Miss Me Not (Page 11)

"Yes, dear, I know you're always hungry. That offer was actually directed at Madison," she said drily, following us into the kitchen.

I paused uncertainly in the archway separating the family room and the kitchen. Black marble countertops sat atop dark cherry wood cabinets with frosted doors that wrapped around the oversized kitchen. Industrial-sized stainless-steel appliances sparkled and gleamed, while an array of pots and pans hung over an island in the middle of the kitchen. Artwork and pictures cluttered the refrigerator door held up by an array of whimsical magnets. Upon closer inspection, I saw that the majority of the magnets were from theme parks in the Orlando area.

Dean laughed when he saw me studying them. "I guess you could say we're theme park junkies. My parents let the twins pick out a new magnet every time we go. This one I picked out though," he said, pointing to a magnet adorned with an enraged Incredible Hulk and a roller coaster zooming around his head.

"You seem a bit obsessed with that ride," I taunted.

"Because it effing rocks," he said, plopping down on one of the tall barstools that separated the kitchen from the dining area.

"Language," his mom said, pulling a tray of cookies out of the oven.

"Eff is not a bad word, Mom," Dean said impishly, standing up so he could load up a plate with cookies and pumpkin bars.

"It is when I don't want the twins telling the kids at the playground to eff-off," she answered, using a spatula to move the hot cookies to the cool marble counter. "Madison, dear, would you like a glass of milk to go with your cookies?"

"Uh, sure," I answered, unaccustomed to having someone cater to me.

"I'll take one too, Mom," Dean said, plopping the plate of baked goods on the counter in front of me.

"I figured that, son," she said, pulling a jug of milk from the fridge. "So, Madison, Dean tells me you're going to join us for our Friday night chaos," she added, placing the tall glass of milk in front of me.

"Um, yeah, I guess, Mrs. Jackson," I said, shooting a look at Dean.

"Call me Sarah," she said, leaning on the counter across from us. "I'm making a roast and potatoes if that's okay."

"My mom makes the best roast," Dean said, rolling his eyes with pleasure.

"That sounds great," I said uncomfortably as they both watched me.

"Lovely. Dinner will be ready in an hour-and-a-half when your father gets home," she said. "I'll be in the twins' room. Wish me luck," she added, heading out of the kitchen.

Silence filled the kitchen following her departure. I struggled to take in my surroundings as Dean munched contently on the baked goods in front of us. I felt like I had fallen headfirst into one of the sitcoms I like to watch. Did people really live this way? Did they genuinely care what went on in each other's lives? It seemed all so foreign to me. This world was the polar opposite of mine.

"So, your mom is nice," I said, helping myself to a cookie.

"Yeah, she's pretty cool."

"What does she know about me?" I finally asked the question that was burning a hole in my stomach.

"What do you mean?" he asked with false vagueness.

"Cut the shit," I said, making a move to get up.

"They know what I know," he admitted, sighing. "Look, Mads, it's just the relationship I have with my parents. They pretty much know everything about me. I wanted them to understand why I like you," he said, grasping my hand. "Trust me, okay?" he implored.

"I'm just not used to this," I said quietly, sweeping my hands out to take in my homey surroundings. "I'm not used to people knowing everything about me.

"We'll wear you down, and before you know it you'll be an open book," he teased.

"I hope not," I thought, shuddering at the mere thought. His parents would shit a brick if they ever found out about my formative years. I should cut my losses now and head out before the warm smiles I'd been given were replaced with looks of disgust and concern for their son's well-being.

"How about a tour of the house?" Dean asked, draining the last of his milk.

"I'm thinking maybe I should head home," I answered, edging toward the archway.

"I don't think so, slick," he said, reaching out to snag my hand.

"Sheesh, you're always manhandling me," I griped as he dragged me toward the hallway beyond the kitchen.

"Well, if you weren't always trying to dart off like some skittish rabbit, I wouldn't have to. Come on, I want to show you something anyway."

I grumbled under my breath about men and their hero complexes. My grumbles were cut short though as I took in the hallway walls.

