“Come on Steve! Show some muscle. You are losing!” I shouted to Steve wrestling playfully on the grass with a seven-year-old boy.
“He’s a wonderful man,” mused the mother sitting beside me on a park bench. She was in raptures over the man she’d been romantically involved with for nearly six months.
“You don’t have to sell him to me.”
“I count my blessings every day since we met. I must have done a good deed for Providence to send Steve Austin on my path.”
“He talks about you all the time. Well no, not exactly,” Cassie corrected with a contrived smile. She glanced over at Connie whose face registered puzzlement. “He speaks mostly about Jeremy.”
Connie heaved an inward sigh of relief. “Oh. That, I believe you. Since his father died two years ago he’d been withdrawing within himself. I’ve gone out with a few men before Steve but none had such impact on Jeremy as he did. My son took to him instantly.”
“He’s great with kids. That man’s the embodiment of kindness, caring and compassion,” I praised with a wistful smile that Connie quickly noticed.
“How long have you two known each other?” she queried, curious as to how deeply our friendship was.
“A little over three years now,” I replied distractedly as I concentrated on the wrestling match. “Come on Steve. You’re disappointing me.”
“Was there ever anything romantic between you?” she continued to probe.
“No, never,” I chuckled. “Steve is like my brother. I could never have romantic feelings about him. It would be too awkward.” I turned to Connie and smiled reassuringly. “Steve is a hundred per cent devoted to you, believe me.” Although she nodded her eyes were clearly belying her true feelings. The troubled expression she exhibited disturbed me, but I refrained from delving deeper into the matter for fear of opening a Pandora box.
“I asked because I wish to make sure I don’t step on someone’s territory.”
“If Steve had been spoken for he would never have established a steady relationship with you. He’s a one-woman man through and through. Besides I’m very pleased with my present beau.”
“Richard Hayden, right?”
“Steve must have told you?”
“Yes he did.”
“Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeey” Jeremy cheered excitedly as Steve conceded defeat. “I won! I won!”
“He sure did,” Steve panted, feigning exhaustion.
I stood from the bench and went to offer him a hoist up. “Want some help?”
Steve held out his arm and grabbed the offered hand. In one shot I yanked him back on his feet. “Good job, Blue Eyes,” I whispered softly out in earshot as I brushed him off. “That boy adores you.”
“And so do I.”
“Uncle Steve. Did I hurt you?” Jeremy asked, worried that Steve appeared to be favoring his right side.
“I’m all right pardner,” he assured, tussling the blond hair. “Just a little sore. You’re awfully strong. A real wrestler.” Jeremy flung his arms around Steve’s waist and hugged him with all of his might. The sudden burst of affection took Steve by surprise. He looked at me with dewy eyes, then at Connie he saw leaning forward to place a tender kiss on his lips. I suppressed a laugh at the blood I saw mantling over his cheeks. He looks so cute when he blushes.
“How about us four go grab a bite to eat?” Steve suggested, gauging everyone’s reaction to his invitation. Jeremy’s was the easiest to read, as his eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. Connie offered a smile in response, but I could sense that she was disturbed by the inclusion of the fourth guest, namely me. I pursed my lips to suppress a chuckle at her glaring message and decided best to politely decline the invitation, much to Connie’s relief.
“I’ll sit this one out. Thanks anyway.”
“You sure?” It was obvious that Steve’s insistence was prickling Connie.
“Yes I’m sure. Besides I have a dinner date with Richard tonight.” Again there it was, that flicker of disappointment in 34’s eyes. Between those two I often felt caught between a rock and a hard place and owing to that situation I was seriously considering backing out of all of their gatherings for fear of upsetting a beautiful relationship. But if Steve and Connie were such in love, why was my presence or Richard’s for that matter, disquieting?
In the forthcoming week I was successful at avoiding Steve and Connie by pressuring Oscar to choose me for a special assignment in New York. Nevertheless Steve would call every night after his date with Connie just to shoot the breeze. Not that I minded but I admit that for the first time since we’ve known each other I felt ill at ease.
One late night Steve escorted Connie back to her house to find Callahan watching television on the living room sofa.
“Everything went well?” queried the mother to the babysitter. Jeremy has taken a liking to the pretty OSI secretary and it was obvious the feeling was mutual. Connie preferred having a trustworthy woman as her son’s caretaker when she and Steve were out on a date and Callahan was the best choice.
“He was an angel,” Callahan exulted, prompting Connie to raise her eyebrows in bewilderment.
“Really? Jeremy is usually the contrary. A real demon.”
“Not with me he isn’t.”
