Miss Me Not (Page 24)

"You didn't have to," I said, swallowing the sudden lump in my throat. I seriously needed to get a grip. Just because I had cried the night before didn't give me the green light to cry at the drop of a hat.

"It was my pleasure," she said, giving me a nudge toward the doorway. "Go try them on," she urged me.

The clothes Sarah and Trish had picked out for me were both tasteful and comfortable, and were perfect for spending a couple days on his grandfather's property. I donned a pair of the jeans they had gotten me and a cream-colored cable knit sweater before joining them back downstairs.

The evening was everything the night before wasn't. Laughter filled the house as the twins put on a mock puppet show they had worked on that afternoon with their papaw. Once we had consumed enough comfort food to feed a small army, we sat around the comfortable family room and watched a Christmas movie that would never have been allowed in my house when I was little. I nestled next to Dean, soaking in every second. Every once in a while, James's death would drift through my mind like the ticker at the bottom of the news stations, reminding me of my loss.

The twins were put to bed once the movie was over. While his parents were laying them down, Dean pulled out several board games that he and Trish wound up arguing over about which one we should play.

Dean grudgingly gave in when I confided that I had always wanted to play Monopoly.

"Fine, but I'm the banker," he said, shooting Trish a warning look.

"Well, goodie for you. I didn't want to be banker anyway," she gripped, pulling a stack of orange cards out and placing them face down on the board.

I couldn't help smiling over their bickering.

"Oh, thank God, did we miss the banker fight?" Sarah asked, sitting on the floor next to me.

"Yep, Dean won," I answered, resisting the uncharacteristic urge to lean against her. Something about her drew me in. Maybe it was her acceptance of me.

The game was loud and rowdy as Trish and Dean got brutal, trying to destroy each other by placing multiple hotels on their properties. It wasn't long before Sarah, Tim and I were all bankrupt.

Sarah and I sat on the couch, watching Dean and Trish battle it out while Tim read a book on the recliner on the far side of the room.

"Dean says the call with Donna didn't go very well," I finally said, knowing I couldn't hide from it forever.

Sarah let out a long sigh. "Your mom is definitely not an easy person to talk to. Her unwillingness to understand her parental responsibilities makes me want to scream. I actually decided to go around her," she added, looking at me apprehensively.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"I called your dad," she admitted.

"What? How did you get his number?"

"I was able to get it out of Donna before she hung up."

"What did he say?" I asked, trying not to focus on the sudden silence that filled the room.

"He'd like to come see you."

"Really?" I asked, not sure how I felt.

"Yes, really. By the way he talked, I get the impression he's wanted to see you for a while."

"Then why hasn't he called her?" Dean asked, abandoning the game to sit beside me on the couch.

"I don't know, son. That's something only he can answer. The important thing is how Madison feels," she said, turning to me. "Do you want to see your father?" she asked.

I wasn't even sure how to answer that. I did want to see him. More than I liked to admit, but I questioned whether he would be able to move past what I had done, and the part I had played in their divorce.

"Madison, you don't have to," Dean said, ignoring the look his mom shot him.

"No, I should. I need to talk to him," I said with resolve. "When?" I asked.

"If it was okay with you, he's going to drive over tomorrow morning."

I nodded my head. I knew deep down, it was best to get it over with. Clean slate.

Dean and I stayed in the living room watching TV after his family turned in for the night. We had the TV on the Food Network, but the volume was low enough that we could still talk quietly.

"You sure you're okay about tomorrow?" Dean asked.

"I have to face him sooner or later. I’d rather it be here with you," I admitted.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," he said, tucking his arm around me to pull me close.

"You make me want to never leave," I whispered.

He gave a sinister laugh. "Ah, my plan has worked," he said, rubbing his hands together gleefully.

"You're a nut. Aren't you supposed to be sick of me? I thought most guys liked their space," I said, elbowing him lightly.

"Not on your life. I've waited for this for a long time," he said, dropping a kiss on my head.

"You mean in the whole eight weeks we've been hanging out," I teased.

"No, I mean in the whole ‘I've liked you for a lot longer than that’ way," he said, obviously gauging my reaction.

"What do you mean? I wasn't even a blip on your radar," I said, pulling back slightly so I could look at his face.

