September 21, 2012-Brook, Indiana-Evening
He silently nodded, waiting for her to tell him her secret.
"I chose Levi for Bella's daddy."
"Most of us do tend to think that way when a relationship is headed towards marriage and family."
"No, I mean I was on my own with Bella when Levi came along wanting to raise Bella with me. He's not her biological father, but he loves her like his own."
His eyes clouded and she couldn't tell what he was thinking. "What happened to her real father?"
"I don't know. It was a stranger and I don't want to talk about it."
Nick's mouth hung open. His eyes widened in disbelief.
Carly's head went down because she couldn't bear to look at Nick's reaction anymore. "I know how it sounds. My daughter is the greatest gift to come from the whole mess."
"Carly, I'm not judging you. I'm just surprised. I can already tell that you've got all kinds of panicked thoughts running through your mind right now." He put his hand over hers protectively. "It's okay. I understand where you're coming from. It took a lot of guts to share that with me. I'm glad that you did. I'm honored that you did."
"It's not something I'm proud of. Levi always makes me feel so ashamed about it."
Nick's hands clenched into fists for a moment. "He's crazy to do that to you. Everyone has something in their past that they're not particularly proud of. Everyone makes mistakes. Unfortunately, divorce turns people from lovers into enemies. It gets pretty ugly. My ex has spewed her share of poison, so I know what you're talking about."
Carly put her hand on his shoulder. "You're right. I know you are, at least my head does. I keep telling myself that. When he starts in, it's hard to ignore or block out. I go right back to that bad place and it's hard to pull myself out."
"Don't let that jerk get to you. You are a beautiful, smart, funny woman. I could go on and on, if you need me to."
Her gentle laugh rippled through the air. "That's okay. I get the point. I need to listen to my friends more. Thanks. I know where to go now if I need a pick-me-up. Thanks for dinner. It was delicious."
"See, I'm not just a pretty face. I have multiple skills."
She burst out in a fit of giggles again.
"Apparently, being a comedian is one of them."
"I'm sorry. You should've seen your face when you said that. It looked like you thought you were Fabio or something."
"At least, I made you smile. That means I've done my job right."
"Thank you. I really appreciate it. It's been awhile since a guy has made me feel good about myself. I'm so glad that we're friends. I've never really had a guy as a friend before. My experiences with guys have been through dating and none of the guys I dated ever made me feel like this. You make me feel like it's okay to be myself. That's special to me."
He smiled sheepishly at her. "I'm glad, Carly. I'm glad that you feel that way."
"Thanks for dinner, especially for putting up with my sister. She's a handful sometimes. I've got to go. I've got lesson plans to work on. Bella's got to wind down and get ready for bed soon." She stood up to leave.
"Hey, come here. I'm here for you, okay, anytime." Nick opened his arms out. He gathered her into his arms, holding her snugly.
A brief shiver rippled through her. She smelled his scent. It was intoxicating to her senses. She pulled away while she still had the strength to do so. She patted him on the back. "Thanks for being such a great friend. I'm going to get Ivy and Bella out of your hair. 'Night, Nick."
"Goodnight, Carly. I hope you know that not all men are like your ex-husband."
"Yeah, I know. You're one of the good guys." She walked into the living room, calling Ivy and Bella downstairs to leave.
Ivy went to the bathroom while her sister and Nick were talking downstairs. The girls were in Natalie's room with the music on. Ivy heard the conversation below and decided to step up her efforts to match her sister up with Nick. As she was walking out the door, she turned to Nick. "Thanks for being good to her. She hasn't had a lot of that in her life. You're good for her and I approve." She cast him a knowing glance.
Friday couldn't come fast enough for Bella and Natalie. They could hardly contain themselves in school. That got them in trouble in English. Carly sighed. She knew that Bella was excited to see her dad after school. Bella talked about it all week. Carly just needed to get the kids focused. She was surprised that Bella and Natalie were so chipper. They would be separated all weekend.
