Author's note: I feel like I should warn anyone who might be reading this about the level of angst this story goes to. The angst just comes pouring out of me, I can't help it. Also, it's rated M for pretty much everything. I hope you like it, whoever you are, and if you don't, just pretend you didn't read it… or something. ;)
"Sarah! It's time for school, get down here!" Caroline shouted from the kitchen in her two-floor apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan. She sighed at the perpetual lateness of her 15-year-old, and turned around to face her other daughter.
"Will you put your phone down already, and eat your breakfast?" The 12-year-old remained unresponsive.
"Hello? Earth to Amy!"
She finally looked up. "Yes?"
"I said, put that down and eat your breakfast. We're going to be late."
Sarah came sauntering down the stairs, carrying her school bag over her shoulder whilst still applying mascara using a hand mirror. Caroline shook her head. Teenagers.
"You guys can go ahead and order takeout for dinner this evening. Your father is working late at the hospital again, and I have a meeting at 4:30 this afternoon and then drinks with Annie afterwards."
The two girls merely nodded, busying themselves with other things. Sarah had gone back to fixing her makeup again. Amy was rummaging around in her bag to make sure she had packed all the right books.
"Okay, ready for take-off, you two?"
She walked past her children's school on her way to the office, so they always left together in the morning. After dropping them off, she set off towards her final destination, stopping on the way to buy some coffee. She briefly glanced at her own reflection in a shop window, realising she hadn't really had the time to check her own appearance that morning, too preoccupied with making sure the girls ate their breakfast while simultaneously trying to finish a couple of cards she had been working on. Things were really hectic these days, and she hadn't seen her best friend in three weeks, which was why they had finally scheduled some girl-time that evening.
She adjusted her mid-length black skirt, making sure the cream-coloured blouse was tucked in properly, before walking the final two blocks to her office. The state of her hair would have to suffice, for now. It was getting quite long, so she'd put it up using clips, but because she hadn't trimmed her bangs in a while there were a few loose strands that were still framing her face. At 49, she was still trying her best to not let it all go entirely, because she felt like she was falling behind in every area of her life. She had to keep up her semi-professional appearance at the very least. She was starting to lose track of it all.
Upon entering the office space, she was immediately greeted by one of her assistants.
"Hey, Lisa. Any messages?"
"Two. Your publisher wants to see you about your new Caroline book, asked if you have time for lunch next week, and your husband called just before you got in, wondering if you know where his reading glasses are."
"Oh, god," she said, rolling her eyes. Randy had still been asleep when she left, as he had been working late shifts this week. She hadn't spoken to him properly in several days.
"Caroline!" another voice called from inside her office. The voice belonged to her second assistant, Jeremy. "Your agent's on the phone, can you talk to her?"
"Tell her I'll be there in a sec," she called back, unloading her bag with her portfolio in it before taking off her coat. She went to her desk and picked up the phone
"Janet, hi! What's up?"
"Caroline, my darling. Would you be interested in writing a children's book?"
Not a time waster, that woman.
"Me?" she said in surprise. "Why? Who's asking?"
"A publisher called Michael Lane, representing Bloomsbury Publishing. He thinks you have a talent for story telling, and wants to know if you'll meet with him. So?"
"Sure," she managed, still a bit stunned. "I'll meet with him."
"Great. Two o'clock this afternoon?"
"Wow, that soon, huh. Okay."
"I'll let him know. Talk to you later, sweetheart."
She hung up the phone, feeling very confused.
I'm writing a children's book? What on earth will it be about? And what if I suck at it?
She barely had the time to comb her hair these days. This could be a disaster.
The meeting with the publisher actually went well, and some of Caroline's fears had been put to rest. They were going to find someone to collaborate with her on the illustrations, most importantly, and she found great comfort in knowing that she'd have someone else to bounce ideas off of.
"Ooh, you're writing a real book?" Annie exclaimed. "Look at you, a real author," she continued with a smirk, raising her drink in Caroline's direction.
Caroline laughed. "I know! I personally think they've lost their minds."
"Hey! You will be the best author there ever was!" Annie declared as she downed the rest of her second cocktail.
"Damn right," Caroline chuckled. "So, how's Del? How's Lucas?"
Annie rolled her eyes. "You know, having a teenage son is really overrated," she replied sarcastically.
"Really?" Caroline raised her eyebrows. "I thought the general opinion was that it sucks."
Annie laughed. "Okay, fine. Having children in general is overrated, how's that?"
"Better," Caroline giggled, raising her own glass in a toast. "Here's to our little brats and a future of misery."
"Hear, hear," Annie chirped, just as another martini appeared in front of her. "And here's to excellent timing," she continued, picking the glass up to take a sip.
Her new potential publisher had called her the next morning to ask her if she'd be willing to meet with an illustrator in the afternoon.
"We wanted a proper artist, and this one has just moved here from Europe. We saw his show at the Agora Gallery last week, and we approached him to see if he'd be willing to do some illustration work on the side. He seemed reluctant at first, but we won him over in the end. He has an actual degree in visual art, and his sketches are amazing, so I'm sure you'll love him."
He hadn't said much more. He sounded busy and had eventually run off to somewhere else, but Caroline figured she'd meet this guy in a few hours, anyway. She felt excited and nervous at the prospect of working with an international artist. She'd always felt slightly intimidated by so-called "real" artists, because they were so skilled, but at the same time she loved seeing them in action. There were a couple of artist-illustrators who had offices on her floor, and she'd worked with them a few times on other projects. They had so much to teach her.
At 3:30pm, she heard a faint voice from outside.
"Hi, I'm here to meet with a… um, Caroline? Do you know where I can find her?"
She stood up and walked out to greet him.
"That would be me," she said, and she caught him just in time to see his shoulders tense up at the sound of her voice. She was surprised, at first: was he nervous, too? But then she took a closer look at him, and her heart sank into the pit of her stomach. He was still standing with his back to her, but it looked just like…
He slowly turned around, and looked at her with a face that was half panicked, half apologetic. She felt like she couldn't breathe. Oh, what is with you! Get over it. That was seventeen years ago.
"Hi…" she said weakly. He waved back, but his expression didn't change much.
For what felt like an hour, they just stared at each other in silence. She was convinced the whole building could feel the tension between them.
"I should have known, shouldn't I?" he finally said.
"How… what do you mean?"
"Well, this representative from a publishing company approaches me, asks me if I'd consider illustrating children's books, and tells me to come to this address and ask for a woman named Caroline. I should have known. This is so typical of my life," he said with his usual cynicism. He was shaking his head in what appeared to be defeat.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly.
"And that is so typical of you. You always apologise, even when it's not your fault."
Caroline frowned. "I don't know what else to say. I was not expecting this."
"I should probably go," he mumbled, turning around.
"Why? Is the idea of working with me so horrible?" He froze, and hung his head.
"Of course not," he replied.
"Then why don't you stay? You're one of the best artists out there, and with your help this could actually turn into something good."
He turned to face her again, raising his eyebrows. "It wasn't going to be good before?"
She chuckled. "I was going to aim for half decent, actually. I've never written a book before."
"Oh, so I'm part of an experiment, am I?"
"I'm afraid so," she smirked.
"I see. I'll make sure to bring my survival kit to work."
They spent the afternoon talking about book ideas, but in the end they were mostly laughing, enjoying each other's company more than they thought they would.
She's barely changed at all, Richard thought to himself, as Caroline launched into the story of Annie and Del's wedding.
"Wow," he said, wiping away actual tears of laughter. "I find it hard to believe that either one of them got married, but to each other? That's just too much."
Caroline giggled, pushing away thoughts of how much their wedding had made her think about him, wondering what his reaction to their marriage would be, thinking of all the ways he would have made her laugh if he'd been there.
"Yeah, it really is, isn't it? They even have a 14-year-old son." She smiled wryly.
"Actually, I take that last part back. Annie with a teenage son, now that is too much!"
Caroline chuckled loudly. "You know what, I think she feels the same way. He drives her nuts on a daily basis."
"I would like front row tickets to see that show," Richard said sarcastically.
"I'm sure that could be arranged," she replied with a smirk.
"So how long have you been back in New York?"
They had decided to go out for coffee after leaving the office so they could continue their conversation.
"Three months. I was in Paris for a few years, working with a contemporary art gallery over there, but when I was contacted by the Agora and asked if I would consider an exhibition here, I knew I had to do it. Then I figured, why not just move back? Stevie is seventeen, he'll be going to university soon, and because he has dual citizenship I thought he could attend college here in New York."
"Wow, seventeen. Mine are fifteen and twelve. So does he know what he wants to study?"
"I know he's considering a major in creative writing. He writes these incredible stories, and he's expressed some interest in screenwriting as well. When I told him we were coming here, he was on board almost immediately, because he had already been online looking at New York colleges. He's so focused, so ambitious," he finished, smiling proudly.
"He gets that from you," Caroline said, returning the smile. Fatherhood seemed to have changed him, in a way. He seemed more content with life. Though she supposed it had something to do with having achieved success as well, the lack of which had been a big part of his constant misery back then.
"What about your children?" he ventured.
"Well, there's 15-year-old Sarah, who is always putting on makeup and texting boys, and 12-year-old Amy who loves Harry Potter and sings along to Miley Cyrus, loudly, which is even more grating than it sounds, if you can believe that."
He laughed. "Oh, I believe you. Stevie is always listening to that techno stuff. I don't know exactly what they call it, but I do know that it's horrible."
"Was music always this noisy? Did our parents feel the same way?" Caroline mused.
"My guess? Probably. I didn't listen to music much, though. For me it was the other way around. My mother would get drunk and put on an ABBA CD or something equally awful."
"You don't like ABBA?" Caroline said in mock-disbelief.
"Not at 3am. Well, not ever, actually, but especially not at 3am."
She couldn't help but laugh at that. "Oh god, I'm sorry," she giggled.
"Yes, my misery is obviously amusing," he said sarcastically, but there was a smirk on his face.
"Oh Richard… you've changed, and yet you're exactly the same."
"So are you."
It was almost 9pm by the time she got home. Sarah was at the kitchen table doing her homework, and Amy was watching TV.
"Hey girls, you hungry?"
Sarah looked up from what she had been working on. "A little."
"Me too," Amy chimed in from the couch.
Caroline started pulling out the ingredients for spaghetti carbonara.
"How was your day, sweetie?"
"It was okay, I guess. Lauren was being a bitch, but what else is new."
Caroline rolled her eyes. "Yeah, that's teenage girls for you."
"I'm so over it already," Sarah continued with a sullen look on her face.
"Oh honey, what did she do this time?"
"She's been going around telling people that I have a crush on Jesse Anderson, which I don't, and now Noah has asked out her instead of me. Can you believe that?"
"Sadly, I can. I had a girl exactly like that in my year. Don't worry, that sort of behaviour isn't going to get her very far in life, and if Noah is a decent guy he'll see through her eventually."
"It just isn't fair," Sarah muttered.
Caroline couldn't help but chuckle. "Sweetie, a lot of things in life are going to be unfair, but if you learn how to roll with it, you'll always be two steps ahead of everyone else."
Sarah smiled wryly. "Caroline Duffy presents: little nuggets of wisdom."
Caroline laughed. "Nuggets of wisdom are always on the menu."
After dinner, Amy went off to bed, while Sarah stayed up a little longer to finish her homework.
