Three hours later, Olivia was not only well fed and clutching a brown paper bag with two blue plastic containers, one full of leftover pasta and the other filled with Jerry’s special tomato sauce, which had been indeed, the best she’d ever had in her lifetime. Jerry had insisted she take some home. But she was also feeling giddy. Not even the presence of the man next to her or the dead woman sitting unusually quiet in the back of his car could make this feeling of contentment go away.
Olivia was glad she’d decided to accept her student’s invitation. As an outsider, it had been a real treat to watch the way her three hosts interacted with each other. Just as the young girl had described him, Michael was the one who would tease her at any given time and the one who’d make silly remarks that had everyone, including T.V. obsessed Emilia, laughing out loud.
Her student’s dad, Jerry, had to take on the role of the grown-up and break apart their harmless arguments as Camie and Michael would start bickering like a couple of little kids. Michael used every chance he got to complain about his life ever since Camie and her dad had moved in to live with him. If it hadn’t been for the love glowing bright golden inside Michael’s eyes, Olivia would’ve been fooled that having father and daughter under the same roof was indeed a huge imposition.
“So, not all of the Hurst men are such jerks, ha?”
Michael brought her back from the echoes of the dinner’s conversations. He was driving with both his hands on the steering wheel but sneaking sideway glances at her, as he waited for her reply.
The moonlight reached the interior of the car, through the sun roof above them, causing his profile to be an amalgam of silver and a glint of black silk as the pale light caressed his hair.
“No, they’re not. Jerry is such an amazing father and I can tell he’s doing everything he can to make the divorce situation less of a strain on Camie’s life.”
“Both are doing their best. Nancy is a good mom and I think that’s one of the reasons she knew that leaving Camie with her father was what was best for her. Despite her being an only child, Jerry and Nancy never spoiled their daughter.”
“I would’ve figured you siding with your brother and hating your ex-sister-in-law.”
“I thought so, too, at first. But like I said, they’ve been really careful not to get nasty and ugly in front of their kid. I won’t lie, I think my brother is better off without her, but I have to remember she is the mother of my niece. And despite all her flaws, she’ll always put her kid first.”
“That is evident. It shows on how Camie is with her father and with you. Most kids in her situation would be acting out. You know, besides the normal teenage I-hate-the-world phase we all went through. Camie is doing a great job at making her dad not worry about her. Someone else would have probably, number one, not invited her history teacher to dinner and second, would really be making both your brother’s live and yours a living hell. I was a teenager once and my parents…..they never saw it coming.”
Michael took this slight opening to learn more about her. Nonchalantly yet intrigued, he said.
“I seriously doubt you were one of those teenagers.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, the type that got tattoos, pierced her body, started dressing funny, slammed doors at every chance she got just to annoy her parents. That sort of teenager.”
“No. I was more the stubborn one. I used to get into loud arguments with my dad.”
“Because he, too, can be very stubborn. So, whenever I wanted to do something I believed I had a right to, he would always say no way. I think my mom at some point thought of locking us away inside the same room so she could have some peace. As for the whole I’ll-dye-my-hair-purple-because-I-want-to or I’ll-make-extra-holes-on-my-body didn’t appeal to me. The painful truth is that I’m very much of a chicken, except…”
Michael lingered at the stop sign to get a better look at her. Her lips were curved in a mischievous smile as her right hand rested on top of her belly over her black wool sweater.
“Except for what?”
Should she tell him? Regardless of tonight’s dinner, he was still a total stranger. But then again……..what was the harm? So maybe she had antagonized with him during their first meeting, that didn’t mean he wasn’t just a nice decent guy that didn’t want to date her or was part of Emilia’s supernatural plan.
“Except for this one time with my best friend Tracy. I sort of had had a little bit, too, much to drink and got my belly button pierced. I wanted to die after I did it and just yank it off. But as I got used to it, I started to like it. So, as far as rebellious behavior goes, mine came when I turned twenty-five.”
