by Karen Payton-Holt
photo by wilustra
I awoke lying on my side, and my skin prickled. Was it relief? Dread? I kept my eyes closed and felt the warmth of a firm male hand resting on my hip. In that twilight world, where the early dawn sky over London appeared lemon-tinted, I hung onto the dream where I had made the right choice.
Last night’s events surfaced as a kaleidoscope of emotions.
Seeing Robert again after so long had sent a thunderbolt through my center. I had loved the man for so long, and when I found myself sitting a few feet away from him, it felt as though his scent permeated every breath I took.
My young heart had leapt at his touch, back then, and he had walked away.
“You are sixteen.” His youthful expression registered determination, his eyes glittering with the hunger for a life yet to be lived, and the certainty that it would be filled with excitement. “I’m only eighteen, I’m not ready to have a steady relationship.”
And so, I shared his world as a friend. We worked together, going out to pubs with our group of friends, twelve strong, and my heart bled.
The hand stirred and the hard contours of a masculine body molded to my back. My heart melted as he pulled me back into his arms. I held my breath and my heart cramped as doubts melted.
At eight o’clock last night, the bar had been busy, but I managed to get a seat for myself and save a stool for Sara. But she never showed. I punched the number of her cell into my phone and listened open mouthed at some perky message filling me in on her ‘do not disturb’ status. She had stood me up again. Frowning, I indulged in the satisfying enactment of tearing strips off her when next we met. She would be getting a piece of my mind.
At least I didn’t dress up. It made the prospect of being stood up more bearable. I had gone with the killer heels, of course, because I was a ‘shoe girl’. But the A-line shift dress in a soft blue fabric was plain and simple, though it clung to my curves and made my blue eyes brighter. It took all of fifteen minutes for me to change, braid my hair to drape over one shoulder, and grab my survival kit consisting of phone, keys and purse; job done.
I perched on the end of the sagging upholstered bench seat having stubbornly decided I would finish my drink before I bailed and returned home.
At that moment, Robert walked in. Watching his familiar gait as he approached the bar to order a drink, I was dumbstruck. It had been how long? Ten years ago, after a torturous ten years of pretending we could ‘just be friends’, we had lost touch.
Every movement he made flexed muscle as he rested on one elbow, twisted around and scanned the room. His eyes came to rest on me, surprise lit up his face, and, for a moment, he froze. He lifted a hand in a salute, picked up his glass and crossed the bar.
It all seemed so natural. Nodding at the stool, he said, “Taken?”
“No, it’s free.”
And before I really had time to think, he sat down and the years fell away in an avalanche of fearful imaginings.
“Robert,” I said. “What on earth are you doing in this neck of the woods?” My cheeks burned and I took refuge in swallowing a mouthful of my cold spritzer.
“My brother’s 50th, I’m staying for the weekend. Caroline, how the hell are you?” he muttered. “And Matthew? The kids?” He was older. His hair was shot through with silver threads and his face wore a few more expression lines, but the unveiled interest in his eyes set my heart hammering.
Small talk flowed over us. As one of my group of close friends, he attended my wedding to Matthew, and dropped by to visit once every year or so, but he was the irritation which crawled under my skin that I could never dare to touch.
“We’re all fine. I’m on a girls’ night out.”
Robert glanced around and I laughed. “Well, ‘I’ve been stood up by Sara’ is closer to the truth. I should head home.”
“Finish your drink first.”
The words we exchanged didn’t matter as much as the brush of his knee against mine when he reached for his pint glass. The pauses in conversation, when he searched my face, flooded my stomach with heat, and I drank more than I would usually. Every moment in his company crowded my imagination with ‘what might have been’.
Pathetic. But was it? Past desires were hard to suppress. Finally, he took a deep shuddering breath and took my hand. “You know, you were right. At sixteen, you knew more than I ever did.”
I did, too. I knew what I felt back then was love, and I knew it all the more because I had never felt it in the same way since.
Robert’s smile couldn’t chase away the regret lurking in his eyes.
“Twenty years of hindsight is a wonderful thing,” I said lightly.
“I’m more sorry than you can ever know.”
But, I did know. Because despite the fact I married, and even had children, I had missed out on the love of my life… and that made me feel saddened.
“It’s been what, ten years? You’re happy?” he said.
Bitterness and guilt swilled in my gut. Lie? Or tell the truth. I owed myself the truth. I had been hiding from it for too long.
“I’m not happy.” I took a deep breath. “Content, perhaps. And the children, I wouldn’t change one moment of that.”
His grip on my fingers tightened.
I finally said what I should have said years ago. “Robert, you stole happiness from both of us.”
And there it was, my heart hanging out there to dry.
He shifted over from his stool onto the bench seat beside me. “It’s not too late. It’s always been you.” His thumb traced over my cheek, his hand slipped into my hair at my nape, and he kissed me.
It was twenty years since the last time we kissed, and he tasted the same. He tasted like water to a woman in the desert. I surrendered as he deepened the kiss, stroking a persuasive rhythm and stealing my breath away.
Resting his forehead on mine, his chest heaving and his fingers trembling, he muttered, “Let’s get out of here.”
I scrambled on the edge of the abyss, knowing that the step out into the void would take me somewhere from which I could never return. Opening my eyes, I focused on the drapes framing the window in the dimly lit bedroom, fluttering in the breeze.
I shivered as goosebumps dusted my skin, and a kiss on my shoulder roused me from the replays of hot kisses, and Robert’s hands on my flesh.
The ache inside me, the tenderness of a night filled with excesses, throbbed as a drowsy voice murmured, “Well, good morning.”
I turned in his arms, hitched my thigh up over his hip, and took his rough unshaven face into my hands. Staring into the sleepy sated gaze of my husband, I kissed him gently. “I’m sorry, did I wake you?”
His hand gripping my backside revealed exactly how awake he was. “It’s been awhile since we’ve made love half the night…” His eyebrow lifted suggestively. “So, ‘sorry’ is the last thing you should be feeling.”
Searching his precious familiar features, my heart glowed like granite warmed in the sun. “Matthew, I love you,” I said. And I realized it was true.
Robert’s touch almost drove me to do things I would have regretted. This way, by choosing the man who loved me and had held my hand as we traveled the rough road of raising three children, the only people who got hurt deserved it.
I did love Matthew. It was just not the white-hot searing love which obliterated thoughts of everything else. But this love fed my soul and brought sunshine to my life. I made the right choice.
Karen is an aspiring author and compulsive writer. She lives in England with her family, and when she’s not at work, she can usually be found under her laptop. Karen writes novels, and is hard at work on her ‘Fire and Ice’ series of five post-apocalyptic vampire novels in the horror/dark fantasy genre.