15. 1

“Damn it, Rowan. What the hell did you do to my stockroom?”

I look up from the computer and rub my eyes. I was in invoice hell, and now I’m in Nix hell. Reaching down, I rub Harley’s head as he snoozes by my feet. I have a fleeting moment of satisfaction that Nix’s dog likes to lay near me. I think it drives Nix nuts that his dog became attached to me so quickly.

Looking over my shoulder, I try to answer with as much calm as I can. “What do you mean?”

“You re-arranged the whole fucking room and I can’t find anything. Why did you do that?”

“I put all your supplies in alphabetical order. You didn’t have any structure to it and it was driving me nuts.”

“I did too have structure,” he explodes. “I knew exactly where everything was.”

“But I didn’t,” I snap back at him. “And since you expect me to keep your storeroom well stocked, I needed it better organized so I could see when you were getting low on supplies.”

“But I can’t find anything,” he says like a whiny, snot-nosed brat.

“It’s not rocket science, Nix. It’s alphabetical. You see… there’s this concept that’s called ‘A to Z’,” I say slowly. “If you’re looking for bolts, just start with the A’s and proceed forward. You’ll then get to the B’s and lo and behold, you’ll find the bolts. Geez.”

Nix glares at me for a moment and then turns his back, growling in displeasure. I do a happy dance in my head.

Oh, you’d think that Nix and I hate each other based on that display, but quite the opposite. We get along fantastically. We just fight like squabbling siblings. I think, personally, that I provide an outlet to Nix that allows him to be surly and grumpy, an attitude I understand he used to exhibit quite frequently. Emily told me about Nix’s time in the Marines and his injuries from the war. I didn’t know much about PTSD but Emily explained it all to me, and it made me look at Nix in a different light. It’s why I have such extreme patience with him, and why I let him snarl and snap at me most days. It’s the least I can do for the sacrifices he made for our country.

“Hey, Nix,” I say, opting for a complete change in subject. “What does your shirt mean?”

I had noticed it earlier and had been meaning to ask. It was red with gold lettering that said, Semper Fi. I thought it might be the same thing as the tattoos that Flynn had on his biceps.

“It’s short for Semper Fidelis, which is Latin. It’s the Marine Corps slogan. Means, Always Faithful.”

“Why does Flynn have them tattooed on his biceps? He wasn’t in the Marine Corps, was he?”

Nix shakes his head and walks over to his fridge. He pulls out a beer and holds it up to me, silently asking if I want one. I shake my head and watch as he flops down in his ratty, old recliner, twisting the cap off. After he takes a long swallow, he answers me, “He did it shortly after I came home from Bethesda, where I was recovering from my injuries. He did it to honor me.”

I digest that information, and take note of how my heart swells and then pangs for what Flynn did. Honoring his cousin for his sacrifices. And the words clearly have meaning. Flynn is one of those guys that is always faithful. It’s why he stuck by me, and why he is so well loved by his family and friends. The thought comes unbidden to my mind that he will make a great husband one day, and I’m immediately hit with a flood of jealousy that it won’t be me.

I’m jealous because I won’t have that chance with him, because I’m too chicken shit to risk my friendship with him. And I’m also jealous of the woman who will one day wear his wedding ring, because I’m all of a sudden fretting that he won’t look at me the same way, and won’t be my friend anymore. In fact, I’ve convinced myself that the bitch he marries won’t let him have any female friends, and I want to kill this unknown woman that he will marry one day.

“Geez, Page… What in the hell is going through your head? You look like you could murder someone right now.”

I shake out of my thoughts. “Nothing. I wasn’t thinking about anything.”

“Yeah, right. Come on, Page. Lay it on me. I’m done for the day and I feel like gossiping.”

“Stop calling me Page,” I testily say. “And I don’t do gossip sessions. That’s for you and your other dork friends that like to sit around and paint each other’s toenails a pretty shade of pink.”

Nix gives a shout of laughter and lifts his beer to me in salute. “Good one.”

I turn around to the computer and start entering invoices again. But Nix isn’t through with me.

“So how are things going with you and Flynn?”

My shoulders stiffen involuntarily and I take a deep breath. “Everything’s great. Peachy keen.”

“You know he’s in love with you, right?”

I swivel around in my chair so fast I almost throw myself out of it. “What? What do you mean?”

“You seriously can’t be that dense. When you two were over here for dinner last weekend, he could barely keep his eyes off you. But he walks around like a kicked puppy so I assume you don’t reciprocate those feelings.”

Holy shit. Nix saw all that at dinner? I mean, I saw it… I see it every day and every night I’m around Flynn. I know what his eyes are telling me. They are saying, I want you but I respect your boundaries.

I decide to play stupid. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Nix quirks an eyebrow at me. “Page, you seriously are not that stupid. Give it up. Now. Talk to me, girl.”

I shake my head. This chatty Nix is freaking me out. He’s never delved into my personal business before but I’ll have to admit, over the last few weeks, I’ve become very comfortable around him.

I have no clue what makes me answer, but I say, “He’s not in love. He’s in lust.”

“Semantics. Love and lust are so closely woven together, they’re practically the same for all intents and purposes… at least from the male point of view,” Nix says, as he shrugs his shoulders. “It may not be love yet, but he has it bad for you is the point. Don’t you feel anything for him?”

