I thought I moved my head up and down, but I couldn't be sure. "Thank you, Floyd," I said, gratitude overwhelming me and making my voice extra raspy.
He nodded once and as I stood up, he held out his hand to me. I shook it, looking up into his kind face. "I'm proud to shake your hand," he said. He smiled quickly and then turned and walked toward the door. I followed, feeling numb, overwhelmed.
Outside the door, Eden was sitting on a chair, waiting for me. She smiled up at me and as she stood, I gathered her in my arms and hugged her. "Ready to go?" I croaked out.
"Yeah." She smiled.
We got back in the police car waiting for us outside and were driven back to Eden's mom's house. I held Eden's hand loosely in mine, thinking about Clive Richter and Agent Glenn, thinking about how there were good and bad people everywhere, and that somehow today, I had let go of the last piece of the fear I'd been carrying around for so long. It might take a little longer for guilt to lose its malicious hold on my mind, but what Agent Glenn had said would help that, too, I imagined. It was time—time to move forward. Without fear, without guilt, but with my morning glory. I leaned back on the seat and exhaled a breath.
After the meeting with FBI agents Glenn and Malloy, another weight lifted. Later that day, Eden waited for me in a private room while I underwent a quick thirty-minute surgery that resulted in a small bullet being abstracted from my thigh. I had always hated that ugly scar—a physical reminder of the worst day of my life. But suddenly, what had been unsightly to me before, now looked like victory.
I felt like I was actually using two lungs to breathe again. And now Eden and I could finally get our plans underway. I woke up early the next morning filled with energy and purpose.
Yes, it might take a little time for charges to be brought against Clive for his crimes against us, and yes, we'd have to testify eventually, but the win for us was that we weren't afraid of him anymore. Freedom came in many forms–we had finally been set free from fear.
And so we began planning our trip.
Eden didn't agree when I told her I thought I needed to be the one to tell her mom we were leaving for a while, but she gave in anyway. I had tried to be understanding when it came to her mom—Carolyn had been without Eden for so long. I had told her I knew what that felt like, and obviously I did, better than anyone. And so I could appreciate her wanting to make up for lost time. But dealing with it twenty-four hours a day was exhausting—and I had to believe that was true for not only me, but for her as well. I was going to be in her daughter's life for a long time, so we needed to come to some sort of peace, or at least an understanding.
Carolyn was sitting on the patio with Molly the next morning and I joined them, already showered and dressed.
"Good morning." I smiled and took a seat with them.
"Good morning," they both said. "Did you get some coffee?" Carolyn asked.
"I will in a minute." I ran my hand through my hair. "I actually wanted to talk to you." I glanced at Carolyn.
She raised her eyebrows and Molly paused in taking a sip of her coffee. "Should I leave you two alone?" she asked.
"No, it's okay. You should know this, too, uh . . ." I took a breath. "Eden and I are going to take a little road trip, get away from here for a little bit."
Carolyn blinked at me and Molly smiled. "Oh no, no," Carolyn said, shaking her head.
I took a deep breath. "I think you know better than anyone how difficult this has been for Eden and me. Not just as a couple, but individually. It's been difficult for all of us." I glanced at Molly and she smiled encouragingly. "We just thought that getting away for a little bit would ease the pressure on everyone and would give us a chance to have some time together after being apart for so long."
Carolyn sat straight, glaring at me. "And what about me? She was stolen from me. What about the time I need with my daughter?" She shook her head adamantly. "No, you won't take her away from me."
Damn. This wasn't going well. "I don't want to take Eden away from you." I shook my head. "Eden, she's longed for you all her life. I know that better than anyone and I would never do anything to get in the way of your relationship with her. I know you have a lot of catching up to do, too, a lot of lost time to make up for." I took a deep breath trying to gather my thoughts together. "I was even hoping maybe you and I could . . ." I trailed off, feeling frustrated and at a loss for words, trying to ask for something I didn't know how to name. And Carolyn's glaring at me wasn't helping. I should have rehearsed this. There was an awkward silence.
Suddenly Molly threw her arms up and let them come back down heavily on the table in front of her. Carolyn and I both startled and stared at her. "Jesus, Carolyn! Here he is sitting here asking you to be a mom to him, too. In case you forgot, he lost everyone he loved." She leaned forward. "You have an opportunity here not just to mother me, who has no mother anymore, but Eden and Calder . . . and Xander, too, for that matter! You could have a bounty of people who need mothering right at your feet, people who would soak it up. And instead you're choosing to act in a way that will eventually do nothing except push us away. I'm sorry, but I can't be quiet about this for one minute longer. Look at yourself!"
Carolyn stared at her with wide eyes. Molly took a deep breath and lowered her voice. "You yourself said you looked the other way and buried your head in the sand with what happened with Uncle Bennett, and then with Hector." Her expression filled with sympathy. "Don't do it again, Carolyn. Please don't be oblivious to what's going on around you. Your daughter is a woman. I'm sorry you didn't get to see that happen. But you can't turn her back into a little girl by cutting crusts off her bread and brushing her hair before bed every night, by denying that she fell in love with someone and you didn't get to be a part of that. You can be a part of it now." She sat back in her chair. "Eden, she has this . . . quiet strength about her. She's been patient with you because she loves you, but she won't be patient forever. If you don't see that, then you're not seeing your daughter and you're going to lose her just when you found her again. And Calder," she looked over at me, "Calder is sitting in front of you asking you to accept him."
I stared at Molly for a minute, shocked and grateful. I cleared my throat. Molly was right. I hadn't actually acknowledged for some time how much I missed my mother's love, hadn't spoken of it with Eden yet. Despite the deep, aching feeling of betrayal at the end, I missed my mother. It was confusing and it hurt like hell. Did I want Eden's mom to accept me as a son or as her daughter's boyfriend? Whichever it was, my heart was so thankful for Molly's comment, and for all she'd said.