She had reached the end of her rope when she saw the two girls passing notes instead of listening to her lesson. "Girls, do you have something that you'd like to share with the class?"
They cast their eyes downward. "No, ma'am," they answered in unison.
Carly went into the next part of her lesson, how words are used to affect people. She demonstrated the effects of advertising and propaganda on the average American. That's when Bella got another one of her ideas. Her eyes lit up. Natalie could practically see the light bulb light up above Bella's head. Bella put pen to paper and began jotting her thoughts down.
Bella showed Natalie her notes over lunch. They began a campaign to sell each parent on each other's positive attributes. Eventually, Carly would realize that the girls really were paying attention in class.
Bella and Natalie changed their routine after school. They went to Bella's house first to call Ivy to finalize the evening's plans. Bella broke out into her happy dance. It would be suspicious if they didn't arrive at Natalie's house soon, so Natalie snapped Bella back to focus. Bella's suitcase was packed. A last minute call was placed to Levi. With the checklist complete, the girls headed for the Campbell house next door.
Relief washed over Nick's worried features. "Finally! I was wondering where you two had gone. You know your mother's rule is to arrive here and check in right after school."
"Sorry, Dad. I won't let it happen again," Natalie responded quietly.
"Nat, it's okay. I was talking to Bella. I was worried about both of you. I know that you aren't the kind to get into trouble, but Carly would kill me if I let anything happen to Bella."
Bella giggled. "You addressed us like we were sisters. I'm sorry. I won't let it happen again, but it's seriously cute how you said 'your mother's rule' to both of us."
Nick stammered for a moment. "Girls, I meant... You know what I meant. Bella, I've heard that you've got a dad that loves you very much. He'll be here in less than three hours."
"Yeah, but I'd like to have two."
"What?" Nick's mouth dropped open like it did when Carly revealed her secret.
"My mom is lonely. I'd like her to find someone to love. Then I'll have two dads. Someday my dad will remarry and I'll have two moms. Sure, it's not normal, but it's family that matters in any shape or form they come in. It would be cool if Nat and I were sisters."
Nick choked on the milk that he was drinking. "You crazy kids, you should let the grownups handle things like that. Your mother and I are friends. We've barely known each other a month. Things shouldn't get any more complicated."
"My mom says that it can happen quickly like that." She snapped her fingers for effect. "When you know, you know. The arrow to the heart is sudden. You don't see it coming and you don't plan for it. My mom says that she felt like that the night I was made."
He looked into Bella's lively blue eyes. "Again, I remind you to leave the adult stuff for the grown-ups. Now, what would you like for dinner? I have to serve dinner a little earlier tonight, so you'll be ready when your dad picks you up." He saw the twinkle dim and it pained him to hurt her tender feelings. He brushed the strands of sandy blonde hair out of her eyes. "Look, I really care you and your mom, Bella. Besides Nat, you're my favorite people to be around, okay?"
Bella wrapped her arms around him quickly before stepping back. "Nick, it's okay with me if you ever decide to date my mom."
Ivy arrived for dinner shortly after Carly sat down for dinner with Nick and the girls. It was 5:45, and Levi was due to arrive at 6:00 p.m.
Carly was thrilled when Natalie and Bella described the day's English lesson to Nick. "I didn't even think they were paying attention," she responded in disbelief.
He smiled at her. "I guess that means that you're a great teacher."
Carly blushed at his tone and the way that his eyes continued to hold her gaze. He was staring into her eyes. Her insides felt like jello.
Natalie cut in with more details about her day. Dinner took a lot longer tonight than it usually did with all the conversation going on. Ivy checked her watch. It was six o'clock already. She winked at Bella. Bella rubbed her hands together and smiled.
Carly's cell phone rang. "Hello?"
"I'm here to pick up Bella. Where are you?" the annoyed voice shouted at her.
"We're next door, having dinner. Bella's got her stuff ready to go. Just come by and get her." Carly spoke calmly, squashing down the urge to shout back at him.
