-behind-the-ears white belt stalker, or if she catapults herself to the front of the line and wraps that big, thick black sash around her waist.

Does she wait, let him drive away and then head on her merry way? Or does she follow him and find out where he lives, moving the next step closer to full-out crazy?

She watched Dawson angle around to the side of the building and the lights blink on a silver Infinity. When he dipped inside, she unclasped her fan and tossed it on the passenger seat, started her engine, and eased the gear shift in reverse, her foot still pressed soundly against the brake pedal. She let him back out of his parking spot, his blinker flashing at the intersection to her right. Once he was a safe distance away, she also backed out. Keeping a discriminate spacing, she followed behind, her body bent over the wheel, her moist hands in a white-knuckled grip. She turned when he turned, and let off the gas when he slowed, her eyes darting nervously in every direction.

About ten minutes into their drive, he took a right on Walbash Drive, what looked to be more of a neighborhood setting. Addison pulled over to the side of the street, lifted the lever to park, and wiped her damp palms on her cream linen pants.

Dawson stopped his vehicle at the end of a driveway in front of a light grey, painted brick home. The front door was black, along with the shutters, with potted palms flanking both sides of the entrance. The house looked hip and classy, just like his gallery.

As Dawson bent to look in the mailbox, the front door swung open, making Addison’s eyes zip in that direction. She could feel her mouth run dry, waiting for someone to materialize in the opening, and when a young child bee bopped down the steps with a wild mane of crimson ringlets, Addison thought her heart might have actually stopped beating.

A child.

Dawson has a child.

But what happened next is what actually caused Addy’s vital organs to abruptly halt their function.

A petite woman with the same flaming red curls stepped to the threshold, lifting her delicate hand in a wave.

Dawson had a child.

And a wife.

A wife, for God’s sake!

Crisp, clear pictures of their weekend in Vegas popped up in her mind like a silent, back-and-white movie. She clasped onto her head from both sides and let the images filter through her brain.

 

Dawson allergic to metal-- No ring.

Intense conversations with friends.

Attempting to keep their relationship platonic.

Never asking for her phone number.

All because he was married….

He was someone’s husband. A child’s father.

It was too much for Addison to take in. She could feel her fraying nerves unraveling further, revealing her raw emotions as her eyes prickled with unwanted tears.

This wasn’t my fault. I didn’t know, she told herself, over and over.

Addison pleaded with her inner self -- don’t look, pull away, leave now -- but like a mangled car crash on the side of the road, she watched in eerie silence.

Dawson tossed the mail into his opened passenger window and then scooped up the child, placing her on the roof of his car, as she chatted excitedly, her tiny hands moving a million miles a minute. The wife waving them both in, and then shutting the door, before peeking out the side window. Dawson lifting the child in the air before tucking her under his wing like a football, her legs kicking in amusement, her mouth opened in an exuberant squeal. He lumbered around to the driver’s side and ducked inside, placing the girl on his lap to help steer up the driveway.

Once the vehicle disappeared from sight, Addison dropped her head against the steering wheel, beating her forehead lightly. And when the golden sun dropped behind the shadowy hedge of trees across the street, she lifted her shaking hand to the ignition key and started the engine.

Hour Five

 

 

ADDISON FELT SO dumb, stupid beyond belief, actually.

How could she have missed the signs of Dawson being married, even while the facts were shinning in her face, like a probing light slicing through the thick, dense fog?

Her naivety was ludicrous when she gathered up all the puzzle pieces and arranged them into one big picture.

No wonder he didn’t contact her.

He couldn’t.

He was M.A.R.R.I.E.D.

It was official, Addison had stalked a married man. She even went back the following night, just to make sure she wasn’t hallucinating, and sure enough, the beautiful red-head met him with open arms, which made Addison now want to bolt through her living room, straight to the bathroom for a scolding hot shower to wash away the betrayal she felt clogging her pores.

She never intended on kissing a married man, but she did, and she felt disgusted by her actions. She knew better than that. She was raised with a stronger moral compass. She respected the sanctity of marriage, looked forward to having that type of bond with someone in the future.

All these pure, self-gratifying emotions were simmering at the forefront of her thoughts, but brewing just below the surface was something she didn’t want to admit. Her feelings were darker there, more sinister, more openly raw and real, more harmful to everyone involved.

Her pride raised its ugly head and gloated.

Dawson wasn’t disinterested….he was married.

And if she took a step further, she’d even say that fact made her happy, knowing, although the door was closed, it wasn’t sealed shut due to Dawson not being attracted to her. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel some type of deep connection with her, didn’t enjoy his mouth gliding over hers.

Their relationship had been shut off because it had to be. Dawson made a vow and was going to live up to that promise. Actually, that made him even more appealing to Addison. And maybe, just maybe, he might still be pining for her, as she was for him.

Addison attempted to shake off those feelings. Thinking like that wouldn’t help her move forward. Those ideas didn’t change any of the circumstance, anyway, so she needed to bury those thoughts and leave them in the moist ground where they belonged.

Come on, Addy, concentrate.

She focused on the blank canvas resting on the paint-splattered, wooden easel in front of her. She needed to get serious about painting. The watercolor at the bakery had just been sold and now an empty brick wall stood in its place. She always liked to have a back-up painting ready to go, but since coming back from Vegas, her mind had been preoccupied with other things.

Dabbing her brush into the purple swirl of latex, she stepped up to the canvas and began dotting the tip over the bottom left side of the mat. She added black and silver dots, smashed closely together rising upward in a stationary fashion, and then stepped back and scrutinized her work. Next, she swept on navy blue in straight lines, adding white dots in between, silver and black swirled in disarray on top, and slashed hastily across the bottom.

Paint flew across the canvas at a frenzied pace. It took over four hours to completely finish the piece. Once Addison added the final touches, she took two steps back and appraised her work.

Up close, the piece looked like a beautiful abstract with slashes, swipes and swirls of bright, vibrate colors. But when pulled back to get the full view, the lines, dots, and slashes made up the Vegas strip at nightfall.

Addison fell down on her knees, buried her face in her hands, and wept for the first time in years.

 

 

THE FOLLOWING WEEK, Addison did her best to get her life back in order. She worked long hours, painted till the wee hours of the morning, and stayed far, far away from Coos Bay. She was actually starting to feel like she could breathe again when a figure on the sidewalk at the bakery caught her attention. Standing behind the pastry cases, she clutched onto Emily’s forearm, her head swimming with confusion.

Emily’s head whipped in her direction. “Oh, my God. Are you okay?” she asked, her hand clasped on top of Addison’s, panic edging her tone.

Eyes wide, voice gone, Addison clutched her apron at the chest. She attempted speech, but nothing came out. When the door jingled, Addison’s legs gave way and she slumped down behind the counter.

Emily fell down beside her. “Addy! What’s wrong?”

“Go,” she croaked out.

“Go?” Emily questioned.

“Him,” she said through another gust.

“Dawson?”

A frantic nod, with pleading eyes.

Emily took control, flattening her palms. “Okay, I’ve got this. Don’t worry.”

She stood back up, straightening her apron, painting her face in a polite smile. “May I help you?”

Addison listened for footsteps, but heard none. Either Dawson didn’t step up to the counter, or he was wearing soft soled, canvas shoes.

“I’m interested in ordering a groom’s cake.”

“Okay. Let me get my folder. I’ll meet you at one of those tables.”

Emily dropped her eyes to Addison before scudding off to the back room and returning with a white binder. When Addison heard the chair scrape backward, she peeked through the finger hole in the backing of the case, and found Dawson in faded blue jeans and a sun kissed, orange t-shirt. His raven hair seemed even darker and wavier than she remembered.

“What were you thinking?” Emily started the conversation, pen poised, legs crossed.

“Something light, something fun.”

“Like a sports theme, or maybe a hobby, like fishing or golf?”

Dawson cleared his throat. “More like a ball and chain.”

Emily snorted. “I bet the bride will love that.”

He chuckled. “I’m sure she’s not expecting the norm, coming from me.”

“Let’s hope not.”

“I have a cut out of the groom,” he explained, “and I would like the cake to actually wrap around his ankle.”

Addison watched Emily scribble some notes down, before asking, “How many do you want to feed?”

“Their expecting about a hundred and fifty people, so you tell me.”

“Since it’s a groom’s cake, it’s mostly just for decoration, so I’d suggest maybe fifty pieces.”

“Sounds good.”

Emily angled the binder in his direction, showing him a list of the cake options. “What type of cake would you like?”

He scanned the list before saying, “Let’s do half German chocolate and half French vanilla.”

“Any fillings?”

“No, just old fashioned, straight up cake.”

She jotted the information down, and then glanced back up. “When’s the wedding?”

His voice rose an octave when he admitted, “Friday, I know its last minute, but I forgot the bride gave me this responsibility. Can you help me?”

Emily flipped through the binder to examine their weekend schedule and then agreed to the booking, which made Addison cringe.

“Thank you. I really appreciate it.”

A tight lipped smile. “It’s fine. I just need the reception location, your phone number to call with the estimate, and a credit card number for the down payment, if you agree to the price.”

After he rattled off the information, Addison heard more chair scraping so she sat back on her bottom and leaned into the case to stay fully hidden.

“So, are you the owner?”

Emily paused beside Addison’s leg as she turned back toward Dawson, answering, “Yes, I am.”

“You don’t have any partners, do you?”

“Um, no. Why do you ask?”

His pause was long and thick. Addison was dying to know what he was doing on the other side of the counter. Finally, he asked, “Is this painting for sale?” referring to the Vegas skyline that she’d just completed.

A sideways glance, then Emily replied back calmly, “No, it’s not. I’m sorry.”

Addison heard the bell jingle again, and the click of the door swinging shut.

“He’s gone. You’re safe,” Emily said a few seconds later.

Standing, Addison dusted off her back side, her fury bubbling to the surface. “Why did you take the job?”

“Because we need the money, Addison,” she replied nonchalantly over her shoulder as she breezed into the kitchen.

Addison followed. “Not that bad.”

“Yes, we do, especially now with having the oven payment.” She flipped open the drawer and stuffed the folder back in place.

“But you’re gone this weekend, Em!”

“I know.”

“You know?” Addison questioned, her voice quivering in indignation. “So, I’m the one that has to work this wedding….with Dawson there?”

She settled a hand on each bicep, pressing with reassurance. “You won’t even have to see him, Addy. You can set up well before anyone arrives, and you don’t have to break down until the entire wedding party disburses.”

“But—”

“But, what?”

Addison sighed. She knew her partner was right. They definitely needed the money. And she wouldn’t have to have any contact with Dawson, but still…

Something about being in the same zip code as Dawson made her shiver with trepidation and her palms begin to sweat.

 

 

ON FRIDAY, ADDISON woke at the crack of dawn, and was at the bakery hand-painting chain links on cupcakes with charcoal colored icing by five-thirty a.m. She usually cherished her time alone in the kitchen before the store opened, loved the solitude of the morning, and the detail of the work, but today, her hands were jittery and her mind adrift. She ended up ruining seven different cupcakes before she finally got the serpentine of chain looking like she wanted. Next, she removed the round cake ball from the refrigerator, already covered in a thick layer of butter cream icing and the bowl containing her dark grey fondant. After sprinkling a thin layer of powdered sugar on the counter, she lifted the lump of fondant and tossed it onto the surface. Kneading the mound with her closed fists, she worked the knoll until it softened, pushed it into a circular fashion, and then reached for her rolling pin.

It took almost an hour to get the steel ball looking smooth and blemish free, having to spritz on oil numerous times and reshape. She then used the spray gun and added shading to give it a more realistic look, and then arranged the chain links next to the ball, stepping back to assess her work.

Not too bad, she decided. She just needed to add a few finishing touches, but that couldn’t happen until the cake was in place at the reception.

Addison used the remainder of her day making an assortment of cupcakes with elaborate toppings to display on a tiered platter alongside the groom’s cake, which they always liked to do for advertising purposes to show their versatility.

At five o’clock, she changed into her catering uniform of black pants and a crisp white button down, featuring their Sweet Thinz logo on the chest. She then twisted her hair up on top of her head and secured it with several pins, pulling a few wisps to frame her face. Powder, a swish of blush and a sweep of pink gloss came next. She lifted her bottle of perfume to her neck, paused, and then lowered her arm without using the fragrance.

Go in. Set up. Get out, she reminded herself.

She grabbed the keys to their refrigeration truck and headed out to the back alley.

 

The ocean-front restaurant where the reception was being held was in full swing by the time Addison arrived. She watched a few moments as the staff and others bustled about the premises, arranging flowers, setting tables, lighting glass votive candles, performing sound checks, and arranging other last minute details.

She motioned to a woman with a clipboard as she brushed hastily by.

“Excuse me. Where is the groom’s cake going?”

She pointed her pen. “Back corner over there. The best man dropped off some type of cut out. Said you knew what to do with it.”

Addison’s eyes zipped to the side and found a four-foot cardboard replica of Shawn leaning against the wall next to an elongated table. Addison barely was able to say, “Excellent. Thank you,” before the woman sprinted off through the swinging doors of the kitchen.

By the time Addison had the chain of cupcakes wrapped around Shawn’s ankle and the ball adhered to the last link, there was a crowd gathered, chuckling at the display.

“Best groom’s cake ever,” someone commented.

“This one’s going to steal the show,” another said, making Addison thankful that they had accepted the booking, because they needed all the free advertising they could get.

She snapped a picture of the final product and shot it out to Emily and then stepped back out to the truck to get their glass-tiered display tray, engraved with their Sweet Thingz logo, and additional complimentary cupcakes.

Even though her table was complete, Addison found herself lingering around the restaurant. She toured the entire facility, admiring the white starched tablecloths, the sprays of violet orchids, the floating candles, and the endless display of elegant finger foods. She watched the staff as they tugged open the wall of patio doors, basking the area in warm, salty goodness, which offset the chill of the air conditioned room. And when the DJ played a soft melody to set the mood, Addison still made no move to leave. Instead, she stayed in the shadows as the first guests arrived, her heart rate increasing, her eyes darting anxiously around the area.

When the room was filled to capacity, the DJ asked for the guest’s attention, and then announced that the wedding party had arrived.

Leave, Addison told herself. Now.

But she didn’t.

She couldn’t.

Her feet had sunk down into a vat of concrete and her limbs obstinately refused to budge.

One by one, the wedding party was announced as Addison stood transfixed, watching the tuxedo-clad men escort their attendants, draped in lavender satin, as they glided onto the dance floor. When the best man and maid of honor were introduced, Addison stepped back further into the shadows and collapsed against the wall to hold herself up.

Dawson looked absolutely beautiful-- tall, lean frame, warm, dimple-flashing smile, raven hair slicked back from his handsome face. He high-fived the rest of the groomsmen and took his spot closest to the DJ. The crowd blurred, along with the announcement of the bride and groom, as Addison stood frozen, like a lame deer hypnotized by the headlights of a deadly oncoming vehicle.

The bride and groom took the floor for their first dance as the attendants stood off to the side, mingling with guests, until they were beaconed to join the couple. Addison’s heart liquefied as she watched Dawson loop his arm around the maid of honor and pull her to his chest, as he swayed in tune to the music. He joked with Shawn and his new bride mid-way through, making them both tilt their head back in laughter, just as a child wrapped her arms around his legs, wearing a white sundress with a pink satin ribbon tied at the back.

Dawson turned, scooped his daughter into the crook of his arm, introducing the child to his companion. And then his wife appeared by his side, petite, beautiful, wild red flames twisted up on top of her head. The maid of honor then sauntered off with a wave, leaving Dawson’s wife to loop her arms around her husband and daughter, in a three way embrace. The child hooked her small hand around each parent’s neck, binding them together.

It was so sickening sweet, Addison could feel the bile rise up in her stomach, but still her eyes stayed riveted to the dance floor. When the song ended, the wife took the child out of Dawson’s arms, and eased back off the wooden platform, as he stepped up to the DJ table.

“Can I have everyone’s attention, please,” Dawson said. The microphone pealed a squeaky rebuttal as the gathering crowd took their seats.

“For those who don’t know me, I’m Dawson Preston, friends since childhood of both the bride and the groom.” His hand rose to his chest. “I was deeply honored when Shawn asked me to be the best man, and I took the responsibility very seriously.”

The groomsmen chuckled, calling out some digs about the bachelor party.

He held up his hand to silence them. “Yes, I was in charge of the bachelor party,” he glanced to the bride in a sincere look of apology, “and yes, I will confess that these guys insisted on a stripper.”

The men cheered their approval as the women in the crowd booed.

“So to even out the playing field, I’ve hired a group of strippers for you tonight, Dana. I hope you enjoy the show.”

Cat calls and whistles followed as the bride turned to her husband in confusion, who shrugged in reply, as if to say, I have no idea. Dawson laid the microphone down on the table, turning his back on the couple, his feet shoulder length apart, his head bowed. Jimmy, Terrance, Moose, and the other groomsmen followed suit, until they were all in a straight line, head dipped, hands dangling at their sides as the music started.

Da nuh nuh nuh,

The men whipped their head up in sync and popped out a hip. The crowd jumped out of their seats going crazy, angling for the best viewing position.

Da nuh nuh nuh,

A head flash to the side, along with their jackets slipping off their shoulders, garnering even more whistles, squeals, and loud boisterous encouragement. Dana covered her mouth while laughing as Shawn shook his head, his eyes alight with amusement.

Dun nuh nuh nah, Dun nuh nuh nah,

They swiveled to face the crowd and did a strong two swings of their hips, accenting the base. More silly gyrating continued as they unbuttoned their shirts, showcasing some toned, firm bodies, while other men’s stomachs jiggled to the beat of the music, all posturing as serious with sexy, alluring looks, as the crowd hooted and hollered, while bending over in peals of laughter.

The men turned away from the audience with grinding hips as they reached for the buckles on their trousers. Dana’s eyes are now wide with both hands locked against her face. Dawson’s wife is laughing hysterically while covering her daughter’s eyes, as the guests continue to wail their approval. The show comes to an end when all the men drop their drawers to reveal their multicolored florescent underwear, sporting the word, CONGRATS, spelled out across their butts.

After the performance, the men were swarmed with laughing fans, slaps on the back in praise, and lots of hugs. Addison eased away from the wall and angled toward the kitchen. She had seen enough of Dawson’s happy little life -- stunning wife, adorable daughter, and amazing lifelong friends -- she needed to get out of there so she could breathe again.

She drove the twenty-five minutes back to the bakery to switch vehicles, planning to boondoggle around the store for several hours before she needed to head back to Coos Bay for dismantle and clean up.

Once she entered the store, she received a returned text from Emily about the picture she sent.

 

EMILY: Oh my God! That is hilarious!

ADDISON: I know, right? Too funny. We’ll have to put this one in our album.

EMILY: For sure! So how did set up go? Any Dawson sightings?

ADDISON: It all went fine. Hanging out at the store for a while before heading back for cleanup.

EMILY: Good idea. I don’t want you getting into any type of sticky situation -- and I don’t mean the kind with icing.

ADDISON: I hear ya. Are you having a good time at the family reunion?

EMILY: About as much fun as watching paint dry, but the parents are happy, and we all know that’s much more important than me being happy.

ADDISON: Whatever…Your parents are awesome.

EMILY: Says you who only had to live with them for a year.

ADDISON: At least they didn’t ditch you and move back to Asia.

EMILY: Good point. Good luck tonight and remember, stay clear until the reception is over.

ADDISON: Got it, Mom. I’ll talk to u later.

 

Addison cleaned every nook and cranny in the entire store, which thankfully took hours. She wiped down all the stainless steel counters with disinfectant, scrubbed every inch of the tile floor, rewashed the hanging pots and pans and shined the front windows until they glistened. When it still wasn’t time, she sat on the counter flipping through all her social media accounts until her skin prickled with so much anticipation, she had to leave.

At midnight, she drove back to the reception and sat in the parking lot with her vehicle idling until most of the guests had left. She then snuck back in through the kitchen entrance. The stainless steel counters were piled high with dirty dishes and waded up tablecloths as Addison weaved her way through to the dining room. The overhead lights were now ablaze, several tables still littered with cups, glass plates, and a spattering of silverware, with just a trickle of people still headed out the front entrance.

Veering off to the right, Addison headed directly to the groom’s table, which showcased the cutout of Shawn tipped on its side, his head planted firmly in a leftover cupcake. Dislodging the cardboard, Addison scooped up a napkin and cleaned off the icing, and then settled him beside the table, just as she heard her name being called from behind.

“Addison?”

Without a doubt, Addison knew it was Dawson. She’d know that deep, sultry voice anywhere. She stopped mid-move, still holding onto Shawn’s inanimate head as her heart raced against her ribcage. She set the picture aside as calmly as possible, keeping her back to him, her head slung low, and busied herself with cleaning up the table. Maybe if she didn’t answer, he’d assume it wasn’t her and go away.

“Addison, is that you?”

He sounded close now, much too close.

There was no way around it now. She had to speak. She plastered on a smile and swiveled in Dawson’s direction.

“Dawson. Um, hi…” She wrung her hands and then clasped them behind her back as she looked around his shoulder for his wife.

He stepped closer, a warm smile spreading across his face. “I thought that was you.”

She splayed her hands close to her face, saying, “In the flesh,” and then mentally reprimanded herself for looking like a complete idiot.

He grinned. “I thought this wasn’t your company?”

“Well, not officially. Emily and I are still hammering out the details.” Lie, lie, lie.

He shoved his hands in his pockets, his mouth still tugging upward, commenting, “Wow…”

She sucked in a breath, her eyebrows peeked as she mumbled back, “You can say that again.”

“Here, let me help you,” he offered as he moved to the table.

“You don’t have to do that. I’m sure you have people waiting for you.” Like your wife, for instance.

“Actually, everyone’s pretty much left.” He scooped up the empty tiered platter. “Where are you parked?”

“Outside the kitchen entrance. Hang on a second and I’ll walk out with you.”

She set the unused cupcakes to the side, stacked the rest of the empty platters, and swept back through the kitchen to the utility entrance. Resting the dishes on the ground beside her vehicle, she dug in her back pocket for the keys and clicked the doors unlocked.

They made one more run to the table and then stood awkwardly outside her closed trunk, cloaked in darkness, the outdoor floodlight spilling over his back.

Dawson hooked his thumb over his shoulder. “You wouldn’t want to take a walk on the beach, maybe catch up, would you?”

Addison’s head shook no, but her voice said yes, which made him chuckle lightly.

“So, which is it?”

She glanced down at her watch. “It’s just that I have a big day tomorrow.” More lies.

“I won’t keep you out late. I promise.”

“I’ve heard that one before,” she commented, which elicited another adorable smile to spring from his lips.

As they walked around the outskirts of the restaurant, Dawson stuffed his hands back into his pockets, peering over at her. “I just have to tell you, the cake was a big hit. Everyone loved it.”

“It definitely drew some attention, which is always good, but the real question is, how did the bride take it?”

“Dana has been around me for so many years, she didn’t expect anything other than outrageous.”

She quickly fell back into their teasing banter of the past as she razzed him, “And the strip tease?”

He grinned. “She was totally okay with that little stunt, too.” He looked down at her factiously. “I’m thinking about taking the show on the road. What do you think?”

Addison guffawed loudly, then covered her mouth with a fist. “I think you should stick to your day job.”

His chest concaved, liked he’d been stabbed. “That hurts.”

She nudged him with her elbow. “Whatever.”

They traipsed through the soft, loose sand, closer to the water’s edge, watching the rolling swells, listening to the roaring whoosh, before the waves curled inward, to crash against the surf at their feet. When the foaming water seeped toward her shoes, Addison took several steps backward, causing Dawson to do the same. He then fell backward onto the sand to take a seat, his arms wrapping around his tented knees. Addison followed suit and relaxed into the cool, damp sand. She dusted off her hands, watching the half-moon dance across the horizon as dark wisps of clouds floated through its silvery reflection.

“So, what have you been doing since Vegas?”

Stalking you…“Nothing much, other than working. How about you?”

His eyes traveled to the ocean. “Same.” He glanced over in her direction, his voice quiet, forlorn. “Sorry I haven’t called.”

She closed her eyes briefly. “It’s fine. I understand life gets a little complicated.”

He scratched at his neck. “Yes, it does.” He straightened his legs, leaning backward against his hands, obviously ready to change the subject. “Have you been painting much?”

She shouldn’t have let him off the hook so easily. Annoyed at herself, she moved to sit Indian-style, concentrating on shifting the sand in front of her legs through her fingertips. “Actually, I have.”

“Did you paint the canvas hanging in the bakery?”

She glanced over at him. “Yeah, I did.”

“You’re talented, very talented.”

A thin smile. “Thank you.”

She took in his face, wishing her memory had served her wrong and he wasn’t as handsome as she remembered him to be. But he was, even more so now with the moonlight reflecting off his dark eyes, and her reaction to him was just as intense as it had been in Vegas. Her fingers itched to reach across the distance and trail her hand along his strong jaw, through his thick, dark hair, over his full bottom lip….but she couldn’t. He was already taken.

Being this close to him and not being able to touch him was pure torture. She wanted to end the abuse and go home, so she asked, point blank, “What are we doing here, Dawson?”

When his brows pinched together at the question, she followed with the truth. “Nothing can ever happen between us -- you’re married.”

His chin dropped to his chest in admittance as he squeezed his eyes shut. The only sound was the rolling surf for several moments, until he murmured, “I’m so sorry, Addy.”

“Sorry for what? Kissing me…or getting caught?”

He leaned up over his knees, anchoring his arms. “For everything,” he said in a defeated lilt.

Although Addison knew she should leave, she couldn’t make herself stand. Instead, she cupped a handful of sand, and eased it into her palm, like an hourglass shifting through time.

“Why are we here, Daws?” she asked, her voiced pained with his betrayal.

When he didn’t speak right away, she moved her eyes to take in his, which were swimming in turmoil, dark pupils expanded, squinting in intensity. “Because I’m drawn to you, like no one I’ve ever met.”

His confession burned its way into the tunnel of her ear, searing straight through to her heart. She and Dawson seemed to be linked, but yet weren’t allowed to touch. It made every nerve in her body ache with scorching need. And when he reached up and shifted her blowing hair from her face, her heart pounded so loudly it reverberated throughout her entire chest.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I never should have pulled you into this mess.”

“What do we do now?” she asked, barely heard above the surf.

He stroked his thumb across her cheek, his eyes searching hers for an answer. When she stayed still, he dropped all contact, murmuring to the deep blue sea, “We go our separate ways.”

She wanted to lean into him, offer up her lips, her body, her soul, plead that they were meant to be together. The wife, the child, none of it mattered, as long as they were together. But instead, she stood, dusted off her backside, and walked away without looking back.

 

 

ADDISON HATED TO admit it, but she regretted leaving the beach with so much left unsaid. There was a sliver of a rope that she wanted to cling on to, unravel the cord to reveal their true emotions harboring just below the surface.

His words haunted her thoughts, day and night.

Because I’m drawn to you, like no one I’ve ever met.

What did that even mean?

What drew him to her?

Was this gravitational force stronger than the one he felt toward his own wife?

So many questions without any answers. It gnawed at her skin like a flesh eating bacteria. She began driving back down to Coos Bay, lingering outside his business, in hopes of getting a glimpse of him, a flash of his warm smile, a hint of his charming personality. She staked out his house, observing him in his element, watching him cut the lawn, wash the exterior windows, and have water balloon fights with his daughter.

Without meaning to, Addison was quickly becoming a professional in the art of stalking. She changed out vehicles with her friends so she wouldn’t be detected. She wore hats slung low on her forehead, and large, dark sunglasses. She came at different times, and parked in different locations.

She knew only the weak stalked, the ones that didn’t have a strong enough backbone to confront their prey. She wasn’t proud, but this is who she had become.

 

 

ON SATURDAY, DAWSON’S wife was the center of Addison’s attention as she pulled weeds in the landscaping bellied up next to the house. The daughter, dressed in pink tights, her strawberry hair in two ringlet pigtails, cartwheeled around the perimeter, often stopping to gain her mother’s attention.

Addison’s phone rang sitting in the cup holder. She grappled for it, as if Dawson’s wife might hear the commotion.

“Hello,” she whispered hastily.

“Addison?” Jessica asked, her voice conveying confusion.

“Yes, it’s me.”

“Why are you whispering?”

Addison raised her voice slightly. “I’m not.”

“You most certainly are.” Her tone was laced with apprehension. “What’s going on? Is something wrong?”

“No, nothing’s wrong. I swear.”

“Then are you on something? Because you don’t sound normal, I can promise you that.”

“Jess! No!” she whispered louder.

“Good. Because crack is wack.” She laughed as she quoted the late Whitney Houston.

Addison couldn’t help but chuckle in return. “I’m glad you called Jess, because I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”

“Why, what’s up?”

“Did you know Dawson was married?”

“What? No! I swear Moose never mentioned anything of the sort.” She blew out a long breath, commenting under her breath, “Men always have each other’s backs…it makes me sick.”

“Yeah, you and me both.”

“I wonder who else in that group forgot to wear their wedding band.”

“Who knows,” Addison commented back. “Are you still talking to Moose?”

“No, we lost touch right after Vegas. You know I can’t do the long distance thing. How about you and Dawson? You’re not having an affair, are you?”

No, I’m just stalking his wife at the moment. “Do you really have to ask that question, Jess?”

“Actually, I do. Women do crazy weird things when their hearts get involved.”

“No, Jess, I’m not having an affair.” But fantasize about it on a continual basis.

“So, Dawson never contacted you?”

“Nope. Never.”

“Well, at least he’s not a total scum bag.”

