The perfect match, p.26
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       The Perfect Match, p.26

         Part #2 of Blue Heron series by Kristan Higgins
 
Page 26

  Author: Kristan Higgins

  “We can’t do that,” Tom had said. “He’s too young. ”

  “I think I can make up my own mind about my son,” she said icily. “He’s almost eleven. ”

  “It’s the law,” Tom answered.

  “Fine. Stay home, then. You like him better than me, anyway. I’m not just gonna sit around and grow mold. ” And she had gone out, and hadn’t come back till 4:00 a. m. , when Tom had been debating whether to call the police. But she’d been apologetic and sweet, took him to bed, then said she was sorry about staying out so late; she’d just had a lot of stress lately and needed to blow off steam.

  Which, it became apparent, she had to do quite often.

  By Christmas, Tom was aware that he probably should’ve taken things a bit more slowly with Melissa. The problem was, he was crazy about her kid, and Charlie adored him right back. And that, it seemed, was becoming a reason for Melissa to break up with him.

  She was jealous.

  One day, when Melissa had called out sick from work (again), Charlie burst through the door after school, yelling, “Tom! Tom! Tomtomtom!” a paper clutched in his hand.

  “Don’t you mean, Mom, Mom, Mommommom?” Melissa said in a nasty voice. “Or is Tom your mommy now?” It didn’t register to her that Tom, with his teacher’s schedule, had been the adult who’d greeted him at home for months now. Nor did she ask about the paper, which had been Charlie’s spelling test: an A+, the first time he’d gotten all his words right, thanks in large part to Tom helping him study.

  Another time, she said, “Charlie, honey, let’s go out for ice cream, just you and me. ” She cut Tom a glance. “Just family. ” But that night, when they got back, and Charlie was sticky with marshmallow, she’d given Tom a kiss and handed him a half-melted hot-fudge sundae, the ice cream oozing down the sides of the Styrofoam container.

  And that was the problem. If she’d been beastly all the time, he would’ve left. . . probably. But those moments, he wanted very much to believe, showed the true Melissa, the one who didn’t complain, trash-talk her coworkers and parents, didn’t flare up in temper for no apparent reason. She’d been a single mother since twenty, lived at home with her parents until just two years ago. . . she was still adjusting, maybe. She was smart. Sharply funny. When she was nice, she was utterly fantastic.

  When she wasn’t, she went for days without speaking to him, bending over backward to be supersweet to Charlie, almost as if proving who the real parent was.

  So, being a man, and therefore idiotic about matters of the heart, Tom figured he should propose.

  Right.

  That went right up there in the Great Decisions of Tom’s Life along with the time he’d tried to skateboard down a metal railing, ending up with a bruised scrotum that hurt for three weeks.

  But propose he did. He bought a ring, got a dozen red roses, dressed in his one and only suit and went to her workplace, figuring she’d like a big fuss. Got down on one knee and asked the big question, and when she said, “Holy shit, Tom,” he took that as a yes. So did everyone else, because they laughed and cheered and congratulated her, and she did seem happy, blushing and looking at the ring.

  And that worked, for a while. She liked going dress shopping and tasting cakes and crossing people off the guest list when they irritated her, then putting them back on later (or not).

  But, Tom noticed, she was also growing more distant. They had sex less often. She went out more with the girls, and stayed out later. And then came the phone calls, when she’d leap to answer and then say, “Hold on a minute,” before dashing to the loo to talk, always locking the door behind her.

  By the time April rolled around, Tom was fairly positive she was having an affair. “Melissa, are you sure you want to marry me?” he said one night as they lay in the dark, not touching.

  “Oh, great. ” She sighed. “Yes, Tom, I want to marry you. I said I did, didn’t I? Can you not be an old woman about this?”

  He almost broke up with her a dozen times. But who was he fooling? If he ended things, he’d lose Charlie, and that was an intolerable thought. Maybe it was why she stayed with him as well—she might make snide references to the boys’ club, but her son adored Tom, and for the first time, Charlie had a steady male influence in his life, and Melissa, in one of her nicer moments, acknowledged that Tom was good for her boy.

  But those moments were becoming more and more rare.

  Then came the Friday that Tom came home to find her throwing some clothes into an overnight bag. “I’m going away for the weekend with a friend,” she said with a quick glance. “You’ll be around, right? Charlie hates staying with my parents. ”

  “Where are you going?” he asked. “Which friend?”

  “Can you not interrogate me, please?” she snapped.

  “Melissa,” he began, “I think I have a right to know where you’re going. ”

  She sighed. Stopped folding her clothes. He couldn’t help notice that her trashiest underwear was in the suitcase. “Look, Tom,” she said slowly. “I need a little thinking time. Okay? So don’t ask too many questions, because I just need some space, and I’ll see you Sunday. ”

  “Can I come, Mom?” asked Charlie from the doorway.

  “Not this time, baby,” she said, hefting her bag off the bed. “I’ll bring you a present, though, okay? Now smooch me. ” Charlie obliged, and the two of them went out on the porch to watch her leave.

  “Go back inside,” she ordered. “It’s chilly out here. Bye! See you Sunday. ”

  They obeyed. “What should we do tonight?” Charlie asked. “Can we go to the movies?”

  “Yeah, sure, mate,” Tom said. “Let me, uh, let me just get the paper to check the times, all right?”

  He went outside, into the little yard, scrubbing his hand across the back of his neck.

