It was Jess’ face, all concern and fear and he was reminded of the hurt in her voice when she told Abby she was still waiting for her parents to come home at the age of 23. Then his mother telling him how concerned Jess had been about her parents getting back together. And he wondered if it was all worth it.
His initial reaction, and hers, had been not to explore whatever romantic feelings lay between them. He’d enjoyed creating their new friendship, getting to know her all over again. No that wasn’t quite right. He knew her already. It was understanding her he always had a problem with. But he understood her now. They had the best of both worlds. They had their family, happy and united. And they had each other, as friends with no complications between them. But she hadn’t wanted to fear what was or let it prevent what could be. He wasn’t so sure but the pull towards her had been too great.
He loved her. That was a given, he had never stopped loving her if he was being honest with himself. It wasn’t like anyone else had ever come close. He’d had a few relationships, no one he ever wanted to bring home but it wasn’t like he lived like a monk all this time. And yet no one had ever had the impact on him that she did.
So he tentatively dipped his toe in the pool of possibilities with the love of his life, the only love of his life. The kids had found out much quicker than he had intended. And took it much better than he had anticipated, apart from Jess. Although even with her, it was less not being supportive and more fearful at what could be. He didn’t blame her.
And then Trace had offered him an out from the bar and it had made him think. Maybe he wanted an out from Megan too. That maybe it was foolish to try again, that of course the same thing was going to happen again but this time they were too old to start again. Megan wouldn’t want to run away to New York this time. The family couldn’t take it, wouldn’t take it.
He’d tried to hide it from her, had tried to work it out in his head but he’d been kidding himself. They were different now and she knew. Knew him better than he knew himself probably.
In the end it was her that had been the brave one. And she’d given him the same offer that Trace had. An out.
“I get the feeling you aren’t sure about this Mick,” she had said quietly, he could hear the emotion in her voice and could see the tears in her eyes.
He’d tried to deny it, to brush her concerns aside but she knew him too well.
“It’s okay, I’m glad we thought about it, I’m glad we talked about it but if it’s not something you want that’s okay too.”
He’d been devastated, fearing that he would lose her anyway but she had reassured him.
“It doesn’t change anything that we’ve built these last few years. You’re still my closest friend, you’re still the father of my children, I’m still going to live nearby and come for breakfast. We’ll still look after our grandchildren together. Nothing has to change.”
That night he had walked back to his from Megan’s, the rain falling down and masking the tears that were on his face. When he walked in to the house his mother had still been up, waiting for him. One look at her face and he knew she knew. She’d lifted up her hand to his face and wiped the remnants of rain and tears off his cheek.
“You’re an idiot,” she had said quietly, but determinedly and then she had left him to retire to her room.
They’d told the kids together and his heart dropped at their obvious disappointment and for a moment he nearly took it all back. Jess had looked at him with wide eyes and he could see her guilt.
“It just wasn’t right,” Mick had said, trying to reassure Jess it had nothing to do with her.
“But we’re still friends, will always be friends, best friends,” Megan had vowed to them.
And true to her word, she had been the same. She still came for breakfast and had coffee with him. He still fixed up her studio and she made him dinner in payment. They still ate ice cream on the deck when babysitting the girls. And they could still be found, together, with a glass of wine in their hand after every family meal.
He’d hurt her, he knew that. Could see it in her eyes. He’d hurt himself too. And every time she left his house to return to hers, alone, the ache inside him got a little worse. She’d encourage him to go for dinner with her, emphatically not dates this time, and his breath would catch at how beautiful she looked. His fingers itched to touch hers. After all those years of not touching her now he couldn’t think about anything else.
But still they continued. The kids got used to them not being a couple again, although in truth nothing for them had really changed. His mother continued to let him know her disappointment, but Megan never did. He didn’t deserve her, had never deserved her.
And then four months after that fateful night, that was when it had happened. He’d walked in to Sally’s with Thomas and there she was, laughing over lunch with another man. Dan was his name, he’d recognised him from City Hall. He was the new sports lead for the city, Mick sponsored half of his teams. He was a nice guy from what he recalled. And there he was, sitting with his ex-wife, flirting innocently over pie.
And the bottom fell out of his world.
“Do you want to go somewhere else?” Thomas asked tentatively.
Mick shook his head vigorously, “Why the hell should I? It’s fine, she’s a free woman and I’m a free man.”
Thomas rolled his eyes at him, he’d called him an idiot on numerous occasions too. He dreaded to think what Robyn called him.