“Wow. Thanks Jess. That helps a lot,” Addison shot back sarcastically.

The neighbor to the right pulled out of the garage, drove the length of the driveway, rolling down her window to speak to Dawson’s wife.

“Hey, Jess, I need to let you go.”

“Why?” she bantered back. “We just got on the phone.”

“Because…I have to use the restroom.”

“Pfft,” Jessica balked, “as if that’s ever stopped you before.”

Without replying, Addison hit the button to end the call as she watched Dawson’s wife pause from her duties, wiping her dripping forehead with the back of her gloved wrist. She then stood and walked toward the neighbor’s car. She waved over her daughter, opened the back seat door, and helped the child climb into the vehicle.

Addison shoved another chip into her mouth as she watched intently, her body bowed over the steering wheel in interest, the tall red can situated between her knees. She reached for her drink, and accidently knocked the chips onto the floorboard.

Crap!

She removed her ball cap and folded her body over to reclaim the now unwanted chips, stuffing them back into the cylinder in haste, not wanting to miss anything happening outside the vehicle, but froze solid when she heard the passenger door click open. Still bent on her knees, she squeezed her eyes shut, hoping, not for the first time in her life, that she could just disappear.

Without waiting for her to straighten, a female voice demanded, “Who are you, and why are you stalking my family?”

Hour Six

 

 

ADDISON DESERVED TO be placed in this exact situation, with the wife of the man she was stalking standing right beside her demanding answers. She knew she was playing with fire, but kept sliding the match across the flint, hoping to create a spark -- and now she had one alright, glowing hot and bright, her face contorted in an infuriated grimace, her hand clenched on the opened door, ready for flight.

A freight train was hammering through Addison’s head. I am screwed! Come up with something! Anything!

Addy was never good at lying, and not one to think quickly on her feet, so she mumbled a G-rated version of the truth. “I’m a friend of your husband’s.”

Her forehead pinched as a bead of sweat trickled down her temple. She swiped at it, agitated. “You mean my ex-husband?”

Ex-husband?

Now it was Addison’s turn to flinch. “Dawson’s your ex-husband?” she asked flabbergasted, a bloom of hope filling her heart.

The bud wilted fast when the woman said sternly, “No, Frank is my ex-husband. What is going on here?”

“So Dawson’s your new husband then.”

“Dawson?” she asked bewildered. “He’s my brother. I thought this was about Frank. Did he hire you to investigate me?”

Brother?

Dawson was her relative?

Addison’s heart did a joyful somersault.

“And whose child was that?”

“That’s my daughter…and Frank’s.” She rolled her eyes. “Leave it to Frank to find the most ignorant PI ever.”

This was such a discombobulated conversation, Addison wanted verification. “So Dawson isn’t married?”

“No, never has been.”

Addison angled in her seat, a smile blossoming on her face as she extended a hand. “I think it’s time we were officially introduced.”

Dawson’s sister accepted the handshake. “Ellie Roberts.”

“I’m Addison Maynird, and I think I’m in love with your brother.”

 

 

THEY EACH ORDERED a latte at The Comfy Café and chose the only vacant table left, saddled up right next to the restrooms. Once they pushed themselves up to the slightly off kilter table, Ellie started the conversation.

“So, you weren’t hired by Frank?”

“Nope. Don’t have the slightest clue who the man is.”

“Well, that’s a relief.” She took a tentative sip of her coffee.

“Messy divorce, huh?”

Ellie’s eyes widened. “You can say that again. Thank goodness my brother took us in, because Frank cut off all our credit cards and bank accounts. Learn from my mistake. Always keep at least one credit card in your name.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Addison cracked open the door to the enigma of Dawson. “So, do you know if your brother is seeing anyone?”

A huge sigh. “I doubt it.”

Addison’s brow collapsed. “I just don’t understand.”

“Don’t understand what?”

Addison couldn’t believe she was going into detail about her personal life to a virtual stranger, but she needed some type of sounding board -- and what a better one to have than a blood relative.

“It’s just that I thought we had this amazing connection when we met in Vegas, but then when we got back to Oregon, he made no move to contact me.”

“Sounds like Daws.”

Addison refused to believe Dawson was just a player, looking for a good time. He barely even kissed her, for God’s sake. She plowed forward, needing to delve further into his psyche.

“So Dawson dates a lot of women?”

“Actually, the exact opposite. He doesn’t date enough.”

Addison shook her head in dismay. “I just don’t understand. I know he’s interested. He even said he felt a connection to me that he’d never felt before.”

Her cup stopped mid-rise. “He did?”

“Yeah, but then, once again, no contact since that conversation.”

She set her mug down and leaned forward. “Look, Addison, you seem like a really great girl and all, but my brother is kind of…” She paused to contemplate her word choice and then finished her thought process. “…closed-off, and honestly, I don’t see that changing…..ever. You may want to pack up your sunglasses and find someone else to stalk.”

Addison couldn’t help but chuckle at her statement. She held up her palm. “Just for the record, I have never stalked anyone besides your brother.”

She smiled warmly, her kinky, red hair a halo around her freckled face. “Good to know.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, why is Dawson so closed off?”

She shrugged. “That’s not my story to tell.”

Addison trudged forward. “Did he have a bad break up or something?”

“Not my story to tell.”

“Maybe a secret crush that broke his heart?”

Ellie grinned, making Addison roll her eyes. “I know, not your story to tell.” She paused, and then attempted to weasel her way in a different route. “Okay, so you obviously know I’m persistent when it comes to your brother.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty obvious.”

“Which, I might add, is sooo unlike me. I’m usually pretty timid and backward.”

Ellie scoffed, “You could have fooled me.”

Addison winced. “I know I haven’t given you the best impression, and I hope you believe me when I say this,” she pulled in a breath, garnering courage, and then spoke from the heart, “but I feel an undeniable connection to Dawson that I’ve never experienced before. Even when he’s not in the same zip code, I feel his presence, like a lantern that can’t be extinguished.” She leaned forward, hoping that Ellie would understand her plight. “In the short amount of time I’ve known Dawson, he’s scratched through the surface of my heart allowing my inner-self to shine, and I want a chance to get to know him better and maybe do the same for him.”

Addison pulled in a deep breath. “With that said, I’d like to set up a meeting with him, if possible.”

Ellie silently shook her head. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”

Elevating her palms, Addison asked, “What could it hurt?”

Her eyes downcast. “I don’t know, Addison.”

“One meeting. That’s all I’m asking, and if he chooses to stop all contact with me after that, I promise, I’ll step aside and leave him be.” She pulled up her shoulders tentatively. “Would you be willing to help me arrange that?”

Dawson’s sister pressed her lips into a thin line without answering.

“Please,” Addison pleaded.

Ellie looked pensive as she chewed the side of her lip. After a beat, she asked, “So Dawson actually said he was drawn to you, like he’s never felt before?”

“Paraphrased, but yes.”

“Okay, I’ll set up a meeting, but if this is going to work, we’re going to have to get him far, far away from here.”

 

 

THE PLANNING AND scheming behind her brother’s back gave Ellie something to concentrate on besides her pending divorce settlement. Frank, who once was her knight in shining armor galloping in to sweep her off her feet was now a vortex of a nightmare, demanding joint custody from across the continent. There was no way Ellie was going to put her four year old daughter on a plane, no matter how many stewardesses her ex-husband claimed would be right by her side, guiding her the entire way. Shelby was also starting pre-school in the fall where Ellie worked as a teacher. She couldn’t be uprooted every other week to fly across the country. If Frank wanted to see his daughter, he could come to the west coast. Heaven knows, he could totally afford the transportation and hotel stays. Heck, he could fly out every weekend and still not put a dent in his wallet.

Ellie was standing her ground. She was demanding full custody, no matter how far she sank in debt paying lawyer fees. Thankfully, Dawson agreed to take them in so she could put her meager teaching salary toward keeping her daughter.

Her thoughts floated back to her task at hand. Dawson. He was the kindest, most loving brother on the planet, but had the hardest, thickest skull known to mankind. If he had it in his mind that nothing was going to happen with Addison, it wouldn’t, no matter what. Stubborn was practically his middle name and had been since he was a toddler.

Ellie debated, should she even get involved knowing her brother, who had taken her under his wing, would be peeved, to say the least?

Her first instinct was no, she should steer clear and let him live his own life.

But if Dawson really did say that he was drawn to Addison like no other, shouldn’t he give it a chance, just to see if something would spark that could develop into something long-lasting and wonderful?

And if he wasn’t willing to open up by himself, as his older sister, shouldn’t she give him a gentle shove in her direction just to see what might come of it?

Absolutely, yes. She would intervene, but just this one time. After that, Addison was on her own.

As Ellie chopped through a line of carrots on a white cutting board, she milled through a laundry list of ideas on how and when to get Dawson alone with Addison, but quickly nixed every concept that popped into her mind, knowing he would push her aside, just like he’d done in the past. What they needed was time. Time for Addison to at least partially break through the wall he’d erected around his heart for even a remote possibility for anything to grow and flourish between the two.

Perplexed, she wiped her hands off on a dish towel, scooped up her cell and hit her mother’s contact. After her mom answered, Ellie quickly gave her the rundown on the events that had transpired with Addison and Dawson, and her plight to get the two alone for an extended amount of time to see if anything would blossom between the two.

Although both Ellie and her mother understood Dawson’s reservations about getting serious with a woman, they wanted Dawson to let down his guard so that he could potentially find love. He was young. He was successful. He was at a perfect stage in life to find a lifelong mate. He couldn’t project the future, and he needed to stop trying so that he could live his life to the fullest.

Without a second’s thought, Faye had jumped on board and before the conversation was over, they had a game plan in place.

 

 

DAWSON LEANED BACK in his seat and closed his eyes, letting the driving service his mother arranged take over. He had never hired a driver before, but his mother had insisted. She knew he’d been exhausted for the past few days, and didn’t want to risk him driving down to Portland for a manufacturing meeting alone with being so sleep deprived.

And she was right. He wasn’t sleeping well, couldn’t quite grasp onto the sandman and hold him for the duration of the night. Dawson told himself it was due to the stress of work, but he knew better. Eyelids growing heavy, he felt his head bob off to the side and finally let himself drift off into an abysmal slumber. He slept soundly, due to the vibration of the car and the hum of the engine, until he was jarred awake by the driver pestering him from the front seat of the vehicle.

“We’re here, sir….Sir, we have arrived.”

Dawson jolted upright, roughly scrubbing at his face, which was covered in scruffy, unwanted hair. He made a mental note to shave before his meeting tomorrow, stifled a yawn, and stepped from the sedan out onto the cracked sidewalk in front of what he’d assume would be the Hilton suites in Portland. He always stayed in a Hilton when traveling for business. But now he stood in front of a rustic, A-framed cabin-looking structure made completely of cedar logs. Over the wooden door was a green plank that read, The Lodge.

He turned back to the driver whose head was hidden in the trunk of the vehicle. “I’m sorry, but there must have been a mistake.”

His head popped up with a look of concern. “A mistake, sir?”

“Yes. I always stay in a Hilton.”

He roamed around to the driver side door and leaned in, grabbing his iPad. He touched the screen several times, and then looked back up. “No, this was the delivery location sent to me. Would you like to cancel and rebook someplace else?”

Dawson eyed the sprinkling of cabins nestled in the woods on either side of the lodge, looking like a miniature version of the structure he stood in front of. He contemplated how far this place was from his eight a.m. meeting tomorrow morning, but then shrugged off that thought. The sun was beginning to sink down behind the complex and he was looking forward to making it an early night, hoping a change of scenery would help him sleep.

“No, this is fine. Let me just make sure they have my reservation.”

He came back out while reaching into his wallet for a tip, thanked the driver, and then proceeded to click open the handle on his suitcase and roll it down the curving sidewalk toward his designated cabin, the brass key dangling from his fingers. Of course, his was the last cabin on the property, totally surrounded by dense woods and thick brush. The sidewalk ended five feet in front of the wooden steps that lead to the barnyard red front door. Lowering the handle, he lifted the luggage and stepped on the barren grass, only for his shoes to sink three inches into the moist ground. Inwardly cursing, he raked his soles over the edge of the first step to de-clump his shoes, then jogged up the remaining stairs.

His mother was going to hear about this, he thought as he inserted the metal key into the door and clicked it open. A slight hint of musty mildew enveloped him as he roamed his hand over the wall, looking for a light switch. He flipped it on, and then stood agape at who he’d found perched on the bed staring back at him.

 

 

 

“ADDISON?” DAWSON ASKED, his eyes squinting, his chin tilted in befuddlement.

Addy didn’t know what to say, so she mumbled, “Surprise.”

“What is going on here?” He looked behind his shoulder, as if someone might pop out admitting to the prank.

Addison stood from the bed, shifting her weight in discomfort. “You sister and mom thought this would be the best place for us to talk.”

“You know my sister and mother?” his tone took on one of desperation.

“Yes. I met them just recently.”

He straightened his shoulders, a veil of annoyance masking his features as he crossed his arms over his chest. “How?”

Addison could already feel the invisible wall being stacked between them. She was thinking this wasn’t such a great idea, after all, but knew this was her only opportunity to get through to him, so she persevered through his look of disdain and quietly asked, “Will you sit down so we can talk?”

When he scraped out a chair at the wooden table and fell into it, she followed suit and tugged out a seat next to him. Although she didn’t fib, she did dance around how she and his family met.

“I met your mother in the gallery, and your sister and I had coffee soon after.”

He closed his eyes, digging his fingers in the sockets as he finished her sentence. “And now they’re playing cupid.”

She attempted a weak smile. “Something like that.”

His warm features hardened as his jawline tightened. “That’s all fine and dandy until someone gets hurt…and it’s going to be you, Addison, I can promise you that.”

Her eyes dropped to her fidgeting hands in her lap. “Is that why you never contacted me after Vegas.”

He shrugged indifferently.

“Talk to me, Dawson.”

He leaned back in his seat, guard up. “Maybe I just wasn’t interested.”

Her eyes narrowed. “So, that’s what you’re going with? You’re not interested in me?”

Another shrug and an agitated scratch of the neck.

“I don’t believe that for a second.”

“You can believe whatever you want, Addison.”

Her voice rose. “You know what I believe, Dawson? I think you let me believe you were married because you’re scared -- of me, of what we could be together -- which makes you nothing other than a coward.”

His eyes hardened to grey steel. “I’m not weak, Addison. I’m showing my strength right this second.”

“How, Daws? By staying away from me?”

He didn’t answer for a long time. When he spoke, his words were said in a despairing whisper. “Yes, because I’ll hurt you.”

Addison couldn’t help it. Her eyes filled, desperately wanting answers. “Why, Dawson? Why would you hurt me?” she pleaded questioningly.

His eyes clouded over as they jilted to the side without answer.

She reached for his knee. “Tell me, Dawson, please.”

He shrugged off her touch, pushed out of his chair, and paced to the opposite side of the room with his back to her, staring out the window.

She eased up behind him, but made no move to touch him. “I think you at least owe me an explanation, Dawson.”

He didn’t answer, just linked his hands on top of his head, his muscles clenched.

“Give me something so I can get you out of my mind, Daws, because you’re filling the space so fully it’s driving me crazy.”

She watched his shoulders expand as he drew in a deep breath and held it in his lungs. She was getting to him. She knew it, so she stepped closer and ran her hand lightly down the length of his taut back.

“Give me something, anything to move forward,” she begged, her voice low and soothing.

His neck bowed as he released the hold on his head, his arms dangling to his sides now as he fisted and released his hands over and over again.

She skated her palms up his back again, feathering lightly with her fingertips, before trailing them down the length of his arms, pleading, “Dawson, I need you to open up. I’ll do anything you ask, please just talk to me.”

Unexpectedly, he spun, grabbed her around the waist and devoured her with his body, his heart, and his soul. He was strong and persistent, taking her willing mouth hard, seemingly determined to erase the words that slipped from her lips. She reciprocated the embrace, gripping the back of his head, winding her fingers into his thick mane, holding him in place, in fear of him letting go. But he didn’t. He pinned her against the railing of the bed, bent at the knees and punished her with his kiss. It was forceful and molten hot, wickedly desperate, and she couldn’t get enough of it. She continued sucking, licking and biting, her tongue diving into his mouth, wanting him to feel her feverish need.

When he pulled away, husking, “Take off your clothes,” she was so hot and weak-kneed, she thought she might stumble when slipping off her cami and stepping out of her jeans. He watched every move she made, his chest heaving in and out, his heated eyes roaming over every inch of her body until she was standing in just her panties.

The coveted look on his face made her feel so wanted, so desired. She relished in that confidence as he reached behind his head and yanked his shirt off, tossing it to the side as he lunged at her, lifting her up onto his bare chest, whispering, his voice rough with desire, “You are so damn beautiful,” before he suckled her lobe, making her sigh out his name.

His mouth slid to her neck, sucking so deeply, she knew it would leave a mark, but she didn’t care. She wanted him to brand every inch of her body, claiming her as his own.

He carried her to the bed, deposited her softly on her bottom, and then stepped back to kick off his shoes and peel down his pants, all the while, pinning her with his intense gaze. It was the hottest thing she had ever seen. He then knelt in front of her, spreading her legs with his hips, and took each breast into his mouth, suckling, licking, gently nipping at the buds until her head fell backward as she gasped. He then slipped his fingers into the lace of her panties and lowered them to her ankles as he kissed his way down the inside of her leg.

So many tingling sensations, so much pulsing need throbbed through her that Addison felt like she was being tortured. She pleaded with him to take her, right here, right now.

He responded by lowering her back on top of the quilted blanket, his body pressed firmly against hers, his mouth slowing, his tongue creating a teasing dance with hers.

He pulled away, his eyes baring straight into her soul, as his thumb traced lightly against her cheek. “You have to understand we can’t be together, Addy.” His eyes searched hers, before asking, “Do you still want this?”

Her sensibility was nowhere to be found, her aching, throbbing core surpassing all other emotions. She reached up and tugged him down to her face, her legs spreading to wrap around his back.

“Yes, Daws, please.”

 

 

 

THEY WOKE IN the middle of the night and made love again, this time a slow, steamy rendition of earlier, this time more of an emotional release, rather than a physical one. When the light of the morning sun filtered in through the opened blinds, Dawson blinked rapidly to offset the brightness, until his eyes focused in on Addy, wrapped in the pale blue sheet, still sound asleep.

He took in her wild mane of dark hair fanning the pillow, her closed, wide-set, almond-shaped eyes, her chest, barely concealed by the sheet, rising and falling in sleep. He knew she was a rare gem, one who didn’t even know the true beauty she possessed. Any man would be honored to have her, claim her as his own, but he knew that wasn’t possible. But still, he had to have a taste, and now his heart fractured at the thought of having to let her go.

But he had to find a way.

He vowed with every fiber of his being that he would never put any woman, especially Addison, through his family’s pain, a pain so deep and resilient that its clenches would crush anything in its path. Addison deserved to find a man that could love her fearlessly, one that didn’t have so many skeletons in the closet, one that could stand by her side through the test of time.

When Addison’s dark eyelashes fluttered, Dawson couldn’t help but smile down on her as she took him in, her face flushing, undoubtedly due to last night’s escapades.

God, he loved that flush, her embarrassment, her insecurity when she had absolutely nothing to be ashamed about.

He wanted to kiss away her chagrin, so that’s exactly what he did, starting with her eyelids, then moving down to her mouth, before murmuring, “Good morning.”

She laid the back of her hand over her mouth as she grinned. “Morning.”

He was a goner. Every movement she made put pressure on his heart, just like it had in Vegas, and then again on the beach. He knew he should show Addison the door and gently encourage her to never look back, but he couldn’t force himself to do it.

Instead, he asked, “What’s for breakfast?”

“Umm…whatever the diner down the street has, I guess.”

He feigned annoyance. “You trick me into coming here, and yet you don’t pack any food?”

Her face turned rose-hued. “I didn’t think we’d get to this point, actually, so nope, no food.”

He leaned in close, then moved his mouth down to the top of her chest, his nose brushing against her collarbone, murmuring, “Well, what am I going to eat then?”

She covered her face with both hands and giggled, actually giggled. The sound was like music ringing through his ears.

 

At five o’clock that night, they finally decided to get out of bed and find something to eat. Even after Dawson ravaged her completely naked on every surface in the cabin, Addison wrapped the sheet around her body and slipped into the bathroom to change, which he thought was completely endearing.

She emerged ten minutes later with her hair pulled into a high ponytail, wearing a simple, pale-yellow sundress, her face washed clean of any makeup. Dawson thought she couldn’t have looked more beautiful than she did at that very moment, skin reddened from their lovemaking, lips full and pouty, eyes darting to everything in the cabin, other than him.

When he gained her eye contact, he wanted to keep it. He waltzed up to her, encircled her waist, and planted his lips against hers. “Are you ready?”

She looked surprised by his move.

Well, why wouldn’t she? He told her time after time that they couldn’t be together. He hated himself for making her feel so self-conscious. To make her feel better, he hooked his arm around her waist and escorted her to the door.

 

They chose a shotgun restaurant made of cedar planks that served breakfast at any hour, called The Black Bear Diner. Inside, the décor was rustic, with diner style tables and a small gift shop packed full of black bears. Since there was a wait, they laced through the store while waiting for their name to be called.

Dawson paused beside a shelf full of bears in different stages of bathroom use, one holding toilet paper, one actually sitting on the pot, and one holding his nose beside an outhouse. “Do people actually buy these things?”

Addison picked up the bear with toilet paper stuck to his foot. “I think he’s kinda cute.”

He held out his palm. “I’ll get it for you as a token of my gratitude for our time together.”

He almost winced at his own words, because he knew once this weekend came to a close, so would their relationship.

But she didn’t seem phased, just said, “Only if you pick something out that I can buy for you, too.”

“Anything in the store?” he asked, eyeing the life-size grizzly growling in the corner.

She followed his line of vision and grinned as she held up one finger, adding the stipulation, “Anything in the store that you can carry.”

They weaved through the aisles conversing and laughing at the pieces they found, until Dawson came across what he wanted. He leaned over the glass cabinet filled with pocket knives sporting black bears on the handle, the blades dull and harmless. It resembled the knife his father had given him from the Smokey Mountains when he was young.

“I’ll take one of these.”

When the attendant handed it over, Dawson studied the knife, closed it, and then reopened it.

Addison ran her finger over the dull blade. “You better be careful with that.”

He laughed. “It looks just like the knife my dad gave me when I was a kid. We were in Tennessee vacationing in the mountains.”

“Was that knife as dull as this one?”

“In hindsight, probably, but back then I thought I was totting around a real weapon.”

She smiled. “What did you use it for?”

“Mostly opening packages, but I did go through a phase where I peeled the bark off branches, thinking I’d learn how to carve wood one day, but then my mother threw the stack in the fire for roasting marshmallows, and I never took the time to refurbish the stock pile.” He ran his finger over the handle, studying the workmanship. “But what I remember most about dad giving me the knife that day was feeling like he looked at me as a man for the first time. Granted, I was only eight, but I felt that if he trusted me with a pocket knife, he must think I was mature enough to handle the responsibility.”

She lightly touched his forearm. “What a wonderful memory.”

“It’s weird sometimes how things come back so vividly.”

“It happens with memories of my dad, too,” Addison confessed. “Half the time, they pop up out of nowhere.”

Their name was then called. Although neither Dawson nor Addison realized it, they were both famished. They devoured The Bigfoot, which consisted of delicious chicken fried steak and scrambled eggs, along with The Grizz, featuring a duo of fluffy pancakes, fried eggs, greasy, mouthwatering sausage links, and golden hash browns.

They left full and content and took the leisure, scenic route back to the cabin, stopping twice to pull off to the side of the road and just enjoy the view.

When they veered up to the front stoop of their cottage, Dawson asked Addison if she would like to take a walk. She agreed, but needed to run in and change clothes. So he tossed her the keys to the front door, lumbered out of the car, and idly wandered around the perimeter of the vehicle.

While Dawson was leaning against the hood of her car examining his knife, she reappeared in black leggings, a pink V-necked t-shirt that hugged her curves to perfection, and bright white running shoes.

After relocking the door, she jogged down the stairs as she pitched him the keys, which he stuffed into the back pocket of his jeans.

“You really like that thing, don’t you?” she said, referring to the knife she had bought him.

He gazed over at her. “Best present ever.”

She gave him a whatever look. “Since you brought it up, what is the best present you’ve ever gotten?”

He crossed his ankles, pondering, and then smiled. “Besides this knife, I guess I’d say the train set I got at Christmas when I was seven. How about you?”

“Hands down, my art set I got from Santa. I think I was around eight.” She questioned further, “I wonder if most people would recall a childhood gift when asked that question.”

“Probably. Kids are so excitable when it comes to gifts. I know Shelby is.”

“Your niece is four, isn’t she?”

He nodded. “Just turned, actually.”

“What did you get her for her birthday?”

He held out his hands with what he hoped was a charming grin. “A full day with Uncle D. What more could a girl want?”

She laughed. “What did you guys do?”

“I made her Mickey Mouse pancakes for breakfast, and then took her to get her nails and toes painted at the salon -- that was her mother’s idea. Afterward, we hit up a fancy restaurant, and then went to the movies.”

“Wow. I’m impressed. What did you guys see?”

“Some princess movie, but I can’t tell you anything about it, because I fell asleep.”

“You didn’t!”

“I did, and woke up to lipstick being painted all over my face.”

Addison laughed loudly, her hand rising to cover her mouth.

He shrugged. “Shelby does it every time I fall asleep. She keeps that tube handy at all hours of the day, which I would assume, is also her mother’s idea.”

“What a fun house to grow up in. How long have they been living with you?”

“Closing in on a year now. Ellie always comes up with some excuse not to move out, but now, I’ve kind of gotten used to having a child rule the roost, so I haven’t pushed the issue.”

Her eyes downcast before moving back up, seemingly embarrassed by what was about to slip from her lips. “Does that put a damper on your dating life?”

“I don’t date, Addy. Haven’t for years.”

“How is that possible?”

He laid the knife on the hood, clasped onto both sides of her hips, and tugged her to stand in between his legs. “Do you really want to get into this now?”

She blinked up at him and nodded.

“Even if you won’t like my answer?”

She nodded solemnly again.

He eyed her for a moment, deciding just how far to take this conversation. She seemed so naive and inexperienced in the bedroom, but yet so willing to learn, and he loved that about her. He pulled in a deep breath and just gave it to her straight.

“My friends and family are the majority of my social life, and honestly, I can take care of myself most of the time.” He watched her face redden as she bit her bottom lip. It was the cutest dang thing he’d ever seen.

“I can stop there if this is too much for you.”

“No, please, finish.”

“And when I need a true release—” he stopped, eyeing her again, and when he saw her eyes squint in concentration as she nodded her head encouragingly, he continued on, “and when a physical release is imminent, I find someone that won’t expect any strings attached and meet her someplace other than my house.”

She dropped eye contact again, so he lifted her chin with his fingertip.

“Why?” she whispered.

He ran his thumb along her chin. “Why is the reason you and I can’t be together.”

She gripped onto his shirt at the waist and tugged him to her. “Tell me, Dawson.”

“I can’t, Addy.”

“What if I want to be part of your world, no matter how messed up it might be?”

He cupped both sides of her face, lowering his lips to her temple, whispering, “I’d never allow that, no matter how much I wanted you in my life.”

She clung onto him. He could feel her desperation in her grip, in the way she pressed her mouth against his neck, in her intense breathing, and in the way she moaned out his name as if in agony. He was already hurting her, but yet he was too selfish to stop.

He held onto her head and pulled her back. The moisture rimming her lids almost made him back out of what he was about to propose.

“Addy, listen to me and hear me clearly.” He tightened his grip into her hair, lowering himself to her level. “You will not change my mind about this. You need to understand that no matter how good the sex is or how much I want you, come Monday morning, we’re done. I’ll never see or speak to you again. So if you want out, you need to go. I’m not stopping you. In fact, half of me is hoping you will run, but the other half,” he laid his forehead against hers, groaning, “the other half is begging you to stay.”

Hour Seven

 

 

GOD HELP HER, she stayed.

When she murmured her intensions, Dawson pulled her to his chest, holding her with such a fierce intensity, he thought he might snap her neck, but she just crawled into him further, gripping him with the same force and pressure.

He released her slightly, kissing her forehead. “You are full of surprises.”

When she grinned up at him, he asked, “You want to go on that walk now?”

Her lashes fluttered adorably. “Actually, I’d like to go back inside.”

He scooped her up unexpectedly, carrying her like his bride as she squealed, kicking her feet, the brightest smile swathing her sweet face.

When they reached the door, he grinned down at her. “Can you get the door? I’m talented, but not that talented.”

She laughed as she fumbled for the key in his back pocket and slid it into the groove. Once she clicked it open, Dawson gave it a push with his boot. The cabin, which had once looked shabby and uninviting, now held the promise of a weekend filled with heated passion and romance with the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on, a weekend that he could tuck away in the confines of his mind and bring forward on nights where loneliness ate through his heart, burrowing all the way to his soul.

He eased her onto the bed, with plans on showing her just how grateful he was that she stayed.

 

 

 

ADDISON WOKE AT three a.m. She slid out of the bed and dressed in the pitched dark, and then knelt beside the frame, watching Dawson sleep in the moonlight. She lightly tucked a lock of his hair into her hand and let it slip through her fingertips, wondering what in the world had scarred this man so deeply that he refused to let love into his world. Something in his past was obviously keeping him from moving forward in life, but Addison had every intention of changing his mind, no matter what type of ghost lurked behind the curtain.