"Molly . . . thank you," I said to her, hoping she could see the sincerity in my eyes and then I glanced at Carolyn who was still silent, staring down at the table. She sat there not saying anything for so long I wondered for a minute if she'd respond at all. She didn't. Instead, she stood up—her chair scraping over the stone patio—turned her back on us, and walked through the French doors, shutting them behind her.
I let out a breath and ran my hand through my hair. I looked at Molly who had a pained expression on her face. "I meant every word I said to her," she said. "I just hope it did some good."
I nodded. "I appreciate it, Molly. Either way, I appreciate all the ways you've been so supportive of Eden and of me."
Molly smiled sadly. "You've both been through so much. If anyone deserves to find their place in this world, Calder, you two do. I hope I've helped."
"You have," I said, meaning it one hundred percent. Now I could only hope Carolyn would come around, too.
Carolyn spent the day in her room, not even coming out once. Despite the fact that we didn't have her blessing, Eden and I decided that we'd still go on our trip. It wasn't going to start off with quite the same happiness we had hoped, but it was necessary for us and we were going to go anyway.
Late that afternoon as I was in the kitchen getting a glass of water, I turned around when I heard someone enter the room behind me. It was Carolyn. My eyes widened to see her with her hair pulled back and no makeup on. I'd never seen her not looking perfectly done-up, regardless of the time of day. Her eyes were rimmed in red as if she'd been crying. She offered me a small smile. "Can we talk?" she asked.
I nodded and walked slowly to the table where we both sat down. I looked at her warily, not knowing where this was going to go.
"Calder," she started, and then paused, "I owe you an apology." I let out a breath. "I owe Eden an apology, too."
"Carolyn—" I started.
"No, wait," she said. "Let me just say this and then you can say what you need to say to me. I can imagine you need to get some things off your chest, too." She looked down, studying her fingernails.
"I've been up in my room thinking so much about Eden's father, Bennett, today. I . . . I've been thinking about the ways I wish I had been more for him when he needed me." She shook her head. "Molly was right to make me realize that, even though I see I buried my head in the sand then, I wasn't seeing that I'm doing it now, too." She paused, but I didn't speak. I could see she needed to organize her thoughts.
"I have her back, and yet I'm so filled with grief over the moments I missed. I wanted so badly to experience the ways I lost out on mothering her, and that included being there to guide and experience her falling in love with someone." She shook her head. "That's what I owe you the biggest apology for. I could see that day at the garden party how much you loved and adored her . . . how deeply your hearts are entwined, and yet," she took a big, shaky breath, "I tried to push her toward another man."
She looked down, an expression of shame on her face. "I'm jealous of how deeply you love each other, how deeply you know each other. I'm jealous you got all those years and I didn't. Even though I know it's irrational, and I see now how it's affected my behavior and made me act so selfishly." She met my eyes, tears shining in hers. "Please yell at me. Tell me how awful I've been."
I took a deep breath. "I don't want to yell at you. I understand." I pictured myself standing on a chair in the bowling alley, panicked because Eden stepped out of my line of sight for a few minutes. It had to be the same way for her mom, too. "There's no handbook for Eden's and my situation and there's no handbook for yours, either." I paused. "What I hope you know is that what Molly said about Eden having a quiet strength . . . nothing is more true. I love that so much about her. And that strength came from you. Eden was able to hold on to that quality because she never let go of her belief in love. You gave that to her. She drew on all the love you gave her in the first years of her life and she never let go. It kept her alive. All those years, you were with her, because your love was still in her heart."
Tears were coursing down Carolyn's cheeks and she was nodding her head. "Thank you," she said. "And I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I never considered that you need a mother, too. I'm here for you." She reached her hand across the table and I took it, smiling, relief filling my chest.
"I'm going to try to stop treating her like a little girl and see her for who she is," she said. "I'm going to try my very best. I'm going to focus on what I have, not what I don't have."
I smiled again. "I know Eden will be thankful for that." I paused. "Just so you know though, there's no reason to stop making those fluffernutter sandwiches." They were damn good.
Carolyn laughed and wiped her tears and that's when Eden walked into the room. She stopped and took us both in and a huge smile took over her face, making her look radiant with happiness, as she rushed forward and draped one arm over my shoulders and reached one over Carolyn's. She leaned in and kissed my cheek and then leaned over and kissed Carolyn's. We laughed and something inside me clicked into place. It was as if the mix of colors on the canvas was finally perfect for the picture I wanted so desperately to create.
Later, up in Eden's room, we opened her laptop and began figuring out where we were going.
We looked through a couple Indiana tourist sites and each one recommended the same resort again and again – French Lick Springs Hotel. We couldn't resist choosing the one place we found that had the word “springs” in it. It seemed too perfect a choice as a getaway for us. We had gone to another spring to get away once upon a time, too. It felt right. Plus, it was only a three-hour drive. We wouldn't have to risk too much by being on the road for very long. Neither one of us had a license, although Molly had agreed to loan us her car.
"Carolyn said we'd need to open up an account in your name to cash the check from my showing so I can finance our trip," I said as Eden entered in the information on the computer, booking our hotel.
She nodded, creasing her brow. "I have another account in my name, too, that Felix left for me." She looked up at me. "We can access that, too, now that I have a birth certificate."
"Okay, but I'm paying for this trip."
She put her hand to my cheek. "Okay. Still, Felix left me that money because he wanted me to have it. It wouldn't be right to leave it there."
I nodded, thanking Felix in my head each time his name came up. I would be forever in his debt for taking care of my girl when I hadn't been able to.