They sat down at a table on the other side of the room, Mick taking a seat that would still allow him to watch Megan from the corner of his eye. He caught Sally grimacing at Thomas and fumed silently.
“That’s Dan Keane isn’t it? From City Hall?” Thomas obviously wasn’t going to leave the matter alone. He was going to pick at it like a scab and watch him bleed. He probably thought Mick deserved it. He probably did.
“I think I’m going to have the blueberry pie,” Mick said, ignoring his brother.
“Handsome guy, bit younger than you isn’t he?”
Mick folded up the menu, realising his brother wasn’t going to let it drop.
“Yes handsome guy, he does the job Megan does but for sport. They probably work closely together. What of it?”
“You cannot sit there and tell me that this doesn’t bother you?”
“It doesn’t bother me. Can we eat now?”
“You’re an idiot.”
“So you keep telling me.”
Thomas obviously decided to let the matter drop as he turned his attention to the menu, “You know they had rhubarb crumble on the menu for months, and I kept thinking I’d try it but you know how much I love the blueberry. A safe choice, you know exactly what you are getting, never disappointed.”
Thomas sighed drastically, “I never did get the rhubarb and whaddya know, it’s now been taken off the menu. If only I’d tried it. It might not have been better than the blueberry, but it could have been. It could have been amazing, and now I’ll never know.”
Or maybe he hadn’t decided to let the matter drop.
“Regrets, Mick. They’re a terrible thing. Because you only regret the things you don’t do.”
Mick glared at his brother who looked back unflinchingly only to be distracted by Megan and her companion getting up from the table to leave. She caught his eye and he felt a glimmer of satisfaction at her shock at seeing him and then immediately felt guilty. She didn’t deserve to feel bad, and he smiled slightly. He saw her say something to Dan who continued on his way out the door while she headed towards him.
“Hey, I didn’t see you guys come in,”
“Just came in for some pie,” Mick replied trying to keep his voice light.
“And all we got was disappointment,” Thomas said and Mick glared at his brother again.
“Disappointment?” Megan asked with confusion.
“No rhubarb pie on the menu, Megan,” Thomas clarified and Megan furrowed her brow looking between him and Mick.
“Do you think Sally might make it especially for me if I asked her?” Thomas asked looking at Megan, “That despite me not ordering it all these months, even though she told me I would like it I might add, do you think she might make an exception and give me another chance at it?”
Megan stared at him as if he’d lost his mind and Mick couldn’t blame her, “I’m sure she would if you asked nicely enough.”
“There’s always hope right?”
“Always,” Megan laughed at him.
“I’m going to get down on my knees and beg forgiveness if I have to,” Thomas said and got up to make his way over to the kitchen.
Megan stared after him before turning a raised eyebrow on Mick, “Is he ok?”
Mick shrugged, not sure how to answer, “He’s feeling like he missed out on the rhubarb. I don’t know. He likes pie a lot.”
“You still on for later?”
“Yeah, we’re taking the girls for ice cream after school. Please tell me you haven’t forgotten.”
“No! Of course, yes all fine. I’ll meet you at the school?”
“Yeah,” this time Megan looked at him in confusion, “You okay?”
“All good,” he nodded at her as Thomas made his way back.
“Did you get her to make you rhubarb?” Megan asked him and Thomas looked between Mick and her and sighed.
“Jury’s still out.”
“Well I’ll leave you boys to it,” Megan said with a wave and left.
Mick stared after her before turning back to his brother, “What was that all about?”
“Someone’s got to do something to knock some sense in to the pair of you.”
“Really, so if she starts to seriously date Dan Keane or any other guy, you’re going to be fine with that. Going to be fine with it when she brings him to Thanksgiving or Christmas or just any normal O’Brien family dinner? You’re going to be okay with her sitting next to him at Jess’ wedding or Megan’s wedding?”
“I don’t need this,” Mick got up from the table, no longer able to keep hold of his temper.
“The reason you are angry, is that you know I am right,” Thomas said, his voice turning to steel, “You’ve always been a coward where Megan is concerned and you are in danger of making all of the same mistakes again. The only difference is this time there will be no second chances.”
“Enough,” Mick said, “Just enough.”
And with that he walked out the door and sucked in a lungful of fresh air, Thomas’ words ringing in his ears. He didn’t know what he was more angry about, the fact that Megan had moved on or that he feared his brother was right. He’d not only missed his chance he had actively spurned it.
He was an idiot.