"This is our family tree hall," he said, proudly pointing to the walls that ran along the hallway.

I gasped in awe, taking in the sight of the wall plastered in a sort of mock wallpaper that was comprised of hundreds and hundreds of pictures. Someone had obviously taken great care to cut and piece each of the pictures together into a gigantic collage that lined the entire length of the wall, creating the most unique wallpaper I'd ever seen. It was like a work of art. Starting at one end, I slowly walked down the space, taking in each of the photos. There were pictures of birthdays, births, weddings, graduations, holidays and everything in between. Each chronicled section was situated in its own space, divided by three sets of doors on each side of the hall. Adorable pictures showed the twins visiting the Magic Kingdom and being held by Mickey Mouse. I caught a glimpse of a much younger Dean happily straddling the frame of an obviously brand-new bike. Another picture showed Dean with his arms around a girl that I knew by just looking at her must be his sister Trish. As I continued my way down the hall, I found countless pictures of Dean as they chronicled his life from birth to present.

Reaching the end of the hall, I turned around, making my way up the opposite wall. I'd never seen so many pictures in my life.

"What do you think?" Dean asked, stepping up beside me as I reached the end.

I shrugged, acting nonchalant, but the truth is, I had to swallow a large lump in my throat. I looked everywhere but his eyes.

"I didn't show you this to upset you," he said, once again seeing through me. "I wanted you to see what's on the other side of the coin. Not everyone lives like your mom. You could become an adult, get married and one day display your own family on your own walls."

It was as if he could see into my very soul. How did he know that I feared I would turn out like Donna? Death itself would be a welcome choice over turning out like her.

"Life is what you make it," he said quietly.

"Stop trying to psychoanalyze me," I replied to his shrewd analysis.

"I'm not," he denied, looking hurt as he took a step closer to me.

This was why I don't do the whole friend thing. People began to expect things and we're both bound to be disappointed.

"I just always feel like you're trying to save me," I said, trying to get past the anxiety I felt over his close proximity.

"Not save you. I just want to share things with you. I like you, Mads, more than I can ever remember liking anyone," he said, stepping even closer.

"You don't know me. You'd hate me if you knew the real me."

"I'm looking at the real you. Anything else was a facade. I don't care about facades. I only care about you," he whispered a breath from me.

My breath hitched. I knew he was going to kiss me. I needed to step away and break the trance that had gripped me. I couldn't kiss him, it wasn't allowed, but I couldn't get the words out. I felt myself leaning in as if we were two magnets that were drawn together.

"I can't kiss you," I pleaded.

"Okay," he said, placing his hands on my hips and dragging me even closer.

Everything in me hummed. This was so wrong. I'd buried this part of myself years ago.

"You don't have to kiss me, but I'm going to kiss you," he said, eyeing my lips.

All my excuses fled. I shouldn't want this, but I did. My eyes fluttered closed, giving him my silent consent.

A screeching yell shattered the moment as a small body barreled into us followed by another.

"Whoa, slow down, Things," Dean said, stopping their forward motion with his long arms.

"But Momma says we can have cookies," one of them wailed plaintively.

"That's fine, but no running. Got me?" he admonished.

Both nodded their heads simultaneously before racing back down the hall.

"And save some cookies for me," he called after them.

"Were they running again?" his mom asked, stepping out from one of the doorways that lined the hallway. "I swear those girls only have one speed. So what do you think of my project. Is it too much?" she asked, indicating the walls.

"It's amazing," I answered truthfully before I could think about it. The words spilled out on their own accord. My social skills that had been stunted for so long were slowly emerging like a turtle would from his shell when he feels safe. What was it about these people? Why did I suddenly have the urge to trust them? Trust was a double-edged sword. It could give you hope, but it could cut you in an instant when it was broken.

Chapter Eleven

Dean and I were watching the Food Network in the family room when his dad got home an hour later.

Taking in his appearance, I was slightly apprehensive at his intimidating stature. He was easily taller than six feet with broad shoulders. His hair was grey at the temples giving him a distinguished look. I would have labeled him stuffy if not for the laugh lines around his eyes.