Nix’s question is honest and sincere, but I never forget for a moment that he is related to Flynn and he is also protecting him. I remember all too clearly how suspicious he was of me when I first started working for him. He even admitted to me that he thought I might be scamming Flynn and that was why he was rude to me when I started.

I take a deep breath, and decide to go all in, because I’ve kept these feelings bottled up inside of me and maybe this will prevent an explosion. “Of course I feel for him. I feel for him a lot.”

“Then act on it.”

“I can’t,” I say lamely. Then I bolster my voice with confidence. “I won’t.”

Nix takes another sip of beer and looks at me with genuine curiosity. “Why not?”

“Because… I love my friendship with Flynn. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me—in my entire life. I’ve never met anyone like him, and never will again. I don’t want to lose that.”

“Why would you think you’d lose it?”

“Because,” I tell him, giving him my best, you’re-a-doofus look, “everything gets messed up when sex is involved. The friendship will die. He’ll only care about me for sex. I’ve had that… and it’s never worked out for me. The friendship is more important than getting my rocks off.”

And oh, God… how I know Flynn would get my rocks off. I’m betting he’d launch me so high, I’d orbit the moon. It’s a feeling I yearn for badly, but refuse to give in to.

“Rowan,” Nix chides me and I know he’s serious because he’s using my first name. “That’s not the way of it. Not all men are like that.”

“How would you know?” I snap, because I don’t want him to give me any more reason to hope for something I can never have.

“Because I’ve been there… done that. I was the guy that only wanted to get in the girl’s pants, and then I wanted to kick her out the door as soon as possible. I wanted that with Emily when we first hooked up.”

“Really?” I ask, suspicious he’s feeding me a line.

“Cross my heart. You can ask her. In fact, we agreed on a sex-only, no-emotional-involvement relationship. But it didn’t work out that way. Being with Emily… intimately… it opened up my heart to a whole new level of relationship. It strengthened my friendship with her. It made me want to help her, protect her, and love her even more. Sex doesn’t always kill things. It can strengthen… with the right person.”

“But how do I know Flynn is the right person? I mean, maybe he’s only destined to be a good friend to me.”

“Maybe he’s destined to be so much more,” Nix counters.

Yes… maybe.

I look Nix squarely in the eye. “But it’s not a risk I’m willing to take. Maybe isn’t good enough me.”

1

When I get back to the apartment, I take Capone on a long walk. Flynn had to go back into work today for another three-day shift and he left a note telling me he did all the laundry for both of us. My heart swells up in gratitude over his simple kindness. For someone that hasn’t been able to rely or count on anyone but herself for the past five years, I find a simple act such as that to be overwhelmingly endearing. I wish he were here so I could hug him, and I smile at the new Rowan.

Old Rowan was most definitely not a hugger.

I feed Capone and change into Flynn’s t-shirt. I have the apartment all to myself so I don’t bother with his gym shorts.

I’m restless, I don’t feel like watching TV, and I’m not much of a reader. So I boot up Flynn’s laptop. He told me I could use it any time, and I rarely take him up on the offer unless I’m scanning the news headlines.

Pulling up Google, I type into the search field “John Cleeden”. Too many results pop up, along with a bazillion ads for Ancestry.com. I clear the search and type in “John Cleeden Lewisville, Texas”. I’m immediately rewarded for what I was looking for.

And I settle in to torture myself.

The first article is entitled “Esteemed Judge Rules In Landmark Trade Dispute”. I don’t bother reading the details because I’ve read it before and have no desire to read it again. Trade disputes just aren’t my thing.

The next result reads “Charity Auction Yields Highest Result With Judge’s Donation”. It’s an older article but I click on the link and stare at the picture before me. It’s of a tall, distinguished man who I know to be currently seventy-one years of age. His hair is dark with silver at the temples, but that is about the only thing that belies his true age. He is fit and looks to be in excellent shape. His arm is around the waist of a petite woman, also with dark hair. I know her to be forty-five.

Hello, Mom and Dad.

The article goes on to extol the virtues of The Honorable John Cleeden, District Court Judge, and how his donation of $50,000 put the Kid Strong Foundation over their million-dollar goal for the year.

My dad is looking serious in the picture, and I believe it’s because he truly doesn’t know how to smile. My mom, however, is showing her pearly whites, eager to be in front of the camera, I’m sure.

I search their faces, trying to see if there is anything lurking there that would indicate how they feel about me. They don’t look like two people that have a missing daughter. While my dad doesn’t look overly thrilled to have his picture taken, they certainly don’t look forlorn or look to be in despair.

It’s as I thought. They don’t think of me at all, and even though I torture myself with this game every now and then, it never diminishes the hurt I feel.

Going back to the Google search field, I type in Anne Marie Cleeden. It returns 178,000,000 hits. I narrow it down… Anne Marie Cleeden, Texas. Three hundred and forty-eight results appear. I scan the first page, searching for the words I long to read.

Parents Search For Missing Daughter

Hope Still Alive For Texas Couple Searching For Daughter

Esteemed Judge Hopeful Daughter Is Alive.

Page after page I search but it yields me nothing. My parents aren’t looking for me. They could care less whether I’m alive or dead.

It’s what I should expect.

When I left home at the tender age of eighteen, withering under my parents’ lack of interest in me, my dad told me. He warned me well.

He said if I left, I would never be welcomed back. He said I’d be as good as dead to them, and apparently, I was.

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