He looked so peaceful when he slept, his face smoothing out, his lips almost puckered. It was just too much for Addy to take. She lifted on her toes, bent over the bed and laid her mouth against his.

When he roused, she whispered, “Come on.”

“What?” he croaked, his voice sleep-ridden and groggy.

“I want to go for that walk now.”

He squinted over at the alarm clock. “Now?”

She grinned. “Yes, now. Why else would I wake you up?”

He rubbed his face, murmuring, “You’re really something.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” She grabbed his hand and tugged him into a sitting position. “Come on. The moon is spectacular.”

Eyes at half mast, he shook out his hands, reached for his boxers, and then slugged into his jeans. The material was inside out, so that feat took some time as Addison watched from the kitchen table. She loved how he looked in the aftermath of sleep, all puffy and swollen, his hair a wrangled mess, his voice gravely and rough.

He stood up from the bed, his firm chest bare. “Okay, let’s go.”

“You forgot your shirt.” She tossed it to him and his reflexes were so slow due to his deep slumber that it landed against his face, which made her laugh.

“Very funny.” He drew each arm through a hole and then tugged it over his head.

“Shoes.” She pointed to the door.

He mumbled under his breath as he shambled over to the miniscule foyer, bent down to retrieve his boots, tossed open the door, and then extended his arm. “After you, bossy pants.”

She pinched his butt hard on the way out the door for the comment.

Toeing into his shoes on the front porch, Dawson then raked his fingers through his hair. As they jogged down the five steps to the driveway, he paused, making her ask, “What? Did you forget something?”

“Yeah, this.” He swept Addison into his arms and kissed her full on the lips, then released her and walked over to her vehicle. “And this,” he said while holding up the pocket knife he left on the hood of her car. “For bear protection.”

She snorted out a laugh. God, she’d laughed more in the last twenty-four hours than she had in the past two years combined. “You know that won’t even puncture skin, don’t you?”

He shook his head at her, commenting under his breath, “Oh, ye of little faith.”

The night was so luminous due to the full moon that it almost looked like they were peering through night vision lenses. In Addison’s eyes, everything seemed to have a slight shimmering glaze to it, the towering oaks, the barren grass, even the dirt under their feet seemed to shine as they passed over it. Maybe this is what it meant when people used the term love goggles, everything shiny and new, creating a burst of exhilaration.

They wound through the sturdy tree trunks, listening to the nocturnal animals chattering and the owl’s hoots. Traipsing through brush and downed limbs, they eventually found somewhat of a dirt path and followed it through Nature’s maze. Eventually, they heard the trickle of a stream nearby. Listening intently, they weaved through the trees until they found it nestled between two plateaued banks. They slipped off their shoes and rolled up their pant legs, sliding down the ravine until their bare feet eased into the cool water. They waded further upstream, Dawson steadying her by the hand as the water whooshed further up to their knees.

Addison didn’t know where she was leading them. She just wanted to experience something with Dawson, anything that she could grasp onto that would help him break through his self-imposed cell and let her in.

“It’s going to be a long walk back to the cabin without any shoes,” Dawson commented, his tone edged in humor.

“Where’s your sense of adventure, Daws?”

“Back with my shoes, apparently.”

She giggled, reaching down into the crisp water and splashed him.

He stopped his stride. “Hey now, unless you plan on wearing a wet t-shirt, you’d better cut that out.”

She turned back to him and bit her bottom lip, giving him a coy smile before ripping her shirt right over her head, leaving her breasts bare, tingling in the moonlight. “Now what do you have to say?”

A one sided smirk. “I’d say get your ass over here right now.”

A floating giggle escaped her lips and she shuffled through the water, reached up to the tip of her toes and wound her arms around his shoulders. He clutched onto the back of her neck and took her in, making her stomach feel like it had flipped inside out. He paused, whispering against her mouth, “Now how do I get you out of the rest of those clothes?”

Clasping onto one of his hands, she walked him to a rocky spot in the creek, turned to him, stepping out of her pants and then tossed all her garments up onto the bank.

His eyes leisurely took in every inch of her body, drinking in her long legs, the swell of her hips, and her bare breasts, as the moon’s beams bathed her in shimmering light. She felt like a goddess standing there in the nude, swathed in the wilderness, and never more alive in her life.

He stepped toward her, reaching to run a light fingertip over her right breast, his gaze following its winding path. “You are exquisite,” he whispered huskily.

“What I am is yours, Daws, tonight, tomorrow, as long as you’ll have me.”

His thumb grazed her mouth, silencing her words. “You don’t mean that.”

She reached for his hand and laid it against her beating heart. “Feel it, Dawson. Right here.” She laid her hand over his, making an imprint on her flesh. “I mean it with my whole heart. I want your past. I want your present. I want your future.” She inhaled a deep breath, one hundred percent resigned with her decision. “I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life.”

He stepped closer, lowering his mouth to hers, whispering against her lips, “I can’t, Addy,” and then took her in, making her gasp in his passionate embrace as he kissed her deeply and thoroughly.

She pulled away, grasping onto his face, staring directly into his deep, dark eyes. “You can.”

“I won’t,” he said weakly as his mouth moved onto her jaw and slid down her neck.

She could feel his resolve wavering in the tips of her fingers. She gained strength from that knowledge, whispering against his temple, desperation laced through her willowing words, “You will.”

 

They snuck back to the cabin barely dressed, carrying most of their clothes clutched in the palms of their hands. They showered together, soaping each other’s bodies, taking turns washing their hair, slicking on conditioner, and holding each other tightly under the spray of hot needles. Afterward, they climbed in bed, him in boxers, her draped in an oversized t-shirt, their limbs and hair still damp, their need to feel the other close becoming more than they could bear. Every limb entwined, they lie on the bed, her head resting against his chest, his hand combing through her tresses.

Addison sighed. “I can’t believe we’re here right now.”

“It is kind of surreal, isn’t it?”

She tilted her chin up. “Do you believe in love at first sight?”

Peering down at her, he replied, “I think the literal concept of the term is a little hard to swallow.”

“I totally agree,” Addison concurred, “but I do believe two people can form a deep connection very quickly. My parents did it. They got engaged after two weeks and their marriage withstood the test of time.”

“Do you think your mom will ever remarry?”

She relaxed back against his chest. “I don’t think so. What about your mom?”

“She could, I guess. She’s incredibly lonely, and she does have men hitting on her all the time at the gallery.”

Addison lifted again, surprise etching her face. “Really?”

“Yeah. A lot of my customer base is successful males who are single, due to divorce or being widowed.”

“And how do you feel about that?”

“The longer I watch her suffer, the more I’m okay with it. I just want to see her happy again.”

“I totally feel the same way. So, what do you think happened to Ellie’s marriage?”

His eyes traveled to the ceiling as Addison snuggled in closer against his chest. “I think my sister got swept off her feet, literally. Frank is from an extremely wealthy family and he wooed her relentlessly with expensive gifts and lavish trips. I think any relationship seems perfect when you’re jet setting out of the country every weekend, but when it came down to real life, they weren’t compatible.” He lifted, kissing the top of her head. “Tell me something I don’t know about you?”

She peeked up at him. “Like what? A deep, dark secret?”

“Anything.”

She laid back down, wanting to hear his heartbeat. “The craziest thing I’ve ever done is being here with you.”

“What about the future? Do you have any type of bucket list?”

She twirled the spattering of dark hair at his chest. “I’d like to own my own art gallery one day, see the Eiffel Tower in person, and sky dive, but I’d probably pee my pants mid-jump.”

His chuckle was low and deep, rumbling through his body.

“What about you? What’s on your bucket list?”

He shrugged. “I don’t have one.”

She slapped at his chest, making him laugh, before claiming, “I’m serious.”

Addison smirked. “There’s nothing you want to do that you’ve never done before?”

“Nope. That’s the perk to being single and having your own business. You can be selfish and do what you want.”

“So what was on your list that you’ve accomplished?”

“Mostly adventure stuff. I sky dived, and you’re right, it scared the crap out of me, but it was so worth it. I’ve learned to deep sea dive, which was another experience that was well worth swallowing your fear. I hiked the Grand Canyon, the Chimney Top in Tennessee, and the Lonesome Dove in Colorado. I white water rafted and rock climbed in West Virginia. I backpacked across Wyoming for two weeks. Oh, and I took my mom to Hawaii last year.”

Her eyes widened. “Wow. You’ve been busy. So, since you have no bucket list, are there any deep, dark secrets you want to share?”

Addison knew there was only one that she truly wanted to hear, but knew that would be the last thing to slip from his lips.

His eyes squinted as he pondered the question. Finally he spoke. “When I was a kid,” he started, “I wanted to be a firefighter. My dad told me I had to be strong and brave, and I had to work hard in school to achieve my goal. So I did extra credit in every class and ran around the block every night after dinner. I did two pushups before bed, because my scrawny arms wouldn’t allow me to do any more, and watched every movie I could get my hands on that had anything to do with firefighting.

“And then one day while I was playing out in the yard, I smelled smoke. My sister and mom weren’t home, and my dad was asleep in the recliner, like he was every night after seven. I ran down the street, following the smell and found a house two blocks away completely engulfed in flames on the left side.”

Addison was so engrossed in the story, she leaned up on her elbows and chewed the side of her mouth. “Tell me you didn’t go in that house.”

“I did. It scared the living shit out of me, but I raced through the house looking for people, but all I found was a dog cowering in the corner of the charred kitchen. I picked him up, darted out the back door, and ran home with him clutched to my chest as sirens wailed in the distance.”

She laid a palm at her chest. “That is the bravest, most wonderful story I’ve ever heard. You’re amazing.”

“Let me finish,” he murmured with a finger raised. “I never told mom or dad that I ran into that burning house, nor did I ever take the dog back to his rightful owner. I told my parents he was a stray and they let me keep him.” He half smiled. “Now you are officially the only person in the world, other than myself, that knows that story.” He ran his finger down the slope of her nose. “Now that’s how you tell a deep, dark secret.”

“Is it true?”

“Every word.”

“Did your neighbor ever find out?”

“Nope, I dyed a big black spot on the dog’s back with some hair product I found in my mother’s bathroom so they wouldn’t recognize him.”

She grinned. “You were a sneaky little devil, weren’t you?”

“Oh, the stories I could tell.”

“We have all night…”

He kissed the tip of her nose. “Not until you give something up.”

“Okay.” She crawled up onto his stomach and straddled his torso. “You know Emily, the girl you met at the bakery.”

He tucked both hands behind his head. “Yes.”

“Well, she and I were best friends in grade school before my dad got transferred and we had to move away. We moved back to that area later, but that’s beside the point. Anyway, back to the story. Emily’s childhood yard butted up to mine. We were constantly running back and forth between each other’s houses, so much so that we didn’t even knock, just walked right in.”

“Okay, got it.”

“And Emily has an older sister named Aurora.”

Dawson’s face puzzled. “As in Sleeping Beauty?”

Addison tilted her chin, stunned.

“I’ve seen plenty princess movies in the past year. I’m not proud to admit it, but I think I know them all.”

She grinned. “Yes, that’s her name, and she had long beautiful hair just like the character in the book. Anyway, Emily and I were at my house one night for a sleep over and Aurora posted some obnoxious post on social media about her being the fairest one in the land.”

“But I thought that was the crazy queen in Snow White who said that.”

She slapped at his chest. “Be quiet and let me finish.”

Dawson laughed and gripped onto her wrists so she couldn’t make another swing at him.

“Being the adolescences that we were, Emily and I concocted a plan to ruin Aurora’s beauty.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere.”

Although her story was cruel, Addison couldn’t help but giggle at Dawson’s reaction to it, but she sucked down her laugh and continued. “We ransacked my house and found every piece of bubble gum possible and jammed them into our mouths, and then marched over to Emily’s house, our cheeks full like chipmunks. We snuck into Aurora’s room and pressed our wads of gum into her hair while she was sleeping, but then had second thoughts, and tried to get it out, but just ended up making it so much worse. Emily was afraid she’d be grounded for life, so she snuck into the kitchen, grabbed the kitchen shears and we wacked off her hair, put the scissors in Aurora’s hand like she’d done it in her sleep, buried the hair in my back yard and trotted off to bed like nothing happened.”

“Did you ever get caught?”

“Nope, everyone fell for the sleep walking thing.”

Dawson shook his head, his lips compressing his smile. “You are a terrible person.”

She dug her fingernails into his palm making him yelp out a laugh.

“I don’t think I can sleep with you after hearing that story.”

Her wrist still entwined in his hands, she bent forward and sunk her teeth into his shoulder, making him laugh harder as he bucked his hips. “I’m serious. I think you need to leave.”

She bit down hard on his earlobe before screeching, “You’re the dog thief!”

“But you deflowered an innocent child,” he said through his laughter, “which is so much worse.”

They laughed until their sides ached, kissed until their mouths felt numb and made passionate, heartfelt love until the wee hours of the morning, but as soon Dawson’s feet hit the knobby, wooden floor on Sunday morning, his whole demeanor changed. He made less eye contact, he touched her less often, his mind somewhere far, far away. He was quiet, distant, and his humor completely vanished. And when he hugged her, her pulled her in from behind, his chest against her back, his chin resting on top of her head, most likely so he didn’t have to witness her distraught expression of him mentally pulling away.

They spent their day outside the cabin, sightseeing around the area, eating out, driving calculated, monotonous loops through the outskirts of the city to waste time. They drove by miles and miles of farmland sprouting various crops, corn, soy beans and wheat, wound through narrow roads with fruit trees dotting both sides of the perimeter, and coasted by fenced fields containing hundreds of livestock with bison milling about.

When they happened upon a vineyard in Tualatin Valley, Addison suggested they stop in for a bite to eat. Nestled on the south side of Chehalem Mountain, the winery was quaint and cozy with an outdoor stone patio overlooking their rows of sculpted vines dripping with Pinot Noir grapes, the rough terrain of the mountains framing the lowlands.

Dawson pulled out Addison’s chair and held onto the back until she was seated and then swiveled to sit next to her.

Addison looked out over the rolling fields lined with glistening grapes, commenting, “Wow. What an incredible view.”

Squinting at his menu, he absently replied back, “Yes it is.”

Addison lowered the thick plastic barrier he held between them. “Dawson.”

His eyes trickled up to hers. “What?”

“Please, give me our last day together.”

He closed his eyes and sucked in a deep breath. When he opened them, he cradled her hand. “I’m sorry I’ve been…”

“Distracted?” she finished for him, and then added with a quirk of the mouth, “Forlorn and absent, maybe?”

He chuckled as he shook his head. “I guess I deserve that.”

Her smile widened, so thankful to hear his laughter. “I guess you do.”

His eyes cut downward. “It’s just—“

She titled her palm up under his hand and entwined her fingers with his. “I know what I signed up for, Daws.” Although her words were spoken with strength and fortitude, her certainty wavered like a flag blowing in the gusty wind.

He flattened his lips and nodded. “You’re right. I’m sorry for how I’ve been acting. What can I do to make it up to you?”

“A kiss to start off with.”

As he leaned in and lowered his mouth to hers, she added, “We’ll discuss the rest later,” making him laugh.

“So are you a wine fan?” Dawson asked as he straightened. “You haven’t ordered any that I can remember.”

“Neither have you.”

“You’re right, but I do enjoy a glass here and there. Do you like red or white?”

“Since we’re outside for lunch, let’s do white, but nothing too fruity, if that’s okay with you.”

The waiter then appeared and Dawson discussed several options with him before settling on a bottle. He also ordered a cheese and fruit tray, along with an order of crushed red pepper hummus.

“Have you done any vineyard tours?” Addison asked. “I hear there are some fabulous ones around this area.”

“No, that’s one thing that I haven’t done. I don’t know much about wine. How about you?”

“I went to Napa Valley with my family once, but I was a sullen teenager, miffed at being pulled away from my telephone for six hours straight and didn’t get anything out of the experience.”

He chuckled, wondering aloud, “I’d hate to hear how much money parents blow on vacations like that.”

“I know I was guilty on more than one occasion.” She tilted her chin. “Maybe there should be a rule that kids fourteen through sixteen aren’t allowed to travel.”

Dawson countered, “Or maybe parents should narrow down their choices to something their teenager would be interested in doing.”

Addison nodded. “Good point.”

The waiter arrived with their wine, and after Dawson tasted and accepted the bottle, they were each poured a flute full. The all black clad waiter then lowered their appetizers to the rod iron table, and after declining to order their meal, he sauntered off toward the glass doors of the kitchen.

Addison lifted her flute to her lips, after asking, “So you’re obviously in tune to teenager’s needs. Do you foresee any kids in your future?”

Dawson stopped with a wedge of bread hovering close to his mouth. His eyes sliced out to the vineyard as he inserted the triangle, his interest continuing away from the table. After he finished chewing, he reached for his glass, commenting, “Haven’t really considered it.”

Addison knew she was pushing the envelope when she asked, “Why not?”

He turned the tables, switching the conversation. “How are things going at the bakery?”

She accepted his change of conversation, wanting to keep peace. “We’re holding steady, which is doing pretty good in my book since we’re in such a competitive market.”

He reached for his glass, swirling the iridescent liquid. “Do you ever wish for something more?”

Her brows dipped. “Like what?”

“I don’t know, maybe to use your skills more often than a painting here and there.”

“Well, sure, but I have to pay the bills and that’s what the bakery does for me. Without that stability, I wouldn’t be creating any art at all.”

He learned forward, elbows anchored on the decorative iron. “How? If you didn’t spend eight hours baking cupcakes, you could use that time in your studio.”

“Pfft. Studio? Dawson I paint in my great room squashed between my patched leather sofa and my outdated boxed television. I don’t have the means for a studio or to work on my skills twenty-four/seven.”

“I’m just saying maybe you should invest in your own future, instead of someone else’s.”

“I don’t understand. I am investing in my future.”

His chin tilted. “Has it always been your goal to open a bakery?”

“Well, no…”

“Then you’re not reaching toward your dreams; you’re following someone else’s.”

Addison fell back in her seat. “Wow. You really go for the juggler, don’t you?”

He grinned. “Just tell me you’ll think about it.”

 

After having a leisurely two hour lunch, they drove back to the cabin chit chatting about inconsequential things to fill the void of what they both knew would be happening in less than twenty-four hours. Addison always hated goodbyes, and she knew this one would be gut-wrenchingly painful. She attempted to push those thoughts aside and concentrate on the few hours she had left with Dawson.

When lumbering back up the steps to the cabin, they sat out on the covered porch swing. Without speaking, Dawson wound his arm around the back of the seat, tugging her in close. Addison could feel his lips resting against her temple ever so often as he lazily pushed against the knotted wood under their feet to keep them moving. They stayed this way until the sun created arcs of singed orange and deep purple wispy clouds across the horizon before sinking down behind the towering pine trees altogether.

Dawson then rose from his seat and held out his palm to Addison. She accepted, and let him lead her into the cabin. There was no more intimate romantic contact, other than him spooning her from behind as they lie completely clothed on top of the quilted patchwork blanket.

Addison didn’t sleep, just held on tightly to what little fragment she still had left of Dawson, his strong arms wound around her stomach, his chest rising and falling against her back, his breath gliding across the top of her head. She attempted to hold in her budding tears -- because she was the one that signed up for this weekend -- but failed. They leaked out the side of her eyes, dropping onto her pillow in silence.

 

 

 

DAWSON COULD FEEL every muscle in his body tighten as his shoulders tensed up against his ears, his fastened eyes darting frantically from one side of his eyelids to the other. Once again, he found himself sitting in the dilapidated row boat floating in unfamiliar water in the middle of the night, the half-moon and eerie, disconcerting silence his only companions. A thick fog clung to the raven water as he searched for oars to get him back to safety, but as always, there were none to be found.

Under his feet, water trickled in through cracks in the boat; flaws that he couldn’t see, but knew were there. As each second ticked by, a new leak materialized, until his boots disappeared beneath the shadowy liquid. Cold and clammy, the fluid crept higher as Dawson’s head spun in every direction, searching for land, but with the haze of the fog and darkened night, he couldn’t see more than an arm’s distance away. Peering back between his knees, he watched the water seep up to his calves. He knew the drill, but still palpable fear clutched his organs. He gripped the sides of the boat, his breathing echoing in his ears. His mind spun as his stomach curled in knots. Do I stay stationary, or do I flee?

Every time he chose a different path, but always ended up with the same consequence. This time he had the forethought to rip the laces off his boots and chuck his shoes over the edge before he dove over the side. When he bobbed to the surface, he swam furiously hard, thinking surely he’d eventually hit land. His arms slapped against the frigid water, his feet pounding against the undulating surface. Lifting his mouth for a breath, he buried his face back in the water, continuing with his violent strokes. He pounded and pumped his arms, kicking with desperation. Although his muscles ached and his lungs burned and stung, he fought through the pain and kept trudging forward.

His arms eventually refused to rotate as he began sucking in water. Flipping over to his back, he gave his arms a break, but continued with his legs as he floated atop the water. He lifted his head and could no longer see the row boat, either from the dense fog or due to it sinking. His eyes shut, commanding his limbs to continue moving.

He spun back over to his stomach and continued with his plight, but the liquid began taking on a thick molasses consistency, making it even harder for his limbs to cooperate. His determination flipped the switch to panic. He withdrew his head from the congealing substance as his arms continued flailing in a forward momentum. He fought against the enemy, kicking and paddling as best he could, but he could feel his lethargic body giving up, even though his mind pleaded with him to keep fighting. His chin lowered closer to the murky water as his legs trudged slower and slower, the substance gaining in consistency. Fear enveloped him, gripping his organs and collapsing his lungs. The bottom of his face was now submerged, leaving only his eyes widened in terror peeking above the surface.

Move feet! Move! He pleaded with his limbs. I can win this time! Fight back! Never give up!

Dawson sprung upright in bed as he gasped for air. Heaving for breath, his eyes darted around the cabin as he frantically patted the mattress on either side of him. When he found the dense unmoving substance beneath him, he closed his eyes and concentrated on evening out his breathing as sweat trickled down the neckline of his shirt. Addison tilted on her side beside him, making Dawson inch to the side of the bed and lower his feet to the cool, wooden floorboards. Burying his face into his palms, he scrubbed wearily before standing and lumbering over to the kitchen. Welcoming cool air whooshed against him as he peered inside the refrigerator and fumbled for a bottled water. Twisting off the green cap, he tossed it in the sink before falling into a chair at the table.

That dream always made his veins turn to ice and his heart race. He thought by now he’d be used to the horrific sequence, since he’d been having the same nightmare for years. As always, after each episode, he’d analyze and pick the dream apart, attempting to come up with a solution. In his mind, conquering his hallucination would be the only way to get them to stop.

A stirring moan from Addison halted his thought process. His eyes sliced to her in the dark, watching her move. Taking a last chug from the bottle, he left it on the table and ambled over to the bed. Sinking in beside her, he trailed a light fingertip at her temple, feathering down to her jawline. Still asleep, she swatted his hand away as if he was a pesky fly, making him smile.

Not for the first time, he cursed his circumstance. He cussed his past, his present, and his future. He knew first hand that life could be excruciatingly cruel, but having Addison at his fingertips and not being able to grasp onto her was nothing other than pure, agonizing, unbearable torture.

But he knew his hands were shackled and there was absolutely nothing he could do to alter his current situation, or his past for that matter. He sighed, thinking, he’d just gotten to the point where he had resolved himself to his destiny, but now with Addison laying in front of him, the cycle of hell seemed to be starting all over again.

Leaning forward, he grazed his lips at her hairline and then climbed into bed, cupped her backside, looping his arm around her stomach, tugging her in close. He nuzzled her ear, whispering thoughts that would never be murmured aloud, and then buried his nose in her hair to breath her in, savoring her smell, touching her body for the last time, hoping with all his heart that his memories would last a lifetime.

 

 

 

THE NEXT MORNING, Dawson carried Addison’s suitcase down the stairs, and placed it in the trunk of her car. With his chin still tucked, he trudged over to the driver side door and held it open for her. When she took a seat, Addison could feel her heart fracturing at his hard jaw, tense eyes, and lack of physical contact. She stared straight ahead out the window that was covered in sap droppings, smeared with dusty dirt.

Still no words were exchanged, so she flipped the ignition to start the car. When she looked up at him, his eyes were still drawn to the cabin on the other side of the vehicle. His body language was so cold, so aloof, so distant. She couldn’t stand this side of Dawson. She slammed the car door and yanked the gearshift in drive, only to hear his knuckle rap against her closed window. She hit the button to lower it, hoping, praying, that he’d changed his mind, but when she looked into his face, she knew otherwise.

His blue eyes looked almost grey with black rims. His teeth were clamped tight, his jaw grinding back and forth. He leaned down into the window with one hand still on the roof. Finally, for the first time all morning, their eyes met.

“Don’t try to contact me in any way. This is over. Done. No matter how much time passes, you will never change my mind, Addison, so don’t even try.”

He slapped the roof twice, turned on his heels to jog up the stairs and shut the cabin door without ever looking back.

Hour Eight

 

 

ADDISON MOPED AROUND the bakery for the next two weeks. She called Dawson’s sister on a daily basis, begging for advice, but the only thing she got in return was Ellie stating that she had to support her brother’s decision, and for Addison to move forward with her life without him in it. Eventually, Ellie stopped taking her phone calls altogether, so Addison tried calling his mother at the gallery, who also avoided her like the plague.

Now, it had been fourteen days since she’d last seen Dawson.

Three hundred and thirty-six hours without any contact whatsoever.

Not because Dawson wasn’t interested in her, but because he held a secret that he refused to reveal.

Miffed at the injustice, Addison’s sadness morphed into irritation. She began stomping everywhere she went, slamming doors, chucking ruined cupcakes across the room toward the trash bin, clanking pots and pans, and clamping her lips closed, choosing not to speak, rather than act as if everything was peachy in her life.

At the beginning of week three post cabin, Emily had had enough. She pushed Addison out the bakery door, telling her not to come back until she had things sorted out with Dawson. They needed a final breakup that Addison could live with, or they could get back together. Emily didn’t care which, just as long as Addison could get her life back on track.

Ripping off her apron, Addison tossed it on the passenger seat. She thought about heading home and throwing some paint against a canvas, but her heart wasn’t into it, so she knew the attempt would be fruitless. Instead, she headed toward the highway, pushing down hard on the accelerator, determined to get some answers.

Although Addison wasn’t aware, she parked down the road, her previous stalking location. She slammed the car door shut and tromped up the street to Dawson’s house, determination straightening her spine and quickening her pace. She was hoping with all her heart that Dawson wouldn’t be home so she could pin Ellie down for some answers.

She rapped twice authoritatively and then wound both hands behind her back. She wasn’t expecting Shelby, Dawson’s niece, to answer, and her heart melted at the sight of her barefoot in a bright green sundress, her halo of ringlet hair bouncing at her shoulders.

Addison’s stance instantly softened as she bent at the knees. “Well, hello there.”

Her tiny hand lifted by her face. “Hi. Who awe you?”

“I’m Addison, a friend of your uncle’s.”

Ellie then appeared, reprimanding her daughter for opening the door without her being present. She straightened with her hands anchored to her daughter’s shoulders.

Addison held up both palms. “I just want to talk to you for a few minutes. Then I’ll leave. I promise.”

Ellie lifted a tense hand to knead her neck. “There’s nothing to talk about. I’m sorry, Addy.”

“Just one cup of coffee. That’s all I’m asking.” Her eyes involuntarily filled when she added, “Please.”

She took two steps back, pulling her daughter with her. “One cup. That’s it.”

Relief washed over Addison as she stepped right into the family room of the house, which had several of Dawon’s pieces from the gallery and a black sectional couch, with blood-red throw pillows. The rug underneath was a long white shag and the lamps and accessories were brushed pewter. They traipsed through the house to the kitchen in back, which also had a warm modern flare, with grey cabinets topped in black marbled granite.

Ellie gestured for Addison to take a seat at the toffee-glazed wooden table, and then walked over to the counter to make coffee. Shelby stood to the side of her mother with one hand draped around her knee as a security blanket, eyeing Addison from across the room.

She pulled on her mother’s shirt, her chin tilted as far up as she could manage. “Is dat Uncle D’s giwlfwiend?”

“No, sweetie,” she whispered back.

“Do you fink she wants ta color?”

Her mother squatted down to her level. “I think Ms. Addison and I need to have an adult conversation, so how about you go upstairs to your room and draw me a beautiful picture while you wait for us to be finished.”

“Can I draw hers one, too?”

Ellie’s eyes darted over to Addison. “Um, sure, but she might be gone by the time you’re finished.”

“Den I’ll mails it to her.”

She swiped her finger down her nose. “Good idea.” She patted her on the butt. “Go on now, and be sure to shut your door; you know how chilling it gets up there.”

Her pattering feet ran by as she darted out of the room and down the hallway behind Addison. Ellie then took the seat adjacent to her, holding two cups of steaming coffee, her eyes weary at the conversation that was about to take place.

“I really don’t know why I even let you in. I can’t give you any information, Addison. This is a waste of your time.”

Addison leaned forward, needing her to understand her plight. “Ellie, I don’t think you would be saying that if you would have seen us at the cabin. Dawson was so loving, caring, and sweet.” She fisted a hand at her chest. “Your brother really and truly cares for me. I know he does with all my heart.”

She linked her finger through the handle of her cup. “I know my brother’s capacity to love, Addison, he shows it to me and my daughter every single day.”

Addison leaned back in her seat, attempting another approach. “You don’t want Dawson to live his life alone, do you?”

Her eyes dropped for a heartbeat, and then lifted. “No, I don’t, but that’s his decision to make, not mine.”

“Why is he doing this, Ellie? Why won’t he let anyone in?”

