This is another installment in a side project I tinker around on starring Marshall and Lara, two of the adults in my book series. If you haven't read the series these events will mean nothing to you, but I find I'm curious about these two. I'm kind of roooting for them. As always, I've linked to the previous installments.
Shay had been on Lara’s mind all day. She’d woken up with his fading scent in her nose. She’d seen his face every time she’d looked at Noah. When she’d watched Jamie pledge his vow to Erin, using the same words Shay had spoken to her on their wedding day, her hand had twitched in a phantom reach for his. Shay would have been proud of Jamie. He would have been proud of both of their sons. She desperately wished he’d been here to see his oldest son get married.
Lara had thrown herself into this day, knowing keeping her hands busy and her mind occupied would keep her from missing him. She’d prepared entirely too much food and had been glad of the endless stream of guests that had filed into her home, keeping her mind focused.
But now that the guests were mostly gone, she escaped to the patio and allowed herself to think of him. Time had made thinking of him easier. She still missed him fiercely, but she knew she still had much to be grateful for. Her life hadn’t turned out exactly as she’d hoped, but at least she could say, despite losing Shay too soon, she’d found a way to be happy.
The most surprising aspect of the day had been how well her and Clare, Marshall’s ex-wife, had gotten along. Marshall had never expressly admitted that Lara was part of the reason he and Clare had decided to split up, but she knew their relationship had been a factor if a minor one. If Clare had any ill feelings toward her she’d never let them show, but then she wouldn’t. Clare was too refined for that, like a fine porcelain doll.
“Here, you look like you could use this.” Clare walked out onto the patio as put together as she’d been this morning when she'd shown up at the house laden with fresh flowers and table cloths. Not a hair out of place. Make-up still perfectly fresh. Her dress lacked any wrinkles and she’d worn her heels all day. Lara hadn’t bothered to put shoes on at all. She was sure her single coat of mascara and swipe of lipstick had worn off long ago, and as for her hair, she’d been constantly brushing tendrils that had loosened from her braid off her face.
“Thanks. I think.” She took the offered glass of wine. She did need it. It was her first glass of the day.
“To a beautiful wedding.” Clare saluted her glass and they clinked glasses in solidarity, each taking a sip.
Smiling, Lara said, “To grandmothers.”
“Oh God, don’t remind me.” Their glasses clinked again and this time Clare downed the entire glass.
“Don’t worry. Marshall’s taking me home.”
Lara’s smile faltered at the thought, and she hoped to mask her ambivalence behind another sip of wine.
“Ironic isn’t it, how things work out,” Clare said. “I’d always imagined it would be you and Marshall.”
Lara was momentarily speechless. Her friendship with Marshall was closely guarded and she didn't want it cheapened in any way. “Clare, I never—"
“I know.” Clare waved her hand. “You never. He never. But it doesn’t matter. Mine and Marshall’s relationship had run its course.”
Not knowing what to say, Lara kept silent. When Marshall slipped out the back door, she wasn’t sure if his presence would ease the sudden strain in the air or worsen it.
“I’m ready when you are,” he said to Clare, his eyes skating between the two of them.
“I’ll get my purse and meet you at the car.” Clare leaned in and gave Lara a hug. “It was a beautiful wedding. You did wonders with the food.”
“And you did wonders with everything else.” The flowers, the invitations, refilling drinks and plates, playing the role of hostess because Lara was abysmally bad at it. “Thank you for all the help today.”
“We make a good team. I guess we’ll being seeing more of each other, especially once the baby gets here.”
“I look forward to it,” Lara said, meaning it.
“Me too.” Clare wound her way around the patio chairs and went back into the house leaving her alone with Marshall.
Lara hadn’t missed the looks Clare and Marshall had exchanged throughout the day, the affectionate touches. “I like her, and you seem to get along well.”
“Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. Today was one of the times we do. But then, today was for Erin.”
“Mmm… ” Lara nodded, the corner of her mouth tilting.
“Mmm… ” Marshall bumped her shoulder with his. “I know that look. What?”
