Chapter Ten: Thicker Than Water
Charlotte hated to fly, or at least that was her excuse for being so nervous. She tried to keep calm and breathe, but her heart was racing. She fussed with the window shade, adjusted the recline of her airplane seat, and drummed her fingernails against the armrest. In a moment of weakness, she considered motioning over the flight attendant and ordering a stiff drink, but the thought of alcohol made her stomach churn. Two months, four therapy sessions, and six stitches later, Charlotte still associated any kind of drinking with the trauma of confronting Landry. The memories of that horrible night were fresh and vivid, and incredibly painful. Charlotte self-consciously touched the faded scar on her temple from where she'd spun and hit the wall, and shuddered.
Cooper felt the tremor race through Charlotte's body. He opened his eyes and turned towards her. She was prodding her temple with a sad, faraway expression on her face. "Hey there, Char." Cooper smiled at her and gently pulled her hand away from her face. He covered her hand with his own, and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "Stop worrying." He swept her bangs off to one side and examined the blemish. It was smaller and lighter than in days previous, and in a couple more weeks, he was sure it would fade completely. "The scar is barely noticeable," he told her. "And honestly, your hair covers most of it."
Charlotte managed a weak smile. "I don't care about my scar." She smoothed her hair back down into place and said, "I know it will heal."
"Oh." Cooper felt embarrassed for jumping to the most obvious, superficial conclusion. He had some trouble recovering, but eventually found the words to ask, "So, what's really bothering you?"
Charlotte's honesty broke his heart. "I'm nervous," she admitted, her voice barely audible over the loud hum of the airplane. "I'm really, truly scared."
"Oh, God, Charlotte." Cooper brought her hand up to his mouth and kissed it. "There's no reason to be scared." He smiled at her and passionately insisted, "My parents are going to love you."
"You don't know that-"
"Yes, I do." Cooper was touched by her insecurities but he wanted to put them to rest. "My parents are great people with great taste. They can recognize quality when they see it, and you're quality." Charlotte wrinkled her nose and opened her mouth to argue, prompting Cooper to assert, "It's true. You're quality and they're going to love you."
The co-pilots voice came over the intercom: "Okay, folks, we're about seven minutes outside the Akron-Canton Airport. The temperature is a balmy fourteen degrees with severe ice storms forecasted for later tonight – In other words, welcome to Ohio!" He chuckled then said, "On behalf of everyone at Southwest Airlines, I'd like to wish you and your family a safe and happy holiday season…"
Charlotte was regretting not sitting near an emergency exit, and Cooper knew it. "Just breathe." He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. "This is going to be good for you."
"How do you figure?"
"You're still hurting from what happened with Landry." He patted her hand and said, "Family is probably the last thing you want right now, but family is exactly what you need."
Charlotte looked down at her lap and studied her seat belt. The shiny metal suddenly fascinated her and she refused to meet his gaze. "So, your parents," she began, a hint of insecurity in her voice. "How much do they know… about everything?"
"Everything?" Cooper wanted clarification before he stepped in it again. "What's everything?"
Charlotte inclined her head toward him and begged, "Don't make me say it out loud."
Cooper heard the catch in her voice and saw the anguish in her face, and he just knew. "Landry is everything." He grimaced and looked pained by the revelation. "God, Charlotte, you're afraid my parents are going to – what, judge you?"
Charlotte was incredulous. "You say that like I'm being unreasonable."
"Not unreasonable." Cooper smiled at her. "Just wrong."
"Oh, well, then," she sniped. "Please enlighten me."
Cooper ignored the nasty tone of voice, and all the huffing and puffing. By now, he knew it was just Charlotte's self-sabotaging bad habit to pick a fight when she was uncomfortable. He wasn't about to feed into that, so he kept his tone gentle and loving, and told her, "You have nothing to worry about. My mom already thinks you're the Holy Grail; a smart, beautiful, educated doctor who can give her grandchildren."
