Page 21 of The Other Man

“But anyway,” Raf continued, “he’s not an old or current classmate, so that’s not really the issue.  He’s just young . . . and a little strange, with all the scars on his chest . . . But who the hell cares?  He obviously cares about you.  And, well, Dad was a bastard to you, and you deserve so much better.  You deserve to have whoever the hell you want, and you get to pick who that is.  So if you’re happy, we’re happy.

It was one of those moments you can only have when you’re looking at your own child and thinking, Well, here it is, this is who my child is, and no matter what happens, how they mess up, or what mistakes they make, as people invariably do, I am looking at a decent human being.  I raised a good person.

Pride could be as profound a thing as love.  In its own way, just as powerful.  And God, was I proud of my boys.

It wasn’t lost on me how ironic it was, the pride I took specifically in Raf’s sensitivity.

When he was young, it had manifested early.  As early as three I could remember him just suffering when he saw anyone else in pain, even if it was just a scraped knee.  If he saw another kid get hurt, he was the one that would set up the second ear piercing scream, and I’d run to him, ask him what was wrong.  He’d always say something, in the serious little way he had, something like, “I don’t want my friends to get hurt,” or, “Do you think they’re okay?  Will they be all right?”  Or when he was a little bit older and protective of his kid brother I’d get random outbursts of, “I don’t know what I’d do if something ever happened to Gustave.”

He was the sweetest boy, but it had worried me endlessly how keenly he felt the suffering of others.

But live and learn.  What a beautiful person that too sensitive soul had turned into.

“Will you put in a good word to Gustave for me?” I asked him.  Gustave, my youngest, was more stubborn, less accepting than Raf, but Raf had a way winning him over to his point of view.  “I know . . . the age difference and the suddenness of it all.  It would be totally understandable if it freaked you guys out.”

“I’ll tell him.  He’ll be fine with it, Mom.  I promise.  He—we both just want you to be happy.  There’s not one single thing in the world I want more.”

I turned away from him, busied myself, put my mug in the sink, rinsed it out.  I didn’t want him to see that he’d made me tear up.  He hated, more than anything to see me cry.

But he was silent for so long that I knew he’d seen it.

Without even looking at him, I moved into him, burrowing into his chest to give him a hug.

He’d outgrown me when he was fifteen, but to this day, I marveled at how much taller he was than I was.  I was not by any means short, but he could still fit my head under his chin.

He squeezed me back.

“I love you, bud,” I said into his shirt.  “Oceans deep.  Rivers wide.”

“I know it.  I love you back.  Just as much.  And Gustave is going to take this better than you think.”

“I hope so.”

“I know so.  And it’s a good thing, too, since I invited Heath to have dinner with us here.”

“You invited him to dinner?  Here?  With the family?

“Yeah.  I like him.  I think he’s good for you.”

Did my son have terrible instincts, and I’d just never noticed it before?  Poor judgement on a scale that was until now, unknown to me?

Certainly, where Heath was concerned, I knew I was operating at less than full capacity, as far as brain cells went, but that had everything to do with the fact that I couldn’t be in a room with him and form more than a few coherent thoughts in a row.

What was Raf’s excuse?  What did he see in Heath that made him trust the guy and want him in his beloved mother’s life?

I didn’t think Heath would ever hurt me.  Wrong or right, I felt he wouldn’t.  Felt it deep in my womb, the place where my deepest instincts were grounded.  But that didn’t mean I thought he was a nice guy or even a normal one.  I knew something was up with him.  I knew he was dangerous in a very fundamental and literal sense.  He’d told me so himself, and I knew there was plenty he hadn’t told.

And Raf wanted him to attend a family dinner?  Even the thought was ridiculous, for so many reasons.

“I don’t think he’d be up for that,” I told him, because it was the easiest, shortest way to end the conversation.  Because it was true.

“He said yes.”

Or not.

“What?” I asked, thinking I’d misunderstood.

