Steve sat in the bleachers trying to remember if he had been in a high school gymnasium since he had been in school. Stephanie was a cheerleader for Salem's boys' basketball team and Steve had jumped at the invitation extended to him by Stephanie to watch a game.
He leaned in close in order to be heard over the ref's whistle and the squeak of basketball shoes on the court as the guys playing made sudden stops and starts. "She looks great," Steve said into Kayla's ear.
"Yeah, she does," Kayla agreed. Steve could see the pride on Kayla's face.
"Does she take after you?"
"You trying to say you weren't cheerleader material?"
"Well, yes, but."
"I knew it the first time I laid eyes on you. Dated the captain of the football team?"
"We're not here to talk about me."
"I can't think of anything I'd rather talk about, Sweetness."
"Well, there is that, but she's a part of you. So it's not that much different."
She blushed and Steve chuckled and settled in to watch the rest of the game. Salem won, though he didn't paid much attention to the game itself. His eyes were riveted to Stephanie. She wasn't the best on the squad, but he thought she did just fine.
He'd been back in Salem for over a month now. With a glowing reference and ringing endorsements from his Bureau supervisor and co-workers Bo had no choice but to hire him. Steve knew it irked Bo to no end, which was part of the reason Steve had pushed so hard. There were other things he could have done in Salem, but he just couldn't let sleeping dogs lie where Bo was concerned.
Now that he was spending more time with Kayla and Stephanie was beginning to get used to the idea of including him in things Steve imagined he'd have to cool his harassment of Bo Brady down. He was renting an apartment now. It was a dive he'd found willing to do a month to month lease. He and Kayla had gone on dates and things seemed to be going well between them. It was a slow process but his biggest concern now was Stephanie. She seemed slow to trust in him, slow to believe he wasn't going to disappear again.
"Hi guys," Stephanie said once they'd joined her on the gym floor. "Did you like the game?"
"You did great."
"Thanks. Do you want to meet some of my friends?"
"Okay," she said and led them to a group of kids Stephanie's age. Some wore cheerleader outfits while some were in street clothes. More than one set of eyes turned to Steve. He wondered if they were staring at his patch or if they were just curious who he was.
"This is Shanna, Willow, Brianna, Ashley, Trista and Paige. Guys, this is my dad."
Steve offered them all a smile, his good eye focused on Stephanie. He had not heard her refer to him as her dad before now. She had been careful to avoid calling him anything at all. Kayla must have sensed his surprise because she offered him a smile.
"Were you really an undercover agent?"
"I was," Steve said with a chuckle.
"Like James Bond?"
"No. It's nothing that glamorous."
"Is that how you got the patch?"
"Trista," one of the girls reprimanded.
"No, it's okay. I've had it for years. I wish I could say it was from something as legitimate as pursuing a criminal. It was just youthful stupidity."
"That is so cool."
"Mom, we were going to go to the Pub with some of the players."
"And then can I spend the night at Paige's?"
"Is it okay with your mom?"
"Yeah," Paige replied. "She's right over there if you want to ask her."
Kayla waved and a brunette responded in kind. The woman's hair was streaked with gray, conflicting with a more youthful complexion making her age difficult to assess. He imagined most of the parents were around their age, they had not been too young or too old when Stephanie was born.
"I'll talk to her on our way out. It's fine with me, though."
"Do you need money?" Steve reached for his wallet, prepared to offer her something.
"No, I'm fine."
"How many of you are going?"
"I'm not sure. Ten, I guess."
He handed her two twenty dollar bills. "This should buy you and your friends Cokes."
Stephanie's "Thanks, Dad" was followed by a chorus of "Thanks, Mr. Johnson."
"No problem. Have a good time."
"That was nice of you," Kayla said as they walked toward Paige's mother.
"It seemed the fatherly thing to do."
"You don't approve?"
"I didn't say that."
"I thought it was nice of you that's all."
"She called me Dad."