At 10:30pm, the apartment was finally quiet. It had been a truly bizarre day, and she needed some alone time to reflect on it. Sitting down on the sofa with a cup of tea, she thought about how wonderful it had been to see Richard again. It had felt so right, somehow, like it hadn't been seventeen years since they'd last seen each other. She'd been nervous at first, thinking it would be awkward, but they got over that bump pretty quickly.
Her phone buzzed, and she leaned over to fetch it from the table. It was from Randy.
Hey, stuck in the ER tonight. Hope you had a good day.
She sighed, putting the phone back down. She suddenly felt incredibly sleepy. Finishing her tea, she decided it was time for bed.
The next morning, Richard met her in the office at 9am.
"Wow, you're on time. Colour me impressed."
He laughed. "Yeah, this is the new and improved Richard."
"I like new and improved Richard," she smirked, watching him as he pulled out some sketches.
"I was wondering what you would think of these," he said, handing them over to her. They were drawings of various animals, from real-life ones to a couple of surreal creations.
"I like this one," she chuckled, pointing at what looked like a cross between a panda bear and an elephant.
"Yeah, well, with all of these strange things that kids like nowadays, I thought I would try something new," he said, rolling his eyes. "You know, Teletubbies and Pokémon and whatnot."
She giggled. "Well, I love it. These are all wonderful."
There was a family of chubby pigs, and superhero bunnies, and some actual panda bears.
"I love pandas," she said with a smile.
He smiled back. "I know. Anyway, just trying a few things out to see if any of it speaks to you, or whatever."
Caroline turned her attention back to the drawings. He really was talented; they all looked so real, so life-like. She could actually see them come to life, and stories of what might happen to them started to appear in her head. For the first time, she felt truly excited about this project.
By the time they sat down for lunch, they had narrowed her ideas down to the three they felt the most inspired by.
"Hey, I was wondering… why did you agree to do this? It seems so unlike you."
He smiled. "I hesitated at first. But I've been feeling a bit uninspired lately. I've already conquered the world of abstract art. I've had my work displayed in cities all over the world. So I ultimately decided that it was time for a new challenge, and I figured I am qualified for more than just abstract painting. I spent five years on a degree, so I have qualifications I've never even put to use. Now is the time to start."
"It's a new chapter for both of us, then. I don't understand why they approached me, but you know what? Challenge accepted."
"I know exactly why they approached you. You've always been so good at telling stories. You make people laugh. You have this unique ability to cheer people up. I'm surprised they didn't ask you sooner."
He watched as her face softened, her smile finally reaching her eyes. The lines around her eyes crinkled, the signs of a life lived, of beauty and wisdom. She was still as beautiful as ever.
He gulped. No. Stop it. Do not go there.
He suddenly felt terrified. He knew then and there that he should have walked away when he had the chance. What did he think was going to happen once he started to spend time with her? Did he think it would be fine? Did he think he would remain indifferent towards her? Stupid. He had fallen in love with her before, and he was going to fall in love with her again. In fact, sitting in front of her now, he wasn't sure he'd ever actually stopped loving her. She was so captivating.
He had been seeing this new woman, Elaine, for a couple of months. He met her when he'd first gone to check out the gallery space. She was a reporter from the art section of Time Magazine, looking to do a profile on him. She wanted to write about his international success and why he'd decided to return to his New York roots. They'd hit it off; her minor in college had been contemporary art, and she was smart and articulate and easy to talk to. She was only 35, but the age difference didn't seem to matter. She was picking him up for dinner later, and he mentally shook himself, trying to make these thoughts he was having about Caroline go away.
The rest of the day went by in a flash. Caroline was really enjoying herself, and Richard seemed to be enjoying it as well. They didn't notice the time until someone came and interrupted them.
"Caroline, I'm off for the evening," Lisa announced. "And there's a woman waiting outside, asking if Richard is ready to go."
"Ooh, a woman?" Caroline inquired with great curiosity.
"Yeah. Elaine. We're going out to dinner." Just as he was saying that, Elaine appeared in the doorway. Caroline felt a sudden pang of jealousy.
This woman was tall, slim, with dark brown hair and beautiful skin. She was clearly in her thirties. Looking at her, Caroline felt even older and more worn out than she usually did. Wait, why does this even matter to me? It's not like I have any feelings for him.
Richard stood up, putting his jacket on as he gathered up his things.
"I'll see you tomorrow, then," he said with a small smile.
"Okay," she whispered.
Yeah, she did. She had feelings for him.
Once she had realised that she had feelings for Richard, it was pretty much all she could think about. For the next couple of weeks, work became a real struggle between staying focused and mentally kicking herself for having these problematic feelings.
What about Randy? I love him. Don't I?
Even in her dreams, she was haunted by her inappropriate feelings. She was constantly agonising over it, trying to convince herself that it would go away. But it didn't. It only got worse.
She tried to avoid spending too much time with him outside of work, scheduling lunches with Annie so she'd have somewhere to escape to. She felt absolutely awful about herself. Not only was she married; there was also the fact that he was seeing someone else, someone young and gorgeous, no less. How pathetic was she, pining away for this man she couldn't have? Stop it, Caroline.
"Right, I'm off to lunch with Annie again. I'll see you in a couple of hours."
He gave her a look she couldn't quite figure out, and she quickly averted her eyes, suddenly finding her shoes of the utmost interest. She really needed these feelings to go away.
"I'd respond with some sort of sarcastic remark, but I guess now that she's been married for fifteen years I can't call her skank anymore." He smiled ruefully. Caroline chuckled, thankful for how this comment stopped her destructive train of thought.
"I'm sure she'd be disappointed if you stopped calling her that," she smirked.
After Caroline had left for lunch, Richard sat back down in his chair, rubbing his face in frustration. He didn't know how much longer he could keep this up. She seemed to have hit some sort of creative blockage, and he knew he should do something to help, but his own head was filled with all sorts of inappropriate thoughts of her and he was finding it hard to focus on anything else when they were in the same room.
"Oh god," he sighed out loud to himself. This was agony, and he was crumbling on the inside. He wanted to fold, and walk away, but he knew he couldn't do that to her. This was his problem, after all, and he'd have to deal with it in a way that wouldn't affect her.
But she's so damn perfect.
The way she would chew her pen, or run her hands through her hair, and get up to pace around the room in visible frustration, only to sit back down at her desk where she'd put her glasses back on, which by the way made her look incredibly sexy… everything about her made him crazy.
The way she would sometimes laugh quietly to herself, shaking her head, or the way she would occasionally just stare off into space, or curse under her breath as she pressed the backspace button on her laptop just a little to aggressively…
He didn't believe in god, but he found himself praying silently all the time.
Dear god, please make this go away.
He'd go out to dinner with Elaine most evenings, but his heart wasn't in it. He would often just zone out, nodding and smiling on autopilot, and it made him feel awful but he couldn't help it.
What made it even worse was that he really liked this woman. She was great in every possible way, and they had so much in common which meant they had really interesting conversations, but lately he had not been able to engage in them. He was sure she'd started to notice, because she frequently put her hand on his, seemingly searching his eyes as he looked up at her, and he would smile and she'd go back to whatever she had been talking about. Consequently, he'd zone out again.
Quite often, his mind would go to places that were quite dark. Elaine would sit there in front of him, talking animatedly, and he'd be busy thinking about how much he hated himself. Then he'd imagine Caroline's long, wavy hair and he'd think about how much he wanted to tangle his fingers into it, and how much he wanted to hold her beautiful face in his hands, and then he'd hate himself even more. He was suffocating, drowning in self-hatred and a level of misery he'd actually never felt before.
He couldn't have Caroline. He'd had her once, but he had been an absolute idiot and she had slipped away, mostly because he hadn't tried to stop it from happening. He hated himself for that as well.
Caroline found it increasingly hard to be around her family, especially Randy. She felt so incredibly guilty, even if she hadn't actually done anything…. even if there was no actual chance of anything happening. It didn't seem to matter, because her existence was in turmoil, and her foundation was wavering under her feet. She had thoughts she shouldn't be having, and now she was questioning almost every aspect of her life for the past seventeen years. Who had she been in love with all this time? Had she always felt this way?
Her children kept her from losing her mind completely, and she was so incredibly grateful for them. She never wanted to hurt them, ever, and she tried to cling onto that as she battled her feelings for a man who wasn't their father. She couldn't stand the thought of throwing their lives for a loop just because she was messed up emotionally. Cheating on Randy would be bad enough, but the very idea of doing that to her beautiful children was almost soul-destroying.
Why am I even thinking about that? Richard is dating a 35-year-old woman who is utterly gorgeous and a perfect match for him. Look at yourself, Caroline. Nothing is ever going to happen between you and Richard; therefore there is zero chance of you cheating on anyone. Stop worrying.
But the ache in the pit of her stomach prevailed.
After another afternoon of Caroline pacing around in frustration, Richard had intervened. He had to do something, even if every fibre of his being was screaming for him to run away as fast as he possibly could.
"You know, Elaine is out of town for a few days, so I have all this free time on my hands, and Stevie is staying at a friend's house. Would you like to come over for dinner? I'll cook, and there is something I'd like to show you. You look like you could use some inspiration," he said with a smile.
Caroline panicked, her stomach flipping uncontrollably at the thought of spending an evening with Richard. But she couldn't very well say no, he might suspect something was wrong if she did. Besides, he was right. She couldn't continue like this, she had to push herself past it somehow.
"Okay, sure," she replied, trying her best to sound calm and positive. He's just being friendly. He's trying to help.
"Great. I'll see you at seven?"
She was freaking out. She couldn't do this, she just couldn't. She'd tried on at least ten different outfits, and everything just made her feel worse about herself. She finally decided that you could never go wrong with a simple black dress, and she settled on the one she had tried on five outfits earlier. It was slightly low cut, and a bit short, maybe, but it would have to suffice.
It's not like he's going to care about what I am wearing, anyway.
She located her favourite black pumps, and applied the finishing touches to her makeup to make sure she didn't look as old as she felt. She was really intimidated by this young woman he was seeing, which was beyond stupid, because of course there was nothing going on between the two of them. He hadn't seen her in seventeen years, after all. When he saw her again, he must have thought she looked old and tired. She sure as hell felt that way.
He, on the other hand, had aged really well. It was really unfair, actually. She had always cursed society for treating middle-aged women like old hags, but now that she was faced with her own demons she had the exact same thoughts about herself. She laughed to herself at the sheer irony of it all.
Ridiculous. Pull yourself together.
Richard was stirring the mushroom risotto nervously, adding chicken and peas as he tried to shut off his brain. He had no idea what had come over him when he asked her over for dinner. Now he would have to spend an entire evening looking at her, thinking of ways to stop wanting her.
But she had looked so lost these past couple of weeks. She seemed creatively stuck, and last night he had made something he wanted her to see. It was too big to carry all the way into the office, which is why he'd been compelled to invite her over. He wanted to help, even if it was hard on him.
Besides, she was married. There was zero chance of anything happening. She'd ended up marrying Randy, which he had always suspected. He was clearly the perfect guy for her, and of course he was happy for her, despite his own feelings. She deserved happiness. Unfortunately, that didn't make it any less painful.
Come on, Richard. Your job is to help her.
Just as he lifted the pot off the stove, the buzzer to his apartment went off. He pushed the button to let her in, and two minutes later she was outside his door.
