A/N: Phew! This chapter has taken way too long to write, but life kind of went off the rails for a few weeks. Work... weather... family issues. The whole nine yards. So sorry for taking so long to update. But the good news is that this is a really long chapter, and... drumroll please... only one left to go. As always, thank you all so very much for reading and reviewing, and for sticking with me through this whole story. It means more than you know. And now, on with the chapter. :)
Twenty one weeks.
Gillian was twenty one weeks pregnant, and for the most part, everything was going fantastically well. She'd made it safely out of the first trimester… was right on schedule with her weight gain and all of her medical monitoring… and she was adjusting to a whole new set of rules as well as anyone could've expected.
There were hurdles, of course. The biggest one – a giant, snarling beast named "Morning Sickness" – had knocked her flat on her ass since week twelve and hadn't let up yet. And it had been a misnomer, really, because whoever came up with the "morning" part of the name had either been an idiot with a really bad sense of humor, or an uneducated fool who lacked the ability to read a clock. No, Gillian was one of the select few who'd been gifted with afternoon sickness… evening sickness… middle-of-the-night sickness… and her favorite: dawn sickness. That's right, dawn sickness. The small pocket of time in the early morning hours when she was so damn tired that she could barely hold her eyes open, much less stumble to the en suite in time to "aim" correctly.
And it just so happened that the second hurdle went hand-in-hand with the first: mood swings. Cal, with his overprotective, hummingbird-esque hovering ability, and Gillian – whose strong-willed nature was still alive and kicking despite the fact that she felt pretty much like hell ninety nine percent of the time – had quickly adopted a trial and error system of making it through the second trimester. Meaning that Cal tried his best not to annoy her… and Gillian agreed not to kill him when he ultimately did it anyway.
Take her diet, for example: as per Doctor Stewart's instructions, her two main restrictions were sugar and caffeine. Which – of course – pretty much ruled out every single thing she wanted to eat AND drink. And yes, there were other rules… about seafood and dairy and protein, but they were basically a non-issue. Because quite frankly, if it wasn't brewed, sprinkled, or coated in chocolate, she didn't even want to look at it. At all. A lesson Cal had learned first-hand when he'd innocently tried to feed her beans on toast as a "light" meal one afternoon.
"It's toast, Gill," he argued, completely dumbfounded by the look of disgust on her face as he held the plate aloft. "Pregnant women love toast. It's scientific fact, you know."
Of course they did.
Because bread – heated until a near-burned level and then coated in a thick glob of baked beans (which looked disgusting even before she had an extra person swimming laps in her uterus) – made a perfect "light" lunch for a woman who could barely hold down saltine crackers and ice water before mid-afternoon.
She'd simply sighed. Her husband was a silly, silly, loveable man.
Under the weight of Cal's big puppy dog eyes and lopsided smile, she finally caved and began to chew. Slowly. Three bites later, his lopsided grin morphed into a proud smile. But the tide turned all too quickly when she was overcome with a sudden strong wave of nausea. Gillian's eyes widened in recognition as she clamped one hand over her mouth and scrambled for the nearest toilet, practically trampling him as she went.
There was no doubt about it. This baby had definitely not inherited his father's taste buds.
She knelt on the cold bathroom tile, groaning as she waited for the last pangs of sickness to pass. As soon as it did – right on cue – she heard the sound of Cal's footsteps shuffling up behind her. He was wise to respect her privacy, and equally wise to know when she needed comfort. Without a word, he dropped to the floor behind her and stroked his hands across her back. The touch was reassuring… relaxing… and though she knew full well that he neither wanted nor expected her apology, she felt the need to give him one anyway. Because she loved him, and because she hated being so… off. So out of sorts with her own body. It left her feeling much more vulnerable than she'd ever expected.
"I'm sorry," she offered, shifting beside him until her back rested against the wall and her head tiredly lolled against his shoulder.
He scoffed as she sighed. And before he had the chance to jump ahead with whatever comical reply was dancing on the tip of his tongue, she tucked her head even further into the crook of his neck and stopped him short. "I just wish I had a little more control over this, you know?" she continued. "God, Cal, whoever coined the term "Morning Sickness" needs to suffer. Really, truly suffer. Because there's some false advertising if I've ever heard it."
Cal nodded and reached up to softly brush his fingertips against the damp hair that had fallen across her forehead. "Bit of 'bait and switch,' that is," he agreed. "I'd gladly take it for you if I could."
