Worth fighting for, p.16
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       Worth Fighting For, p.16

         Part #2 of Fighting to Be Free series by Kirsty Moseley
 
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  my plate, wiping my fingers on the napkin, no longer in the mood for food. My stomach clenched, a sense of dread and trepidation settling there. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. If my mom doesn’t wake up...” I closed my eyes, hating that I now doubted she would, but it had been a week and a half; her chances were slim. “There’s Kelsey to think about,” I finished.

  He nodded, tapping one finger on the table, clearly unnerved by the direction this conversation was taking, too. “If the worst ’appens and your mom doesn’t wake, what will you do?”

  Hating the nervousness in his voice, I looked up at him. “I’ll be Kelsey’s guardian,” I whispered. I wouldn’t leave her again. I’d promised.

  He nodded slowly and sat back in the booth; his posture seemed deliberately relaxed, like he was working to make it that way. “And do you think she’d want to come to England?”

  I blew out a slow breath. I hadn’t spoken to her about it because that would mean admitting that I had doubts about our mother’s survival, but I didn’t think she would want to. It would mean giving up her friends, her home, her education, all to follow her sister to a foreign land where she didn’t know anyone. I was almost certain, without having to ask, that wouldn’t be something she would want to do at all. And I would never make her. This was her home; I had no right to make her leave it for my own personal gain.

  “I don’t think so,” I muttered.

  His eye twitched and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “I don’t think she would, either.”

  “Would you move here?” I asked, but deep down I already knew the answer. Toby had his kids at home, he was a great dad, he loved having his kids as much as possible, and he would never move to another country. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t really want him to. I loved his kids too, and I would never want to deprive them of him.

  He shifted on the bench, his shoulders hunching as he leaned forward and took my hand on the tabletop. His eyes narrowed in apology, his mouth tight. “Ellie, I...I got the boys,” he whispered.

  I nodded quickly. “I know.”

  He blew out a big breath and raked a hand through his hair roughly. “I’m not sure where it would leave us. We’d ’ave to find some sort of middle ground, compromise, if there is any.”

  There was no middle ground here—we both knew it, but neither of us wanted to say it. “Long-distance relationships...they don’t work,” I muttered, my voice breaking as I spoke. My heart was sinking, sadness already building in my chest.

  Toby swallowed and my words hung in the air for a long minute as we just looked at each other silently. He was a smart man; he knew the score and what this meant.

  Suddenly he shook his head and his hand tightened on mine, squeezing gently. “Look, let’s not get our knickers in a twist ’bout it now. We’re worrying ’bout something that may never ’appen. Your mum could wake any day, and then once she was better, she’d be able to take care of Kelsey and you could come ’ome.”

  Home. The word made me feel worse because now that I was back here, I already knew I was home. I’d just been fooling myself in England, hiding from my problems, trying to be a different version of myself. Now that I was back, after losing my dad and all that we were going through with my mom, I knew, deep down, that I didn’t want to leave them again, even if my mom did recover. I’d left before and wasted time I could have had with my family. I wanted to be near them again, be here for them, always. But that meant that I couldn’t be near Toby. It was a horrible choice, but one my heart and soul had already made, however much it hurt. And I think he knew it, too. His eyes held mine, his gaze understanding, but I could see the pain there.

  Toby cleared his throat awkwardly. “Let’s just stick a pin in it for now. We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. Your mum might be fine, and then we’re getting all worried over nothing. It’s another day’s problem.” His tone held forced cheer that I could detect a mile off.

  He knew, he just didn’t want to admit it. Neither of us did. We’d had a good thing, and with one accident and phone call, our relationship was basically destroyed. We could never go back to what we’d had, and that was like a punch to the stomach.

  I forced a smile too, trying to make it look genuine as I nodded. “Yeah, we’ll just focus on now and see what happens,” I agreed. I checked my watch, seeing it was almost one. “We’d better go.”

  After taking another swig of his drink, he nodded and stood, picking up the bag containing his souvenirs and then holding his hand out to me. I smiled and slipped my hand into his larger one, stepping to his side and following him out of the restaurant and down the busy street toward the bus stop.

