Chris stepped off the last stair and rounded the corner towards the kitchen. As he entered the room, he noticed Josh was seated at the breakfast bar drinking a cup of coffee. Josh gestured to the pot on the far counter, “Grab a cup and come sit down. I wasn’t sure how long you’d be up there with Henry. Figured it’d be better to fix a pot versus the one cup brews.”
Chris lifted his chin, the universal sign for an acknowledgment, then retrieved a cup from the cabinet. Instead of joining Josh on the barstools, Chris decided to stand opposite of him, leaning against the counter. He took a sip of his coffee then cleared his throat, “Man, do you care if we talk about a few things and maybe clear the air?”
Josh immediately sat up and blew out a breath, “You know, I figured we’d have this conversation at one point. Should I prepare myself for you to take a swing at me?” Josh smiled as he said the words, trying to keep the mood light.
Chris let out a faint laugh, “You’re safe, I’ve got coffee tonight not beer. Plus, I’m pretty sure I got it all out of my system the last time,” Chris’s voice started to trail off and he took a deep breath before continuing. “You knew I was looking for her when she left, why didn’t you tell me you found her? I mean, I’ve let that question bounce around in my head for awhile and it’s always gnawed at me.”
Josh bowed and shook his head, he didn’t want to have this conversation. “Oh hell, Chris, my reasons made sense at the time but saying it now seems ridiculous.”
“Why don’t you try and let me be the judge of that,” Chris offered as he took a sip of his coffee and gave Josh a look that compelled him to speak.
“I called Mallory not long after Henry was born. I took a chance and got lucky because she never changed her cell phone number. She told me she never changed her number because she prayed her mom and dad would call and ask her to come home. She would stare at her phone and just will it to ring, but it never did. After Henry was born, she was positive they would want to see their grandson. When I called, she answered because she was lonely,” Josh took a sip from his mug, his coffee was getting cold and it didn’t even matter. “My heart broke when she said that, Chris. The vibrant Mallory we always knew was gone.”
Chris dropped his head, Josh’s words hit him hard. “I never tried calling her,” he whispered before turning his gaze back to his friend. “Honestly, the thought never crossed my mind. I mean I went to the house looking for her and her dad said they’d had a fight and she walked out. He said he had no idea where she was.” Chris sat his coffee mug on the counter, it hit harder than he had anticipated. The thud was loud enough that he worried he cracked the mug. When he didn’t see coffee spilling onto the counter, he felt as if he was safe in that regard. “I thought her dad’s reaction was odd, but it wasn’t like I could argue with the man. I called the house every day in the hopes that she had come home. Her parents finally told me to quit calling and move on, she wasn’t coming back.”
“And so you moved on,” Josh replied, he wasn’t cold or hateful, just matter of fact. “I remember you saying you missed her, wanted to know where she was and if she was safe. But at that time, I swear to you, I had no clue where she was. I didn’t know until months later after Henry was born, and even then it was an accident that I found out.”
“I guess I just don’t understand why you never told me you talked to her.” Chris was desperate for Josh to finally give him some answers. Since the truth had come out about Mallory and Henry, Chris had tried to reconcile why one of his best friends would keep something like this from him. Since they were clearing the air, he was not going to sugar coat his questions. He didn’t want to argue and wake up Henry, but he thought this might be his last opportunity to get the answers he needed. “It feels like you stabbed me in the back, Josh. You carried on a relationship with her for years when you knew I had feelings for her. You kept it secret and I’m trying to figure out why.”
Josh blew out another breath, he was not sure how this was going to go. This conversation could go very wrong, very quickly. While he had no plans to manipulate the truth, he also didn’t want to hurt Chris or cause an explosive argument. “I have no intention of fighting, Chris, but understand I’m going to be blunt.” Chris nodded his head in understanding. Josh took a deep breath and sat up straight, preparing himself for battle. “When her parents disowned her and kicked her out, Mallory was just shy of being three months pregnant. Which meant your ass had six months to call her and try to find her, but you didn’t. You called her parents but you didn’t call her cell phone. Tell me that part of you wasn’t relieved that the relationship that was moving so fast was finally over?”
Josh watched Chris for a reaction but didn’t get one. Chris stood stone-faced, staring at Josh and willing him to continue with his analysis of the situation and his reasoning for his actions. “Mallory even made that comment to me. She said that it was one of the reasons she readily believed her dad when he told her you wouldn’t want to know she was pregnant. She felt like the fact that your career was gaining traction she would be in the way and coupled with the fact you never called. Well, you can’t blame me for never telling you.”
Chris was watching him intently and Josh noticed the vein on the side of his neck beginning to display prominently. This meant Chris was getting quite upset, but Josh wasn’t about to just back down. Chris was known to keep some of his emotions inside until he just exploded, a trait his son had inherited. Maybe the push to the edge is what Chris needed to deal with the emotions of losing Mallory.
“Okay, fine, maybe you can blame me. When I first started talking to her, we never talked about you. Hell, she never spoke at all. Some nights I thought I was talking to dead air. I’d tell her how I was and where I was traveling to, which coincidentally meant I was traveling with you, but I never mentioned your name. Told her about my mom and dad, my life and tried to pry anything and everything I could about her and Henry. She finally started to open up and the first thing she said was to not tell you that we were talking. She said she didn’t hold a grudge against you, in fact, she still loved you, but she was positive you didn’t feel the same way. She was sure you didn’t think about her any longer and didn’t want me to bring up an unfavorable memory.”