"Come on in," he said, stepping aside. He closed the door behind her as she took her coat off. When he turned to face her again, his heart stopped. She was wearing a tight black dress, stopping a few inches above her knees, and her red hair was flowing over her shoulders in light waves. He swallowed the word "perfection" before it slipped out of his mouth, and averted his gaze, fearing that if he didn't he wouldn't be able to.
Putting his mask back on, he once again berated himself for feeling the way he did. "You look really nice," he said casually.
She blushed. "Thank you. It smells really good, what are you making?"
"Risotto." He was struggling not to stare at her.
"Wow, I had no idea you could cook," she said with a smirk.
"Well, I couldn't," he laughed, feeling slightly more at ease. "But Stevie's grandmother taught me while we were living in Rome. She was very persistent," he finished in a chuckle.
Caroline giggled. Then, for the first time, she remembered Julia. He hadn't even mentioned her so far, but she still couldn't believe that she hadn't thought to ask about her.
Hesitating slightly, she finally dived into it.
"So, whatever happened to Julia, anyway?" She tried to sound casual.
"Oh god, that woman. The very idea of her makes my skin crawl. She gave me full custody of Stevie when he was two, and more or less disappeared after that. She was a horrible mother, anyway," he said with a look of disgust on his face. "Good riddance."
"Sounds like it," Caroline said in a near whisper. "How does Stevie feel about it?"
"I think he's realised that he has been better off without her, but he used to write stories about what it would be like to have a mother who actually cared." He sighed. "What kind of mother abandons her own child?"
Caroline just shook her head. "I'm sorry," she whispered. There were tears in her eyes.
"We're fine now, it's all in the past," he said, trying to lighten the mood. "Shall we eat?"
Over dinner, Caroline asked him more questions about Rome, and Paris, and he told her several stories from when Stefano was growing up. He talked about Julia's parents, and how they had become his family once he was the father of their only grandchild.
"I'm glad they came around," she said softly. "They were always way too hard on you."
"In a way I kind of deserved it. I mean, what was I thinking, marrying Julia like that? It was an act of insanity." He shook his head. Yeah, because I was so in love with you I was losing my mind.
In the years after his divorce, he had come to the conclusion that he'd convinced himself of having feelings for Julia to escape his despair over how much he loved Caroline. He had fought so hard to make it work, too, but he had been setting himself up for failure. And now he was doing it again.
He was aching just to touch her. Just once. He wanted to feel her skin against his. But as soon as that thought entered his head, it was followed up by a desire to run his hands through her hair, and along the curves of her body, inhaling her scent…
Stop it, Richard!
Caroline's expression changed into a concerned frown. "Are you okay?"
His heart skipped a beat. "Yeah, sure. I'm fine. Come here, I want to show you something." He stood up, and gestured for her to join him. He led her over to a big canvas that was covered with a blanket.
"I painted this last night. I've been so stuck lately, but during the last couple of weeks, something has set off my creative side again. I think it's you." He paused. I know it's you. "I think it's because you inspire me. And now it's my turn to inspire you, because there is so much creativity inside you. I think that if you allow yourself the freedom to relax, we could create something really special."
He smiled at her, and removed the blanket to reveal the painting.
Caroline stood there in stunned silence, taking it all in. It was truly beautiful; the colours were mesmerising, and even though it was abstract it really spoke to her. There was something childlike and playful about it. It reminded her of starting all over again.
"Every day is a blank canvas," she whispered. "Just waiting for us to fill it with colours." Her eyes filled with tears, and she looked up at him. He had a look on his face that almost took her breath away.
"Yeah…" he whispered back. They were gazing into each other's eyes now, and it seemed like the rest of the world had ceased to exist.
The words were out of his mouth before he could even think about stopping them. "God, I really want to kiss you."
Her breath caught in her throat. "Then why don't you?" she whispered shakily.
With trembling hands, he reached for her face, framing it gently. His breathing was becoming increasingly shallow, but it wasn't air that he needed. He needed her.
"You're so beautiful."
When he finally captured her lips with his, it was tentative, light as air, but within seconds it deepened considerably. His heart was beating out of his chest, as desire filled every inch of his trembling body. He knew he was about to lose all self-control.
As the kiss turned into an intense force of nature, their tongues intertwining desperately, his fingers finally ventured into her long, beautiful hair. He knew this was wrong, so very wrong, but he didn't care because it felt so right and he never wanted to stop.
"Bedroom?" he whispered against her mouth, and she nodded in response as their lips locked once again. Somehow, they managed to stumble their way into his bedroom, and they tumbled into bed in a frenzy of kisses and touches. She moaned into his mouth as his hands ran across her stomach, and he moved to place kisses on her neck.
He tried to rationalise what he was doing. It's just this once. Maybe it will help us get past whatever we're feeling. But all rational thought went out the window as he felt Caroline's hands run down his chest, eventually reaching dangerously close to a part of him that, quite frankly, was already about to explode. He grabbed her hands and held them firmly, lacing his fingers with hers, and kissed her lips again, trying to tell her wordlessly how much he wanted her. He knew he couldn't say it with words. Somehow, that would make this whole thing way too real.
Undoing the zipper on the back of her dress, he started to pull it down her body. She was biting her lip, her eyes closed, and she was so beautiful. Her dress finally all peeled off, along with her stockings, he threw it all to the floor before turning his attention back onto her. For a moment he could do nothing but stare: she was lying on his bed, wearing nothing but lacy red underwear. He wondered if she would ever stop being so painfully gorgeous, but he knew the answer was no.
Caroline was floating on air. Gone were thoughts of her husband. Gone were thoughts of her kids. In fact, the world around her seemed nothing but a blur. There was something about being touched by Richard that just made her forget about everything else. After all these years, she had managed to forget, half convincing herself that sex had ever felt this good, but it had, and it was happening again. She worked frantically to unbutton his shirt, tearing it off and throwing it to the floor, and she closed her eyes as he continued to caress every inch of her.
"You're so amazing," she whispered unsteadily. His touches made her skin tingle, and she was drowning, drowning, in sensation. He was placing trails of kisses on her arms, down her sides, and along the outlines of her underwear, and she shivered, which caused him to run his hands back up her body before venturing behind her back to unhook her bra. She arched her head back, biting her lip again.
He was tracing around her nipples with his tongue, and he could hear her breath catching in her throat. The sound of her unsteady breathing made him ache even more. He'd never wanted anything so badly in his whole life.
He began to fumble with his own jeans, feeling like he couldn't get them off fast enough. He sat up slightly in order to get rid of them, and then his mouth descended on hers again, meeting her lips in a desperate kiss.
"God, I want you so much," she managed against his mouth, her voice almost strangled, and his heart was flying, but he couldn't say it back. So he kissed her again, before he ventured back down her body, finally reaching the edge of her panties. He ran his tongue against the outline, and she whimpered. He proceeded to pull her thoroughly soaked underwear down her legs and throwing them away, before tearing off his own, and then he climbed back on top of her.
"Please," she whispered, but her voice was barely even audible at this point. He positioned himself between her legs before finally entering her. She gasped loudly, biting her lip hard, and at this point he knew without a doubt that he loved her. Pushing that thought to the back of his mind, he started a slow and steady rhythm, and she arched her back, her fingers digging into the mattress. He slowly increased the pace, kissing her soundly, and her breathing became more unsteady, her moans more frequent, and eventually there were words flying out of her mouth. He felt his own climax building steadily, and his breathing was heavy against her neck. He could feel soft waves of hair against his face. Why does she smell so good? Why is her skin so soft? Why is she so perfect?
She finally came, hard, contracting around him, which pushed him over the edge as well. For a while they just remained there, still tangled up in each other, waiting for their breathing to calm down. He kissed her lips, slowly, and when he pulled back her eyes were shining up at him.
Why, WHY, does she have to be so fucking beautiful? He rolled over to the side, his heart suddenly so unbearably heavy, and he knew with absolute certainty that it was going to break into a million little pieces. This was going to absolutely destroy him. For now, though, he was going to hold her in his arms, so he reached out and pulled her closer. He felt her sigh into his neck. His heart was breaking already.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, staring at the ceiling.
She raised her head to look at him.
"For being so completely irresponsible."
"It wasn't just you."
"So you don't hate me? You're not mad?"
She smiled, but it was a sad smile. "No, of course not."
He reached up to touch her cheek lightly. "So what happens now?"
"Well, this obviously can't happen again," she said sadly.
"No, this was a mistake. It won't happen again."
But of course, it did. They spent the next couple of days dancing around each other, but by lunchtime on the third day they had ended up in the disabled toilet down the hallway. Caroline wasn't exactly sure how it had happened. She had never thought of herself as the kind of woman who would have sex in a public place. Then again, she had never thought of herself as the kind of woman who would have an affair. And now she was both. The way Richard was looking at her when they were trying to work made her feel things she hadn't felt in a long time. He looked at her with eyes full of longing, and there was a constant ache in the pit of her stomach. She wanted him, too. In the end, she'd had no self-control left to fight it. So she'd followed him down the hall and pulled him into the toilet, locking the door before whispering, "Okay, just kiss me." He hadn't even tried to object, he'd just pushed her up against the wall.
After that, it started to happen more and more frequently. Caroline was in hell; she was betraying her husband, who trusted her, and she knew that she should stop, but she couldn't. She didn't have the strength. Her head was telling her to break it off, but her heart wanted Richard. It probably always had.
Her standard excuse, as far as Randy was concerned, was that she was working late. She'd spend her days keeping a straight face, stealing glances at Richard when she thought no one was looking. She caught him staring at her as well, and she tried to hide the effect he was having on her. She couldn't risk anyone else finding out what was going on. She even felt nervous being around Annie and Del, slightly paranoid about whether or not they could see it on her, if they could sense it, somehow. She felt like she was wearing her guilt on her face, but if they had noticed, they hadn't said anything. She hadn't even told Annie that the illustrator she was working with was Richard. She knew her best friend would shower her with questions if she did.
"Don't go," Richard said quietly, the way he did every time she would get up to leave.
"You know I have to," was her usual response, even though it pained her.
He wrapped his arms around her waist, and she sank back into his embrace.
"But don't," he murmured into her ear. She closed her eyes, trying to find the strength to pull away.
"You're making this too hard," she whined.
"I was trying to."
She groaned. "Come on, it's almost 8:30 already. I told Randy I would be home by 9. I have to get dressed."
"Fine," he sighed, releasing her reluctantly. Watching her get dressed, he pressed his face into his hands, almost in resignation. The more he kept this up, the worse it was going to get, but the problem was that he loved her so much he couldn't stand the idea of pushing her away.
He knew she would end up choosing her family, which is why he had continued his relationship with Elaine as well. He knew it was selfish to do so, because Elaine deserved so much better, but he was so scared. He knew he couldn't face the future alone. There had been a time when he was convinced that he could, but those days were over, and he definitely couldn't be alone after Caroline inevitably walked out of his life. He didn't think he'd survive.
He didn't follow her to the door this time the way he usually did. He couldn't even watch her leave his bedroom, and he knew he was dangerously close to his breaking point. As he heard the front door open and close, he felt tears stinging in his eyes, and he sank back down onto the bed. This had to stop. It couldn't continue.
Walking out into the street, Caroline's vision was clouded with tears. She was falling apart now, and she knew it. She felt like the lowest of the low, the cheating wife who was lying to absolutely everyone around her, and she wiped her eyes furiously as she finally managed to hail a cab.