  The ride back to my house was mostly silent apart from the low rumble of the engine and the soft chatter of the other passengers. It was a little awkward. We were both hurting, but instead of confiding in each other, we were both choosing to deal with it separately.

  When we arrived home, Toby packed the snow globes and other trinkets into his case and then said his good-byes to my family. My nana looked extremely sorry to see him go; he had definitely won her over in a short space of time. Kelsey hugged him tightly and told him to make sure to call or there would be “ruddy ’ell to pay”—she’d definitely mastered the English terms. I watched it all with a lump in my throat. I watched how easily he conversed with my loved ones and how much camaraderie he had with my little sister, and my heart started to break. I blinked back tears, sorrow and despondency swirling in my stomach.

  “Ready?” I asked, clearing my throat.

  He turned back to me and nodded. “Yeah.” He turned back to my nana and smiled that charming lopsided smile that made his eyes crinkle at the edges. “Thanks for ’aving me. And for packing me food for the flight.” He patted his flight bag and grinned.

  “You’re welcome, dear. You come back soon, all right?” Nana said, leaning in and planting another kiss on his cheek. I walked out of the house, heading to my car, needing to be away from their final good-bye. In a way, I was already trying to distance myself. Toby had been such an enormous part of bringing me back to myself after Jamie, I owed him so much, and now it was coming to an end, and I didn’t want it to.

  He followed me out to the car a minute later, slinging his case onto the backseat and sliding in the passenger door. “Your nana just made me take some more of her banana cake for the flight.”

  I smiled, gripping the wheel tightly as I started the engine. “You do know you can’t take food through customs, right?”

  He nodded. “I know. I think she just wanted to feel useful; she’s a carer that one, not ’appy unless people are fed.”

  He’d nailed her personality traits in just one short week. I smiled and nodded, and silence fell over us again. I tried to keep my mood up, but by the time we got to the airport I was just a fraction short of tears and barely holding myself together.

  When we got out of the car, Toby looked off to one side and smiled before digging in his backpack and pulling out the brown bag chock-full of sandwiches, cake, chips, and cartons of juice. “Be right back,” he muttered, jogging off. I shielded my eyes and watched him approach a homeless man who was rooting through one of the trash cans. When he handed over the package, the toothless homeless man’s gratitude was clear to see, even from where I stood a hundred or so yards away.

  My heart throbbed, and again I wished things were different, that I could somehow keep him.

  When Toby came back to my side, he smiled, taking my hand in his and dragging his suitcase in the other as we headed into the busy airport. I frowned, a little uncomfortable to be in the terminal again. The last time I took a flight out of here I had been alone and heartbroken. Now as I stood there again, preparing to say good-bye to the person who had helped fix me, my heart was splintering all over again.

  After he’d checked in for his flight, we walked over to the security line where I wasn’t allowed to go. When he turned to me and offered me that lopsided smile, I lost the battle I was hav
ing with my tears and they started to flow relentlessly down my cheeks. He groaned and wrapped his arms around me, pulling me in for a tight hug, almost crushing me in its ferocity. The hug lasted way longer than a comforting one would—it was as if he didn’t want to let go either. We were clinging to each other as people just got on with their lives around us, unaware of the pain we were sharing.

  He finally pulled back, sliding his hands up my back until he cupped my neck. His watery light green eyes locked onto mine and I could see it there: understanding, acceptance, anguish. The unspoken breakup lingered in his eyes. He somehow knew I wouldn’t be going back to England, and he understood why.

  “I really love you, you know?” he murmured.

  I nodded, my body hitching with a sob. “I love you, too.” And I did; it might not be the all-consuming, weak-at-the-knees, swoon-worthy love I’d had in the past, but I loved him deeply.

  He smiled weakly and leaned in, planting a soft, lingering kiss against my lips. Featherlight, but it held so much emotion that it almost knocked me off my feet. I whimpered against his lips, gripping fistfuls of his shirt as I pressed against him, savoring every last detail, categorizing it, storing it so I would never forget what that one last beautiful kiss felt like. It wasn’t a lust-filled kiss, it was a sweet good-bye kiss.

  I watched him until he was out of sight, feeling like I’d just said good-bye to my best friend. I felt hollowed out, empty, and everything was getting on top of me.