“She has a way with children,” Steve stated as he removed his jacket and draped it against the back of an armchair.
“I just love him so. We have fun together. Speaking of fun…?”
“As always, this handsome fellow’s charm struck again,” Connie enthused as she gazed tenderly into Steve’s eyes.
“What can I say? It’s a curse,” Steve sighed.
Both women exchanged glances and rolled their eyes.
“I’d best be going now.” Callahan made her way to the closet and took out her light sweater. “Anytime you need me to keep an eye on this darling boy, you let me know.”
“I wouldn’t want to impose. You have a life too,” Connie said.
“You may not have to baby-sit as often as you do from now on,” Steve informed, taking both ladies by surprise. “I’ll explain later,” he said, winking at Callahan who fashioned a knowing smile. “See you tomorrow at work.”
“Good night, you two.”
Once Callahan out the door Steve enlaced Connie in his arms and claimed her lips in a passionate lingering kiss that she soon broke off. “What’s the matter?”
“What did you mean when you said that Peggy may not baby-sit again?” a puzzled Connie asked.
“Oh that?” Steve flashed a mischievous grin as he gently took her by the hand to lead her to the sofa. They sat side by side and although they snuggled close Steve could sense a disturbing caginess coming from Connie. He wondered if he was making the right decision. Was it too soon?
He swallowed the lump in his throat and turned to the enchanting woman by his side to dwell on her bewitching glinting blue eyes. “Connie, we’ve been together for six months now?”
“Five months, twenty-nine days to be exact,” she teased.
“Yeah,” Steve chuckled. “Wouldn’t you say it’s been good?”
“It’s been more than good. It’s been wonderful,” she purred as she snuggled closer.
Steve drew in a deep breath, stood and walked over to his jacket to retrieve a tiny black velvet box. Connie shifted position on the sofa, her heart pounding in her chest upon noticing the significant item. She reined in her overflowing emotions as Steve got down on one knee before her and popped open the box revealing a dazzling diamond engagement ring. “Connie Forrester, will you do me the honor or becoming my wife?”
“Oh Steve,” she squeaked with delight, unable to contain herself any longer. “I…I…I can’t.”
Steve’s jaw dropped to the floor, his shoulders slumped and his body shivered at the shocking answer. “What?”
“I can’t marry you. Not now anyway. I want to be sure first.”
“Sure of what? That you love me?” Steve implied.
“No, there’s no denying my undying love for you.”
“Then what is it?” Steve insisted, bemused as to what Connie was alluding to.
“It’s you Steve. You have to be sure that I’m the woman of your dreams. The partner you want to spend the rest of your life with. A mother for your children. Not just a surrogate father for a boy who thinks the world of you. If you’re marrying me just to provide Jeremy with a father, then…”
“Nothing could be farther from the truth.” Steve interjected sternly, rising to his feet to come sit by her. He clasped both her hands and waited for her to lock stares before professing his devotion. “I love you Connie Forrester and I have for a very long time.”
“I know you do, but…there’s someone else.”
Steve’s brows creased. “What are you talking about?” he scorned. “I have been faithful to you. You’re the only woman in my life.”
“Not quite,” she countered. “Search in there, Steve,” she said, pressing her hand against his heart. “There may be enough room for both of us as far as friendship and love is concerned but in order to become your wife I need the entire space and in all good conscience I can’t ask you to shove the other out the door.”
“I can’t believe this,” Steve raged. “I swear to you there’s no other woman in my life. I admit there were some in the past but not now. You’re it! My number one lady.”
“Second,” she blurted out, adding to Steve’s frustration.
“Okay, then you tell me who it is because I surely don’t know,” Steve scorned, panic gradually creeping up on him as he felt an onslaught of deception about to smother him.
“You already know,” she hinted.
“No I don’t know.”
She stood and went to the door. “Steve it’s late and I’m tired. We’ll talk about it another day.”
Numbed with disbelief, Steve didn’t insist and quietly walked out the door, taking the diamond ring with him. Connie closed the door behind him and wept.
As expected, sleep eluded Steve that night. He tossed and turned, trying vainly to find a comfortable position that would provide relief for his aching soul. He glanced at the clock shining a bright red 3:08AM and heaved himself out of bed to slip on his clothes. He grabbed his car keys and left the house to go take a drive around the block. His wandered aimlessly, his mind roving back on Connie’s suggestion of another woman in his life. Regardless of how hard he tried to dismiss that notion, his heart would tell him otherwise.
