The perfect match, p.53
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       The Perfect Match, p.53

         Part #2 of Blue Heron series by Kristan Higgins
 
Page 53

  Author: Kristan Higgins

  “Wow. Thanks, lady. ”

  Oh, the attitude. “And I’m sorry your father is such a shit. ”

  “He’s not! He’s not at all!” Spike barked again. “My dad is great. ”

  “You want to be treated like an adult? Then you need to grow up. Open your eyes, Charlie. Your father breezes in and out of your life when he feels like it, then dumps you off at your grandparents’ when he’s got other plans. ”

  “It’s not like that. ”

  “It’s exactly like that, and pretending it’s otherwise doesn’t help you one bit. ”

  Charlie opened his mouth to protest, then shut it, his eyes filling. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, looked at the ground. A tear fell on his black jeans. She put her arm around his skinny shoulders. “I hate you,” he said.

  “I’m sure you do. But, Charlie, Tom. . . Tom loves you. His whole life has been about you since the day you first met, and he was willing to marry a stranger just to stay near you. ”

  Oops. Maybe shouldn’t have mentioned that. Charlie gave her a sidelong glance. “What are you talking about?”

  She ran a hand through her hair and sighed. “Wickham College wasn’t going to renew his work visa, and to stay in this country—to stay near you, Charlie—he had to find someone to marry to get a green card. Me. ”

  “I don’t believe you. ”

  “Fine. You don’t have to. You can spend your time being bitter and hateful because your mother went away and died and your father is an ass, or you can acknowledge that there’s a person who’s loved you since the day he met you and moved heaven and earth and was willing to risk being sent to jail for fraud to be near you. Your choice. ”

  He didn’t answer.

  She’d tried. Maybe she shouldn’t have said what she did, but it was a little late for that.

  Taking Spike’s leash, she stood up to leave, then paused. “Do you need a ride home? I rode my bike here, but I can call my dad. ”

  Charlie didn’t look at her. “I’ll walk home. ”

  “I’ll call your grandmother in an hour and make sure you got there. ”

  He rolled his eyes. But he didn’t protest, either, and after another beat, Honor left.

 

 

  CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

  WHEN JANICE KELLOGG called, telling him in a whisper that Mitchell Kellogg had returned Charlie, Tom’s fist clenched so hard around his coffee mug that it broke, and the red haze colored his vision.

  “Can you take him for a few hours? He’s killing us,” Janice said. “Honestly, how did we get into this?”

  “Of course,” Tom said.

  “We’ll drop him off in ten minutes. ”

  “Brilliant. ”

  Tom’s heart was roaring in his ears. A shard of coffee mug was sticking out of his palm, and without feeling it, he pulled it out.

  That f**king Mitchell. Did he have really so little heart that he’d return his son, his boy, back to the Kelloggs like a dog who hadn’t quite worked out being brought back to the pound? No, that wasn’t fair. The pound had standards. They wouldn’t let a person like Mitchell DeLuca take a vicious pit bull, let alone a lovely boy like Charlie. He’d been lovely once, at any rate. He was probably ruined now. How much could a child take, after all?

  He cleaned up the broken mug and spilled coffee and bandaged his hand. Then the front door opened, and Charlie walked in.

  “Hello, mate,” Tom said as gently as he knew how.

  The kid didn’t even pause, just shuffled past, his horrible jeans dragging on the floor, the chain from his belt clinking, and went upstairs, ninety pounds of hate and misery. After a second, Tom followed.

  Charlie stood in his room, looking around as if he’d never seen it before.

  “I’m sorry about your dad,” Tom said.

  The boy turned and looked at him, his expression incredulous. Then he turned to the bureau, where the Stearman PT-17 waited, still unfinished, seized it in both hands and hurled it to the floor. It exploded, pieces flying everywhere, and Charlie picked up his foot and stomped on it, again and again and again, obliterating it, the crunching sound sickening, his screaming far worse. Then he ripped down the Manchester United poster, then flew to the nighttable, to the photo of Charlie and Melissa, and hurled it against the wall.

  He tore the comforter from the bed, kicked the nighttable over and then, having run out of things to destroy, collapsed to his knees, the sounds coming from him soul-shredding, and then Tom was kneeling there among the shards of airplane, wrapping his arms around the boy.

  “Get off me! I hate you! I hate you!” Charlie struggled against him, but Tom didn’t let go.

  “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry, mate. I’m so sorry. ”

  Charlie punched him, tried to wrench away, but Tom was bigger and stronger, and for once, it mattered. Charlie punched him again. “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you,” he said, but the last one was just a sob.

  He went limp, hoarse sobs shuddering out of him, racking his whole body, and Tom closed his eyes and held him tighter.

  “Why do you still love me?” Charlie choked out, and the words cracked Tom’s heart.

  “I don’t know,” Tom whispered, kissing the boy’s hair. “I just do. I always will. ”

  “He doesn’t want me,” Charlie said with a sob, and Tom’s heart broke entirely.

  “It’s his loss. ” God, he wished he could do better, find the words that would heal this boy’s heart. “I’m so sorry, Charlie, but I’m more sorry for him. ”

  The boy cried and cried, and Tom didn’t dare move, for fear that Charlie would lock himself in his room, or run away and never be found. He held him tight and shushed him and wished he could think of something more to do. But eventually, the sobbing tapered off.