"I noticed that. Is that why you did it?"
"No, I would have given her the money anyway."
"Hi, Cindy," Kayla said as they approached Paige's mom. "I just wanted to make sure it's okay with you Stephanie spends the night at your house."
"Sure. There's going to be a bunch of them it sounds like."
"Thanks for checking, though. Some parents just take their daughter's word for it."
"Yeah," Kayla said softly. The two women seemed to be in agreement about something, though Steve wasn't quite sure what it was. "Well, we're going to go get a pizza I think."
It was the first Steve had heard of this plan. The invitation had only been for the game as far as he knew. He'd go anywhere with Kayla so he didn't mind.
"Okay. Thanks for checking."
"Sure. If you need anything Stephanie has my cell phone number."
"Have a good night."
"You, too, Cindy."
"A house full of fifteen year old girls and you're telling her to have a good night?"
"Well, it's possible she could. With earplugs and a pint of her favorite ice cream."
"I think I'd need more than ice cream to get me through that."
Kayla shook her head. "You're not used to it. We are conditioned."
"I suppose." He wasn't sure he bought it but he wasn't in a position to argue. "So, pizza?"
"Yeah, I thought it would be nice. I was going to suggest the Pub but I don't want Stephanie to think we're spying on her."
"We wouldn't want that. She's going to be there with boys, isn't she?"
"Yes, there will be boys there. That's why we're going somewhere else."
"I'm not sure I see the logic in avoiding the place she'll be around boys."
"Because I've raised her right. I have to trust her or she'll rebel."
"Like her uncle and her father you mean?"
"Something like that."
"But we turned out all right."
"Sure, after finding women to help make you that way."
"Don't tell me that you both wouldn't have continued on your path of drunken destruction if your wives hadn't entered your lives."
"You're probably right." He hated admitting she was right on this point. Kayla had changed everything about him and in record time, too. He could barely remember the depression, the anger he thrived on before meeting her. It no longer existed. Not even being separated from her for over a decade could bring it back. The memories of her loving him were too strong to be penetrated by hate.
"Wow, it's pretty empty." After pizza and a pitcher of beer Kayla followed him to his apartment. She hadn't seen it yet. They always seemed to end up at her house. Steve had little to offer her anyway.
"Yeah," Steve said feeling a little embarrassed now that he looked at his apartment through her eyes. His apartment was typical for a drifter and he'd done little to spruce it up. Photographs of Stephanie and their wedding day were the only personal touches he had added to the second hand furniture he had come by. Had he planned on staying here for very long he would have bought better stuff. Of course, if he'd planned on staying for a while he would have rented a better apartment.
He had lived sparsely during his career with the Bureau. So he had managed to save up a nice nest egg. Gone were the days Steve Johnson didn't know where or what his next meal would be. He wasn't going to be competing with his birth father or anything but he was going to be fine.
"You really did come here with nothing but some clothes didn't you?"
"I guess I didn't really believe it until now. Did you send for any of your things?"
"There was nothing I wanted or needed. I imagine someone at the Bureau will have packed everything up and I could get it if I wanted to."
She walked to his fridge and he grimaced when she opened it. She would find nothing in it but half a gallon of orange juice and a loaf of bread. Maybe there was some milk left, but he doubted it. And a six pack of beer.
"I'm sorry I don't have much of anything to offer you."
"Or anywhere to sit."
She brushed past him, her shoulder making light contact with his arm and walked to his bed. "This is good enough for me." His eyes fell closed in an attempt to picture the last time she had been seated on his bed. Unfortunately, he could not bring up the image as easily as he should have. His mind was too focused on the fact she was on his bed now.
"Would you like a beer?"
"Are you going to have one?"
"If you want one." They had split a pitcher with their pizza. He really didn't need to drink anymore but he felt as though he should offer her something.
"Okay." His eye darted around the room unsure what he should do. She was in the middle of his bed. No matter where he might sit they'd be close. Had she done that intentionally? Was he reading too much into things? He had expected her to take a look at his apartment and suggest either they go out again or back to her house.
