If Only..., page 23
Evie shivers next to me, so I take off my jacket and wrap it around her shoulders. She looks up and smiles softly at me. I know she still hasn’t forgiven me . . . not properly anyway. We had something unforgettable and life changing, but it was destroyed when I lied.
“I am sorry,” I whisper when Fabio goes to get his own cup of crappy coffee.
She frowns and looks up at me. “For what?”
“For lying,” I say. “For not telling you the truth. For not being there for you. For not being a dad to Lucca. I’m sorry for all of it, Evie. Every single fucking bit of it.” I grab her hand, feeling how small it is compared to mine. “I fucked up. Like, really fucked up. And I have absolutely no idea how I can make it up to you, or even if you’ll let me make it up to you. That scares the shit out of me, Evie.”
“I can’t do this now,” she says, pulling her hand away.
She’s right. Now isn’t the time, but I’m seizing the day anyway. “I know. I just wanted you to know that I’m sorry.”
“I still don’t understand why you did it,” she confesses, pinning me with her green eyes.
“I’ve told you.”
She traces her finger around the edge of her cup and sighs. “It’s not a good enough reason, Cole. You must be able to see that. And when Lucca is older, he won’t think it’s a good enough reason either.” She winces and I know she’s hoping she hasn’t jinxed herself by assuming we’ll get to see Lucca when he’s older.
I look away. Will Lucca hate me for it? “I can’t tell you anything else. I’ve told you the truth, and it might not make sense now, considering we’re older and wiser,” I say as my eyes find hers again, “but back then I thought I had nothing to lose, whereas Nico had everything to lose.”
“Wasn’t I your everything?” Evie asks. She turns in her chair and reaches for my hand, curling her fingers around mine. “You were mine. I lived for you. I breathed for you. If it wasn’t for Lucca, I would have died with without you.”
I look deep into her eyes, hoping that when she looks in mine she’ll be able to see how sorry I am. If she looks hard enough, she’ll see the regret there, the sadness of knowing I’ve missed out on the best years of being a father and the longing for a chance to have it all now. “You have no idea what I’d give to relive that day.”
She watches me for a second, and then I see tears silently streak down her face.
“Hey . . .” I reach up to brush the tears from her cheeks with my thumb. “What are they for?”
“For everything,” she whispers, nuzzling her face into my palm. “For what we’ve been through, what we’re going through now and for what we’re about to go through together.”
“Lucca will be fine,” I say confidently. “If he’s anything like his mum, then he’ll be the strongest person on the planet.” I reach up and wrap my hand around her shoulder to pull her into a hug, but she pushes at my chest, stopping me.
“I forgive you, Cole. I forgive you for all of it.”
“Oh, Evie.” I know she really means it this time, and I can already feel the huge weight lifting from my shoulders. I’ve been desperate to hear those words fall from her mouth and to be able to feel in my heart that she absolutely means them.
I pull her from the chair and into my lap, pressing her to me until we’re both crying against each other’s cheeks.
“I love you,” I whisper after our sobs have subsided.
Evie presses a gentle kiss to my neck, just underneath my ear, and says, “I love you too.” She pulls back and cups the side of my face with her hands. “I’ve loved you since I was fourteen. I loved you even when I knew I shouldn’t, and then when I was all alone, giving birth to our son, I still loved you. I’ve always loved you, Cole, and I always will.” She leans forward and kisses my forehead. “But I’m not done.”
I feel myself frowning. “What do you mean?”
“I want to know the whole story,” she tells me. “From start to finish. I want to know what you did in prison. What you did when you got out. I want to know all of it.”
I shake my head. “You don’t need to know.”
“I want to.”
“Some of it isn’t pretty,” I warn her. Please don’t make me tell you everything.
She shrugs. “I guessed as much.”
“Cole,” she says. “Please.”
“Okay,” I agree. “But when—and I mean when—Lucca wakes up, we’re going to tell him that his dad is back from Australia and that he isn’t going anywhere without him ever again. Deal?”