  But I couldn’t afford to let myself sink into depression or I would never get out of it again. Plus, staying busy would keep my mind occupied. There would be time for tears later when I was alone in bed; I couldn’t allow myself to fully feel it now.

  Instead of going straight home from the airport, I decided to make a quick stop at the funeral director’s to let him know I was on top of the invoice. I just needed a few more days to get it sorted out and wanted to explain.

  I parked in the little lot next to Mortimer and Witcombe Funeral Directors and grabbed my purse, heading for the entrance. As I stepped in the door and the little bell above it announced my presence, a plump lady with blue-rinse set hair looked up, her lips stretching into a warm smile. “Good afternoon. Can I help you?”

  “I was wondering if I could have a quick word with Mr. Mortimer? My name is Ellie Pearce. Mr. Mortimer was the one looking after my father last week,” I said, wringing my hands because I was a little nervous. I didn’t like this place. It reeked of death and sadness. Just being in here I could feel my mood sinking even lower than when I’d said good-bye to Toby less than an hour ago.

  “Of course. He’s between appointments right now. Follow me and I’ll show you to his office,” she replied, standing and brushing down the skirt of her pale pink suit. I followed her slowly, stopping outside the office that I knew belonged to Mr. Mortimer because I’d been in there numerous times over the last week. She knocked gently. “Maurice, I have Miss Pearce here to see you.”

  “Oh, show her in, Beryl.”

  She turned and waved me in, pushing the door all the way open. I smiled in thanks and stepped into the room, looking over to Mr. Mortimer, who was sitting behind his desk. He stood and walked around to greet me, his hand held out in front of him.

  “Hi, Ellie, how are you doing?” He shook my hand and gripped my forearm at the same time with his other hand, a handshake he’d no doubt perfected over the years, one that conveyed just the right amount of sympathy—if a handshake could do such a thing.

  “I’m doing well. I wanted to thank you in person for all your help with the funeral. It went off very smoothly,” I said, but he already knew it had because he’d been there to oversee it all.

  “You’re very welcome.” He waved me into a seat, and he perched on the edge of his desk, facing me.

  “I also wanted to let you know I’ll be paying your invoice soon. Things have just been a little difficult, what with me just returning home from overseas. It’s been a bit of a struggle, but I promise I’ll get it sorted out in the next couple of days. I’ve put in a call to my UK bank to get money transferred over to my old U.S. checking account so I can withdraw it, but it’s taking a few days. I hadn’t anticipated that getting money from a UK savings account would be so difficult from here,” I explained.

  Luckily, I’d been saving money to pay for the wedding. But it looked as though it would be spent a different way now.

  His eyebrows knitted together in confusion. “But the invoice has already been paid.”

  I shook my head. “I haven’t paid it.”

  He smiled, the kind of smile that implied he felt sorry for me in some way or that he thought he was talking to someone who wasn’t all there mentally. “The invoice was paid in full Friday morning over the phone.”

  I reeled back. “Excuse me?”

  He nodded. “Your account is clear. A man called up on the morning of the funeral to make sure everything was on track for the service. He paid the full amount on his debit card. He said he was a friend of the family and that you’d asked him to do it for you.”

  My mouth dropped open in astonishment. I owed thousands; there’s no way someone had just called up and paid it off. Unless...was it Toby? Had he done it without telling me so I would have one less thing to worry about? But why wouldn’t he have told me already? Then I realized it couldn’t be him because he’d been sitting next to me when I’d put the call in to the bank on Monday asking for them to get the money moved into my U.S. account.

  “Who was it that paid?” I inquired.

  He frowned, standing up and heading back around to his desk chair. “I think it was a Mr. Colt or Cole or something like that. I can’t remember off the top of my head. Let me check,” he replied, already pulling open a filing cabinet drawer and searching through it.

  Mr. Cole. Jamie Cole. My whole body stiffened and my eyes widened at his name. Jamie had paid for my father’s funeral? Had he known I was struggling for money and barely had enough to cover the fees for it? I was stunned into silence.

  The thought, the sentiment hit me hard and my heart squeezed. That was the kind of thing that had caused me to fall in love with him in the first place, that thoughtful, compassionate side of him that shined so brightly.

