Click here to see the beautiful graphic Jennie made for this story.
There wasn't a cloud in Tulsa's night sky when Logan stepped out onto the porch. The weathered wood was rough and cold under his bare feet as he eased the screen door shut behind him, shivering a little. Indian summer had come and gone, and now the breeze had a bit of an edge, bore the smell of decaying leaves. It felt good on his skin as it stirred the hair on his chest and arms, and he paused to breathe deep.
He went to the porch railing, skirting the board that creaked, and looked out over the back yard. He liked it here. Quiet, not too many neighbors. Lots of open space, but close enough to the city and all its distractions. Just one of the many attractions Tulsa held for him.
The moon lit up the soybean field that bordered the property, now nothing more than a bumpy expanse of tilled earth, resting until the next growing season. Lots of stars out here, and as he tipped his head back to look up at them, he found himself doing what he always did when he looked at the stars: wondering if there was a girl in Westchester who was doing the same thing.
Soft sounds from inside the house told him he wouldn't be alone on the porch much longer. A minute later she joined him, shivering in her bathrobe. He didn't turn around, so she sidled up behind him, wrapped her arms around his stomach.
"It's chilly out here."
The soft press of a kiss between his shoulder blades sent goosebumps down his arms. She had a wonderful mouth. "You should come inside, where it's warm," she breathed against his spine. Her hands slid down, fingers teasing the line of hair where it disappeared into his jeans.
He turned and began to walk her backwards, her hands still in his pants. "I was just thinking the same thing," he mumbled, keeping one eye open for the screen door as he found that wonderful mouth with his own.
An hour later he crept into the small kitchen, a moonlit room that still smelled like the sloppy joes they'd had for dinner. As he crossed the floor, his nose picked up other things, and he wrinkled it at the eggshell and coffee smells. He hated that the garbage can was right by the phone.
He picked up the handset and flipped it over, his thumb working the buttons on the inside automatically, dialing a calling card number he'd memorized long ago. He stood motionless as it rang in his ear. Finally, a sleepy voice.
His eyes fluttered closed for a second, relief and affection washing over him. "Hey. I wake you up?"
A quiet laugh. "You know you did."
He pulled a chair out from the table and sat down, propping his head on his free hand. "So what's up with you, darlin'?"
He wondered sometimes if she knew why he called, and when. He wondered if she would be offended if she knew, or hurt. Probably a little of both. But that didn't stop him. He couldn't stop, really. When his body was sated and quiet, his heart ached for the same. And that only came from Marie. No one else.
He'd made it sound like it was a safety issue when he insisted that she let him pay for a cell phone. And it was. Kind of. It was also a matter of convenience. Both his, and everyone who lived at the mansion. A direct line meant less hassle for them all.
As soon as Marie figured out that she could expect phone calls from Logan at strange times, she started keeping the phone close. Last time he'd been back to Westchester, he'd seen the charging stand on the table next to her bed. It had given him a weird feeling, knowing that it was there so that she could take his late-night phone calls.
Later on, he figured out what that weird feeling was. It took him a lot longer to figure out what to do about it.
"Tulsa again? You must like it there." Second time this year, and he knew that fact didn't escape her notice.
"Yeah. Pretty much. Probably leaving soon, though."
"You've been there a long time."
"I guess." A week and a half. He panicked a little, searched his mind. Had he ever stayed in Westchester that long? Something told him that he hadn't. Not in one stretch. Once he'd stayed for three weeks, but he'd been gone for a day or two in there.
"Better get moving before you grow roots," she teased, but he could hear it in her voice - she was worried. If he was going to grow roots, he knew there was only one place she wanted that to happen, and it sure as hell wasn't in Tulsa.
"Nah, never gonna happen," he insisted, then cursed himself for not thinking about the words before he said them.
There was silence on the other end of the phone, which he rushed to fill. "How's the hero business?"
"Good." Forced lightness there. "They all tell me I'm more of a help than a hindrance, and I guess I'll believe that eventually."
"You get the hang of that flying thing yet?"
That made her laugh, a sound that always made his chest feel too small to hold his leaping heart.