Charlotte's lips quirked into an unexpected smile. "Y'all talk about me – like that, in a good way?"
"Only in a good way," Cooper swore. "Only in a good way."
"Okay." Her dark mood lifted and the sun came out. She smiled that bright, beautiful smile that made him smile right back. "So, the good things – me being a doctor and where I went to school – those are the things they know about me." Charlotte seemed not only relieved but comforted by that revelation, and her nerves calmed considerably.
The lights of the city came through the clouds as the plane descended onto the runway. Charlotte turned to face the window and watched the touchdown. It was a little bumpy but eventually, things evened out and the plane came to a rolling stop in front of the gate.
"We're here," Cooper announced, obviously excited.
The seat belt light went out and a hundred people instantly shot to their feet to fight for the tiny aisle space. Cooper and Charlotte decided to hang back and let everyone else disembark. It was the holidays so naturally, there were a lot of families traveling with small children. Charlotte watched Cooper smile at an adorable little girl sitting across the aisle.
It got Charlotte thinking. "Your Momma wants grandbabies, huh?"
He turned back toward her and apologized, "I'm sorry. What did you say?"
Charlotte lost her nerve and quickly backtracked, "Nothing, never mind."
Cooper shrugged, then stood up and grabbed their bags from the overhead bin. He shouldered the heavier bag and asked, "Are you ready?"
Charlotte stood up and grasped his hand. "Ready."
They walked off the plane and through the airport as a united front. Cooper navigated them out of the crowd, down the escalator and past the baggage carousel, and out into the bitter cold. When the icy wind hit Charlotte's face, it knocked her back a couple steps. "Son of a bitch!" She pulled her coat tight around her and exclaimed, "It's freezing!"
"This is what fourteen degrees feels like," Cooper told her with a laugh. He managed to coax her outside the terminal beside the carpool lane. A long line of cars waited for their perspective passengers and Cooper watched for his parents. When he turned back towards Charlotte, he saw her teeth were already chattering. She had wrapped her scarf up around her face and pulled her hat down over her ears. She was obviously not mentally prepared for the cold Midwestern weather.
Cooper chuckled to himself and pulled Charlotte close. "Come on, come here." He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and promised, "I'll keep you warm."
"Hey now," Charlotte chided him. "You better behave yourself." She wriggled out of his embrace and stepped back until there was a respectable distance between them. "You're not getting any sugar in front of your parents."
"Don't you 'but Charlotte' me." She pointed her finger at Cooper and said, "I'm three thousand miles out of my comfort zone, so you better keep your hands to yourself and not embarrass me."
Cooper stifled his smile and tried to look properly contrite. "Yes, ma'am."
The bustling crowd parted and Cooper spotted his parents walking toward them. His mother caught his eye and called out, "Cooper, sweetheart, over here!"
Charlotte tensed as Cooper's parents neared closer. She didn't know what to expect, and truthfully, she was feeling a little insecure. First impressions were very important and she just wanted things to go smoothly. The absolute last thing Charlotte needed on the heels of Landry was another family drama. She didn't think she could handle another disaster.
Caroline Freedman was a plump woman in her mid-sixties with brown hair and brown eyes. She wore a little too much make-up like most women her age, but her personality came through loud and clear. She was an extreme extrovert and in all her years, she'd never met a stranger she couldn't turn into a dear friend. Cooper prepared himself for the onslaught of hugs and kisses from his mother. She loved to make a scene and it usually involved smears of red lipstick on his cheek. So, naturally, it surprised Cooper when his mother blew right passed him without so much as a second thought."You must be Charlotte!" Caroline approached the younger woman standing beside her son with open arms. "Oh my goodness gracious. You're gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous."
Cooper watched his mom pull Charlotte into a motherly embrace. The open display affection surprised Charlotte, but she didn't object or try to pull away. She did, however, look uncertain about how to go about returning the hug. Cooper quickly stepped in and came to her rescue. "Okay, mom, okay," he laughed, tugging his mother back. "You're smothering her."
