Cam slipped into Ms. Kris’s hospital room. He’d meant to come on his lunch break, but things had gotten hectic at the office. Now it was after five o’clock, and he probably wouldn’t have much time before Walsh showed up. He stopped just inside, shocked at how small and drawn she looked against the sterile white hospital sheets. Pain wrapped around his heart like a stubborn vine, squeezing out what little peace he’d had.
He remembered what life had been like before he’d met this incredible woman. The memory of that life haunted him, sometimes dogging him into his sleep, nightmare and memory inextricably woven.
Cam noticed for the first time the simple Christmas decorations someone, probably Jo, had put up. A small tree on the bedside table. A few white lights suspended over Ms. Kris’s hospital bed. A large poinsettia in the corner. The festive touches couldn’t dispel the sense of inevitability hovering in the room like an unwanted visitor.
Cam sat down and pulled out his sketchpad. He hated to see her this way; her light dimmed and, based on the news Kerris had broken to him about hospice, soon to be extinguished. He settled himself at the foot of her bed, careful not to disturb her. He propped the sketchpad on his knees, filling the blank page with the picture his mind’s eye stored of her at her most glorious. Her dark hair spilling around her shoulders, and the lovely skin pulled with taut vitality over the regal bones of her face. Her wide mouth spread into an infectious grin. She stirred, stilling his charcoal pencil and drawing his attention.
“Hi, beautiful.” He tossed the pad to the floor and crawled up to her end of the bed, lying down on top of the covers in her outstretched arms.
He closed his eyes, burrowing his nose into her neck, searching for her smell. Beneath the stench of illness, antiseptic and approaching death, it was still there. He inhaled, content to be held right here as his mother had never held him. Kristeene taught him what a mother should be, and though she’d always called him her second son, he never believed it. Been afraid or unable to accept it. When you have a son like Walsh Bennett, why would you want a worthless piece of shit like him? He’d never envied Walsh’s money or the compounded power that came with the Walsh and Bennett names. He’d envied this, though. He’d secretly coveted this goddess who had given birth to Walsh.
Entitled bastard had everything, had this, handed to him as an accident of birth, and now he wanted his wife.
“Kerris came to see me today,” Kristeene whispered, making Cam wonder if he’d fumed so much he had spoken aloud, or if Kisteene’s maternal clairvoyance kicked in as it had so many times before.
“She told me.”
“She’s so special, Cam.” Ms. Kris ran her hand over the almost shoulder length dark hair he’d left hanging loosely around his neck today.
“Yep.” Cam leaned into the gentle stroke like he had since he was thirteen years old.
“Did she tell you I’m going home tomorrow?” Ms. Kris fixed her gaze on the emotion he knew must be soaking his eyes.
“Ms. Kris, I can’t-I don’t know what I’ll do if you…”
“There’s no ‘if’, baby.” A trembling, skeletal hand traced the arch of his brows. “It’s gonna happen. This is my last Christmas. I’m dying.”
And inside of him, something was dying, too. Something that, early on, had been whipped into a mass of self-contempt, shame and rage, huddled in a corner when he’d first met this woman. It had healed and come to life under her compassion, love and acceptance. Cam was afraid it would die with her.
“I have a peace about it,” Kristeene said.
The denial rattled like a bell in his brain and shook his heart, but he wasn’t going to lay his shit on her; the fact that he couldn’t deal with a death she already seemed resigned to.
“How can you have peace about death?” His voice sounded hushed and solemn in his own ears.
“I believe in an afterlife, Cam. In Heaven, and I believe that’s where I’ll be. And I know that I’m leaving this earth with a clear heart. I didn’t do everything I wanted, but I did a lot. I paid attention to the things that were most important.”
She allowed a small silence to bathe them in contemplation before adding, “And I’ve forgiven.”
Cam stiffened, turning his head to consider her with narrowed eyes. Even sick and near death, she was cagey. There was no way Jo hadn’t told her something about what happened with Kerris and Walsh. She would have been curious about why they were never together when they visited; why they avoided each other like hand, foot and mouth disease.
“Forgiveness isn’t always an option, Ms. Kris.” He broke the words up into bite-size pieces in his mouth.
“When it’s your time, not forgiving isn’t an option. You only ask yourself why. Why would I hang onto that?’”
“I know exactly what I’m holding onto and why.” Cam slipped off the bed, scooping up his sketchpad and thrusting it under his arm, his movements jerky.
“You’ll have to forgive Walsh, Cam.” Kristeene’s breath hitched with the effort it took to pull herself up on her elbows.
“You don’t know what he’s done.” Cam glared at his Chuck Taylors, the black and white blurring with the rage wetting his eyes.
“He kissed Kerris,” Kristeene said, her voice heavy with sympathy.
Cam returned her steady gaze.
“And you think I should forgive him?”
“I think you have to. He and Jo are all the family you’ve got.”