She was lying to herself, as well. She was lying every single time she told herself she would never do it again. She lied when she tried to convince herself that she loved her husband. She lied when she told herself she didn't love Richard. Everything was a web of lies these days. In a way, it was almost funny, because she had never been able to lie before, and now she was lying all the time, to everyone.
But it wasn't funny; it was terrifying. She didn't recognise herself anymore. As the cab pulled up outside her building, she realised that she couldn't walk into her apartment looking like she'd been crying. There would be too many questions, and she was all out of lies. So after paying the cab driver, she decided to take a short walk around the block. She stopped at the corner to wipe off her mascara with a tissue, and continued walking, hoping that the slight evening chill would calm the redness of her eyes.
Richard had eventually managed to fall asleep sometime between 2 and 3am, so when his alarm went off at 7:30 he felt positively awful.
Oh, god, I have to see her again. I have to be in the same room as her, for hours. I can't take it.
Agonising over it for a couple of minutes, he eventually decided to send her a simple text to let her know that he wasn't feeling well and that he was going to stay home today.
He'd always thought of himself as a man of principles, and incapable of lying. Sure, his actions had been questionable at times, and his moral compass wasn't always aiming in the right direction, but he had always ended up doing the right thing, in the end, or at least what would have been his best attempt to do so. He couldn't leave Julia without at least trying to make it work. He couldn't leave his son without a father, even if it meant giving up the love of his life. He couldn't even pretend to be gay in order to sell a painting. But now, he had turned into the kind of lying bastard he'd always hated: a cheating, two-timing asshole. He knew he had to end this, because he couldn't live with this version of himself. It was eating away at him.
He managed to go back to sleep, and didn't wake up until just before noon. His head had stopped pounding by then, fortunately, and he made his way to the bathroom to take a shower.
When he didn't show up for work, Caroline knew that something was wrong. She had sensed it last night as well, but she didn't think he would actually feel the need to avoid her. He was starting to regret the whole thing, she was sure of it, and she knew she would have to go over there and make it clear to him that she would be okay, and that he didn't have to avoid her. She could be professional… couldn't she?
She didn't know anymore. During these past few weeks, she had realised that she had no idea what she was really capable of. She had started to question herself, wondering who the hell on earth she really was.
And so she had no idea if she would be able to remain professional around him. She wanted to believe that she could, but the very thought of it pained her. Her days of living in denial were well and truly over.
As the day drew to a close, and she, as per usual, had accomplished next to nothing, she decided she would have to go over there and confront him. She'd try to make him feel like he could be around her, and that they could work together despite everything. She would tell him she understood his decision, that she always knew he would choose the younger woman over her, and that it was all for the best anyway. Because it was, wasn't it? She was married. Him not choosing her was a good thing. She didn't need him to want her. She didn't even need to know what this whole thing had been about for him, mostly because she feared that the answer would hurt her too much. She didn't want to know the details. She just wanted to let him know that she was fine, that she would be fine.
Oh god, look at me. I've already started lying to myself again. This has to stop.
She grabbed her coat and her bag, and turned the lights off on her way out.
Richard had spent the afternoon painting, getting a lot of inspiration from his pain, like he always had ("paint" was just "pain" with a T, as he used to say). This was completely different from what he had painted just a few weeks earlier. He'd painted his dream that time, and now he was painting his nightmare.
It also felt just a little bit too familiar. He had been here before. He'd seen her with other guys, and he'd agonised over how much he wanted her, and he'd turned to the canvas to get some of his feelings out of his system. Somehow, it never really did the trick. And here he was, two decades later, doing the exact same thing all over again.
At 6:15pm there was a knock on his door. Cursing under his breath, he quickly went to change his jumper, before heading over to greet whoever was standing outside his apartment.
He opened the door, and Caroline appeared in front of him, a vision in a black tube skirt and a red blouse with her hair pinned up, a few loose strands framing her face. His heart ached at the sight of her, and he curled his hands into fists to make sure he didn't reach out to touch her. He had to stay strong.
"Are we okay?" she asked quietly. She looked really worried.
"I don't know…" He didn't know how to respond.
"Please tell me we're okay. I'm sorry, Richard." Her eyes filled with tears. "It's doesn't really matter anyway, does it?" she continued, smiling weakly.
"I guess not." It doesn't matter? What is she trying to say?
"Because, you know, you've got Elaine, who seems great, and she's so young and pretty. I'm just someone's middle-aged wife," she chuckled sadly.
He hung his head in agony. "You're so much more than that," he said in a half-whisper.
"You don't have to do that," she said with a sad smile.
"Try to make me feel better. I can handle it. I don't know exactly what this has been about for you, but you don't have to pretend to feel something you don't. I want you to know that I'm fine, so please don't hide from me just because you don't want to tell me you prefer the woman who is fourteen years younger. Just… come to work on Monday, okay? It's completely fine, I swear. I mean, at the end of the day, you never wanted me."
He closed his eyes in pain. "Don't do that."
"Don't say things like that."
"Why not? It's just the truth."
"No. No, it's not."
She looked at him with huge, questioning eyes, and that's when he closed the space between them, wanting to kiss her so badly he couldn't help himself anymore.
He practically attacked her mouth, kissing her so intensely she instantly moaned against him, and she made no attempt to stop the kiss from happening. In a matter of seconds, her hands were on his face, and his were wrapped securely around her waist.
They somehow made their way onto his couch, in various states of undress. Richard had pulled her blouse over her head, causing a few hairclips to fall out, leaving her hair in a beautiful mess. She had managed to unbuckle his trousers, and they had fallen to the floor. He'd stumbled out of them, almost tripping as he tried to rid himself of his socks in the process.
His hands were running all over her body as she tugged at his shirt.
"Does this feel like I don't want you?" he managed into her ear, before moving to place kisses on that sensitive spot just below it, which he knew would make her shiver uncontrollably.
She didn't say anything. Her breathing was ragged, and her eyes were closed. She was beautiful, so incredibly, painfully, incomprehensibly beautiful. How could he possibly be with someone else after this? After holding her, and touching her, and kissing her… he didn't see how he could ever love anyone else.
Pulling her skirt and stockings off, he ran his hands back up along her sides, and by now she was trembling. He managed to unhook her bra, his fingers brushing over her nipples feather-lightly. She whimpered.
"Please, just…" she tried, but her voice caught in her throat. "I can't… take it… anymore."
He looked deep into her eyes, before kissing her soundly. He then moved to pull off the final piece of clothing.
This time, he sat there wordlessly as she got dressed. She'd pulled out the rest of her hairclips, and her wavy locks were now flowing freely. He tried not to think about the feeling of running his fingers through them. He put his own trousers back on, and then his shirt, thankful for the distraction this offered him.
As she was putting on her shoes, his heart ached more than it ever had before.
"Please don't leave."
She hung her head, and made no move to turn around so she could face him.
"I can't stay."
"But I need you."
"Please don't…" Her voice was trembling, and he knew she was close to tears.
"But it's true!" he said, his voice rising in desperation.
A sob escaped her mouth, and her shoulders were shaking which meant she was really crying at this point. He hated it when she cried, and it was almost unbearable when he was the one who was causing it.
"I can't," she choked out, and she started heading for the door. He couldn't take it anymore.
"I LOVE you, Caroline! I love you!" She froze, and he got up, walking after her. "Please don't go back to him. Stay here."
"You know I can't do that!"
"Then I don't know if I can handle this any longer."
She turned around, her eyes red from crying.
"Richard…" she said, and there was pain in her voice.
"No! It hurts too much. It's too hard!"
"I'm sorry. Don't you think this is hard for me as well?"
"Oh really? Is it?"
"Of course it is!"
"That's not how it seems to me!"
"Well, I don't know what else to say!"
His heart was really and truly breaking now.
"How about the truth?" he said, nearly whispering. He wasn't sure he could handle the truth.
"What do you mean?" Her voice was trembling again.
"Do you want me to walk away?" he asked.
She didn't respond at first.
"No!" she exclaimed.
"Because I will," he continued.
"I don't want that."
"Then what DO you want?"
"YOU! Okay? I want you! But I can't have you." Tears were streaming down her face.
"Yes, you can! I'm right here!"
"I know, and I love you!"
"But it's not that easy, and you know it."
"You love me?"
"Of course I love you! I love you so much it hurts. But I just… I can't."
"And I can't watch you go back to him every day. Not anymore. I love you, but if I can't have you I need to accept that and move on with my life."
The look on her face was killing him.
"Okay," she whispered. Another tear rolled down her cheek, and she wiped it away. Then she turned around again, and this time he didn't stop her. He felt numb. She grabbed her coat and her bag from the floor, and walked out of his apartment.
In the emptiness she had left behind, he sat down, finally letting his own tears fall. This is it. I'm dying.
There was a faint knock on his door. He willed his body to stand up.
When he opened the door, Caroline's tearstained face was staring back at him. His heart was breaking all over again. She walked back into his apartment, wordlessly, and once the door was closed behind them she looked up into his eyes with so much pain and sorrow that he completely lost his resolve.
He pushed her up against the door, kissing her desperately with every fibre of his being. She sobbed against his mouth, and he reached for her hands, lacing their fingers together before using his whole bodyweight to pin her against the solid constant behind her. He held her there for a while, savouring the feeling of his body pressed against hers and their tongues intertwining, but eventually he ran his hands up the inside of her skirt, finally grabbing her before lifting her up and carrying her to his bedroom.
Caroline had stopped thinking. She was drowning in touches and kisses as Richard ran his hands all over her for the second time that evening. But this time, it was different, somehow. This time he was touching her like she was truly the most precious thing in the world. This time, she could feel his love in every kiss, and it had seemed like the only thing that really mattered. He was whispering words in her ear, telling her she was beautiful, perfect, everything.
Afterwards, as they were wrapped up in each other's arms, she could once again feel the full extent of her agony.
"This is killing me, Caroline," she heard Richard whisper.
She whimpered, and more tears found their way down her cheeks.
"It hurts so much," she whispered back, choking down a sob. She never knew pain like this existed.
It made Richard's heart so unbelievably heavy to feel her sob against his neck. He reached up to stroke her beautiful red hair before wrapping his arms even tighter around her fragile figure as she continued to sob quietly. He was in so much pain that the only thing he could do was to hold her.
He knew it would have to be all or nothing, before it completely destroyed him. At the same time, he feared that "nothing" would destroy him, anyway. How could he have allowed himself to get to this point? He had stupidly thought that if he slept with Caroline once it would resolve their sexual tension, but he had been fooling himself. It was never just sexual tension for him; it was love. He was painfully in love with her, and sex would never be enough.
"What are we going to do, Richard?" Her voice was barely audible.
"I don't know," he whispered.
The following day was a Saturday, and Annie had invited Caroline over to her apartment for coffee. Sitting at the kitchen table nursing her mug of hot liquid, she felt almost numb with guilt, which was now tearing her apart pretty much every second of every day.
"What's going on with you, Caroline?" Annie asked worriedly. "You've been so distant lately."
"What?" she said, as she looked up from her mug. "Oh, I'm fine." She attempted a smile.
"Come on, I have known you for over two decades. You can't fool me. You didn't even look this awful when you were pregnant with Sarah and so dehydrated from throwing up that you ended up in the hospital for like, two weeks. Seriously, what's wrong?"