"I let you believe that because you were so intent on believing no one ever saw you. I can't speak for the rest of the school population, but you were never a shadow to me. I just never had the guts to approach you. I figured you’d leave any attempts I made in shreds. That's why I call you Mads. I've kinda been ‘mad’ about you for a long time," he admitted.

"But you acted like you didn't know me. You had my name written down," I said, recalling our first tutoring session that seemed eons ago.

"I had your name written down because I couldn't believe my luck. I may not go to church or anything, but I kinda felt divine intervention was at work. Like, it was a sign from Mitch," he said sheepishly. "Ridiculous, I know, but it just felt that way."

His words floored me. All along I thought I was invisible, a shadow that would always remain hidden without a chance of attention. He was my sun before I ever knew it.

"Are you mad?" he asked as I realigned things in my head.

"No. I still can't wrap my head around the fact that someone like you could like me."

"Like you. I kind of think it goes beyond that," he said, watching me carefully.

"It's only been eight weeks," I said, frightened of where the conversation was going.

"Eight weeks is enough to know how I feel. I'm not going to say it now because I know your emotions have gone through the wringer, but I wanted you to know where I stand. You are very important to me," he said, dragging me in close so he could kiss me.

I opened my mouth, letting his tongue sweep in. His kisses filled me with a liquid heat that started at my toes and slowly traveled up my body. They evoked feelings and wants in me that had been absent.

I lost track of how long we kissed, but my lips felt swollen by the time Dean reluctantly pulled away and walked me upstairs.

"I'll see you in the morning," he said, dropping one last lingering kiss on my lips before turning to head to his own room.

"Dean," I said softly, almost wishing he wouldn't heed my call.

He turned to look back at me in the dim light of the hall.

"I feel the same about you," I said, gnawing on my lower lip. "I'm not sure when I'm going to be able to say the actual word, but I wanted you to know you're not alone."

His face lit up at my words as he strode to my side and dropped a hard kiss on my lips. "That's all I needed to know. We can figure out the rest as we go," he said, running a hand over the side of my face one last time before heading to bed.


My stomach was in knots when I woke the next morning. In just a few hours, I would be reunited with my father. There were so many unanswered questions that would be answered.

The Jackson family was waiting for me in the large sunny kitchen by the time I made it down the stairs. Delicious smells assaulted me as I pushed through the swinging door.

"Madison," the twins screeched, tackling my legs like they hadn't seen me in years instead of just the night before. I grabbed the counter to steady myself. Once I was sure I wasn't going to fall over, I rustled their corkscrew-tossed bed heads.

"Girls, let her breathe," Dean chastised, scooping Ashley up and tossing her over his shoulder while Tim did the same to Dora. Both girls squealed with giggles as their bellies were tickled.

The knots in my stomach untwisted as I watched the family in front of me. They were all so freaking normal that it made everything seem just a little more bearable. Normal was good. I wanted normal in my life.

"How did you sleep, sweetie?" Sarah asked, giving me a one-armed hug that I didn't stiffen under at all. Progress.

"Not too bad," I said, not admitting the endless tossing and turning I had done or the tangled mess of sheets I woke up to.

"It's going to be okay," she said, giving my shoulders a squeeze. "I wasn't sure what you like for breakfast, so I made a little of everything," she added, pointing to the loaded table with every breakfast food imaginable.

"You didn't have to do that," I mumbled, wondering if there was no end to their kindness. They were like a clone of a perfect family, but in a good way.

"Hey," Dean said as I sat next to him.

"Hey," I said, flushing slightly as I thought about his words from last night. He didn't say it, but he'd made it pretty clear for me. Love. It was such a simple word, but so foreign to me, I didn't even know how to react to it.

"Bacon?" he asked, handing over a platter with the crispy bacon.

"Sure," I replied, grateful he was acting the same.

Like every meal I had shared with the Jackson family, the noise level bordered on a fever pitch as the twins excitedly talked about the new Christmas movie they were going to see that day with their grandparents. Dean and Trish kept up a running commentary about the cooking show they were both into that was some kind of cook off. I was grateful for their chatter as the minutes flew by.

