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← 15. ...You Always Get What You Deserve
17. ...I Never Imagined I Would End Up Alone →

16. ...Some Things Are Decided For You

Jwolf%s's Photo   Jwolf, 17 Oct 2011

        The Funny Thing Is… Some Things Are Decided for You

        We make them every day. Decisions. Some are big. Some are small, but it’s our decisions that make our lives different from the next guy’s. But there are those times when, no matter what we decide, someone will get hurt. There is no win/win decision. Quite frankly, I was in a position where making the decision was the hard part. And eventually, if you wait too long, those decisions are made for you. 

      “What the hell are you doing?”

      “What?”

      “Why are you telling me this?”

      “Because, Chase, I think you deserve to know what actually happened while you were gone.”

      I watched the hurt take over his face as he shook his head.

      “No,” he replied. “You’re doing this because you want me to walk away. You want me to break up with you so that you don’t have to.”

      “That’s just not true,” I replied.

      “Then what?” he shouted. “Why now? Why after all of this are you telling me that you’re still in love with Kyle? Why couldn’t you tell me weeks ago, Cooper?”

      It was the first time in a very long time Chase had used my name and not some romantic sounding faux-French nickname.

      “Chase, I’m just leveling with you.”

      “Okay. Let’s level. Do you want out of this?”

      I shrugged my shoulders and fought back the urge to scream. What the hell was I doing? I was finally where I wanted to be with the person I wanted to be with, and I was throwing it all down the drain. And for what?

      For Kyle.

      Because I didn’t feel right being happy while he sat at home alone and miserable because of me.

      “It’s a yes or no answer, Cooper,” he spat, his words pricking me like a thousand little needles. It was rare for Chase to get worked up, but when he did, it was frightening.

      “No,” I said. I shook my head. “I don’t know.”

      “Who the fuck is supposed to know?!” he shouted. I could feel the vibration from his booming voice. I sat down opposite him on the couch and looked him straight in the eye.

      “I fought for you, Coop,” he said, his voice lowering and evening out. “I came all the way back here to fight for you. I’ve been living in a miserable hotel. I took a job teaching kids I care nothing about, and I left everything behind because I wanted to fight for you. All you have to do is make a fucking decision.”

      I watched him stand up and walk towards the door.

      “And for the record, you didn’t call me either,” he said, turning back to me for one last dig. “Twenty years ago, you knew I was back in the states and you sat around and waited, but you never picked up the goddamn phone to call me either. I fought for you, gamin, and now it’s your turn to fight for us.”

      I swallowed hard as the door slammed behind him, and I was once again alone.

      I didn’t even try to fight it that night. I popped a pain killer for my headache and a Sominex to help me sleep, washing each down with a different glass of wine. I put myself in a prescription induced coma so that I wouldn’t dwell on my obvious pain.

      I woke up the next day without an ounce of will to go about all that I needed to accomplish. My lectures as of late had become anemic, and instead of powering through like I had in the past, I showed both of my classes a film that I was planning to show at the end of the week.

      I kept putting off all of the things I obviously needed to do, simply because I didn’t want to do them. I needed to talk to Devon about the whole Chicago ordeal, but the thought of getting into another fight deterred me from going to the Highland house after work. Dean Pepper had left a message in my inbox asking me to come into his office first thing on Tuesday morning and I knew if I went home I would do nothing but think about that for the entire night.

      I knew I needed to call Chase, but I didn’t know what to say. I felt bad for hurting him, sure. No boyfriend wants to hear that you slept with someone, let alone developed feelings for them. And my motive was as transparent as crystal.

      So instead of doing any of the things I needed to do, I instead called Bass and asked him if he wanted to catch dinner.

      “Yeah,” he replied. “I’m just leaving the office. Let me call Britney and make sure she doesn’t have anything planned. I’ll call you right back.”

      I poured myself a glass of wine and waited for him to call me back.

      “Alright, I’m on my way over,” he said as I answered the phone. “You’re home right? Want to meet there?”

      “Yeah,” I replied. “If you bring some beer over, I’ll order in.”

      “Okay. I’m stopping at Ace’s right now and I’ll see you soon.”

      “Hey,” I called into the phone before he had a chance to hang up. “Did you tell Britney you were having dinner with me?”

      “What do you think, Cooper?” he replied. I could picture his face looking at me like I’d just asked the world’s dumbest question. I swallowed the knot in my throat and tried not to feel too guilty about putting a strain on another one of my friends’ relationships.

