"I know that," he told her, tightening the bungee cord on the top of the SUV. "But the Outer Banks are nice this time of year, and Marlene will enjoy the sand. And you and I will enjoy the chance to get away."
She didn't have the energy to fight him anymore. So she handed him her bag, watching him toss it in the back of the car, and buckled the baby into her car seat before climbing in and putting on her own seatbelt.
They arrived seven hours later, at the same inn they had stayed in when they got married. Bobby was nothing if not sentimental, she had learned, and he had even booked a room in the same area of the inn. It was a suite, a bit larger than their original room. Vanessa brought Marlene in and lay on the bed with her, playing gently while Bobby unloaded the car. Marly randomly tried to grab Vanessa's hands, gurgling and laughing as she missed.
Vanessa watched the baby's eyelids grow heavier; it was mid-afternoon and time for her nap. After a few more minutes, Marly was lying quietly in a soft sleep. Vanessa scooped her up and lay her in the pak-n-play that Bobby had just assembled. She stood over the baby for a few minutes before leaving the front room and entering the bedroom again.
Bobby was flipping through one of his books and glanced up at her. She looked at him and smiled, then lay down on the bed. A minute later, he joined her.
They lay silently next to one another, his hand resting over hers, until she finally spoke. "Before...when I was singing...I dated a lot."
He had already known that. He knew that for whatever reason, it was important for her to say it, so he didn't stop her.
"When I was in the business, when I was dating him...his name was Michael...I did a lot of things...things that were wrong...I did them to make him happy. Things I've never told you. I guess...I guess I was afraid of what you would think of me."
"That was another lifetime ago," he said quietly. "You don't do those things now."
"But I did...he wanted me to. We would get high and I would do things..." she shook her head. "He liked to watch."
"Vanessa." His voice was soft but firm. "I don't care what he liked. I don't care what he did. I know you. He didn't. I see you. He saw you on drugs. I see you for who you are...the loving, amazing woman that you are. And yes, you're sexy. There is nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all..you are absolutely beautiful."
"You don't know how I was."
"What was it?" he asked. "You slept with his friends? With women? With multiple partners?" At her silence, he shook his head. "Do you want to go back to that?"
"No." Her voice was whispered, ashamed.
"Oh, baby." He pulled her close. "Is there any person in this world who hasn't ever done something they regret?" He kissed her forehead. "I love you more than you can imagine...and anything you tell me can never change that." His finger traced her cheek. "Ever."
She clutched him close to her body. "Are you sure? The things I did...I never told anyone...and then I did more drugs to forget." Bitterly, she added, "God put Ryan in my life as a reminder. He and Kevin, so I never forget."
"None of it matters anymore." His face was close, comforting. "All that matters is you and me. How much I love you...how much you love me...how much we love each other when we make love. That's all." He kissed the bridge of her nose. "All of those men...I don't care...I'm the one you chose."
She held his face in her hands then, and kissed him softly. "Yes," she said. "You're the one I chose."
Soft, gently baby kisses. Covering his chest, his taut nipples. She was kissing and sucking them, tugging on the hair on his chest over and over again.
He didn't stop her or try to slow her down. He knew she was on her own mission, one that involved proving to herself that she wasn't the same girl who fell into fame fourteen years before. Her cheek was softly pressing against him, with her fingers tracing the soft whorls of hair. He wondered if she knew he had an erection, but realized it wasn't important. This wasn't about arousal. This was about knowing. About knowing him in a way nobody else did.
She had taken her time, gently licking one nipple at a time, running her tongue softly around them in circles until he sighed softly. She glanced up at him. "Do you like that?" she asked, as though they were new lovers.
"Yes," he sighed, "I do."
"I wish I could erase it all," she said, lying her head back on his chest.
"I love you just the way you are." He was quiet for a moment, then asked, "Why did you let him have the last word like that? Why let him make you feel bad about yourself?"
"I don't know," she admitted softly, tracing the soft ribs under his pectorals.
"He only said it to hurt you. He only said it to make you doubt yourself. He proved himself with that one statement."
"I know," she said, and he could hear the tears in her voice.
"Beth..." His voice was soft, comforting. "Did any of those men know you? Even your boyfriend?"
She took a deep breath to steady herself. "No," she replied. "No, they didn't."
He felt her fingers tangle into his chest hair, clutching him. "More than I know myself."
She was lying on her back, head on the pillows, and he was sitting naked next to her. His erection stuck out conspicuously, but she hadn't moved to touch him. Instead, she had been content to receive his kisses, gentle and loving across her lips and her jaw. "I love you," he had whispered. "I know you and I love you."
Now he was sitting next to her, and reached down to cup her breast in his hand. It was heavy with milk, ready for Marlene, but he continued to fondle it, fascinated. Her eyes were sleepy, watching him. He smiled gently before slipping his thumb and forefinger up, catching her nipple between them, and rubbing back and forth until the nipple was long and hard. "Marly will be hungry soon," she commented, and he nodded.
"I imagine that's true," he said, then lowered his head, catching her nipple between his teeth.
The scrape of his teeth made her catch her breath; it was deeply erotic and the feeling shot through her body to her core. He heard her moan softly, and couldn't help but chuckle. He pulled himself back up. "You don't usually make that sound," he commented teasingly.
"You do it differently than she does."
"Hmm," he sighed, kissing her nipple again. "I should hope so." His teeth grazed the sensitive bud again, the sucked the tip into his mouth. She started to push him away, but he caught her hands in his as a tiny splash of milk hit his tongue. Warm and sweet. Something about the intimacy of the act made him feel even closer to her. He continued to suckle on her, feeling another splash, and then a third, before pulling away. He didn't want to deny his daughter dinner.
He lifted her torso up from the pillows and crawled in behind her; his erection was pressing against her back now, but he could easily caress her body and see what he was doing. He glanced up, noting their reflection in the mirror across from the bed. "Beth," he whispered, "see?" He nodded toward the mirror as his hands pulled her pliant body into his lap. He settled his lips against her neck as he saw her eyes catch his in the mirror. "I love you, Beth...I love you," he whispered, hands once again cupping her beautifully engorged breasts. "I know you."
She was in his lap, on the edge of the bed, his erection impaling her pleasurably. She could see them both in in the mirror facing the bed. She had wrapped an arm behind her, around his neck, as she arched forward and rocked against him. He was watching too; she could see his eyes meeting hers in the mirror as his lips rested against her shoulder. He felt familiar, comforting, good. He felt good.
"Bobby," she whispered, shifting against him as he thrust upward, "I love you so much...I've never loved anyone like this before."
His lips moved from her shoulder to her neck. "I know," he said softly, thrusting again. "I believe you, Beth. And none of it, before us, matters." His hand wandered up, over her face, wiping away the tears. "You matter. You. Do you see," he continued to stroke her face even as he moved within her, "how much you matter to me? How much I love you?"
She rested her head against his shoulder, closing her eyes, feeling his body moving against hers. "Yes," she whispered.
"Beth...no more hurt in your head...no more..." His hand snaked down between her legs, stroking her rhythmically with his thrusting. He felt her shudder. "Tell me, baby...tell me..."
Her head turned quickly toward hers and she moved sharply against him, taking control. The arm that had been resting passively behind him tightened, fingers entwined in his curly hair, bringing his lips toward her own. "No more," she said firmly. "Only us, Bobby...just us."
He was resting back against the pillows, watching her nude body as she moved across the room. She had just fed the baby, and crawled across the bed to sit near him, facing him.
She picked up his hand. "I did all those things. All of them. I slept with men and I didn't even remember their names. I'm probably on some video out there...maybe a whole series of them."