“Tonight.  I volunteered to help you cook, but he called dibs as your sous chef.”

I honestly thought at first that he was messing with me.

Heath came out from the back of the house right then, fully dressed now and called out, “See you tonight, Raf,” as he walked out the front door.

Unless they were both messing with me, it looked like this was happening.  Tonight.

So much for spending the day in bed.


Raf left a while later, promising to be back for dinner at six.  I’m not sure if I was just being paranoid, but the way he said it sounded ominous.

I am being paranoid, I quickly decided.

I found myself in my closet, wondering what the hell a woman wore for a day like this.  I’d never introduced my boys to anyone I was dating, for obvious reasons.  Most of their lives, I’d been married to their father, and after that I’d been on only a few casual dates with no one special.

And now this.  What was this?  Boys, meet the man I’m sleeping with who, though I’m borderline obsessed with him, may or may not still be around a week from now.

Ideally, I could have avoided this altogether.  Well, maybe that wasn’t ideal because that would mean Heath was gone for good.  But certainly, if I had any luck at all, I wouldn’t be dealing with this quite so early on in a budding relationship with a volatile, unpredictable man.

I gave myself a pep talk.  At least the age difference thing hadn’t freaked Raf out too much.  At least Heath had been on his best behavior.  Both of them had, so there was that.  And it was a lot.

And so, what to wear.  Casual?  Feminine?  Flirty?  Definitely nothing too sexy, certainly not for the first time my boys were meeting my—whatever Heath was.

I settled on a short, patterned tank dress in a soft nude and gray that set off the warm glow to my skin tone.  The sweetheart neckline hugged my collarbone in an appealing way, but didn’t reveal too much cleavage, and the pleated wrap bodice was fitted and showed off all of my curves, but could in no way be considered tight.

It was a touch sexy, but in a romantic, feminine way, which I thought (hoped) was the appropriate balance for the occasion.

I picked out some pale pink sandals to wear when we went to run errands, but stayed barefoot around the house, as I was always barefoot around my house.

I left my hair wavy and loose and wore minimal makeup—a soft pink lip, a touch of blush, mascara.

And then I set to work, planning in detail a meal to impress.

I had an extensive list made out when Heath returned in time to hit the market with me, just like he’d said.

“You don’t have to come to the store with me,” I told him.

He just shrugged and ignored the statement.

We took my car, but he drove.  He was not content to be a passenger, it was clear.  His car wasn’t around at all, and while I couldn’t figure out why or how he’d gotten back to my place,(aside from walking) I just went with it.

“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” I asked him, studying his granite profile while he drove.

“Having dinner with you and your kids?”

“Yeah.  That.”

“I’m sure.  We need to face this head on.  It might feel a bit sudden to them, but there’s nothing to do for it but meet them now with the way Rafael found me at that hour and in your kitchen.”

And half naked, I thought, still mentally wincing over that.

“Otherwise,” he continued, “your kids are going to think this is some casual hookup situation.”

Which clearly implied that . . . ?

“And it’s not that, and I don’t want your boys thinking that of me and you.”

Wow.  I had not a clue what to say to that.  But he was absolutely right.  We did need to face this.  If he’d met Rafael like that, and then looked to be avoiding my boys, they could well become hostile.

“You’re very sweet,” I told him finally.

He shot me a level look when he’d stopped at a red light.

“I’m not sweet, so if I said something that was, you should take it to heart.”

I did.  In spite of all of my reservations, I absolutely did.

Like all normal, mundane, everyday things I found myself doing with Heath, grocery shopping turned out to be much more interesting and strange than normal.

First of all, it was a Saturday morning, and our first stop was the best organic market in town, so it was a madhouse.  Eventually, we split up to get through the list faster.  The line for the meat counter alone was a good thirty minute wait, so Heath (sweetly, I thought) volunteered to wait for me.

Tags: R.K. Lilley Romance
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