Caroline sighed. She had to tell someone, it was eating her alive, and it might as well be Annie.
"I'm having an affair." She hung her head, giving her best friend time to adjust to the severity of what she had just told her.
"Are you… serious?" Annie asked. She sounded nothing short of stunned.
"Yes," Caroline whispered.
"No, really, you're not joking?"
"Oh god," Caroline sobbed. "I wish I was."
"Oh my god…" Annie stared at her in complete shock.
"I know," Caroline said, as she wiped away tears. "I'm the worst person on earth."
Annie's face softened. "Oh, honey, that isn't true."
"Yes, it is."
Her best friend shook her head. "For how long?"
"Six weeks," Caroline whispered shakily.
"Do I know this guy? Is it someone you work with?"
"Yes, and yes."
"Wow. Well, that narrows it down."
They were silent for a while.
"It's that illustrator I've been working with," she finally said, choking back another sob.
"What? But you only just met that guy! I know you, Caroline, and you would never do something like this unless it meant something, and that couldn't possibly involve some guy you barely know. Which… means there's more to this." She eyed Caroline suspiciously. "Especially since you also said that I know him."
Caroline broke into a fit of sobs, and put her face in her hands. Everything hurts.
Seeing how much pain her friend was in, Annie scooted her chair over to sit next to her, putting her arms around her.
"My god, Caroline… what is it?"
She looked up, her eyes red from crying.
"I'm sleeping with Richard," she whispered.
The name didn't seem to register with Annie at first. She looked confused, and she studied Caroline intently as if waiting for more information.
Eventually, her eyes flew open in a mixture of shock and disbelief. She appeared to have stopped breathing, and was just staring at Caroline in what seemed to be a rare case of speechlessness.
"But… how? Why would… I mean, what…" she stuttered.
"Everything is so messed up," Caroline sobbed. "It hurts, Annie. It really hurts."
Annie's face changed from shock to concern again. "Oh sweetie. Talk to me," she said, rubbing her friend's back in a gesture of comfort.
Caroline's shoulders were shaking as she tried to stop another wave of sobs that was threatening to take over her body.
"I love him," she finally managed in a whisper.
"No," she choked. "Richard."
"Oh my god…" Annie repeated, her voice barely detectable. "Caroline…"
"I know, okay? I know! It's impossible."
"What do you mean?" Annie inquired softly.
"I spend every waking hour feeling guilty. In fact, "guilt" doesn't seem like a sufficient word, somehow. "Self-hatred" is more like it. I'm one of those women…" she trailed off. Her voice was breaking.
"Look," Annie began, "there are a million reasons why you shouldn't be doing this, there is no denying that. But you know, I always thought that, deep down, you never stopped loving that strange man. You never got over it. You just buried it so deep within you that you almost managed to forget. And you know what? That's not fair. You deserve to have that kind of love. You shouldn't have to settle because you feel obligated to. That wouldn't be fair to Randy, either, or to the kids for that matter. Randy is going to notice that something is wrong, and you'll both end up unhappy, and the girls are going to be affected by that."
"I don't want to drag my children through a divorce, though. I don't want to take that stability they've had until now away from them."
"But think about it: how stable is it going to be with a mom who's depressed and a dad who spends his life wondering what has happened to her? I understand where you are coming from, and it's never easy when parents divorce, but it's not the end of the world. I was upset when my parents split, but when my dad sat down with me and explained about finally finding true love, I understood, and I felt happy for him."
"Yeah, but you were thirty. Amy is twelve."
"Don't underestimate 12-year-olds. They understand more than you think." Annie attempted a smile as she placed a hand over Caroline's arm, giving it a light squeeze.
"Oh god, this is a nightmare. I can't do this."
"Yes, you can."
Caroline shook her head. "How?"
"By being honest with yourself. Life is too short to be unhappy, Caroline. Life is too short not to grab love when you find it. God, listen to me. When did I become a self-help guru?"
Caroline laughed through her tears. Leave it to Annie to make me laugh even when I'm falling apart.
"Thanks, Annie. Sometimes I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Sometimes? Honey, you'd be so lost."
She had lunch with Annie as well, so they could talk some more. Caroline had really needed someone to talk to, and her best friend didn't judge. She had always been a safe haven, of sorts, and whenever Caroline felt bad about herself, Annie had always been there to make her feel better, putting things into perspective.
After lunch, she went straight to Richard's apartment. She needed to see him as soon as possible. She had made a decision, and she needed to get right down to it before she lost her nerve. Her heart was pounding in her chest; she couldn't believe what she was about to do, and she was terrified, but she knew that she couldn't avoid it anymore.
Knowing the code to his building, she went straight up to his apartment, taking a deep breath before knocking.
Richard's heart leapt into his throat when he heard the knock on the door. He knew it was most likely Caroline, and he'd had several different scenarios playing in his head about how it was all going to end. Most of them were devastating.
When he saw her standing in front of him, looking so worried, his head immediately filled with a million questions. She was wearing simple black skinny jeans, a floral print blouse and black pumps, and she looked beautiful, but he suspected she would have looked good wearing a bin bag. He gestured for her to come in, before closing the door again.
"Hi…" she began meekly. This was it. This was the rest of her life.
"Hi," Richard responded softly.
"I have something to tell you," she continued, biting her lower lip nervously.
Richard looked at her with both terror and anticipation. He couldn't seem to find his voice, and he saw her draw a long, shaky breath, before she continued.
"I've decided to leave Randy."
He couldn't believe his ears. Surely he'd misheard her? That couldn't be right.
"Oh my god…" he whispered. He was almost afraid to breathe, like he would snap back into reality if he did.
"Richard? Oh god, you haven't changed your mind, have you?"
Seeing the insecurity in her eyes, he shook his head. "Are you kidding? No."
And that's when she broke into a smile. She smiled, her eyes blank with tears, and he closed the gap between them, framing her face with his hands.
"How are you so beautiful?"
She laughed. "Maybe that's just because you're not wearing your glasses."
"I'm wearing contact lenses," he said with a chuckle.
She giggled softly, and he leaned in to place a gentle kiss on her lips.
"You make me so happy," he said in a near-whisper. "I never in a million years thought you would choose me."
Caroline gazed into his eyes. "And you're sure you'll still want this next week? This isn't just about the thrill of the forbidden or something?"
He laughed. "Oh, Caroline, you're ridiculous. But that's just one of the reasons why I love you." He ran his hand gently through her hair. "To answer your question: I've never been so sure about anything in my life."
"I love you," she whispered, and her eyes were smiling up at him. He leaned down to kiss the top of her head.
"Besides," he continued, "I never got much of a thrill out of the forbidden, anyway. All I really got was heartache." A warm smile formed on his lips. She chuckled.
Walking out of his apartment, she felt like a huge burden had been lifted off her shoulders. But then she remembered that she still had to tell Randy, and the girls, and her heart fell into the pit of her stomach again. This was going to be the hard part.
She waited for Randy to come home from work that night. He didn't walk through the door until around 1am, and when he saw her sitting in the dimly lit kitchen, he seemed to instantly know that something was wrong.
"Caroline, what are you still doing awake? Is everything okay?"
"We need to talk," she said, her voice cracking slightly as she fought back tears.
"Oh god, what's wrong? Are you sick or something?"
She shook her head sadly. "You should probably sit down."
Hesitatingly, with a concerned frown on his face, he went to sit down in the chair opposite hers.
"Does this have something to do with why you've been so distant lately?"
She nodded, as a tear slipped down her cheek. "Yes."
"You're scaring me now. Please, whatever it is, just say it."
"Oh Randy, I'm so sorry. I want you to know that I didn't mean for this to happen!" She could feel herself getting hysterical as tears started streaming down her face. "It got out of control, and I know that's no excuse but I don't know what else to say!"
His face was nothing but a blur to her at this point, and she knew she wasn't making any sense. She tried to pull herself together somewhat, bracing herself for what she was about to say next.
"I'm in love with someone else."
An eerie silence filled the room for what seemed like an eternity, almost like he hadn't heard her or she hadn't said it at all.
"For how long?" Randy's voice was low when he eventually spoke.
"Six weeks… or twenty years. I don't know," she sobbed.
"What does that even mean?"
The pain in her heart was too much. "Richard," she whispered.
Randy's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"I've been working with Richard on my children's book, and somehow we ended up in bed together. And then we never stopped." Caroline had buried her face in her hands.
She looked back up at him. "Is that all? "I see"?"
"What do you want me to say, Caroline? You've just told me that you've been cheating on me for six weeks."
"I'm so sorry," she whispered.
"Yeah, me too. I can't believe this. I think part of me is still waiting to wake up and discover that this was just a bad dream, and that I didn't actually just hear you say that you're in love with a man who left you seventeen years ago."
They sat there in agonising silence for a while. Caroline seemed to have an endless amount of tears. Randy just looked sad, almost defeated.
"What do you want to do?" Randy finally asked.
"I don't know. How are we going to tell the girls that their parents are splitting up?"
"Is that what we're doing?"
"I think it is."
"Oh my god… is it because I work too much? Or am I doing something else wrong?" There was a quiver in his voice now, and the look on his face broke her heart. He looked so betrayed.
"No," she said tearfully. "You haven't done anything wrong."
"Then why are you doing this?"
"Because," she choked, "I have loved Richard for twenty years. I have loved him, even when I really didn't want to. I have loved him in ways I have never loved anyone else, and you have no idea how sorry I am about it, but it's just the truth."
Randy's eyes had gone blank with tears, and he looked devastated. Oh god, what have I done?
"Did you ever… love me?" he asked quietly.
"Of course I loved you. I still do."
"But you're not in love with me." It was said as a statement.
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
He just shook his head in resignation. "What happens now?"
"I think we need to figure out how we are going to tell the kids. I think we should sit down together, all four of us." She sniffled, and wiped her cheeks.
"Tomorrow," she confirmed quietly.
"And now? Tonight?" he inquired.
"Maybe I should go," she replied. "You can tell the girls I crashed at Annie's or something."
She stood up and walked away, her head swimming. She was still crying silently as she ventured into their room to grab a few things, stuffing them into an overnight bag. Locating a pair of high-heeled ankle boots, she stuffed the pumps into her bag instead. It was still just mid-May, so it was a bit chilly at night.
Walking back into the hallway, she looked into the kitchen where Randy was still sitting in the same spot. Her heart ached. She hated this.
"I'm really sorry, Randy," she said quietly. She wasn't sure whether or not he'd actually heard. Regardless, she made her way over to the door, where she grabbed her jacket before walking out.
She cried as she stood on the sidewalk outside her building. She cried in the cab all the way to his building. And she cried as she made her way up to his apartment.
I must be a real sight, she thought to herself as she knocked on his door. Somehow, she knew he'd still be awake.
Within seconds, the door flew open.
"Richard," she choked as he pulled her into his embrace. She sobbed quietly into his shirt. "I feel like the worst person in the world."
He gently stroked her back with both hands. "But you're not. You're one of the very best."
"Can I stay here tonight?"
"Of course. You can stay here forever."
Caroline had been exhausted, so they had gone to bed almost right away. For the first time in seventeen years he was allowed to fall asleep with his arms around her, which was an incredible feeling. It was like breathing new and improved air, in a way. He felt lighter. He knew she was feeling awful, and that pained him, but at the same time he knew he could make her feel better, and that was everything. Was it going to be easy? No. But it was without a doubt going to be worth it. Everything involving Caroline had always been worth it.
