The thought seemed comforting to him, and he relaxed.
My eyes closed, and while Taylor settled in beside me, I willingly let fatigue drag me down beneath the waves of unconsciousness. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t alone in the dark.
Waking up in Thomas’s old room in Jim’s house, I worried that Taylor would wake up at any moment, and awkwardness would set in. The sun had been up about as long as I had, but Taylor was still asleep next to me, breathing slow and deep.
Birds chirped outside, a perfect blue sky and a few electrical wires the only things visible through the window from where I lay on the bed. It was going to be one of the best days of my life. Whether Olive knew it or not, it was the day I would become a part of her memories, and I could carry that with me forever.
“Baby?” Taylor said. Tightening the arm that had been relaxed across my middle, he pulled me closer to him.
“Yes?” I said, taken off guard by the term of endearment. In my experience, those terms were only used when trying to keep up appearances.
“I’m not sure I can ever wake up without you again.” His voice was sleepy but content.
I breathed out a laugh and nuzzled my nose against his neck. “You can.”
“Estes Park is going to miss you.”
“I guess so.” He covered my cheek in kisses. “So, what’s the plan today? I don’t want to be an accomplice to kidnapping before breakfast.”
I sighed. “I don’t want her to know who I am or why I’m here. I just … want to see her with my own eyes. This time, I’ll be prepared, and I can savor the moment of when I leave a tiny footprint in her life even if I’ll be the only one who knows.”
“I know it sounds selfish,” I said, covering my eyes with my fingers.
Taylor lifted my chin with one hand, uncovering my eyes with the other. “It’s probably the least selfish thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Olive is next door, and all you want is to be introduced as a stranger, so you can hold on to that moment while she goes on with her life.”
I’d never thought of it that way. It sounded sad but honorable. Once again, the woman reflected in Taylor’s eyes was someone worthy of forgiveness. No amount of gratitude could ever repay something like that.
“You’re just saying that because you have to,” I teased.
He smiled, but there was only sincerity in his eyes. “I’m saying it because it’s true.”
When I didn’t respond, he looked down. The sudden change in his mood was disconcerting.
“I want to ask you something even though the answer doesn’t matter.”
I shook my head. It was true. Even before I’d met Taylor, I knew appreciating the attention of an older man—a man who was supposed to be an authoritative figure—was not the same as love.
“Did he … did he hurt you?” Taylor asked.
I shook my head again. “How important is it for you to know?”
Taylor thought about it for a moment. “I want to know.”
I turned away from him. I didn’t want to see his face. “He was my teacher, my coach, in high school. He’s married. She knows he cheated but not that it was with a student. She doesn’t know about Olive.”
“Jesus, Falyn. He just left you to deal with it on your own?”
“No. He offered to pay for what he called a solution. I missed the appointment. And the one after that. I never thought he’d leave his wife for me. I never wanted him to. I still don’t know why I did it.”
“Because you were a kid. Because you had a shitty relationship with your father. There are a dozen excuses.”
“There are no excuses. I made choices, and now, I’m living with them.”
“But you don’t have to live with them alone.” Taylor wrapped his arms around me, holding me tight, and buried his face into my hair.
“After today, I’ll be okay. I can let her go on my terms.”
“Just tell me what you need from me—space, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold on to …”
“Probably all of the above,” I said, pulling his arms in toward me until he hugged me to him.
I smiled, remembering him saying the same thing outside of the Bucksaw the day we met. Back then, even though it was for show, Taylor had made me feel safe. Now, it was reality, and he was still somehow making everything all right.
Taylor stood, and he dressed in a T-shirt and jeans before pulling a royal-blue ball cap low over his eyes. “You ready? We’re going to kick this day’s ass.”
After a quick shower, I put on my favorite jeans and a pink blouse I’d specially purchased at the ARC Thrift Store for the day I would meet my daughter again. I wanted her memory of me, however fleeting, to be perfect.
Taylor went downstairs, and I spent a little extra time on my hair and makeup. Then I joined Taylor and Jim at the table. Jim was nearly finished with his breakfast when Trenton knocked twice and swung open the front door, announcing his arrival.
“Good morning, Maddoxes!” Trenton paused to acknowledge me. “And friend.” He went into the kitchen where dishes scraped, cabinet doors and drawers slammed, and the refrigerator opened and closed.
“Enough with the friend shit,” Taylor said.
Trenton beamed as he sat in a dining chair between his father and brother with a bowl of cereal. “Oh, yeah? Did you seal the deal last night? Trav said you made her cry.”
“Ow! What’d I say?” Trenton rubbed the back of his head.
Jim sipped his coffee, trying to smooth the annoyed expression from his face. “Are you feeling better, Falyn?”
Taylor shrugged, looking to his brother. “What are your plans today, dickhead?”
Jim sighed. “Goddamn it! Can’t we have one meal without the language?”
The brothers shook their heads. Jim did, too.
Trenton’s spoon raked against his bowl of cereal. “Work.”
Taylor shrugged. “Olive’s freaking adorable, and I never get to see her anymore.”
Trenton shoveled a bite of Frosted Flakes into his mouth, considering Taylor’s comment. “I could ask her if she wants to go to the park, if you’re really hell-bent on spending the morning with a five-year-old. I have to be at work later though.”
“Right,” Trenton said. “She just had a birthday last week. It’s going to take me a while to get used to that.”
I wasn’t sure what he thought he knew, but he was onto us.
“You seem to enjoy spending time with her,” I said.