He smiled. "I doubt it...it would have come out by now."
She traced his fingers. "I'm sorry," she said finally, shaking her head. "I didn't want you to find out this way."
"Ness," he said, pulling her close to him, "I've always known. Ryan didn't say anything that I didn't already know...or you hadn't alluded to...and I don't care about it. I care about you, now."
She let him manhandle her, pulling her body into his lap like a child, and adjusting her so that she was pressed against him. When he finished, she caught his face with one hand. "I love you, you know...one in a million..."
He smiled at her before sitting back and enjoying the feel of her body pressed against his.
The sky was cloudy and the wind was blowing in cool gusts. The ocean waves crashed with a satisfying sound as they walked along the sand. Bobby had taken his shoes off, despite the chill weather, and left wet footprints behind him. Vanessa walked nearby, Marlene curled close to her body in the snugli. She could partially support her head now and enjoyed resting her neck against the back of the cloth and watching her mother and father, as well as the waves crashing near them.
Bobby ran quickly up to her, grinning, then leaned down and kissed the soft little head. Marlene laughed and wiggled against the snugli, making Vanessa cling more tightly to her and smile at her happy baby's face. Looking up to Bobby's mischievous grin, she said, "You're a troublemaker, Goren."
He leaned forward and kissed his wife square on the lips, firm and purposeful. "I won't apologize for loving my family," he told her firmly, then leaned forward and kissed her again, this time fully and gently and as lovingly as he ever had.
Marlene gurgled happily, and wrapping one arm around his neck, Vanessa kissed him back.
She was in the jacuzzi, eyes closed and water gently pounding against her body. The smell of the beach was still in her nostrils. Bobby had been right--there was no place in the world like this to heal.
He loved her fully, completely. More than anything, he loved her. He had seen the shame, the depression that followed the last meeting with Ryan, and he had held onto her and pulled her out. He had loved her when she had been convinced nobody could. It was the story of their lives.
The splash of water surprised her and she opened her eyes to see her large husband semi-delicately lowering his body into the tub with her. She smiled at him as he looked at her conspicuously. "Sorry," he muttered. "I thought I could sneak in."
She turned off the jets to the tub, grinning at him. "Did you forget your size for a minute? You're over six feet tall. You're not sneaking into any tub."
He smiled awkwardly. "Well, I can hope, right?" He reached over and caught her foot in his hand, pulling it toward his thigh. She was insanely ticklish and couldn't stop laughing as he began to massage her instep.
"You better watch out," she gasped. "I might kick you in the nuts!"
He laughed this time, but let her foot go. At her giggles, he replied, "On the off chance your legs are longer than I thought...and in case we want more kids one day..." He hit the jet button, then said more loudly--to be heard--"Will you sit with me?"
Her giggles turned into a shy smile, and she turned her body around so that her back pressed against his front. She twisted her legs on top of his and leaned her head back against his shoulder, feeling his lips brush her forehead.
Her wet t-shirt was tight across her breasts. She hadn't bothered to towel off, only pulled on her tee and a pair of his clean boxers. He had watched her subtly out of the corner of his eye. She knew it turned him on.
She climbed onto the bed on all fours, crawling from the end to the headboard, where he sat in his damp boxers, wet hair curling on his head, smiling from ear to ear. She stopped short of the pillows and sat cross-legged on the bed.
"I have to ask you a question," she said, pressing her hands into the mattress. "I have to know."
His smile dissipated and his face took on a serious expression. "What is it?"
She tried to smile, but found herself lacking, so she focused on her fingers instead. "How can you continue to love me, knowing the things I've done...knowing the kind of person I was?" She paused for a moment, then continued. "I guess before...I guess I never thought it would come out. That it would be...here. With us."
He didn't speak for a minute, weighing and considering his words carefully. "I didn't know you then...I only know you now. I only knew you after you went through recovery. When you quit the business and quit the drugs and the sex. Who you became, that's who I know." He shook his head and sighed. "And me...that's all you know. Who I am now. You don't know about the women I led on, the ones I pretended to love but never actually felt it. The drugs I did to stay undercover in narcotics. All the rules I've broken to get to where I'm at." He reached across the bed. "Neither of us are the same people we were ten years ago. Or five." He cupped her face gently. "You'll never be who you were before you were attacked. Or before we became involved. I'll never be the man I was before I fell in love with you." His hand smoothed her wet hair back on her head. "The point is we change every day...and I love you more every moment I'm with you." His eyes were heavy. "I never believed I was deserving of it until you. You're the only one I ever knew who wasn't afraid of my fear or my hesitancy. Of my differences. You didn't wince at my mother's schizophrenia or pity me for my father's ineptitude. You saw me. And I see you. You're not Ryan or Liz or Ava. And I'm not Frances or Robert or Frank. I get to be me, when I'm with you."
She pressed his hand against her lips. "I never made love before you."
His voice was quiet, soft. "Me either."
Marly was squirming with delight in Bobby's arms. He had been tickling her nose, letting her grab his fingers each chance she got, and she giggled and gurgled in his arms. Over and over she tried to suckle his fingers, and instinctively he headed toward the bed where Vanessa was napping. Marly tried one more time to suckle her daddy's thumb, then whimpered when no milk was available.
"Hey," he said softly, as Marly began to cry, "somebody's hungry here...and it's not me." Vanessa rolled over, opening one eye, then reached up for the baby. She snuggled Marly close to her as the baby found a nipple and began to suckle heartily.
"Hmm," she murmured, "she's really hungry. What time is it?"
He checked his watch. "Almost four...she's going longer between feedings." He sat on the bed, watching them. Sometimes he felt a twinge of jealousy, that Vanessa was so physically connected to their daughter. But then he reminded himself that he provided the y chromosome that had helped to create the button nose and the crinkle in the corner of her eyes, and he felt a little more included.
"You wanna burp her?" Vanessa asked, as Marly finished up on the second breast, and he grabbed the burp rag and tossed it over his shoulder. At least Vanessa was super willing to share, even if it were the less than thrilling chores.
He rested Marly on his shoulder, patting firmly until she burped, then lowering her gently into his arms. She was already drifting off to sleep again in his arms, her favorite habit after eating. He sat in an armchair across from the bed, holding her longer than necessary, watching the eyelashes flutter, the fingers stiffen and loosen, the soft sighs and puckering of the tiny lips. "She's a miracle," he murmured softly, completely entranced with his baby girl.
Vanessa had flipped around on the bed, still naked, but now lying on her belly with her head toward the foot of the bed, close to the armchair. "That she is, detective," she responded. "I didn't know I could do such cool stuff until I got pregnant."
He glanced up at her, grinning, then looked down again, snuggling Marly closer. She let out a tiny baby sigh, curling closer to the warmth of her daddy in her sleep.
"She's lucky," Vanessa mused, and their eyes met again.
"What do you mean?"
She shifted, resting her head in her hand. "She's lucky to have you as a daddy. You're going to be a wonderful daddy her whole life."
He took a deep breath, scared to expel it, and looked down at her again. His worst fear. "You don't know that, Ness."
"Yes I do," she said confidently, firmly. "The way you look at her...it's how you look at your mother. It's how you look at me. It's how you love."
"I love you," he said, not directed to either, but meaning it for both. He kissed the baby's forehead. "I love you."
Vanessa shook the blanket out and lay it flat in the sand. Bobby put the bottles of water at each corner to hold it down while Vanessa picked Marly up and lay her in the middle of the blanket. She sat on one end, watching the baby wiggle, while Bobby knelt down by another corner, opening the picnic basket. He grinned at her, then said, "Did I ever tell you I hate the beach?"