And even though she knew it was just the hormones that had her on the verge of tears and not any lingering embarrassment at having nearly vomited all over him, those last few words almost made her crumble. Cal Lightman was so damned sweet when he wanted to be.
A beat later – once the threat of tears had passed – Gillian smiled. "Thank you for taking care of us," she said, resting one hand on her stomach as she spoke. "The baby and I are both very lucky to have you."
The hand that had been stroking her hair paused. She heard his breathing change – a slight hiccup that told her she'd managed to catch him off guard for once – and then he covered her hand with his, twining their fingers and tossing her a soft smile. "Taking care of you is my specialty, love. I'd do anything for you, and I'd do anything for our baby. Anything."
Hormones be damned, there she went again. There was just something about the way he said that word – anything – that left her feeling decidedly… playful. No, not sexually playful (although she was pretty sure that he would've been more than willing to "take care" of her in that capacity, too). Humorously playful. As in, it was suddenly all she could do not to laugh at him.
Stupid, stupid crazy hormones.
Poor Cal. First she'd nearly splattered him with beans, and now she was almost laughing at him.
Under her breath, Gillian chuckled. She just couldn't help herself. "Anything, huh?" she asked. "Is that a promise?"
"'Course," he answered. One eyebrow was raised in suspicion, but she suspected that he hadn't quite guessed what she was about to say."
Gillian shifted beside him again, until her eyes met his and the twinkle in hers was offset by the confusion in his. "Well then, do us all a favor and don't ever give me beans on toast again, okay? Because this baby definitely does not have English taste buds."
Cal gave an indignant sigh but grinned at her. "Maybe it's more of a third trimester thing, yeah? Bit of an acquired taste?"
This time, her chuckle became a full-on laugh. "Don't push your luck, mister," she said, patting her open palm against his thigh as she spoke. "Or else next time, my aim might not be so…"
His laugh joined hers, interrupting her train of thought. "So… what Gill?" he asked. "You trying to tell me that next time, it might not be so… well-aimed?"
She nodded happily, enjoying the comfort she felt by simply sitting there with him – side by side on their hard bathroom floor. It was completely "them." No pretenses. "Exactly," she agreed, squeezing his hand in hers. "Next time it might not be so well-aimed."
A beat later his grin widened. "Should I invest in a pair of waders, then?"
"Let's just put it like this: if you ever try to feed me that… stuff… again, I won't be held responsible for the state of your shoes. Fair enough?"
Then it was his turn to nod. "Fair enough," he agreed. A beat later, he waggled his eyebrows at her and dropped a series of quick pecks along her jawline that took her by surprise.
Gillian beamed and blushed, and Cal waggled his eyebrows at her as he leaned in to press a softer kiss on her cheek. "Beautiful, and feisty, yeah?"
She nodded as his eyes roamed her features.
"That's my girl."
It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that lead Gillian into the little coffee shop around the corner from the Group one sunny Friday morning. Yes, she knew she really shouldn't indulge… and yes, she knew Dr. Stewart would probably give her hell for eating something that was pretty much the exact opposite of every food on her recommended list… but she was twenty eight weeks pregnant, damn it. And she was hungry.
And she really, really wanted a muffin.
Alright, fine. It sounded stupid. She knew it did.
She simply didn't care.
Because for the last twenty-some weeks, she'd either driven or strolled right past this very same coffee shop – with its wafting smells and delicious looking baked goods – and longed for the days when she could indulge in her sweet tooth once again, without running the risk of vomiting all over the floor.
And finally… finally… that day had come.
She would indulge… and she would love every single second of it. She would love every morsel and every crumb, and every single blasted calorie that she'd eventually need to burn back off. All of it. Earlier that morning, Cal – for lack of a better term and because he was still very much a smartass – had called it a "food-gasm waiting to happen."
She hadn't been amused.
"Under different circumstances," he'd quipped – grinning so widely that she feared his face might split in two – "I'd offer to pop by afterward with a cigarette."
With a sigh and a half-smile (because she'd never been able to stay irritated with him for long), Gillian's subconscious instantly repeated the word as she walked up to the counter. The choices were endless; countless varieties of freshly baked confections stood before her – proudly arranged in their display case as if they'd been waiting just for her. Thank God she'd listened to Cal when he insisted on meeting her at the office, rather than coming along for a quick breakfast. ("It's cake, love. Cake that's been carefully disguised as breakfast, mind you… but it's still cake. And thanks, but no thanks. Beans on toast it is.") Because if he had come along, she guessed that he would be having a field day with her facial expressions right about now.
"Food-gasm indeed," she quietly breathed.