  There she was, four houses down, pulling her suitcase behind her. At the intersection sat a blue muscle car, one of those growling Detroit monsters. A man got out, opened the door for her, tossed her bag in the back, then got in the driver’s seat, and they were gone.

  Tom closed his mouth, tasting bile.

  So she was having an affair. He’d known it in his heart, but seeing it was the equivalent to a left hook to the kidneys.

  “He didn’t even come in,” came Charlie’s voice. Tom turned. The boy’s face was pale, his funny little eyebrows knit together.

  “Who, mate?” he asked, his voice hollow.

  “My dad. ”

  * * *

  MELISSA DIDN’T ANSWER her phone, though Tom left eleven messages, telling her Charlie had seen them and wanted to know very badly why his parents hadn’t taken him along. The bitterness in Tom’s own voice was shocking. One thing to be a bit of a whore, right? Another to be whoring around with your son’s father and not even bother having the man come in and say hello to the lad. Oh, and let’s not forget, asking your fiancé to babysit your kid while you were busy shagging someone else.

  But when she didn’t come home on Sunday, he waited till Charlie was watching the telly, then bit the bullet and called Janice Kellogg.

  “Oh, for God’s sake,” she said when he told her what Charlie had said. “Will she ever learn?”

  Ever since she’d first met Mitchell DeLuca, Janice said, he’d been like crack. On again, off again, on again, off again, the man waltzing into Charlie’s life, then disappearing for another year, sometimes more. Just enough to really screw the kid up.

  “Any idea where she might be? Charlie’s worried. Not eating, either. ”

  “I have no idea,” Janice said, sounding irritated rather than concerned. “Tom, if I could tell you how often this happens. . . We almost said something to you, Walter and I. I’m sure she’ll come back, though. She’s never left for more than a few days before those two have another huge fight and decide they hate each other again. Until they decide they can’t
live without each other, that is. ”

  Bloody great. “Thanks. ” He hung up and glanced in the living room, where some show with a loud laugh track was playing. Charlie was staring straight ahead. The little guy hadn’t said much since he’d seen his parents together. Tom started pushing in the numbers of Melissa’s friends, bleeding a little more dignity with every call.

  Melissa never did come back.

  According to Mitchell DeLuca, and the police report, they’d had a big fight, yelling loudly enough for the people in the next motel room to hear. Melissa had a few drinks. Took a walk. Decided to send Tom a text.

 

  Tom, you won’t be

 

  That was when the car hit her, killing her instantly.

  Awkward, being the cuckolded fiancé at the wake, standing next to the casket of the woman you thought you’d marry, right next to her parents and lover/ex-husband. Going home to her white-faced child, feeling like your throat was clenched in God’s fist. Utterly f**king helpless.

  Mitchell DeLuca came over after the funeral. “I’d like to talk to my son,” he told Tom amiably.

  And Tom, who had once knocked out Great Britain’s top-ranked middle-weight fighter with one punch, stood aside and let him come in.

  Charlie seemed to have shrunk since his mother left, but his face lit up at the sight of his father, and Tom’s heart lost another healthy chunk. “I’ll, um, I’ll start supper,” he said, going into the kitchen. That way he could eavesdrop from amid the casseroles left by the nice women from Aunt Candy’s church.

  “Am I gonna live with you now, Dad?” Charlie asked, and damn it all if tears didn’t come to Tom’s eyes. Say yes, you bastard, he ordered Mitchell.

  “Buddy, I wish you could,” and Tom could practically feel the boy’s heart break for the second time that week.

  His lifestyle, Mitchell told his son, wasn’t right for a kid. He traveled too much. He was sorry, though. Told Charlie to study hard in school, then ruffled his hair, stood up and simply left.

  Tom gave it two seconds, then went into the living room. “You all right, mate?”

  “He’s really sad he can’t take me,” Charlie whispered, and Tom had to fight not to run after the guy and beat him to a bloody pulp.

  “Absolutely,” he said instead. “You can tell he loves you a lot, though. ”

  “I know,” Charlie said, and it was the first time Tom heard the hatred in the little sweet voice he’d come to love.

  Tom asked the Kelloggs if he could adopt Charlie. They said no. After all, Tom hadn’t even known Charlie a year. What would a twenty-nine-year-old man want with a ten-year-old boy, anyway? He could come visit, if he wanted to.

  So Charlie moved in with his grandparents, and as they walked out of the little duplex for the last time, Charlie turned to him. For a second, Tom thought the boy might hug him.

  He was wrong. “Why were you so mean to her?” he screamed, throwing himself on Tom, punching him, scratching his face. “You made her leave! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”

  Charlie got grief counseling. It didn’t seem to work. Living in a different part of town meant he went to a different school, which didn’t make matters easier—a dead mum, an idiot father and now separated from his classmates. Tom kept visiting doggedly, watching as the little boy he loved became more and more withdrawn. Charlie seemed to be disappearing, not to mention aging overnight. No longer did he want to watch sci-fi movies or make model airplanes or kick around a soccer ball. His mother was dead, his father didn’t want him, his grandparents were doing only their duty and Tom. . . Tom was the reason for this whole mess.

 

 

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  A WEEK AFTER she’d moved into Tom Barlow’s house, Honor was thinking that she must’ve been insane (possible), drunk (improbable) or really, really pathetic (bingo) to have agreed to the whole idea.
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