“So, Mick,” Megan started tentatively and he steeled himself. It had been over six weeks since he had seen his ex-wife with another man on a lunch date. During that time things between them had been largely normal. Neither had mentioned it but, given the benefits of a small town, a mother that was his ex-wife’s biggest champion and a brother that was married to his ex-wife’s best friend he sadly knew too much. He knew that Megan had been out on multiple occasions with Dan Keane. Out for lunch, breakfast too on occasion, a handful of dinners.
Every time he had met up with her he had waited for her to break the news to him that the casual dating had turned in to something more. He knew from Thomas that casual dating was all that it had been so far, but that she liked him and enjoyed his company.
“Yeah,” he tried to act and sound natural but he was concerned that his voice hit a higher pitch than it should have done.
“I’m presuming you know I’ve been spending time socially with Dan Keane from the City Council?”
He could pretend, he could act as if he knew nothing but that was beneath him. And utterly unfair to her.
He nodded, “I had heard.”
“I just felt like we needed to talk about it,” Megan said, twisting her hands nervously in a way that made Mick want to reach out and touch them, hold them in his. But of course he didn’t. Couldn’t.
“You don’t owe me any explanation, Megan,” he said kindly, “Who you see and what you do, it’s your business. You don’t owe me anything.”
She nodded, still looking awkward, “I know but if it was the other way round, I’d want you to tell me.”
“He’s a nice guy, Dan. I don’t know him that well but I like him.”
He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he caught a glimpse of devastation in her eye but she quickly masked it, so quick he wondered if it had been there at all.
Mick couldn’t think of anything more to say and an awkward silence descended upon them. It was the first time in years that had happened. And he didn’t like it.
She smiled at him, breaking the tension and obviously as keen to get out of the situation as he was.
“Right, I best be off. The ‘beloved’ mayor wants to talk to me about the next festival.”
He watched her go with a heavy heart and hung his head trying to calm the storm of emotions within him.
“Dad?” Abby called.
He straightened and tried to make his face impassive, “Yeah?”
“I couldn’t help but overhear. Given that you seem to be so okay with Mom and Dan, I wondered if we should invite him to Thanksgiving?”
“Yeah, it’d be nice for Mom, a way of showing support for her new relationship don’t you think?”
Mick felt the room close in on him, Abby’s piercing gaze rooting him to the spot. He nodded, “Sure thing, just let your Grandmother know how many she’ll be cooking for.”
He returned her gaze defiantly and she rolled her eyes at him, “You’re an idiot.”
“That does seem to be the balance of opinion.”
Abby turned away from him in a huff and he closed his eyes for a moment. The ache he had felt since telling Megan he thought they should just be friends had turned in to a piercing pain he didn’t think would ever go away. And he had no idea what to do about it. The hole he had dug for himself just kept getting bigger and wider. And he had no one to blame but himself.
The day he had dreaded finally came around, there was Megan at his dinner table, at his house, with another man beside her. And it was his job to make the toast, he’d almost asked his mother to take on the responsibility but he knew that would be too obvious. Every member of his family had been watching him like a hawk all day. He’s not sure why, it wasn’t like he was going to cause a scene. He wouldn’t do that to Megan, and he had too much pride to let anyone see how broken he was.
“It’s the time of year where realise what we have to be thankful for,” he began, the words somewhat strangled in his throat and he saw his mother look at him in concern, he coughed trying to clear his throat, “And I just want to say how thankful I am for all of you at this table, even the newest members.”
He nodded at Dan, who smiled back at him, god he wanted to push his teeth down his throat, “And a special mention to those that cooked this wonderful meal, I am sure everyone is incredibly grateful that I had nothing to do with it and the tuna cans remain safely in the cupboard.”
Everyone laughed and cheered and as he sat down he caught his brother’s eye, Thomas was looking at him with undisguised sympathy and Mick thought that was worse than the disdain he had been treating him with the past few weeks.
He watched as the family made Dan feel welcome, and how Dan charmed everyone in return. He really was a nice guy. Megan deserved that. She didn’t deserve someone who was so obviously broken he ran a mile the moment the person he loved dared to show him love in return. She didn’t deserve someone who had broken her heart so completely the first time round. She didn’t deserve someone who was too proud to go after her. Or too scared. She deserved better.
After the meal, Mick had enlisted Kevin and Connor to help him clear up. It was a strategic decision to allow him the excuse of not socialising after dinner and he was pretty sure Kevin and Connor wouldn’t broach the topic, unlike their sisters.
Jess had been raising her eyebrows at him meaningfully all throughout the dinner, it seemed she was now in the ‘You’re an idiot’ camp, along with Bree who this morning had asked him what he was going to do about her mother and Dan. When he didn’t answer she had thrown her hands up in despair and hadn’t spoken to him since. Connor and Kevin however had kept any thoughts to themselves so far.