He found himself driving along Cassie’s street and decided to stop across from her apartment building. He stared at it for a moment, dithering whether or not to go up and wake his friend. “That’s stupid Steve! You can’t disturb her for that non sense.” He shook his head and continued down the road until he came to an intersection. He closed his eyes and tightened his fists around the steering wheel as if to draw strength for the dilemma that was draining the life out of him.
He turned left and drove down the road leading to Connie’s house. Sirens blared in the distance and police cars whizzed by him as he neared his destination. Steve decided to follow to see what the commotion was all about. A thick cloud of thick smoke was seen billowing in the night sky, gripping Steve in an icy clutch of dread. “Oh no, it can’t be,” Steve cried. “It can’t be,” he continued to deny as he sped to the scene of a fire. No sooner had he stopped the car that he dashed to the fire chief to enquire about the occupants of the house.
“We arrived too late. I can’t risk any of my men in there.”
“You mean there’s still in there?” Steve’s answer came in the form of a dejected nod. “NO!” He made a mad bionic dash for the house to kick down the front door. “Connie!” Steve shouted over the roaring blaze, coughing up the smoke singeing his lungs “Connie!” Oblivious of the risks to his own person, Steve thrust himself into the flames to reach the bedroom but the intensity of the heat halted his course. Instead he went down to Jeremy’s room to snatch the unconscious form off the bed. He carried him to the window and broke the glass. Quickly but gingerly he strode over the sill to carry the dying boy to safety where the paramedics swiftly worked at reviving him. Steve bounced up to run back inside the blazing inferno but it was too late; the first floor collapsed, leveling the house to the ground.
“No!” Steve cried, crumbling to his knees. “Connie, no!” he wailed, striving not to dissolve into tears. A firefighter grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him away from the fire. Steve fought at first, refusing to back away but seeing how the situation was totally hopeless, he conceded and allowed the man to assist him to the back of the ambulance.
“How is he?” Steve enquired of Jeremy.
“He’s alive. He inhaled a lot of smoke but he should be al right. Is he your son?”
“No. I was dating his mother.”
“I’m sorry for that, sir. We tried but we couldn’t save her.”
A strained smile was all Steve could muster as gratitude to the firefighter. He hopped in the back of the ambulance to sit by Jeremy while the paramedics ensured the boy was in satisfactory condition. Steve waved off any ministration, stating that he would contact his personal physician once at the hospital.
Early next morning the phone awoke a very cranky Cassie. I groaned with each deafening ring. After the tenth one, I rolled over to reach the receiver. “Hello,” I mumbled sleepily.
“Cassie, it’s Steve.”
“Steve?” My eyes widened at the name.
“I’m sorry to be calling so early but I need your help,” he beseeched in a sobbing voice that triggered my inner alarm.
“What is it? You sound awful,” I said, springing up in my bed.
“Connie’s dead,” he cried. “She died in a fire last night.”
“My God! What about Jeremy? Is he okay?”
“He was taken to the hospital. That’s where I’m calling you. Rudy’s on his way to check me out.”
“Check you out?” I gasped. “Steve, are you all right?”
“Yeah. Just some minor burns. I rushed into the house to save the boy but…I…I couldn’t save her,” he wept. “Cassie, I just don’t know what to do.”
The desperation in Steve’s voice was frightening. The sound of a whimpering lost puppy that tore at me. “Stay right where you are. I’m coming.”
“Thanks. I’ll be waiting.”
With lightning speed I jumped into my clothes and quickly ran a comb through my hair to avoid scaring everyone with my disheveled appearance. After applying a coat of lipstick I breezed out the door to rush to the hospital.
I arrived in record time to be informed that Steve was in Jeremy’s room. I walked in to find Blue Eyes sitting by the bed, quietly comforting the distraught boy. “Hi, you two,” I greeted in hushed tones.
“Cassie!” Steve breathed out, rising to his feet to fall into arms. I could feel his chest heaving against mine as he wept. Shivers coursed through his body as he tightened the clench, almost choking me.
I rubbed a soothing hand up and down his back to allay some of the hurt. “Steve, I’m so sorry.” He acknowledged my condolences with a nod as he continued to sob. “How are you?”
Disengaging the embrace, he choked out, “Rudy says I’m fine.”
“That’s good.” I motioned toward Jeremy. “And how’s he?”
“He was lucky,” he said with a snivel. “He should be out of the hospital tomorrow.”