He fell asleep feeling like he was finally complete, like some part of him that had been missing for seventeen years had finally returned.
When he woke up, the sun was shining through his bedroom window, and next to him was the woman he loved, still asleep. She looked so peaceful, but he knew that it wouldn't last; she'd wake up, and remember. It was up to him to prove to her that she had made the right decision.
He didn't know how long he'd been lying there, just gazing at her as she slept, but eventually she stirred, opening her eyes slowly to finally meet his. He could have looked at her forever.
"Good morning," she murmured sleepily.
He smiled, and reached out to stroke her cheek. "Good morning. How are you feeling?"
"A bit better. Waking up next to you helps," she said, returning the smile.
He traced his finger along the edges of her face. "I love you," he whispered softly.
"I love you too."
After a few moments of silence, Caroline eventually sat up and started to fidget nervously with the covers. There was a part of her that just couldn't stop worrying.
"Are you sure about this?" she asked timidly. Her fingers were curling into the sheets, and she couldn't bring herself to look at him. She found herself wondering if there was actually anything he could say to calm her fears.
Richard pulled himself up into a sitting position, putting his hand on hers. "Am I sure about what?"
"Are you sure about this? About me?"
He sighed. "Caroline…"
"Because it's going to be hard," she continued. "It's going to be really hard, and I'm scared. I'm scared of losing everything." She paused. "Including you."
"Caroline, look at me." She lifted her head slowly, until their eyes met. "Please listen carefully," he began, as he grabbed her hands in his. "I can't speak for anyone else, but I can promise you that you're never going to lose me. And I'm pretty sure everything else will eventually fall into place."
"I wish I could feel that confident about it," she whispered. She didn't understand why, exactly, but there was a significant part of her that doubted Richard's feelings. She was worried that he might just be confused, and that he'd eventually realise that he was, in fact, over her. And then she'd be left alone, her life turned upside down, and the thought of that terrified her.
"That's okay," he said gently. "It's okay to be scared. I'm scared, too." Her eyes shot up, meeting his, and the expression on her face was a little bit of everything.
"I'm scared that, somewhere down the line, you'll leave me," he continued. "I'm scared by how much I love you."
"And I'm scared you don't actually love me at all," she said, and he'd never heard her sound so fragile before.
"How can you possibly think that?"
"I don't know. I'm just so scared of ending up alone, and I worry that everyone will hate me."
"No one is going to hate you."
She was silent for a few seconds. "I do," she finally whispered.
His heart clenched in pain. "Don't say that."
She sniffled. "But it's true."
He pulled her into his arms, wrapping them tightly around her.
"Well, I love you," he said softly. "I always have, and I always will."
She went back to her own apartment in the early afternoon, knowing that everyone would be home by then. Amy had soccer practice at noon for about an hour (she got her athletic abilities from her dad), and she also knew that Sarah liked to sleep in on Sundays. She didn't know how she was going to get through this day without falling apart, but she kept telling herself, this is necessary, you have to do this.
They had all sat down in the living room, and Randy had left Caroline to do most of the talking. She supposed that was fair, given the fact that this was her fault. She was the one who had a lot of explaining to do. Despite being determined not to, she had started to cry pretty much as soon as she'd opened her mouth, and once she had started she couldn't stop. It was pathetic, and it only made things ten times worse.
Amy had, in fact, ended up taking the news the best, just like Annie had predicted. Sarah had cried a lot, and Amy had cried, too, but she seemed to understand it, somehow. Her older sister had eventually stormed off to her room, slamming the door shut. Her youngest daughter, on the other hand, had given her a hug, which caused Caroline to cry even harder, if possible. She felt like she deserved Sarah's response to it all, and Amy's compassion felt misplaced, somehow, like it was wasted on her. She was a horrible mother, doing this to her children. She didn't deserve their love, and yet her 12-year-old had actually tried to comfort her.
"It will be okay, mom."
She had been unable to get her 15-year-old out of her room. She had eventually given up, all out of tears and mentally defeated, and it seemed like the best thing she could do was leave them alone for a while. She'd gone out, texting Annie who had told her to come over to their place. Her two best friends seemed to be the only ones who understood her.
"You did what you had to do," Del told her, rubbing her shoulder in an attempt to comfort her. She just shook her head in quiet despair.
"Hey, don't be so hard on yourself," Annie chimed in. "We can't control how we feel." There was a slight pause before she continued. "If we could, I wouldn't have married this doofus," she said light-heartedly, pointing in the direction of Del.
"What is that supposed to mean?" Del whined.
Annie smirked, moving to stand next to him so she could pinch his cheek playfully.
"It means that I love you, you idiot."
Caroline let out a small sob. "Oh, you guys… you are the best friends anyone could ever wish for, and I love you both."
She immediately felt two sets of arms embracing her from each side.
"We know, and the feeling is mutual," Del said softly.
"Whatever you need, we're here for you," Annie added.
She spent the night on the sofa, trying and failing to get some sleep. Amy had been sitting with her most of the evening, but Sarah still hadn't come out of her room. Her 12-year-old had expressed some concerns, but Caroline hadn't been able to respond to them in any way that was even remotely helpful. Where was she going to live? Where would their father live? Were they all going to move?
Caroline didn't know anything. She hadn't even given them the full story, not yet, and she wasn't going to until Sarah was ready to talk to her again. In the meantime, she would sleep on the couch, making it clear that whenever Sarah wanted to talk, she'd be there.
The next morning, Sarah had come out of her room, grabbed a quick bite to eat and then left the apartment, not even looking in Caroline's direction. It broke her heart, but she understood, and she had to accept it. She'd just have to wait a little longer.
But when she still hadn't spoken to her by Tuesday afternoon, Caroline had cracked.
"Sarah, will you please just talk to me? I'm still your mother!"
"Oh really?" Sarah had challenged.
"Of course," Caroline had replied quietly, looking away for a second. Another wave of guilt washed over her. "You know I still love you more than anything."
"Then why are you leaving?"
"I'm not. Well, I'm leaving your father, but I'm not going anywhere."
Sarah was silent for a few minutes.
"But why?" she finally whispered, with tears in her eyes.
"Oh god," Caroline sobbed. "Because I love someone else, and it absolutely kills me, but I hope you'll understand someday." Tears rolled down her cheeks as she looked into the sad eyes of her beautiful daughter.
"What if I want to understand it now?" she asked quietly.
"Do you want me to tell you about it? Because you can ask me anything, always."
Sarah hesitated. "Who is this other person you're in love with? How did you meet?"
"Wow, that is a long and complicated story…"
"I want to hear it. Please?"
Caroline sighed, nodding her head. "Okay. We have to go back twenty years, because that's where the story begins."
"Yeah. You see, I was looking for a new colourist at the time, and I interviewed a lot of people. They seemed to get increasingly bad, somehow, and I was close to throwing in the towel when this cranky, struggling artist walked through the door, in desperate need of a job. He managed to somehow guilt me into hiring him… you know what a pushover I am. He was beyond overqualified for the position with his degree in fine arts, but he really needed the money and I couldn't say no to him."
She paused, wondering how she was going to continue the story.
"As you know, I was going out with Del at the time…"
"Yeah, that's still way too weird for me to even think about."
"I know. We're a strange group of people, aren't we? Anyway, Del and I always had a lot of issues, and we were on-and-off for a long time, but nothing really changed until this grumpy artist showed up. Richard was cynical, sarcastic, and overly critical of almost every aspect of life. I could not get my head around his personality. And yet, I somehow fell for him. I don't know exactly when it happened, but it did. However, I could not for the life of me figure him out. He was so closed off. Trying to get him to open up was like pulling teeth. Also, for a long time I was in denial about my feelings for him, and I accepted Del's marriage proposal even though a huge part of me knew it was a really bad idea. We obviously called off the wedding, but by then Richard had left for Paris without even saying goodbye. The previous evening, he had kissed me at Remo's, and it wasn't until a few years later that I found out he'd actually left me a letter, telling me that he loved me and to meet him there if I felt the same way. When I showed up at the restaurant, he thought I had found the letter. When he realised I hadn't, he freaked out and ran away."
She sighed, shaking her head sadly.
"Three months later, he came back from Paris, and I ran into him on the street. I had just met this other guy, and seeing me with him, Richard continued to hide his feelings for me. He came back to work for me, though, and we became even closer. I discovered that he was worth the hard work; that underneath all those protective layers he was wearing he was a wonderful person, and at some point I realised that I was in love with him. But it was too late, because he had run into his old girlfriend, Julia, who he had fallen in love with when he was in Italy a few years earlier, and he ran off to marry her. I only found out after they'd tied the knot, so I kept quiet. God, I hated that woman. She knew how I felt about Richard, and frequently used it against me. She was selfish and inconsiderate, and irritatingly gorgeous."
Thinking about Julia still made her frown. That horrible woman had ruined everything.
"Their marriage lasted for about a year, but during that time Annie, bless her, got drunk and let it slip that I was in love with him. His marriage started to fall apart after that, but they still moved into this lovely new apartment together. Julia wanted him to stop working for me, but Richard refused to do that. Anyway, they had this moving-in-party, which I begrudgingly went to with my then-boyfriend Trevor, who had caught onto the fact that I was completely in love with Richard, even though I tried so hard to convince him that he was wrong. I don't know why I even bothered; it was such an obvious lie. But we went along to this miserable party, and Annie and I spent most of the time making fun of Julia's ridiculous friends. But at some point, we found ourselves in their bathroom, and I can't remember why, but either way, it was attached to their bedroom, and we ended up seeing something we mistook as Julia cheating on Richard. We were wrong, but I didn't discover that until after I had told Richard about it. Julia had left for Spain without him, and he followed her there to confront her. When I found out I had made a mistake, Annie and I went to Spain to look for him and set the record straight, but then he was run over by these bulls-"
She laughed, completely lost in all her old memories.
"Yeah, it was incredibly unfortunate. He ended up in the hospital, a bit battered and bruised, and the nurses told me I couldn't see him because I wasn't family. Julia told me to leave, giving me a big speech about how Richard would never want to see me again, and then Annie and I went back home. I felt so defeated."
"So then what happened?"
"Well, he followed me back to New York. He showed up at my door, and told me that when he was being trampled by those bulls, the only thing he could think about was that he'd never see me again. And then he kissed me."
She glanced over at her daughter, and noticed that she had tears in her eyes.
"And so we were finally together. He was such a difficult man, but god, I loved him. I loved him so much. We had our little bumps along the way, but he eventually proposed to me, telling me that he had realised he couldn't live without me. If you knew Richard, you would understand what a momentous statement that was. But then he received a letter from Julia, telling him that she'd had a baby, and that he now had a son in Italy. Richard decided he had to go be with his child, and I was going with him, until he told me he never wanted to have any more children… and I did. So that was it. That was the end of the road. I was completely heartbroken. I didn't leave my apartment for weeks."
Tears were streaming down Sarah's cheeks. The story seemed to have a genuine impact on her.
"Finally, Annie called your father, and he came down here from Wisconsin. He helped me get back on my feet, and I really grew to care about him a lot. When he wanted to marry me, I said yes. I just wanted to settle down. I wanted a family. So we went back to Peshtigo to get married, but I told him that my home was here in New York, and he agreed to move here with me. And then we had you and your sister, and I am so incredibly grateful for you two. You are the light of my life, I hope you know that."