      By the time Bass arrived, I’d called in for two Famous Ike’s Philly sandwiches and a platter of chili cheese fries. When I hung out with my one and only straight friend, it was always grease, beer, and caloric regret in the morning.

      “Berry Weiss for you and Stella for me,” he said following me into the apartment.

      “Food should be here soon,” I told him. We each opened a beer and sat at the bar.

      “So what’s up?” he asked. I was glad he hadn’t asked when I told him I wanted to have dinner. It would have forced me to vocalize all of my concerns over the phone, and it might have caused me to realize that I was at fault across the board for every position I was currently in.

      “I don’t know, I just… I sort of broke up with Chase last night,” I said, ripping off the band aid and voicing the words for the first time. I was broken up.

      Sebastian’s face said it all.

      “How close had y’all gotten, really, though? I mean, none of us had hung out with him since his reappearance. It couldn’t have meant that much.”

      “I mean, none of you wanted to see him really, did you? I don’t know. I wasn’t planning a long life with him already or anything, but I could definitely picture it. I could feel it in my heart that it was right being with him. So I guess we were pretty close.”

      “So why’d you break it off?”

      The way Bass asked it, so matter-of-factly reminded me why our friendship had survived for so long. He was always the voice of reason without ever really needing to say much. He simply asked the right questions until I figured out the right thing on my own. He wasn’t over the top in dealing with my drama. In his own straight arrow little way, he grounded the rest of us, especially me.

      I blinked before I answered. “I met with Kyle last night to talk about this custody issue and he said he ended things with Winston.”

      “Okay.”

      “You knew?”

      “Yeah, we texted this morning. He wants everyone at his announcement party, by the way, so no plans on Saturday night.”

      “Yeah, I know.”

      “So you broke up with Chase because Kyle broke up with Winston?” I shrugged in lieu of answering. “Does that mean you want to be with Kyle?”

      “Not necessarily,” I said. It was at that perfect moment that the door bell rang. I sprang up and retrieved our food from the door. It took five minutes to set our food onto plates and settle on the couch with fresh beers, but the last thought I had in my mind hadn’t gone anywhere.

      “I don’t necessarily want to be with Kyle,” I said, letting my emotions turn into words for the first time. “I just felt so guilty when he told me why he couldn’t get married to Winston. Like I was some sort of roadblock or something. It didn’t feel right going home to Chase after all these years while Kyle sat at home alone.”

      I waited for Sebastian to say something, but instead, he just took another big bite out of his cheese steak.

      “Hello. I didn’t bring you here to eat. I need advice.”

      He nodded as he finished his bite, took a swig of beer, and then cleared his throat.

      “What I just heard is that you’re putting your life on hold because you feel guilty that Kyle hasn’t been able to move on. That’s a load of shit.”

      My head shot up and I glared at him. I wasn’t expecting that reaction.

      “What?”

      “Do you want me to be completely honest with you?”

      I was nervous to say yes. I never knew what truth Bass would spill, but I had to hear it.

      “Are you really going to sit there and put your life on the back burner because of Kyle? Seriously? For the rest of your life? You aren’t responsible for his happiness, Cooper. He is. You aren’t responsible for the tension between Britney and me. I know you think this whole entire city revolves around you, but believe it or not we’re big boys. We make our own beds. We are responsible for our own happiness.”

      Hearing him say the words was supposed to lift some weight off my shoulders, and it did to an extent. It made me think that maybe, just maybe, I was allowed to think about myself. Maybe it wasn’t my responsibility to wait for Kyle to be happy, and maybe my decision to leave Devon didn’t have quite the ripple that I held in my head.

      Bass and I dished and talked for the next three hours and twelve beers. By the time he left, he’d eased my anxiety over the great Kyle/Chase debate. I still hadn’t made a decision, but I was realizing that my choice needed to be for me, and not the half dozen other people who would be marginally affected.

      The two people I couldn’t leave out of my decision, however, were CJ and Liz, and that became abundantly clear the next morning when I checked my email on the way to the SMU campus.

      To Cooper: Judge Sizemore is calling for a hearing tomorrow, Wednesday, at nine a.m. He wants to meet with you, Devon, and your representation first and then possibly bring the kids in after. It’s pretty unorthodox. I haven’t heard of a preliminary meeting like this before. I’m spending the day with our divorce and custody expert, but if you want to swing by sometime tonight, I’d advise it. Kyle.

      It was the last thing I wanted to deal with that Tuesday, and yet it was the most important. It almost made going to Dean Pepper’s office seem like a cakewalk in comparison.