She laughed. "Yeah...and I hated cops before I became one." She took the sandwich from him, then picked up one of Marly's toys and handed it to her. The baby grasped it quickly and began to chew on it. She shook her head. "Can you believe it...already that eye hand coordination coming in so strongly..."
Bobby grinned, then turned toward the ocean. "You know, I think November is my new favorite time of year to come out here. No crowds."
"It's been pretty cloudy," she said, gently pulling on the baby toy. "And chilly."
"I think she's warm enough," he said, nodding at Marlene's outfit. Vanessa had taken extra care to wrap her up well, including a warm hat and booties.
She snorted. "I wasn't talking about the baby, Goren."
"Oh." He looked at her sweater for a minute, then down at his own heavier jacket. "Do you want my jacket?"
"No. I want what's in it."
"Oh." His smile was shy, and hers was knowing, and he took another bite of his sandwich, a little more quickly than before.
"New York, New York!" she exclaimed as they reached Manhattan. Hearing her mother's excited voice, Marly squealed loudly in the back seat, and Bobby and Vanessa laughed.
"I guess she's excited too, eh?" He was smiling. "Should we try to make it to Brooklyn to see Ava?"
"Yes, definitely...we have time." He headed toward the hospital, feeling hopeful that nothing would dampen the mood they had seemed to bring back with them.
Bobby carried Marlene into the hospital behind Vanessa, up to the eating disorders unit and to the nurse's station. "We're here to see Ava Winters," Vanessa told the nurse, and Marly babbled happily.
The nurse looked surprised. "Mrs. Winters--she's not here," she said slowly. Seeing Vanessa's shocked look, she quickly replied, "She went out to lunch...with her husband and son. She's due back at--" she checked the log book--"four o'clock."
Vanessa turned to Bobby, who was already checking his watch. "We can wait, if it's all right," he said. "Is it all right? It's already three-forty."
The nurse nodded. "Of course...but visiting ends at five. The day room is--"
"Just around the corner," Vanessa finished. "We know."
"Nessie!" She hadn't heard a lightness in Ava's voice like that in years. "You're back...you guys are back...and my Marly got big..." she took the baby from Bobby's arms. "She's so beautiful, aren't you, my precious girl?"
David reached over and hugged Vanessa tightly. "How are you?"
He smiled broadly. "We're all really good. Ava, did you tell her?"
"No..." Ava had taken a seat and was bouncing Marly gently in her lap, laughing with her. "I'm being sprung on Wednesday."
"Mommy's coming home!" Justin told Vanessa, trying to climb up Bobby's body. Bobby reached down and picked him up. "She coming back home! I can take her to show and tell!"
They all laughed. "Will you bring my baby cousin over?" Justin was holding Bobby's face in his hands. "Will you? Daddy and me got some stuff for her. Mommy did too."
"Well in that case, I guess we can't say no...right, Ness?"
"Absolutely." Vanessa reached over and touched her sister's knee. "You're really okay?"
Ava shot her a look that clearly said, 'not in front of Justin', but her eyes showed pure conviction when she said firmly, "Yes. Really. I'm okay." She passed the baby back to Vanessa, then said, "And I'll be home on Wednesday...so there's no way I couldn't be okay with that!"
Vanessa smiled, holding Marly, as David moved closer to his wife, wrapping his arms around her tightly. Vanessa couldn't recall a time that they were so openly affectionate, and felt herself warm when Ava kissed him, wrapping her arms around him too.
This time she giggled but pushed at him more forcefully. "Bobby!"
He sighed, pulling his mouth away from her and lowering her legs from his shoulders. His finger slowly stroked her and he heard her sharp intake of breath. "What is it, Beth?"
"I thought we were talking."
"That's funny," he snickered, "because I thought I was eating--"
He nipped her inner thigh. "What did you want to talk about?"
"Didn't Ava look happy to you?"
"Mmm, yeah...I think so." He was running his tongue down her inner thigh to her knee. Nothing worked like the inner knee, in his experience.
"She's gained weight...it's like the final key to the puzzle was confronting my dad."
Out of respect to her, he pulled his lips away from her leg. "You're probably right."
"You're not listening to me."
"Yes...yes I am. Ava is doing well and you think it's because she confronted Ryan. I agree with you." His finger stroked her inner knee for a second, then he responded, "How about you? Did it make a difference for you?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "But you did."
Now he was fully paying attention. He sat up between her legs, softly running his fingers over her pubic hair, then leaning to kiss her knee. "What do you mean?"
"You just...you always know me...you're the most patient person I've ever known. Even after everything...all he brought up, all he said...and you still love me as much as before. Who gets that lucky? I mean, really?"
"That goes both ways." One of his hands stroked her abdomen, thinking of how much their lives had changed in the last year. "You're the best thing that ever happened to me. You loved me when no one else would."
She reached down and caught his hand in hers. "You're worth every bit of it. You have to know that, Bobby. We both have finally figured out we can love and be loved despite our shitty starts."
He smiled at her, rubbing her abdomen a bit more firmly and watching her close her eyes. "Can I go back to what I was doing now?" he asked teasingly.
"Mmm, yes...and I like it when you take your time. I really like that."
He nipped her knee with his teeth. "I'll keep that in mind."
"How come you never tell me how much you want that?"
She hesitated. "Oral."
"Because it's not as important to me as you feeling comfortable. That's all."
"But you like it."
He sighed again. "Ness, it's hard to get back to this when you keep talking."
"We could try something new...sixty-nine..."
He laughed. "Have you noticed the difference in our heights?"
"I'm flexible." She started to pull herself up, but he stopped her.
"Okay," he finally consented, turning himself around to lay opposite of her. "But stop whenever you want...it's not like I'm married to this idea or anything."
She couldn't help but grin. "I'll keep that in mind." She cupped his testicles gently in her hands before leaning closer and licking the head of his erection.
He sucked in his breath. "That's the other reason I don't like this," he muttered. "It's hard to concentrate."
She smothered a laugh. "I think you'll manage." As she began to suck him gently, she heard him sigh a third time before she felt his tongue, gentle but focused, circling her.
He was good...damn, he was good. She decided she'd make a point to keep up. And keep up she did, well enough that just moments later he had stopped and told her, "No more...Ness...you have to stop now. Please."
She released him, but not without asking, "Why?" Then she relaxed beneath his touch, enjoying the pressure of his fingers and tongue on her most private parts.
He pulled his mouth away from her for a moment, but left his fingers stroking gently. "Because I'm good for one time...and I want to come inside you. I want to make love to you." His tongue went back to work immediately.
"But Bobby...I'm..." He didn't stop, didn't even slow himself down. "Baby, please stop..."
That got his attention. He pulled himself away from her, including his fingers this time, and looked at her with rapt attention.
"Now would be a good time to put that plan of yours into action," she told him.
"But you haven't climaxed yet," he protested. "You could now and then again, later..."
She snorted. "I didn't realize we were counting my orgasms."
"All right...just let me get back up there..." His lips brushed over her once more, then moved up to her hips, her belly, her ribcage. He smiled to himself as he sucked a nipple into his mouth, taking his time to bring her milk to his tongue. Finally, he moved his lips to her neck, sucking deeply, before bending over her to align himself to enter her.
"I love you, Ness," he smiled, sliding into her body easily, hearing her moan softly. He pressed his lips to the hollow of her throat before pulling out and thrusting in again, this time more quickly. He felt her knees tightening at his waist and supported himself on his forearms and his knees. Her legs locked around him and he thrust again, this time more quickly and forcefully, beginning to develop a rhythm.