Sarah was still crying, but she managed to nod.
"I wouldn't have had it any other way." Caroline smiled through her tears.
"However," she continued, "when my new publisher told me they were going to pair me up with an illustrator, and that illustrator turned out to be Richard, I began to realise that I never stopped loving him. He's the love of my life, and as much as it hurts me to do this to you and your sister, as well as your father, I can't run from my feelings anymore. I'm 49, and I've loved this cranky, difficult artist for twenty years. I repressed those feelings when he left seventeen years ago, I buried them so far into the depths of my being that I almost forgot about them, but unfortunately they never went away."
She sniffled, wiping away tears.
"I am so sorry, honey," she said with a small sob. "I just couldn't live in this lie anymore."
"It's okay, mom," Sarah whispered. "I'm glad you told me about all of this. I want you to be happy."
"I love you so much," Caroline managed between sniffles. "You and your sister will always be my main priority. Never forget that."
"I love you too, mom."
Caroline spent two more nights at home, wanting to make sure that the girls were okay. Randy spent the majority of his time at the hospital, working double shifts like he sometimes did when he had complicated surgeries and follow-ups.
She'd sat down with both of her daughters, really trying to connect with their feelings. She talked to them about the future and how it would be different, but that things would work themselves out, and that they shouldn't worry. They would still have two parents who loved them very much.
On the fifth day, Caroline decided it was time to face Richard again. Now that they'd spent some time apart, she was more worried than ever. What if he took one look at her and realised he just wasn't interested anymore? What if it had all been clouded by old feelings that were actually dead? And despite the fact that he had denied it, she still couldn't shake off the idea that it might just have been the thrill of the forbidden. She couldn't quite believe that he would choose her over the other woman… the younger woman. But whatever was coming her way, she knew she would have to deal with it somehow, and sooner was better than later.
She agonised over what she was going to say to him. How was she going to approach the subject? "Am I what you really want?" "Do you still want to tear my clothes off?" "Do you honestly want me for the rest of your life?"
All these questions, and a hundred more, were buzzing around in her head as she made her way over to his apartment. She'd put on a simple midnight blue dress, the length of which was questionable, and it clung to her body in a way that showed off pretty much every inch of her figure. She'd put her black trench coat on top of it, and she had mentally rehearsed the way she was going to throw it to the floor once the door was closed behind them.
Standing in front of his door, her heart was pounding in her chest. She drew a few long, shaky breaths, trying to steady her nerves.
She walked past him in a swift movement as soon as he opened the door, and when he closed it and turned to look at her, she had already rid herself of the coat. She now stood in front of him clad in nothing but a short, tight dress, stockings and high heels. For a second, it seemed like he had stopped breathing, and she knew that this could mean one of two things: either he wanted to take the dress off as quickly as possible, or he felt uncomfortable and was trying to find a way to tell her he'd changed his mind.
"Okay, so here I am. This is me, all yours. I've turned my life upside down because I love you, and I'm beyond terrified, because now I really need you to want me. I need you to want me, and I need you to show me." She had meant to appear confident, but she knew she had failed miserably. She could hear just how insecure she sounded.
"I need you to take me, and love me, and hold me forever, because I will fall apart if you don't. I will fall apart, and I will never fully recover."
He was steadily approaching her, never once averting his gaze. She could feel her resolve faltering with every passing second.
"So please," she whispered, "show me."
He was standing directly in front of her now.
"Are you finished?" he asked, still gazing into her eyes.
"Yes," she managed, and she noticed that she was trembling.
"Good," he said softly. He had somehow managed to steer her backwards, and she found herself trapped between him and the wall. He leaned towards her, both hands placed firmly against the surface behind her, one on either side of her head, and eventually his mouth hovered dangerously close to hers. She was pretty sure she had actually stopped breathing.
"I'm going to kiss you now," he whispered, and she closed her eyes, her breathing so heavy and unsteady it actually hitched multiple times as she sucked it in.
And then his lips were on hers, the kiss so achingly sweet and tender she thought she would never be able to breathe normally ever again. The kiss deepened, and she was drowning, sinking, floating away.
"I love you," he whispered, before once again kissing her deeply.
"You're so unbelievably beautiful," he continued, and the kiss that followed made her feel like she might cry.
"And god, I want you."
The last sentence was more or less whispered in the middle of another earth-shattering kiss, and Caroline whimpered against him. His hands were brushing down her sides, over her ribs and down to her hipbones, and the material of her dress was so thin she could feel the tips of his fingers like there was nothing between them. She shivered, aching for him to get his hands on her actual skin.
"Take me to bed and get me out of these clothes," she whispered, barely holding herself together.
"You call these clothes?" he whispered back, huskily, before lifting her up and carrying her to his bedroom.
Richard had managed to strip Caroline down to her underwear, quickly shedding his own layers so he could feel her skin against his.
God, I love her. I love her. I love her. I love her.
The way she made him ache on the inside was unlike anything he had ever experienced before, and he never got tired of running his hands over her perfect body, feeling her soft skin beneath his fingers. He never got tired of feeling her shiver under his touch, and he never got tired of looking at her face as she closed her eyes whilst biting her lower lip, which he knew meant that she was trying to hold herself together.
He slid her bra straps down from her shoulders, placing kisses across her shoulder blade and up the side of her neck, and he could tell that Caroline had gone off to a different place entirely. In an effort to bring her back, he kissed her, long and deep, and she moaned into his mouth. Satisfied that she was still somewhat present, he ventured back down to unhook her bra, sliding it off completely. He leaned back, wanting to take in every inch of her properly, but he couldn't keep his hands off of her for very long. He ran them across her stomach until they raked over her breasts, and she arched into his touch, causing his hands to linger there for a moment. He moved his fingers in lazy circles across her nipples, and she sighed audibly. His fingers then traced back down her body, until they inched under her final piece of underwear. She let out a strangled gasp, and he heard the word "please," whispered so quietly it was barely audible.
He slowly inched her panties down her legs, enjoying the view of this beautiful woman squirming on his bed, from his touch. Panties finally dropped to the floor, he crawled back up to the part of her he had just uncovered. His tongue traced around it for a few seconds, before finally flicking across her clit.
And that was it. She appeared to have lost any and all control, and the ache inside him was so great at this point that he wasn't going to last much longer.
"Oh god… please… Richard…" She was struggling to control her breathing enough to form proper words. He pulled his underwear off, sending it flying across the room before climbing back on top of her. Her eyes fluttered open and met his, and he ran his thumb over her cheekbone.
"You don't understand how much you mean to me," he said, his voice low and husky. She shut her eyes again, arching into him.
"Just take me… now," she whispered shakily.
He kissed her soundly, and inserted himself into her, causing her to cry out. He caught her lips again in a desperate kiss, as he began a steadily increasing rhythm, until they were moving together as one, and words were flying out of her mouth.
When she climaxed, it was so intense it actually felt like the floor was shaking beneath them, and he came crashing down with her, burying his face into her hair. He could feel her heavy breathing against his neck, and the words "I love you" didn't seem entirely sufficient anymore. The way he felt about her couldn't be put into words.
He was going to spend the rest of his life trying to convey to her just how much he loved her, and it was never going to be enough, but he would do it every single day, because she was perfect.
He rolled over to the side, and she settled into his embrace, her head resting on his shoulder.
"I still think there's something wrong with you," she mumbled.
"And what would that be?" he asked, slightly puzzled as to what she was getting at.
"You know… thirty-five, gorgeous, smart, sexy… really, what is wrong with you?" He could feel her smile against his collarbone, and he couldn't help but chuckle.
"I guess the only thing that's wrong with me is that I love you," he said, with a hint of that sarcasm she had grown so strangely fond of.
He absentmindedly started to caress her upper arm, running his fingers lightly up and down as he enjoyed the feeling of the steady rise and fall of her chest against his.
"Mhm," she murmured. "But I'm not complaining."
"That's reassuring," he said, laughing lightly as he raised his head to place a kiss into her hair.
She ran her fingers across his bare chest, and giggled softly. "That's exactly how it was intended."
They had both drifted off to sleep for a couple of hours, and when Caroline woke up again the digital clock on the bedside table read 7:09pm. She didn't want to wake Richard, and she enjoyed feeling the warmth of his body underneath her, so she closed her eyes again.
"Caroline?" she heard him murmur softly. She stirred once more.
"Hmm?" she croaked in response.
"Were you asleep?"
"No, I woke up a little while ago, but I figured I'd let you sleep for a bit." She felt his hand brushing lightly against her hair.
There were a few seconds of silence, before he spoke again.
"Are you hungry?"
She chuckled against him. "Starving, actually.
"Do you want to order Chinese takeout?"
"Just like to good old days," she smiled. "Sounds good to me."
Whilst waiting for their food, they had both showered and gotten dressed - well, somewhat, anyway. Caroline had put on one of her favourite clothing items: a really big, dark grey t-shirt that reached halfway to her knees. Richard had put on a pair of boxers and a shirt. Once the food arrived, they soon found themselves sprawled out on his sofa, eating straight out of the containers. Caroline's head was on Richard's shoulder, and he had his arm draped around hers.
Fifteen minutes later, as she set the empty container down on the table, her mind started drifting back to how things had turned out.
"Do you ever think about where we would be right now if we had ended up getting married back then?"
He sighed. "All the time."
She tilted her head slightly to look up at him. "And?"
"It breaks my heart," he said quietly. "I try not to think about it too much, because I end up wishing I hadn't stupidly walked away from the love of my life, and that I would still be with her, happily married with a bunch of kids who would all be just as beautiful as their mother."
She could feel tears stinging in her eyes, and she sniffled.
"Oh Caroline, don't cry."
"I'm not crying," she choked. But when he wrapped both arms around her, she finally lost the fight against her tears, and she let out a small sob. "I'm sorry."
"Hey, why are you sorry?"
"I don't know. For everything?"
"Don't do that," he whispered gently. "It was my fault. You've never been anything less than wonderful."
She whimpered, and his arms tightened around her back.
"And yet you didn't love me enough to stay with me," she sobbed. "You have no idea how much that destroyed me."
His stomach twisted in agony. "Caroline… I loved you more than I could handle. I loved you in ways I couldn't even understand. My entire existence started to revolve around you, do you know how terrifying that was?" His voice quivered. "I have lived to regret my decision every day for seventeen years."
"But you never came back."
"I wasn't about to go looking for more heartache. I knew that if I went back for you, I would find someone who had moved on, and the thought of that was too painful."
"I never moved on," she whispered.
"What do you mean? You got married. You ended up with the perfect guy, which is something I always thought you deserved. I knew I wasn't good enough for you, but I loved you too much to do anything about it. So when Stevie came along, and I had to fly across the ocean to become a father, there was a part of me that thought, "Well, this way, Caroline is free to find the man she deserves," and I spent the next few years convincing myself that you had. And I was right."
"You were wrong."
"No. You were wrong." She broke free from his embrace, and sat up, looking down into her lap. She immediately felt his hand on her shoulder, and she had to fight so hard to stop the tears that were threatening to fall.
"I never wanted a so-called "perfect" guy. I wanted you. I always wanted you. But I also wanted a family, so when you left, I married Randy because he was there for me."