“Have you slept with her since the divorce?” Lara knew it wasn’t any of her business, but she was curious. Clare had mentioned she was blissfully unattached. Though she and Marshall had avoided conversations about sex, until now, Lara knew Marshall well enough to know casual hook-ups weren't his style, though she doubted he lived like a monk. It would make sense he and Clare might turn to each other on occasion.
“A few times, though it tends to lead to the times where we don’t get along. I don’t sleep with her anymore if that’s what you’re asking.”
“You have the right to sleep with any one you want. It’s none of my business.” If he wasn't sleeping with Clare that meant he might be sleeping with someone else and that made he feel sick inside.
“Lara, I’m not—"
“Don’t.” She put her hand on his arm, squeezing lightly. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked. I really don’t want to know.”
He laughed, looking down at his hands. “I guess I don’t either.”
She pondered the wisdom of her next words, knowing there was no reason to confess such a thing other than she wanted him to know. “There’s nothing to know.” She withdrew her hand. “I haven’t been with anyone since Shay.”
His eyes cut to hers and he let out his breath slowly. “I almost wish you hadn’t told me that.”
She lost herself in his heated gaze, his eyes as blue as a summer sky, and looking into them she felt weightless like she could float away. Her lips parted. She wanted to tell him to stop looking at her like he wanted nothing more than to bury himself in her. When he lifted his hand to stroke her face, she knew she should move, but those eyes held her in place. He brushed her unruly hair away from her face before cupping her jaw, his intent clear. He paused, giving her time to stop him, giving her the chance to step away. She did neither. She might have even leaned closer, breath held, waiting for his lips to touch hers. When they did it was so sweetly tender it made her heart ached. He took the glass she was in danger of dropping and placed it on the table, his mouth never once breaking contact with hers. She wrapped her arms around his neck and the kiss deepened. She tasted the years of longing, felt the strain of his need on his tongue, surprised how right it felt to have his arms around her, but it wasn’t right. The rational part of her brain knew it wasn’t right. She drew away, her hands sliding down his shoulders and arms and clinging to his wrists. She stared at the rise and fall of his chest fighting for her own breath.
“Clare’s waiting,” she said, letting her head fall forward until it rested on his chest.
His hand ran up the back of her hair, his voice a ragged whisper in her ear, “Ask me to come back.”
“I can’t.” Her fingers tightened their hold and she squeezed her eyes shut. Lara swallowed the temptation and looking up into his face said,
“Good night, Marshall.”
She was so afraid he would kiss her again, and so afraid he wouldn’t. His thumb traced over her bottom lip.
“Good night, Lara.” He pressed his lips to her forehead where they lingered then he was gone, and it seemed he took the joy she’d found in the day with him.
She didn’t swim much at night anymore, but the water was calling her with a promise of relief from the loneliness that had swamped her in his absence. Shay, the love of her life, was gone, and the one man who might have been able to fill that vacant space in her heart was escorting his ex-wife home.
She slid her dress over her head and dropped it into the sand. Clutching Shay’s pearl in her hand, she closed her eyes as the waves rushed over her feet. In the Deep, she could forget she was alone. Shay was here, and sometimes she could still hear him whisper her name. But it wasn’t Shay’s face she saw in her mind’s eye as she coasted through the Deep. It wasn’t Shay’s voice she heard. It was Marshall’s.
Six Months Later
It had been seven weeks since Marshall had walked into her kitchen bearing the news that Jamie was missing and presumed dead in a mission that had gone horribly wrong. For the second time in her life, the world had dropped out from beneath her. For seven weeks, she’d clung to the hope that Jamie would come home. Seven weeks of fighting to breathe. Seven weeks of clinging to what remained in her life when she felt like she had nothing left.
Noah. She still had Noah. He was the only reason she bothered to get out of bed and some days even that wasn’t enough. She’d lay in her bed for hours, shutting her eyes to the sun, wondering how she could go on with so much of her life missing. Was life even worth it? And then she’d remember Noah, the son she still had, and she’d crawl out of her bed of pity and grief and somehow face the world.