Olivia’s laugh at his baffled stare filled the space around them. God, how he’d enjoyed listening to that full of life sound as it had come out naturally during tonight’s dinner. Normally, another woman or person coming to a strange house for the first time would’ve been guarded and maybe just an observer rather than a participant. However, he’d already known from the moment he’d set eyes on her, that this woman was not like anyone he had met before.
For a while, she’d had the whole table captivated by her own memories from her childhood and how being an only child hadn’t stopped her from getting into trouble every now and then. The image of this woman, who as a kid decided it would be interesting to find out how many jelly beans she could stick inside her nose before she had to be rushed off to the hospital, or who one time assumed that her father’s car could also run on water just because she wanted someone to drive her to the ice cream parlor, was shockingly not conflicting at all with her current role as a teacher.
If only, it was just one more layer to her personality. Michael didn’t yet understand why he had this pushing desire to go through all of them.
And now he had this haunting image of her belly-ring roaming inside his head. Just another reason why it was imperative this didn’t turn into the first and only time they saw each other.
“You’ve got a piercing?” He asked, wondering if she was just pulling his leg.
That had Emilia coming back from her own reverie and having an amused and loud reaction. The ghost thought she had Olivia all figured out. As it turned out, the teacher had one or two naughty secrets of her own.
What about you, Emilia?
“You mean do I have extra holes in my body? No. I belonged to the other group, though. I thought the only way to let go of all the frustration that kicks in the second you turn thirteen was to become a redhead. So, when I was sixteen I dyed my hair copper red.”
Redhead? But you’re a brunette now. What happened?
“Let’s just say one day I opened my eyes and wanted nothing more but to yank my hair straight out from the roots. It was such a fashion faux pas that I literally had to burn all the pictures from that time. It was awful.”
“I wouldn’t mention the belly thing to Camie or my brother.” Michael brought her attention back to the car.
“Why? Are you one of those people who think a tattoo or a pierced belly button means they’re less reliable? Afraid I might be a bad influence on Camie or that you’re brother will decide to change his daughter to a different school?”
Olivia eyed him disdainfully, her decision to be nice completely forgotten.
“Jesus, woman. You have to stop doing that. Not every word that comes out of my mouth is meant to annoy you. In fact, not a single word I’ve uttered since meeting you has been said with that intention.”
Her cheeks began to prickle as a tiny wave of shame washed over her and settled uncomfortably inside the enclosed space of the car.
Michael let out a tired sigh and tightened his grip on the steering wheel to get a hold of his own bubbling temper starting to rise. Either she really hated his guts, or there was some underlying feeling much in tune with the turmoil of emotions going on inside him that was the cause of her antagonism toward him. Every fiber of his being was rooting for option number two.
“In case you didn’t notice, and if indeed you didn’t, then you’re aren’t as smart as I pegged you for from the beginning. Camie doesn’t only like you because history is her favorite subject. When she says you’re favorite, cool Ms. B, it means she looks up to you.”
This comment lowered her defenses. Olivia made her eyes stay on Michael’s profile while she said.
“I did notice that, and it’s confusing. I feel honored Camie thinks of me that way, especially since we’ve only known each other for so little.”
“Let’s just say she is a very good judge of character. And now that she knows you share some other stuff such as being an only child and your passion for books, she’ll see you as her role model. And as you smartly pointed out before, she’s still a teenager. Which means she’s prone to do some rebellious stuff of her own. If she learns the woman she looks up to has a piercing on her navel, I guarantee you she’ll think it will be cool to get one, too. And trust me, if that came to happen, then it would be armageddon inside the walls of my house and frankly, I’m quite attached to my place.”
“Okay, so that explains Camie. But what about your brother?”
“Olivia, armageddon, remember? He’s a dad, which means he gets to freak out about every decision or crazy idea his daughter comes or will come up with in the future.”
“I guess it makes sense.” Olivia broke contact and saw they were already approaching her street.
“Nonetheless, if that were to happen, I doubt the outcome would be as grim as you picture it. If things with Jerry get out of control, she’ll always have you to turn to.”