"Okay?" he whispered as he drove in again faster, enjoying the slick feel of her body and the tightness of her wrapped around him. She nodded before leaning up to suck his earlobe. He moaned audibly, knowing he was close. Closer than he wanted to be, he thought, but who was he to complain?
She was clutching him, scratching his back. "Oh God, Bobby...God, don't stop...I'm so close...you feel so good in me. I love you, honey...I love you...oh christ..."
He stopped for a second, gasping for breath himself. "Ness...stop...I'm can't keep going when you do that..."
She ground her hips against his again and moaned, "What? What..."
"Your talking..." he gritted his teeth. Damn, her grinding was almost as arousing as their lovemaking. "I'm going to come before you..."
"No...no you won't...I'm so close, Bobby...Jesus, you shift and I'm there...please...please!" she implored, and he began to move again, picking up his speed quickly. "God...please...Bobby...please...so good...so..."
He could feel her tighten around him, knew her arch, her moan, knew it was good. He couldn't stop. And God, he didn't want to. He closed his own eyes and let the feeling overtake him, feeling the contractions in his body as he ejaculated inside of her. She was still moaning softly when he pulled himself up, damp and sweaty, from her body.
"Bobby," she whispered, and he leaned over to kiss her deeply. She caught his hand and brought it down, until his fingers were fondling her once again. He watched her body tighten and arch, the soft moan again, and her wetness following. He began to pull his fingers away but she pressed them back.
"Again?" he whispered, and when she nodded, he fondled her once more until she climaxed quickly. This time he leaned in to suck on her ear, to whisper how good she felt, how beautiful she was, how he wanted to taste her, and her moan was louder. After she came, she was still, and for a second he wondered if she'd passed out. "You okay?"
She opened her eyes, staring at him as though he were a space invader. "You're amazing," she finally said. "You're the most amazing lover I've ever had."
He smiled. "You're just saying that because I brought you three times."
She rolled over and sighed. "Oh my god. I don't think I can move. I think every bit of sexual energy I've ever had has been used."
He ran a finger over her hair. "God, you're beautiful. And the only reason I'm so good in bed with you is because you're so amazing yourself."
She opened her eyes, looking at him. "If I got pregnant again...I mean, I'm not planning to...I'm covered...but do you ever think about it?"
He took her hand in his. "I think about it," he responded softly. "I would love to have more children. But I love it just the three of us too...I guess whatever happens, happens...kind of like Marly." He kissed her hand. "It's almost two...I need to get some sleep before I go to work."
She nodded, then rested her head on his chest. They lay silently for several minutes, until she finally spoke. "Goren? I have to tell you something."
"Huh?" He was half asleep.
"It's really important."
"Okay," he mumbled sleepily. "What is it?"
She smiled against him. "You're a sex god."
He coughed. "That's it?" he asked, wider awake.
"Yes...you needed to know."
"You're right," he answered. "I did."
She pressed her head against his chest again, smiling, and he wrapped an arm around her body. Sex god. Damn if he didn't try.
Checking his watch, he headed toward the door. Barely nine. He had managed to slip into a pair of sweats before heading to the door. On his day off, Vanessa let him sleep in. He guessed she was out taking a walk with the baby.
The doorbell rang again. "Coming," he grumbled, having a sudden flashback to their last surprise visitor, right before Marlene was born. Well, thank God Vanessa wasn't home. If it was Ryan, he could do whatever he felt like.
But it wasn't. He swung the door open to see Ava, in a pair of jeans and a sweater, standing in front of him."Hey!" he exclaimed, pulling her into a tight hug. She slowly put her arms around him, patting him on the back. "It's so good to see you...Vanessa will be thrilled! Come on in!"
"Okay...you're kind of freaking me out here," she said, walking inside of the condo. "You're, uh, half naked, Robert."
"You woke me up," he answered, a bit defensively. "I'll go grab a shirt. Where's Justin?"
She took a seat on the couch, adjusting her sweater. "At school," she replied, "and David is at work....I thought I'd come over and see my sister. I didn't realize you were off today. I guess I should have called."
He shook his head. "Eames and I-my partner--we were chasing a case for odd hours for three full days, so I have some time off today and tomorrow. A half day tomorrow." He headed toward the bedroom. "Hang on and I'll be right back."
He tossed on a t-shirt, checking himself in the mirror quickly, then suddenly freezing. He lifted the tee from his chest, noting the multiple red marks from Vanessa's suckling, and the scratches on his back. Nice. Well, if Ava ever had any doubts about their sex life, they were gone by now.
Pushing his embarrassment aside, he headed back into the front room. Ava was stroking Bruce's head. "I heard you took a trip to the Outer Banks a couple weeks ago. How was it?"
"Great," he replied, sinking into the armchair. "Marly loved it...I think she really liked the sound of the waves. She would laugh and watch like it was the most fascinating thing in the world."
"It probably was, considering her age," Ava commented. She smiled at him. "You're a good dad, Goren. I kind of find it ironic that Vanessa and I would marry such good fathers, given our rat bastard."
He didn't know what to say to that, so he just nodded. "You both deserved better," he said. "I hope that Marlene grows up knowing how much she's loved."
Ava smiled wryly. "I didn't tell Vanessa this, but he wrote me a letter. He wrote me a letter apologizing for not seeing me."
Bobby was surprised. "Why do you think he did that?"
Ava interlaced her fingers and looked into her lap. "He's trying to split us. Divide and conquer. According to him, Vanessa is a lost cause and the purpose of all this trouble...but not me. He made a mistake with me and he hopes I'll forgive him, blah blah blah." She stopped talking, sensing Bobby's anger and concern, then looked up. "Don't worry. I've seen his true colors. I'm not going back. And I'd have to be some kind of moron to believe that shit about my sister." She shook her head. "I just don't know if I should tell her or not. I know how much he's hurt her already."
He nodded, his mind flying back to their time at the beach and their many conversations about him and the damage he did to her soul.
"It would kill her, wouldn't it?" He suddenly realized that for the first time, Ava was asking his opinion about Vanessa, and he didn't know what to say.
"No...but it would hurt. A lot. He really made her doubt herself this last time."
Ava was looking at him intensely. "He did that on purpose. He admitted it in the letter. He said you needed to know exactly the kind of woman you had married. The kind of woman whose genes were running through your daughter. It was sickening."
He felt his stomach churn, but before he could respond, Vanessa opened the door and was pushing the stroller inside. "Oh, hey!" she said, seeing the two of them sitting in the living room. "I was wondering when I'd see you! I had thought I'd call you later." She pulled Marlene from the stroller and began to take off her winter coat.
"I love that coat," Ava commented. "It's adorable. Wait til you see all the goodies we've picked up for her. I imagine she already has a lot, though, doesn't she?"
"Enough," Bobby interjected. "We're trying to keep that stuff under control."
"No such thing," Ava said, taking Marly from Vanessa. "You are so perfect, aren't you? You look just like your mommy--" she glanced sideways at Bobby --"except your cute little button nose...just like your daddy." Marly gurgled happily as Ava reached into her purse and pulled out a baby key ring, handing it to her.
Vanessa laughed. "Are you going to bring presents every time you come?"
"For her? Yes, definitely." She sat down on the floor and lay Marlene on her belly. "Antie has tons of great surprises for this little one." She watched Marlene begin to gnaw on the keys and chuckled. "It's good to watch you at home, where you belong. Where we both belong," she corrected herself, and noticed Vanessa was smiling at her.
"You and David should have another one," Vanessa said. "Before you get much older."
"We're thinking about it. But first I need to make sure I'm stable enough to keep my weight steady." As an afterthought, she added, "I'm up to 102."