      “Mr. Carpenter, have a seat,” he said. I noticed him push a button on his computer that I knew meant he was recording our session.

      “Please, Dean. You can still call me Cooper,” I said, shaking his hand and sitting down across his ancient cherry wood desk. “Why’d you need to see me today?”

      He took a deep breath and I read the bad news across his face like it had been written in giant print.

      “The President’s office read your manuscript and they’re pressuring me to take action.”

      “What sort of action?”

      “Cooper, I’m going to be straight with you,” he said. The pun wasn’t lost in the slightest. “Hiring you was a risky move on my part. I knew there would be questions; controversy. Some folks wouldn’t like it. But I thought that bringing someone in as different as you would serve our students well. There’s a metropolitan quality to Dallas life that some of them rarely get to see growing up. However, the administration can’t support the way in which this particular manuscript depicts the university.”

      “With all due respect, is this going somewhere?” I asked. The hearing with Sizemore was at the back of my mind and sitting there with Dean Pepper was the last thing I wanted to be doing.

      “Yes, I’m sorry. This is the situation. The way I see it for the both of us to come out of this unscathed, you have one of two choices. You can either stop the release of the book.”

      I blinked at him without responding, waiting for him to open door number two.

      “Or, you can part ways with the university at the end of this semester.”

      I ran my tongue across my teeth and squinted across the desk. Those didn’t sound like options to me. Both avenues he left open resulted in me losing some sort of job or another. As I sat there, looking at him look at me with waiting eyes, I did a quick calculation in my mind. Teaching wasn’t my bread and butter, but it was a definite bank account booster. I knew for a fact I had one of the larger contracts for all visiting professors because Kyle had done such a great job negotiating it. A best selling author goes for a high price in the classroom these days.

      On the opposite end of the board, giving up my contract with Knowles was like filing for bankruptcy right then and there. They’d want their advance back, meaning I’d have to sell my condo, most of my assets and try to somehow live on a columnist’s salary while proving to a judge that I could support two kids. I wasn’t even sure I could support myself if I lost that contract.

      Both options would put a dent in my already rock bottom, bottom line, and I couldn’t see how I could make it without one or the other.

      “Um, that’s a pretty drastic move,” I replied finally. “Is there nothing else that can be done?”

      Is there any way I can release this thing and keep my job? I asked in more or less words. But I already knew the answer.

      “I really don’t think there is.”

      “But my contract isn’t up for another year and a half,” I said.

      “I’m afraid that the release of the book as-is will result in a standards breach of your contract.”

      “And that means…”

      “No severance, Cooper.”

      The words felt like a prison sentence. I had dug myself into a pretty deep hole and it didn’t seem like there were very many ways out of it. As I left Pepper’s office feeling like I was already fired, I couldn’t help but wonder how judge Sizemore would size up my situation and declare judgment when I found out I was about to be terminated.

      If I was the judge, I wouldn’t give me my kids; that was for damn sure. I couldn’t make a decision about my life to save my life. I was on the brink of losing my job. I was a mess.

      “You’re a mess,” I said to myself, looking at myself in my rearview mirror. I tapped the steering wheel and said the words again, waiting for the light on University Boulevard to turn green so I could cross the highway and drive down to Wriggs and Streck.

      I kept saying it over and over to myself, sometimes out loud and sometimes in my head.

      You’re a fucking mess!

      As I sailed down Highway 75, I decided to do something about the things I could control. I decided that if it came down to it, I’d leave SMU and stick with Knowles. My contract there was worth more, and if The List was a success, I could option a third book, maybe a life after marriage book. Getting The List out successfully was the important part for my career if I had to stop teaching.

      Secondly, I decided that I would make a choice, once and for all. Not then in the car on the way to see Kyle, but soon. I put a deadline on myself that by Friday afternoon, I would have chosen. I wouldn’t go back on my choice. It was time to be a big boy and decide which direction my life was about to take. 

      And although I hadn’t made any productive moves, just making the decisions to make productive moves put me several steps ahead of where I’d been. I still couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I knew it was there.

      “Hey, Coop,” Kyle said, barely looking up from his computer when I walked into his office. “Have a seat.”

      He pointed at the couches on the far end of the room, but I sat across from his desk instead. He looked up, pulled his glasses off and smiled at me weakly.

      “So what does it all mean?”

      “Okay. Our divorce expert, Tyler, here at the firm is confident that it’s a going to be the case where they let the kids choose. Devon’s attorney has filed a response to our motion for full custody with a motion of their own.”

      “She knew we were going to file?”