The twins came clamoring out of their playroom when they heard the front door open. They hit their father's legs like mini torpedoes. "Daddy!" They squealed happily as he tossed one after another in the air before giving them a bear hug. My heart wept as I watched him squat down in front of both of them, asking each of them about their days. He kept an arm firmly around each one as they talked over each other, filling him in on their every activity. I waited for him to get bored with their endless chatter. I waited for his eyes to glaze over with indifference, but neither of these things happened as he listened to them both attentively until they eventually ran out of steam.

"Where's your mom?" he asked.

"She's in the kitcen finising dinner," one of them lisped out.

"She is? It smells yummy. I'm thinking roast, right?" he said with a twinkle in his eyes as he finally turned toward us.

"You must be Madison," he said, approaching the couch where Dean and I had been perched.

"Yes, sir," I said self-consciously as he held his hand out to me. I'd grown accustomed to Dean's touch and was able to shake his mother's hand without much of a qualm, but touching another person of the opposite sex, especially one older than me made me break out in a cold sweat. The last time I'd let an older man touch me it had destroyed everything. My family, the church and my innocence were forever lost. My knees began to shake.

"Dad, how was your day?" Dean asked, stepping in to cover up my lapse. He shook his father's outstretched hand.

"It was work," his father said chuckling. "It's nice to meet you Madison," he added warmly.

"You too, sir," I said, embarrassed about my social faux pas. I was a freaking mess.

"Call me Tim. What's on the marquee tonight?" he asked Dean.

"I think the twins picked Toy Story 3 again, and Mom picked up the new bank heist movie for us once they go to bed."

"Excellent. A good action movie is the perfect way to round out the week. Don't you think, Madison?" he asked, winking at me.

"Yes, sir," I stuttered out like a moron.

"Tim," he reminded me as he headed for the kitchen.

Sarah met him in the archway and I watched as they embraced like they hadn't seen each other in a month. I glanced over at Dean to see if their affection was embarrassing him. I found his eyes on me instead of them. I felt myself flush at his look. Did he now understand why I didn't fit in?

He smiled at me reassuringly, lacing his fingers through mine. "You're doing fine," he whispered as we trailed behind his parents toward the dining room.

The twins were already seated at the table in their matching booster seats. Serving dishes loaded with food sat in the center of the table. The smell wafting from them was enticing and my mouth instantly started watering. On their best day, my frozen dinners never smelled half as good as the food resting on the table in front of me.

The meal went beyond any expectations I'd ever imagined a family dinner to go. The food was unbelievably good and the conversations were loud and punctuated with frequent laughter as the twins entertained us with their constant chatter.

Dean and I volunteered to clean the kitchen while his parents bathed the twins and put them in pajamas.

"You did it," Dean said, rinsing the last glass before adding it to the full dishwasher.

"Did you doubt I wouldn't?" I asked, wiping down the table.

"Not for a second," he answered, tossing the dirty dish towel into the laundry room that was located right off the kitchen. "Movie time," he said as the twins came skipping into the kitchen wearing pajamas with Disney's newest heroine splashed across them.

"Yay," they squealed, running for the living room.

"Ready for part two of family fun night?" he asked.

"Do I have a choice?"

"Negator," he answered as we joined his family in the living room. Both his parents were already sitting on the love seat when we joined them. They looked content as his mom leaned against his dad's chest so she'd have a good view of the television.

Ashley and Dora waited until Dean and I were sitting next to each other and then piled in between us. Dean grinned at me and I couldn't help but return a smile. I'm not sure which one it was, but one of the twins lifted my arm and snuggled underneath it while Tim started the movie and dimmed all the lights.

I looked down at the small body snuggled up beside me, and for the second time that night, I fought sudden tears. One day, this could be me snuggled up on the couch with my own daughter. If I would have followed through with my plan, I wouldn't be sitting here right now thinking about someday having my own family. The gift Mitch had given me made the knot in my throat swell. I had a future. I could someday get married and have my own family. For the first time since his death, I wanted to weep for his loss. I wasn't his friend and I really never knew Mitch, but my heart ached for the family he would never have.