  “Ah, here it is,” Mr. Mortimer said, pulling out a light green sheet of paper and scanning it. “Yes, a Mr. J. Cole. Paid in full.” He set the piece of paper on the desk and slid it toward me. “Was I not right to accept? Do you not know who this person is?” He now looked a little worried, his eyes narrowed in concern.

  “I do,” I replied quietly.

  I pressed my lips together, unsure how to even begin to process this information. I swallowed the lump in my throat and looked down at my hands, my mind reeling. Had he done this on purpose, knowing I would find out he’d paid so I would owe him something in return? No, that wasn’t who he was. But then again, I didn’t know him as well as I’d thought I had. One thing I knew for sure, though: I would have to go and see him now and find out what the hell he thought he was doing interfering in things that weren’t his business anymore. I wasn’t looking forward to that at all.

  “Is everything all right, Ellie?” Mr. Mortimer asked, touching my elbow.

  I jumped. I hadn’t noticed he’d come around to my side of the desk again and had crouched down beside me, his face a mask of concern.

  I forced a smile and nodded. “Everything’s fine, thanks. I just hadn’t realized Mr. Cole had paid, that’s all. I’m glad you’ve got your money, and I apologize for taking up your time today.” I stood, needing to get out of the room.

  He used the arm of the chair to push himself to his feet, too. “Are you sure everything is all right? You look a little shaken up.”

  I nodded quickly, fixing a smile in place as I held out my hand to him. “Thank you again for a beautiful service.” I shook his pudgy hand quickly and turned for the door, walking quickly down the hall and out the front door without stopping, even though the receptionist called
a good-bye to me on my way out.

  I stopped once I was through the door and stepped to the side so the receptionist couldn’t see me, leaning against the wall, taking deep breaths. My chest was closing up again, an anxiety attack looming.

  Why? Why had he done this to me? Why couldn’t he just leave me alone instead of making me dredge up feelings from the past that should stay exactly where they belonged—in the past?

  CHAPTER 18

  AS I SAT in the uncomfortable hospital chair by my mother’s side, I wasn’t sure how much more I could take.

  Everything was piling on: losing Dad, his funeral, the prospect of having to be Kelsey’s guardian if the worst happened, saying good-bye to Toby yesterday and realizing our relationship was basically over because of a decision I’d already unconsciously made, and to top it off, Jamie paying my debt. Apparently diamonds are made under pressure, but I was pretty sure the pressure would just gradually grind me down to nothing. Nope, no diamonds here.

  I sighed and sat forward, taking Mom’s hand carefully. “Mom, I don’t know if you can hear me, but if you can, please wake up,” I whispered. My eyes fluttered closed and I pressed her hand to my face. “I need you. Kelsey needs you. I don’t know if I can carry on like this; there’s so much going on, too much sadness and heartache. I’m trying to put on a brave face, but I’m really struggling to keep everything together. It feels like I’m drowning, and I don’t know what to do. I’m trying to remain hopeful, but every time I sit here, I fear that you’re going to leave too and I don’t think I could bear it. I don’t have much more fight left in me, so please, if you can hear me please come back.” I opened my eyes and looked at the steady blip of her heart rate monitor. No change. Nothing. If she could hear me, then surely there would be something to show for it, some sign?

  “Mom, please. I can’t arrange another funeral, I can’t lose another parent and neither can Kels. We need you, so please fight this. Please wake up,” I begged, looking again at the heart rate monitor. Nothing.

  I gulped, disappointment settling in my stomach. I just wanted to sit in a dark room and hug my knees to my chest in silence. Depression was ebbing over me slowly, casting its spell and dragging me down. If I allowed it, it would take over and cloak me in darkness. But I couldn’t let it. I had to keep going for Kelsey. Keeping my spirits high, or at least pretending to, was the hardest thing I had ever done, but I owed it to my little sister to push through and not give up.

  “I gotta go. I’ll be back later with Kels and Nana.” I stood and leaned over my mom, kissing her cheek. “Sleep tight but wake up soon.” I pulled back and gathered my purse and magazines before heading out of the hospital, wondering how many more times I would have to come here before we knew one way or the other what her fate was.

 
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