Evie nods. “Deal.”
We’ve been in the hospital for just over a week and Cole is only just done telling me his story. I feel a little bit sick as I wriggle off his lap. Hearing about how he met Michelle and how they formed a relationship afterwards was even more painful than hearing about how he got beaten up in prison and the numerous times he had to fight off being sexually assaulted. The friendships he formed while he was locked up and the way those friends helped him to fraudulently carry on a life afterwards were the good parts of his story—and that’s not saying much.
“Say it, Evie,” he demands.
I turn to look at him and shake my head. I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. I knew I was going to hear things that I didn’t want to hear, but I asked him to tell me anyway. I don’t have the right to be angry with him. I shouldn’t hurt as much as I do, especially since I’ve slept with other people too. But somewhere deep inside me, I still hurt. I hurt more than I thought I would, and I don’t know how to deal with it.
“I have nothing to say,” I tell him. “But I’m glad you’ve told me.”
His lips twitch. “I always knew when you were lying, and I know you’re lying now, Evie. Tell me what you’re thinking. Please.”
“I don’t like it,” I confess. “Of course I don’t like it. Who would enjoy hearing about how their first love felt when he shacked up with someone else?”
He opens his mouth to answer me, but I hold my hand up to stop him. “I do have one question.”
He takes a deep breath. “Go on.”
“That first day when you were back in the office after you found Michelle in bed with another man”—he nods to let me know he understands what I’m talking about—”you looked upset. Were you?”
“No,” he says quickly, shaking his head. “After I walked in on them, I grabbed the basics and then walked out. I jumped straight onto a train and went back to Newcastle, to see Joan and Simon. I stayed there for a day while I was sorting stuff out with my solicitor, drinking myself stupid at night. I was upset,” he says, “but it was because I’d found you again, though I didn’t think you were mine to have after seeing you with Aiden.”
Cole stands up then and walks towards me, cupping my face in his big, strong hands. “Seeing you again made me realise how much of my life I’d wasted. It made me realise that what I gave up wasn’t worth anything. It wasn’t even worth the loyalty I felt toward Nico.” He bends his head and places a soft kiss on my lips.
“If I’ve learned anything over the last eight weeks, it’s that I’m still head over heels in love with you, Evie Romano. And you know absolutely everything about me now. There’s nothing else I can give you. You have it all, and you can have everything else from me in the future.” He pulls my hand up to his chest where his heart beats steadily underneath his shirt. Looking into my eyes, he says, “You have my heart and my soul. Do I have yours?”
I close my eyes and feel the memories of our past stir around in my head. I’ve always known I could never love another man like I love Cole—he stole that away from me too. But I’m glad he did. If I had loved someone else, I might not have been able to get this back with him. It might have been lost forever, and that’s too hard to even bear to think about right now.
“Oh, thank God, Evie. There you are!”
My eyes fly open and I turn around just in time to see Aiden crash into the room. He runs toward me, completely oblivio
“Aiden?” I say, trying to take a breath. “What’re you doing here?”
“Where’s Lucca? Is he okay? Are you okay?” He loosens his grip and brushes my hair off my face, then dips his head to press a quick kiss against my lips. I’m so shocked I don’t even bother to push him away. “I got here as fast as I could. It was days before I even saw the message because I was in the middle of the fucking jungle.”
Message? I blink at him, noticing the dark tan to his skin and the way it makes his dark brown eyes look even darker. He hasn’t shaved for a good few weeks and his beard has now morphed from stubble to full-on hair that hangs off his chin.
“Where’s Lucca? Tell me he’s okay.”
“He’s getting better, and he’s . . . he’s in the day room, watching football with Fabio.”
“Great!” he enthuses. “I’m so fucking glad to hear it.” He pulls a backpack from off his back and drops it noisily onto the floor, squirts some hand sanitizer on his hands and then hurries out of the room without even a backward glance.