Half an hour later, he dropped his jeans and slipped into bed, bumped up against a warm lump that was threatening to take over his pillow.
Everything quiet, body and mind, he slept.
Two nights later, she was noticeably surprised to hear that he hadn't moved on yet. "You're still there?"
He shrugged, despite the fact that she couldn't see it. "Nowhere else to go."
That silence again. He was starting to hate that silence. Hated even more the fact that he kept making it happen.
This was hurting her, calling her, saying these things. But not calling her hurt him, and he simply wasn't noble enough to make the right choice.
As he put the phone back in its cradle, he told himself again that there didn't have to be a choice. He could go back to Westchester and stay there. There was always a place for him there, always a room waiting, always a job waiting.
Always a girl waiting.
The job and the room sounded like a pretty good deal. It was the part about the girl that made him want to turn tail and run the other way.
He was a man of appetites, appetites that had gone unchecked for years. He got bored, he got antsy, he saw something else he wanted, he moved on. Most of the time it was a clean break, and an expected one. He walked away without guilt, without remorse.
There would be none of that with Marie. When he walked away, it would be messy, and would sever ties he rarely admitted to, but ties that existed nonetheless. The only ones that existed, for him.
Once he was in, it was all or nothing. And more and more, Logan suspected it was only nothing that he had to give.
He tried, now and then. Tested himself. Out here, on the road, with no one to see him fail, with nothing at risk. He'd never made it more than a few weeks without giving into temptation, and only once made it a whole month.
He could go back to Westchester and have that month, any time he wanted. He knew that. And it would be, without a doubt, the best month of his whole life. Followed by years of that empty ache he'd recently lost the ability to tolerate, and no one would be there to fix it for him.
It was the wrong time to go back, and he knew it. He went through phases where he had flashbacks, where the nightmares increased in frequency and intensity, where his temper turned hair-trigger and volatile. Those were the times he kept to himself, where he traveled hard, driving all night instead of sleeping, rising to every challenge and pretended insult just to have something real to focus his anger on, to pummel.
But he had planned on being in Westchester for Christmas, because it was important to Marie, and because he'd missed it last year. He had gifts, he had plans. And deep in his brain he had a voice that wondered if she could fix this the way she fixed the emptiness.
He knew immediately it was a mistake, knew he shouldn't be here. Not when he was like this. Not when he was this unbalanced and vulnerable.
And especially not when Marie looked like she had spent the last seven months gathering her courage.
He'd planned to stay for two weeks, but he wasn't in the door ten minutes before he decided that four days would be all he could take, that he'd leave the day after Christmas. Until then he'd just have to deal. Or hide. Hiding sounded like a great plan.
But there was no hiding from the person who shared a good portion of his personality, and he gave up almost immediately.
Christmas Eve was cold, bitterly cold. The stars looked hard and brittle in the sky, like broken glass. Every breath came out a white plume, and the skin of his face felt tight and immobile, like it would crack and splinter if he smiled. Not much danger of that happening, at least.
He knew the chill wouldn't keep Marie away. She was, by necessity, always dressed for the cold. He didn't turn around when she stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind her, so she pushed his feet off the wrought iron table and took a seat in front of him.
Four days had been a fantasy, he realized. Still two to go, and he was already mentally packing his bags as he took in the look on her face.
She didnít waste time on pleasantries. "How long are you going to keep doing this?"
God, how he wanted to play dumb. Maybe she'd take the hint and let it go. As quickly as he considered it, he gave up that idea. She'd been letting a lot of things go for a long time now. Those days were past. He had a feeling he was really going to miss them.
This was going to be a short conversation. No dicking around. "I donít think I can do it. I want to, but I don't think I can. Not for the long haul, anyway." There. Bald truth.
"I don't believe you."
Well, now, that was a kicker. He had a mental list as long as his arm of bullshit excuses and reasons why, but she wasn't buying the honest-to-God truth? He laughed, a humorless bark, cold air rushing in to chill his lungs. "I can prove it," he shot back.
She stood and held out her hand, which he stared at stupidly until she said, "Well, come on, Logan. Let's get this over with, then, so we can get on with our lives."
