Breathe Me Page 17

“I know. I told Mom about the Ferris wheel! My favorite ride. Wasn’t it romantic, Uncle Sasha?”

“A-ha! The guilty party fesses up!” He made a funny face, pointing at Leah as she sat proudly acknowledging her actions. “It was terribly romantic, though. But Auntie Piper is afraid of heights, so I think that if anyone plans on setting her up for a another surprise, it should definitely involve heights.”

“Hey!” I elbowed him in the ribs and he feigned agony. I turned toward Leah and shrugged. “Okay, it’s true, I’m afraid of heights.”

She giggled at me, making me blush red.

“So I’ll have to keep my eyes on both of you. You never seem to just do something on a whim, you conniving brats.” I realized my crossed arms and pouty lips made me look worse than Cam throwing a fit for not getting ice cream, which made me burst out laughing, too.

“Mom was funny. I miss her,” Leah sighed, dragging a French fry through the pile of ketchup on her plate.

“Yeah, she was pretty awesome. I miss her too, kiddo.” I squeezed her tight, and she lit up again and stuffed the fry into her mouth.

Even with the bit of darkness surrounding us, I knew Joss was haunting us, I just knew it. Why was it that I could literally feel her repetitively hounding me to shut up and thank her for finding the one for me and providing such a loving family? I just wanted to hold her. I missed her so much, it made my insides tighten and cramp up.

She’d always be watching out for us, one way or another. Now she was our guardian angel, still jabbering her opinions in my ear as the days went on. Loneliness was never an issue, but the hole she’d left made me wish I’d had more time to enjoy the days with her. Watching how well Leah had overcome the loss of both her parents and still try to live to the fullest each day made me ashamed that I’d lived so long avoiding love and not working on making my dreams come true. Kids were so adaptable. It reminded me why I had to cherish each moment as it came, live with an open heart and forgive readily. You never knew when something would be ripped away from you without warning.

Joss, you won. Again, you sneaky devil, you.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Piper

“WHAT WAS THAT all about?” I inquired, watching Sasha toss his phone on the bed. He looked upset and I wondered what could fluster his usually calm aura.

“I have to go to Moldova.”

I straightened, looking at him in disbelief. “What do you mean?”

“I have to go home, Piper.”

“But why?” I felt my heart lurch at the thought of him leaving. We’d been together several months, and I’d even moved in with him. He had plenty of room to spare and Leah loved the pool. She and Cam got along great, too. They were always having races in the water.

“My brother needs me to sign some stuff and get my parents’ estate sold. Apparently he can’t do it without my authorization. Plus….” He rubbed his face and sighed. “I’ve been meaning to head back anyway, to fix some stuff with my immigration status.

“Can’t you do it through a lawyer?”

“I have to go myself. There were a lot of loose ends when my mother died, and I just haven’t gotten to go up there to get it sorted out. Besides, there’s a ton of stuff like photographs and other relics I want to bring back for Cam to have.” He ran his fingers through his blonde locks and scratched the stubble growing on his chin. He was still looking exhausted, always needing help at the coffee shop. I’d even started taking shifts managing the main store to alleviate the stress. He’d just hired a couple new people, and it was getting better, but he still had a lot to look after. I’d found the work fun and exciting, a huge surprise to me. “I’ll fix everything and come right back, I promise.”

“Okay, what do you need me to do?”

He glanced up and smiled, the one gesture that drew me into him every time and made me cozy on up, just to feel his comforting arms embrace me.

“I might need you to take care of Cam while I’m gone. The new nanny, Phyllis, can help you. I just really need to go as soon as I can.”

Feeling left behind, I shook it off and threw him a wide, forced smile. “Alright. I can do that. What about the stores?”

“Eric has taken over a lot the managerial stuff I’ve been doing. You guys will be fine running it while I’m gone. He’s done a fantastic job already.” He looked at me regretfully. “Is that okay?”

I nodded. “Of course. Do what you have to do.”

“WHAT DO YOU mean, you’re not coming back yet?” I nearly dropped the phone but managed to keep it in an iron grip as I listened to Sasha’s plight on the telephone. He’d been gone but a week and now was telling me he’d be gone much, much longer. “What’s going on?”

“I am coming back, just not yet. It’s going to take a while. I had to help my brother pay off a gambling debt on top of everything else, but I had to cross the border to the Ukraine to do it. It kept us longer than I intended, and my green card expired while I was there. If I’d fixed some paperwork they needed here in the embassy, before the expiration, which was what I was here to do, that wouldn’t have happened. I couldn’t get back on time. I’d hoped to get my green card renewed another way, but with everything that was going on...”

“So you left your country when you weren’t supposed to? Can you come back here?”

“Not yet. I had to help him. He owed some sort of mafia people here. Not a good thing to do.”

My heart was convulsing, I could feel the seized-up thumping in my chest, and I just wanted to throw up. “So when do you come back? Cam’s here, Leah… I’m here. We’re waiting for you to come back.”

“I know.”

The pause made me think I’d lost him as the static waved in and out of the line. “Sasha?”

“I’m here.”

“What are you going to do?”

His breath heaved into the speaker, making me want to reach into the receiver and touch his soft lips. “I don’t know. I need to work on some paperwork, but it will take me forever to get it sent over here.”

I straightened, a sudden resolve inspiring me. “What do you need? I can do it.”