I approached the bed and brushed a gentle hand against the boy’s cheek. He stared at me with a livid expression soon followed by a rush of tears that gushed to his eyes. Out of the blue he flung his arms around my neck to pull me down where he clenched me into a soul-stirring hug. “My mommy is in heaven.” His sobbing ripped me to shreds. I sat on the bed to cradle him into my arms where he snuggled up and buried his face in my chest. “Why did God have to take her? Why? I need my mommy. I need her,” he wailed, wishing I could work a miracle.
“Tomorrow I’m taking him home with me. I’ve asked Oscar to put me on stand off for a few weeks until I can find a relative that will take him. Connie never spoke of any besides her parents and they are both deceased,” Steve explained in a sobbing voice.
“Steve, you can’t do this alone. Let me help you.”
Steve cracked a lopsided grin. “I’d really appreciate. Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.” I drew my attention back to the boy who had fallen asleep in my arms. Gingerly I brushed his hair back from his forehead and massaged his back. “He’s asleep,” I whispered to Steve who cocked his head to peek at the cute angelic face.
“I didn’t think he would ever go back to sleep,” Steve observed blissfully. “I always said you had magic hands.”
I reached out my hand to clasp Steve’s. “I plan on taking care of both of you.”
Three weeks passed and still no luck finding any living relative, even the OSI drew a blank. The psychological wounds the tragedy inflicted upon Steve and Jeremy had long since healed, though the scars remained and for that matter, Rudy strongly recommended consulting with a child psychiatrist.
Steve and I would both accompany Jeremy to the doctor’s office, assisting at every session to help the boy purge his demons buried deep down. Some were harder than others on Steve and Jeremy but they would come out stronger for it. I was proud of my Blue Eyes whose fortitude was exemplary.
I was utterly grateful to Richard for bearing with me during this trying time. The tragedy impelled us to put our relationship on hold while the healing progressed. I would encourage him to hang in there with convincing arguments that this needed to be done. He never outwardly complained about my time spent over at Steve’s but I could sense it was gradually wearing him off. He was starving for the affection I was pouring out on Steve and Jeremy, not that he should feel jealous. I had plenty for all three. I silently hoped a relative of Jeremy’s would soon be found so we could resume our respective routine. But I wonder if it were ever going to be the same.
Tonight I planned a special evening with my three favorite men. Out of the goodness of his heart Steve had offered to invite Richard over for dinner for fear the man would resent him for monopolizing my time. Richard had come over on a few occasions, but whenever my beau would visit Steve would step out on an errand.
“Aunt Cassie, look what I did?” Jeremy exulted, proudly displaying a model airplane that he and Steve had put together.
“My! Did you do that?”
“Well, Uncle Steve helped a lot. I just finished putting the stickers.”
“And that looks good,” I praised, admiring the work. “He’s going to be so proud of you.”
Jeremy blushed at the compliment but it was short-lived. “I wish my mommy was here,” he whimpered, his bottom lip quivering.
I squatted before the boy and pressed my hand against his heart. “She’s right in there, and,” I waved my hand in the air, “all around. She’s watching over you every minute of every hour of every day.”
“Really?” he reveled, his face lighting up with glee.
“Even when I’m in the bathroom?” he asked with a slight embarrassment.
“Well maybe not. I think she may be closing her eyes when you’re in there,” I jested, amused by the boy’s question. “I’m about to make cookies for tonight. Would you like to help me?”
Jeremy nodded enthusiastically and gently placed his toy down on the table. “Chocolate chips?”
“Uncle Steve likes chocolate chips.”
“So do Uncle Richard,” I added, making his little face fall. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t want to make cookies for Uncle Richard,” he sulked.
“Why not?” He shrugged with a pout. “Don’t you like Uncle Richard?” Again the boy would only answer with a shrug. “Well I tell what. You make a batch for Uncle Steve while I make one for Uncle Richard. Deal?”
“Okay,” he sighed sullenly.
As I assisted Jeremy up the stool at the kitchen counter I seriously questioned the reason for his obvious antipathy toward my beau. Looking back on the three visits Richard had made to Steve’s house I couldn’t recall a single friction between the two. Could it be that the boy had taken an aversion to Richard because he was shaking the very foundation of the stable home Steve and I had built for him? Are we leading him to believe that this arrangement is permanent? I decided best to leave the matter to rest for now with the hopes that Oscar would locate a relative soon to put an end to this awkward situation.
Despite his best efforts to postpone the inevitable Oscar was impelled to call Steve back to active duty. 34 reluctantly agreed when he was assured that the assignment would be wrapped up in less than a week. He was utterly pleased with my offer to move in at the house for that duration so to avoid tossing Jeremy to and fro from one abode to the other.