"That's terrific, Ava," Bobby piped up, then, as if realizing himself for the first time, said, "I guess I'll leave you two to visit." He stood to go to the bedroom, kissing Vanessa on his way out.
Ava smiled at both of them, then continued to play with Marlene, and Vanessa joined her sister on the rug.
The package was on his desk when he arrived Friday morning. He picked it up, feeling its weight before he opened it.
"What's that?" Eames had rounded the corner with two cups of coffee, and handed him one.
"You gonna open it?"
He put it back on his desk. "Nah, I thought I would leave it here all day to invite questions from my nosy partner."
"Huh. Funny," she deadpanned, sitting across from him. He grinned at her and, using his letter opener, slit the top of the envelope.
There was a letter. Not long, a paragraph or two, telling him he deserved to know the kind of woman he had married. That he should have known before, but better late than never. He didn't want to see them, but felt compelled. He reached in and pulled out several clips from magazines, some from the United States, others from the UK or Australia, still others from Japan and Canada. One was even from the Soviet Union.
All were pictures of Vanessa, young and very pretty and very drunk, with an assortment of men and women, but all at parties, by his best guess. One man seemed to appear in more pictures, and he guessed it was the elusive Michael she had mentioned. In most of them, she was clearly stoned, eyes heavy-lidded and dilated. Vanessa in laps, Vanessa being felt up, Vanessa drinking with others, Vanessa licking the side of one man's face. He quickly shoved them back into the envelope, but not before Eames had gotten an eyeful.
She was gauging his reaction. It occurred to him that she probably knew more about this than he did, although they never talked about it. "I knew already," he heard himself say. "I already knew."
Eames nodded. "She'd be so ashamed. Who sent them to you?"
He didn't have to check the return address. "Her father." He shoved them in a bottom drawer.
Eames was shaking her head. "I don't know how he lives with himself. Are you going to tell her?"
He shook his head. "No," he said, "I can't...it will be too upsetting."
"Bobby." Her voice was sincere, low. "You have to tell her. She deserves to know."
"He sent something similar to Ava...just without the photos."
"Talk to her," Eames urged. "She needs to know. If he would send it to the two of you, who knows where else they could end up."
He picked up his pen and began to work on the paperwork in front of him. "I'll think about it."
The binder and an envelope were sitting on top of his dresser. He had taken Bruce for a walk, and she had stayed behind with the baby.
The envelope first caught her eye because it was out of place. Sometimes he brought home files of evidence, but it was always stored neatly inside the binder, or else left on the kitchen table. She had no intention of opening it, but when she got closer, she recognized the handwriting. She'd seen it before. Off and on for thirty years, mainly on birthday and Christmas cards, and occasionally on a check.
She picked it up and read the outside. It was addressed to Bobby, at his work address,and said something on the back about being urgent. She could see that Bobby had already slit the seal, probably with a letter opener, and she decided she would follow suit. A minute later her hands were full of photos, most of which she didn't recognize, much less remember. She sat down on the bed and spread them out in front of her.
There was one where she was surrounded with several young men and women, all musicians, and she could remember the acid they had done earlier in the evening. Shortly after the picture had been taken, they had left the party and gone upstairs. Her eyes closed, remembering the hands all over her body, and opening her eyes to see her boyfriend sitting in the armchair, smiling at her, as another man entered her body.
Picture after picture, split memory after split memory. She didn't hear him come in.
"I didn't want you to see this way," he was saying, and she could hear the pain in his voice. "Not this way, Beth...I was going to tell you, but not this way."
She lay down one picture, her and her old boyfriend. "I thought I loved him." Her voice was so soft he could hardly hear her. "I would have done anything to hold on to him." She picked the picture back up. "Daddy knew that. He knew I wanted to marry him, to have children with him. I wanted him to love me and I thought if I did all of this, he would." She picked up the group picture. "After they took this, we went upstairs. We'd done acid. It was some massive orgy. I just remember looking over at him...he was watching me and smiling...while his friend..."
"Stop this," Bobby's voice was a mix of agitation and sadness. "You don't have to do this to yourself. All of these people--they don't matter any more. God smiled on you and kept you physically safe until you got out. And you've built a solid life for yourself, after."
"The saddest part," she said, laughing hollowly, "is that I don't even remember who any of these people are." She looked up at him. "How do I explain this to Marlene? When she hears, what will she think? What will I say?"
He moved closer to her, taking the photos from her hand. "You'll tell her how much pain you were in, and how people in pain do anything they can to stop it. That you made some mistakes and you wish you hadn't, but your experiences made you decide you would do everything possible to make sure your own daughter never knew that kind of pain. Ever." He stroked the side of her face gently. "And she will respect you, because you're her mother, and you've worked insanely hard not to repeat your mistakes." He crumpled up the pictures. "This is how much value I put in these pictures. Or in your father's stories."
"They're true," she mumbled.
"Yes. And proof of how much a person can change, when they're determined to."
She heard Marly cry through the intercom, and on autopilot, got up to get her, but he caught her hand. "I'll go get her and bring her to you. Just get comfortable...I know she's hungry."
She nodded, and he took the pictures from her and threw them in the trash can before leaving the room.
She felt shellshocked, a part of her devastated that she couldn't even find the words for. Slowly she pulled her shirt off and unhooked her bra, then lay back against the pillows. He entered the room again, this time with a whimpering baby. He handed Marly to her and within seconds, the baby was curled firmly against her mother's side, feeding.
He sat next to her. "This is what matters," he said to no one in particular. "This. And when she's older, this is what she'll have imprinted on her brain. Maybe not the actual memory, but the feeling of you, there for her, loving her." He reached out and stroked Vanessa's hair. That will never leave, you know."
She tried to imagine that, her daughter's life in fifteen years, but her thoughts became mixed with her memories of caring for Liz, of cooking with Liz, of trying to keep Liz happy and alive and comforted. And in the end, all she was, was empty. A young, empty girl looking for anyone to love her, to fill her with something other than the heartbreak of losing one parent and never being good enough for the other.
Marlene was lightly sleeping now, still suckling occasionally at her breast, but Vanessa didn't move her. She was suddenly struck with the realization that this precious time with her daughter was fleeting. One day she would blink and it would be gone. Bobby began to reach for her but she stopped him. "No--she's okay. She's just finishing." He pulled his hands back and nodded gently, then stepped into the closet to undress.
When he emerged a few minutes later in his boxers, she had burped the baby and was holding her closely in the rocking chair. The lamp by the bed was on but the room was otherwise dark. She rocked back and forth slowly, holding Marly in her arms, unable to look up at him. He sat across from her, resting on the bed, until she finally said, "I almost failed. I almost failed with my life."
He reached over and rested a hand on her knee. "But you didn't, Ness," he whispered, and his voice was calm and soothing. "You didn't...and you're a gift to us. I need you and so does Marly."
She kissed the baby on the head and continued to rock her gently. Fortunate and blessed. That was her. Everything she was now. Fortunate and blessed.
He had been through the entire house and couldn't find her. Granted, it was big and there were rooms they never went in, but this was starting to get scary. It was four in the morning and she was nowhere to be found.
He finally stumbled into the recording studio's production room. She wasn't in there, but then he turned around, and he saw her. Inside the recording room. With the pictures.
She was taping them on the walls. More than he had received. He didn't know where she got the other ones, but they were full sized, eight by tens, and there were dozens of them. Having covered the back wall, she was now moving on to the side. She was moving top to bottom.slapping the pictures up one by one haphazardly. He watched in shocked fascination, becoming aware of the music blaring out of the room through a tiny speaker. He recognized it as a song that had been popular several years ago, one that ironically he had had sex to with a woman he was dating at the time. It was a sexy, slow song, and very descriptive. For a minute he was back in that woman's bed, moving over her to the beat, and then he realized here and now that it was his wife's voice. He shook the memory from his head and entered the recording room.
