Loose Ends Ch. 14byTangledinYou©
She didn't need to turn around. Travis' arm was encircling her waist, pulling her into a cold embrace of ownership. Not real love. Not desire. Just a man claiming what little victory he had over the opponent that won the race before it even began.
"She's all yours man," Gabriel said finally. "You win."
He lifted himself from the wall and turned his back on her again, his words ringing in her ears like a taunt.
She couldn't speak for him unequivocally, but she had a hunch that the last thing Travis felt like was a winner.
Welcome to the club, she thought. I don't feel like much of a winner either...
Nicole sat across from Travis, scooping up a spoonful of Cap'n Crunch and waiting for him to acknowledge the persistent stare aimed at him. He was refusing to receive the smile that was waiting for him if he ever decided to treat her like a human being. For two days she'd been little more than a piece of furniture propped up in the various rooms of their home. He hadn't even grunted at her except for the night of the reception...
They'd come home in silence. She'd reached out and touched his shoulder as he took off his suit jacket. It was a silent apology for the night of awkwardness that couldn't have been avoided by him if he'd wanted to. There was no right answer for Travis, not when Gabriel was the best man of the groom, and Nicole was the sister and sister in law of the newly weds. There was no escape from worry and the unrelenting reminders of what Gabriel meant to her, the toll that had taken on their relationship. Either he stayed at home and waited to see if she ran back into his arms, or he went and suffered through a mixture of icy stares and longing glances. Either way, he was the outsider in this equation. She felt that as surely as she felt his shoulder under her shaking fingertips.
She expected him to brush her off, to ignore her. She expected uncertainty and anger. She didn't expect him to reach up and touch her fingertips gently with his, his head drooping with a fatigue that echoed her own. She dared to move closer, to show him that he wasn't alone, even if he'd spent the last couple of months feeling that way. He responded in kind by turning into her hand and kissing her palm softly, almost reverently. She'd never deserve the way he felt about her, the worship that resided in his touch even now.
A striking thought hit her, and Gabriel's words echoed in her head. He'd never felt like he deserved her love and admiration, not to the extent that she was willing to give it. He hadn't meant to take advantage of that anymore than she'd meant to take advantage of Travis. But faith and love had conspired against them, and here she stood once again echoing Gabriel's journey in her own life.
She wanted this to end differently. She wanted to take away Travis' pain and stop being the cause of it in the first place. She used the same hand he still held against his lips to turn his face to hers. The kiss she placed on his lips was soft, gentle. The kiss he returned only started out that way.
Then it became something more. Something harder. He turned his body all the way into hers, pulling her into an almost painful embrace, but she didn't recoil. She gave into what he wanted, because it had been so long since he'd wanted her in a way that didn't make them both feel numb. This was passion and anger and longing. This was the kiss of a man that had been submerged and was now coming up for air.
It all happened so fast. His fingers were on her zipper, roughly pulling it down with one hand, while the other stripped off the strap dangling loosely on her shoulder. She gasped for breath in between kisses, and before she knew it she was backed up with no place left to go, then bouncing on the bed, wearing only heels, underwear and shock.
The snap and clink of his belt unbuckling, the way he peeled his shirt off his lean torso, even the way he stared down at her heaving chest and half naked body, made her slick and tingly.
But even with all that, something was off. He stared at her body as he slid her panties off. Not her eyes. And the hunger to be touched, the impending release, was a pale shadow in comparison to the heat Gabriel had inspired. With just a few choice words and a look, however cruel those words were meant to be, he'd set her on fire.
There shouldn't have been any time to think about that altercation, or about Gabriel period. There shouldn't have been a thought for the man that had tried to humiliate her with remembrances of the mistakes she'd made. Still, when Travis tugged her hips down to the edge of the bed, shoved his pants down and off, and lined himself up with her quivering body, she found herself flashing back to similar moments with Gabe.
Even during the roughest, dirtiest moments, he'd still been connected to her. His eyes would lock on hers, his fingers coursing over every bare inch of skin. Every fiber of his being used to scream he wanted her as much as he wanted to be inside of her. With Travis, this moment was rendered cold, almost perfunctory if hadn't been for the long stretch of deprivation that fed her hunger to be filled.