Richard would come to the house to spend the evenings. I could sense his presence was disturbing to Jeremy who would find ingenious ways to interrupt tender moments. Richard’s patience was wearing thin but he bore and grinned it like the good guy that he was.
“Yark!” Jeremy croaked, crinkling his nose in disgust at a lingering kiss.
Surprised by this sudden interruption Richard and I broke apart, pursing our lips in embarrassment. “I thought you were asleep?”
“I’m thirsty,” he said, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
I stepped up to him and clasped his hand to lead him to the kitchen. “Well come with me. I’ll fix you up a nice glass of milk.”
Once the boy had his fill I accompanied him upstairs to tuck him in. “Okay, hop into bed. “ He jumped up and dove under the covers.
“Aunt Cassie, when is Uncle Steve coming back?”
“I expect he should be home in two days.”
“That long?” he whined with a pouting face that never failed to tug at my heart.
“That will give you time to finish that drawing of the rocket you promised him.”
“I guess so,” he sighed. “Aunt Cassie, will you stay with me until I fall asleep?”
I smiled at his request and took a seat in the armchair across from his bed. My gaze dwelled on him as sleep slowly claimed him. What was happening to me? I promised myself I wouldn’t get emotionally attached but look at me now? I had no doubt Steve had been bewitched just the same, if not more.
“Is he asleep?” Richard asked as I tiptoed down the stairs.
“Yes. He wanted me to stay with him.”
“I figured as much.” He slid his arms around my waist and escorted me to the living room sofa. “I don’t think he likes me very much,” he observed.
“He just doesn’t know you that well,” I mollified in spite of my instincts telling me otherwise. “Give it time.”
“Time? It’s been two months. And what about you, having to stay here.”
“I don’t mind really.”
“Well I do.”
“Hey, I do believe you are jealous,” I teased lightheartedly, trying to overlook the hint of bitterness in his tone.
“I guess I am…a little.”
“It’s a temporary situation, just until we locate a relative.”
“How long will that take? And in the meantime you’re stuck.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call it stuck.” I bristled at his insinuation, shifting position on the sofa.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s just that I miss being with you.”
“Well you are with me.”
“Yeah but we can’t make a move without…you know who sneaking up on us.”
I leaned forward and brushed a tender kiss on his lips. “It’ll be over soon. Bear with me? Just a little while longer?” I feigned a sulk that brought him to his knees.
“How can I stay sore at you, you little devil.”
The assignment over, Steve dropped by the OSI to remit Oscar the report of his findings. He wasn’t prepared for the startling news that the boss was about to deliver. He’d been dreading this day and thought he could handle it with dignity and decorum but he was wrong. Instead he fell apart.
“I said we found Jeremy’s aunt. She lives in Europe, more precisely in Manchester, England. I contacted her. She will be in Washington a day after tomorrow to take the boy with her.” Steve flumped down in a chair in complete prostration. “Steve? You all right?”
“Yeah sure,” he replied absentmindedly.
“I thought this is what you wanted?”
“Of course. Of course. This aunt, do we know anything about her?”
“We’re checking her background. So far so good. She’s Connie’s former sister-in-law. They never saw each other much while Connie was married to Tom Forrester. She didn’t even know that she had died.”
“You said she’d be here a day after tomorrow?”
“Fine then,” he huffed out, rising to his feet to cross to the door. “That’ll give us time to get Jeremy ready.”
“Steve, don’t do this to yourself,” Oscar cautioned, alluding to the emotional bond between Steve and the boy. “You knew it was a temporary arrangement.”
With a hand on the doorknob, Steve pondered Oscar’s statement before speaking his mind, “I know Oscar. But somehow that doesn’t make it any easier.” He twitched the door open and briskly walked out of the office, leaving a troubled Oscar in his wake.
Crestfallen by the news Steve drove around the block for an hour before finally parking in his driveway where he sat prostrate, striving to regain some kind of composure prior to entering the house.
He found me napping in my bed with one arm wrapped around the sleeping little bundle. He loomed under the doorway gazing at the heart-warming sight before him. He padded up to the bed and gingerly raised the blanket up to our shoulders. I moaned at the touch and opened my eyes.
“Steve?” I mumbled sleepily.
“Shuuuuuuuuu, go back to sleep,” he whispered back, tucking a lock of my hair behind my ear.
“I’m okay. Lying down with him was the only way to make him take a nap. I guess I dozed off myself.” I carefully removed my arm and slid off the bed, heedful not to jostle the mattress. “I’ll fix you something to eat.”
We quietly wafted out of the room and went downstairs to the kitchen.
“By the expression on your face I’d say the mission didn’t go too well.”