      “Basically. It wasn’t a surprise to them. She also knew the judge would ask us to come in for a more informal discussion. Tyler seems to think the judge is going to see if there’s any way to do this without taking it to court.”

      “Mediation?”

      “Something like that. It’s sort of like a binding arbitration situation. If there is a decision reached, it’ll be like there was a legal ruling and no one can back out of it.”

      “Okay,” I replied, processing what Kyle was saying. As stressed out as I was about everything else, I was determined to focus on what my friend was saying. “So what’s our game plan tomorrow?”

      “I’m pulling any evidence I can find that moving the kids out of state and away from you would damage them developmentally in the long run. It can work with CJ since he’s only 13, but it seems like Liz is past the age where this kind of thing could scar her for life.”

      “Bullshit,” I said. There was no way a scientist could put a number on when a kid stopped needing her parents. The answer would always be always. She would always need me, and I was prepared for that.

      “Cooper, trust me. I have four associates digging up any information to disprove that,” Kyle said with a raised eyebrow. “We’re going in there tomorrow with a file so deep, Kimberly Franklin will need scuba gear to sift through it all.”

      I was both impressed and slightly turned on by Kyle’s no-holds-barred ball busting demeanor. It felt good to know that he was throwing his entire might behind my cause, and I appreciated it. I sat for a minute wondering just how far past appreciation my feelings went.

      “Umm, okay. It sounds like everything is coming together then,” I sighed. There was no use sitting there micromanaging when I didn’t even understand what the fuck they were doing. “I should get going.”

      “Yeah,” he said. “It’ll be a long night for us. But you get some rest. Maybe go to dinner with Spencer or something, and I’ll see you at the courthouse at nine sharp.”

      I nodded, stood up, and walked out.

      Kyle was right to suggest I call Spence. The last thing I wanted was to go home to an empty apartment. Instead, I sent Spence a message, and drove straight to his place.

      “The least you could have done for this emergency therapy session is bring in some vodka,” he said with a smile as he let me in.

      “You mean your distillery has finally gone dry?”

      “Oh no, my friend. My distillery runneth over.” I smiled at the bad joke and followed him into his casual bachelorized living room. The black leather seats, white treated wood, and glass accents screamed ‘I’m single!’ and fit Spencer perfectly.

      “So tell me why you dumped the chump,” I gave him a look. “Sebastian called me. Way to not invite me to international beer night.”

      “Does Kyle know?”

      “Not yet,” Spencer sighed. “But he’ll find out eventually. What’s going on with you? I thought you were finally moving on.”

      “I am. I was,” I added quickly. “I just. I don’t know. When Kyle told me he was ending it with Winston and when I realized everything he had done for me; there’s a portion of my heart that keeps wanting him back.”

      “Where the hell was that portion for twenty years when you could have had him back, Cooper?”

      I shrugged like a little kid being scolded. And at that moment, I felt like one. I felt like a stupid little kid who kept touching the stove even though he knew it was hot. I had no business pining over Kyle again, and yet there I was.

      “Look, I don’t want to dwell on this ‘cause it’ll just give me a headache. If you and Kyle were going to be together, I feel like you already would have been together. It’s that simple.”

      I digested what he said, and maybe my oldest friend was right. Maybe it was that simple. Maybe I was trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Maybe Kyle and I were like oil and vinegar. We could mix for a while, but eventually we’d separate. As surprising as it was coming from Spencer and Bass before him, maybe my future was with Chase.

      “I don’t really feel like talking about this anymore,” I said, defeated. As much as I wasn’t over the situation, I was over the conversation. Before I could even get up and ask, Spencer poured us two vodka tonics, finished with ice cold lemon wheels.

      “Tell me something to distract me from everything.”

      “Um, okay. Well, you know the sports anchor on Fox, six o’clock?”

      “Yes,” I said.

      Spencer leaned in close. “He has an asshole that just won’t quit.”

      “What?”

      “We met at the Reunion Tower on Saturday night and we got to talking, drinking, flirting, blah, blah, blah. Took me to his apartment overlooking the city, and bam. He let me fuck him.”

      “Troy Davis is gay?”

      “Troy Davis is a big ole gay,” Spencer said with a grin. It was a secret that would have ignited the gay community. Troy Davis was a stud if anyone had ever seen one. Rumor had it, in his earlier days, he’d posed for a woman’s skin calendar. Now, he was the sportscaster of choice for any gay man who was into sports.

      “Did he tell you to keep it quiet?”

      “Yeah, he told me not to tell anyone,” Spencer replied. “But he also asked me out to dinner.”