Another agonizing pause made me want to bang the phone on the counter. “I need you to visit my lawyer to get the ball rolling. I’ll give you the address. I’ve called him already. He’ll have papers for you to sign.”

What the heck is he talking about?

“What kind of papers?” I gulped. The sound of this made my chest hurt even more.

“Guardianship papers. For Cameron. I want you to have temporary custody while I’m gone. It could take a while.”

“What? No. There has to be something else we can do.”

“Piper, please. I’m doing all I can.”

“What else?” I clenched my lips together, praying he had something else in mind. This couldn’t be it. He couldn’t be gone from our lives for months. There was always some other way.

“You could help me. Come here to Moldova, and bring me the paperwork I need. It’d be easier that way instead of waiting for it through the channels. Do you have a pen? After you have guardianship of Cam, you’ll be able to get it.”

Why did I not like the sound of this?

“And once I get it all, what then?” My fingers drummed on the countertop. I peeked over it to watch Leah and Cam building a big pillow fort in the living room. It room was a mess, but it didn’t bother me one bit. Not with this new situation digging at my nerves.

The static grew as I listened through the phone. “Can you come here?”

“To Moldova?” My mouth dropped open at the thought. I’d never traveled on a plane, ever. I’d never left the United States. And what about the kids? “What about Cam and Leah?” I already knew what he’d say.

“Bring them. It’s high time they saw the world.” He chuckled, but it faded into a grunt as he feigned clearing his throat.

Traveling with two kids across the world… sure, no problem. My lips were rubbed raw as I sat there, piecing together everything. I’d need passports, luggage and all sorts of traveling gear, fast. My panic welled up in my throat as I listed out the things I had to get done ASAP. I must’ve been silent for too long because Sasha’s voice snatched me back into the present.

“Hey, hun, don’t worry. It’ll be fun. You’ll be my hero… err, he**ine. Listen, I have to go. I’ll call you later, see if you need anything else. Okay?”

I nodded before I realized he couldn’t see me through the phone. “Okay. Have a good day. I love you.”

“I will. Love you back.”

The phone went silent, and I stared at it. My life had changed drastically in the span of a few months, a lot more than it had in the six years prior. What was I going to do first? I gulped and glanced at the clock. It was barely ten in the morning, and the thoughts were already running amuck in my head and had me ragged. I was pretty sure that come nighttime, I’d collapse into my bed like a stone.

So much to do, so little time.

Did I even want to go to Moldova?

Sasha’s blue eyes flashed into my mind, bringing a small smile to my face. He was worth it though, I knew that now. He was worth every little thing because he’d fought so hard to get back into my good graces. The least I could do for him was this. Besides, he trusted me with his kid, how much more can a person give of themselves than their own treasured child? And I’d get to see his birthplace and cross it off my list of places to see.

Sometimes dreams do come true.

I straightened up and went over to the pillow fort. It was time to get going, one way or the other. It would be the trip of a lifetime, and I was going to enjoy every second of it. It was funny how everything I’d wanted was happening. Fast and unpredictable, and definitely not the way I’d wanted. I’d love it if Joss was here to tell it to, and that still brought a resonating ache to my chest that she wasn’t. But life goes on, and you must live it or bury yourself in one spot, paralyzed. I didn’t want that, I wanted to live again.

“Hey, kids! Ever ride in an airplane before?”

Epilogue

NO ONE EVER says it’ll be easy. All you can do, really, is close your eyes and feel the wind sweep through your hair and savor the salty, sweet treats life tosses in your direction. Don’t become bitter, and never ever hold on too tight, because you’ll not only blister your hands, you’ll choke the precious love you hold within them.

I let the cool November air run through my hair, hanging loose in long tangles of waves, fluttering along the breeze. The wedding was everything I’d imagined it to be. We’d held it at the Bellagio, where our second first date had been. Our honeymoon included a trip to Florence, Italy, traipsing the countryside and trying every Italian dish we could stuff into our mouths. We’d also included this small deviation, a side trip to the same beach we’d enjoyed in our college days. The same cold sand and frigid air raked its fingers across my skin and I shivered under its caress. I was wearing my jacket and my now-snug jeans, but the wind snaked its way under them and through the tiny holes in the fabric no matter what. I clutched my growing belly and hoped the tiny life inside was toasty and warm.

Suddenly, a flash of red and black hit my periphery as Sasha swung a warm, flannel blanket over both our shoulders, pulling me close and wrapping it around us. His body heat instantly warmed mine and stifled the chill overtaking my shaking body.

We stared out across the expanse of ocean, watching the tousle of wind-tossed waves foam and violently strike the shore. He leaned in to me, and I turned, meeting his lips and enjoying the heat of them on mine. He tasted like the briny air hovering about us and sweet like pixie sticks. We’d been gorging on junk food, a favorite habit of mine.

My thumb rubbed against the cool metal of my wedding ring, bringing with it fiery warmth that grew as his kisses left trails of wet heat on my skin. Our breaths puffed out into small, steamy clouds as we continued to embrace, inhaling each other as if never satisfied.

I tugged at him, pulling him toward the beach house we’d rented yet again. It was so worn and beaten by the constant assault of rain and wind, but it was sturdy and took it year after year. The creaky wood and salted windows stood awaiting our return into the cozy, warm comfort inside. Into its embrace we went, like meeting an old friend. Inside, we warmed ourselves and made love until the stars shone and the night brought the howls of wind with it. But it didn’t bother me. I was in the arms of love again, and this time I knew neither of us would ever let go.

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