“I’ve already told you, that’s not my story to tell.”

Addison’s anger bubbled to the surface. “Yes it is, Ellie. Don’t you see you’re partly to blame?” she pleaded intensely.

Her tone hardened. “How am I at fault here?”

“Because you’re just as guilty as he is.”

“I’m guilty?” Ellie asked, indignation sparking her decibel. “The only thing I’m guilty of is loving my brother!”

“You call that love, letting him rot away in this house by himself?”

“That is what he wants, Addison! And he’ll always have us,” she added in angst.

“Ellie, Dawson needs a love that you and Shelby can’t give him. He needs to be touched, to be wanted as a man, to be fulfilled by a woman and you are holding him back from that!”

She shot out of her seat for her rebuttal, making Addison do the same, just as they heard the garage door squeaking open. Ellie’s eyes widened as she gripped Addison by the shoulders and pushed her into the laundry room at the end of the kitchen. She quickly clicked the door shut, her eyes giving Addison the stern warning to be quiet.

 

 

 

ELLIE RUSHED OVER to the kitchen table, scooped up the two coffee cups, dashed over to the sink and dumped the contents before shoving them in the dishwasher. She returned with a dishrag to wipe up their wet ring marks and push in their chairs, just as Dawson lumbered in from the garage.

He threw his keys on the counter in a huff, which screeched across the granite.

Ellie was at her breaking point after her conversation with Addison. She wheeled around on him, barking, “Dawson, I’ve had enough of the crappy attitude! As of today, I’m officially done!”

He turned to her, seemingly stunned by her outburst. “Is that right?”

“Yes, that’s right! You’ve been storming around here for weeks and I’m finished with it.”

“You’re finished with me…in my house?”

She threw up her arms in agitation. “What’s with you, anyway?” and then added under her breath, “Usually you’re in a better mood after you get laid.”

He jabbed a finger in her direction, warning, “Don’t go there, Ellie.”

“Go where, Dawson?” she asked factiously.

“You know what I mean,” he ground through clenched teeth. “Don’t talk about her like that.”

“Her?” Ellie spat back. “She has a name Dawson and it’s Addison.”

“I know her damned name, Ellie.”

“If you’re so stinkin’ grumpy without her, why don’t you call her?”

“You know I can’t do that.”

“Yes you can!”

“This conversation is officially over,” he started to storm past her, but she latched onto his arm and yanked him back hard.

“This conversation is not over, and neither is your life! You need to give you and Addy a chance!”

His face turned beat red in fury. “A chance? A chance to do what, Ellie?” His arms elevated and then dropped in defeat as his facial features pinched together in disgust. “You want her to watch me wither away to nothing, watch me drool all over myself, clean up after me after I piss my pants? Is that what you want, Ellie?”

“You’re twenty-six, Dawson! Dad didn’t have any symptoms until he was in his fifties,” she pleaded exasperatedly.

He crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m not putting her through what you, me and mom went through. Period. End of story.”

“But you’re not symptomatic, Dawson! There’s a chance you never will be!”

His flood gate burst as he yelled, “I am symptomatic! I have been for months now, so back the fuck off!”

As her chest heaved in at Dawson’s confession, his eyes lifted over her shoulder and she watched all the color drain from his face. Ellie knew without turning around that Addison was standing behind her, shell shocked at what she’d just heard.

Cursing, Dawson spun on his heels, stormed out of the room, reared back, punching his fist through the drywall, before flinging open the front door and disappearing through the opening.

Ellie dropped her head as it spun in nauseating circles. Dawson has been suffering for months? And she had no idea? How is that possible? Addison’s trembling voice snapped her out of her reverie.

Her voice was shaky and weak. “What is wrong with him, Ellie?”

Without turning to look at her, she whispered, “You need to go, Addy. I don’t want to talk about this.”

Her tone grew stronger. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what Dawson is suffering from.”

Ellie turned, still in a fog over her brother’s confession, and grabbed ahold of Addison’s elbow, roughly escorting her to the door. “You need to leave, now.”

She stumbled out the door, begging further, “Ellie, tell me, please.”

 

 

 

ADDISON DIDN’T EVEN remember getting on the highway. Her head was a convoluted mess after hearing Dawson was suffering from the same brain tumor that his father died from. She couldn’t even pronounce the name of the tumor, but Ellie had said that it was not malignant, but very fast growing and deadly. The fact that Dawson had been suffering with symptoms for several months flabbergasted not only her, but also his sister. Apparently, he had been suffering in silence.

Had he been to the doctor?

What was his treatment plan?

Had he been having radiation or chemotherapy and hadn’t told anyone?

Was surgery an option?

Once again, she had so many questions, but no answers. She turned off the next exit, did a U-turn at the first stoplight and headed back toward Coos Bay. This time, she wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines and wait for information like she had in the past. For once in her life, she was putting her foot down.

She knocked on the front door for over five minutes. When no one answered, she walked to the garage and peeked in the window. Dawson’s car was gone, but Ellie’s was still there. She skirted around to the back door on the stone patio and banged again, this time loud and firm. The blinds were open so she could see into the kitchen. She watched Shelby peek her head around the corner from the hallway and wave to her.

Addison smiled and waved back, but then the child disappeared. She rapped again; this time with the heel of her hand. They obviously knew she was here, but still no one answered. Apparently, this was a standoff between her and Ellie.

“That’s how you want to play this, Ellie?” she called out boisterously. She stalked over to the cushioned patio chair, clasped onto the back and drug it over to the door, positioning it so that she could see directly into the glass, then plopped down, crossed her legs and entwined her arms.

A few minutes elapsed with no sign of movement, but then she saw Ellie walking in her direction. Addison stood, thankful that she was ready to talk, but was flabbergasted when she just loomed over to the door and ripped the blinds shut.

“Fine!” Addison yelled. “But I’m not leaving until I get answers!”

She fell back into her chair and scrunched down to where her head was resting against the back. She knew she may as well get comfortable. This stalemate was going to take a while.

Addison wasn’t even sure how long she sat there because she left her phone in the car and wasn’t about to go retrieve it. All she knew is that she was starving. Her stomach was grumbling with hunger pains on a consistent basis, but still she stayed firm.

As the sun began to set, Addison began pacing the stone patio to stretch her legs. Although the bay was at her fingertips, she couldn’t even enjoy the rippling water or the multiple boats trolling along the waterway. Her focus was on the house and the information contained within it. She needed answers and she wasn’t going anywhere until she got them.

At nightfall, Addison curled up in a ball on a lounge chair to fend off the chill of the early evening air and the breeze rolling in off the bay. She almost didn’t hear the door clicking open or the pitter patter of child’s feet. She looked to the side and could barely see Shelby due to the fluffy, red blanket she held in her arms.

“Mama said to give you dis.” She pushed the blanket into her hands. “She says go home, dis is a famwey matto.”

It took a second for Addison to understand, but then it dawned on her. The child was trying to say this was a family matter. So Ellie was willing to show her compassion, but not communication.

“Will you tell your mom thank you, please, and that I’m not going anywhere until she talks to me.”

“I’ll tawk to you.”

Addison smiled, resisting the urge to reach out and cradle her sweet, cherub face, but then Shelby heard Ellie calling her from the house and scampered off.

Addison slept restlessly on the patio furniture the entire night, bolting upright every time she heard any type of sound that might alert her to Dawson coming home. The moon played peek-a-boo with the floating clouds as mosquitos feasted on her exposed skin. At dawn, Addison had just fallen into somewhat of a deep sleep, when she was abruptly awakened by Ellie looming over her, clearing her throat. Addison was blinking her into focus when she felt something being shoved into her gut.

“Here.”

Addison moved to sit up, clutching onto the book that she aggressively offered.

“This journal contains more information than you will ever need. After that, we’re done. Do you understand?”

She nodded, taking in the tan leather binder she held in her hands, mumbling, “Thank you.”

“Addison, this is my brother’s fight and he has made it abundantly clear he wants to do it alone. You need to respect that.”

She didn’t have anything to say, so she stayed silent.

“Just drop the book off in the mailbox when you’re finished, and please be on your way. I don’t want you here when Dawson decides to come home.”

Addison stood with the journal clasped against her chest and the blanket dangling from her hand. “Thanks for the blanket,” she offered as she handed it over.

Ellie draped the cover over her arm, her eyes softening. “Under different circumstances, I’m sure we could have been friends, but I’m extremely protective of my brother.”

Addison nodded. “I understand.”

“This needs to be the last time I see you.”

Addison dropped her chin and walked away.

 

Addison drove straight home, curled her legs underneath her bottom on the couch, and laid her palms on Dawson’s father’s journal. She closed her eyes and said a quick prayer, God, give me strength, then took a deep breath, and flipped open the cover.

 

Oliver Preston

Age: 56

 

Diagnosis:

March 25, 2013

Anaplastic Oligodendrogliomas

 

Prognosis:

Pending on response to treatment, 2 to 5 years.

 

Surgery not an option: fingers of tumor are too far ingrained into the frontal lobe to be successful.

 

[_ Experimental Robotic Surgery-- Also not a candidate, due to tumor’s tentacles. _]

 

Symptoms:

Became symptomatic with tingling in feet and hands, along with periodic numbness three months prior to diagnosis.

 

Treatment:

Chemotherapy and Radiation in hopes to shrink tumor.

 

Currently suffering from:

Nausea, vomiting, continuous constipation, painful stomach cramping, severe headaches, loss of appetite, mouth sores, vertigo, extreme fatigue.

 

April 2013

 

[_ MRI- Tumor shows no significant improvement. Will change chemotherapy drugs, and will attempt one more six week round of radiation. _]

 

Traveled to Cleveland Clinic for second opinion. Received the same diagnosis and prognosis.

 

Speech impairment now showing, long term memory lapses, having trouble grasping objects and typing, walking is slow and laborious.

 

May 2013

 

Traveled to Mayo Clinic for third opinion. Still received same diagnosis, but suggested some experimental drugs.

 

Finished with second round of radiation. MRI follow up showed the tumor was not responding to treatment and had grown substantially.

 

[_ New chemo drugs causing internal hemorrhaging-- stopped medication. Spent two weeks in intensive care. _]

 

Tears were now rolling down Addison’s face dripping onto the paper, smearing the ink. Settling the book on the sofa, she lumbered into the kitchen, grabbed a box of tissues, and resumed her spot on the couch, flipping forward several pages. The entries were no longer in Dawson’s father’s printed penmanship, but rather a free flowing, slanted cursive style.

 

August 2013

 

Oliver is no longer able to use his walker, due to loss of muscle mass in his forearms and biceps. Although he absolutely hates it, he is now confined to a wheelchair. He can no longer control his bladder, as well, and now has to be catheterized multiple times per day. His speech is slow, and hard to decipher at times, which makes him extremely frustrated. Physical therapy takes up the majority of his day. Our goal is to keep the muscle tone he has now, if possible.

 

Swiping through more pages, Addison read:

 

December 2013

 

Oliver now has paralysis from the waist down. He has a colostomy bag and can no longer feed himself. He is having trouble swallowing, which the doctor says is normal. If needed, we may have to insert a feeding tube.

 

Addison had read enough.

She gently closed the book and hugged it to her chest.

 

 

 

THE NEXT MORNING, Addison was out of bed before the sun rose above the horizon, dressed, and ready. After slugging down a cup of coffee, she grabbed ahold of Oliver’s journal and headed out to the garage. Within thirty five minutes, she was standing back on Dawson’s porch step, more determined than she’d ever been in her entire life.

She rapped two times and then took a step back, raising her chin. She couldn’t hide her deflation when Ellie was the one to open the door, rather than Dawson.

“You don’t give up, do you?”

“Not when it comes to your brother, no, I don’t.”

Addison considered attempting to storm the house, and find Dawson herself, but assumed his little guard dog was stronger than she looked.

“Can I speak with Dawson, please?”

“He’s already left for work.”

Addison’s eyes narrowed. “You’re lying. His car’s parked in the garage.”

She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Don’t you get it? My brother is dying. Dying, Addison. There’s no happily ever after here.”

“Do you think that’s what I’m here for?” Addison spat, indignation rearing its head. “For sunshine and rainbows? You know nothing about me, Ellie, because if you did, you’d know that I understand pain,” she seethed as she pounded her chest. “My dad’s body was blown to smithereens and was delivered to my doorstep in a three foot box.” She pointed a finger accusingly. “So don’t tell me about pain, and don’t treat me like a child. I know what Dawson’s up against,” she held the journal up between clenched fingers, “but if you thought you were going to scare me off with this, you were sadly mistaken.”

Addison shoved the book in Ellie’s chest, speaking through gritted teeth. “And let me make myself abundantly clear here. I’m not going anywhere . Do you understand that, Ellie? So you can march right back to your brother and tell him that! Tell him I’ll camp out on this porch for the next year, because I’m not going anywhere!” Tears began clouding her vision. She bit down on her pain and continued, her voice wavering. “I’ve never fought for anything in my life -- not my dad when he reenlisted, not my mom when she moved back to Beijing -- but this time I’m digging my heels in and fighting for the man I love.”

She swiped angrily at her tears as she heard Dawson speak from inside the house.

“Let her in.”

Ellie stepped back, pulling the door open along with her, revealing Dawson in tan pants and an unbuttoned oxford, his damp hair slicked back from his face.

Addison’s heart skipped a beat when she saw him. She raised her hand in a tentative wave, wiping her tears with the other.

“Come here,” he said, opening his arms.

Addison took off in a sprint through the family room and sprung herself into Dawson’s arms. He lifted her off her feet, kissing her forehead, her temple, her cheekbone, and finally full on the lips, squeezing her so hard it stole her breath. When he pulled back and set her feet back on the ground, his eyes were glistening with emotion.

He cupped her face, murmuring, “You are the most tenacious, stubborn, bull-headed woman I’ve ever met.” He paused, lowering his mouth to hers. “And I’ve never been so damn thankful in my entire life.”

His kiss was the most precious, heartfelt, meaningful one she’d ever experienced, causing a new set of tears to seep into her lids. Once she started, the tears wouldn’t stop. They cascaded down her face, dripping off her chin to saturate his shirt as she clung to his neck, needing to feel him closer.

He was the first to pull out of their embrace as he bent at the waist to scoop her up, carrying her through the kitchen, calling over his shoulder, “Ellie, call mom and tell her I won’t be in the office today.”

 

 

 

ADDISON WAS LYING completely on top of Dawson as he feathered light strokes up and down her bare back. She shivered, which made him chuckle underneath his breath.

He placed a light kiss on the crown of her head. “I need to say something, Addison, and I need you to take it in, without making a rebuttal. Okay?”

Without looking up, she nodded against his chest.

He rolled her off his body, and leaned up on one elbow, looming over her as he traced a light fingertip along her hairline. “It is very important to me that you understand something, Addison. And the only way I’ll be okay with pulling you into this is under one condition. And you need to agree to this stipulation in order for us to have any chance of moving forward.”

She bit her bottom lip and nodded.

“You need to understand completely that you do not have to stay for the duration of whatever happens with me. If you decide tomorrow, a week from now, six months from now, whenever, that you can’t handle this, I want you to know, you have an out, no questions asked, no judgement, and no hurt feelings. I will totally understand, and so will my family.”

His intense eyes bore into hers. “Do you understand, Addy, that you’re not tethered for the length of this, just because you’re here with me right now?”

She blinked back the moisture welling in her eyes. “Yes, I understand.” But she knew without a shred of doubt that she wasn’t going anywhere.

His smile was fractured and didn’t reach his eyes. “Good, now come here,” he tugged her back on top of him, pushing her dark hair over one shoulder. “So, did you really camp out on the back porch last night?”

“I did, and I was prepared to do it a lot longer than that, if necessary.”

Now his smile was genuine, glowing on his handsome face. “You’re a fighter. I like that.” He lifted his head and gave her a quick peck on the lips.

She frowned. “That’s all I get for spending the night outside on a lumpy chair in the freezing cold for you?”

His chuckle was deep and rumbling. “It’s the beginning of September, Addy. How cold could it be?”

“Extremely cold.”

He grinned. “Extremely cold?”

She nodded. “Yep. Frost bite worthy. So what does that get me?”

He chewed the side of his mouth, feigning thought. “Well, I don’t know. What do you want?”

She held in her humor with tighten lips. “I want you to do that stripper thing for me.”

He laughed. “A strip tease?”

“Yep. You did it for an entire wedding reception. You shouldn’t have any problem doing it for me.”

He chuckled again. “But I’m already naked.”

She rolled over and pushed Dawson off the bed with her feet. “Well, put some clothes on, then.”

 

  • * *

 

THE FOLLOWING NIGHT, Dawson was having a family meeting with his mother and sister, so Addison stayed at her own house. Although she wanted to be there for Dawson, being around his mother for the first time while her son informs her of his condition just didn’t seem to be the right move to make.

At eleven-thirty, she received a text from Dawson.

 

DAWSON: Are you still awake?

ADDISON: Yes. How did it go tonight?

DAWSON: Mom was a complete wreck, as she should be, and although I know Shelby couldn’t fully grasp the concept, she cried and cried, while Ellie attempted to be strong for everyone involved.

ADDISON: I am so sorry, Daws.

DAWSON: Goes with the territory…If you don’t mind, I really don’t want to talk about it, though.

ADDISON: I totally understand.

DAWSON: Would you mind some company tonight?

ADDISON: I would absolutely love some company.

DAWSON: Kinda weird since I feel so damn close to you, but I have no idea where you live.

ADDISON: LOL That’s right! It’s 324 North Point Drive. Hurry and I’ll give you a house tour. Luckily that will only take about 2.2 seconds so we’ll have some time for other stuff.

 

At two a.m. they were still awake entwined in each other’s arms. Addison lifted Dawson’s hand and laid her lips against the tattoo on the inside of his wrists.

“Are you ever going to tell me what these mean?”

Dawson grew very serious as he moved to his side, anchoring his head on his hand as he traced lazily circles with his fingertip across her stomach.

“I promise you I will, but I can’t tell you yet.”

Addison couldn’t help the disappointment that flooded through her. She wanted to know everything about this man, but he still wasn’t ready to let her in, not completely.

“Addy, there’s something else that we need to discuss now, though.”

Seeing the gravity of his features, she settled her hand over his, halting his movement.

“I’m seriously considering not treating the tumor.”

Her eyes prickled with tears and her throat ached with his confession. “You have to fight, Dawson; if not for yourself, then for your family, for me.”

“My family and I talked about this in depth last night. Although they agree with you, they understand my reservation about treatment after watching my father suffer through chemo and radiation without any benefits.”

“That was years ago, Daws. Surely they’ve made progress.”

“And that’s what I have to find out, but if the numbers don’t stack up, I’m going to refuse treatment and try to live the best life possible, while I still can.”

He reached up and cradled her face, erasing her sadness with his thumb. “It kills me to see you hurting like this.”

Here he was battling for his life, but yet he was worried about her. She decided at that very second that no matter how much she wanted to break down, she had to stand strong.

She gripped onto his face with both hands. “I will support you no matter what, Daws…..No matter what.”

 

 

 

ON SUNDAY, DAWSON invited his mother and all of his friends over. He was a bundle of nerves thinking about telling the crew about his condition. When Shawn and Dana, Jimmy and his wife, Gayle, along with Terrance and Moose trickled into the house, he asked them all to take a seat in the family room. Addison could see all the looks of reservation that passed over their faces, as she sat in the recliner, closest to Dawson. Ellie entered through the kitchen and stood at the back of the room, carrying a bundle of photocopied pamphlets stapled together.

Dawson rubbed his hands together nervously. “I’m sure you’re all wondering why you’re here, so I’m not going to dance around the subject. I’m just going to lay it on the line.” He lifted his palms and then let them fall to his thighs. “I‘ve been diagnosed with the same brain tumor my father had.”

Gasps and questioning moans rippled throughout the room as Faye dropped her head into her hands to stifle her cries, even though she’d heard the news before. Dana and Gayle immediately began to silently weep, as the men’s faces grew tense and questioning.

“When were you diagnosed?” Shawn asked.

“Several weeks before Vegas.”

“Why didn’t you tell us, Daws? We would’ve been there for you.”

“I know, but I didn’t want to put a damper on the wedding.”

This confession made Dana cry even harder as she buried her face into her husband’s shoulder.

“So, now what?” called Moose.

“I consider going through rigmarole of trying to fight it, like dad did, or I use what time I have left and make the best of it.”

“What?”

“You can’t be serious!”

“You have to fight, Dawson!”

“This is my battle, not yours,” he said severely. “Don’t forget I watched my father waste away while fighting, when he could have been living for those two years.”

Jimmy piped in, “What can we do for you?”

“I’m going to be upfront and honest here, and I want you all to listen closely to what I’m about to say.” He paused to make sure he had everyone’s rapt attention. “I don’t want anything from anyone in this room. No cards, no gifts, no texts asking how I’m doing, no offers to take me to the doctor. And after today, no more tears. I just want your friendship, like I’ve had for the past fifteen years. Got it?” His eyes scanned the room. “Oh, and one more thing. I’d like all of you to come to my house every Sunday for a cookout.”

He clapped his hands together, rubbing vigorously. “Addy and I are going to step outside to grill some burgers while my sister passes out copies of my father’s journal. I think this information will help, knowing what I’m up against and why I make the decisions I do. You can ask my sister and mom any questions you may have, take it home and digest the information, or you can stay for dinner. It’s up to you.”

He held out his hand to Addison, which she accepted, and led her out through the kitchen.

She tugged onto his flannel shirt from behind. When he stopped and turned her way, she rose up to her toes as she wound her arms around his neck.

“You were absolutely fabulous in there.”

“I’m just glad it’s over.” He gave her a quick kiss and then reached in the fridge and withdrew the hamburger patties stacked in a precarious pile.

As Dawson settled in by the grill on the back patio, Moose was the first to amble out of the house. He walked straight over to Dawson, shook his hand, and then tugged him in for a long bear hug, without the usual slaps and jabs.

When he stepped back, he cleared the emotion out of his throat, his eyes glassy with emotion. “If I’m coming here every Sunday, you better have plenty of beer.”

Dawson laughed pointing to the cooler behind him. “Help yourself and get me one, too, if you don’t mind.”

Moose hooked his thumb in Dawson’s direction. “One little brain tumor and now he wants everyone to cater to him.”

This broke the ice and Addison could physically see Dawson’s muscles relax. She could have kissed Moose right then and there for his stupid comment.

Shawn and Dana came out next. Addison could tell Dana was about to choke on her tears, but she held them at bay as they both hugged Dawson together. Next came Terrance, Jimmy and Gayle, followed by Faye, Ellie, and finally, Shelby who pranced right over to her uncle and was immediately scooped up and placed on his shoulders as he grilled.

Addison watched on the sidelines, so touched by the close friends and family that Dawson had surrounding him. He had a support system that most people only dreamed of having.

Faye headed in her direction, making her smile.

“Addison, it’s been such a crazy mess around here that I haven’t had the time to thank you.”

“Thank me? For what?”

She gripped ahold of her hands. “For fighting for my son.” She then asked, “Can I give you a hug?”

Addison’s eyes immediately filled. “Yes, of course.”

As Faye held her tightly, she whispered in her ear, “I think you’re an angel sent down from heaven by my husband.”

Addison pulled away and swiped at her tears. “That is the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

Faye continued holding onto her hands, her eyes misting as she squeezed. “I’ve been in your position and I want you to know that I’m here for you, too, Addison.”

Now Addison’s tears were flowing steadily. “Thank you so much.”

She let go of her hands to wipe her face as Faye blotted a tissue underneath her eyes, saying, “We better not let Dawson see us blubbering over here like this.”

Addison laughed through her tears. “I know. He’ll probably kick us both out of the party.”

They enjoyed their steamy burgers and frosty beers, while laughing at the guy’s high school stories being told, which Dana always corrected when someone attempted to embellish the tale. This group must have been a mess back in the day and Addison wished she had been with Dawson then, so she could have lived through the stories, as Dana had.

Addison laughed until her eyes leaked and her sides ached. When she thought about the reason for the gathering, it was quite mind blowing to look around the table and see everyone with smiles slung across their faces, a cold beer in their hand, laughing as they chimed in with another story.

She realized that to any outsider looking in, you would think this was a celebration of some sort, a graduation, a birthday party, or perhaps a wedding shower. But it wasn’t. It was just a group of people who loved each other getting together on the weekend to share a good meal.

And this is exactly what Dawson wanted.

No tears.

No sympathy.

No theatrics.

Just life, plain and simple.

 

 

 

THE NEXT MONTH was full of scans and doctor’s appointments to discuss treatment. Dawson had an MRI, a PET scan, and another MRI with contrast. He met with the neurologist, the oncologist, and the radiologist, conveying his concerns. The three doctors finally set up a conference call so they could come up with a unified prognosis together. With treatment, versus without. The neurologist was then to call Dawson with the final verdict.

The afternoon of the results, Addison tried with all her might not to call Dawson two hundred times. Instead, she kept in contact with Faye, texting her often.

 

ADDISON: Have you heard anything?

FAYE: No, nothing yet. The waiting is the worse part.

ADDISON: What time do you think they’ll call?

FAYE: He just told me sometime after lunch. What did he tell you?

ADDISON: Same thing. Is he still at the office?

FAYE: Yes, he’s had his door closed all day though.

 

ADDISON: Okay. Please keep me posted.

 

Twenty minutes later, Faye sent her this.

 

Dawson just left the gallery after a long conversation with someone. Not sure if it was the neurologist or not. If I hear anything, I’ll let you know, and you do the same.

 

An hour later, she received a group text from Dawson.

 

I have the prognosis from my neurologist. Let’s meet at my place tonight at six to discuss. Please, no one call or text. I need to digest this information so I can be ready to discuss it with all of you tonight.

 

Addison reached Dawson’s house before he arrived home. His mother was already there, and they all sat around the kitchen table, their stomachs tied in convoluted knots. Busying herself, Ellie bustled about the kitchen setting out snacks and offering drinks.

“Ellie, sit down, please,” Faye instructed. “You’re making me even more nervous than I already am.”

“I’m a doer, Mom. I can’t just sit. I have to do something.”

When they heard the garage door creaking open, their banter stopped as all three women’s eyes darted around the table. They swiveled to the door, trying to decipher Dawson’s facial expression as he walked in, setting his keys on the counter, before turning toward them.

“So, I’m sure you’re all anxious to hear what the doctor had to say.”

No comment. The room was eerily silent, not even a breath was heard.

He tugged out a seat beside Addison and sat down, anchoring his elbows on the table as he massaged the bridge of his nose between two fingers.

He began with his eyes closed. “The placement of my tumor is almost identical to dad’s. It’s at the mid-point on the frontal lobe, but mine is situated slightly more on the right lobe. So the doctor said I’ll present similar to the way dad did, but will probably be much worse on the left side of my body, due to the tumor’s placement.” He pulled in a breath. “The prognosis hasn’t changed much throughout the years because they still haven’t found anything that truly shrinks the tumor for any length of time. With some patients, chemo and radiation will cause some shrinkage, but only short term, and for others, it doesn’t work at all, as in dad’s case.

“So in a nutshell, the prognosis is two to five years. With treatment, the timeframe only raises six to eight months, and he said that’s if we’re lucky.”

The bubble of thick silence was now saturated with sounds of three women trying their best not to cry.

“What about the robotic surgery?” croaked Ellie.

“The doctor set me up an appointment at the Mayo Clinic in two weeks, but honestly, El, I can’t imagine I’d be a candidate, since dad wasn’t, and the doctor eluded to that fact, too.”

“What is wrong with science?” Ellie bellowed as tears sprang from her lids. She pushed from the table and paced the length of the kitchen. “It’s been years! Why haven’t they found something to help?”

Faye broke down and sobbed, her head lying against her folded arms on the table.

Addison quickly swiped the tears from her face as she sat up straighter. She needed to be strong…for everyone. She leaned over and rubbed Faye’s back as she wailed into the wooden surface.

When she and Dawson locked eyes, Addison mouthed, I love you. This was the first time she’d ever said the words to him. Up until that moment, Dawson had held himself together, but now his eyes were filled and spilling over onto his placid cheeks. He looked to the ceiling and blinked away the moisture, and then ground the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. When he looked back down, she could tell he didn’t know who to console first, so Addy nodded toward his mother. He mouthed, Thank you, and pushed out of the chair, walked around Addison, and pulled his mother into his arms. Her whole body shook with sobs as Dawson held her, her agonizing cries muffled against his chest. Ellie joined the embrace, and the three stood holding onto each other soundly, supporting their loved ones, who were wavering underneath the weight of the devastating news.

Addison watched from the kitchen table, her shoulders shaking, her lips quivering until Ellie opened an arm in her direction. With tears streaming down her face, Addison walked into the entwined circle of her newfound family.

Hour Nine

 

 

FOR HIS MEETING with the neurosurgeon at the Mayo Clinic, Dawson asked Addison to travel with him. His appointment was early on a Friday morning, and he wanted to stay the rest of the weekend to enjoy the city.

Dawson insisted that he go alone to his appointment, so Addison holed herself up in the hotel room and paced the length of the room, texting Ellie and Faye the entire time. She stared at the alarm clock glowing red on the night stand. It seemed to be in slow motion as time crept by at a snail’s pace. She was adamant about not pestering Dawson about his illness, but by noon, it felt like a whole day had passed. At three, she finally broke down and texted him.

 

Hey, just wondering if you’ve seen the doctor yet.

In a taxi on my way back now.

 

Addison’s heart thundered in her chest so heavily that she felt lightheaded and had to sit down. She quickly shot out a group message to Ellie and Faye.