Her eyes tracked through each of the items in turn, weighing her options as she tried to decide on her order. It didn't take long; the moment her gaze fixed on the oversized pumpkin cheesecake muffin near the back of the case, she was sold. And she didn't even care that it was roughly the size of her baby bump and easily worth a thousand calories. She was going to enjoy every single bite.
Every. Single. Bite.
With a smile, Gillian added a large mug of sugar free hot chocolate to her order (yes, she knew that sounded completely crazy too), and made her way towards the stools near the front of the room to wait for her meal. She drummed her fingers on the counter as her elbows rested on it, trying to take some of the strain off her lower back. And she was so distracted with the various sights, smells, and sounds that wafted throughout the shop that she paid no attention to the man who'd carefully taken a place beside her.
Her ears were perked for the sound of her name, and she almost didn't hear the man when he first spoke. (Because quite frankly, anyone who wasn't calling "Lightman" and carrying a gigantic pumpkin cheesecake muffin wasn't of much interest to her.)
In her periphery, caught sight of the man as he shuffled a bit closer. And her reaction was comically delayed. As if her eyes and her brain both knew what they were seeing, but the two halves hadn't clicked together yet.
Holy hell. It bore repeating: Thank God Cal hadn't come along.
"I didn't think you'd actually go through with it, Gillian," he said. His words were controlled and measured – his tone light – but this was Jack Rader she was dealing with, and 'suspicious caution' was pretty much the norm when it came to dealing with him.
An early morning sparring match was definitely not on her agenda and for a moment, she considered flagging down one of the baristas and making her order "to go." But a beat later – before she'd even finished rolling her eyes – Jack was draped across the counter next to her, trying his best to appear casual and unassuming. Which was stupid, of course, because "casual and unassuming" matched up with Jack Rader about as well as "calm and sedate" matched up with Cal.
And they both knew he wasn't the type to make casual conversation with anyone named Lightman. Still, he smiled – casually – and he glanced up at the menu boards as if they both had all the time in the world to sit there together. He was the very picture of patient and unassuming; simply waiting for her to answer the question he'd pitched.
Gillian sighed. 'Why the hell not?' she reasoned.
"Go through with what, Jack? The wedding?"
He smiled. Smugly. Which meant no, he wasn't talking about the wedding.
"The name change, of course," he clarified. "Couldn't help but overhear your order, and it struck me that most people would've given their first name. But you? You gave your last. Lightman. Still new, isn't it? Sounds a little… funny? A little foreign?"
Gillian sighed. Clearly, this was the same old Jack. "And I should discuss this with you because…?"
He shrugged. "You probably shouldn't, but I couldn't help myself. I'm a natural born observer, Gill. Goes with the profession, don't you think? I noticed… I commented…. and now here we are, enjoying a healthy debate between friends. And over drinks, no less. Something tells me your other half wouldn't like this at all, would he?"
Her order arrived that that exact moment, and Gillian was grateful for the brief distraction. Partly because nothing – not even an arrogant asshole like Jack Rader – was going to interrupt her breakfast , and partly because the simple task of holding onto her food gave her something to do with her hands. Something that didn't involve slapping him. Gillian sipped her hot chocolate and unwrapped the comically large muffin. She noted the way Jack's eyes widened as she tore of a few bites – as if he was shocked to see that she was planning to eat the entire thing herself – but she didn't comment on it. At twenty eight weeks along, she was certainly entitled to a little indulgence, and she'd be damned if he was going to ruin it with his snarky attitude.
"Two points?" she offered. Then she waited until she had his full attention, popped a small bite into her mouth, and chewed. Slowly. Making him wait. Trying to prove her point that she was neither concerned with his presence or concerned with his opinion. Swallowing, she gave a smug little grin and then continued.
"First, this is not a debate. It's one lonely, cynical man interrupting an otherwise content woman as she tries to enjoy the largest pumpkin cheesecake muffin that money can buy. And second, we are not friends. Never have been, never will be. And if you can't manage to accept that simple truth after all this time, then believe me when I tell you my 'other half' won't think twice about knocking it into your head, permanently. Perhaps he showed a bit too much restraint the first time around."
Jack's expression morphed from amusement to scorn and then he shifted his weight, making it a point to hold himself as straight as possible so that he literally looked down at her as he spoke. He weighed his words, still anxious to keep her on the hook and not chase her away by being overly antagonistic. "So we're going to play it like then then, are we?" he asked.
Gillian couldn't help but roll her eyes. "Play it like what?"