“No it went well,” Steve sighed dejectedly, taking a sip out of the glass of wine I handed him. “I stopped by the OSI on my way to hand Oscar my report. He has some news for me.”
“News? About the relatives?” I surmised with a deep frown.
“Yeah. The found Jeremy’s aunt.”
“In England,” he said, twirling his glass between his fingers.
“England? That’s so far.”
“I know. Oscar says she’ll be here after tomorrow to take the boy with her.” On this sour note he quaffed his wine and asked for a refill to which I obliged.
“Well that’s good, isn’t it? That’s what we’ve been hoping for weeks; for Jeremy to find a stable home with a relative.” I tried sounding cheerful but failed miserably. Steve and I both knew it was for the best but the boy having grown on us neither one was looking forward to see him go. “Steve, we both knew this day would come. We promised ourselves not to get emotionally attached.”
“Easier said than done wouldn’t you agree?” he retorted icily, though I knew it wasn’t intentional. He moved to the sitting room where he flumped down on the couch and guzzled his second glass of wine. “I’m sorry Cassie, I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
“I know.” I joined him on the couch to offer a sympathetic shoulder to lean on.
“You’re right. I shouldn’t let it affect me. It’s good news. Jeremy will have a home. And you and I often go to Europe. We can always drop by and visit with him,” he strained to sound excited to boast both our spirits.
“That’s right,” I cheered with the same contrived smile.
“Who are we kidding? It stinks!” He stood to walk over to the bar to pour himself a strong one.
I walked over to him and grabbed his hand holding the glass. “Plying yourself with liquor isn’t going to change things. You need your wits about you to prepare Jeremy for his journey.”
“I know,” he sighed heavily, looking away to hide the tears rushing to his eyes.
I placed a hand underneath his chin and tilted his head toward me. “I’ll be here to help you. We’re in this together. I love that kid as much as you do.”
He nodded and enlaced me in his arms. “Thank you. Thank you for being here.”
“No sweat Blue Eyes.”
“I don’t want to go,” Jeremy whined as I was getting him spruced up for the meeting with his aunt.
“Think of what you’ll have. A nice big house with farm animal, including horses,” I emboldened, putting on my best convincing act. “You like horses, don’t you.”
“I suppose. But you and Uncle Steve won’t be there.”
“We will come visit you as often as we can.” I squatted before his little person to button up his sweater. “You’re going to be just fine. Your Aunt Julie is a very nice lady.”
“I don’t like her.”
“Give her a chance to prove herself worthy of your love. Remember you didn’t like me very much either when you first met me, heh?” The statement elicited a tiny reminiscing grin. “Come on, give me a bigger smile.” I tickled him under his chin. “Come on, you can do it.” Jeremy giggled and fashioned a smile. “That’s my boy.” I hugged him briefly, careful not to allow my emotions overwhelm me and clasp his hand to lead him downstairs where Steve, Oscar and the Jeremy’s aunt Julie Forrester discussed the final details of the adoption.
“We’re ready,” I announced from the top of the stairs. All eyes turned on us as we slowly climbed down the steps.
No sooner had Jeremy touched the main floor that he thrust himself into Steve’s arms. The two hugged for a good minute before they reluctantly disengaged the embrace, both with tears streaming down their cheeks. “Now you be a good boy and listen to your aunt Julie,” Steve instructed as he dabbed at Jeremy’s tears with his fingers. “I’ll see you very soon.”
Jeremy nodded and turned to me. With arms outstretched I welcomed him in a soul-stirring embrace that neither one wanted to break. “Like Uncle Steve I will see you soon,” I sobbed, kissing his tear-bedewed cheek. “You won’t forget us?”
His step faltered has he returned to his aunt. He clasped her hand and cast a last look back at the both of us, his eyes begging us to follow him to the car where the farewells became agonizing. With a heavy heart Steve and I watched Oscar’s car back out of the driveway and on to the road. In the back seat Jeremy waved us a last goodbye.
“God Steve,” I wept. “I didn’t know it was going to be so hard to see him go.”
He laced his arms around my waist and pulled me to his chest, his chin resting on my shoulder. I in turned leaned back into him, closing my eyes to squeeze out the flood of stinging tears. “I’m never this emotional.”
“You’re human. That’s one of your most endearing qualities.”
“Yeah I know.”
“Still humble as ever,” I chuckled, turning around to plant a friendly kiss on his cheek. “I’d better go pack up my things.”
“You can do that tomorrow.”
“No, it’s better I leave now. I’ve overstayed my welcome.”
