Chapter 6


Nick

Life was good.

I got home from Europe on a Sunday.  Lauren picked me up at the airport, throwing herself into my arms and planting a big kiss right on my lips.  She made me feel like a soldier, returning from war.  Obviously, the experiences don’t really compare, but I did feel pretty ragged by that point, like I had been through some kind of combat.  But, exhausted as I was, seeing Lauren gave me a second wind.

The sex that night was incredible.  It always was after we’d been apart for awhile.  My senses were somehow heightened, and everything – every kiss, every touch, every pulse – seemed extra sweet, like when you eat something sugary for the first time since starting a strict diet.  Lauren was the dessert I’d been craving.  It felt so satisfying to hold her in my arms and run my fingers through her hair, to feel her warm, firm body writhe under mine as I grinded against her, to hear her moan with pleasure when I finally slipped inside her.

We didn’t use a condom.  We never thought we needed to.  Lauren took her birth control pills religiously; she didn’t want to get pregnant, not with a wedding dress to fit into and more fitness competitions in her future.  I figured, Why wrap it up if I don’t have to?  So I didn’t.

Afterwards, when we collapsed onto the bed in a sweaty tangle of limbs, I closed my eyes in exhaustion and fell asleep almost instantly.  I slept deeply and didn’t wake until morning, when I was greeted by the sight of my fiancée, still asleep in bed beside me, looking like a Greek goddess with the sheets draped loosely over her tan, toned body.

I still felt tired, but I couldn’t help but smile.

Life was good.

***

Two days before Thanksgiving, I got a call from Howie.  I groaned when I saw his name on my phone, then immediately felt bad about it.  He was probably calling with news about his son.  What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t answer?  So I picked up the phone.

“Hey, Howie.”

“Hi, Nick.”  His voice sounded strange, sort of shaky, and I knew something had to be wrong.  Of course, my first thought was that Holden had taken a turn for the worse.

“Hey, is everything okay?” I asked quickly.  “How’s Holden?”

“Holden’s… better,” he replied.  “He’s out of ICU, and they’re saying if he keeps improving, he might be able to come home tomorrow afternoon.”

“That’s great, man!” I said with relief.  “Glad to hear some good news.”

“Yeah… me too.  Listen, Nick… assuming Holden’s out of the hospital by Friday, I was planning on flying out early and spending a few days in L.A. before I head up to Sacramento for the first show next week.  I was hoping we could get together and talk about some things.”

Inwardly, I groaned again.  “Didn’t we talk enough on the boat?  No offense, but I really don’t wanna go there with you again.”

“That’s not what this is about.”  I heard him pause and take a deep breath before adding, “Well… it sort of is, but that’s not all it’s about.  Please, Nick, I just really need to talk to you, face to face.  It’s important.”

I rolled my eyes, but he sounded serious, so I said, “Okay, fine, Howie, we’ll talk.  Gimme a call when you get out here.”

“I will.  Take care, Nick.”

It was an oddly formal goodbye, but with as awkward as things had been between us since the cruise, I wasn’t fazed by it.  I hung up and didn’t think twice about the reason for Howie’s call or his request to talk more in person.

***

I spent Thanksgiving with my future in-laws.  In the years since Lauren and I had started dating, her family had sort of adopted me as one of their own.  I was grateful to have someone special to spend the holidays with, especially after the many I’d spent either alone or leeching onto someone else’s family – usually one of the guys, who felt sorry for me and my messed up family situation.  I was glad those days were over.  It was nice to feel like part of a real family again.

As part of the Kitt clan, I was expected to contribute, especially when it came to Thanksgiving dinner.  I had never been much of a cook, but I’d learned a lot from Lauren over the years.  After helping haul a trunkload of groceries into her father’s house, I watched my fiancée and her sister, Alexandra, start unloading the bags, assembling the ingredients for our feast across the kitchen counters with expert coordination.  “Here, Nick – make yourself useful,” Alexandra said, slinging a huge bag of potatoes into my arms.  “Start scrubbing these.”

“You got it, sis,” I replied, flashing her a cheesy grin.  She handed me a vegetable brush, and I set up shop at the sink.