They got in to a routine, Mick washing, Kevin drying and Connor putting away. The boys bantered back and forth about Connor’s untidy apartment and why he still kept half his wardrobe here at the house. Come to think of it, all his children did that. He didn’t mind, gave them all an excuse to come home more often.
He reached for another plate and nearly dropped it in the sink when Kevin suddenly interrupted his musings, “You okay Dad? You’ve been pretty quiet all day.”
Now his sons were channeling their sisters, he couldn’t get a break.
He shrugged, “I’m fine, work’s busy so I have a lot on my mind.”
“I thought you had given Adam more responsibility?”
Mick signed internally, he didn’t have the excuse of work any longer, he’d taken a step back from the day to day running of the business after Dilpher, feeling burned out by it all and strangely uninterested.
“Yeah, there’s just some stuff.”
Kevin nodded at him and saw the look pass between him and Connor. He pretended to ignore it and hopefully the little chat was over.
“Dan seems nice, doesn’t he?” Connor this time.
“Yeah, I met him when he arrived in Chesapeake a few months ago, he wanted the Fire Station to join a new baseball league he was setting up.”
Mick wondered if he scrubbed the plates any harder he’d break them and tried to drown out the conversation his sons were having.
“It’s nice to see Mom happy isn’t it?”
“She deserves it. Don’t you think Dad?”
Mick looked up to see Kevin giving him the same penetrating glare that Abby had only a few days earlier. They really were quite alike in many ways, his eldest two.
“Sarah and I were going to invite them round for dinner, feel like I should get to know him better.”
Mick turned back to the sink and rested his hands on the side, he couldn’t be doing with this, it was too much.
“Dad?” Kevin’s voice again, this time with a hint of concern.
“I’ve just remembered, there’s something I have to do. I’ll be back in an hour.”
Connor looked at him wide eyed, “It’s Thanksgiving, what could you possibly have to do on Thanksgiving?”
Mick didn’t answer and threw the cloth in the sink as he turned to exit out the side door that led to the driveway. God knew what the boys thought but as he climbed in to his truck he couldn’t bring himself to care too much. He just needed to get away from the house, from his family and their disapproving looks. And he needed to get away from Megan and her new life.
He found himself walking the shore, grateful that it was relatively empty, he shouldn’t be surprised, it was Thanksgiving after all. After an hour of walking he settled down on an old tree trunk and watched the waves. The sun was getting lower, it’d be dark soon and he supposed he should make his way back to the house. He felt foolish now he’d had time to calm down. What must they all think of him, rushing out the house like that. What must Dan have thought? He dreaded to think what Megan thought.
He’d been such an idiot. He’d let fear get in the way of what he wanted, just like he’d let his pride get in the way all those years ago. And he didn’t know how to fix it.
“You’re a hard man to track down.”
He startled as he heard Megan’s voice and turned to see her walking towards him. He felt the embarrassment rise up in his face.
“We were starting to get worried,” she said simply.
“I have my phone you could have called,” he replied defensively and then sighed as she held up what was obviously his phone in her hand. He’d left it behind.
Megan sat down next to him as she handed his phone back.
“You want to tell me what this is all about?”
Megan laughed and he couldn’t help but smile at her, despite how wretched he was feeling.
“Shall I have a guess?”
“Have at it.”
“Well I know it’s not work, Abby rang Adam and he said things were going better than ever. All of our kids seem to be happy, although I’m a bit worried about Bree. I think she’s a bit lost since London but I don’t think that’s why you ran out of the house on Thanksgiving.”
“I didn’t run.”
“That’s not what your two very worried sons told me,” Megan said defiantly.
“I just needed some air.”
“Well, if it’s not work or the kids, your Mom is fine, I suppose it could be you and Thomas. Have you had a fallout?”
“We’ve had a disagreement but no, that’s not what’s bothering me.”
“Well then, I guess that leaves me,” Megan said and Mick shrugged in response.
“But I can’t decide if it’s one of two things. One being you just don’t like change, that you like where you and I are in our relationship and you don’t like the fact that it might change when there’s another person in the mix. It’s not that you want our relationship to change, but you don’t want anyone else changing it either.”
“And the second?”
“That you’re an idiot.”
Mick barked with laughter, “I think that’s every member of my family now that has called me that.”
“I know. They’ve told me. They’ve been telling me that they’ve been telling you that for months, what I don’t understand is that you’ve never disagreed with them and yet you’ve also done absolutely nothing about it.”
“I got scared.”