The world had been rough today. It had tossed her around, reality crashing over her like the relentless roll of the waves in a raging storm. She’d said goodbye to Jamie today. It hadn’t been like saying goodbye to Shay. Letting Shay go had been like losing a part of her heart, and she’d learned a person could survive with half a heart. But this? Saying goodbye to her son, her firstborn, that wasn’t something she expected survive. If it weren’t for Noah, she wouldn’t want to.
The house had darkened with the setting of the sun, but she didn’t stir from her spot on the couch when the front door opened and seconds later shut. Footsteps sounded over the tiled floors. She’d known he’d come. She breathed in his familiar and comforting scent and closed her eyes and let the knowing of him wrap around her. Noah was the reason she rose from bed every morning. Marshall was the reason she was still breathing.
When she opened her eyes again, Marshall was standing over her, his gaze cast out the windows, jaw tense, the cut of his profile ragged. He’d changed from the dark slacks and button-up shirt he’d worn earlier at Jamie’s funeral into a pair of faded jeans and black t-shirt. His hands were deep in his pockets, his back straight as if he were straining under the weight of the people relying on him. She’d relied on Marshall’s unshakable resolve in the last few years. Admired his undeniable strength, his ability to remain stalwart even in the worst of circumstances. She’d be lost without him.
She shifted on the couch, tucking her legs underneath her. “How’s Erin? I didn’t get to speak to her much today.”
“She’s staying with Clare for a few days.” Marshall freed his hands from his pockets, running one over his face. “And God, I was relieved. I don’t know what to say her right now.” He turned his face down to hers, those normally bright blue eyes dulled. “I don’t know what to say to you either, other than what I’ve already said a thousand times. I’m so damn sorry.”
“I know you are, but you have to know I don’t blame you.” She’d wanted to blame him. Those first few hours and days as she’d waited for Jamie to come home, she wanted to blame Marshall. “Jamie was a man. He knew what he was doing. He believed in what he was doing, and I know you loved him too.”
His throat worked around a deep swallow, and she smelled the spike of salt as tears welled in his eyes. He blinked a couple of times to ward them off, his face once again growing stoic. He always tried so hard to remain strong for her, and though he’d succeeded, she knew his grief ran deep. His guilt even deeper.
Marshall’s eyes held an emptiness she’d never seen before when he looked at her, as though he was holding himself apart from her when she needed him close. As though she was in danger of losing him too, to his guilt and his grief. She couldn’t let that happen. She didn’t stand a chance of survival if that happened. She rose from the couch and went to stand beside him, fingers itching to take the hand so close to hers.
“Where’s Noah?” he asked.
“Out there, I guess.” In the Deep, where she should be, but strangely the water didn’t offer her comfort, only sad reminders. Her comfort was here. Marshall was her comfort.
“How’s he holding up?”
“He’s not. He’s devastated.” She choked back a sob and Marshall reached for her and she let him pull her close, savoring the feel of his body pressed to hers.
“It’s okay,” he whispered when there was nothing okay about what had happened. She held tightly to him, so afraid of the empty, raw feeling crawling around in her gut. So afraid she might simply float away and never find her way back to a normal life again. Wouldn’t that be nice? To float and not feel and not be here. Being here hurt.
Marshall was warm and solid and he was here. Marshall was always here for her. With a word. With silence. With whatever she happened to need at the time, and he always seemed to know what that was. She doubted he knew what she needed tonight. She’d just realized it herself.
“Stay with me,” she said, placing her hand on his arm, her fingers cold and trembling. “Be with me.”
He froze, and she looked up into his face and those eyes. Those eyes. No one had prettier eyes than Shay, except for Marshall.
“What do you mean?” his voice was a gravelly whisper and it sent a welcome shiver over her body. It was time. Time to throw caution and reason to the wind. What did it matter anyway? Her husband was dead.
And now her oldest son was too, and she was so tired of feeling nothing but complete desolation.