Slap! Another photo, this one of her nearly naked, covering her breasts with her hands in her legs positioned just so. She couldn't be more than twenty, eyes come-hither and mouth suggesting all sorts of sordid things. God, she had been beautiful. Sexy in a kittenish sort of way. He hated to admit it, but he could feel his groin tighten at the pictures. A black and white picture with a man's hands covering her ample breasts as her own hands covered her crotch. Another with her head lolling back on a strong black shoulder, eyes barely open. Slap! Slap! Slap!
She was well on her way to covering the second wall. Another photo went up, her at a party in a designer gown with a deep vee to her navel, and a length that hardly covered her ass. Thigh high lace-up boots. Slap! Another photo, this one of her body openly splayed over a man--the illustrious Michael, he supposed--with scarves hardly covering her nipples and pubic bone.
He felt as though he were standing in the middle of a Playboy photo shoot that everyone knew had gone horribly awry afterwards. There was absolutely no denying her beauty. The camera had loved her, worshipped her, and the men surrounding her certainly had taken advantage of that fact. She had the youthful glow of a twenty-year old, breasts that were full and round with the tilt of youth; lips softly swollen as if from being kissed just a bit too long. He found himself torturously conflicted. He had never seen pictures of her at this age before, and there was no denying the sexual energy in each of those photos. He felt a little sick, continuing to look, but didn't seem to be able to look away, until--
"It's okay," she said, slapping another photo on the wall, "everyone always looked. It's my own fault. If I didn't want them to look I should have worn-" slap! "fucking-" slap! "clothes."
"It's...it's not that," he said, trying to convince himself as much as he was trying to convince her. 'You're just...you...I've never seen you so young...you were definitely...you were very pretty..."
She snorted. "Yeah, I was a doll." She slapped another photo up. "A blowup doll, maybe." She stepped back for a minute. "Look honey," she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm, "we've got our own little peep show going on in here!"
"Why are you doing this?" he asked, tearing his eyes away from the walls. "Why have you printed out all of these? Hung them in here?"
She stepped back and put her hands on her hips. "I'm building a shrine," she said, "for my dad."
He felt a little sick. "Vanessa, he can't come over here. You need to take this down."
She slapped another photo on the wall. "Have you ever heard of the term emotional rape?"
"But what, Goren? Isn't that what he does to me over and over again?"
He didn't answer her, and she stuck another photo in between to others. "All the time. He never stops. What kind of a father sends pictures like these to his daughter's husband? You know who? One who thinks about his daughter sleeping with other people. One who likes to degrade and humiliate his own child. So I'm making a special room for him. He can come over and look all he likes. I'll even leave him a roll of paper towels in here so he can clean up after himself."
"Stop," he said sharply. "Enough."
"What? It's what he wants."
"It's sick!" He reached past her and began to take the photos down. She grabbed his arm.
"What? You think I'm crazy, don't you? Admit it! What did you think when you opened that envelope? What did you think he thought about me?"
He was flustered, standing still, staring at her. "I..."
"You what? What did you think, Bobby? Don't tell me you didn't think that he thought about it!"
He took a step toward her, gently touching her arm. "Did he...did he ever..."
"No," she snapped, yanking her arm back. "He never had to." She turned around, staring at the pictures, before finally speaking. "Look at me. Porn for my own father."
There was a stillness, a silence, that was incredibly painful. Suddenly, she heard him, loud and angry. "Bullshit! This is bullshit!" He grabbed at the pictures on the wall, ripping them with loud, angry noises. The paper balled up and he threw it behind him, cursing and ripping and throwing as she stood in shocked silence. He continued for three or four more minutes until he finally turned to her, out of breath. "So?" he demanded. "Are you going to let him? Or are you going to fight?" He shoved a photo at her, and she stared at him, shocked and confused. "Take it," he demanded loudly. Seeing her frightened expression, he lowered his voice. "Take it. Rip it. Fuck him. He's not allowed in this house. He's not allowed near our daughter. I won't have it. I won't have him here hurting you any more. Fuck him, Vanessa...from now on he'll have to go through me. Fuck him!" He ripped another photo off the wall, balling it up and throwing it down. "You do it," he urged. "Do it. Rip it up. It's not who you are any more. You can't be abused like that any more. You're stronger than that...do it. Your father, your boyfriend, all of those men...they mean nothing." He tore another one down. "Do it, Vanessa....do it..."
She was watching him intently, muscles tight throughout her body. She hadn't moved other than to take the photo from him. His strong hands ripped the photos into tiny pieces, balling them up and throwing them across the room into the wall on the far side. "Bastards," he muttered, "Goddamned child molesters...fucking bastards..."
"I wasn't a child," she protested quietly, but he ripped a photo of her off of the wall, eighteen years old and nearly nude, covered by a thin fragment of fabric. "You might as well have been," he said angrily, crumpling the photo. "Who the hell does he think he is? He should have been stopping this. Where was he, Vanessa?" When she didn't answer, her voice got louder, more aggravated. "Where the hell was he?"
"He left me," she whimpered softly, and watched as he yanked another picture off the wall, tearing it into tiny pieces.
"Fucking bastard," he said. "Do it."
And suddenly she did. She was reaching for the wall, scraping it raw with her fingers, pulling the photos away with the force of her whole body. "Fucker," she said angrily, tearing the photo and hurling it across the room.
"Do it again! Goddamned motherfucking dick!"
She did, yanking them in large groups, raising her voice now, cursing. Hurtling the pictures across the room. Ripping them into minute pieces that could never be reassembled. Her body was shaking, her eyes blurred with tears, as she screamed hysterically until Bobby grabbed her.
She was panting and sweating, feeling the bile rise in the back of her throat, and she suddenly realized he was yelling her name. When her eyes focused on him, he smiled, then began to laugh loudly, hysterically, in relief.
"Vanessa! You know what this means, don't you?" He was shaking her by the shoulders, and she shook her head blankly. No, she didn't know. That she was crazy? That she had too much ink in her printer? "It means that this is about him, not about you! This doesn't mean anything about you. It's all about him and his failure as a father! These pictures!" He yanked a handful down and shook them. "This isn't about anything you did wrong...it's about him! How he abandoned you, he left you to navigate a dangerous world alone. He failed you! We would never do this to Marly...ever...and it should have never been done to us...to you! There is nothing in these for you to be ashamed of...nothing...the shame is only his. Do you hear me, Beth? Do you hear me?"
And she did...she was shaking and sweating and she heard herself responding to him--"Yes! Yes...it was him...it wasn't me...I was only eighteen...I was only a kid..." And her tears spilled hotly down her face.
"And when you weren't a kid any more you did better...you moved on...you made other choices. Look at him! Look at this goddamned loser! He's in his fifties and still doing this shit!"
They ripped and ripped the photos repeatedly, as she cried harder and harder and he encouraged her to continue. Finally she sank to the middle of the floor, a mess of tears and scrambled words and ripped pictures, hands covered in ink and paper cuts. He squatted next to her, taking her hands into his, kissing each finger as she sobbed uncontrollably. "Beth," he soothed now, voice quiet and calm, "I'm going to take care of you now. No more Ryan. No more, ever."
He was pulling her to a standing position, and she leaned against his body. He led her out of the recording room, out of the production room, and through the rest of the house. It was nearly six a.m. and he knew she was exhausted, mentally and physically. Goddamn Ryan Rayden to hell, he thought, as Vanessa shuddered against him. "Marly," she whispered, looking up at him, and he kissed her forehead gently. "She's asleep...it's okay." She nodded at him and continued to walk with him down the hall and into the master room. He sat her on the toilet and turned the water on in the tub.