“Of what happened, happening again. I couldn’t handle it. It broke me Megan, when you left. It turned me in to a version of myself I never want to see again.”
“Is what’s happening now any better?”
They sat in silence for a few moments, Mick resolutely keeping his gaze on the shore until he could control his emotions a bit better. When he finally chanced a look at Megan he could see the tears on her on cheeks.
“Hey,” he said gently reaching up to wipe the tears away, “I am not worth crying over.”
She pulled away from him and stood, “You don’t think I know that. I feel like the idiot Mick O’Brien.”
He looked at her in confusion, why was she so angry?
“I’ve spent months trying to come to terms with the fact that the love of my life, the only man I have ever loved did not feel the same about me in return. You broke my heart. Again! Except this time I couldn’t blame you for it. You can’t help how you feel and if you didn’t feel the same then I was going to do all I could to maintain our close friendship because having you in my life was so much better than not having you at all.”
“So I tried to move on, because I thought that was what you wanted! And then I saw your face in Sally’s and I started to wonder. And Robyn told me what Thomas had said to you, and how you hadn’t disagreed. Nell told me how you’d been like a bear with a sore head ever since. I kept waiting for you to bring it up but nothing. Weeks went by and you said nothing. The kids tell me how miserable you’ve been. And yet nothing. Abby told me how upset you were after our conversation about Dan the other day. And still you said nothing. I didn’t know what to believe. And then I watched as your voice broke when giving the toast this afternoon, how you rushed off to do the cleaning up and I started to realise that everyone else had been right all this time and I had got it all wrong.”
“I was scared, Megan.”
“You think that’s a good enough reason to have broken my heart?”
He shook his head in despair, “No. Of course not.”
She turned her back on him to gaze out on the shore and he could see her trying to get control of her emotions, her back heaving with the effort. He couldn’t stand it any longer, seeing her in pain, he wrapped his arms around her from behind.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered in to her neck as she froze momentarily before relaxing in to his arms.
“I don’t know what you want from me Mick.”
“Neither did I at first. As soon as I told you I just wanted to be friends I knew I had made a mistake. After leaving your house, I cried all the way home, feeling like I had just let go of something incredibly precious.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because I thought I was being sensible. Safe.”
“You don’t think I didn’t have the same fears you did? I did, I do and after the last few weeks even more than ever.”
He nodded into her neck, “I understand. And I understand that I’m too late, that you’ve moved on. I just want you to be happy.”
He squeezed her tightly and went to let her go, “Oh no you don’t mister,” Megan said as she turned in his arms, grabbing hold of his jacket and holding him to her.
“You don’t get away that easily.”
“But, Dan and you…”
“I ended things with Dan days ago. Not that there was much to end, it was mainly two lonely colleagues spending time together outside of work.”
“Then why did he come to Thanksgiving?!” Mick exclaimed unable to believe he’d been tormenting himself all day for no reason.
“Because he’s new in town and has no family and I didn’t want him to be on his own. And neither did your mother.”
“Mom knew you’d broken up?”
“Of course. I think the kids had guessed too.”
“So all the ‘isn’t Dan great, isn’t it nice to see Mom so happy?’ Was all just them needling me?”
Mick didn’t know whether to be relieved or angry at his family’s antics. But then he realised how desolate he’d been feeling these past few months and recognised that a second or third chance at happiness might well be in his grasp.
“So no Dan?”
“I really hated him.”
“So I gather.”
“I’ve been an idiot.”
“Yes you have.”
“Can you forgive me?”
Megan looked at him and for a second his heart was in his mouth until she smiled at him.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could.”
“Can I be honest with you?”
“Oh Mick, I’ve been waiting for you to be honest with me for a long time.”
“I love you. Very much. And I am petrified of screwing things up again.”
“Then maybe the answer is to be petrified together and just jump? All in?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“I’m going to kiss you now.”
And he did. Not the tentative kiss he’d given her at the gazebo all those months ago. This was a kiss that wasn’t really fit for the general public. It was passion, grief, relief and love all rolled in to one. The sort of kiss that he never thought he’d get to have with her ever again. He wound his arms around her tightly and pulled her body in to his as her hands stole into his hair. He was getting to the point of no return when she slowed the kiss and pulled away from him slightly. Both breathless.
“Wow,” she breathed.
“Tell me about it,” he answered.
“I forgot how good we are at that.”
“The best. No one has ever come close Megan. No one.”
“Come home with me?” Megan asked tentatively.
“I was thinking perhaps you could come home with me?”
Megan looked at him with wide eyes, “All in?”