  “Don’t you hate my mother?” Charlie asked, his face still hidden against Tom’s shoulder. “She left you for someone else, and you got stuck with the kid she didn’t want. ”

  Tom pulled back to look at Charlie’s face. The kid looked heartbreakingly young. “I think she really did love your dad, Charlie. She wanted to work things out so the three of you could be a proper family. I don’t hate her. I loved her. And yeah, she hurt me and the whole bit, but that’s life, mate. ”

  “She was so stupid, texting when she was crossing the street. She didn’t have to die. ”

  “I know. But she didn’t leave you, Charlie. She left me. ”

  “She did, though. She and my father went off without me. ”

  “For a weekend. She never would have left you for good. You were her best thing. ”

  “Do you know that, or are you just saying that to make me feel better?”

  “I know it. ” He looked into Charlie’s eyes, ringed with smeared eyeliner. “I think the reason she stayed with me for as long as she did was because she thought I might be good for you. ”

  Something flickered through Charlie’s eyes. “Were you really gonna marry Honor so you could stay near me?”

  “Who told you that?”

  “She did. ”

  Something squeezed his chest. “Yes. ”

  Charlie mulled that over, then used his sleeve to wipe his eyes (and nose; honestly, boys were disgusting. . . he’d been the same way).

  The boy was quiet for a long minute before he spoke again. “Tom?”

  “Yes, mate?”

  Charlie rubbed his eyes. “You know how you call me your stepson?”

  “Yeah. ”

  “I hate that. ”

  “Right. I just don’t know what else to call you. I won’t do it anymore. ”

  “Maybe you could just. . . ” Charlie’s voice broke. “Maybe you could drop the step. ”

  Tom bent his head, the feeling so overwhelming it would’ve brought him to his knees if he hadn’t already been there. He pulled Charlie into a hug, and the b
oy let him, and if it wasn’t completely returned, it would be. Someday in the not-too-distant future, it would be, and Tom could wait.

  From the floor, Melissa’s face smiled up at him from its broken frame.

  All this time, Tom realized in the ruins of the room, he thought he was staying so he could save Charlie.

  It was the other way around. Charlie had given him a family, a purpose, a place.

  In fact, it was Charlie who had saved him.

 

 

  CHAPTER THIRTY

  ON A BEAUTIFUL spring day, in front of the old maple tree where the swing still hung, Dad and Mrs. Johnson got married, and Mrs. J. became Mrs. H.

  Jack was Honor’s date for the event. “That makes me feel really gross,” Jack said. “Like I’m Connor O’Rourke or something. ”

  “I know. And we’re not even twins, so we have no excuse,” Honor said.

  The reception was right there in the yard, as neither bride nor groom had wanted a fuss. Goggy wept loudly through the whole thing and repeated again and again that Mrs. Johnson was like a daughter to her (despite their two-decade rivalry over who made the better turkey on Thanksgiving, but it was a nice thought). Pops forgot about the wedding and had to be fetched from where he was crooning to the grapes. Faith twined some flowers in Mrs. J. ’s hair, and Abby played the wedding march on her saxophone.

  The ceremony was brief and beautiful.

  As they sat down to the picnic lunch, Pru, as eldest, made the toast. “Dad, Mrs. J. — Hey, what should we call you, by the way? Anyway, I hope you’re happy and have a great time discovering each other, you know what I’m saying, and, oh, gosh, I don’t know, I guess we can’t hope for more siblings, because that would be gross, and how old are you, anyway, Mrs. J. ? It doesn’t matter. Long life, happy times and great sex, you two. ”

  “Wow, Mom,” Abby said, pointing to her eyes. “Tears. ”

  “So? Not everyone is great at public speaking,” Prudence said, chugging some wine.

  “Are you saying you’re not great?” Ned asked.

  “Honor, say something nicer than I did,” Pru ordered. “These panty hose are riding where no man has gone before, can I say that?”

  “Dear God,” Levi murmured as Faith wheezed with laughter.

  “Just fifteen months till I go to college,” Abby said. “But who’s counting?”

  Honor stood and looked at her father, who was quite dapper in his suit, and Mrs. Johnson in her beautiful, elegant dress. “You two,” she began, feeling a smile start in her heart. “Look at you. All these years, Mrs. Johnson, you’ve taken care of us. Cleaned for us, cooked for us, yelled at us. I can’t remember a school concert or graduation you missed. And all these years, you watched Dad by himself, doing his best to be happy. But some people just aren’t whole unless they have someone to love, and I think Dad’s one of them. ” Dad wiped his eyes and kissed Mrs. J. “And, Dad, what a brave guy you are, daring to kiss Mrs. J. that first time when it must’ve seemed like she was going to bean you with a pot!”

  “I was brave,” Dad said. “Thanks for noticing. ”

  Honor grinned. “So thank you, Dad, for picking such a great woman, and thank you, Mrs. J. , for loving our father, and for being our second mother all these years. ”

  “Hear, hear,” said Jack, and Mrs. Johnson bustled over and gave Honor a watery kiss. Then Abby put on her iPod, and Etta James’s voice came over the speaker. “At Last. ” Indeed.

  Cars drove by and honked their horns, as news of the wedding had been broadcast. Dad and Mrs. J. started dancing. Faith and Levi, Pru and Carl, Ned and Abby, Goggy and Pops, joined in, and when Jack sighed and stood up, extending his hand to Honor, she took it.

  “I hate weddings,” he said, stepping on her foot.
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