The doorbell rang a minute later. Carly answered the door. "Hi, Levi. Bella's right in here. Come on in. She's finishing her meal."
Nick saw a man who stood about six foot tall with light brown hair walk into the dining room.
Bella stood up from the table and ran to Levi. "Daddy! I missed you!"
Levi took his daughter into his arms. "You must have grown a foot since I last saw you, Pumpkin. I missed you, too. Grandma and Grandpa are really excited to see you. So, are you ready to go?"
"Just let her finish her dinner, Levi."
"So, why are you having dinner over here tonight? You knew I'd be at your house at six on the dot, Caroline."
She shivered at his tone. She had to remind herself that she was the primary parent and the one in charge of the situation. Nothing Levi says can hurt me anymore. She wanted to answer, but Bella beat her to it.
"Daddy, we always eat here after school."
Levi's face reddened, temper flaring. "You eat here every night?" He turned to Carly. "Who are these people? You're slipping, Caroline."
Carly stood up to defend herself. "Don't walk in here and order me around! You don't get a say in how I live my life.'
"When it affects my daughter, I do."
Her insides boiled at his use of the word, my. Liar! You know what will happen if we open that door. "I can't begin to tell you what's wrong with that statement. I'm the primary custodial parent. I make the decisions. You're lucky to have the rights that you have. You really don't want to get into this with me."
"But, come on, you eat here every night. These are strangers."
"No, they're not. Natalie goes to school with Bella. They are best friends. Nick and I are friends. We're doing favors for each other like neighbors do. This is none of your business, but if it will make you feel better, I'll introduce you. Levi, this is my neighbor, Nick Campbell and his daughter, Natalie. Nick, this is my ex-husband, Levi Walker."
Nick stood up as Carly introduced them. The two men did not shake hands or attempt polite pleasantries.
Levi stared him down, but Nick did not back down. "I remember you from high school. You're that geek that I beat up senior year. Don't you know when to quit? Stay away from my family, Campbell, or you'll live to regret it!"
"Levi, you better get out of here before I say something I'll regret," Carly said quickly. She didn't want the two to come to blows.
Ivy touched Carly's arm. She gestured at Bella, who was sobbing. Carly knelt down in front of her daughter. "We got loud again and I'm sorry. Why don't you go home and get your stuff. Aunt Ivy and Natalie can go with you. I want to talk to your daddy alone for a minute."
Bella wiped her tears on her sleeve. "Mama, can Natalie come with me this weekend? That way, she won't be a stranger anymore."
Carly looked over at Nick, who stood silently watching the exchange. Bella's tears left his stomach tied up in knots. He silently nodded his consent to Bella's request. Ivy led Bella and Natalie away from the angry adults and over to the safety and peace of Carly's house.
Meanwhile, Carly was ready to say a few words to her ex-husband about his behavior now that her daughter was out of the room. "Where do you get off coming in here and ordering me around? We're divorced. That means that I do what I want. You don't get a say in my life!" Her nostrils flared and she glared at him.
"That little girl is why I still have a say in your life. We are raising her together. I am her father and that's not gonna change."
"The magic of divorce is why I don't care. She is my daughter. After everything that's happened, you're lucky I still let you have a place in her life."
"Let's talk about why I'm in her life. You chose to share her with me. You married me. We are a family. I am the only father she has ever known."
"Let's look at the facts. You deluded yourself into believing that you were Bella's biological father, despite the fact that I told you the truth. You are her dad, but you are not her father. That fact became painfully honest when our daughter was fighting for her life and we needed a match for her bone marrow transplant. When the truth finally sunk in, you made me out to be a slut for having a child that resulted from a one-night stand."
"That's because you are. I loved you. We could've had everything together. You left me and came back pregnant. I still did the right thing because I still loved you, but you preferred being in a stranger's arms than being with me."
"No, you wanted us to get married. I wasn't ready for that. I wanted to go to college. I wanted an education. I needed time to figure out who I was and what I wanted. You weren't ready for marriage. You still lived like you did in high school, so I got out of here."