      The look of joy on my friend’s face was unmistakable.

      “And I don’t want you to ask me where this is going, either,” he added.

      “Oh, of course not. I’d never.”

      “This is going to be too much fun. I thought about asking him to Kyle’s party, but I figure that’s a little too high profile for him.”

      I nodded and sipped. We continued to gossip about what other local celebrities we could see being closet queens, and as our blood-alcohol levels rose, so did our list. By the time I fell asleep with Spencer next to me on his couch, I had successfully forgotten that my own personal D-Day was only hours away.

      I woke up painfully early with a painful headache. I took an aspirin and drank two full bottles of water before hopping in the shower. I put on one of Spencer’s thousand dollar suits, thankful that we’d retained the ability to share clothes since our first days in college. By 7:30, I was dressed and sipping coffee.

      Spencer woke up at a quarter after eight and ran around the apartment trying to get court ready in fifteen minutes. I didn’t expect him and Bass to go that time around considering it was just a chat between Devon and I, but they insisted. When we reached the courthouse, Bass and Britney were whispering on a bench together and Kyle was flipping through his tablet.

      “Hey, you look good,” he said, barely glancing up at me. He looked even better. His face was clean shaven, his hair slicked back, and his suit slim and tight along his body. The stern look of someone working on something important made his face look older and more distinguished at the same time. He definitely had a vintage George Clooney vibe going on.

      I tapped my feet to fill the silence of the hall, waiting for the judge to open his chambers to us. We’d all gotten there painfully early and the fact that the man was painfully late made the whole thing that much more painful.

      I knew that the kids had ridden in with Devon, but I wondered where they were at that point. I was sure they were safe and sound, but I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy at having not seen them since this whole thing started.

      I wished there was a way I could intercept them before they went in to speak to the judge. I wanted to tell them that I loved them, and that I would love them no matter what happened. But I couldn’t do that because I had no clue where the hell they were.

      “So, Wriggs, when do you announce your candidacy?” Kimberly Franklin asked from the other side of the judge’s door. Her hair was pulled back tight into a pony tail, creating a frighteningly wide-eyed look that was hard to look at. Beside her, Devon sat next to Britney in the seat since left vacant by Bass, who had joined our camp.

      “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

      “Don’t be coy, Wriggs. The whispers are all over the courthouse. You’re making a bid for DA. I think it’s charming.”

      “Well then if it’s true, I’d appreciate your vote,” Kyle said noncommittally. He was still looking down at his tablet as if he couldn’t be bothered by small talk. I thought for a second that he was probably reading notes on how to effectively try a divorce case.

      “I’ll have to hear your positions first,” Franklin pressed on. She looked like a ball buster but sounded like the annoying girl at a college party who wouldn’t take the hint.

      “Maybe I’ll have Jason run them by you,” Kyle said, looking up at her with a smirk. I made a mental note to ask what the history between Kimberly and Kyle’s older brother there was, but before I could even come up with a theory, the door opened and a male clerk came out.

      “The judge will see you now,” he said. His voice was a mix between a nurse calling you in to see the doctor and an executioner calling you in to the gas chamber. Part of me wanted to run, but the other part of me knew I had to stand there and fight this thing out.

      The four of us filed into the judge’s chambers, leaving our cheering squads on the sidelines. The room was large and cold. Everything about it was chilling. From the maroon and black detailing to the diplomas and awards perched high next to the ceiling. It was clear what the judge did in his spare time by the three taxidermy deer heads and several hunting trophies that peppered the maroon paneled walls.

      “Have a seat ladies and gentlemen,” Sizemore said, pointing to four badly upholstered leather chairs. The office, and the judge himself, seemed out of date. “I’d like to extend my thanks for coming in on such short notice. I know that all of you lead busy schedules.”

      His voice was like velvet, the only comforting thing of the entire space. The way he dropped the last syllable of every word and replaced his ‘s’ sounds with a hard ‘z’ made him sound like a survivor of the old southern gentry.

      “Now, let’s get straight to it, shall we? My clerk here, Mr. Michaels, will be taking notes if that’s all right with everyone.”

      We all nodded.

      “Now, Mr. Wriggs, I read your motion to repeal my temporary divorce order on the grounds that circumstances have changed. What do you mean by that, sir?”

      “Well your honor, the order was put into place before Ms. Ward announced she was leaving the state of Texas to take up residence in Illinois. Because such a move would drastically alter the children’s stability, we’d like you to take another look at the divorce order.”