"It's okay, baby," he told her, kissing her wrists. "We need to soak your fingers...they're cut..." he pulled her tee off, then gently slid her boxers down. Seeing his wife's nude body, he was reminded of the hundreds of photos they had just destroyed, photos of the same body but younger, a body before the painful scars of her assault and the more joyous ones of childbirth and as his eyes met her own, he knew he would never want her any way than she was right now, standing in front of him.
He guided her into the tub, then grabbing a washcloth, began to wash her fingertips gently. After several minutes, she spoke. "Bobby...I need you here with me."
"I am-" But he understood her request, and slipping out of his boxers, he slid into the tub behind her. She pressed her back against his soft chest, then passively let him continue to soak and wash her fingers.
After several minutes they lay together in the tub, resting together. "Bobby," she finally said softly, "you were right about everything. I didn't know any better...I was just a kid trying to survive." She brought his arm around her chest and leaned back, resting her head against his shoulder. "I didn't know what else to do. They told me I needed to do that if I would make it. Then they told me what I needed to do to get and keep a boyfriend...then he told me what I had to do to make him happy...somehow in there it never occurred to me that I was being manipulated. All I wanted--" her voice broke on the words. "All I wanted was to be loved."
His hands were wrapped around her body. "Now you are," he told her softly. "You'll always be loved as long as I'm around.. I promise."
Suddenly she turned around, splashing the water against the side of the tub and facing him fully. "You are too," she announced, her voice strong and determined. "You are loved tremendously, by me and by your daughter and by your friends. I'm so lucky. Thank you for loving me."
His soapy hands cupped her face, then pressed his lips against hers. "I never thought I could love you more than I did on the day we were married...but here we are."
She smiled against his mouth, then kissed him back. "I guess they're right...love just grows."
She slowly opened her eyes. Marly was babbling in the bassinet, a happy sound, and Bobby was snoring softly next to her. She looked at her husband's naked chest, remembering the night before, and sighed. Nobody understood her like he did. Nobody ever had.
She sat up and picked up the baby, cradling her close as she began to nurse. Part of her obsessed on the idea of being Marlene's lifeline; not only her caregiver but her provider of nourishment, of life. An extension of herself, now living outside of her body. But then she wondered how emotionally healthy it was to think of her daughter in those terms, if it tore away Marly's own identity and enmeshed it with hers. Marly was looking up at her with big brown eyes now, something she had only recently begun to do while she nursed, and Vanessa responded the way she always did--by smiling and stroking the baby's sparse, soft hair.
"I wish somebody would feed me breakfast in bed like that." Bobby was teasing her, sleepy, hair tousled, watching her with a pleasing smile on his face. "She looks super comfortable."
"She probably is," Vanessa responded, still watching her, and feeling the tug from her breast deep into her heart. She wondered if her mother had loved her this much.
He leaned over and kissed the side of her head. "What do you say I go make us some breakfast in bed? It's been a long time since we ate in bed like we used to."
She nodded. "What are you going to make?"
"Something quick and easy...is a surprise good for you?"
"A surprise is excellent."He stood up and went through his drawer for a minute, pulling out a clean pair of boxers and donning them before winking at her and leaving the room.
When she finished feeding the baby, Vanessa changed and dressed her, then brought her back to the bed. They lay together for a long while, passing toys back and forth while Marly grabbed and gummed and laughed. "You like this one," Vanessa laughed at her daughter's excitement over a plastic keyring. "Only four months old and already anxious to leave home, huh?"
Bobby brought breakfast in--eggs and bacon and toast with juice--and they began to eat together. He laughed. "I think she wants to eat too...she keeps trying to digest those keys."
Vanessa chuckled. "Yeah, those are her favorite, I think." She jiggled the keys as Marly held them and the baby babbled more, trying to grab the shaking keys. She reached over and stroked Marly's hair gently.
Bobby put his plate down. "What are you thinking about? You have that expression again..."
She smiled slightly. "Nothing really...just how beautiful she is. How we made something so beautiful." She was quiet for a moment. "I need to go clean up the studio."
"Nah," he said, picking up his plate. "I already did it."
She looked at him, shocked. "When?"
He took a bite of his bacon. "This morning, after you fell asleep." At her surprised expression, he said, "It wasn't hard...you had already taken everything off the walls...I just swept it up."
She was staring at him again. He felt it as he ate his bacon. As he finished his second piece, he finally looked up at her. "What?" He shrugged. "It's not like I didn't enjoy it."
"If you say so," she said, taking a bite of toast. "By the way, we need a new toner cartridge for your printer...it took a bit of a beating last night."
"It was worth it," he said. "Completely."
The house was exactly how she remembered it from the picture. Ava had sent her one, many years ago, when Vanessa was still overseas and Ava was finishing up school. She stood outside, watching the children through the window, sitting at the dinner table and eating politely. The little girl was older, and her long dark hair hung past her shoulders. It had been pinned back at the side by a barrette, and her brother sat across from her, tiny enough that only his head and neck were visible over the tabletop. Their mother, still dressed in her work suit, sat at the end farthest from the window. Her hair was beautifully done, dark waves cascading down past her shoulders. It gave Vanessa a strange feeling to know that her stepmother was clearly several years younger than her.
Ryan was sitting at the end of the table, back to her, drinking from his daily glass of wine. She wondered if the house was peaceful, if it was happy; if the children at the table were joyful children who laughed and played, or if they were as doll-like as they appeared through the window. She tried to imagine Bobby and Meg and herself sitting at their table like that, posed and poised, enjoying a picture-perfect roast chicken. Last night she and Bobby had eaten pizza in bed, after Marly had nursed and fallen asleep. They had watched some sort of reality show and laughed their asses off before finally laying Marlene in her bassinet and going to sleep. She wondered if this woman, Kate, ever laughed. From the looks of it, roast chicken was of great importance in this Rayden household.
She clutched the envelopes in her hands. It had taken more than an hour to dig out all the photos he had mailed to Bobby from the trash, and that was after she had convinced Bobby to help her. He had shaken his head and told her it wasn't worth it, but she had insisted on returning them. When she explained what she needed to do, he had sighed, then sat on the floor and watched her for several moments before beginning to dig through the shredded papers. "I don't know that he'll stop," he told her, "but I know that's not the point."
Convincing Ava to give her the letter had been easier. Once Ava realized she knew, she had willingly handed the letter over to her. It was vicious, perhaps more vicious than the one to her husband, because it was written to someone that Ryan was trying to hold on to. But Ava had nodded to her and told her that she understood why. Then she had held Vanessa tightly, hugging her in a way that was vaguely reminiscent of their mother. It had given her the courage to make it out to Long Island, to Ryan's house.
Determined, she approached the front porch and rang the bell.
After a few seconds, Kate opened the door. "I'm sorry, we're--" She stopped speaking, clearly recognizing the woman in front of her. Vanessa wondered if her father had wanted posters with her picture on it around the house.
"You must be Kate," she said, then held out her hand. "I'm Vanessa...Ryan's daughter. I'm sorry to disturb you at dinner."
Kate hesitantly shook her hand. "It's nice to meet you...please, come in..." Vanessa followed her into the house. "I'll go get your father."
A place for everything and everything in its place. That was Ryan to a tee, and apparently he had found his female counterpart. The house was immaculate, down to the neatly arranged television remotes. She bit her lip remembering how she and Bobby had looked everywhere for the remote last night, only to find he'd been sitting on it. She had teased him about having a stick up his ass. That hiding the channel changer under his ass wasn't what they meant when they called it a "remote".