Before I knew it, the kitchen was clean and the twins were being shuttled off with their papaw and nana for the day. Once they were gone, the house seemed unnaturally silent as I nervously sat on the couch next to Dean, wringing my hands in my lap. At ten o'clock on the nose, a car pulled into the gravel driveway. Sudden panic gripped me. What if seeing him brought all the bad memories crashing back, or worse, what if he looked at me with disdain like Donna did?

"You ready?" Dean asked, gripping my clasped hands.

"Yes. No. I don't know," I said, feeling helpless.

"I'll be right here by you," he said, helping me to my feet.

"I know, which is the only reason I'm not hiding," I admitted as he placed a gentle kiss on my temple.

"I love you," he said so lightly I almost thought I'd imagined it.

I nodded. I loved him too. I couldn't say the words yet, but it was because of the love we shared I was able to walk out onto the front porch.

Sarah, Tim and Trish trailed behind us, providing a united front as we watched my dad climb from his car.

He looked older, was the first thought that popped in my head as I took in his appearance. Grey hair was sprinkled throughout his dark head giving him a more distinguished look.

"Madison," he said, looking at me uncertainly, stopping just short of the front porch.

"Dad," I said, cautiously descending the stairs slowly, stopping in front of him.

"You're all grown up and beautiful," he said, shooting me a watery smile as I threw myself in his arms. "I'm so sorry," he said, stroking my head as I sobbed against his shoulder. Years of guilt drifted away in an instant as his tears mingled with mine.


"Ready?" Trish asked, zipping up my robe for me.

"Yep, I'm ready to blow this Cracker Jack box," I joked as she placed my graduation cap on my head.

"You look so scholarly," she teased.

"Shhh, don't say that too loudly, they might take my robe back," I teased.

"Not on your life. It's a huge deal that you ended your senior year on the honor role," she chastised me.

"Too little, too late, but I'll take it," I said, smiling at her.

"You're a twit, but I love you," she said, giving me a long hug.

"I love you too," I said, blowing her kisses as I lined up with the rest of the H's in my graduating class.

Standing on tiptoes, I looked around behind me until my eyes found Dean's. "I love you," he mouthed.

"I love you too," I said out loud, making those around me laugh.

Turning back around, I didn't try to fight the wide grin that spread across my face. The amazing thing about love was that when you didn't have it, the word seemed impossible to use, but when you were surrounded by it, it was as easy to say as breathing. The last six months had been a nonstop initiation into love for me. Dean's family showered me with it, tucking me into the embrace of their family like I belonged there all along. When Donna kicked me out officially, a week after Christmas, his family gave me the option to move in with them, but my dad stepped in, asking if I would give living with him a chance. I went from thinking I had nowhere to go, to suddenly having options. I turned the Jackson family down, not wanting to ruin my relationship with Dean by moving in with him and his family. It still amazed me that they accepted me so unconditionally. By all rights, they should hate me. I had hooked and trapped their son, or maybe it was the other way around. I couldn't help thinking about my petal plucking daisy I had gotten at Mitch's funeral. My world was suddenly filled with people who were the petals of the daisy that would miss me.

The first few weeks of living with my dad were awkward, and I had found myself spending more time at Dean's house than at my dad's, but eventually we started to adjust. I think we both understood that it would come slowly. I credited a big part of it to my weekly counseling sessions with Beth.

Beth was another unexpected petal of my ‘miss me’ daisy. I had balked at the idea of going to counseling, but Sarah had eventually worn me down and I was forever grateful she did. Beth was amazing. She was tough, kind, compassionate, intuitive and the sounding board I never knew I wanted. She listened and questioned and continually reminded me that the past wasn't my fault. Together, we found long forgotten emotions I thought I had buried long ago. We flushed them out, exposing everything until it was raw, so they could heal once and for all. Beth encouraged my dad to join us for a few of my counseling sessions so he could get some insight into everything I had kept hidden for so long. Through our counseling together, I got to see the rage he still felt for what Jim had done to me, to his anguish for not being able to protect me, and finally, his shame that had kept him from reaching out to me. It was a long agonizing road at times, and we were far from normal, but we were slowly learning how to let the past go. I was slowly learning to forgive him for leaving me behind to clean up the mess.