She wanted to grab hold of Travis' face, pull it down to hers and kiss him like she always did. She wanted his tenderness, but he didn't have any tenderness to give her. Just lust. Just release. When it was all over, he barely looked at her. He simply pulled out, pulled away, and turned towards the bathroom on shaky legs to wash off the remnants of their coupling. He took all of his warmth with him, leaving her cold and alone for the rest of the night. More punishment. More penance. It was all more than she could take.
He started to get up, wiping her mind clean of that painful night where she slept in a ball on his side of the bed and tried desperately to cry in silence. He'd slept in the living room that night, unable to hear her, unable to care.
This time, however, she didn't want to be silent. This time she would make him care. She'd been silent for months, and something in her had broken at the reception. Something in her when she talked to Gabriel had ignited a need to speak plain and true, the way she used to before fear had choked her resolve.
So, she stood and walked around the table, placing herself in front of him. He had the presence of mind to be shocked. His blue eyes widened and his pink lips parted as he stared down at her.
"Where are you going?" she asked him.
Immediately he closed up on her, refusing to show any sort of remorse as he side stepped her. She wasn't letting up though. She slid in front of him and blocked his path again.
"Nicole, can you move, please?"
"Why? This seems to be the only way you'll even look at me. So, why should I move?"
"Because I have somewhere I need to be," he said.
"And where is that?"
He clenched his jaw and shifted his weight. She was almost scared of the latent disgust in his gaze. How dare you judge me, his eyes seemed to say. What right did she have to ask for anything other than what he was willing to give?
"You seriously going to ask me where I'm going?" he chastised. His disbelieving smirk filled her with doubt. "What? You afraid you can't trust me now?"
He side stepped her and headed towards the bedroom to change, forcing her to follow and speak to his back.
"I never said that. As a matter of fact, the last couple of months I haven't said anything because I've been trying to give you space," she said quietly as she watched him swap out his t-shirt for a black button down that made his eyes blaze a brighter blue by contrast.
His sigh was heavy, and the sound of the dark jeans he'd chosen to wear was heavier as he slapped them down on the bed.
"Do you want a medal or something? You haven't cheated in months. But why would you?"
"What is that suppo—," she started to yell, then realized that Preston was in the other room sleeping, a temporary house guest since Jackie and Ian took off for their honeymoon the day before. She and lowered her voice and asked, "What is that supposed to mean?"
"It means you've been too busy following me around like a puppy dog to cheat on me again. Every look, every smile, every time you touch me, it's like you're saying 'I'm sorry, Travis. I'm sorry that I lied to you, that I didn't really love you after all.'
Nicole swallowed and blinked back the tears that were always ready to come up to the surface.
"Some things you can't fix as quickly as you like, Nicole, no matter how much you try to smile it away. Trusting you again is going to take a lot more time than this."
She wrapped an arm around her waist, the other braced on it so that she could attack her thumb nail. Anything would do to keep her emotions at bay, even a horrible habit like biting her nails.
"So, I'm just supposed to sit patiently in my corner, and wait for the day you decide I'm worthy enough to exist in our home again? Or, will you just find a way to resent me for that too. 'Nicole's being too meek and silent because she wants sympathy'."
His lips curved into a smile that mocked any actual amusement. "I love this. You screw things up for us, and yet somehow manage to play the poor oppressed—"
"I'm not playing at anything. It's been over four months, Travis! Four months! A weaker person, a person that didn't love you, would have given up by now. There hasn't been anything 'quick' about this time for me. There haven't been a lot of smiles. There's just been a lot of sadness I've kept to myself, because I didn't think I deserved be upset."
"You don't," he said with a shrug that cut through her like a knife. "You don't have the right to be upset about anything I do, or say. So, you might want to save yourself some time and energy trying to convince me otherwise, and just get used to it. You're on my time schedule now."
Nicole felt the bile rise in her throat and the blood boil under her skin. She was never a great fan of confrontation. Her last boyfriend could attest to that. But even she had a limit. Unfortunately, Gabriel could attest to that, too.