"Like adversaries. Like the only common ground between us is filled with bad blood and angry words."
She laughed immediately. "I'd say that's pretty accurate, wouldn't you? I mean, the last time we spoke …"
Jack cleared his throat, interrupting before Gillian could finish. "The last time we spoke, your… husband… took an inappropriate amount of joy in choking me until I saw stars. He was vengeful and spiteful and angry – and you saw that just as well as I did. He's an emotional handful, that Cal Lightman. It takes a very rare woman to sign on for a lifetime of that baggage."
As it happened, his order arrived at that exact moment… just as she was ready to throw her better judgment out the window and cut loose with every hateful word in her vocabulary. And as Jack ran through the motions sipping and stirring – breaking his food into smaller pieces, just as she had done – Gillian took two steps backward and sighed. She gave him a once-over, reflexively scrunching up her nose as if the very sight of him made her nauseous.
Which was funny, because she did feel something. A tiny little fluttering of… something that definitely wasn't baby and definitely didn't feel like it was going to pass anytime soon.
Son of a…
Gillian took a deep, cleansing breath and shut her eyes tightly. She needed to relax; to calm down and let the feeling pass, and then everything would be fine again. She'd be back in the land of chocolate and pumpkin and cheesecake (oh my), and Jack Rader would be nothing but a silly hiccup on an otherwise pleasant morning.
Breathe in… breathe out. Relax.
As soon as the pang of nausea passed, she opened her eyes to find that he was still there – right beside her, and very attentively waiting to hear whatever she had to say. "Please tell me this is not the beginning of a pattern," she said. "Please tell me you're not about to start popping up on every street corner between my house and my office for the next several weeks, plotting some kind of half-witted scheme to get me to join the dark side. It failed the first time, and it'll fail again."
Jack laughed. "The 'dark side,' Gilly? Really? I'm not all that bad, am I?"
Gillian scowled. "Call me 'Gilly' one more time and I'll show you my dark side. And trust me – it isn't pretty."
There was a pause between them then, as Jack proceeded to treat her exactly as she had treated him. He sipped… he chewed… and then right on schedule – as soon as her eyes focused on the raisins that were sprinkled atop his oversized scone – she felt the nausea begin to return.
"You know, it's often said that couples who've been together for a long time often start to look alike," Jack finally continued. "And while you and Lightman will never, ever fall into that category – which is lucky for you, my dear, because 'scrappy' doesn't suit you – he does seem to be teaching you a few bad habits, no?"
Gillian was starting to sweat. Part of her wanted to smack him – to lash out physically, and knock some sense into his pompous little head. The other part was wise enough to quickly wrap the remainder of her breakfast in a napkin and tuck it safely inside her purse. Her best guess was that she had a few minutes – five at most – before those nagging stomach pains morphed into exaggerated heaves and she spewed what little bit she'd eaten all over Jack's shoes.
Apparently, her baby's hatred of baked beans paled in comparison to his hatred for raisins. They were wrinkled and soggy and… totally disgusting. And to her surprise, every movement she made to disengage was matched by one of Jack's. She bagged her breakfast… he capped his coffee. She stood to leave… he gestured for her to lead the way, then followed a few feet behind.
Jesus, he was infuriating. And how was it even possible that a man who could read faces for a living had completely missed the fact that she'd become physically ill after spending just a few short moments in his company?
Gillian swallowed thickly, resenting every single raisin-filled bite that he continued to take. But she refused to give in to her body… not there. Not in public. It would be… mortifying. Not knowing what else to do, Gillian huffed and quicky headed for the door. She knew he would follow; she just hoped to make it outside before her stomach completely rebelled.
"Just for the record, Jack?" she finally managed. "I would've never left the Lightman Group. Never. No amount of character assassination in the world would've severed the ties I have with Cal – professional or otherwise. In my heart, I've always known what kind of man he is, just as I now know what kind of man you are. And the differences between you are striking."
His brow furrowed. She could tell that he wanted to be smug… that at least part of him was happy to have led her into the middle of a quasi-argument… but he couldn't completely enjoy it because he was clearly having trouble seeing the bigger picture. Which was – of course – the fact that every single second he continued to eat that disgusting scone (in all its wrinkly, raisin-filled glory), she drifted closer and closer to the point of no return. T-minus ten… nine… eight…
"If you're trying to make a point, Gillian, please just come right out and say it. I'm a big boy. I can take it."
God, he was infuriating. Breathe in… breathe out… relax…
"My point is… the next time you try to poach someone from your competition, you should back it up with facts and skill, not parlor tricks and surveillance photos. Intimidation does nothing for your image, Jack. It just makes you look like a pathetic, jealous fool."