My mouth is still hanging open when I turn to face Cole. He’s smirking at me with a strange look on his face.
“Is there a story there that you need to tell me?” He nods towards the empty doorway.
I shake my head.
“Did you sleep with him, Evie?”
I would have, if my heart, body and soul hadn’t realised that it still wanted you. “No,” I say simply, “I didn’t. I couldn’t.”
“Hi, guys,” says Fabio as he walks into the room. He looks between the two of us, clearly aware that something is going on, but just shrugs and jumps onto Lucca’s bed.
“Get off there,” I hiss.
“So Aiden just arrived,” he announces, completely ignoring me. “And I think he’s been smoking opium or something.”
“Yeah, he came in here first,” I say.
“Ooh, awkward.” Fabio smiles at me, and in that instant he looks just like Nico used to before he played some horrible prank on me. “I’m sorry,” he says, holding his hands up. “I messaged him when you were on your way here. I didn’t know you were with Cole—or that Cole was coming with you—and I thought that you and Aiden were”—his eyes move from side to side—“you know . . . doing it.”
“Doing it?” I frown at him and then roll my eyes at Cole.
“Yeah,” says Fabio. “I thought you two were a thing. Weren’t you?”
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “We were never a thing.”
“Really?” he asks, looking shocked. “Never?”
“Never. We’re just friends . . . running partners mainly.”
“Oh.” He sighs and then lies back, staring at the ceiling. “I guess that’s my bad. Anyway,” he says, “this just got a whole lot more awkward, so I’m gonna just pop outside.”
“Yeah,” I say with a sigh. “Just pop off.”
He chuckles as he jogs out of the room, and I can’t help but smile. Cole clears his throat and walks right up to me, taking my hand again and placing it on his chest. “Let’s just pretend that never happened. Where were we?”
I giggle and look up into his eyes. “Something about your heart, maybe?”
“Ah, yes.” He takes a deep breath and tucks a piece of hair behind my ear. “You have my heart and my soul, Evie Romano, but the question is, do I have yours?”
“Yes,” I whisper. “Always.”
I adjust the straps on my shoulders and bend forward, trying to stretch my back out. A heavy weight sits along the length of my spine, forcing me to stand awkwardly. And like the idiot that I am, I got here way too early, so I’ve had to stand up for longer than I needed to.
“Hey, Cole. Wow, you’re early.”
I shove my cold hands into my pockets and turn towards Steph and Georgia. “Yeah, I’m kinda feeling that right now.”
Steph leans up on her tiptoes and looks over my shoulder while smiling. “We’ve got some flasks of tea in our bag. I guess we’ll share with you.”
She frowns and shakes her head. “In tea? Er, no. But we’ve chucked some brandy in.”
I roll my eyes. “Oh, right, because that’s so much better.”
“Why do you two always have to bicker?” asks Georgia, sounding annoyed.
“It’s her fault,” I say, grinning at Steph.
“You’re not getting any tea now, loser.”
Steph and Georgia have become an almost permanent fixture in my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I can’t believe she’s doing this today. Mad cow.” Steph dithers and bangs her gloved hands together in an attempt to keep them warm. “Are you still planning on keeping it all a surprise?”
I nod and look up as the first runners start to come around the bend. I love Evie and I think she’s great at running, but I’m not expecting her to be anywhere near the front. “Yes. Are you still planning on keeping it all a surprise?”
“Relax,” Steph says, nudging my arm with hers before she playfully rolls her eyes at Georgia. “Evie hasn’t a bloody clue about what’s going on. In fact, I think we should be talking about whether or not to get her committed. The other day, I spent three hours searching for the remote when I was at your house, and do you know where I ended up finding it?”
I take a deep breath and watch my warm breath mist out in front of me. “Go on.”
“In the fucking fridge,” she says. “Then it got me wondering about what she was doing in the fridge with the remote. And you know what else I found in there?”