 

Dawson’s on his way back to the hotel now, but he didn’t give me any indication on what the doctor said. Fingers, toes, and every other body part crossed, and praying.

 

The next twenty-five minutes were excruciatingly painful. She read through Ellie and Faye’s encouraging text over and over again.

Praying for good news.

I have a good feeling about this.

 

She tried with all her might to have a positive outlook, too, but a sense of dread had washed over her, clogging her airways. If the doctor told Dawson that surgery was an option, why wouldn’t he have said something to ease her mind?

Keep your chin up, Addison, she told herself. Maybe he was waiting to tell her the good news in person.

Or maybe he was waiting to let her down gently.

She curled up against the headboard and chewed her nails down to the quick. She didn’t stop when she tasted the sour sting of blood, only when she heard the card key inserted into the door. She shot off the bed, staring at the entry, wringing her hands, feeling nauseated as her stomach curled with anticipation.

He smiled when he saw her. “Hey. Sorry to keep you waiting.”

From his demeanor, she gained no clues. “So, how did it go?”

He tossed the key on the night stand and walked to stand in front of her, cupping her hips. “Addy, you knew this was a long shot.”

His outline blurred from her tears. “So, surgery’s not an option?”

He shook his head. “The only thing they could get to would be the outer realm, not the fingers that burrow into the brain tissue, which would be useless.”

Her lip trembled as she asked quietly, “What about chemo and radiation?”

“Even if I treated the tumor, it probably would only give me six more months. Six more months of living in the hospital, of being too sick, too eaten up with drugs, too lethargic to enjoy anything. I’m not doing it, Addy. I watched my father go down that road, and I refuse to do the same.”

She flung her hands across her face, swiping at the tears as she stepped away from him, fury inching its way into her heart. “How can you be so poised? You just got a death sentence and you’re standing here like you’re talking about the weather!” She slammed her fists against his chest. “Why, Dawson. Why? I don’t understand!”

He stepped forward and pulled her firmly against his chest. “Because I’ve known my fate for years, Addy, and you’re just now being brought to light.”

She blinked up at him in puzzlement.

“This tumor is hereditary. I had the genetic testing done after dad was diagnosed. Unfortunately, all the markers lined up.”

“What about Ellie?”

“She’s safe.”

“And Shelby?”

“Ellie didn’t have her tested, just wanted to be prepared if she had the genetic makeup so she could make sure Shelby was taken care of.”

“It’s just not fair,” she cried into his chest, grappling at his shirt.

Dawson held her tightly as her cries grew, until Addison felt like she was choking on her sorrow. She cried until her knees felt weak and her head felt heavy. Slowly, her emotions began to diminish, and eventually led to sporadic hiccups with intermittent sniffling.

Dawson murmured, “Come here.”

He led her over to the bed, and eased her down onto his lap. “I know this is hard to take in, and I understand that you’re distraught over the final verdict, but the way I see it, we can look at this one of two ways.” He slid his thumb under one eye, soaking away the tears. “You and I can get eaten up by depression over the situation, or we can make the most of the time we have together, making every second count.” He pushed her hair behind her shoulders. “I want to live life to the fullest, to enjoy every second I have with you and my family. Do you think that you can do that with me?” he questioned as his finger tucked the hair behind her ear.

She sniffed, pulling in a shuddering breath as she nodded.

He smiled. “Do you know you’re gorgeous when you cry?”

She laughed through her tears. “Stop it.”

“No, I mean it. Your nose gets all red and you have this cute little vein that pops out right here.” He kissed her forehead, trailing his tongue down to her eyebrow.

“You’re sick, you know that, right?”

He linked his hands behind his head and fell back onto the bed. “Yep. That’s the consensus.”

She slapped his chest, not able to contain her simper. “Not that kind of sick. Demented sick.”

“That, too,” he said as he grasped her around the waist and tugged her down to him. When she was snug against his chest, he whispered, “I am so lucky to have you.”

Addison’s eyes stung and her throat ached. “How can you use that word right now?”

Dawson ran his thumb over her quaking lip. “Because you’re the rainbow after the storm I didn’t expect to experience.”

Her tears dripped onto his cheeks from above, trailing down his face. “Dawson…” she murmured.

He leaned up, pressing his lips against hers to silence her words. Holding her tightly, his mouth parted, coaxing her to do the same. His kiss was deep and intense, making her sorrow seep over to desire.

She pulled away, whispering, “What about your family?”

He twisted her over to land on top, his arousal grinding into her core as his mouth found her neck, suckling her deeply. He paused to mutter, “They can wait,” as his mouth floated down to the hollow of her neck.

 

 

 

ADDISON AND DAWSON spent the entire weekend enjoying New York City. Of course it was hard for Addison to push Dawson’s condition to the back of her mind and continue as if nothing were wrong, but Dawson’s demeanor made it so much easier. She’d guessed, to Dawson, he’d been waiting for this news for years now. It was like an insomniac staring at the clock, waiting for the alarm to go off. When it finally sounded, you weren’t startled or surprised, just flipped off the switch and went about your day.

Dawson had years to mentally prepare for this diagnosis, so he didn’t look at it as a death sentence. To him, it was a green flag waving in the wind, challenging him to try new things, to love people to the fullest, to look at life under a different microscope. It created a zest in his heart and soul that most people only dreamed of having. It made him even more fun, more energetic and crazier than he already was. It made him high on life, and that quality rubbed off on everyone in his vicinity.

At restaurants, he would ask the waiter to bring out the most unique items on the menu for a taste test. He would ask the bartender what the specialty drink of the night was, instead of going with his trusted choice. He laughed with total strangers as he stopped to talk to individuals on the street. He walked everywhere he went so that he could take in the twinkling lights and chaotic sounds of the city. He danced every chance he got, whether it be in a night club, in a restaurant, or on the congested sidewalk. Every kiss he laid against her lips meant something. Every word, every compliment was sent straight from his heart. He was completely intoxicating to every person he came in contact with, including Addy. She wanted to drink him in, every second of every day, saving nothing for later.

But unfortunately, daily life beckoned and they had to fly back home after the weekend.

Being home without Dawson by her side twenty-four-seven was depressing for Addison. She had even slept alone in her own bed last night, so that Dawson could have some private time with his family after hearing the final news in person.

Addison sighed as she strapped on her apron, glancing over at the black round clock hanging on the wall. Only eleven more hours before she could see Dawson again. She absently roamed into the walk-in refrigerator and clasped onto the cupcake tins that Emily had baked the previous day. Exiting the room, she swung the stainless steel door shut with her hip.

When she turned, she found Dawson leaning against the doorway with his ankles crossed, a huge smile slung across his face.

Addison grinned so big, her cheeks ached. “What are you doing here?”

“I thought you might of missed me.”

She swallowed her smile. “What made you think that?”

He paused as his eyes downcast, looking absolutely adorable. “Cause I kinda missed you.”

“Kinda?”

He pushed off the frame and strolled around the counter. “Kinda might be a little weak.”

She set her tin of cupcakes down and slowly spun as he approached. “So you missed me more than that?”

“You could say that,” he agreed as he stepped up to her body, pressing her back into the counter.

She tilted her chin up. “How much?”

He gripped her under the thighs and lifted her up onto the counter, spreading her knees with his hips. Cupping her neck, he nibbled at her lips, then tugged her bottom fold with his teeth, husking, “A lot, actually.”

She linked her fingers into his belt loops, dragging him to her as she ground her hips into his midriff. He responded with a groan as he took her mouth full on, his tongue diving into her warm alcove.

“Ahem,” was heard from behind, alerting Addison of Emily standing at the entrance of the kitchen. She buried her face into Dawson’s shoulder, attempting to hide her mortification.

“Good morning, Emily,” Dawson’ greeted her with a chuckle.

She threw her purse into the chair, posturing as peeved. “Is that all you two ever do?”

“No, sometimes we do more than this,” Dawson answered with a grin, which made Emily hold up both palms.

“Too much information.”

He lifted Addison off the counter and set her down with a quick kiss on her forehead. “How about I make it up to you?”

“My mind is already scarred for life,” Emily teased. “There’s nothing that you can do to erase it.”

“How about I cook you both dinner.”

Addison clapped her hands together, rubbing heartily. “Now we’re talking. Say yes Emily!”

Emily grinned. “Why? So I can witness more of your public displays of affection?”

“I can’t promise I won’t be all over Addy, but I can promise you an amazing Italian dinner, including a wine and cheese happy hour.”

She feigned contemplation, and then said, “You’re on.”

 

 

THE NIGHT OF the dinner party, Dawson met Addison at the door, kissing her lightly. “I hope you don’t mind, but I invited my friends, too.”

Addison loved that their two worlds were now colliding. She reached up on her toes and wound her arms around his neck. “I love that you invited them.”

“And my family, as well.”

She grinned. “Excellent. Emily will love to meet everyone.”

He winced slightly. “And I told Emily to invite her parents, too. Since they helped raise you, I wanted to get to know them better.”

She gripped him firmly on both sides of his face, and planted her lips against his. “That’s perfect, absolutely perfect.”

He grinned. “I was hoping you’d be okay with this.”

“I’m better than okay. I’m thrilled.”

He looped his arm around her shoulder and ushered her into the kitchen where the party was already in full swing. Italian music was humming, candles were lit, and wine flowed freely as his family and friends gathered around the kitchen table. Shelby, dressed in a traditional Mexican dress in an oversized sombrero, danced around the outskirts.

“Don’t tell her she’s in the wrong country,” he whispered in her ear, making her giggle.

When everyone realized Addison had arrived, the women stood to give her hugs, while the men called out a friendly greeting. Soon after, Emily and her family arrived, as well, and formal introductions were made. Ellie made sure everyone had a glass of wine in hand as they moved out onto the patio for additional space.

Outside, colorful lanterns had been strung from wires draped above the porch, anchored to the trees flanking the patio, and handpicked bouquets of wildflowers dotted every surface. The briny air was warm and balmy as the bay framed the patio, looking absolutely beautiful as the sun’s rays danced, glittering off the undulating surface. With the sparkling bay, the uplifting music, and the golden sunset, the ambiance almost appeared magical to Addison. She took a mental picture in her mind to save for a rainy day as Dawson appeared behind her, wrapping her in a backwards hug.

“This is incredible.”

He ducked his head to nuzzle her ear. “You’re incredible.”

Addison leaned back and kissed his cheek. “No, seriously, Dawson, this is amazing.”

“I tried to get your mom to come, too, but she couldn’t make it.”

Spinning in his arms, she asked, “Why did you do this?” Her eyes welled. “I should be the one doing these things for you, Daws, not the other way around.”

He cupped her face, his thumb caressing her jawline. “Addy, I know I can never ask you to marry me, because I would never want you to feel like you have to stay, but I wanted you to know how much I appreciate you, how much I love you, how much you make me breathe so much easier.”

Her heart soared. “You love me?”

“Addy,” he sighed, “I knew I loved you since the day I left you in Vegas. It killed me to do that, but I couldn’t do anything about it, knowing my fate. I know how much you’re giving up by loving me -- how it will only lead to pain in the end -- and my heart is so full knowing you’re risking the hurt to be with me now.”

She gripped onto his waist, tugging him closer. “This is so worth it; you are so worth it.”

He leaned down and kissed her so tenderly, it stole her breath. “I can never thank you enough for giving me your heart, so I’m throwing you a party instead.”

She peeked up at him through her lashes. “Since you won’t ask me to marry you, can we pretend this is our non-wedding reception then?”

He tilted his head back in laughter and then laid a light kiss on the end of her nose. “You make me so happy.”

“So, I’ll take that as a yes.”

“Yes, this can totally be our non-wedding reception.”

She laid her lips against his, murmuring, “Good answer.”

He lowered his forehead to hers. “Addy, I want you to know that if things were different, I would have asked for your hand in marriage at the cabin. You make life worth living just by being who you are, and I’m so thankful to have you in my life.”

Addison’s heart bloomed full at his endearing words. He then linked his arm around her shoulder and opened them up to the crowd.

“Excuse me, everyone. I’d like your attention. We have an announcement to make.”

Their friends turned, giving them their full attention.

He entwined his fingers with Addison’s and raised their hands in the air, calling out, “We’re not getting married!”

“Cheers!” Addison rang out as she lifted her other arm in a triumphant stance.

Their friends all cheered back exuberantly, as if the announcement was exactly what they were expecting to hear, calling out congrats on not getting hitched, lifting their glasses in merriment, toasting happily to the non-engaged couple.

Addison then heard a familiar voice ask, “Is anyone home?”

She turned, her eyes widening and her hand rose to her throat. “Jessica?”

She pushed out a hip, winking broadly. “In the flesh.”

The men cheered, “Tink!” welcoming her.

Jessica then plowed into their side, inquiring, “So, did you miss me?”

“Absolutely,” they answered simultaneously as they brought her into their embrace.

 

They enjoyed huge bowls of pasta, overflowing wine glasses, and delicious tiramisu for dessert. After dinner, the table and chairs were pushed aside to make room for dancing. Ellie blared traditional Italian music and they all whirled around the patio doing their version of the Tarantella, stomping their feet, clapping their hands, calling out hey as they grabbed the person beside them, spinning them in circles.

They danced until the moon glowed bright, and their clothing clung to their bodies drenched in perspiration. They sang so loud, their neighbors had to have earplugs, and partied until the wee hours of the morning. Some spent the night, while others summoned an Uber or a Lyft to get them home safely.

It was close to four a.m. by the time Addison and Dawson were cuddled up in bed. She knew Dawson had to be exhausted. She moved him to where his head was resting against her chest as she played with his thick, dark hair, running it through her fingers.

“Thank you so much for tonight, Daws. It was perfect.”

He laid his lips against her heart. “Thank you for loving me.”

She lowered her mouth, whispering against the crown of his head, “Always.”

 

 

 

AS THE MONTHS passed, although Dawson never once complained, Addison began noticing slight changes in him. He shook out his hands often, as if they were asleep and he was attempting to rattle them awake, which in hindsight, she remembered him doing at the cabin. When getting out of bed, he sat on the edge of the mattress with his feet firmly planted on the floor, as if to keep the room from spinning. At random times, he stopped whatever he was doing and squinted his eyes shut. His walk was a little slower and his hand movements a little more calculated.

But these agitated problems never seemed to hinder his spirit. They took long boat rides out to the sound with Ellie and Shelby, often stopping to have an impromptu dance party between the seats. They took Faye out to dinner, lavishing her with good food and expensive wine. They experimented with different recipes in the bakery with Emily in tow, to come up with a new creation, which they deemed The Dawson Delight. They had poker night with the guys, where Ellie and Addison doled out wings and passed around beers, before being dealt into the hand.

Addison’s most beloved times were sitting in a chair in Dawson’s home studio sipping her coffee, watching his pencil fly across the paper. This is where she loved seeing him the most, unbeknownst to anything around him as his creative juices took over every thought in his mind. His illness disappeared, his surroundings vanished, even Addison faded into the background. She loved the serious look on his handsome face, how his brow plunged and his mouth pinched as he scratched absently behind his ear perplexed, before he stood over his drafting board, his passion bursting onto the canvas.

Dawson had such a beautiful soul and it showed in each piece he designed, and to everyone who had the pleasure of being in his life. He was that ray of sunshine that refused to dim just because a cumbersome ashen cloud had drifted into the vicinity, seemingly determined to shine through the haze to brighten everyone else’s day.

 

As fall began turning the leaves on the trees burnt yellow, crimson red, and autumn orange, they spent long nights sitting out on the porch, enjoying the lights filtering off the boats onto the rippling bay with a blanket draped over their legs.

Some nights they’d fantasized about what their future would look like if Dawson hadn’t been sick. They made imaginary plans, debating how many children they’d have, where those munchkins would go to school, and if they’d stay in the area after graduating from college. They discussed what their children would look like, and how much their own looks would change as their golden years dwindled.

Other evenings, Dawson wanted to discuss Addison’s dreams and aspirations in detail, and formulate a plan on how he could help her achieve them, while he was still capable. These were the discussions that Addison didn’t enjoy. They hit too close to home. She didn’t want to contemplate life without Dawson in it. She wanted to stick to their fictional world with kids, fantasize about her and Dawson piling the children on the boat in miniature life vests, sticky fingers and wide, toothless smiles. She didn’t want to picture how empty her life would be once Dawson had left them.

Shelby was always a source of entertainment on their crisp fall nights. She would often entertain them with a silly dance or song that she made up as she went along, equipped with grand hand gestures and a tiny, shaking butt, which always brought a smile to their faces. She’d then curl up on their laps telling them about her day, until she drifted off to sleep. Dawson was usually the one to transfer Shelby to bed. But tonight, he seemed especially tired, and Ellie was out to dinner with a girlfriend, so Addison was the one to carry her inside.

She eased her down onto the bed she shared with her mother, covering her up with the pale yellow sheets and down blanket, gently kissing her forehead.

Her eyes fluttered back open. “Uncle D’s weally sick.”

Addison pushed her curls back from her face. “Yes, sweetie, he is.”

She rubbed a flattened palm against her nose. “The doctows can’t help. Dat’s what mommy says.”

“That’s right. But we can give him tons of love, which helps make him happy. Do you think you can do that for him?”

She nodded, her face preciously serious.

Addison knelt down beside the bed, gently rubbing her back. “Do you want me to stay with you for a while, until you fall back asleep?”

She puckered her lips in thought, then shook her head, whispering, “Uncle D.”

“You want me to go back outside with Dawson?”

She nodded. “His tummy might huwt.”

Pressing her lips into a thin line to squash out the rising emotion, she whispered back, “Your uncle is so lucky to have you, Shelby,” before pressing a heartfelt kiss at her temple.

 

As the leaves seeped over to crunchy brown, the wind whipped to dislodge them from their perch, plucking them from their nourishment to drift in spirals toward the barren ground. The fires they stoked now were in the brick hearth in Dawson’s family room as they huddled together on the sofa.

His mother visited often and shared in their evenings at home, roasting hot dogs over the flames, playing board games, and using every spare minute utilizing their time together. Not only did Addison’s relationship with Dawson grow and deepen to a level she didn’t think possible, so did her connection with his family.

 

 

 

AT CHRISTMAS, THE whole gang assembled at Coos Bay again, including Emily and her parents, as well as all of Dawson’s friends and family. This time Faye had done the majority of the cooking, having shown up at five a.m. to get started. She prepared multiple deep fried turkeys, scalloped, cheesy potatoes, creamed corn, sautéed mushrooms, green bean casserole, fresh biscuits, and homemade banana cream pie. They assembled multiple card tables in the kitchen so that they could all be seated together. Once the tables were draped with red linen clothes and sprinkled with all the fixings, they joined hands, bowing their heads in prayer.

“Dear Lord,” Faye started, “we have so much to be thankful for today, this wonderful meal, and all the lovely people surrounding it. Please help us to see all your gifts, instead of the crosses we must bear. In your name, we pray.”

“Amen.”

Each platter was passed around counter clockwise as the guests peppered Faye with compliments about her presentation. And then the conversation died down as everyone dove into their meals. After a few minutes, the chatter picked back up and soon everyone was laughing.

While the women cleared the table, they shooed the men into the family room to watch their beloved football game. Emily, her mother, and her sister, Aurora, were well received with Ellie, Faye, Dana and Gayle. They chit-chatted nonstop until all the dishes were washed, dried, and placed back in the cabinets.

And then they all stuffed themselves in between the men in the family room. Addison plopped down on Dawson’s lap in the recliner as the rest of the gang piled on the couch and relaxed on the floor.

“Okay, who brought a home video, like I asked?” Ellie questioned.

Everyone raised their hand except Addison, Emily, and her family.

“Great. Who wants to go first?”

Dana jumped off the couch. “I will!” She sauntered up to the television and stuffed her disc into the machine, grabbing onto the remote control. “You’re going to love this.”

Shawn groaned as Dawson buried his face into Addison’s back.

She sat back down and aimed the control, pushing play. The screen panned out to show what Addison assumed was their high school football field. Four couples dressed in formal attire filed out onto the fifty yard line as clapping echoed through the stadium. The camera zoomed in on Shawn and Dana grinning wildly as they wobbled out on the grass to take their position. The camera then zoomed in on another couple traipsing their way up the middle of the field. When they turned on the forty yard line, the lens zoomed in to reveal Dawson, in full football gear, his sweaty hair slicked back, black lines slashed underneath each eye.

It must have been homecoming, because the king was then announced and Addison watched Dawson drop his head, shaking it before he stepped forward to receive his crown, the crowd cheering raucously. In the background, she noticed Shawn and Dana seemed to be having some type of heated discussion. The queen was then announced and Dana also stepped forward to be crowned, leaving Shawn to simmer in whatever words had been said.

As snapshots flashed while Dawson and Dana soaked in their glory, Shawn strolled up behind the couple, reaching up to knock the crown from Dawson’s head as he walked by, which made Dawson laugh. This seemed to tick Shawn off even more and he stormed off, out of vision.

“Dude, that was my crown, and you know it,” Shawn interjected, which made everyone in the room chuckle.

“Shelly Crawson wanted in your pants so she rigged the votes. You know it, Daws, so why don’t you finally go ahead and admit it.”

Dawson laughed. “You were just jealous ‘cause I got to dance with your queen.”

“That was my dance and my crown.”

Another roar of laughter erupted as Dana turned to her husband. “I think it’s finally time you let it go, honey.”

Moose popped up from his seat. “I’ve got another good one,” he stated as he removed Dana’s disc and inserted his own.

This time it was Moose, Jimmy, and Dawson, all standing shirtless in the bathroom as teenagers while Terrance and Shawn laughed in the background while videoing. The camera was angled at the mirror while the three guys had a pose off. As one lifted both arms to showcase his muscles, another bent backward, fists at his hips, puffing out his chest. They’d turn, popping out their hip, twisting their torso, all the while making obnoxious faces while grunting with each position.

The family room was now in stitches.

“I totally look the best,” Jimmy threw out.

“Yeah, if you’re into man boobs,” Terrance chided.

“What are you up to now, a double D?” Shawn tossed in, causing Jimmy to reach forward and slap him upside the back of his head.

More videos ensued, one at Halloween with the boys dressed as pregnant nuns, one of them break dancing at the Christmas formal, and one as they filed into graduation, draped in gold caps and gowns, grinning as they nudged their friends up the red carpeted aisle.

The evening turned out to be a condensed time capsule of Dawson’s high school years, and Addison couldn’t have been more thankful to his friends for sharing their home videos, nor to Ellie for planning it. As they left, she hugged each one tightly, thanking them for letting her into Dawson’s past, and then pulled Ellie aside, as well.

“Ellie, I just wanted to personally thank you for this evening. I know tonight wasn’t about me, but having a looking glass to see Dawson as a teenager was priceless.”

“Actually, Addy, tonight was about you. I wish I could take credit, but I can’t”

Her brow furrowed. “What? I don’t understand.”

“Dawson wants you to be completely part of his life, including his past.”

Tears hovered in her eyes and she fanned them away. “God, Ellie, your brother is too good to be true.”

Ellie squeezed her biceps. “No, you’re too good to be true. You’re making my brother the happiest I’ve ever seen him, and at this time in his life, that’s nothing other than a miracle.”

 

“You first,” Addison prompted Dawson in the wee hours of Christmas morning as she sat crossed legged on the bed in a pair of his oversized sweats and Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt.

He sauntered over to his dresser, opened the first drawer, and withdrew a thin rectangular box. Crossing the room, he relaxed on the bed next to her and handed over the gift.

“I hope you like it.”

Addison grinned. “Whatever it is, I’m gonna love it.”

She held the present to her ear, rattling it. The box didn’t make much of a sound so she lowered it to her lap, eyeing it with curiosity.

“Aren’t you going to open it?” he asked.

“The anticipation is the best part.”

She held it back up and turned it over, analyzing the gift from all sides, and then very carefully tugged off the bow and slid her finger into the groove of the iridescent green paper. She held the white box to her chin as she removed the lid and found a delicate gold chain with a miniature Eiffel tower charm attached.

“It’s beautiful,” she gasped as she dangled it from her fingertips.

“It’s a keepsake—“

She interjected, “I love it!” as she threw her arms around his neck.

“-- for our trip.”

She pulled back, her eyes wide in disbelief. “What?”

“We’re headed to Paris for New Year’s Eve.”

“What? You’re joking, right?”

“Totally not joking. It’s on your bucket list.”

“Dawson…” Addison began.

“I’ve already talked with Emily, and everything has been booked and paid for. You can’t turn me down now. All we have to do is hop on a plane Wednesday morning.”

Chewing the side of her mouth, Addison knew this was too generous of a gift, but she couldn’t help the elation that bubbled up to the surface. “This is incredible,” she squealed as she vaulted forward into his chest, knocking him backward.

He chuckled. “So, I’ll take this as a yes, you’ll go with me.”

She peppered his face with kisses. “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” she cooed, deliberately pushing him back onto the bed as she straddled his torso.

“Hey, now. Aren’t we forgetting something?”

She had her hands on the bottom of her sweatshirt, ready to peel it off. “What?”

“My gift, maybe?”

“Dawson, I can’t give you my gift after you just gave me a trip to Paris. It’ll just look cheap and completely stupid.”

“Whatever it is, I’ll love it, and if I don’t, I’ll pretend I do.”

She swatted his chest before pushing off his frame and standing beside the bed, holding out a hand. “Come with me.”

Sitting up, he asked, “Where are we going?”

“To the garage.” She pointed a finger at him. “And don’t even think for one second I bought you a car.”

“A Harley then?” he asked in jest, making her push him toward the bedroom door.

Once they stood at the garage with Addison’s hand on the knob, she turned to Dawson. “Merry Christmas,” she said before swinging open the barrier.

Dawson’s eyes widened before his face broke out in a huge grin, taking in the yellow Labrador hunched in the corner of his crate adorning an oversized red bow around his neck, whining for attention.

“I bought you a puppy so you didn’t have to steal one again.”

He laughed, scooped her up for a tight hug before kneeling down in front of the cage.

“Hey there, little guy.”

He opened the crate, reaching in for the puppy, who went willingly into his hands, lapping at his thumb. The dog’s paws were almost as big as his head, and he had huge, liquid brown eyes, which melted Addison’s heart. When walking through the pet store, she just knew she had to buy him for Dawson.

“So, what do you think?”

Dawson held the puppy to his face, letting him lick his chin. “I think this is the best present I’ve ever received.”

“Better than your train set?”

“Yep, definitely better.” He eyed the puppy again dangling from his palms. “What shall we name him?”

She stroked the dog’s back, answering, “I have no idea. I’m not very creative when it comes to things like that.”

“Kids are great at naming pets; let’s leave it up to Shelby.” He cradled the puppy against his chest, hooking Addison with the other arm. “Thank you.” He lifted the dog, nuzzling him underneath his chin. “He’s perfect.”

Addison rubbed her nose into the dog’s soft, floppy ear, commenting, “Now we’re married with kids.”

Dawson chuckled. “I always wanted my first born to be a son.”

 

“Tumow,” Shelby said the next morning.

Her mother questioned, “What do you want to name the puppy, honey? I couldn’t quite understand you.”

“Tumow,” she said louder this time, before stuffing a large piece of syrup-dipping waffle into her mouth.

Dawson barked out a laugh, as Addison gaped at his niece.

“Dat’s what uncle D’s got, wight?”

“Yes, but—“

“I wanna name the puppy dat.”

“Honey—“ Ellie started before Dawson interjected his thoughts.

“Tumor it is, then,” he stated as a matter of fact as he scratched the puppy behind his ear, making his hind leg quiver. He lifted him to his face. “You like that name, don’t you, little Tumor?” Dawson set the puppy on his lap, chuckling further, “Now when the puppy makes a mess, I can say, Damn that Tumor!”

Addison and Ellie burst out in laughter as he stood, kissed Shelby on top of the head, and headed for the garage.

“I’m going to the pet store now to buy my Tumor a treat.” He laughed, commenting under his breath, “This’ll never get old.”

 

 

 

ALTHOUGH ADDISON WAS excited beyond words to be filing onto the airplane, she was a bundle of anxiously knotted nerves, pulsing with anticipation. What if something happened to Dawson on the long flight over? Or while in France? What if his brain decided to stop sending signals to his limbs? What if they had to go to the hospital and she couldn’t comprehend the doctor due to the language barrier?

Dawson must have read her thoughts, because he gripped ahold of her knee as soon as they were seated in the deluxe, oversized leather chair.

“I’m going to be fine, Addy. I promise.”

When she blinked up at him, concern etched into her face, he smiled down at her, patting her leg. “Take a deep breath for me.”

She gobbled up a lungful of air, held it, before exhaling deeply.

“That’s right. Now don’t you feel better?”

“No.”

He chuckled. “Seriously. I’m fine, sweetie. That’s why I bought first class tickets, so I’d have room to stretch if I need to.”

“But what if the high altitude brings on one of your migraines?”

“I have my medicine in my carry-on. It’s all good, Addy.”

“What if you get nauseated? “

He removed the small white bag tucked next to his chair. “See this nifty little thing right here?”

“But—“

“Addison, let’s not sweat the small stuff, okay?”

Small stuff? she wanted to say, but instead, gripped onto his hand, settled further into her seat and closed her eyes. She knew she needed to stop hovering over him like a mother hen. He wanted his girlfriend in Paris, not a nurse maid. She kept her eyes shut the entire time the plane was ascending, praying for the pilot’s capabilities, for the plane to function properly, and for Dawson’s health to stabilize for the week.

Once the plane leveled off, she glanced to the left and found Dawson gazing out the window, a smile tugging at his lips.

She squeezed his hand. “You excited?”