      “My decision on the matter was thorough to begin with, Wriggs. Do you have any new evidence that your client can provide a more stable home for Cooper James and Elizabeth than their mother can?”

      I glanced at Kyle. He glanced at me and swallowed.

      “Your honor, this new position that Ms. Ward has accepted comes with extensive travel. I’ve spoken to her new employers myself and have here an affidavit stating that the position would require 2-4 nights of travel a week. Whereas Ms. Ward used to have a stay-at-home father to help pick up the slack when she was out of town, if she moves to Chicago, she’ll forfeit that luxury.”

      “Your honor, my client is prepared to hire full time staff to help her care for the children while she’s out of town. And let’s not forget that at 13 and 15, both kids require very little hands on supervision.”

      The judge’s face shot back at Kyle. He swallowed before he responded.

      “I’m sorry, your honor, but that’s simply not true. 13 and 15 are incredibly impressionable ages. You’ll see in section two of the evidence packet I faxed over last night, studies show that parent/child interaction at these pivotal ages result in lower juvenile behavior problems and in higher grades and standardized testing results. If Ms. Franklin wants to argue that it’s okay for Ms. Ward to leave her kids with a nanny while she traipses around the country, she’s actually arguing that it’s okay for these kids to underachieve in a very big way.”

      Kyle took a short pause and I thought he was done, but evidently, he’d just started.

      “Furthermore, when said behavioral issues began to surface on two separate occasions, Ms. Ward telephoned my client, ignoring the stipulations of the Temporary Divorce Order, to assist her in dealing with the matter. By circumventing the court’s ruling, Ms. Ward was stating that my client’s presence isn’t only important in the kid’s lives, but also paramount in providing proper discipline and guidance.”

      I looked at Devon’s camp and saw her whisper to Kimberly.

      “Your honor, both of those situations were isolated incidents.”

      “Two isolated incidents since I last saw you, Ms. Franklin? Sounds like the potential of a pattern to me.”

      “I couldn’t agree more your honor,” Kyle added. “And what is she going to do next time? Expect my client to hop on a plane to help her discipline the kids?”

      I couldn’t help but smirk slightly. It felt like we were winning. Kyle continued to press on, describing to the judge how much more stable it would be for the kids to stay with me in Dallas, close to their school and extended family. He pointed out studies that showed single parent families where that parent worked primarily from home resulted in a quality of life that was far greater than a parent who worked full time in an office. His case was clear. I had more time for them than Devon did.

      To her credit, Franklin did a great job of refuting Kyle’s arguments. She didn’t tread down the tired ‘He’s a gay semi-celebrity’ track any more, and instead, stuck to the cold hard facts. Kids need their mother. Chicago would be different, but it would be fine. Devon could provide for them.

      And then the conversation turned to money. The whole time the lawyers dissected our financial situation, I sat in my seat, paranoid that someone would bring up the fact that I was about to be fired. As it stood, Franklin pointed out that Devon made more money than I did and that I’d signed away any right to spousal support.

      “What about when she sells the practice?” I whispered to Kyle. He shushed me, and pointed out to the judge that for years the family lived on my salary alone and that we survived just fine.

      Listening to them reduce us to annual earning numbers made my head hurt and I tried my best to stay in the conversation. I couldn’t help my mind wandering to what stuffy, badly lit room my kids were waiting in. For a brief moment, I wished I could go back into time and prevent this whole thing from ever happening.

      “This is the way I see it,” Judge Sizemore said after both sides had laid their case. He put both elbows on his desk and glared over his half glasses at us. “With both Mr. Carpenter and Mizz Ward able to provide a familial atmosphere for those two kids, it would be nearly impossible for me to advocate one choice over another.”

      I perked up in my seat and held on to every word he said.

      “The only recourse we have at this point is to ask the children what they’d rather do. If they’d rather join their mother in Chicago, then so be it. If they would rather stay in Dallas with their father, it’s up to them.”

      I felt my heart rise and fall at the same time. Part of me was ecstatic that it wasn’t a flat out no. There was hope yet and that excited me. The other part of me knew the danger of letting them pick. It meant one could choose me and the other could choose Devon. Worse yet, both of them could decide to go on this northern adventure and abandon me. At that point, I wouldn’t have the legal system to blame. It would all be on me.

      “I don’t want to separate them,” I said, bringing my mind back to the situation. I realized that I had interrupted the judge just as he was saying he would explain the procedure to the kids and then have another hearing with them in two weeks.

      “I beg your pardon?”

      “Whatever they choose, I don’t want them to separate.”