“Don’t be silly, 35.” He followed me back into the house, using every conceivable argument to convince me to remain at the house until tomorrow. I wouldn’t yield but just couldn’t turn a deaf ear to his last plea; the fact that he didn’t want to be alone on his first night without the boy.
A week passed and on Friday afternoon Oscar and Rudy were meeting to discuss a new project when I walked in with a Cheshire grin plastered upon my face. Once the small talk out of the way the two men glanced at each other, puzzled, and prodded me to explain the reason for my bubbling spirit.
“The best reason in the world. I’m getting married.”
Rudy and Oscar broke into wide beams at the announcement and step up to me to congratulate me with hugs and kisses, but their faces fell to the floor when they learned of the gentlemen’s identity. “Richard asked me last night and I said yes.”
“That’s…that’s great,” Rudy stammered, his somber look meeting with reciprocation from Oscar.
“What’s great?” Steve asked as he entered the office.
“Cas…Cassie has some news,” Oscar spoke with a choke.
“I’m getting married.” The news struck Steve like a bolt of lightning. Numbed with consternation he remained staring, unable to utter a single syllable. “You have the same reaction as Oscar and Rudy. I know it’s a shock. It was to me at first when I heard myself answer yes to Richard’s marriage proposal. I mean me, Cassandra Miller, the one who said she’d never get married.”
“What made you change your mind,” Rudy asked to lure my attention away from the stunned man.
“Jeremy Forrester, the boy Steve and I care for. He somehow awoke maternal feelings that I thought were buried deep inside of me. I now feel I’m ready to settle down and raise a family.”
Steve averted his eyes from me to hide the distress clearly evident in his shocked expression. He turned to cross to the bar where he poured himself a drink. He raised his glass and toasted to my good fortune, after which he quaffed down the liquid in one gulp. I was too excited to even notice his pained eyes but the grief wasn’t lost on Oscar and Rudy who silently conspired to take me out of the room before Steve burst apart.
As Rudy suggested that I follow him out of the office to go tell Callahan the good news, Steve beat us to it by leaving without so much of a glance at me.
“I knew he was shocked but that’s ridiculous. I’d better see if he’s okay.”
“I wouldn’t,” Oscar objected. “Not now. I think he’s still reeling from the lost of Jeremy and you announcing your wedding to Richard, well maybe he thinks he’s about to lose you too.”
“That’s preposterous! He knows he’ll never lose my friendship.”
“I would leave him be for now. Give him time to digest the news,” Rudy suggested.
“You’re right. It was kind of a bombshell for me as well.” I complied with their wishes, though my instincts were telling me that there was a deeper concern than the one they inferred.
As days wore on I was greatly disturbed by the ominous silence that befell between Steve and me. I placed calls after calls to Steve’s residence but no answer would come. Oscar was just as in the dark about his agent’s whereabouts as I was, though I could detect a smudge of sarcasm in his replies that gave the distinct impression he knew more than he let on. I decided best not to press the issue for now, hoping that it would resolve on its own. It didn’t. Determined to solve the mystery on my own I waited for Steve to show up for his meeting with Oscar.
“Welcome back, stranger,” I greeted sarcastically as Steve exited the elevators on the OSI floor.
Startled he swirled around and gave me a frosty cursory glance before uttering a bleak “Hi.”
“Hi? Is that all you have to say? Where have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you for days.”
“I was out of town,” he informed me standoffishly. “Took a few days off from work. I needed them to recharge my batteries.”
“I see.” I said incredulously as his explanation failed to convince me. “Why didn’t you call or dropped by the apartment to let me know. I was rather worried.”
“Were you really?” he quipped in spite of himself.
“Of course I was,” I sassed back. “What’s with the attitude?”
Steve looked downcast and sighed repentantly at his obvious blunder. “Sorry I didn’t mean it. I’ve been on edge lately what with the successive missions and Connie’s death,” his voice faltered as the memory of the tragedy came flooding back. “I didn’t mean to cast you aside. It’s just that….”
“Listen, I understand,” I sympathized with a friendly hand on his shoulder. “Really I do. But you know I’m here to help you deal with the tragedy. I feel like you’re shutting me out.”
“I’m not. I’m sorry if I gave you that impression.”
“You know who called me yesterday?” Steve shook his head. “Jeremy” The name brought a glimmer of light into Steve’s eyes.
“How is the little guy?”
“He’s doing okay. He misses you terribly, though.”
“Yea I miss him too. I think I’ll take a little trip to England next month.” His bewitching blue locked onto my brown as he gazed deep into my soul to stir up my maternal feelings “Care to join me? I think Jeremy would love it.” His request didn’t appear as benign as he cared to let on. His eyes betrayed the true implication behind this invitation.