He bit his bottom lip, tilting over toward her. “Yeah, I’m looking forward to this experience. I’ve only been to Cozumel, which really doesn’t even qualify as leaving the country.”

“Well, I’ve never flown first class before.” She kicked out her footrest. “I’m telling you, this is the way to go.”

His smile was warm and endearing. “How many times have you been out of the country?”

“Five-- always to see my mother’s family, though. It’s not like we did any sightseeing or anything like that, so this trip is my first real excursion to another country.” She eyed him seriously. “I’m warning you, I’m a planner. I’ll have us going from morning till night, if you’re up for it.”

“Oh, I’ll be up for anything you have to offer.”

She tilted her chin. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that statement had a sexual undertone to it.”

A hand rose to his chest. “Sexual innuendo, from me?” he questioned innocently.

She grinned. “Don’t tell me you just brought me to Paris to have your way with me.”

He leaned in close. “We might see some sights, too, but yeah, that was pretty much my goal when booking.”

She nudged him with her elbow. “You’re a mess.” She shuffled through her bag and pulled out a deck of cards. “Do you want to play something to pass the time?”

Dawson bit at his bottom lip. “Only if we play strip poker.”

“Dawson Michael!” she whispered wide eyed. “We’re on a plane!”

“We can make it work. We’ll just have to keep score and for each loss each of us tallies, we have to take that number of articles off once we get to our hotel room.”

Addison rolled her eyes. “Only you would figure how to rig strip poker surrounded by a sea of people.”

“What can I say, I’m a man of many talents. What do you say?”

“I say,” she grinned devilishly, “you’re on.”

 

 

 

DAWSON WENT HIGH end, not only with flights, but with his hotel choice, too. Their room was a plush lavish suite with a formal sitting area, sunk-in tub adorning the marble filled bathroom, His and Her matching robes, and actually had a view of the grand, wrought iron lattice of the Eiffel Tower itself.

Addison pushed the curtains aside, taking in the breathtaking sight of the tower looming in the distance, shining like a gilded beacon in the clear azure night. The crescent moon and glimmering stars floating above the darkened horizon added the final touches to the magnificent sight.

Dawson stepped up behind Addison, linking his arms around her waist. “That is really something to see, isn’t it?”

She clasped onto his hands. “It’s amazing, absolutely amazing. I could stand here for hours just looking at it.”

He bent to her ear as he brushed her long mane over one shoulder. “You keep admiring,” he whispered huskily at her lobe before using his tongue to tug the flesh into his mouth, making her sigh, “and I’ll help you lose those five articles of clothing you lost in the poker game.”

When she giggled and attempted to turn, he held her firm from behind, reaching to the front of her blouse. Painstakingly slow, he deliberately unbuttoned one clasp at a time, then let the material fall open as his breath glided over her neck.

He breathed her in as his fingers traced the outline of her bra, then tugged the lacy material down to expose her breasts, making her gasp. His hands then trailed down the length of her arms, oh so slowly, until his hands cupped hers. He lifted, placing her palms against the cool window, while his teeth grazed teasingly over the slope of her neck.

Addison was now a rippling bundle of sexual arousal. She could feel her legs actually start to tremble as Dawson sunk his thumbs into the sides of her skirt. He shimmied the material down over her hips to puddle on the floor, then gently kicked her feet apart. He dropped to his knees caressing her outer thighs, his breath grazing over her bottom.

“Dawson,” she breathed, not able to take the pleasure pulsing through her.

With his mouth at her lower back, he linked his fingers into her lace panties, husking, “You just enjoy the view.”

 

The next day after a leisurely morning with breakfast in bed, they jumped on an open air tour bus that started at the Eiffel Tower and covered the Notre Dame, Orsay Museum and the Paris Opera House. They ran back to the hotel for a quick nap, and reentered the city in the evening as dusk fell over the streets, creating silvery arcs of shadowy light. They strolled through the crowded thoroughfares hand in hand, stopping to marvel the sights, purchase a small trinket, or nibble on delicious delicacies at a street side café.

Although they were constantly surrounded by people, Addison felt that they were the only two in the city as the patrons and their flowing conversations faded into the background, leaving just her and Dawson to roam through the winding brick paved streets exploring anything and everything there was to see, taste, and do.

For a late night dinner, they chose a quaint bistro that had a charming street side patio peppered with blooming white umbrellas, even though the sun had long since disappeared. The rich French culinary masterpieces -- the steak tartare, butter dripping escargot, and tuna pan bagnat, and banana cream custard -- were mouth watering delicious. The wine tasted delectable as it slipped over their lips, warming their core. The foreign tongue drifted over them, making their experience even more romantic and poetic as they leaned across the table to get closer.

“Excusez-moi,” Dawson called to the black clad server.

The woman paused en-route, stating, “Oui Monsieur?”

“Could we have our check, please?”

She nodded, started to leave, but then turned back, asking, “Honzemoon? Oui?”

Dawson grinned over at Addison. “Yes, most definitely.”

The waitress smiled warmly and nodded her encouragement, before scurrying off to retrieve their check.

“So this is our honeymoon, huh?” Addison teased him.

“No better place to have one, right?”

Addison glanced out over the street, brimming with couples strolling hand in hand, the bright full moon dancing in the background. “Yes, it is.”

Dawson reached into the pocket of his sports coat, a sly grin slipping across his lips. He withdrew a black velvet box and laid it in the center of the table.

Addison closed her eyes, murmuring, “Daws.”

His lips quirked up on one side. “Every woman needs a non-engagement ring, right?”

She couldn’t contain the bubble of laughter that escaped from her lips.

He prompted, “Open it.”

Addison stared at the box as she chewed at the side of her mouth in quandary, making Dawson scoop up the case and move around to her side of the table. Squatting beside her chair, he held onto her hand.

“Addison, you are the unexpected surprise ending to my story, one I still can’t fathom, even though you’re sitting right here in front of me.” He pulled in a breath. “I know I can’t give you the happily ever after, but I wanted you to have some type of symbol of how I felt.”

He clicked open the box, revealing a gleaming oval ruby stone with half-moon prongs, surrounded by shimmering round cut glittering diamonds. It was the most exquisite piece of jewelry that Addison had ever seen, making a quivering hand rise to her gaping mouth.

“Dawson, it’s beautiful.”

He plucked the ring out of its velvet setting and pushed it onto her ring finger, whispering, “Now it’s beautiful.”

She slipped her arms around his neck, whispering in his ear, “You didn’t have to, but thank you. I absolutely love it.”

There was a light pattering of claps around the room, most likely thinking that they’d just become engaged. Dawson stood and waved, before lifting Addison’s hand and kissing it lightly.

 

 

 

ON DAY TWO, they explored the Louvre Museum nestled next to the Southern Seine River. Awed by the glass pyramid entrance, they roamed through the lobby, their heads tilted back, their mouths ajar at the magnificent manmade structure. Pictures were definitely not going to do this place justice, so Addison tried with all her might to ingrain a photograph in her brain that encompassed the true essence, an accurate image of the French historical culture that she was seeing.

They swept through the pre-historic Egyptian corridors, gawking at the artifacts and ogling the tombs. They conversed in detail about the time, and read every plaque adorned to each exhibit, then weaved through all the medieval and Romanesque towering ivory statues, The Goddess of Youth, Terminus, Neptune of Johns Lock, Caesar, Hermes and the Infant Dionysus, Venus de Milo.

The passageways dotted with paintings were of special interest to Addison and she took her time to study each piece, the linear lines, the artist’s brush strokes, how the painting made her feel. She angled her head, digging deep, deciding what emotions were brought forward standing front and center of this particular piece, the Portait of Madame Recamier, by Jacques-Louis David. What was he feeling as he painted the woman lounging on a chaise, glancing over her shoulder at the artist?

Addison could see Dawson watching her out of the corner of her eye. Finally, he asked, “I would love to know what’s going through your head right now.”

She glanced up at him and then moved her attention back to the painting. “I was just wondering about the relationship between the artist and his subject.”

“Like, if they were sleeping together?”

“Yeah. Were they intimate? Were they friends? Was their relationship strictly professional?” She stepped forward and pointed to the middle of the painting. “See how her hand is softly cupped, pointing upward. I think that shows that the model’s relaxed, like she’s comfortable in her surroundings and with the artist.”

Dawson crossed his arms, seemingly taking in the painting under a different light. “And look at that little smile of hers. I think she’s definitely hoping to get some action later, but she’s playing coy.”

Addison giggled. “I think you might be right.”

There was a pause as they both continued studying the artwork, before Dawson blurted, “Will you paint me?”

Her eyes slanted his way. “Are you serious?”

He nodded, lips flattened. “Completely.”

“Here…in Paris?”

Dawson’s shoulders elevated. “I don’t think there’s any better place.”

“But I don’t have any supplies.”

“We’re in Paris, Addy. They birth artists in droves here. I’m sure we can find an art store someplace nearby.”

She smiled, all of a sudden loving the thought of capturing Dawson’s true essence. “Okay.”

“Okay?” he asked, his eyebrows arching.

“Okay, I’ll paint you.”

 

The following morning after googling art supply companies, they took a taxi to the closest location, loading up with everything Addison would need. The next item on the agenda was finding the perfect spot for the backdrop. They considered the Eiffel Tower looming in the background, and the grand Arc de Triomphe, but decided they wanted a more natural setting, and chose a cobblestone street bellied up close to the scenic Seine River.

As Addison stepped a few feet back to set up her easel, Dawson roamed the perimeter of the waterway, hands stuffed into his pockets. She kept him in her periphery as she arranged her paints on a wooden slated bench to her right, and then rolled the cover over on her pad, settling it on the tripod stand.

“You ready?” she called out to Dawson.

“Yeah, I guess, but I don’t know what to do.” He widened his stance and crossed his arms, puffing out his chest. “How’s this?”

Addison held in her simper. “Try something a little more natural.”

His shoulders relaxed a touch, but his chin elevated, his head turning to the side regally.

“Now you just look constipated.”

Dawson laughed, stuffing his hands back into his pockets. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all. I feel like a complete ass.”

She held up both hands, barking out, “Stop.”

He turned toward her with a look of befuddlement.

“Don’t move anything, just take one step back.”

He did as she asked, moving against a short stone column.

“Now lean on the pillar and lift your foot to rest against it.” She watched as his shoulders slumped slightly forward, as his chin tucked watching his foot placement. His eyes then lifted up toward her.

“Like this?”

“Perfect. Do not move a muscle.”

She angled around the easel and scooped up her brush, her heart singing with praise. She loved painting. She loved the man standing before her. If people were allowed to create their own heaven, this would be hers.

She analyzed the colored tubes she had scattered across the bench, and then bent forward to grab the blues and the blacks, deciding she’d paint Dawson first and then add the scenery.

As she squeezed several blobs of paint onto her wooden palette, and then dipped the brush in several colors, Dawson asked, “Can you talk while you paint?”

“Sure,” she answered, her eyes still focusing on the canvas. “What do you want to talk about?”

“When did you know you wanted to be an artist?”

She started with his torso, angling the brush around his pectorals down to his waist. “I knew my sophomore year in high school when my art class hosted a charity auction, and my painting won the highest donation.”

“What was the painting of?”

“A vase of daffodils sitting on a table.” She washed out her brush. “I can assure you; it was nothing spectacular.”

“I love your modesty.”

“I’m not modest, just honest.”

“Okay, then.” He scratched at his neck. “Tell me something honest about yourself.”

Her brush stopped mid-stroke. “Put your hand back in your pocket and I will.”

He obliged, and then prompted her further. “I’m waiting.”

She glided her brush through blue, white, and black, twirling them together, as her mind spun for something profound to say. That’s the thing about having limited time with someone you love. You don’t want to waste rare seconds with menial small talk.

Finally, she answered, “I like rainstorms, but I hate lightning. I like peanut butter and jelly, but not together. I like tomatoes, but not ketchup. I love you, but I also like you.”

Addison went back to her color palette, saying, “I think that’s what happens to a lot of relationships. After time, the couple still loves each other, but doesn’t necessarily like each other anymore.”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

She blinked over at him. “So tell me something honest about you.”

His head sunk lower as he contemplated. When he looked back up, he said, “I can’t compete with what you just said. It was too poetic, so I plead the fifth.”

She paused her brush and grinned. “You can’t plead the fifth in Paris. It’s against the law.”

He chuckled. “Well, if it’s the law here, I better come up with something.” He paused, his chin tilted, and then spoke very slowly.

“I like dogs, but hate cats….I like the sun, but despise getting burnt….I like traveling, but don’t necessarily like flying….I like the water, but fear drowning.”

Her brush hovered above the canvas. “You think about drowning?”

“Yeah, I do. Not only me, but everyone I love, too.”

“Do you have dreams about it?”

“Yeah, quite often, actually.”

“Interesting.”

Dawson’s face puzzled. “How is that interesting?”

Addison shrugged. “I have dreams where I show up to class for a test and I’m topless. Come to find out it symbolizes me not feeling prepared or in control of a situation. I just wonder what your dreams mean.”

“Um, probably that I fear drowning…”

She threw a paint cap at him, muttering, “Smart aleck,” making him chuckle.

 

Dawson crimped his neck to each side. “How much longer, Addy?”

Addison knew he had to be getting stiff and sore from standing in one position for such a long time. “Let me just finish you up, and then I can take a picture and add the background later.”

“Sounds like a plan. So how am I looking?”

Her eyes didn’t move from the canvas. “Good.”

“Did you capture my pure, raw masculinity?”

She barked out a laugh. “Sure, Daws.”

“How about my charming good looks?” He tilted his chin to the side, narrowing his eyes.

She grinned at him. “How could I not?”

“Can I see it yet?”

“Hang on a second.” She used her finger to blend a few areas and then stepped back to appraise her painting. “Okay, it’s definitely a work in progress, but you can look now.”

Dawson relaxed all the way against the pillar, shaking out his hands, and then raised one foot, moving his ankle in a circular motion, doing the same with his other one.

“I’m sorry, Daws. You should have said something sooner.”

“It’s all in the name of art. I’m good.”

His stroll looked cumbersome, like he’d been confined in a small box, as he ambled in her direction. When he came into view of her painting, he stopped mid stride, his hand stroking his chin.

“Wow.”

“Is that a good wow, or a wow, this kind of stinks?”

He tucked her underneath his wing as he examined the painting further. “Definitely a good thing. You are crazy talented, Addison.”

She could feel the blood rush to her face. She ducked her head, mumbling, “Thank you.”

He turned, lifting her chin with a knuckle. “You should be proud of your gift, Addy, not ashamed of it.”

“I’m not ashamed, just embarrassed. I don’t do well with compliments.”

“You better get used to it, because I plan to shower you with them.”

“Don’t. Seriously, Dawson.”

“God, you’re beautiful when you’re stern.”

“Stop.”

He grinned wickedly. “And I love it when you get angry.” He looped his hands at her hips, tugging her to him. “It really turns me on.”

“Dawson!”

“There goes the flame to those cheeks. You totally have me going now.”

She buried her face into her hands, pleading, “Stop!”

He burrowed his mouth at her ear. “Not until you admit you’re talented.”

She peeked at him through her fingers. “No.”

His chin tilted as his eyes slanted. “I love your lips, their full, luscious, and delicious to kiss.”

“Dawson…”

“Admit your crazy talented and I’ll stop.” He paused, waiting, when she didn’t answer, he carried on. “Your body is flipping unbelievable; I could run my hands over every curve—“

“Okay. Okay!” She threw her arms out laughing. “I’m talented!”

He buried his face in her hair, husking, “Yes, you are, darlin’, in more ways than one.”

 

In order for the paint to have time to dry, Dawson walked across the street to a little bistro, bringing back two bowls of steamy hot ratatouille, a basket of Gougeres, and a bottle of red wine, already uncorked. They perched on the bench, gazing out over the picturesque Seine as they ate their soup, nibbled the cheese puffs, and sipped their delicious, full-bodied wine.

Addison blocked the sun with her palm, squinting over at Dawson “Today couldn’t have been any better. Thank you.”

“It was awesome seeing you in your element.”

“Does that mean I get to watch you at work one day?”

He frowned. “If you want to, but it’s not very exciting.”

“How could it not be; you design amazing pieces of furniture that could totally be considered art.”

He popped a cheese puff in his mouth and grinned. “I like where you’re going here.”

His smile was completely contagious. “You obviously don’t have any trouble accepting compliments, do you?”

“No, not in the slightest. So feel free.”

When she just grinned at him, he said, “It’ll be interesting to hear what you think are my positive attributes.”

She laughed as she shook her head. “Okay. I love your gallery, and I’m impressed that you’ve been this successful at such a young age.” She tilted her head. “How’s that?”

He flattened his lips. “Not a bad start.”

“Start?”

“You weren’t finished, were you?”

A smile pulled at her mouth. “And you’re kinda cute.”

He grinned, moving his hand in a circular motion, signaling for her to keep going.

“And you’re funny…sometimes.”

“Sometimes?” he squawked.

“More often than not,” she corrected.

He set his food aside and kicked out his feet, crossing his ankles. “When is the hotness factor going to be mentioned?”

She laughed. “I already said you were cute.”

“But you meant hot, right?”

“Yes, totally.”

She removed the bowl from her lap and snuggled in closer as he looped his arm around her, resting his elbow on the back of the bench. They watched a tour boat drift by and casually waved at the passengers.

“Can I ask you a serious question?”

His eyes found hers as he lightly rubbed his thumb along her arm, answering, “Sure, anything.”

She chewed the side of her lip before asking solemnly, “Why don’t you go to church with your family?”

His hand stopped, his eyes darting back to the water. “I don’t really have an answer for that.” He paused. “I guess I just don’t feel the need.”

She glanced down, absently scraping at the paint on her knuckle, murmuring, “In your situation that surprises me.”

He withdrew his arm and planted his elbows on his knees. “The way I see it, you can’t all of a sudden become religious when something bad happens to you. You either are, or you’re not. There’s no such thing as circumstantial faith.” He shrugged. “I wasn’t religious before I was diagnosed, so I’m not going to act like I am now.”

There was a long pause before he glanced over at her. “Are you religious?”

“Not in the traditional sense, but I do pray most nights and periodically throughout the week.” She chewed the side of her nail nervously. “I was thinking…” She waved off the thought, mumbling, “Never mind.”

He sat up, angling toward her as he rested his arm back on the bench. “What?”

“I was just thinking…maybe…” her shoulders elevated “…we could pray together sometimes.”

“Will that make you feel better, Addy?”

She pulled in a big breath. “Yes, actually it will.”

He flattened his lips and nodded. “Okay, then. Let’s do it, but you’re going to have to walk me through the motions cause I haven’t done this in forever.”

“We don’t have to do it now.”

“Why not now?” he questioned as he grasped onto her hands.

“Oh, okay.” She closed her eyes and dropped her head, thinking of what to say, but then a weird sensation floated over her. She peeked open her eyes and found him staring at her, causing her to claim, “You can’t watch me, Dawson.”

“Why not?”

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Because I’ll get embarrassed.” She squeezed his hands. “You have to close your eyes.”

He followed direction, but then popped open one eye. “Stop looking at me; I’m trying to pray here.”

She laughed and shook her head, before bowing and then spoke in a low, reverent tone. “Dear God. Thank you for this glorious day that you’ve bestowed upon us. Thank you for allowing me to use my hands to express myself, and for bringing me Dawson. Please help him to see your open arms, and believe in your eternal life. In your name I pray.”

She slowly opened her eyes and focused in on Dawson. “Do you want to add anything?”

His eyes narrowed as he shook his head. “No, I’m good.”

She let go of his hands as he sat completely still. “Are you okay, Daws?”

He blinked several times before asking, “Do you think the paint’s dry yet?”

 

 

 

THE TURN OF the New Year in Paris was bittersweet for Addison. Her emotions were all across the gamete. One second, she wanted to jump for joy with happiness, her heart so filled with love that it elevated her spirit so high she felt intoxicated. But then seconds later, she wanted to throw herself on the ground and weep, knowing that this was the year she’d most likely lose Dawson. The entire time she’d been with him, Addison had been able to push the future aside and live in the present. But now the future was in present tense, and it scared Addison beyond words.

As they stood in their white, fluffy robes overlooking the Eiffel Tower from their hotel room window, sipping white wine and nibbling on chocolate covered strawberries, Addison felt that this should be the perfect New Year’s Eve with the colorful sprays of exploding fireworks, the glowing, monumental tower, wrapped in the arms of the man she loved more than life itself. But Addison had to continually remind herself to be happy, to live life moment by moment, like a snapshot, rather than a rolling film, enjoying today while forgetting tomorrow.

As the finale of fireworks exploded in a thunderous roar, Dawson wound his arms around Addison’s shoulders from behind. She clasped onto his forearms and laid her lips against the inside of his wrist.

“That was amazing, Daws.”

“It was, wasn’t it?”

“This whole trip has been unbelievable.” She leaned her head back against his chest, angling her chin to look up at him. “Thank you. For everything.”

“You are more than welcome.” He laid his lips against her forehead. “And thank you for coming with me.”

She laced her fingers into his, once again kissing the soft tissue at his wrist. “So when are you going to let me in on what this means?”

He spun her around, cupping her jawline. “I’ll tell you in the near future; I promise.”

He lowered his mouth to hers for an intimate kiss, but Addison pulled back, gripping onto both his forearms.

“Dawson, I thought we were past all the secrets.”

“We are, Addy,” he stroked her cheek, “but this one needs to be tabled until we’re back in Oregon.”

“Why?” she pleaded.

His eyes grew dark and grave. “Because the words on my arms might be difficult for you to hear.”

Addison sucked her lips into her mouth, her eyes casting downward. “Is it about an old girlfriend?”

He sighed as he raised her chin. “No, babe, nothing like that.”

“Then, what?”

“It,” he started, but then closed his parted lips, exhaling a long breath through his nose. “It needs to wait,” he said sternly.

“I don’t want to wait, Dawson,” she shot back, exasperation cloaking her words.

“Please, let’s talk about this when we’re back home.”

She stepped away from him, tugging the robe further around her frame. “What does it matter where we are, Daws?”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “Because it does.”

“I can’t stand the dishonesty, Dawson. Not for one more second.”

His head jerked back. “Dishonesty? I haven’t lied to you, ever.”

“You led me to believe things that weren’t true, which is lying by omission, and that’s exactly what you’re doing right now by not telling me what those tattoos say.”

She could feel the heat radiating from his body. He jerked the robe open, revealing his firm chest and black silk boxers. “Addy, believe me when I say this. You do not want to go any further with this conversation. Let’s just enjoy the rest of our time here in Europe.”

“So, live in oblivion. That’s what you want?” She pounded her index finger against her chest. “What about what I want?”

He stepped closer, gripping onto her biceps tightly, his eyes narrowing. “I’ll give you want you want, Addison, but be very careful what you ask for.”

She stood ramrod erect, her chin tilted in defiance. “I want to know what your tattoos mean.”

His jaw clamped as he squeezed her flesh, warning, “Don’t, Addison.”

“Tell me!”

Through clenched teeth, he murmured, his voice low and ominous, “They say, In the eleventh hour, remember the ones you love.”

He spun away from her, stalking over to the window. She could see every fiber in his body vibrating with electrified energy.

Tears budded in her lids as she inched closer to his back. “What does that even mean, Dawson?”

She watched his head drop to dangle between his shoulder blades. “What do you think it means?”

Her voice trembled and her hands shook. “I want to hear it from you.”

Without turning to face her, he whispered, “I’m going to take my own life to save my loved ones from having to watch me wither away to nothing.”

She pushed him hard against his taut back. “That’s not your decision to make!”

He spun, his face red and contorted. “Yes it is! That’s exactly why I moved to Oregon in the first place; the suicide drug is legal there!”

She sucked in a shaky breath and stumbled backward, her hand rising to her parted lips. “You’ve been planning this for years, haven’t you?”

“Yes, I have, Addison, way before I even knew you existed. After we sold dad’s business, I researched states that legalized the suicide drug and moved to Oregon to open my gallery. My mom and sister followed soon after.”

Now the headline Addison read six months ago made sense. New resident, Dawson Preston, opens furniture gallery on Silver Avenue in downtown Coos Bay. The new resident factor didn’t even enter her conscious at the time, but now it was a lightning rod of pertinent information.

Addison’s head was spinning with his confession as she asked, “And I have absolutely no say in this, either, do I?”

He shook his head with firm resolution.

Addison fumbled behind her for a chair and fell into it. Her eyes stung with scalding tears as her heart shattered into a million pieces.

Dawson fell at her knees. “Addison, you have to understand what we went through with my father. We watched him shrivel up into a shell, until there was nothing left. He couldn’t dress. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t move his limbs. And when he died, it was as if he was drowning right in front of our eyes. He gargled for air as his face contorted in fear; this went on for what seemed like forever. It was the most horrific thing I’ve ever experienced, Addison.” His eyes hardened. “And I made a promise to myself that very day that I would do everything in my power not to let that happen again. My mom and sister couldn’t take it. Addy, you couldn’t take it.”

Dawson clasped onto her hands, folding them into his. “I need you to be okay with this, Addy. I know it’s a lot to ask, but I want you in my life for as long as I can have you.”

She blinked several times, still shell shocked, not knowing how to respond. How could Dawson meticulously plan to take his own life? It was completely against everything she’d ever stood for. Could she stand by and watch the man she loved poison himself?

“Before you make any decisions, I want you to think about what I said. Really, think it through. And if you need to reread my father’s journal, I can have Ellie send copies to your email.”

She nodded, chewing the corner of her lip.

Dawson squeezed her hands, then stood. “I’m going to give you some time alone to let this sink in.”

Addison watched him step into his pants before slipping off his robe, tossing it onto the bed. He then pulled his oxford over his shoulders, without buttoning it. Stuffing his wallet into his back pocket, he reached for his shoes, toed into them, and then turned back to Addison.

“You can have as long as you like. I’ll just stay in a hotel down the street.”

 

 

 

DAWSON BUTTONED UP his shirt after hitting the down arrow on the elevator button. The air stung every time he breathed, knowing that this was the day he could possibly lose Addison. When Dawson had inked the tattoo, he wanted to ingrain his vow into his skin, into his being, that in the eleventh hour, when things really got tough, he would remember the ones he loved and would put an end to the sickness, saving them from years of heartache and pain. He promised to put his mom, sister, and niece first when his illness took away the vein of his existence and end their suffering, and his own, with dignity.

Dawson knew the ramifications of Addison finding out about his pledge. He might lose her, and although that cut him right to the core, he was unyielding with this decision. He would not, for any reason, put his family through another year like his father had gone through, making them a slave to his every need, not only with their service, but with their hearts as they watched the man they loved wither away until he was nothing other than a useless shell, dying a slow agonizing death while they watched in excruciating pain.

He already had the prescription in his wallet. And when the time came, he was ready to use it.

As Dawson roamed the streets of Paris in the early morning twilight, the shadows cast over the city no longer appeared inviting and romantic. Now, the thoroughfares looked vacant and hollow, the lone rambling patrons lost, and desolate. He ambled down dingy alleyways, kicking at loose stones with his hands buried in his pockets, his shoulders slumped, and his head hanging. Dawson knew that if he lost Addison now, he would die of a broken heart, not from the brain tumor bleeding his system dry.

He fell against the crumbling brick wall and pulled out his cell phone. He had to convince Addison to stay. He knew, without a doubt, that he didn’t want to live without her, no matter how little time he had left. But he also knew, although it crushed him to the core, that he couldn’t coax her to stay, either. This had to be her decision. He stuffed his cell back in his pocket and continued lumbering down the darkened passageway, peppered with overflowing dumpsters, dented metal barrels, and haphazardly stacked broken crates.

He roamed the darkened streets, skirted past closed businesses, traveling the back alleyways as he ambled through the city. Time passed, his heart breaking with every step he made further away from Addison.

When his phone vibrated in his back pocket, he thought that he was imagining it. He stopped beside a doorway concealed by a wall of weathered, splintered wood. His heart jumped into his throat when he saw Addison’s name flash across his screen.

Heart pounding, throat like sandpaper, he slid his finger across the device. “Addison?”

He heard her whimper, followed by a broken whisper calling, “Come back.”

He punched his finger on the end button and ran down the alleyway, but his stiff, cumbrous legs didn’t last long. Before he reached the main sidewalk, he was bent over his knees, sweat prickling his hairline as he pulled in deep gulps of air, cursing his limbs as tears blurred his vision.

He slammed his fists into his thighs and kept going, but at a much slower pace. How far he had gone after he’d left the hotel, he had no idea. Should he try to summons a cab? Then he’d have to stop and wait, and there was no way in hell he was doing that.

With a slight gimp, he continued down the path, the streetlights casting slanted shadows against the cobbled stone. By the time he reached the glass entryway to his hotel, Dawson’s shirt was drenched with sweat, a headache crashing against his skull, but still, he trudged forward. Pounding his finger into the elevator button, he leaned against the door, and stumbled into the enclosure once it opened.

As he fumbled with his wallet for the key, the door swung open to reveal Addison, her face blotchy and swollen, her eyes red rimmed and bloodshot, still in her robe.

“Addison,” he croaked.

“Come here,” she said as she fisted his damp shirt with both hands and tugged him into her embrace.

God, she felt so damn good. He buried his nose into her hair, bringing in the sweet scent of her apricot scented shampoo, praying with every fiber of his being that this wasn’t a goodbye hug, but one of acceptance.

He let the door swing shut behind him, buried his hands into her hair at the nape of her neck, and eased her back so that he could see her face.

When he looked to her in question, tears leaked out the corners of her eyes as she whispered, “This is your cross to bear, Daws,” she squeezed her eyes shut, “and I’ll support this decision, if that’s what you chose to do.”