Gillian took a deep breath and clenched her fists. And in that moment she decided that raisins were the single most evil food on the entire planet. Easily a thousand times worse than beans on toast.
Seven… six… five…
Jack – oblivious as ever – continued to chew. He shifted his weight and bounced forward on the balls of his feet, taking plenty of time before replying. As if they both had all the time in the world to stand in front of that coffee shop. "It's just like I told Lightman months ago," he finally offered. "That photo was not planned. I did not stalk the guy, alright? I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I saw an opportunity and I took advantage of it. All for the greater good, right?
In the heat of the moment, the depth of her annoyance calmed the waves in her stomach. "In the hopes of accomplishing… what, exactly?" she asked. "Revenge? For that case with Alec Foster? For what you've always perceived to be Cal's betrayal, rather than your own selfish tendencies?"
Jack snorted. "Selfish tendencies, Gillian? That's a bit overdramatic, don't you think?
"Says the man who tried to frame his former mentor as a liar and a cheat, all in the name of a business negotiation."
"Yeah, well… I never said I was a nice guy, right? I'm just better than him. Professionally, and otherwise. And it's a pity that since you have that ring on your finger now, you'll never get to make a first-hand comparison. Not that a piece of jewelry will stop him, though. I mean, look at how you two started. He was a married man with a young child and he still fell in love with you, almost from day one. Although in hindsight, it is completely laughable that it took him nearly a decade to get in your pants. Based on what I saw with that blonde woman in the bar that night, he usually goes for the kill straight away."
Gillian stood slack-jawed as Jack grinned at her – his true colors blazingly clear as he sighed contentedly and reached for another large chunk of his scone. He chewed – loudly – and sipped his coffee, and holy hell it was all she could do not to spit in his face.
Jack rustled the bag in his hands and carefully placed the last few pieces of his food inside. And as her eyes were drawn downward by the sounds of his movement, she caught sight of those horrible, horrible raisins again – wrinkly little capsules from hell – and instantly, the waves of nausea came rushing back.
It was now or never. She knew she needed to turn away and head to the nearest restroom, lest she unleash her entire contents of her stomach right there on the sidewalk. But in the end – just as she knew it would – her drive to defend Cal overran her better judgment and her reply came easily. Freely.
"I guess that's the difference between you two," she said.
"Your definition of 'greater good.' Because Cal Lightman would gladly sacrifice himself for the good of everyone else, just to protect them. He's done it time and time again, Jack. Even when it meant standing head-to-head with a giant tractor bomb, or being held at gunpoint in his own lab – voluntarily, mind you. He does it because he's a good man. And because he cares. You, on the other hand, gladly sacrifice everyone else for your own good. To hell with the collateral damage. Because in your mind, as long as Jack Rader gets his way, everything else is right with the world."
Jack scoffed, dismissing her with a wave of his hand. "He's not a martyr, Gillian. He's a man. A mortal one, at that. Keep putting him up on that pedestal of yours, and one day soon it's bound to topple over."
While his words did not surprise her, the malice behind his eyes caught her completely off guard and the nausea that had so briefly passed came back with full force. It was stress, of course. Stress and hormones and an unwavering urge to do something to defend Cal's name, even though her options were sorely limited. There was only so much a woman could do with words and logic, and none of those scenarios worked on men like Jack Rader.
Men who were always convinced that they were right, and the rest of the world was filled with incompetency.
Before she could think of a proper reply, Jack chortled. He took one step toward her, until a mere six inches of space remained between their bodies – and made a show of using his height to look down on her. It was arrogance, at its finest. Gillian braced herself for whatever he was about to say, as her stomach began to rebel.
Come hell or high water, she needed to find a restroom. Immediately.
But before she could retreat, Jack launched into one final tirade. "Come to think of it, he IS getting up there," hesaid. "By my count he's probably staring down the barrel of the big 5-0 and is on the fast track to a boring, safe little life with a baby and a wife and… well, let's face it, Gilly, the trappings of so much domestic bliss that it's probably throwing that 'fight or flight' response into complete overdrive. That pedestal I mentioned? Five bucks says it topples before the kid's first birthday."
And there it was. All systems go.
Without a single word of warning – and without a single shred of guilt – Gillian simply leaned forward and vomited all over Jack Rader's fancy wing-tipped shoes.
A/N: One more chapter coming, and I promise to do my best to get it posted within a week. Thanks for reading / reviewing!