"Who do you think are?"
This one statement halted Travis' movement. He was in the middle of zipping up his fly, when he stopped and let his bottom teeth scrape against his upper lip. The words were going to be vicious and cruel, and they were just waiting to escape his lips. She spoke before they could break into the frigid air between them.
"No, let me rephrase that. Who the fuck do you think you are? And where was your self-righteousness two nights ago when you were fucking me, and then running to the bathroom to shower before you slept on the couch? Huh?!"
He had the decency to look ashamed and to jump a bit at her shrill exclamation.
"Why are you even with me?" she said wishing she could stop her voice from shaking with her impending sobs. "Why are you with me, if I'm so disgusting to be around that you can't even look at me, not without having to run off to some bar so you can flirt and forget I even exist?"
"What are you talking about," he said. But his eyes said that he knew.
"I'm talking about the cute bartender that's always so nice to you. Makes me wonder if some of your late night project issues for work didn't involve her. Or, is that what you wanted me to think? I mean, it's only what I deserve right?"
"Okay, that's enough! You don't get to play the victim when you're the one that cheated on me with a man you're still in love with!"
Nicole swallowed and lowered her head.
"You think I didn't see the way you looked at him the other night? You think I didn't know all along that you still had feelings for him?" he asked softly with a tilt of his head. "Why else do you think I wanted you to stay as far away from him as possible?"
"I never meant to hurt you, Travis," she said softly. "You have to believe that."
He shook his head and sat down on the edge of the bed, facing the wall. She stared at his profile for a long time in silence, trying not to cry.
How had something so sweet and safe become this? Was she cursed? Was this what happened when she loved someone? It almost made her mourn the days when men ran through her heart like a freight train bound for a better destination. It made her miss the days when she didn't know what it really meant to hurt and be hurt, to love and be loved. To lose and feel so lost. If this was evolution and growth, she wanted to be stunted. She wanted blindness and ignorance. This was too heavy a burden to carry.
"Say something. Please. Just talk to me."
Travis licked his lips. She saw his hands clench.
"Tell me the truth. Tell me you're unhappy. Tell me that you can't look at me without seeing what I did," she said with tears in her eyes. "Tell me that you don't love me anymore. Say what your eyes tell me every time you look at me."
He smirked. The spell was broken.
"You'd love that, wouldn't you," he muttered, tugging on socks from the drawer on his side of the bed, then his shoes. "You get to be the victim, the one that tried so hard, and I get to be the asshole that drove you to your ex."
"This isn't a game to me and I'm not keeping scores or playing a part!" she screamed. She felt unhinged, unheard. "Why can't you understand that? Why can't you see that I'm trying and that I just can't live like this anymore?!"
She shook her head.
"Go ahead and leave. No one here is going to stop you."
He might as well have said he would be better off if she went.
"That would make this all so easy for you, wouldn't it?" she bit out through clenched teeth. "Me giving up so that this can be all my fault, right down to how it ended."
He stood with what had become his signature smirk, and walked past her.
"Where are you going?!"
"Away from here. Be here when I get back. Or don't be. It's your choice Nicole. It always was."
He left the room without turning around. Moments later the front door slammed, causing her nephew to cry from his room. She walked quickly to the second bedroom and opened the door. Preston was sitting up in his crib, wiping at his eyes and sobbing.
"S-sshhh. I-it's okay, sweetie," Nicole whispered in between her own sobs. "It's okay. A-auntie Nikki's h-here...Shh..."
She lifted her nephew into her arms and rubbed his back, trying to soothe him and her own battered heart with those soft words. She rocked him until he fell limp and still in her arms. Then she lay him gently back to bed, pulled his blanket up, and tiptoed out of the room. She walked like the living dead to her bedroom, letting the tears fall forgotten down her face.
She didn't know if she spoke the truth. She didn't know if she was anything but a girl that was good at lying to herself. But she hoped she was right. She hoped everything would be okay.
She turned and faced her closet. Her glassy eyes skimmed the clothes hanging there, then lifted higher. She eyed the space on the top shelf where the box of her old reminders of Gabriel used to be. A suitcase was sitting there now. She stared up at that black case for a long moment, trembling slightly in the dim light of her bedroom.