He exhaled his pent up breath, kissing her closed lids, her cheeks, and finally her lips. “Thank you, Addy. Thank you,” he whispered against her mouth.

Eyes fluttering, she husked, “I love you, Dawson.”

His emotions caught in his throat. “I love you, too,” he pressed his lips to her forehead, whispering, “so much it hurts.”

They stood holding onto each other tightly, until Addison pulled back, her eyelids half-mast. “You’re soaking wet. Let me shower you.”

He could feel every muscle in his body tense. “No.”

Her eyes widened in confusion, most likely due to the fact that they’d showered together at the cabin. But that was before he was officially diagnosed. The experience took on a different connotation now.

Dawson rubbed away the worry with his thumb. “I don’t want you to ever have to shower me. Let me do it myself, and I’ll be out in a minute.”

She slinked up to his chest, lowering her mouth to his pectoral. As she nibbled her way up to his collarbone, she murmured, “But I want to, Daws.”

He nuzzled her head, freeing her mouth, which he took greedily with his, but she broke the embrace, walking backward. “If you want this,” she untied her robe, letting it hang free to expose her naked body as she hooked her thumb behind her, “you have to meet me in the bathroom.”

His grin was slow and dangerous. He followed her closely and when she had one foot on the tile floor, he rushed her backward against the mirrored shower door. He spun her around to face the reflection and watched her face, her smoldering eyes never leaving his as he peeled off the robe and let it puddle at their feet.

His vision drank her in, whispering into her ear. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”

She reached up and linked one hand behind his head, pulling him in for a seductive kiss. She broke the caress, pulled the door aside, started the shower, and then slid it closed again, before spinning toward him.

“If you thought you could distract me, you’re wrong.”

Her warm mouth landed against his for a moment before sliding down his jawbone to his neck as she murmured, “I want to soap every inch of your body, until you’re slippery and wet.”

He bit his bottom lip, gazing down at her. “Are you talking dirty, Ms. Maynird?”

She giggled impishly before suckling deeply at his neck, her fingers working the buttons of his shirt, before shoving the material over his shoulders.

“Call it anything you want, Mr. Preston, but I will have my way with you in this shower,” she demanded huskily as she unclasped the button on his jeans, her mouth working its way down his torso as her hands pushed his pants over his hips.

Succumbing to the pleasure, he let his head drift back, thinking, I’m the luckiest man in the world.

 

Hour Ten

 

 

ADDISON COULD TELL that the flight home bothered Dawson. He rose from the seat often and paced the length of the cabin. He rustled through his carryon bag and tossed back three horse-sized pills for his migraines, and requested a cup of ice, gnawing on the cubes, most likely to curb his nausea. She didn’t think he slept more than thirty minutes at a time, even though a side effect to his medication was drowsiness.

Due to a cancelled flight, they didn’t arrive back in the states until one o’clock in the morning. They cabbed it home and lugged their luggage up to the front door. Addison slipped the key out of Dawson’s back pocket and inserted it into the lock. When she entered the family room, she found Ellie and Shelby holding homemade signs, a finger to their lips, standing in the dark.

She stepped aside, allowing Dawson to enter the room.

“Welcome home!” they called as Ellie doused them in overhead light.

Dawson grinned sheepishly. “We were only gone ten days, guys.”

Shelby sprang for his legs. “But we missed you, Uncle D!”

He reached down to scoop her up, but then must have reconsidered, and got down on one knee, instead. “Thanks, Bee. You’re the best.”

“Ahem,” Ellie said from above.

“Oh, and you, too.”

Ellie rolled her eyes at her brother as Tumor came bouncing through the kitchen, his oversized paws slapping against the floor, his tail wagging at lightning speed, his ears flapping in the wind.

“Tumow missed you, too.”

Dawson bent over to accept the puppy’s affection, but lost his balance and ended up on his hind end. Tumor used this to his benefit and pounced on his legs, lapping at his face. Dawson pulled away laughing, which gave Shelby the opportunity to shove his shoulders, making him rock back onto the floor, giving both Shelby and Tumor better access. They ambushed him, Shelby straddling his stomach, Tumor perching on his ribcage, offering sloppy licks against his chin.

“Okay, okay,” Ellie warned. “Uncle D’s had a long day traveling. Let’s give him a break.”

“Ahh,” Shelby moaned as she pushed off Dawson’s chest to stand.

“It’s way past your bedtime, anyway. Say goodnight to everyone.”

Lifting her chubby hand in a wave, Shelby dropped her chin and scuffled off. She paused at the doorway and spun. “Awen’t you coming, Mommy?”

“Welcome home, guys,” Ellie said before scooting Shelby out into the hallway and disappearing up the stairs.

Addison scooped up Tumor, holding his wiggling body against her chest. “Hey now, don’t I get any hello kisses?”

The puppy licked at her ear energetically as she watched Dawson attempt to stand from the floor. It took everything in her will power not to aid him, but she knew he would completely rebuke her assistance.

Dawson pushed himself onto his side and then used the strength of his arms to heave him into a sitting position, which took some time. Then, he crawled onto all fours, before kneeling and using the couch as a crutch to stand the rest of the way up.

Before he was completely erect, Addison sliced her eyes back to Tumor, as if she didn’t notice Dawson’s effort, cooing at the dog, nuzzling his neck.

“Ready for bed?” she asked.

“Absolutely.”

 

 

 

THE WINTER MONTHS were hard on Dawson. Addison didn’t know if the cold weather made his joints ache, or his illness. Although he never complained, she could see him grimace when standing from a chair or after walking for any length of time. And his pace was now that of someone twice his age.

Many days, Dawson chose to forgo the office. Instead, he worked from his drafting room at home. He was eternally cold, and dressed in several layers as he bent over his designs, his pencil no longer moving at the speed as it once had.

Ellie, who now had her enormous divorce settlement sitting idle in the bank, often asked Dawson to inspect the house she was thinking of purchasing. Addison didn’t know if Ellie really needed his opinion, or she was just trying to get him out of the house. Either way, when Ellie arrived home from her teaching position, she’d rally Dawson until he caved and went house hunting with her.

One evening toward the end of March, Addison and Shelby were fixing dinner while Ellie and Dawson checked out another home. They were breading chicken strips and had flour up to their elbows when Ellie appeared behind them.

“Hey, how’d it go?” Addison asked.

The look on her face was tense and stressed. Addison peered at the garage opening and watched Dawson amble in with a slight gimp, favoring his left side. Dawson had been slow to walk, but never had a limp of any sort. Her eyes shot back to Ellie who shook her head slightly, silently telling her not to comment.

Addison strolled as nonchalantly as she could over to Dawson and gave him a quick kiss on the lips. “So do we finally have a winner?”

He eyed his sister wearily. “I don’t know. Do we, Ellie?”

She sighed dramatically. “I just don’t like the location.”

Dawson’s eyes rolled heavenward, making her defend her statement. “I told you I wanted to find something halfway between you and mom.”

“So why did you drag me to look at the house in the first place?”

She tossed her purse onto the counter. “Because, if it was the house of my dreams and I didn’t give it a chance, just because it was fifteen miles out of my want zone, I would have totally kicked myself.”

“No you wouldn’t, because you never would have seen it in the first place.”

Addison laughed. “Your brother does have a point.”

Standing on a stool covered in white powder, Shelby commented, “Uncle D wins.”

Ellie tickled her daughter from behind, making her throw her head back giggling, teasing, “Mommy always wins.”

“Dawson, will you get the electric fryer going, please?” Addison asked.

“Sure, let me just wash my hands.”

As he lumbered off to the restroom, Addison shot Ellie a wide eyed look. In return, Ellie pursed her lips and dropped her head. That’s all the silent discussion they could have because Dawson reappeared and reached into the cabinet above the stove for the fryer. Once he had it set up with oil popping, Addison handed him a platter of breaded chicken along with a serving dish, as she always had done in the past.

She filled the sink with suds to clean off her and Shelby, watching Dawson out of the corner of her eye. He seemed to concentrate on the strips of meat before lifting his right hand to the platter, but then couldn’t seem to grasp onto the slippery raw chicken. He made several attempts, his face growing redder with each try. She could see the muscles in his neck tighten and his jaw dredge back and forth, until finally, he lifted his left hand to perform the task. His movements were awkward and clumsy, since he wasn’t using his dominant hand, but he eventually accomplished the task.

Once all the chicken had been fried, Addison cleaned the greasy counter as Dawson excused himself to his bedroom, mumbling that he wanted to change into more comfortable clothes. With the table set, drinks filled, and food displayed on the surface, Addison tapped on the bedroom door.

“Dinner’s ready.”

“Coming,” he called back.

He took so long the girls ended up starting dinner without him. And when he walked into the kitchen, she and Ellie gave him a weak smile before resuming their previous conversation.

“I’d like the master on the main floor, and at least two bedrooms upstairs, but I’m leaning more toward three.”

Dawson yanked out a chair and plopped down into it, making no move to reach for any food.

Addison considered offering to help, but before she had the opportunity, Ellie continued with her thoughts as she absently reached for the chicken platter and held it toward Dawson, without turning in his direction.

“And I’d like a fenced in yard, if possible,” she continued on, as if nothing at all were amiss.

Concentrating on the strips, Dawson speared two pieces and placed them on his plate, without looking up.

Next, she raised the green beans in his vicinity. “Hopefully, I’ll have more kids one day and I’d like them to be able to play in the back yard without me hovering over them.”

“That’s if you find anyone who’s willing to marry you again,” Dawson commented with a smirk.

“Ha ha,” she replied back, a grin sprouting at the corners of her mouth.

And when Dawson reached for his fork with his left hand, instead of his right, Ellie was knee deep in a story about being caught snooping in the medicine cabinet of one of the houses by her realtor.

The fact that no one seemed to notice his appendage choice broke the ice for Dawson and they continued through dinner with much more comfort and ease. And although Dawson was far from ambidextrous, he managed just fine using his non-dominant hand.

During the entire meal, Addison watched Ellie closely. She seemed to know how to help Dawson without making him feel useless. Her eyes always averted to the side when offering her assistance so that he wouldn’t refuse her aid. And she was always chit chatting the entire time, as if this was always how they shared their meal. Addison couldn’t help but wonder if this was how Faye handled Oliver when he was in this exact same situation.

When dinner was over, Ellie gave Dawson the task of bringing the dishes over to the sink, so that he could grab the plates and glasses one handed.

Dawson’s mood seemed to elevate now that he had come forth, as openly as he could about his new disability. He teased his sister relentlessly about her nit-picking when it came to house hunting and even turned on music after they finished cleaning the kitchen and spun Shelby around so many times, she dizzily tumbled to the floor as they all laughed hysterically.

 

 

THAT NIGHT WHILE Addison relaxed in bed, Dawson stepped inside his walk-in closet to shrug out of his shirt. When he reached for the band of his sweat pants, he glanced over at Addison, who was watching intently from her perch.

“What?” He hated that his question had a tinge of annoyance to it. It wasn’t Addison’s fault that he was self-conscious about everything he did nowadays.

She smiled coyly, laying her book to the side. “Nothing.”

He let go of his sweats. “Why are you watching me?”

“Dawson, I’ve always enjoyed watching you undress. Does that really have to change now?”

“Now?” He couldn’t help his words being laced with spite. “What exactly do you mean by that?”

She tightened her mouth and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she sucked in a quick breath. “I didn’t mean anything by that statement, Daws. I just don’t want things to change between us.”

“But it is going to change, Addison.”

“Come here,” she beckoned as she sat up straighter and patted the mattress beside her leg.

He ambled over to the side of the bed looking down at her, making her grip onto his hand, forcing him to lower himself to a seated position. She held tight to his fingers, dragging them onto her lap.

“I need you to answer a question for me, okay?”

Dawson could feel every muscle in his torso and back contract, wondering where was she going with this line of questioning.

“Okay…” he answered tentatively.

“Would you still be attracted to me if I colored my hair?”

He chuckled under his breath. Well, this one was easy. “Yes.”

“And how about if I shaved my head?”

“Sure.”

“And what if I gained thirty pounds?”

He nodded, knowing exactly where she was going with this conversation, but he wasn’t expecting what came next.

She paused, her eyes glazing over with emotion. “And how about if I got cancer and had to remove both my breasts?”

He dropped eye contact, feeling completely and utterly foolish. “Of course I’d still be attracted to you,” he mumbled to his knees.

She squeezed his hand. “So I could find a lump on my breast, or be disabled in a car accident tomorrow and you wouldn’t treat me any differently, would you?”

When he shook his bowed head, she lifted his chin with a gentle fingertip. “Please, let me enjoy you like I always have, Dawson.”

He could feel his eyes stinging with emotion so he blinked up at the ceiling to keep them at bay as he grasped onto her shoulders and pulled her to his chest. He kissed the crown of her head, feeling so incredibly blessed to have her in his life.

When she pulled away, she peered up at him provocatively through her lashes. “So are you going to disrobe for me, or do I get the pleasure of doing it myself?”

“Actually,” he scooped her around her waist one handed, lifting her onto his lap, “You’re the one who’s about to be naked.”

 

 

 

BEFORE THEIR FRIENDS gathered at the house on Sunday afternoon, Addison contacted them directly, explaining Dawson’s symptoms that were now visible on the right side of his body. Even if she hadn’t, she was sure they’d play it off just fine, but she wasn’t going to take that chance. It had been almost two months since they’d hosted their usual Sunday afternoon cookout, being that Dawson was unwilling to let his friends see how much worse his symptoms had become.

Without Dawson knowing, she videotaped him walking and sent it out to the group individually. She also relayed the fact that when Dawson smiled, the right side of his face barely reacted, and that he was officially using his left hand for all tasks.

The last thing Dawson needed was one of his friends breaking down in front of him. This formal “outing” showcasing Dawson’s new set of disabilities needed to go smooth, without any bumps in the road in order for him to not close himself off from the world. And Addison was going to do everything in her power to make that happen.

As always, Shawn and Dana were the first to arrive with a basket of fresh bread and two bottles of wine. They embraced Dawson, kissing him on the cheek and slapping him on the back as if nothing at all were amiss with the situation. Addison pulled them in for a hug as well, holding onto them a touch longer than necessary in gratitude for their friendship and respect.

It was so wonderful to see Dawson in his element, surrounded by family and friends laughing and telling stories, as Faye, Ellie, and Addison bustled in and out of the house preparing the rest of the meal. As the sun faded lower in the pale blue sky and the April breeze picked up, stirring the oak leaves, Dawson shivered. Before his body had even finished trembling, Faye had him draped in a wool blanket sitting on the gliding swing holding a warm cup of coffee.

Jimmy and Moose lugged cut wood in from the side of the house and made a snapping fire in the clay, freestanding pit, and they all conjugated in a circle around the warmth. Addison peeked over at Dawson sitting beside her on the glider and when she saw his one-sided smile, her heart blossomed in her chest.

He was happy, and to her that was all that mattered.

 

 

 

AS SUMMER PEEKED, Dawson’s symptoms had gotten so bad that he had to use a cane to move about the house, and had no use of his right arm at all. Although he tried to keep his spirits up, Addison could tell that his illness was taking a toll on him. But she could also tell he tried with all his might to keep those demons at bay, and enjoy what little time he had left with his loved ones.

By fall, a cane no longer gave Dawson the support he needed and he had to use a rolling walker. The right side of his face had lost all muscular stability and now sagged into a constant frown. His right eyelid was always at half-mast and watered on a continual basis.

To Addison, this was a time of great stress, knowing that Dawson at any time could whip up his lethal concoction and take his own life. But she wasn’t ready to let him go. She wanted him with her anyway she could have him.

But on the first of November, Addison knew her happy little fantasy that she carefully created was about to change.

They were having family movie night at the house. Dawson was limping in from the kitchen leaning on his walker, when he stopped abruptly, all color draining from his face. Addison watched his head drop, and everyone’s eyes traveled along with his down to his jeans that were now stained dark, saturated in urine.

This was when Addison knew that the sand in the hourglass had dwindled down to nothing.

Hour Eleven

 

 

THE NEXT FEW days laid so heavily on Dawson’s shoulders that he could barely get out of bed. He knew this was the time to end things, knowing what the future held. All the horrific symptoms had been checked off his list -- the lack of mobility, the slurred, sometimes incomprehensible speech, the simplest tasks needing assistance, on the verge of being wheelchair ridden, limbs refusing to cooperate, and now the ultimate humiliation of having a catheter bag.

What needed to be done couldn’t be spelled out any clearer. Dawson even read over his father’s journal for the millionth time, just to reiterate what he already knew, but there were no unexpected turns in the road ahead, just a straight, steep, downward slope to his final destination of becoming an empty shell of a body.

The time had come to honor his loved ones. But each day Dawson held on for one more hour, wanting to see Addison’s beautiful smile, hear the ring of her laughter, and watch her interact lovingly with his family.

His family. The ones that had moved across the country to be by his side. The ones that chose to accept his final act, no matter how far it went against every fiber of their being. The ones that would tend to his every need, if only given the chance.

Although Dawson’s heart broke for so many reasons to make the call he knew he had to make, it would shatter him even further to put his loved ones through what lie just over the horizon.

The time had come.

He needed to be strong and make the call to Dr. Tribeck to set the final date.

While resting in bed, Dawson commanded his left hand to reach for his phone sitting on the night stand. When his limb refused to budge, he used what little stomach muscles he had left and heaved himself over to his side. He stared at his phone, willing it to magically inch closer. He knew he couldn’t ask his family or Savanah to dial the number that was a necessity to move forward with his plan, but he needed that damn device.

Squeezing his lids shut, he silently cursed his body and his fate, and then opened his eyes with all the determination he could muster. He glared at his hand, silently begging, Please, just this one last time, do as I ask.

He failed at two more attempts, but lo and behold, the next time he commanded his arm to move, his trembling hand lifted off the mattress and clutched onto his telephone.

 

 

DAWSON HAD EVERYTHING meticulously planned out. For years, he had researched the suicide drug so thoroughly that he could recite various websites verbatim. While healthy, he had his own Death with Dignity counselor that he spoke with on a continual basis. He researched the horror stories concerning faulty procedures -- terminally ill patients waking up twelve hours later, only to have a stronger dose administered, their family members having to go through the pain all over again. He studied the drugs that were currently available and found that the phenobarbital chloral, hydrate morphine, and sulfate ethanol was the best concoction. As back up, he had a doctor scheduled to have a heart monitor hooked up and an intravenous lethal injection of secobarbital on standby, if needed.

He wanted his death quick and final, not only for himself, but for his loved ones, as well.

On his final day, Dawson had his family and friends come to the house at nine p.m. He wanted everyone to feel like he was simply drifting off into an abysmal sleep, not a terminally ill patient taking his own life. His doctor was the one to assist him while dressing in sweat pants and a grey t-shirt, and then helped lift him into bed. He situated his arms on top of the cover, his hands resting on his stomach.

Dawson took deep even breaths as the doctor proceeded to lift his shirt and hook up four sensors to a monitor that had visual and audio vital signs. Dawson wanted his family and Addison to hear the beeps of life before the line went flat. He wanted them to see and hear when he was gone so they wouldn’t worry about the horrific stories they’d read online.

After hooking up an intravenous line, the physician leaned over him, asking, “Are you ready for your nightcap?”

Dawson nodded once and then closed his eyes.

This is what I want.

This is what needs to happen.

I’m doing this for my family and the woman I love.

Since he wasn’t capable of holding the glass himself, the doctor held the cup, intermixed with apple juice and the lethal concoction, and inserted the bent straw between his lips. The mixture filled his mouth completely before he was able to choke it down. His taste buds and gag reflex revolted and he was barely able to keep the substance down. Three more mouthfuls and he was finished.

The doctor laid his hand over his. “Sleep tight, my friend.”

 

When Dawson heard the click of the door, he watched the four women he loved more than anything in the world file into the room, the ominous silence engulfing their quiet tears.

His family took in all the medical equipment, the monitor with a thin red line that dipped and peeked, beeping in unison with its movement, the silver tray with the emergency syringe, and the man in the blue scrubs standing at the window.

Dawson watched his mom walk up to the bed first, as Addison, Ellie and poor little Shelby, her eyes wide with fear, stood to the side, wrapped in each other’s arms, trembling with sadness. Faye sat on the side of the bed, leaning over his body as she cried quietly, kissing his forehead, his temple, and his cheek as she swept his hair back from his face.

She murmured, “I have loved every second on this earth with you. You are my baby.” Her tears leaked onto his chest as her body shook with sadness. “Always have been, and I’m so incredibly thankful God gave you to me.”

Dawson wanted so badly to say, Thank you for being my rock, Mom, through dad’s illness, and now mine. I need you to stay strong, though, for Ellie, for Shelby, and for Addison, but nothing but mumbles came out, and when she leaned her head close to his face, he pretended to whisper those exact sentiments.

As if she’d heard him, she nodded, bringing her quivering hands to shield her face.

Faye waved over Ellie, her face contorted in grief as she clutched his hand tightly. After transferring Shelby to Addison’s arms, Ellie knelt beside their mother’s knee, leaning over to kiss his cheek. Ellie’s shoulders were shaking violently as she wept while mom soothed her by running her fingers through her hair.

Ellie began in a shaky, small voice, “Daws….you are the kindest…most beloved brother and uncle,” she broke down, laying her head against his shoulder as she wept, her tears saturating his shirt, “I don’t want to lose you,” her jagged cries grew before she murmured, “but I understand.” She kissed his temple with trembling lips as she whispered softly, “Say hi to daddy for me,” before she stood, returning with Shelby in her arms.

The child had herself wound so tightly around her mother’s frame that Dawson couldn’t tell where the mother stopped and the child’s body began. When she stepped to the bed, Shelby leaned out of her mother’s embrace and landed directly on Dawson’s chest. She crawled up his body and buried her face into his neck as she wept, her little face bunched in pain. Dawson leaned his face into her hair, mumbling to her quietly, which made Shelby cry even harder. Ellie and Faye were sobbing so hard now the room echoed with their anguish. As Ellie scooped up her quivering child, she paced over to Addison, taking ahold of her hand and leading her over to Dawson.

Faye stood, stepping back to give them privacy. Ellie took a few steps back also, still comforting her trembling, sobbing daughter.

Addison looked as if no air was filtering into her lungs, her emotions clogging her airways. As she sat on the bed, the cloud of emotions burst from her lips as she threw her chest against his, a sob bursting from deep within, reverberating throughout the room. The emotion was coming out so strongly, she couldn’t catch her breath.

“Daws…” she sucked in a jagged breath, but nothing else could seep out through the cracks of her emotions.

Addy, look at me, he begged internally.

She leaned up, her continual tears hot and angry sliding down her face.

He had to get the words out, no matter how long it took or how painful it felt. “I-I’m….” tears slid from the corners of one eye, saturating his pillow. “S-s-sorry.”

“You’re sorry?” She swiped at her tears streaming down her placid face. Her voice quivered, asking, “Why are you sorry, Daws?”

Her eyes searched his as she spoke through her tears. “I was the one that stalked you, remember? I made you let me into your life.”

She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “Dawson, you can’t be sorry for anything, because this is what I wanted, what I chose, and these have been the best two years—” her cries overtook her again, and she raised a fist to her trembling lips, taking deep, calculated breaths.

She started again as her chin quivered fiercely. “These have been the best two years of my life, Dawson.” She leaned over him, her tears dousing his face as she rested her quaking lips against his.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “You gave me a family again,” she pulled in a shaky breath, “a mom, a sister, and a beautiful niece.” She looked lovingly into his eyes, erasing the tears that slid down his temple with her fingertips. “You also gave me a love that will last a lifetime.” Her words were broken when she admitted, “You are the one, Dawson, my kindred soul mate, my one true love.”

A sob broke free from his gut, making Addison’s heart break into a million pieces as she clung to him as she wept.

There was a light rap on the door before Shawn stuck his head in, asking, “Can we come in?”

Faye rushed over. “Yes, yes, come.”

Addison started to rise, but Dawson beckoned her to stay with his eyes.

She nodded, moving to the opposite side of the bed as Shawn wrapped Dana in his arms and stood beside the bed, reaching for Dawson’s hand. “I just wanted to say…” His words caught on his emotion as Dana cried quietly against his chest. “…you’re the best friend a guy could ask for.”

Dawson blinked slowly and nodded.

“We love you so much, Daws,” Dana cried as she leaned over to kiss his forehead.

Dawson’s eyes traveled to Ellie. She nodded, reached into the closet and pulled out a silver wrapped gift, handing it to Shawn. He looked puzzled before accepting the gift.

“Open it,” Ellie quietly stated.

Pulling off the wrapping, he lifted the lid and chuckled through his tears. “Finally,” he said as he withdrew Dawson’s Homecoming crown and looked back to Dawson, his face crumbling in pain. “You will always be the King, man.”

Dawson lifted one side of his mouth, wanting to console him.

Moose, Jimmy, Gayle and Terrance came next, until the room was packed with everyone who truly loved him. As the monitor began beeping at a slower pace, everyone gathered close around the bed -- some kneeling, some standing, some sitting on the mattress -- all had their hands on him, clutching his leg, resting on his arm, gripping his hand, touching his shoulder.

But his eyes were only on one person. Addison.

I love you.

Even though she couldn’t hear his verse, she murmured back, “I love you, too, Daws.”

“Dad’s prayer?” were her next words.

He nodded, her face now blurred in tears.

She pulled in a jagged breath, before whispering, her voice cracking in pain, “Now I lay me down to sleep.”

The rest of room joined in. “I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

The beeping leveled off until there was nothing other than the elongated sound of a flat line.

 

Time of death, 10:08 p.m.

Hour Twelve

 

 

THE WEEK AFTER Dawson’s death, Addison received a phone call from Ellie.

“You need to get over here, asap.”

Addison’s heart lurched. She hadn’t left Ellie at Dawson’s house more than two hours ago. “Why? What happened? Is something wrong?”

“No, no, nothing like that. Just come over here as soon as you can, okay?”

“I’ll get in my car right now. Is it about Dawson?”

“Addison, just come.”

“I’m on my way.”

 

Thirty-five minutes later, Addison was barreling into the house a panicked mess. She found Faye sitting on the couch with a large box on her lap, with Shelby bouncing on one side, and Ellie on the other, with Tumor sitting on the floor at her feet.

“What’s going on here?”

“It’s a pwesent. From Uncle D!” Shelby shouted.

“It just came in the mail today,” explained Ellie.

“How do you know it’s from Dawson?”

“Because it has his name on the return address.”

Addison fell into a seat, breathing out, “Wow.”

“Yeah, I know,” replied Ellie.

“Have you opened it yet?”

“No, we wanted to wait for you.”

Addison leaned forward in her seat. “Let’s do it.”

She watched Faye cut through the packing tape and flip open the box’s flaps. Inside were several other packages that were wrapped in gold paper, each with a name written in black sharpie in Dawson’s penmanship -- who hadn’t been able to write in over six months.

That alone brought a tear to Addison’s eyes.

Faye handed out the presents, but left the ones for Dawson’s friends in the box.

“Can I open Tumows, pwease!” Shelby begged.

When her grandmother nodded, she ripped through the paper, slung open the lid and found a Corona beer bottle rubber chew toy. The women laughed as Shelby squeaked the toy and threw it across the room. Tumor quickly pummeled the rubber bottle, lumbering back with it dangling from his mouth, his toenails scratching against the wooden floor.

“Me next?”

“Sure, go right ahead, sweetie.”

Shelby tore through the gold paper and slung it to the floor before flipping off the lid. She pulled out a coloring book with her and Dawson’s picture on the front. She scanned through all the coloring pages.

“They’re all of me an Uncle D!”

“Wow, that’s neat,” Ellie replied in awe. “I wonder how he managed to do that.”

“Movies!” Shelby exclaimed next as she removed a handful of DVD’s, each labeled with Shelby’s name and the date of a future birthday.

“These are messages from Uncle D, but you can’t watch one of them until your next birthday party, honey.”

“Oh,” she pouted. “But I can colow his face,” she remembered, and ran off to the kitchen to collect her crayons.

“So, who’s next?”

“I’ll go,” Faye suggested.

She carefully unwrapped the paper, and plucked off the lid. Inside was a card and several DVD’s. She lifted the envelope and sliced through the top with her finger. Inside was a letter. She read her son’s words, blotting at her eyes with a wadded up tissue, but then her mouth turned oval as she gasped.

“Dawson bought a Mediterranean cruise for me and a guest.”

Ellie nudged her mom playfully. “Who are you gonna take? That cute man that’s been calling you from the gallery?”

She blushed. “Stop it, Ellie.”

Ellie sliced open her gift next. She popped open the lid and also found a bundle of DVD’s and a letter. She quietly read the message. When she finished, her hands lowered to her lap, her fingers clutching the paper tightly.

Her words were awestruck. “There’s a check coming from Dawson’s attorney that’s large enough for me to get my doctorate and Shelby’s entire academic future.”

Faye squeezed her leg. “How wonderful.”

Addison stared at the box sitting on her lap as Ellie prompted her to open it.

“I will,” she murmured as she lifted the box to her ear to jiggle it, and then flipped it upside down, and read, Hi, written on the bottom of the package. She laughed, tears springing to her eyes because Dawson knew her so well.

Carefully slipping her fingers into the corner fold, Addison eased the paper off, so that she could save it. She took a deep breath before removing the lid to also find a letter and six DVD’s. She cautiously unfolded the paper with trembling hands.