There were a few sounds of eating from another room; silverware lightly tinkling as it touched dinnerware, water glasses being refilled, quiet conversation from adult voices. Not a sound from the children. It figured, she thought.
She heard a heavy chair moving in the other room accompanied by angry, hushed voices, then heavy footsteps heading toward her. He was there before she had a chance to feel frightened or anxious.
"Get out," he said steadily, pointing to the front door. "As you can see, I don't allow trash in my house."
"I'm returning these to you," she said, holding out the envelopes that had been sent to Ava and Bobby, as well as their contents. He didn't make a move to touch them, so she laid them on the table next to her. "If you try something like that again, I will sue you and slap a restraining order on you."
He laughed. "You can't sue me for something that's true. Do you really think I'm stupid?" He leaned forward. "I already checked with my attorney. You can't touch me."
She stood straight, her face looking into his. "I can't sue you for slander, as much as I'd like to. But I can sue you for harassment. I can take out a complaint against you for child abuse. I can keep you so wound up in court for the next twenty years you won't know which end is up. At the end of the day, I have more money than you. And more connections. These pictures you're so fond of, they paid for that, remember? How ironic would it be if they paid to sue you? And I promise you, if you don't leave me and my family alone, I will use them."
"Child abuse?" he sneered. "Your time is up. That statute of limitations is long gone."
"Maybe for me," she said quietly, "but not for them." Her head nodded toward the dining area, and she watched him blanch.
"You can't prove anything...I've never laid a hand on any of my children. Including you."
"You've emotionally abused all of us. And if we go to court, I won't be standing alone." She turned toward the door. "Goodbye, Daddy."
"So...it's our last session, right?" He was sitting across from Lydia, in his favorite jeans and a turtleneck. He had been looking forward to this time, until Vanessa had winked, smacked him on the ass, and told him he looked sexy in his jeans. Now all he wanted to do was go home and follow up.
Lydia smiled. "Yes, our last one. Are you good with that, still?"
"I think so. I'm feeling pretty, I don't know, settled." He rested his ankle on his opposite thigh and began to shake his foot. Nervous energy. He'd never get rid of it.
"Settled...that's different for you."
"Yes." He thought about it for a moment, then smiled. "Settled. It's good. I think a lot of it is because of Marly. She's, uh, good for me...for both of us."
"So it sounds like you're feeling more confident in your ability to be a father."
His foot was still shaking back and forth. "It's Vanessa's father. He's been so...out of control...it's been hard on everyone. Ava confronted him in therapy. He said some really nasty things about Beth...about her sexual past. He sent me and Ava letters about her, and mine came complete with magazine photographs from twelve years ago."
Lydia was watching him carefully. "How did you feel about that?"
He sat back, crossing his arms. "Honestly? I was absolutely furious. I wanted to take my piece and put a bullet through his skull. I mean, at what point is it enough? How much hurt is enough to make you feel like you got her back?" He shook his head. "I'm not even sure what he's trying to get her back for."
Lydia nodded. "Actually, I was wondering how you felt receiving those pictures of your wife."
He froze, then glanced up at her. "Conflicted," he finally answered. "Angry at him, angry at her, jealous of that idiot ex of hers...I almost felt like some sort of sexually naive teenager. And--" he stopped, and his foot began to shake again.
"And what?" she pressed him. "Aroused? That would be normal, you know."
He drew a sharp intake of breath. "Yeah, maybe...for about a nanosecond."
The foot stilled. "I suppose...again, for a nanosecond...in the end, all I kept thinking about was him and how a father could do that to his own child. It's the kind of behavior that I see in my work...between exes who have terrible splits, or business partners trying to discredit one another. But not parents and children. Not a father and his daughter." He was picking at his sock when a smile spread across his face. "We did this thing...she did it...she printed out hundreds of pictures of herself from back then and taped them all over her studio. I have no idea what she was thinking...she said something about her father using her like porn." His smile disappeared.
"What did you think about that?"
"I thought--I think...I think she's probably right. She said he emotionally rapes her. Honestly, I can't think of a better term to describe it. It's constant humiliation, and with this being so highly sexualized..." He shook his head.
Lydia crossed her hands. "So what did the two of you do? You said--"
He grinned at the memory. "She was so angry. It was three in the morning and there were all of these pictures...God, I had no idea there were so many pictures like that...we tore them down. Cursing and screaming and ripping the paper. Insanely good. It felt insanely good."
Lydia nodded. "I would imagine so, for both of you...why do you suppose it was helpful for you?"
He shook his head. "I'm not sure really...other than I was so pissed at him, so tired of watching him stick it to her over and over again. She'd block him one way and he'd come up with another. He used Ava, he used Marly...whatever and whoever he could come up with." His eyes darted up to her. "What I realized...what we both realized...is we don't have it in us to ever hurt our daughter like that. The thought of repeating my father's mistakes...her father's mistakes...turns my stomach. I hold my daughter and she smiles and it's like the biggest miracle on the planet. Like my own personal sun came up."
"And if she made choices you didn't agree with when she got older..."
"I'd deal with it." He said it with conviction and confidence. "Marly will be her own person and I'm not naive enough to think we'll always agree." A sweet smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "There may even come a time when we disagree more than agree. But I've come to believe that I don't have the capacity to be vicious to my own daughter. My wife doesn't either...we both love her far too much."
Lydia nodded. "You seem to have made peace with that."
"One thing..." he mused, "How is it possible for a parent to...to....purposely behave this way? To hurt their own child so severely? For my dad to beat the shit out of me...for her father to do the things he does?"
"Your father was an addict, Bobby. Addiction puts itself by nature ahead of every other relationship. As for Vanessa's father, I can only speculate..."
"That he's narcissistic? That he never wanted children?"
"Or that he sees his children as such a strong extension and representation of himself that he can't allow them to have their own identities and punishes them for doing so."
He thought about that for a moment,then nodded. "I don't ever want it to be that way for Marlene."
"Then it won't be. As long as you stay aware and keep working on your parenting skills, you're going to be a terrific dad."
He smiled nervously. "I hope she thinks so, one day."
"Okay, got it." He adjusted the star at the top of the tree one last time, then stepped off the stool onto the floor. "What do you think?"
Vanessa scooped Marly into her arms and stood in front of the tree, tilting her head to the side. "Not bad, for a guy who used to hate Christmas."
He snorted at her, and she smirked at him. "You like it, you know you do," he told her, nudging her arm. "So...are we going to continue our tradition this Christmas Eve? Fondue, church, and...uh..." He looked at his daughter. "Well..."
Vanessa laughed. "Uh, yeah. We ended up having a bit of a Christmas surprise from last year, huh?"
"Just a late Christmas present...you really think it was from Christmas Eve?" He had thought about it a hundred times, and even though it could have been a few days before or a few days after, he liked to think it had happened that night, under the tree.
She shrugged her shoulders. "Why not? It's not like we can disprove it. Might as well indulge the fantasy, huh?"
He reached around her, hooking his thumb in her belt loop for a second before dropping it down to stroke her ass. She shook her head at him. "One track mind...even with the baby right here..."
He grinned at her again. "You never answered my question...are we going to stick with our routine this year?"
She kissed his cheek. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it...but you are going to have to make one minor adjustment...do me a favor and wear a raincoat this year..."
He leaned over and kissed his baby daughter before gently nipping Vanessa's ear. "Consider it done." He stepped back, admiring the tree, and smiled. "I'm getting to love this Christmas thing," he mused out loud. "I really am."