I start to smile. “I haven’t the foggiest, Steph.”
“A DVD. Cole, seriously, you need to have words with her. When I turned up yesterday, she didn’t even have a bra on.”
I laugh out loud at that. Evie doesn’t normally go down the stairs without a bra on. Once, she rushed down to put the bins out because we’d forgotten it was bin-day, and the milkman saw her. She was nearly in tears when she came back into our bedroom and kept standing in front of me, trying to get me to tell her if I thought the milkman had seen her nipples. He’d most definitely had a good look because Evie has amazing tits, but I shook my head like a good boyfriend and told her that I’d heard he was gay anyway.
“You may laugh now,” she says, wagging a finger at me, “but you won’t be laughing when you get to work one day feeling ridiculously uncomfortable. When you finally take yourself off to the toilets, you’ll realise that you’re wearing her knickers instead of your pants because Evie’s head rolled off when she was putting the washing away.”
“Leave her alone,” Georgia says, laughing. “She’s got bigger fish to fry.”
“There she is!” shrieks Steph in my ear. “And there’s Lucca and Aiden too! She managed to keep up with them!”
My eyes zone in on Evie’s toned legs that are sticking out of her tiny shorts as she runs towards us. Her cheeks are pink and I can see a sheen of sweat along the top of her forehead, but she’s laughing and talking with Lucca as if she’s not really in the middle of running a half-marathon. My heart lurches at the sight of the two of them.
Lucca fully recovered from the bleed on his brain and was released from the hospital six weeks after being admitted. He was weak and needed to take time to regain some of his muscle strength, but with the help of physiotherapy, he got there. And now, fifteen months later, he’s sneaked his way into the Great North Run and he persuaded Evie to do it too.
“Goaaarnnn, Lucca!” shouts Steph.
Evie looks up and spots us. Her smile creases right across her face, making her eyes squeeze together. I love that smile. I tell myself every morning that I’m the luckiest bastard in the world and that life is too short to waste, so I promise myself each morning to make sure I do something that makes Evie smile like that at me. I’m saving today’s smile-making moment for later.
“Dad! What’s the
Even though he’s called me Dad a million times since we first met, it still makes my heart swell. I get a tingly feeling that zooms right up and down my spine, and even when he’s grumbling because I’m asking him to do something he doesn’t want to do, I still don’t mind him whining at me if he’s calling me Dad while he’s doing it.
I shake my head at Evie and she shrugs at me, then I glance at my phone. “You’ve been running for thirty-six minutes.”
His big brown eyes widen as he looks over at Evie. “She’s doing good!” he yells, looking completely and utterly surprised.
I hear myself laughing and give them a wave as they run away from us.
“She’s doing so well,” says Steph as the three of us start to walk across the grass towards the finish line. She looks down at some papers and then back up at me. “That can’t be right.”
“What?” I ask, trying to see what she’s looking at.
“She’s going to be on course for a finish of under ninety minutes.”
I don’t say anything. Evie has been training really hard over the last four months, but she’s struggled. I always tell her she can do it and that I have faith in her, but I didn’t actually think she could run it so fast. Evie surprises me so much that I’m wondering if she’s made a promise to herself to shock me every day. If so, it’s certainly working.
When we finally get to the finish line at South Shields after pushing past all the people that are crowded along the road, it’s just after the hour and ten-minute mark. The sun has risen that little bit more, and it’s warm enough now to take the chill out of the air.
“What if she’s done crap?”
“Steph!” Georgia scolds.
Steph giggles. “I’m only joking. She’s smashed it, regardless of her time.”
I roll my eyes at her and then turn back towards the finish line. “She’s there,” I whisper. “They’re all there.”
“No way,” says Steph. “It’s only been an hour and sixteen minutes.”
I check my watch and feel just as shocked as she sounds. Evie and Aiden wave as they run past while Lucca high-fives all of us. “She did it!” he shrieks.