“God forbid. I seriously don’t want to end up in the middle.” He shivered as he considered the possibility and saw nothing but chaos, a very unattractive scenario with him pulling his hair out and cowardly hiding under the bed. Women were special and had to be handled with care, a teenage girl required an extra dosage of those two components. Not that he would do less for Camie.
Michael’s car slowed down and stopped in front of the steps going up to her front door. Instead of getting out, Olivia lingered inside the car. Her careful scrutiny sent little shock waves all through his system. He wondered what would happen to those captivating eyes if he decided to lean forward and brush her lips with his.
“You don’t mean that. You love them both very much.”
“What makes you say such an awful thing?” Michael pretended to sound offended and put off by her words.
“I’m smart, remember?” She winked.
“Right. Well…..maybe I only put on a good show, as apparently I have a habit of doing, so you would soften toward me.”
“Nope. Not even you with your impressive acting skills would’ve been able to put on such a believable charade. You care enough for them that you were willing to sacrifice your alone space just so they could have a stable place to live in. Especially Camie, you love her as if she were your own daughter.”
Michael could keep on teasing, but why deny the obvious? Amazingly so, just a few hours with them, and Olivia had him all figured out, at least when it came to his family. Besides, he could feel her softening toward him, letting her face relax and shedding off the permanent frown on her face that she seemed to reserve only for him. Honesty would be the best course of action at this point.
“When I got down to the hospital where Nancy had Camie, I didn’t have any idea what kind of an uncle I was going to be. I’m eleven years younger than Jerry, so when Camie came along, I was eighteen. I mean, at that age, when your big brother has a baby, you probably won’t be as thrilled or think much of it as you would do when you’re much older. But the minute he put her in my arms, and those eyes just like mine and my brother’s opened up to stare curiously at me, I was a goner. Even though I went away for college, I always made it a habit of spending at least a week of my free time with my brother and taking care of Camie.”
“Okay, now that’s what I call an endangered species.”
Soundlessly, Emilia shifted in her seat so she could stick her face in between Olivia’s and Michael’s stares.
*Sigh* I suppose you are right. The other woman conceded.
“They’re lucky to have you.” Olivia admitted sincerely.
Alarmed by how part of her wanted to keep talking to Michael, she mentally shook off the image of Michael tenderly holding his baby niece in his arms and started to gather her things from the car’s floor.
“I should go inside. Thanks for the ride.”
Olivia opened the passenger door and without expecting Michael to follow her, she started to run up the stairs to her house.
“Hey, Olivia, hold on.” Michael was now slamming the door of his car and agilely climbing up the stairs, until he stopped mere inches away from Olivia. Her hand halted halfway to the door knob.
“I want to see you again.” Michael’s kind eyes took a good look. Under the glare of the overhead lamp, he could already see the refusal starting to form a slight crease on her forehead.
Emilia not only sensed it, but could physically see Olivia’s body pulling back. She could also hear a blur of words meant to reject Michael’s second attempt at asking her out coming from her mind.
“Arghh! You alive people like to complicate everything. Just tell me something. If Noah wasn’t in the picture, would you give Michael a chance?”
I…..it’s not that easy, I just can’t erase Noah like he’s some insignificant name I can just scratch off from my life.
“Answer the damn question, Olivia. Honestly, would you give the man next to you a chance?”
Impatience made her mentally snap at Emilia as she thought.
I’m sick of this. Let me reverse the question. If it were you, would you give him a chance if you were still alive and with Sam?
“We are not talking about me now.” Her voice came out as a warning.
Then, back off. If you can’t come up with an easy answer to that, then don’t ask me to do the same.
This time, the tears came out in a torrent. Emilia closed her eyes as she went through the closed door and disappeared into the kitchen and then into the darkness of the basement.
Ah, damn it.
“Olivia?” Michael reached out to hold her limp hands. He’d seen the change from frustration to an unmistakable sadness. It had crept around the corners of her eyes, and was now making her eyes shine with the evident threat of tears.
“I can’t …..Michael. I just….I can’t.”