“No, I’ve got Kerris.” Cam knifed the air with one long, slim hand. “And no one, not even your perfect son, will take her away from me.”
“Did you marry her even suspecting a little bit that there were feelings between them?” Kristeene probed and poked around the thing Cam had barely admitted to himself.
Cam glanced at Kristeene, a battered angel, earthbound and more vulnerable, but more fierce, than he’d ever seen her.
“You think I have cancer,” she said. “You just keep holding onto unforgiveness. It’ll eat away at you from the inside. It’ll spread to everything good in your life and destroy it. Including your marriage.”
“He shouldn’t have kissed her.” The lean lines of his body petrified into stone with no outlet for his hostility. “He had no right.”
“No, he had no right. He was wrong, and I’m sure if they could take it back, they would. But they can’t, Cam. And you can let that one moment haunt and destroy your marriage and cost you the best friend you’ve ever had, or you can let it go and move on. Knowing they won’t hurt you like that again. Knowing it was a mistake.”
“I’m not ready for that.” His fingers clawed into twitchy balls at his side, aching to squeeze Walsh’s throat. “I keep seeing them together in my head, and I can’t stand to look at him.”
“You don’t hold her responsible at all?” Kristeene raised the skin where her eyebrows used to rest before radiation left it smooth and naked like a baby’s.
“I know Kerris and I know Walsh. I know who made the first move; who initiated this. He’s been in love—” he cut himself off, turning away to face the window.
“So you did know.”
“I’d have to be blind not to know he felt something for her. At first I assumed he just wanted to screw her like most guys, but then I realized it was more than that.”
“More like what you felt for her?” Kristeene pressed. “And you were afraid, if given time, she’d choose him?”
“Who wouldn’t choose him?” Cam pressed his forehead against the coolness of the window glass. “He could have anyone. She was for me. You know? And I had to lock that down.”
“Seems like an honest conversation would have saved us all a lot of trouble.” Kristeene slurred her words behind him. “But since that didn’t happen, we are where we are. We can’t stay here, Cam.”
“I don’t know where else to go.” Cam laid his clutched fist against the window pane. “I can’t give her up, but I can’t forget. And I can’t forgive Walsh, but I feel like somebody cut my right hand off.”
Met with silence, Cam turned to watch Kristeene, who had dropped off practically mid-sentence into a drug-induced slumber. Had he tired her out? What would he do when she wasn’t around to talk him off ledges?
He leaned over her now-still form. He noticed goose bumps on her thin arms and tucked the sheets around her.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” He kissed the silk scarf covering her slick scalp. “Mom.”
He’d only dared to imagine calling her that, even though she called him son. The sweet rush of feeling almost brought him to his knees by her bed in a weeping, snotty, begging, incoherent pool of grief. He tightened his mouth, staving it off for now, though he saw it coming like a tsunami, and him its helpless shore.
Cam left Kristeene’s room, running his hands over his face in a quick, impatient motion. He bushed away the last of his tears. He glanced at his watch, surprised to see he’d been with Kristeene for more than an hour. He pulled up short on his way to the elevator. Walsh was headed toward him, tall and lean in his gray suit, a preoccupied frown darkening his expression. Cam was prepared to walk right past him, refusing to entertain Kristeene’s admonition to forgive.
I ain’t forgiving shit.
Walsh had other ideas, stepping directly into Cam’s path.
“How was she?” Walsh bypassed the small talk.
“Resting.” Cam addressed his response to some point over Walsh’s shoulder. He tried to step around Walsh, only to find him blocking his way again.
“Step the hell back, Bennett.” Cam spiked the glare he gave Walsh.
“We have to talk about this,” Walsh said, obviously unafraid of Cam’s malevolent regard, unfazed by the barely checked threat clearly written in his fighter’s stance.
“What should we talk about, Walsh? The fact that you want to fuck my wife?” Cam’s voice was a low blow.
“It was a mistake.” Walsh made a quick sweep of their surroundings, looking at the few people waiting in the reception area. “We got emotional talking about Haiti. She was comforting me and it just went there. It won’t happen again.”
“You won’t get the chance again. What part of staying out of our life don’t you understand?”
“The part where you and I aren’t brothers anymore,” Walsh snapped back, fire in his eyes and words. “Dude, you’re not going to throw away years of friendship over one kiss.”
“One kiss. You think I was born yesterday.”
“What?” Cam saw caution creep into Walsh’s eyes.
Cam leaned forward, all aggressive, outraged male. Teeth bared.
“You love her.”
Walsh looked back at him, weariness in every line of his face; written in his eyes. And Cam could see that he was tired of the lies; tired of denying what was in his heart.
“Yeah, I love her,” Walsh said. “But we can figure this out. I’d never do anything about it.”
“Asshole.” Cam brushed past him and prowled toward the elevators. “You already did.”