“I’ll try but I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to accompany you, what with the wedding plans and all.”
“Yeah, sure,” he dismissed rather harshly. “You think about it. I have to go now. Oscar’s waiting for me” On that chilly note he turned to head down the hall to Oscar’s office without so much of a flicker of a smile.
“Steve, come on in,” Oscar waved from his desk. “We haven’t seen you in awhile. How have you been?”
With an aloof stance he shrugged. “Not bad.” He made his way to the bar to pour himself a drink.
“Kind of early in the morning for that stuff, don’t you think?” Oscar remarked sarcastically.
Steve stared down at his full glass and nodded in agreement. “You’re absolutely right. I got to stop drowning my sorrows in alcohol.” He put the glass on the counter and returned to Oscar to sit across from his desk.
“Sorrows from Connie’s death or Cassie’s wedding?” Oscar hinted.
“What are you talking about Cassie’s wedding?” he griped, irked by Oscar’s insinuation.
“Come on Steve. Don’t tell me the news of her marriage to Richard Hayden didn’t disturb you. You blenched at the news. And you haven’t been the same since.”
“Oscar you’re being ridiculous,” he lashed out.
“Am I?” Oscar countered with equal vehemence. “God sake Steve. Do us all a favour and tell her how you feel.”
In a burst of anger, Steve leapt out of his chair and crossed to the door. “I don’t need this,” he muttered peevishly.
“Where are you going?”
“Out where the air is better.” Rudy had his knuckles to the door when Steve yanked it open. “My mistake. It’s about to get worse.”
“What’s he talking about?” Rudy queried, raising a curious eyebrow at Steve’s bearing.
“Tell him, Rudy. He doesn’t want to listen to me. He knows I’m right.”
“What’s going on here?” Rudy insisted, his gaze shifting from one unbridled fury to the other.
“He’s upset because Cassie’s getting married.”
“AM I NOT!!!!!” Steve blared with a smoldering glare at Oscar.
“Woa!” Rudy stood aback in shock. “I say Oscar has hit the nail.”
“You’re taking his side?” Steve hissed.
“Why are you so incensed?” Rudy sassed back. “It’s because it’s true, isn’t it?” The roaring lion began pacing the length of his cage, wringing his hands of all its blood, trying to control the raging fury consuming him whole. “Say it, Steve. It’s true,” Rudy defied, adding fuel to the fire.
Unable to withstand the crushing pressure the dam of emotions finally broke, dumping a roaring torrent over the hot embers of anger, frustration and desperation. Steve stepped over to the door and let his forehead drop against it as he admitted defeat. “It’s true,” he conceded in a murmuring whisper. “It’s so true. I can’t believe I’m saying this.”
“Why? You’re the only one who refused to bow to the obvious. You’ve been in love with that woman ever since you met her. You’ve been cowering behind a sheath of friendship all these years.”
“That’s not so, Oscar,” a teary-eyed Steve defended. “I considered her a friend at first but somehow love crept up on me. I’ve been taking Cassie for granted thinking she’d always be there when I needed her. You’re right. I’ve been lying to myself. Connie saw it. She said she couldn’t marry me knowing there was someone else. Well she was right,” he hailed to her insightfulness. “Dammit!” he raged, driving his fist through the wall.
“You’d better do something about this urge and fast before you demolish my office,” Oscar quipped; his wit eliciting a weak curl of the lip.
“Sorry about that. I’m just so mad at myself for acting so childish.”
“Because you finally admitted your true feelings? Or are you sore because you think it’s a lost cause?”
Steve leaned forward on Oscar’s desk to stand inches from the boss’s face and with a look that could kill, said, “Why are you doing this to me?”
“Because I care about you, Steve,” Oscar sprung up and leveled his scorching look with Steve’s.
“It’s too late now. She and Richard Hayden are engaged.”
“She’s not married yet,” Rudy piped in, his statement receiving the same disapproving glare.
“What am I supposed to do? Come right out and say I love you, don’t marry Richard?”
“Something along those lines, yes.”
“She’ll hate for the rest of her life and I don’t want to risk losing her friendship over something so trivial.”
“Trivial?” Oscar scoffed.
Steve held out a hand to interrupt the man’s thought. “Just...drop it, Oscar. All right?” He marched over to the door and twitched the knob.
“Don’t miss the boat, pal,” Oscar warned, “or you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”
Steve paused to ponder his friend’s sound advice before exiting the office.