      “Cooper, watch what you’re saying,” Kyle whispered. I knew what I was saying. I was saying that Chase barely had a relationship with his sister and mother because he’d chosen his dad over everything. I wasn’t going to do that to those two, not after they’d proven they could come together. I didn’t want it to sound like I needed an all or nothing situation. However, I knew I had to protect my family from falling apart, even if that meant letting them go.

      “That makes things a little more complicated, Mr. Carpenter,” the judge responded. I caught the smirk on Franklin’s face out of the corner of my eye.

      “Why? Can’t you tell them, judge? Can’t you tell them to come up with a decision together?”

      “Cooper.”

      “I know what will happen if we tear them apart. They’re going to lose a parent, that much we know,” I said, unsure of where my voice was coming from. I was so nervous, and my stomach was turning so fast, I felt as if I was going to vomit at any minute. “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if they lost each other, too.”

      I heard Devon sniffle, but I refused to look in her direction. If I saw her cry, I knew I’d cry.

      “I’ll take it under advisement. I’ll have my clerk escort the children into my chambers.”

      I saw Kyle stand up and I knew we were dismissed. He shook the judge’s hand and whispered something in his ear. I would have paid a million bucks to know what he’d said.

      I sat outside in the corridor with my three closest friends waiting for Sizemore to tell my kids that they had to pick. It took everything I had not to look over at the girl’s camp for fear I’d lose it again like I did last time.

      “So, what’s the verdict?” Spencer asked finally after fidgeting for a few minutes.

      “The judge is going to let the kids pick.”

      “That’s good,” Bass replied quickly. “That’s good right?”

      “Sort of. Cooper here decided he only wanted the kids to pick if they picked the same.”

      I saw the look on Spencer’s face. He thought I was retarded. To him, having one kid stay with me was better than none. They weren’t fucking collectibles, I wanted to say, but I kept my cool. I knew I had done the right thing by speaking up. Now I just needed that right thing to pay off.

      “Let’s just say I couldn’t be more excited that my daughter is dating your son,” I said somberly, looking at Sebastian. “He doesn’t plan to move to Chicago, does he?”

      “Over my dead body,” my friend said with a smile.

      It felt like a dozen years passed before the kids were brought out. I got to hug them briefly before they were whisked to the parking lot and driven back to school.

      “I love you kiddos,” I said to them both as I hugged them goodbye. I knew it wasn’t goodbye forever, but it sure did feel like it. Two weeks would be here before I knew it, and before I knew it, they’d be gone.

      Spencer drove me back to his place after the whole ordeal was over with. Kyle offered to look after me, but Spence was quick to say I could crash at his place for the night, cancelling his date with the news anchor to be on Cooper-watch.

      “You don’t have to do that,” I said.

      “Are you kidding? Like I can go out and have fun knowing you’re sitting in your bathtub alone eyeing your straight razor. Hell no.”

      I looked out the window and chuckled once at the terribly inappropriate joke.

      “I know why you’re doing this,” I said.

      “Doing what?”

      “Taking me to your place.”

      “Cooper.”

      “I’m not going to sleep with him again,” I said. It was easy to say when he was halfway across downtown, but I wasn’t even sure I believed the words. Luckily for me, Spencer didn’t respond. He simply pulled into his parking spot and we walked up to his apartment.

      Whenever Spencer is instructed to cheer someone up, alcohol is always on the menu. That night, it wasn’t beer and cheese fries we were after. Spencer brought out the big guns.

      Tequila.

      Before I could even change into a pair of my friend’s sweat pants, the Patron was out and chilling. Spencer followed me into the room and took off his suit, replacing it with nothing but a pair of short running shorts.

      When we finally settled into his living room, mixing tequila with agave nectar and lime juice, I knew it was going to be a long afternoon.

      “So who the fuck are you going to choose?” Spencer asked, point blank after one drink and a tepid recap of what had happened in the judge’s chambers.

      “Huh?”

      “Oh, come on,” Spencer said. “This is exactly where you were a couple weeks ago. Kyle on the left and Chase on the right. Who are you going to choose?”

      “Who said it’s my choice?”

      “Cooper, it’s always been your choice. For whatever reason, you get these guys to go crazy over you.”

      “I learned from you, remember,” I said with a smirk and a jab.

      “Oh please. If even one guy was willing to turn his life upside down for me, I wouldn’t be the single one, would I?” He had a point there. “The fact is, you dumped Chase the second Kyle was on the market. You only slept with Kyle because it looked like you’d never have Chase. What’s next?”