She almost laughed at the tragic irony of it all. When Gabriel was still a ghost in her life she could pretend that this would work. She could pretend that Travis was enough, that she wouldn't drag him down with the weight of her deep love for Gabriel. Now, with that chapter of her life closed, the only thing left to do was what the suitcase suggested. Pack up. Leave. Before she pulled Travis down with her. She cut ties with the anchor that had held her safely down in the world of the living, when she feared losing Gabriel would be the end of her. She was leaving him. She pulled up a chair, stood on it, and pulled the empty suitcase down. Her shaky feet touched the solid ground. There was no veiled sign from fate that this was a futile attempt. There was just a suitcase waiting to be filled.
Then she heard a sound at the bedroom door.
She turned to see Travis standing there watching her, his face a mask of pain and regret. Regardless of what he'd said, he hadn't wanted her to call his bluff. Even now, he still loved her. It was all there in his blue eyes, the apology was waiting on his parted lips. But he'd come back too late. Maybe he'd always been too late. Had he shown up before Gabriel, she would have been content. She could have been happy with this man. She could have married him, been the mother of his children. She could have fallen asleep at night knowing that she was loved. Those were just fragmented dreams. In real life Travis never really stood a chance, and tonight was just a long overdue goodbye.
Immediately she broke into sobs, turning away from him so that he couldn't see her face. Her shaking hands gripped the suitcase and her knees felt weak.
She almost wailed aloud when his arms caught her, steadying her. He held her gently. Like something fragile that he was preparing to let go. Not like the other night, like a man that didn't ever want to let go.
"I'm sorry, Travis. I'm so sorry," she cried into his chest. There were too many things she was sorry for. Not enough time in a day to list them all.
"I know, Nikki," he said quietly, his voice little more than a choked rasp. "I know."
"I did love you," she whispered, pulling away to look into his eyes. "You have to know that I did, that I never meant to hurt you, or use you. It wasn't a game to me."
He nodded and she felt him swallow hard. She forced herself to face him, to look at his face. He wasn't going to cry for her, though his eyes glistened. "I just wish it hadn't taken us so long to see it wasn't enough."
Her eyes closed around a flood of tears when he kissed her forehead. Then he let her go, stepped back and turned away. She heard the door close softly, and she knew he wouldn't be back that night. She knew this was their last night together.
For over a year, Travis had been her anchor, her proof that there was a life beyond Gabriel. But in the back of her mind she always knew that it wasn't enough. Ships weren't meant to be tied to a harbor for fear of being lost in a storm. Ships were meant to ride waves.
She'd just cut her anchor loose. Now she had to pray she wouldn't get lost at sea this time around.
Gabriel watched Meredith Rowe from backstage. They were playing a festival, the stage lights illuminating the night sky, cell phones raised in the crowd like lighters as the sea of bodies swayed. A mournful ballad sounded from the stage, carried home by the sound of Meredith's raspy lilt.
Much had changed about this woman over the last few months. She'd changed her hair to a deep magenta hue with black highlights streaked throughout. Her slim body was wrapped in a see-through gauzy turquoise halter, long legs encased in black leggings and thigh high leather boots. A turquoise feather adorned her right ear, the extent of her jewelry. But it wasn't just her appearance or her clothes that gave off a different vibe.
She was playing the opening riff of a new song. Slow, sad. A love song about being weighed down by loss, wrongs that couldn't be undone, and hope for a future with a person you didn't deserve. Silence caressed the audience for just a moment. Then the lights flashed as the drums sounded and the crowd cheered. There was something strangely orchestral about this arrangement, something softer, which normally wasn't Meredith Rowe or The Spirits' style. She was usually a devotee to the grittier side of rock.
He watched her lips caress the mic, her ice blue eyes staring out into a sea of faces she wouldn't be able to make out because of the lights. Still, it looked as if she were searching for something, or someone as she strummed another series of mournful notes. And when she looked down, stepping back to let the music drown out her words with a guitar solo, he realized why this performance felt so off.