And like a dead man walking, he let her lead him to her room.
The sex was good, and not having the urge to get up and make a phone call afterwards was even better. No emptiness, no staring at the ceiling. Just cooling sweat and the taste of her in his mouth, and drowsiness like he could sleep for a week if she'd let him. Which she didn't.
The second time was even better, and he was already starting to get used to this new version of himself when they exchanged gifts at three in the morning, still tangled in the sheets. Bits of brightly colored paper went flying as she tore into her presents, and they scattered across the bed like confetti when she got up and ran to the kitchen because she was starving.
She came back with a heaping plate of Christmas cookies, and he put his head in her lap and played with all the gadgets on his new Swiss Army knife while she fed him frosted cookies and filled cookies and some kind of gooey thing that tasted like rum. She made him try the eggnog, and he made a face, but he secretly liked it.
She prodded him to lift his head so she could get under the covers, and he grudgingly gave up the great view he had of her breasts. He was going to buy her several hundred shirts just like the sheer silk one she was currently wearing.
Then, as he reached for the blanket, ready to get some sleep and recharge, already looking forward to round three in the morning, she said, "Okay, you can go now."
He froze, could only stare at her. She had to be kidding, but it wasn't very funny.
Then she planted a foot on his hip and started to push. He scrambled to get his feet out from under the sheets before he landed on his ass. He stumbled, caught himself, then whirled to face her.
"What the hell are you doin', Marie?" The floor was chilly, and he shifted from one bare foot to the other, irritated.
"Go back to Tulsa, Logan."
"What?" His feet stopped moving.
"You heard me." She adjusted her pillow and lay back, which seemed odd and out of place. It was too normal, too relaxed, to be happening during this conversation. She wasn't acting at all like a person who had just wadded his heart up in her fist like it was an old newspaper. He found he couldn't bear to see her acting so unconcerned.
He stared down at the bed, at the rumpled sheets, at the only place he wanted to be right now. A place he was apparently no longer welcome. "I don't think I want to," he said finally, the plaintive tone one he was not used to hearing in his own voice.
She didn't give in. "You'll never know unless you try it."
So he did.
But not right away.
He was only a few days out of New York when he hit the Tulsa city limits, and with the memory of Marie still new and strong in his mind, what would it prove? So he went north, around the city, and kept going. Sometimes stopping at his usual haunts, sometimes finding new ones. There was nothing in any of them he wanted as much as he wanted simply to hear a girl in Westchester answer the phone with sleep still in her voice.
But Marie wasn't taking his calls. The cell phone rang and rang and rang until the voicemail kicked in. He never left a message, and after the first few days, he stopped calling.
She'd cut him off, he realized. Cast him out. And God, but it made him angry. She'd taken it *all* from him, both what he'd had and what he'd hoped to have.
This wasn't how it was supposed to be. It was supposed to be either/or, and instead he'd found himself with neither. She'd rendered his former life empty and unappealing, and then taken away his new one after only a few short hours. She'd given him a taste, let him see what his life could be like, what *he* could be like, and then snatched it from him. Sent him out into the snow before dawn on Christmas morning with a pain in his heart that clung to his inside the way the smell of her clung to his outside.
He hadn't showered before he left Westchester, and by the time he stopped to fill his gas tank, his clothing was saturated with the smell of her. When he'd changed out of those clothes later, he'd shoved them into his duffel bag, and from then on everything he owned smelled like Marie. But this was a different Marie, not the one he was used to. This was a Marie who smelled like she'd just been fucked by him.
He knew immediately, without even testing the theory, that taking up with someone else would prove nothing and fix even less. He admired them, got an eyeful, basked in the flattery because it was nice to know that someone was willing to pay attention to him, even if Marie was not. But he didn't want them. Not like before.
And maybe he still called her once in a while, just to make sure she still didn't want to hear from him.
She still didn't want to hear from him.
He kept going, kept following the road before him, but he spent most of his time slouched on the beds in various hotel rooms, staring at the free cable and turning the knife she'd given him for Christmas over and over in his hands. He was up to his armpits in self-pity, but he didn't know how to put a stop to it. He'd never been this low, not that he could ever remember, not even in those first days after he'd escaped from the lab. But back then he hadn't been able to remember what he'd had and lost, and he thought that probably made all the difference.