“Sex. I mean sex with me,” she said, deliberately avoiding the word love. Though she cared about Marshall, this wasn’t about love. This was about need, and she needed him to understand that. “Just for tonight.”
“I can’t do that.”
The body beside hers was strung so tight. She’d expected him to resist. He’d never use her that way, but she was confident she could persuade Marshall to let her use him.
“You can.” Her mouth found the base of his throat and trailed up to his jaw. His hands slid up her arms, fingers cinching around her biceps.
She took advantage of his open mouth, fitting her lips to his, invading with her tongue. She swallowed his moan and sank into him when his arms came around her back. Her body came alive under the onslaught of his mouth, and she wanted to weep because she’d been unsure her body would respond at all. She hadn’t been sure it worked like that anymore.
“Stay,” she said again, and Marshall pulled away, cupping her face in his hands, holding her away from him, but he’d reacted too late. She already knew he wanted her too, that he needed her too.
“You don’t want to do this. You’ll regret this as soon as it’s over.” He dropped his hands and backed away. Panic flared in his eyes. The same panic she felt at the thought of him leaving. “Lara, listen to me. You’re grieving. You’re in a bad place. You need to walk away. Please. For both of us. Walk away.”
“I’m sorry, Marshall. I can’t. Not this time. I need... I need something. I need to feel something besides despair and emptiness. If you love me, you’ll do this for me.”
“If you value our friendship at all, you won’t ask this of me. Not this.”
“I’ve lost everything else. Why not that too?”
“You haven’t lost everything. You have Noah and he needs you.”
“What about what I need? I need this. I need you. Please don’t say no. Don’t turn me away.”
“This isn’t right.”
“Isn’t it obvious by now, it’ll never be right. One night. That’s all. I can’t face my bed alone again. I can’t face this night alone. Don’t make me.”
His eyes skimmed over her face, over every feature. “If I thought this wasn’t grief talking. If I didn’t love you, Lara. But I do.”
He turned and walked toward the foyer and she chased after him, her heart so tight she stopped breathing. He was really going to do it. Leave her when she desperately needed him. It was the first time he’d ever denied her anything.
“Marshall.” His name was a whisper of complete agony, of utter desperation.
His fingers clenched on the metal door handle. “Goddamn it.”
He spun around and advanced on her, and there was nothing tender in his eyes, nothing that spoke of love. When he grabbed her face and crashed his mouth down on hers, the kiss he delivered was fueled by grief and frustration. She answered in kind, nipping at his bottom lip. He growled his surrender and picked her up. Her legs circled his waist, and she clung to his shoulders as he walked them back into the living room.
“Where do you want it? The counter? The floor? The bed?” He would give her what she wanted, what she’d begged for, but it would come with his anger. It would come with his own sense of failure. He’d loved Jamie too. It was one of the things that endeared him to her, the way he loved her boys, the way he loved Shay’s boys.
“I’ll hate you for this,” he said even as he carried her through the living room and into her bedroom.
“No, you won’t.”
“I’ll never forgive you.” He laid her out on the bed and held himself over her, those bright eyes burning down on her.
“Yes, you will.” Lara moaned as he slid her shirt over her head. Her hands were already working her denim shorts over her hips. He shoved her hands out of the way, peeling the shorts down her legs and tossing them on the floor.
“God, you’re beautiful,” he said, his hands and eyes roving over her as though he’d never laid eyes on her before.
She reached for the hem of his shirt, pulling it over his head. Where Shay had been smooth and hairless, Marshall had a fine sprinkling of hairs on his chest. A trail that led to the waistband of his jeans. Her fingers twined in the springy mass of hairs across his abdomen then dipped lower.
He stilled above her as though he knew exactly what she was thinking, as though he knew she was comparing. Of course, he knew. They’d been friends for what felt like a lifetime.
“Don’t think about him or I really will hate you.”
“I won’t.” As if to offer proof, she lifted the pearl from around her neck, setting it on the bedside table.