"College? That's an excuse for partying and sleeping around like a w-e. You wanted to get away, but you came crawling back fast enough."
The color had drained from Carly's face. Her eyes widened, yet her brows were furrowed. She swallowed hard. Her eyes were filled with tears. "I was pregnant and alone. My parents helped me. That was a blessing because my parents were killed just a couple of years later. I'm glad I got that time to spend with them. After that, I had to take care of two young girls. I had to grow up fast."
"And I was right there with you and Bella every day. We had a good life together. That's why we got married. We were married for eight years." Levi's voice rose with the first sentence, and then dropped into pleading.
"I'll admit that I was happy and comfortable, but you are not the love of my life. The love of my life would never say such things to me. He wouldn't call me a slut or a w-e. He wouldn't accuse me of cheating every time I walked out the front door because when you truly love someone you wouldn't hurt them like that." She looked into his eyes as she spoke. For the first time in the argument, her shoulders were straight, her chin was up, and her body filled with a renewed strength.
"Who was Bella's real father, Caroline? You have to figure it out sometime. The doctors told us to be prepared for a relapse. I don't care what your issues are. We have to find out for Bella's sake. The guy could be a perfect match for her, if she gets sick again. Think about it." He walked to the front door, pausing. "For the record, I really loved you, but it felt like you threw it in my face time after time. I figured that I had to be Bella's real father because there couldn't be any other reason why you would let me back into your life and marry you. After Bella got sick, I felt like I was living on borrowed time. Think about it." After speaking, Levi walked out the door to sit in his pickup truck, waiting on the girls.
Carly sank down into a chair, feeling the stress wash away from her body. Ivy returned with the girls. Natalie ran upstairs to get her weekend bag.
Bella ran over and hugged her mother tightly. "Dad was really mad this time. It's okay, Mom. I'll make sure that he gets to know Natalie." She turned to Nick, touching his arm. "I'm sorry that my dad beat you up before."
Carly felt the tears build up in her eyes, but she would not cry in front of her daughter. "Bella, it is not your job to fix the grown-ups. Don't worry about anything. Just go have a fun weekend with your dad. Tell Grandma and Grandpa that I said hi, okay? Don't keep your dad waiting."
Bella yelled for Natalie to hurry. Natalie ran down the stairs, taking two at a time. The girls quickly hugged Carly and Nick before dashing out the door to Levi's pickup truck.
"Well, that was interesting, but now I've got to get to work. I'll see you later, Sis. By the way, Jennifer should be here any minute now." As Ivy walked out the door, a very tall, thin woman with long blonde hair busted in the door.
"I saw that snake leaving. Are you okay?" she asked.
Carly sighed. "Jen, you just can't bust into other people's houses."
"But I was worried about you." Her eyes narrowed when she saw Nick. "Ooh, who's this?" She eyed the only man in the room like he was a big slice of chocolate cake.
Carly pointed to Nick. "He's the owner of the house that you literally broke into. You've really got to learn to knock. Anyway, let me introduce you. Jen, this is Nick Campbell. He moved here from Missouri with his daughter, Natalie. Natalie is Bella's new best friend. Nick, this is my best friend, Jennifer Grant. We've been best friends since college. She was my roommate at Northwest Indiana State University. She lives in the house across the street from me."
"It's no coincidence. I helped her find her house when she moved here. It's so nice to finally meet you. I've heard so much about you."
Carly covered her face with her hands for a minute. "Jen! I'm so embarrassed."
Nick smiled. "Don't be. It's cute. What does she say about me?"
Carly's face was turning red. Jennifer noticed her best friend's nervousness. "Listen, she's had a bad night. She always does when Levi's around. So, I'm taking her out and I'm not taking no for an answer." She grabbed Carly's hand and pulled her out of the house.
On the way out, Carly turned back to Nick. "Sorry for my drama. Thanks for dinner. I'll see you later."
Nick shouted. "Hey, is dinner tomorrow still on?"