 

My dearest Addy,

 

Words cannot describe how much these last two years have meant to me. There’s nothing in this world that I can give you to compensate you for all the unconditional love you’ve bestowed upon me the last twenty months, so although I know it’s not necessary, and you’ll probably be angry with me, I’ve left you my house and my gallery. Use the home for as long as you need until you can purchase something for yourself, and use the gallery to sell your paintings.

[_ Addison, you have a gift, and you need to let the world see it. And I’m not talking just about your artistic skills. I’m talking about the abounding amount of love you’re capable of giving. I know right now you feel like this love -- our love -- can carry you through to the end of time, but that’s not what I want. I need you to find your happily ever after, Addy. Unfortunately, it wasn’t me, so you need to go out and find it. _]

But you can’t do that while mourning me, so I’m giving you six months and then you’re moving on.

That’s right. Six months. That’s it.

I made a video for you to watch at the beginning of every month, but after six months, they stop. Because you are going to start living your life again.

Do you understand me, Addison?

I want you to look at Ellie right now and nod your head for me.

 

Addison used her forearm and wiped her dripping chin, looking over to Ellie, who also had tears pouring down her face. She nodded, and Ellie flattened her trembling lips and nodded back. Addy blinked rapidly, peering up at the ceiling as she sniffed, and then looked back down to read further.

 

That’s right. Ellie is totally in on this, too. After six months, she’s going to kick your butt in gear and make you start living your life. Your boundless ability to love is not going to be buried along with my body, Addy. You are going to find someone to share your life with and shower him with that amazing, unconditional love that you so generously gave me.

Addy, you were the blessing that I didn’t deserve.

The light at the end of my tunnel.

The sunshine that warmed my face and stole my heart.

You made life worth living, when all I saw in the distance was darkness.

Please, don’t dim that light. For me, I beg you, let it shine.

 

All my love,

Daws

 

Addison looked over at the couch, holding the letter to her heart, her face drenched in tears, her heart cracking open, shattering like shards of delicate glass.

She pulled in a shuddering breath. “Ellie, will you and Shelby stay here with me? I don’t want to live here by myself. It’ll be too hard.”

Ellie stood, walking over to envelop her in a hug. “Of course, sweetie. We’ll stay as long as you need us to.”

She stepped away, tugged her mom up from the couch, and scooted Shelby out into the kitchen.

“Where are you going?”

“To give you some privacy to watch Dawson’s first video.”

Addison looked down at the cases, the top one reading, Watch Me Now.

She set the box aside, knelt in front of the television, and slipped the disc into the player with quivering fingers.

At first it was just black and white snow, but then Dawson’s vibrant, glowingly handsome face was grinning at her through the screen. She couldn’t help but beam right back at him as she cupped her mouth. She hadn’t seen him healthy for so long, she almost forgot his easy charm and charisma, the duo dimples, his full, warm smile and those eyes that danced like he held a wickedly funny secret. He had a guitar propped on his knee, which was unusual. She’d never heard him play before.

“Hey, babe,” he said with an assured, self-confident smile. “I know you’re probably going to be a little taken back, but I wrote a song for you and I thought today might be a good day for you to hear it.”

His eyebrows wiggled up and down. “Pretty cool, huh?” He laughed. “You might want to reserve judgment until I’m finished, though, because I’ve never played an instrument before in my life, or sang, for that matter, either.” He rolled his thumb down the strings. “So, if I make it through this without you turning off the video before I’m finished, then I’ll count this as a huge success.”

He dropped his chin as his finger strummed the cords, which sounded absolutely horrible and completely out of tune. He looked back up at the camera and grinned. “See, I told you.”

He plucked at the strings some more, and then stopped and cleared his throat. “Okay, here it goes, babe.”

 

“I met a girl.

Her name is Addison,

Not at the Raddison, but at the airpooooort.

She took my breath away

Yes she did that day, at the airpoooort.”

 

He grinned devilishly as he crooned further,

 

“We used the whi-ite board,

In the air air plane, cause she was shy-y-y

And I wondered why-y-y.

She was beautifuuuuul.

 

At this point he’s attempting not to laugh as he continued on, strumming faster.

 

“We went to a ca-a-bin,

and made lo-o-ove

every pla-a-ace.

I fell in love with her,

she’s the best damn girl,

in the wo-o-orld.

 

My sweet Addison

Not from the Radisson, but from the airpooort.”

 

He held the last note, his head tilted back with one long dramatic strum of the guitar, and then grinned at the camera.

“I know. You’re amazed at my talent, and I’m sure you’re thinking I missed my calling as a song writer.”

He laughed as he scratched his chin with his thumb, and then held his arms wide. “This is how I want you to remember me, Addison. Completely goofy, full of life, and most of all, full of love for you.”

He lowered his arms, strumming the guitar as he tilted his chin, singing off tune, “Until we meet again….My sweet Addison….”

And then the video faded to darkness.

 

Epilogue

 

 

IT WAS A BRIGHT, crisp morning in early May. The red maple, beech and oak trees were budding with new sprouts overhead, while the hyacinths, peonies and daffodils bloomed underfoot. The air was cool, clinging with the briny fragrance of the ocean as the sun loomed overhead, not a cloud in the clear blue sky to impede its luminescent rays.

Addison smoothed the imaginary wrinkles out of her cobalt blue maxi dress standing in the bathroom of the gallery, scrutinizing herself in the mirror. This morning, she thought she looked strong, professional, her eagerness to turn the page on a new chapter in her life flourishing on her face. But now, in a flash of an instant, that vision had been fogged with uncertainties, a cloak of diffidence blanketing her features.

Today was the official reopening of Dawson Preston Designs-Addison Maynird Creations and she was awash with jittery nerves and unwelcomed insecurities.

Addison, Ellie and Faye opened the doors at ten a.m. sharp and not a soul was there, not the mailman who usually popped up around that time, not the ice cream parlor proprietor down the street, not Dawson’s group of friends, which she now claimed as her own circle of trusted companions, nor her best friend, Emily.

Addison could feel intuitively that this compilation, mixing her designs with Dawson’s, was going to be a total disaster, plain and simple and she was not only going to ruin her own name, but also drag Dawson’s name through the mud, as well.

Tap, tap, tap. “Addy, are you okay?” she heard Ellie beckoning through the door.

“Yeah, I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Okay, great, because people are asking for you.”

People? Addison clicked open the door, inquiring, “Who?”

“Addy, you’ve been in the bathroom for almost thirty minutes now. Meanwhile, the store has a bunch of customers mingling about, not to mention all of your friends.”

Her trepidations lingered. “Are you serious?”

Ellie clung onto both her biceps. “Why is it, Addy, that everyone believes in your abilities, but you?”

Addison’s mind shot back to Paris and Dawson teasing her senseless until she admitted she had talent. The portrait that she painted of him that weekend was now hanging front and center behind the reception desk. She loved him looking over her shoulder as she used the cash register, shuffled through inventory spreadsheets, or sketched out designs.

“You sound just like your brother.”

“What can I say, we were cut from the same cloth.”

And she was right. Now that Dawson was gone, Ellie’s likeness to her brother shined bright, and Addison loved every second of having her and Shelby at the house. Quite honestly, she was hoping the contract she had signed on a house down the street would fall through.

Faye materialized, her hands fanning their plight. “Come on, Addy, the whole gang’s here, as well as Emily with a tray full of cupcakes, and I’ve been told the reporter from the gazette is on his way, too.”

Now wasn’t the time for Addison to let her wavering self-confidence hinder her. Dawson gave her this gallery for a reason. He believed in her and her abilities, and she would draw from that assurance.

Addison sucked in a shaky breath, latched onto Ellie’s outstretched hand, lifted her chin and walked toward her future.

 

The End

 

If you enjoyed THE ELEVENTH HOUR, please, PLEASE leave a review. As a new author, it would really help me out. Every comment will be read and appreciated!

 

Also, continue reading for a sneak peek excerpt from MEET ME IN HEAVEN, another heart-tugging novel by April Marie Libs.

 

 

 

 

Meet Me in Heaven

 

AS JAXON UNSCREWED the green cap off his water bottle, he asked, “So, what do you do in Pekin, Indiana for entertainment?” before taking a long swallow from the condensation smeared bottle.

The fire popped and snapped in the distance as Savanah teased, “Why don’t you tell me? You’re the one who lived here for two years.”

“I can tell you what I didn’t do for enjoyment, and that was bale hay and pick berries,” he bantered back playfully.

“That wasn’t a very thorough answer to my question.”

“Actually,” he said as he peered out of the corner of his eyes, “I think it was my question, and you stole it.”

She settled her hand over her heart in mock outrage. “Are you calling me a thief?”

In response, he leaned back and crossed his ankles. “Looks like it.”

Savanah attempted to conceal her smile and answered his question. “As a kid, my sister and I used to make ink out of berries, swim for hours on end, and stargaze in the spillway most evenings.” She tucked a chunk of thick chestnut hair behind her ear as she raised her shoulders. “As an adult, I have no idea. All I ever do is study.” She then made a gesture with her hand, giving him the signal that it was his turn to self-disclose.

“As I said, I didn’t have much time for fun, but when I did I usually played football with the guys, or hung out in the woods.”

She wrinkled her brow. “What in the world would a teenage boy do in the woods by himself?”

He raised his eyebrows several times comically. “Who said anything about me being alone?”

She giggled and swatted at his forearm, then attempted not to roll her eyes at herself. What’s with the giddy teenager routine?

Jaxon pushed himself out of his seat and stood, saying, “I can show you in person, if you’d like. I don’t think it’s too dark yet.”

She stood alongside him, commenting, “This should be interesting.”

He chuckled lowly, then asked. “Do you have any flashlights in the trailer? It might get a little dark on the walk back.”

“Let me check,” she answered.

When she was rifling through the drawers in the kitchen, she heard him call, “And grab a sweatshirt, too. It’s likely to get cold really fast in the woods.”

She returned a few minutes later wearing a navy and white UK sweatshirt, holding two yellow and black handheld flashlights.

“Should I ask where we’re headed?” Savanah asked.

“You wanted to know what I did for fun while I lived here as a teenager, right?” Jaxon asked with a sly grin. When she nodded her head, he replied, “Trust me. You have to see it to believe it.”

They trekked in unison back to the edge of the mowed property, to the trees lining the outskirts of the woods. Although dusk had blanketed the area, they didn’t need the artificial light, as of yet. Staying on the well-worn dirt path, they traipsed through the dense trees and tangled brush, listening to the melody of crickets, tree frogs, and other animals singing loudly, as the backs of their hands brushed against one another’s every so often. About a half a mile down the pathway, Jaxon stopped and ran his hand down the knobby trunk of a barkless tree that was bent at a thirty degree angle.

“She’s still here,” he whispered to himself.

“Who is?” Savanah inquired.

“My marker to Heaven,” he answered as he patted the tree, while looking up at the mammoth limbs twisting over the trail.

“Okay, this is getting a little weird,” she jabbed jestingly.

He quirked a smile at her, saying, “Come on back,” as he held out his hand, palm facing upward.

She settled her hand into his as he led her off the beaten path into the woods. They had to shimmy through thick brush and climb over massive, mangled, downed trees. The sticker bushes were the worst, constantly catching onto her clothing, scraping against her tender skin. Savanah thought she probably had holes torn throughout her leggings, they stomped through so many briar bushes. Finally, she spotted a small clearing up ahead. Jaxon stopped next to an enormous oak tree, the trunk wide and sturdy, and leaned his shoulder against it, casually crossing one ankle over the other.

Savanah glanced over one shoulder, then the other, taking in the surrounding woods on either side, then peered up at him. “So this is it? Wow, I bet you were a barrel of fun as a teenager,” she commented dryly.

“Ah, ye of little faith,” he said, his hand in a fist with his thumb pointing upward.

When she still looked at him in bafflement, he wiggled his finger.

Finally understanding his clue, she followed the direction of his thumb and found an enormous treehouse looming fifteen feet above them. Limbs had grown around the structure, making it almost impossible to see from the ground. The small amount of wooden planks that were showing had weathered through the years and were now a dark coffee brown, and there was a three foot hole in the bottom of the platform as an entry, but no stairs to climb up to the structure.

When her eyes dropped back to Jaxon’s, he said, with a grand hand gesture, “Welcome to Heaven.”

She cocked one eyebrow. “Heaven, huh? Why is the treehouse called that?”

“Wait and see,” he said as he pushed himself off the trunk and started meandering around the area with his chin tucked. He paused briefly, asking, “Can I have one of those flashlights?”

After passing one over, he clicked it on, then continued with his search.

“May I ask what you are looking for?”

“You’ll see,” he replied back, before he swept in a circle around the tree, then began kicking at a pile of brush on the opposite side from where she stood. Propping his light on a tree stump, he bent at the waist, yanking at vines and broken tree limbs, tossing them to the side. After several minutes, he emerged with a rust-spotted, aluminum ladder, with a grin from ear-to-ear as he said, “The stairway to Heaven.”

She laughed, not able to hide her amusement at his silly pun, as she watched him prop the ladder against the tree, then shake it to make sure it was stable. He then stepped aside. “Ladies first.”

She gestured with her free hand. “Feel free.” She wasn’t about to climb into that spider infested, cobweb coated box first. She wanted his body to clear the pathway.

He tucked his light into his back pocket, then started up the dilapidated ladder. When he reached the top, he hoisted himself up, disappearing from sight. Savanah shined her flashlight through the hole. When she didn’t see him, she shivered. She wasn’t sure if that was due to the chill setting in on the air, or the fact that it was slowly getting dimmer and she was now alone in the deep, dark woods.

“Jaxon?” she called upward.

His head appeared in the opening. “Come on up. I’m just trying to get rid of some of the cobwebs in here,” he yelled back down at her.

Perfect.

Following Jaxon’s lead, she flipped up the back of her sweatshirt and stuffed the end of her flashlight into the waistband of her leggings. She peered up at the treehouse and shook her head slightly.

Here goes nothing.

She settled her foot on the first rung, giving the step a good tapping, making sure it could hold her weight, then started up the rickety ladder, holding her breath the entire way. Before she reached the top, she saw Jaxon’s hand emerge to help her the rest of the way into the treehouse. From her knees, she moved to her feet, then dusted off her pants before she stood erect.

When her eyes surveyed the area after adjusting to the change of light, she was astonished at what she found. All four walls were coated with wild streaks of paint, dark blue, jet black, deep jasmine purple, creating a whirlwind of the night sky. Bolts of lightning in stark white and fluorescent yellow zipped across the darkness, while shooting stars fell gracefully down the luminescent paint-filled walls.

She glanced up, snapping on her flashlight to study the ceiling above. Streaks of chalky black, gray, and off-white whipped across the length of the structure, before it swirled into a vortex of sort in the center of the room. Tiny brilliant dots of bright lights were scattered throughout the surface. Her beam shifted to the floor, where red brick tiles were drawn, filling the entire area. Around the edges of the treehouse, the brick appeared to crumble away, revealing the grass and branches below the surface, making her want to step toward the center of the room to keep from falling.

Even in the dark, Savanah could tell that whoever painted this mural had a true talent, the kind you can’t teach; you have to be born with.

“You did this?” she asked dubiously.

“As I said, I was pretty handy with a can of paint,” he said as he elevated his shoulders nonchalantly.

“You had some seriously skilled hands,” she replied, still in awe of her surroundings.

“Had?” he quipped back.

“Do you still paint?” she asked.

Propping his elbows on the window opening behind him, he answered, “Yeah, when I have the time, which isn’t too often now days. I’ve graduated to paper now, too,” he joked.

Savanah shined her beam of light around the treehouse once again. “I have to tell you, this is incredible.” She tilted her head. “Now I understand the Heaven reference.”

He followed her line of vision. “This was my outlet, my Heaven. Sometimes I’d spend eight hours straight in here changing the walls, morphing them into whatever was going on in my life.”

“So it wasn’t always painted as the night sky?”

His eyes slid back to hers. “No. One time it was a football field; another time, it was a weight room. Whatever was the center of my world at the time.”

“Why did you choose to paint it like this?”

His eyes slanted again to the walls while he paused. He didn’t return his eyes to hers when he murmured, “I painted this scene right before I graduated from high school, feeling like my life was wide open, full of new possibilities. The sky’s the limit, so to speak.”

She grinned as she flashed her light into his face. “Pretty deep for a seventeen-year-old.”

He smirked. “What can I say? I had an old soul.”

She rolled her eyes playfully at him. “Or you were just containing your vandalistic tendencies.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, that too.” He turned his body parallel to the window, saying, “Come over here.”

When she neared, he scooped his arm around the back of her waist, maneuvering her with his hands to settle her in front of the window. The cut-out wasn’t large, so he stood behind her, anchoring his hands on the bottom of the opening on both sides, framing her in so that they could both see outside. Although his body wasn’t touching hers, she could sense that he was close, so close that she could feel his breath gliding across the top of her head.

He lifted his arm and pointed to the right. “Just over there is Old Man’s Bluff. That’s where my buddies and I hung out in the summertime. There’s a pond, with a ridge above, that people jumped off into the water below.”

“Not the smartest people, I’m sure,” she teased.

She could feel him move lower, his breath whispering against her ear. “Who said anything about me being smart?”

She resisted the urge to step back into him, to feel his warm body against hers. Instead, she swiveled her head slightly until his breath skimmed tepidly across her cheek and teased back, “Good point.”

He chuckled lowly and stepped back from her. She couldn’t help the involuntary shudder that racked through her. Crossing her arms around her body, she shifted around toward him.

He held up his arms, then let them fall to his sides. “Now you know what I did for entertainment. Next time, you show me.”

She flattened her lips, then said, “You want to make ink out of berries and swim in inner tubes?”

A smile crept onto his face. “I’ll settle for stargazing. How about that?”

She rocked her head back and forth. “I guess I can manage that.”

After carefully climbing back down the ladder, Jaxon re-hid it in the pile of brush, then took her elbow to lead her back out to the path. Once their lights settled on the two dirt tracks, they walked back in silence, listening to the singing of katydids as they rubbed their wings together, the croaks and groans of spring peepers, and hoots of the nocturnal owls looming above them.

Once in the clearing where they could view the lake, they headed to the house, instead of the trailer. Jaxon walked her all the way up to the sliding glass door on the patio facing the lake. They stood bathed in silvery light cascading over them from the crescent moon hovering overhead.

Savanah peered down at her tennis shoes, all of a sudden feeling bashful. When she peeked back up at him, she said, “Thanks for the tour of Heaven.”

He grinned down at her. “Anytime. I’m holding you to the stargazing thing, too. Don’t forget.”

She nodded. “I think I can handle that.”

He reached for her hand, and gently squeezed it before releasing. “I’ll talk to you later.” He turned to leave, then paused. “And I hate to sound like a dad, but don’t forget to check for ticks,” he added.

He must have seen her shiver, because he asked, “Are you cold, or was that an aversion to the word tick?”

She closed her eyes and shook her head. “I hate those things -- hate feeling around for them, and definitely hate finding one.”

He took two purposeful strides over to the railing and took a seat on the twelve inch seat that surrounded the perimeter of the deck. Scooting back, he opened his legs and patting the wood between his thighs.

“Have a seat.”

She tilted her chin in question.

“I’m a pretty good tick searcher. I’ve had fourteen years of practice,” he explained.

Although searching for ticks shouldn’t seem intimate at all, the thought of being nestled between Jaxon’s wiry thighs had Savanah’s heart thundering in her chest. Tentatively, she stepped toward him, turned, and settled in front of him. She attempted to keep a proper distance of space between her back and his chest, but when his hands plunged into her hair and began kneading their way upward, she couldn’t help melting into him.

He was a whole head taller than her, so it wasn’t a problem for him to scour her entire head as her eyelids fluttered closed. She loved the massage, as well as his solid chest and warm breath that danced over her bare neck. His roaming hands felt comforting and relaxing, but at the same time, intimate and arousing, like the beginning of a seduction of some sort. The rhythmic movement of his fingers made her drift off into another world, a world where nothing else existed except Jaxon’s strong, capable hands, and the curvature of his body molded against hers.

With her eyes still closed, she murmured, trance-like, “I didn’t think they bred ticks in New York, just smog.”

She felt the radiation of his deep laughter against her back, before he said, “Since we lived in the city, we always made it a point to travel where the kids could enjoy the outdoors, usually out West someplace,” he answered, then asked, “Have you ever been to New York?” as his fingers moved in small circles close to her temples.

She released a sigh as his hands worked their way down her hairline to slide behind her ears, then delved lower to the nape of her neck. “Nah. I’ve never been a city type of girl.”

“You should give it a chance. You might be surprised.”

When he released the grip on her scalp and retracted his fingers from her hair, she felt deflated. She wanted those moments with his hands entangled in her tresses to stretch out for hours. Her eyelids flipped open when she felt him pat her gently on both sides of her outer thighs, saying, “You’re good. All clear.”

Reluctantly, she stood, then turned toward him. “Thanks. No heebie-jeebies for me tonight, thank goodness.”

Heebie-jeebies, really? What has come over me?

Jaxon must have found her statement funny, because he laughed -- either that, or he found her pathetic and laughed out of pity. She didn’t have time to contemplate which reaction was genuine, because he strode off the deck with a wave, calling over his shoulder, “Sleep tight, Savanah.”

 

******

 

Don’t do it.

Jaxon told himself as he tossed his cellular across the room to spin end-over-end before landing in the red beanbag that had seen its better days, covered in patches of grey electrical tape to hold its stuffing in place. He plopped down on the single bed he’d slept in as a teenager, still concealed in the balled-up, navy comforter he’d had back in high school, and slouched over his legs with his elbows anchored to his knees.

He had just gotten Savanah’s phone number from Gil by making up a lame excuse on why he needed it, and was now contemplating calling her, but thought better of the idea, so he chucked his phone across the room to get rid of the temptation. He knew he should just leave well enough alone. It was one evening of nice conversation with a beautiful woman. That’s all. Calling her would do nothing but complicate things for him. He was from New York. She was from Kentucky. It would be an imbecilic idea to even think of starting something with her.

The factual part of his brain was telling him to stay the hell away from her. He knew Savanah didn’t need some guy that lives in New York, with two kids and a broken heart to deal with, much less a man that didn’t have any business making promises. His heart was definitely still healing, he was sure of that. That thought alone should be enough to keep him away.

But for some reason, Savanah ignited something in him that he hadn’t felt in years.

Sure, there had been countless women coming on to him since Arianna passed, but he never had any inclination to do anything about it. Some women were blatant with their advances; others resorted to bringing over dinner, posturing as a concerned neighbor or sympathetic friend, but they always gave themselves away by leaving one too many buttons opened on their blouses, or by inching their hand resting on his knee upward while passing along their condolences.

Jaxon found these women desperate, some even pathetic, especially the ones that were good friends of his wife. Who knows, maybe these women were just looking for a fling, or a side dish of some sort, but whatever they were searching for, he wasn’t the slightest bit interested.

Savanah, on the other hand, hadn’t shown any interest in him whatsoever, other than friendship, but yet he couldn’t help but feel a strong magnetic attraction to her. He loved the dimple that appeared along the left side of her mouth when she smiled, her curvaceous, sensual body, and that long, thick, chestnut, wavy mane that fell past her shoulders, especially when she tucked it behind her ears as she nibbled at her bottom lip in thought. He couldn’t help himself when he offered the tick search so that he could get his hands into that hair of hers. Not one of his smoothest moves, no doubt, but it was effective. He could have sat with her sandwiched between his legs all night long, but his nagging conscience got the better of him and he left before he made any other type of move that they would most likely both regret.

He had to remember, he was only here for a short snippet of time. Starting something with Savanah would be a huge mistake, for everyone involved. If he was honest with himself, he knew it would be best if he stayed clear of her for the remainder of his stay in Indiana.

Jaxon fell back onto his old bed, landing firmly on his backside, the springs underneath groaning their complaint. Grabbing his pillow from underneath his head, he dropped it onto his stomach and anchored his hands on top to hold it in place as he stared upward at the wobbling, stark-white ceiling fan perched precariously above him.

Was he ready to start dating again?

Since his wife’s passing, Jaxon could never really imagine himself seeing anyone, ever again. He’d been with Arianna for much too long to conjure up any type of scenario of him being romantically involved with another woman…he had his two children, and they were more than enough to keep him occupied for the rest of his life.

His mind drifted through the thin, plaster walls to his uncle laying on his death bed down the hallway, alone, except for Jaxon and his parents to support him. Is that what he wanted for his future too? No one to confide in when one of the kids was led astray? No one to lean on when life’s bumps morphed into full-fledged hurdles? No one to hold on to when Death comes knocking at your door?

Let’s face it, he needn’t get that deep when tossing around the concept of dating. He wasn’t talking about taking on a lifelong partner here, just potentially seeing a woman on a non-platonic level.

Was he really ready for something like that with Savanah, or anyone else for that matter?

When he dissected the situation objectively, he didn’t feel too keen about the prospect. Even if he removed the emotional baggage that goes along with being a widow, he knew he had quite enough to juggle raising two kids by himself, not to mention, his recent promotion. Then, when he threw the long distance quotient into the mix, it was an absolute no brainer. His initial evaluation was correct. He needed to stay away from Savanah -- far, far, far away.

But then his mind floated over to how he felt while he was around her -- the elevated heart palpitations, the shallow uneven breathing, the involuntarily eye sweep, gliding over the curves of her body when she wasn’t looking, the deep chortles of laughter that erupted when she was in his vicinity. He hadn’t had those types of feelings in such a long time, which made his resolve falter, thinking, what would it hurt by spending a little more time with her? It’s not like he had to become romantically involved. Couldn’t he just enjoy her company while he was here, then move back to his life in the city? No harm? No foul?

Who was he kidding?

There was absolutely no way he could be around Savanah, for any length of time, without having to touch her in some way. He needed to keep a ‘hands-off’ approach, and there was no other way to do that, other than keeping as much distance between them as possible.

He flipped on his side, curling his knees slightly up and tucking his arm underneath his head, firm with the decision he’d made, which really, was the only logical decision there was to make when it came to Savanah. His game plan was actually quite simple; it all came down to location. All he had to do is stay on his side of the lake. How hard could that be?

Letting his eyes fall shut, he repeated this last thought over in his mind, attempting to take a quick cat nap before he went for a run. After twenty minutes with his mind still racing, he catapulted himself off the bed, muttering, screw it, as he headed for his phone.

 

  • * *

 

Savanah had just thrown a load of whites into the washing machine when she heard her phone chime in the kitchen. After scooping up a measuring cup full of laundry detergent and dropping it into the basin, she flipped the lid closed, and lumbered into the kitchen. Whisking her phone off the table, she furrowed her brow when she noticed the unknown number illuminated on her screen.

Sliding her finger across the notification, she read: Hope you slept well last night. I was wondering if you could meet me after dinner tonight?- Jax.

Savanah felt a trill of excitement intermixed with anticipation at the text. She wondered how he’d gotten her number. That thought quickly evaporated when her mind immediately switched gears to thinking about her reply. Should she wait at least ten minutes before texting back, or was that juvenile? The realization that her read receipts were on quickly answered her own question.

She replied back, I slept well, thanks to you, and tonight would be great. What time and where do you want to meet?

He replied back quickly, You tell me…It’s your turn to show and tell.

Well, that sounds intriguing, she considered typing in reply, then reevaluated. She didn’t want to sound too flirty. She decided to go with a more basic answer.

If that’s the case, meet me at the spillway at nightfall.

 

The day seemed to drag on forever as Savanah went about her daily homework duties, attempting to keep her mind on her studies, instead of on what potentially may lie ahead. She just couldn’t help her mind from veering off the child-reward-versus-punishment path and onto Jaxon and the way his mesmerizing eyes probed hers. It literally gave her goose bumps and that weird butterfly sensation in the pit of her stomach. When was the last time she’d felt that flutter of excitement? Quite honestly, she couldn’t ever remember feeling that clench of muscles when someone gazed into her eyes.

And what exactly did Savanah want to happen tonight, anyway? She wasn’t quite sure. Let’s face it….getting involved with Jaxon, in any form, would be a bad idea, a really bad idea. Not only was he a recent widow, he resided in New York City of all places, and he had two children. That thought really sent her for a tail spin. Although she knew she loved kids, and wanted some of her own in the distant future, dating someone with children was a whole other story. Half the time, she still felt like a child herself, even though she was on the eve of turning twenty-four. How could she even think about starting a long distance relationship with a single father?

Whoa, hold up there, Savanah told herself. You are totally jumping the gun here. This man hasn’t even held your hand and you’re talking about relationships? Take a deep breath and back up. You don’t even know if Jaxon is romantically interested in you.

But tonight was the night she was planning on finding out.

 

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MEET ME IN HEAVEN

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THE ELVENTH HOUR.

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Thank you!

 

 

 

Other works by April Marie Libs

 

Twice in a Lifetime

Kaleidoscope

Kaleidoscope of Consequences

Meet Me in Heaven

The Thin Line Between Love and Hate

The Licorice Tree

The Eleventh Hour

 

 

 

 

 


The Eleventh Hour

“I laughed out loud and cried like a baby.” “I never read a book twice, but The Eleventh Hour just changed that.” One moment can change a person’s life forever. In Addison’s case, one lone, solitary business trip to Las Vegas altered her entire future, bringing her more joy than she ever thought possible. But it was her decision making after she returned home that brought forth consequences she didn’t know if her heart could bear. He claimed vehemently, I’ll hurt you. She didn’t believe him. She couldn’t have been more wrong. But God, was he worth every second. "Outstanding novel! Lots of laughter and tears." "This book made me laugh and cry so hard I couldn't read the words; I couldn't put it down."

  • Author: April Marie Libs
  • Published: 2017-09-29 16:35:38
  • Words: 76218
The Eleventh Hour The Eleventh Hour