"Hush, you." Caroline gave her son an affectionate swat on arm before turning her attention back to Charlotte. "I've heard so much about you. I feel like I already know you-"
Cooper knew it was futile to try and circumvent his mother's outgoing nature. So instead, he turned toward his father, who hung back from the group, hands in his pockets, observing his wife's antics with a fond shake of his head. Robert Freedman, a tall grey-haired man in his early seventies, was the exact polar opposite of his wife. He was quiet and introverted, and reserved around people he didn't know.
Robert hugged his son and they exchanged pleasantries, but as per usual, both men ended up watching and marveling at Caroline's ability to talk non-stop. The corners of Robert's mouth turned up into an amused smile. "Your friend was warned about your mother, yes?"
"Not exactly," Cooper chuckled. He was quick to add, "And Charlotte is more than just a friend."
"I realize that." Robert gave his son a knowing look. "But you will behave yourself in your mother's house. Separate bedrooms and all that. No funny business."
Cooper looked away as flush crept up his neck. His father loved him unconditionally but he was far from stupid. Cooper fought down his embarrassment and nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Good man." Robert patted his son on the back and all was forgotten. "Now, introduce me to your lovely friend."
The men stepped forward, overhearing the tail-end of Caroline's conversation with Charlotte: "-never brought home one of his girlfriend's before!"
Charlotte was smiling amiably. She appeared totally put to ease by Caroline's overt friendliness and obvious acceptance of her. "Well, I'm so glad to be here. Thank you for opening your home to me." Cooper smiled when he heard that. Only Charlotte, with her thick southern drawl, could make that line sound genuine.
Cooper stepped forward to introduce his father. "Dad, this is Charlotte King." His grin shifted between his father and his girlfriend. "Char, this is my dad, Robert Freedman." He watched them exchange a firm handshake. "You've already met my mom, Caroline."
Charlotte turned back toward the older woman and smiled. "Thank you both for having me."
"You're more than welcome, darling," Caroline assured her, linking their arms together and leading her toward the short-term lot where their car was parked. As an afterthought, she threw over her shoulder, "Cooper, dear, bring the bags."
Robert and Cooper exchanged an amused look. "I guess I'm not the favorite anymore," Cooper laughed.
Caroline helped Charlotte into the front passenger seat, all but fastening her seat belt for her, and then slipped into the driver's seat. It was obvious that Caroline wanted Charlotte all to herself so she could pepper her questions. To Cooper's surprise, however, Charlotte actually seemed to be enjoying answering his mother's nosy questions. Even from the backseat, Cooper could hear the smile in Charlotte's voice. She was actually happy.
Cooper watched for their house as they turned into their division. When he spotted it around the bend, he was immediately dumbstruck. "What the f- …in the world…"
Their modest little house was completely decked out for Christmas. A dozen strings of lights, in every color and shape imaginable, framed their windows and decorated their front porch. There were even clusters of lights wrapped around the snow-covered trees in their yard. It was a total Christmas invasion on a house that had never seen so much as a holiday wreath.
Caroline pulled the car into their driveway and turned off the ignition. "We're trying something new this year," she announced. "Charlotte will be experiencing Chanukah for the very first time, so it seemed only fair that we reciprocate with a little Christmas cheer."
Cooper was touched. Religion was very important to his parents, so this was a huge gesture on their part. He caught Charlotte's eye in the rearview mirror and saw the enormity of it wasn't lost on her. She almost looked a little teary-eyed. "This really means a lot to me," Charlotte told his parents, and it was obvious she meant it from the bottom of her heart. "Thank you-"
"There's no need to thank us, sweetheart." Caroline smiled and reached for Charlotte's hand. "You're practically mishpucha."
Cooper took it upon himself to translate: "That means family."
A/N: I hope y'all enjoyed my first (long) chapter story! I'd like to thank the awesome people that reviewed (hint, hint) and ask the most important question: What should my next story be about?