By: Aria Cage

WE FINISH DINNER AND Charlie’s edgy. It’s clear she doesn’t want to be here, which feels so wrong, considering once here was the only place she felt safe in the world.

But I know better than most that a lot can change. What hasn’t changed though, is the heat between us. I felt it in the hospital, even in my drugged state; there was no way I was staying there knowing she was at Nona’s. I had to be near her again. I had to see if she feels what I feel; the undeniable need to be together, even after everything. I need her, but more than that, I need her to need me.

“Boys, I think Charlie is tired, and Nathan, you need your rest,” Nona announces, gathering the glasses from the table. “David, help me with the dishes before Charlie leaves. Nathan, I will help you to your old room in a minute.”

David does what he’s told without argument; he always does, and I sigh heavily as they leave the room. I love them, and would die for them, but I could have kicked their asses out over half an hour ago. At least Nona’s endless questions gave me some answers, even if most of them were lies. Yeah, Charlie had lied a lot, and it hurt Nona’s feelings, I could see that, but she understands. Charlie has always been complex, and there have been a lot of years for her to bury herself deep.

“So are you going to tell me the truth?” I ask, and try to sit up.

She rushes to me and props my pillow. “What do you mean?”

“Don’t do that. Not to me. There might be a lot of years between our histories; nonetheless, we will always mean more than to bullshit like that.” It takes everything in me not to touch her, but I have to leave it in her court. Men have manipulated and taken too much from her already. I want her to make the choice to touch me first.

She nods, and I pat the edge of the sofa beside me. She chooses to drag the coffee table closer and sit on that instead. At least she didn’t run away, I guess. I hold my hand out, and she looks at it before taking it in hers. One baby step at a time, one choice at a time.

“How are you really?”

She shrugs and smiles a little. Her pink, plump lips are so beautiful; I find it hard not to stare.

“I’m doing okay. I love my job. I’m good at it… usually. I kinda froze when I saw it was you today. I should have left the room if I couldn’t do the job.”

Shit. “Will you get in trouble?”

“No, Paul wasn’t happy, but he’ll come round.”

The boyfriend. The sound of his name makes me sick. Which is pathetic and hypocritical, because I’ve had girlfriends, they just weren’t the one. They weren’t Charlie. It’s hard to keep a relationship alive when you picture another woman while you’re making love.

“Paul,” I say, attempting to hold back the disdain… the jealousy.

She slips her hand from mine, and I regret it right away. I’m a jackass.

“Don’t say his name like that. He’s a good man.”

“Well thank you, Charlotte,” came a stranger’s voice.

“What the fuck?” At the entryway beside Nona was a slim man in a suit with a hard face and a deep frown as he eyes Charlie and then me.

“Nathan, language, please,” Nona chides.

“Sorry, Nona.” I am because she hates cussing, but Jesus H, he scared me and Charlie half to death. He scared her so damn bad she’s shaking. I know who he is; I remember seeing him during my scout of Charlie’s happiness.

“How did you know I was here?” Charlie asks quietly, before rushing to his side. He wraps his arm around her and she cringes. Fucking cringes. She doesn’t move away, but she definitely isn’t comfortable. What in the hell is going on?

“Mister Shaw left the hospital before he could get his medication, personal belongings, and proper care. You told me he was family, so as soon as I heard he unofficially checked himself out, I figured I’d find him, and you, here.” He stopped studying me and begins to regard her. “You didn’t answer your phone, so I came unannounced.”

She doesn’t meet his stare, and that concerns me. The whole thing concerns me. I want to get up off this sofa and… and do what, Dumbass? He is her boyfriend, the man she trusts, the man she―don’t go there. I won’t be able to fucking erase it, if I go there.

I feel I need to help her for some reason. It’s an old feeling I recognize all too well. I don’t like this guy, and it has nothing to do with the fact I’m jealous as all fuck he has her. This is a gut feeling, and over the years I have come to know and trust my gut. I just wish I had summoned the courage to “accidentally” meet him before now.

“I don’t do hospitals or institutions well; I’ll heal better right here,” I say to get his attention away from her, and it works. He clearly doesn’t like me, either, or the fact Charlie is here with me. I hate that we have that in common.

“I bet. I guess prison does that to a man.”

Motherfucker. I push from the sofa and grit against the pain. I’m the same height as Paul, but wider in the chest, fitter. You can thank prison for that, fucker.

“Paul,” Charlie gasps and takes a step from his embrace. “That is uncalled for.”

“I agree, young man. You don’t know the life my grandson has been through for those he loves,” Nona interjects, and I wish she would go back to the kitchen. This guy is an ass, and I don’t want him to upset her. What’s more, I don’t want to upset her.

Paul directs an incredulous glare toward Charlie. “Charlotte, he’s an ex-con. I was just stating a fact. I’m sure he is man enough to own his history.”

“Maybe so,” she says. “But you don’t know his history.” I’m proud and relieved she is standing up for what she believes in, and for me. Though, it concerns me hugely that she allows him to call her Charlotte. He called her Charlotte.

“Funny that. Maybe it’s because you have never mentioned him before. I thought you had no family; well, that’s what you told me. If he didn’t show up in the ER today, would you have told me you had an ex-con brother?”

“Brother?” I say and she whips around and glares at me. Clearly I’m supposed to be her brother and nothing else. Jesus fucking Christ. We are far from siblings.

“I think we all just need to calm down now,” Nona’s strong voice breaks through. “We are all tired and our emotions are high. Charlie, dear, it was wonderful to catch up again.” Nona actually starts to usher Charlie and Paul out the entryway. She may be getting old, and her long hair now completely white, but she has an inner ballsy attitude and won’t take shit.