He thought about that night often, but he didn't think about the sex. Well, that wasn't exactly true - he thought about the sex an awful lot. But mostly he remembered other things. He remembered the smile on her face as she opened a velvety box and found a shiny platinum necklace. He remembered how one of the Christmas bows had somehow gotten tangled in her hair, and he remembered that the frosting on the cookies had turned her tongue green.
He desperately wanted more memories like those, and when one week became three became six, he once again started east.
He stopped in Tulsa, because that's what Marie had told him to do.
Same bar, same songs on the jukebox, same woman. She was still beautiful as all hell, and happy to see him. She was also wearing a pair of snug leather pants, a personal weakness of his.
Out in the parking lot, she leaned him up against the side of the truck and kissed his throat. She still had a wonderful mouth, and he still remembered what it felt like when she pleasantly applied it to other parts of his body. He wanted her, as badly as he'd ever wanted her. And he could have her.
But when she dragged her mouth across his jawline, looking to catch his lower lip between her teeth, he turned his head away.
He could do this, he could go back to that little house by the soybean field and get reacquainted with that mouth. But afterwards. . .
Afterwards, he would lie in her bed and stare at the wall, miserable. Miserable and angry. That tiny part of him that held out hope that he could make it work with Marie would be proved wrong. Standing there in the parking lot, the winter wind cutting through his jeans and making his skin tingle, he felt the loss of that hope quite keenly, as if it had really happened.
Marie had given him a chance to let that hope grow, maybe until it stopped being hope and started being truth.
He caught her hands and used them to back her away from him slightly, enough to break the contact of their bodies. Her mouth turned down in a little frown. "I can't," he sighed. Actually, he could. But he didn't want to, or at least he didnít want to badly enough. And now he knew. He wasn't that different, he hadn't changed that much. He still liked what he liked and he still wanted what he wanted.
What was new was the knowledge that it came at a price he had no desire to pay.
He wanted this woman, but he didn't need her. He needed to be that guy back in Westchester with a stack of Christmas presents in his lap and the smell of his girl all over his skin. The guy who knew he was going to start a whole new life when he woke up in the morning, and he didn't care that he'd have cookie crumbs in his hair and bits of wrapping paper stuck to his ass.
He wanted to be that guy so bad. And he couldn't be that guy in Tulsa.
"I can't," he said again.
"Oh." Surprised disappointment. She withdrew her hands, hugged her jacket around her. He felt a little guilty for showing up like this, coming here just so he could reject her.
Neither said anything for a few seconds. A gust of wind pelted them with a scattering of snowflakes from the roof. He cleared his throat, suddenly awkward and unsure of what to say. "Listen, I won't be coming back," he decided on at last.
She nodded, her eyes focused somewhere in the middle of his chest. "The one in New York?"
He gave her a sharp look. He'd never talked about Marie. Then he decided to let it go. "Yeah."
Another nod as she got the answer she'd expected. "I always figured it'd be her."
Marie was asleep, but he felt no guilt at all about waking her. He cupped her cheek, knowing the leather glove was cold, and watched her open her eyes. And smile at him, thank God.
"Hey, you're back." Oh, how he'd missed that sleepy voice.
She reached up and ran her finger along the curve of his eyebrow. Slowly, carefully, because she wasn't wearing her gloves. He held absolutely still. "Are you still scared?" she asked softly.
He'd never called it that, even to himself. But that's what it was. "A little." But it beat being empty and miserable.
She smiled again. "Good." Then she slid over and pulled back the covers. "Climb in."
He shook off his jacket and pried his feet out of his boots while she found her gloves, then dove under the blankets, fully clothed. She was warm, and smelled a little like popcorn. A movie night, he supposed. He was looking forward to lots of those.
As he settled in behind her, the exhaustion that had been dogging him for days finally taking over, she whispered, "How was Tulsa?"
He pulled her a little closer and yawned. "I was right," he mumbled. "I didn't want to go back."