Richard's heart clenched painfully.
"But I never loved Randy. I couldn't, because I loved you. So you see, you were wrong."
"I just don't understand why…" he whispered.
She turned to look at him, and their eyes met in a way that nearly took his breath away.
"Is love supposed to make sense?" she whispered back.
"Well, I can tell you exactly why I love you," he said, gazing into her beautiful brown eyes.
He reached out to brush a few wavy locks of hair away from her face, tucking them safely behind her ear.
"I love you," he began, "because you're the most beautiful person I've ever known. When I met you, my first thought was that you were overly perky and slightly annoying, but you know what my second thought was?"
She shook her head.
"I thought, "Dammit, it's not fair." I really needed a job, and you were the only one who was willing to give me a chance, so I had to take it. But what I really wanted to do was run away, because you terrified me. I knew I was going to fall in love with you, and I had spent so long trying to get over Julia, I didn't think my heart could take anymore at that point. But I needed the job, so I stayed, all the while despairing about how unfair life was. Once I was stuck with you on a daily basis, there was no turning back. You drove me insane; you were always singing, and you talked about absolutely everything, and quite often I wanted to make you shut up."
Caroline chuckled. "I know. That was half the fun."
"But it was the way in which I wanted to make you shut up that was problematic."
"How so?" The words were whispered so faintly it was merely a breath.
"Well, in my head it would go something like this…" he said, framing her face with his hands before leaning in to kiss her softly. When he pulled back, he was smiling at her, and she put her hands on top of his.
"I love you." She smiled weakly, but that only made the tears that had welled up in her eyes spill over and roll down her cheeks, and she squeezed her eyes shut.
Richard took her hands in his, and she suddenly felt so fragile that even this move made her sob.
He pulled her into his arms, allowing her to cry into his neck.
"I didn't even finish telling you why I love you," he said, stroking her back in gentle circles. "I love you because you are kind, loving and compassionate. I love you because there is no end to the depth of your emotions, and because you have the most beautiful heart that makes mine beat louder and faster. I love you… because you're my best friend."
"Yeah. You made me feel like life was worth living again, because you were proof that decent people still existed."
"I'm glad to hear that." She chuckled lightly.
"But you were more than just decent. You were everything."
She raised her head, reaching for his face, and their lips met once again. It started as a mere brush, and her breath caught in her throat as her lips parted slightly, allowing his to finally capture hers in a deep, intense kiss. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and his hands immediately went into her hair, which was still slightly damp from the shower. His touch made her shiver.
After a while (it could have been five minutes or an hour, he wasn't sure), he reluctantly pulled away, instantly getting lost in her eyes.
"You are everything."
"Oh, Annie, he is so amazing."
Caroline was having lunch at her best friend's apartment, desperately needing some girl time again.
"He makes me feel like I am twenty years younger, and the way he looks at me…" She sighed.
Annie rolled her eyes. "I guess he'll find out that you're not when we celebrate your 50th in a few months."
Caroline gave her a light shove. "Hey!"
Her best friend smirked. "Sorry. Couldn't resist."
"Hilarious," she said dryly, but the wry smile on her face betrayed her.
"In all seriousness, I'm glad you're happy," Annie interjected with sincerity.
"I am," Caroline confirmed. "It's just…" She stopped for a moment, hesitating.
"Just what?" Annie inquired, her brow furrowing at her friend's sudden change of tone.
"I just can't get over the fact that he left me," she whispered.
Annie had seen this one coming. Here we go. "Have you guys talked about it?" she asked sympathetically.
"I brought it up the other day, and you should have seen the way his face fell when I first mentioned it. He looked so shattered, and yet he proceeded to say all these really beautiful things… it tore me apart, but he still left me and broke my heart all those years ago, like staying with me and trying to make it work was absolutely unthinkable. It didn't seem to cost him very much to just go, "Nope, sorry, don't want kids, goodbye." To this day, I am still processing it."
Annie sighed heavily.
"Sweetie, I was there when you were falling to pieces because of that man. I was there to see you struggle to get past it. I had front row seats to the "Caroline Duffy Pretends to Move On" show, so I know how crushed you were. For a long time I was really mad at him, even more so than usual, because he was supposed to love you. I've never seen anyone be more in love than he was with you, and yet he was so unwilling to have children with you that he'd rather give you up entirely… I just didn't understand that. I never understood him in general, but that was particularly incomprehensible to me. If you really love someone, how does that not change your perspective on life?"
Caroline was inspecting her hands like they were the most interesting things she had ever seen. "Exactly," she said quietly.
"However," Annie continued, "I actually really believe that you should be with Richard, because he's the love of your life. That much is obvious, and love isn't rational. I think you tried to make that whole "rational" thing happen with Randy, and as much as I love the guy, there was a part of me that always knew this day would come. I'm not saying that settling down with him was a mistake, because you have two beautiful daughters and you've had a good life with him, but "good" isn't enough, is it?"
Caroline shook her head sadly.
"Hon, something must have sparked inside of you that day he showed up at your office. Something caused you to end up in his bed with no clothes on… although lord knows I find that part to be particularly puzzling."
Caroline let out a small chuckle at that.
"Something inside of you led to all of this."
"I know," Caroline replied, having thought about this endlessly over the past few weeks. "I began to realise that those feelings I had for him never went away. It's just like you said; I never stopped loving him. And I thought I could control it, I really did, but when he told me that he wanted to kiss me… all I could do was let him. I thought I would be able to remain strong, but he makes me so weak, Annie. He always did, even in the beginning when he was so closed off; so distant… he still touched me deeply, even then. I've been trying to come up with an explanation for it, but it truly doesn't make any sense to me."
She paused, covering her face with her hands for a brief moment.
"Randy was there for me. He was sweet and caring, and we wanted the exact same things. We wanted marriage and children, and he didn't want to trick my cat into jumping out the window or down the heating vent…"
She laughed despite herself.
"Richard was cynical and sarcastic, always, and it was so hard to pierce through his exterior, but somehow…" She hesitated. "Somehow, what I found under there seemed more genuine to me than anything I had ever found in any other man. As much as Randy fits that "perfect guy" profile, I've never seen it in him. I think that Richard came into my life and changed my perspective on love and relationships. He certainly affected the way I saw Del, and even though Joe turned out to be an immature asshole in the end, there was a part of me that always knew I could never love him, because of these little moments I shared with Richard… as few and far between as they were. Whenever I managed to peel off another layer, I discovered things underneath them that were so profound that everything else seemed mundane, in a way. Does that make sense?"
She shook her head. Annie didn't really know how to respond, and she didn't want to interrupt Caroline's stream of thoughts. She wanted to keep listening to her best friend, as she seemed to be approaching some sort of epiphany.
"I don't know," Caroline sighed. "That's how it feels to me, anyway. Richard came into my life, and everything changed. I didn't realise it for two years, maybe because it was happening so gradually, but once I noticed… well, you remember what it was like. I suddenly had such overwhelming feelings for him, and it tore me apart to watch him with that Italian bitch from hell. And then, even with Trevor, who was so amazing, I just couldn't seem to get over it. Richard stood between us throughout our whole relationship, and those incidents, as I like to call them, started happening more often… those times when he would say something really nice, or look at me in ways that made my whole body tingle, and then eventually the whole thing came out in the open, thanks to-"
"Me," Annie said, rolling her eyes. Caroline giggled.
"Yeah, but it was going to come out anyway, wasn't it? Everything after that was an emotional strain, and I drove Trevor away because of it. I tried so desperately to cling onto him, it was pathetic, really. Every single relationship with another man was ultimately doomed, and all because of this horribly sarcastic man who didn't even seem to like me very much most of the time!"
Annie frowned, shaking her head.
"He didn't like you, Caroline. He loved you. You were one of the few people who didn't seem to see that. I saw through that front he put up, it was so obvious to me, and I think that, on some level, you could sense his true feelings as well. I think maybe those little moments you shared, those incidents, seemed so significant because they told you how he really felt. You knew, honey, from the very beginning, even if you didn't fully comprehend it."
Caroline's eyes had gone blank, and Annie could tell she was close to tears.
"It's okay, Caroline," she said softly.
A tear slipped down Caroline's cheek, and she quickly brushed it away.
"When he invited me over for dinner that night, I knew it was a bad idea because I was already struggling with my feelings at that point. But I honestly had no idea he felt the same way I did. Thinking about it now, though… should I have suspected it? He is so hard to read! He always was. He's so good at putting on a mask, hiding his feelings from the rest of the world, and he was always especially good at hiding them from me. So it really shook my whole world when I unexpectedly found him staring into my eyes after showing me that painting, because it was a look I had seen before. It was like looking into the past, and I couldn't look away; it's how he used to look at me in those rare moments when his guard was down. I never saw him look at anyone else that way, not even Julia, but somehow that didn't register with me until very recently. And when he uttered those words… I really want to kiss you… that was it. The building could have been on fire around me and I wouldn't have noticed. And when he touched me… god, Annie, he framed my face with his hands, looked deep into my eyes, and told me I was beautiful."
Caroline appeared to have gotten lost in her own thoughts, and Annie was feeling a bit choked up. The whole thing was more touching than any of those romantic movies she'd always loved.
"And then he kissed me, and my whole world came crashing down. I had not been kissed like that in seventeen years, and I ached for him to make me feel all the other things I hadn't felt for seventeen years. When he did, I was drowning. I was so far gone. It was only when reality crept back up on me afterwards that I realised how very little sense what I had just done actually made. I had cheated on my wonderful husband, who has stood by me through all these years, with a man who left me because he couldn't stand the idea of having children with me. I had cheated on the man who helped mend my heart with the man who was responsible for destroying it. How could I have done that?"
Annie sniffled, wiping her face furiously. "You make it sound like life is supposed to be black and white. It isn't. Everything you just said was exactly what I thought when you first told me you were having an affair with him, but as much as Mr Sourpants used to piss me off, he really loved you. And I know you loved him. And sometimes, that's just the way it is."
She rubbed her best friend's shoulder, before scooting closer to her so she could rest her head on it, and she could feel Caroline's cheek press against her hair in return.
"Besides, sweetie," Annie continued, "Randy didn't mend your heart, not really. He helped you cover it up, which isn't the same thing. And, to continue this spectacularly cheesy analogy, there was no way of mending it, anyway, when Lord Voldemort had run off to Europe with a huge chunk of it. In the end, he was always the only one who could put it back together. It's time for you to let him, even if it's going to hurt a little."
Caroline grabbed her best friend's hand, squeezing it lightly. "Thank you, Annie," she said in a near-whisper.
Caroline couldn't stop thinking about what Annie had said. It's time for you to let him. Was it? Was he really the only one who could do that?
The more she thought about it, the more she realised that her best friend was right. It had always been Richard. He really had changed her, and made it impossible for her to truly love any other man. And as much as she had tried to put up a fight against it for seventeen years, it was still true. It always would be. It really was time.
It was time to start this new chapter of her life, or rather, continue the one that was interrupted all those years ago. It was confusing and scary, but it was also wonderful and thrilling. So what if life hadn't worked out exactly the way she'd planned? Was that really so terrible?
Richard had left her, but he had come back, and she wasn't going to let fear, or doubt, get in the way of happiness. At this point in her life there really was no time for that, and it was time for them to write this final chapter together.
Oh, and yes: it was also time for them to finally write that book.