She patted the bed next to where she sat. "Aren't you going to sit down?"
"You hadn't planned on it?"
"I don't know."
She laughed then. He saw light and a sparkle in her eyes he never got tired of seeing. "Are you scared of me?"
"Are you sure?"
"No," he admitted.
He removed his coat and threw it over hers on his dresser. "You're so beautiful, Sweetness. I look at Stephanie and I picture her growing into the woman you are."
"I hope not."
"Why would you say that?"
She shook her head. The moisture at the corners of her eyes told him she was holding back tears. "Because I couldn't move on."
"And you don't think that's a good example?"
"I don't know."
"Don't you want to teach her that love is powerful and not something you just move on from like it's nothing?"
He cupped her cheek, stroking her soft cheek. "You've done that. And I'm not going anywhere this time. After hearing her call me Dad I don't think I could leave even if I had doubts until now."
"It made you that happy?"
"Only one thing could make me happier," he whispered closing the distance between them.
"For you to call me husband again," he whispered before kissing her.
Was it the bed or his words? Who knew? But the emotion she poured into that kiss overwhelmed him. He felt all the love and the hurt in her. He fed off it, nibbling on her lower lip hoping to pry those feelings out of her. He was not sure how they stayed like that, kissing for the first time without hesitation. The next thing he knew they were laying on his bed. He was on top of her and her hands were making quick work of the buttons on his shirt.
"Are you sure, Sweetness?"
"Yes." It was more a purr than a whisper. He liked the sound whatever it was and wanted to hear more like it. His shirt off he leaned in and nuzzled her neck. His body still fit as if molded to fit with hers. He felt the swell of her breasts against his bare chest and sighed heavily. The memories were there in the back of his mind, a place he had kept securely locked until today. Like a dam had broken he was overwhelmed with the assault on his senses.
It all came back to him in vivid detail. He nipped at the tender skin by her ear and knew how she would taste. She wore the same perfume which helped make it seem as if he was traveling back in time. He would not fool himself into believing that, though. He had a lot of years and sleepless nights to make up for.
"I want to feel you." His voice was hoarse with pent up desire. She traced the outline of his tattoo once he had drawn away. His eye fell closed and he inhaled sharply at the contact. He gathered her hand into his and brought it to his lips. He kissed her knuckles and the tip of each finger, circling them with his tongue before releasing her hand. She helped him remove the sweater she wore. She dropped it to the floor beside the bed. He was too captivated by the sight of her to think about what to do next.
"Are you sure?" Her lips and the glimmer in her eyes let him knew she was teasing. He couldn't recall being surer about much of anything in his life.
"And if I said no?"
She kissed him, a light brush of her lips against his. A gentle tease but her tongue darting across his lower lip bore the promise of more to come. "I think I'd have to convince you."
"You would huh?" He unfastened her bra and tossed it to the floor with the rest their clothes expecting more to follow shortly. "I think I'd like to see that, Sweetness."
She reached between them, cupping his erection still restrained by his jeans and squeezed. "It doesn't feel like you need much convincing."
"Never did when it came to you." He felt her breath, warm against him as he nuzzled her cheek, ear and neck. He wanted her. Over a decade he had dreamed of this moment and he knew now that nothing in his dreams could ever have come close to the real thing. They weren't even a decent substitute. "Never going to be without you again."
She worked the zipper on his jeans. "Say that again."
"What you just said."
"That I'm never going to be without you again?"
She reached inside his jeans, slid her hand under his underwear and for the first time in years he felt her hand stroke his erection. "Yeah, that," she whispered. She arched against him as he pushed his body against hers.
With that, Steve knew they would be all right. It would be a difficult road and he would have to work doubly hard to retain the trust she'd given him a second time. He would do it, though. He would not disappoint his wife or his daughter a second time. He didn't have it in him to do it again.
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