Amid all the activity, Lauren’s dad, Larry, wandered into the kitchen.  “Where’s the turkey?” he asked, looking around.

Lauren, eyeing his beer belly, raised her eyebrows.  “Looks like you already ate it.”

“Aw, c’mon, Lo, don’t get started on the Kitt Fit comments today.  It’s Thanksgiving!” Alexandra complained, but Larry didn’t seem to mind.  He grinned good-naturedly and lifted his shirt, looking down at his belly.

“Well, hey… there it is!” he exclaimed.

I laughed and snapped a picture with my phone, sending it to Instagram with a caption that said, Where’s the turkey??? Wait…just found it.  My future father-in-law would probably kill me if he knew I was posting his picture for the whole world to see, but luckily, Larry wasn’t on Instagram.

He shuffled over to me as I slid my phone back in my pocket.  “I see the women have put you to work,” he said, eyeing the pile of potatoes I had barely begun to tackle.

I nodded.  “You know it.  Wanna help me wash some potatoes?”

“Sure…”  Larry reached into a drawer, rummaged around for a few seconds, and finally pulled out a potato peeler.  “I’ll wash.  You peel,” he said, placing it in my hand.

“Touché,” I replied, brandishing the peeler.  It didn’t look difficult to use, but I soon discovered that peeling potatoes is one of the worst jobs in the world.  “Why can’t we just have smashed potatoes?” I whined after just a few minutes of work, looking down in dismay from the small pile of potato skins waiting to go down the garbage disposal to the much larger mountain of potatoes still waiting to be peeled.  “The skin of a potato is the healthiest part – isn’t that right, Lo?”

“Shut up, Nick,” Alexandra snapped, before Lauren could reply.  “We’re not worried about eating healthy right now; we’re worried about enjoying a nice Thanksgiving dinner, and that means making mashed potatoes the right way – with no skins.  So quit your bitching and get back to peeling.”

“You tell him, Al,” Lauren egged her on, somewhat sarcastically.  I laughed at them both and lost my grip on the potato peeler.  It slipped out of my wet hand, slicing a chunk out of my finger as it clattered to the floor.

“Or, hey, you could just throw the potato peeler on the floor and be done with it,” Larry chimed in, without missing a beat, and everyone laughed again, this time at my expense.

I bent down to pick up the peeler, then straightened up, inspecting my finger.  Blood was dribbling freely down it from the torn flaps of skin.  “I don’t know if I can continue peeling with such a grievous injury,” I said, only semi-kidding, as I held up my finger for them to see.

“Suck it up,” said Alexandra without turning around.  “Work through the pain, you pussy.”

I was too used to her sarcastic sense of humor to take it seriously, but it still felt good to hear Lauren gasp and cry out, “You’re bleeding!  Oh, poor baby!”

At that, Alexandra did turn around.  “Ew, gross!” she squealed.  “Get away from the food; I don’t want blood or human skin in my mashed potatoes either!”

“Here,” said Lauren, grabbing a dishrag.  “Put pressure on it while I go find a Band-aid.”

I wrapped the rag around my finger and watched my blood seep slowly into its fibers, staining them rusty red.  When Lauren returned with a bandage, she helped me rinse off my finger and pat it dry.  Then she raised it to her lips and tenderly kissed my fingertip.  “A kiss to make it better,” she whispered, smiling.

She’s going to make a great mom someday, I couldn’t help but think, as I watched her wrap the Band-aid around my finger.  We were in no hurry to have kids, as I’ve mentioned before, but right then I decided that if it did happen for us someday, I would be okay with that.  More than okay, even.  I would be happy about it.

Lauren made me happy, the happiest and healthiest I’d been in years.  As I sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with her family the following day, I thought that out of all the things in my life I had to be thankful for, I was most thankful for her.  I told her so that night, after we’d finished making love.  “I love you, Lo,” I whispered, as I held in her in the dark.  “I’m so happy you’re in my life.”

“Aww, I love you too, baby,” she said back, leaning into me.  “You make me feel like the luckiest girl in the world.”

Because of Lauren, my life was good.  But the next day, Howie came and changed everything.

***


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