“Bye, boys,” Cindy said. “I’ll be back later. Be good for Elijah.”
Josh and Gabe waved to her, settling back in to watch He Man. But Benny ran to her and hugged her legs.
“Where are you going?”
Cindy picked him up and looked at Mike. “Where are we going?”
An image of his bed flashed through his mind and his face got hotter. He glanced at Elijah’s crossed arms and swallowed. “I’ll go anywhere you want.”
Elijah shook his head. “Man, dude.”
Mike laughed. “Sorry, she’s the boss you know.”
Cindy chuckled and kissed Benny’s cheek. “Go watch cartoons. I’ll be back then later we can make some cookies.”
Benny’s eyes grew wide. “Chocolate chip?”
“If that’s what you want.” She tweaked his nose, and he giggled, then joined his brothers on the floor in front of the TV. Cindy patted Elijah’s shoulder. “Have fun. I’ll see you later.” She walked to the open door.
Elijah looked at Mike, eyebrows raised. Mike nodded. He knew he needed to talk to Cindy about her dad, but then he looked at her again and his mind drifted someplace else. A place where talking wasn’t important.
He followed her out the door, reminding himself to think about what she needed. But when she got into his car, winked at him, and laid her hand on his leg, he knew he was in trouble.
“So where should we go?” His voice cracked and he cleared his throat. “How about the mall, that’s public?” He backed out of her driveway, ignoring her hand still resting on his leg. Or trying to.
“I guess.” She swirled her fingers and his pulse skyrocketed.
He grabbed her hand and kissed it, trying to control his breathing. “Is there something else you’d rather do?”
She shook her head, her lips pulling up at the corners. “No, the mall is fine.”
He put her hand on her leg and returned his to the wheel. “Okay, we can eat in the food court if you want. I’m starving.” His eye was drawn to her bare shoulder and he almost swerved off the road. He corrected his direction. At this rate, his face would be permanently red.
Giggling she leaned over and kissed his cheek. He almost groaned when she laid her hand back on his leg.
“Don’t crash. We finally get to have a real date without hiding. A trip to the hospital would totally ruin it.” She patted his leg and then reached for the radio. “How about a little top forty to set the mood?”
“Okay, but I have Licensed to Ill if you want to listen to it.”
“Nah,” she said. “I’m not that into rap.”
He chuckled, and she slapped his knee. “Shut up. Don’t stereotype, or I’ll find Spandau Ballet for you.”
“Oh god, please don’t.”
“Then be nice.” She flipped through the stations while he drove, trying not to think about that sweater. He didn’t realize she’d stopped until a high falsetto voice sang out, “Big girls don’t cry!”
“I’m being nice. Why did you stop on this?” He turned to tease her. The tears on her cheeks chilled the fire in his chest. “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head and wiped her eyes. “Nothing.”
He pulled to a stop at the light and held her hand. “Why are you crying?”
“It’s stupid.” She tried to laugh, but it came out as a sob. The light turned green and the car behind them honked.
“Dammit,” Mike muttered. He pressed on the gas and pulled into the parking lot in front of a grocery store, parking at the end of the row away from the building. “Come on, tell me what’s wrong.”
He held her while she cried.
“My dad used to sing me that song whenever I got hurt. I told you it’s stupid. It just reminded me of him and…”
She sniffled, and he reached into his back seat to grab the box of tissues he’d bought.
She grabbed one, laughing through the tears. “I hope you bought stock in Kleenex.
They’re making a killing off me right now. I can’t wait until he’s better and I can stop crying so much.”
“Buying tissues is the easy part.” He chewed on his cheek while she dabbed at her eyes, Elijah’s request battering at the back of his mind. “Cindy, we need to talk.”
She blinked at him. “What about?”
“Your dad.” Hurt flashed across her face, and he felt like the world’s biggest ass. He pushed through the guilt squirming in his stomach. “I know how much you love him and want him to get better.”
She glared at him. “Don’t say it.”
“We need to talk about this,” he pleaded. “I’m worried about you.”
She closed her eyes and more tears leaked down her cheeks. “Elijah asked you to do this, didn’t he?”
“Yes, and he’s right. You need to prepare yourself.” He wiped her cheeks with his thumbs, and she opened her eyes, miles deep with pain that threatened to drown them both.
“He has to get better,” she breathed. “He won’t leave us. He can’t.”
“He wouldn’t want you to lie to yourself.”
“I’m not. The doctors could be wrong. He could get better.”
Her tears were a river, but he pressed on. “If you keep lying to yourself, you’ll miss your chance to say goodbye, and have to live with that forever.”
Her face crumpled, and he pulled her to his chest. His own tears falling now as her pain became his.
“I don’t want him to die. I don’t want him to die.” Her voice was thick with angry tears.
“I know. It’s okay.”
She repeated her mantra, and he listened, rocking her in his arms and soothing her the best he could. After a while, she stopped talking and just cried. He knew he’d done the right thing for her, but it sucked. He held her tighter to make up for the hurt he’d forced her to confront.
When her sobs quieted, she took a deep shuddering breath and let him go. He held out the tissues, and she took the box.
“I didn’t want to hurt you, and I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
She blew her nose, throwing the tissues on the floor by her feet. Giving a tearful laugh, she said, “You and my brother need to go back to not talking to each other.”
He smiled a closed-lip smile and rubbed her knee. “Sorry.”
She set down the box and held his hands. “I won’t say thank you. I hate knowing this truth.”
“I hate it for you.” He lifted her chin with his finger. “But you needed to learn it.”
She sighed. “I love you.”
“And I love you.” He put his hand behind her neck and kissed her, leaning his forehead on hers.
“Now that this is done, can we go on our date?” She touched his lips, her fingers warm and soft.
“Anything for you.” He turned the key and pulled away from the grocery store.
“Watch out. Elijah will tear your man card if he hears that.”
“I don’t care.” He reached for her hand. “If you like it, that’s all I need.”
She laughed, and he drove toward the mall, man enough to know he didn’t need a stupid man card as long as he had her.
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