She owed it to Marshall not to be thinking about her dead husband, and to her surprise, she found it wasn’t hard. Marshall’s lips made her forget. His hands made her forget everything but her own need. It had been three years since she’d done this and Marshall made it easy. Marshall made her want.
He sank into her, so filling and sweet, and she arched against him on a gasp of unexpected pleasure.
“Lara,” he breathed her name as his hips started to move. “I’ll hate you for this.”
“Hate me then. Just don’t stop.”
Hours later, Lara lay with her head on Marshall’s chest, her fingers running over the flat contours of his stomach. She’d long given up the notion of comparisons. Shay had been her first, her only. He’d possessed her body and soul, and she him.
With Marshall it was different. Different enough comparisons weren’t necessary. Different but powerful in its own way. A way that provided her comfort and security. When nothing else in this world felt secure, there was Marshall, and she loved him for it. Maybe not in the way he wanted her to, but it was love just the same.
Neither of them had been able to fall asleep. Neither of them had much felt like talking either. She’d asked for one night, and she didn’t want to miss a second of it if life would go back to normal when the sun came up. She suspected Marshall felt the same. Lara should be sorry. She knew he loved her. Shay had known he loved her, but oddly it had never been a problem. Marshall was honorable, and he was a friend. A good one. And while she was sure Shay wouldn’t like the idea of someone else in his bed, he would understand that she’d picked Marshall.
“If things had been different,” she began then faltered. If things had been different, what? She couldn’t say she wished it had been Marshall from the beginning. They both knew that wasn’t true, and she wouldn’t lie to him.
“Don’t patronize me, Lara. I knew what I was getting into when I stayed.” He smoothed the back of her hair.
“I know.” She smiled into his shoulder. “You hate me.”
“No. Never. I could never hate you.”
The windows in Lara’s bedroom were bare and faced east, making her aware when the sun peeked over the horizon, putting an end to the one night she’d asked for, the one night Marshall had given her. She’d forgotten for a while that her son was dead, and that was a gift she could never repay.
“Thank you.” Lara snuggled closer into Marshall’s solid warmth, willing the sun not to rise, knowing it would. It always did. No matter how much she dreaded facing the day, the sun always rose. But today would be different. Today would be easier. Marshall had stayed.
His arms tightened around her, and she felt his mouth pressing into her hair. “You’re welcome.”
Marshall slipped out of bed and Lara watched as he dressed, zipping his jeans on and smiling at her after he pulled his shirt into place. Before she gave in to the temptation to crawl over the rumpled sheets and coax him back to bed, he disappeared into her bathroom, shutting the door behind him. She rolled over, muffling a sigh in her pillow. Their night was over. While her body might be ready for more, her heart and mind weren’t.
By the time Marshall came back out of the bathroom, she’d risen from the bed and slipped on one of Shay’s old t-shirts and a pair of panties. When he saw her, his jaw tensed and his eyes clouded over at her thoughtless choice of attire. Hurting him was the last thing she wanted to do, the last thing he deserved.
“I do care about you a great deal.”
“I understand. We go back to being friends.” He snatched the wallet that must have fallen out of his pocket off the floor. He held it in his hand and stared at it. “We didn’t take any precautions. I wasn’t prepared.”
“I’m sure it’s fine. I don’t think pregnancy is a concern for me anymore.” It hadn’t happened again for her and Shay, and they’d tried for years after Noah was born.
He looked almost disappointed. The thought of a baby, of another person to love, another person to lose, scared her to death.
Lara followed him out of the bedroom, feeling suddenly awkward. She should offer to make him some coffee, but she knew Noah would eventually make his way back home, and she wasn’t ready to… well, she wasn’t ready. But she owed Marshall something. She wanted to offer him something.
“You know how I feel about you. It’s just too soon for me. It wouldn’t be right yet and I can’t ask you...”
He opened the front door then turned and faced her, the look in his eyes so intense, she was afraid she was making a mistake letting him walk away.
“I’ll wait,” he said. “I’ll wait for goddamn ever if I have to.