      “I didn’t dump Chase. I just… I told him I was conflicted.”

      “And for three weeks while Kyle was getting married, you weren’t conflicted at all. You were as clear as a bell, buddy.”

      “You’re ridiculous,” I squirmed.

      “No, I just know you. And I know you’ve already picked in your mind, so spill it. Did seeing Kyle all sexy and official in his lawyer costume do it for you again?”

      I smiled at Spencer. “If it did, would I have come home with you?”

      Spencer gave me a knowing look as he reached over and poured more tequila into our glasses.

      “So you would have slept with him?”

      “You know me so well,” I said, trying deliberately to be difficult. “You tell me.”

      “I’ll tell you what I know. I know that you’re scared out of your mind and you always have been. You’re nervous that something will actually go right for you, Cooper. You’ve screwed enough things up you don’t know how to appreciate something that’s working.”

      I looked at him. I knew it was his honest, friendly assessment, no matter how scathing. It was also true. I did screw things up because the prospect of thing actually working out was foreign to me. I had been in four major relationships in my life, and I had found a way to fuck up every single one.

      “So tell me how I make something work, Spencer,” I said, my attitude surfacing involuntarily. I knew he was speaking the truth, but that didn’t mean I liked it. “Since you’re the expert. Tell me. I was honest with Kyle and he crushed me. I was honest with Chase and he left. Assuming I do get to choose, who do I pick?”

      “That’s easy. Who do you love?”

      “It’s not that easy,” I said, ready to stand up and get out of there. I felt like Spencer was cornering me while I was already vulnerable.

      “It actually is. Ask yourself who you love and then you’ll know who to pick.”

      “I love them both.”

      “Really? Do you? Honestly?”

      “Yes.”

      “Okay. Whatever you say,” he said. He didn’t believe me at all and I could tell by his voice and his body language. I didn’t reply, but simply looked at him with my lips pursed. He looked back at me, raising an eyebrow, and sipping his drink slowly.

      The silence was deafening. Listening to Spencer was like listening to myself speak. We’d been on the same wavelength, unlike any other I’d ever been on with anyone else, since we met. When it came to knowing someone inside and out, I could honestly say that Spencer did.

      And that afternoon, over chilled tequila, I did what Spencer knew I needed to do, and I made a decision.

      It took three more drinks and a lot of back and forth before I said the name out loud. It took two more drinks and even more cajoling before I agreed to have Spencer’s driver take me to the guy I’d chosen. It took nearly an entire bottle of liquid courage before I got into the car next to Spencer and rode off, trying to salvage the relationship I’d known all along that I had always wanted.

      When I stepped off the elevator and knocked on Chase’s suite door, I wondered what he’d say. Telling him I might still be in love with Kyle could have very well been his deal breaker. I didn’t expect him to open the door and let me right back into his arms, but part of me did. We’d both fucked up at different turns, and we’d both put the other through enough. I was ready to lay all of that bullshit to rest and concentrate on what was important: building a life together no matter what the future held.

      I knocked again after no one answered the door the first time. I knew I had the right room. The same concierge that I had checked out with recognized me in the lobby and told me Chase was staying in the same room he’d occupied before. I knocked a third time, and just as the reality hit me that sometimes plans don’t always match up, and that I might be returning to the car empty handed, the door creaked open.

      “Who are you?” I asked the stranger who opened Chase’s door. He was wrapped in a towel and steam from the bathroom billowed behind him.

      The guy was definitely sexy. He was a little taller than I was and skinny, with dark features, and a brunette beard that was perfectly manicured. He had a tattoo on his left chest, and several others on his arm. The part of his body that wasn’t covered by the plush hotel towel was smooth and chiseled in al the right ways.

      “You’re the one that knocked on my door while I was taking a shower, so maybe I should be the one asking who you are.” His voice was low and soft, almost a whisper. It drew you in like a snake charm.

      “Um,” I said, averting my eyes. “I guess I have the wrong door.”

      I took a step back, but the stranger stopped me.

      “No wait. Who are you looking for?” he looked me up and down, exuding a kind of sexuality that you didn’t normally find in guys.

      “I’m looking for Chase. Is he still staying here?”

      “Who’d you say you are again?”

      “I’m Cooper,” I replied, ready to bolt down the hallway at any second.

      I watched the smile creep across the guy’s face, and it literally sent a chill down my spine.

      “Cooper,” he extended his free hand. His smile grew wider and more sinister. “I’m Morgan. It’s nice to finally meet the guy who’s been fucking my husband.”

 



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