Michael never knew when was it that his hands went from squeezing hers to framing her startled face. This time he didn’t think about the consequences and just let his body take control of his mind.
His lips came crushing down on hers, muffling the shocked gasp that escaped from her. For something that had been hunting his peace of mind ever since meeting her, the real thing didn’t do his daydreams justice.
The taste of her was like an explosion of flavors inside his mouth that sent tremors coursing from his head to the soles of his feet. She tasted spicy, like a forbidden fruit mixed in with the comforting and sweet taste of her strawberry flavored lip gloss. Soon, his hands went from holding her face in place, to grabbing a fistful of her chestnut brown hair and feeling the soft texture of it. In a final act of surrender, Olivia’s hands lifted up and circled around his neck. Olivia’s body pressed against his and eliminated both the emotional and physical distance that separated them.
The kiss had started as a desperate attempt from Michael to show her what she was doing to him. At first, he had tasted the last traces of frustration as he could feel her fighting him off. Then her lips parted under his and soon, her soft moans were vibrating through him, urging him to take more, before reason returned to any of them.
Olivia clung to his neck because she knew she would dissolve into the night if she let go. Her body shivered when it pressed against his and the strong feel of hard muscle underneath sent her sensations spiraling out of control. The world around them had suddenly been wiped away and all there still existed was the frantic pounding of her heart and the sounds of their ragged breathing as she continued to shed away the last traces of self-control.
And just as she thought her heart would burst from all the feelings conquering it, Noah’s face appeared sketched by a fine mist floating from the back of her mind. The same kind caring face she’d seen ten years ago, when this new kid walked into her class and became the most important person in her life.
It was like someone had punched her with a fist right in the middle of the stomach, whooshing out all the air from inside. With what was left of her strength, she lowered her hands and used whatever part of her brain was still functioning to order her arms to push hard against Michael’s chest and break the passionate contact. This time, her gasp was full of shame and guilt as she closed her eyes and could see Noah’s face contorting at her betrayal.
Michael’s head was reeling, and the earth underneath him trembled like jelly. There was a loud roar coming from his ears, while his blood still boiled perilously with the sudden passion that had been set free by their kiss.
Even before she spoke again, Michael knew he was already losing her. Although this time, her brows furrowed not in annoyance but in anguish and guilt. Some of that guilt snuck up on him to, as he hadn’t meant to lose control like this.
“No…..just don’t. Michael, please. You need to go.”
Her next words cut him off and confused him.
“This is wrong.”
“What? The kiss? Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to apologize for it. Not when I know we both felt something.”
“No…I mean, yes. The kiss, everything. This….it can’t happen.”
“Olivia, what the hell are you saying? Don’t you see what’s happening here? I understand that you’re scared and unsettled by all this. Hell, I am freaking out. I have been freaking out since I first met you. Because this is the first time a woman, her scent, your scent, your voice, everything about you has gotten past the shell of my skin and taken over me.”
Olivia’s eyes widened in horror at his words. This was beyond wrong, this was like an accident waiting to happen and she had to put a stop to it right now.
“Michael, stop. I’m begging you. This kiss means nothing, and you and I can never mean anything.”
“God, why are you fighting this? What is wrong with finding out what the hell is happening between us?”
She turned in a haste, taking her house key from her purse and unlocking the door. Michael’s hand grabbed her by the elbow as she tried to get inside.
“Give me one good reason why you think this is a mistake.” His voice came out impatient with just an edge of anger to it. This wasn’t about his male pride being stepped on, this was him being scared shitless by how fast he knew he was falling under her spell. Part of him didn’t like it at all.
“Fine. You want a good reason? Then, here it is. I have a boyfriend. Have had for the past ten years.”
It cut her deep when a flash of hurt flashed across his look of dismay. His hand let go of her elbow, as she saw it dawn on him that he wasn’t supposed to be touching her like that.
Finally, she crossed the threshold and gently shut the door behind her. Dropping her bag to the floor, Olivia leaned against the door and felt the tears spilling out, as she cried over what she’d done to Noah, but also why what she’d just done to Michael.