“She wasn’t an unfavorable memory,” Chris said slamming his fist on the counter. The coffee mugs rattled and Josh couldn’t help but jump at the intensity in Chris’s voice and his actions. It was the first time Chris had shown such emotion during their conversation. While it took him off guard, Josh was glad to see that Chris had it in him and wasn’t just on auto-pilot. Josh noticed Chris’s voice beginning to crack as he spoke again, “I’m sorry, Josh, but I’ve never considered Mallory to be an unfavorable memory. You have to know that.”
“I know that, but her mind was made up. You didn’t call her, you didn’t reach out to her and, in her mind, that meant the two of you were over. She forced me to swear to never tell you anything about where she was or what she was doing. But she could not get enough information about you, she still loved you and wanted me to tell her everything about you. She followed your career so closely that I bet there’s a damn scrapbook around here somewhere,” Josh tried to keep his voice light, but he knew that the words were like knives for Chris.
Chris had a lump in his throat, he was finding it difficult to swallow or even breathe. The words that Josh was saying were echoing in his ears. “So, you ended up being more loyal to her than you were to me?”
“Fuck, maybe, but for all of your words, Chris, you weren’t ready to settle down and have a family,” Josh let the words come out before thinking and realized they might sound a bit harsh. He figured he should apologize for that, “Look, I’m sorry. Maybe I was more loyal to her, but it was because I was trying to insulate her. She knew if she came forward or you found out about her it wouldn’t be good. The media, your fans, hell even members of your family would consider her a gold digger or a pariah. They’d think she got pregnant on purpose and was coming after you for your money and to cash in on your success. She didn’t deserve that and you know it.”
“My family? Are you kidding me, Josh? What the hell?”
“Mallory was scared to death of your mom. She didn’t think Lisa liked her and she was sure Lisa would have hated the idea that she was pregnant. Mallory didn’t even want to think what your agent would say.”
“Mom liked Mallory, she always thought she was a sweet girl. I’m not sure what mom’s reaction would have been to the baby. I mean, I’d like to think she’d have been accepting, but I don’t know. I just wish she would have given me a chance, that’s all.” Chris raked his hand through his hair and then moved to pour out his cold coffee and get a fresh cup. As he took his place back at the breakfast bar, he gave Josh an intense stare and asked the question that had been bugging him the most, “Did you love her? I mean you told me that your relationship with Mallory was like your relationship with me, but be honest with me. Were you in love with Mallory?”
Josh sat back in his chair and drummed his fingers on the countertop. “I never intended on falling in love with her. I mean, she was in love with you and I knew that I never stood a chance,” Josh felt the stinging of tears in his eyes, “So, yeah, I ended up being head over heels for her. I just never made a move, I wasn’t about to risk my friendship with you or with her. But fuck, she was perfect.”
Chris watched as Josh talked reverently about Mallory. While tears streamed down his cheeks, there was a faint light in his eyes as he spoke about her. Chris could see that the feelings Josh had were still there, “Do you hate me, Josh?”
Josh wiped the tears from his face and had a shocked expression on his face, “What? No! Why in the world do you think that?”
“You said it yourself, I never called her. And we’re glossing over the fact that it’s my fault she was disowned by her parents. I mean, I got her pregnant, got her kicked out and she was left to raise Henry on her own.”
Josh sat forward, “Yeah, I was angry for a while. But she wasn’t innocent in this situation, she played a part in it so I couldn’t just blame you. I mean, I could for not calling her, but not for the pregnancy, she knew the consequences, Chris,” Josh looked away from Chris, not able to maintain eye contact the entire time. He focused on the side of his coffee mug and talked to it, “I didn’t tell you I found her because I was selfish. I’m not proud of it, but I had fallen for her and I knew if you showed up, you would sweep her off her feet and I’d be out of the picture. I made her a promise not to tell you and I kept it.” Josh finally looked back up meeting Chris’s gaze, “Did I ruin our friendship? Probably. Do I regret that? Yeah, I do. But I did what I felt I needed to at the moment.”
Josh stood and walked over to the window looking out onto the backyard. He raked his hand through his hair and spoke to the yard, staring into the distance. “You’re one of my best friends, Chris and I’ve built a trust not only as a friend but as an associate and as a brother. I could betray you and keep her secret as she asked me to. Or, I could betray the trust I built with her and tell you. I was going to hurt one of you, no matter my decision,” Josh let his words trail off, not wanting to finish the stream of thought.
“I get it, I don’t like it but I get it,” Chris replied back to Josh. And he did understand, Josh was stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. There was not an easy way to get out of this, no matter how you looked at it.
“I’m sorry, Chris, really I am. I thought after awhile, you sort of forgot about her. You had your relationship with Jessica and then Minka, and as time went on, I didn’t think it mattered to bring up Mallory.” Once again Josh ran his fingers through his hair and then jammed his hands into his jeans pockets before stepping toward the breakfast bar. “As time passed, the motives for bringing her up would seem sketchy. So, yeah, I’m sorry for not telling you.”
“I guess it doesn’t do me any good to dwell on it. She’s gone and I’m not getting her back this time,” Chris swallowed hard to keep his emotions at bay. “I need to focus on Henry and how in the hell I’m going to drop the parent bombshell on him when he’s dealing with losing his mom. But Josh,” Chris waited for his friend to make eye contact with him, “Thank you for being there for her and for Henry. Thanks for being her friend and confidant and making sure they were okay all those years.”
Josh nodded and said “You’re welcome,” as another tear slid down his cheek.
~ * ~
Chris didn’t get any sleep; he had finally gone up to his bedroom a little after 2 am. He stared at the ceiling for at least an hour before he dozed off, but he was restless and woke up several times. He wasn’t exactly sure how he was going to get through this day.
He threw his legs over the side of the mattress and glanced at his phone, it was 6:30. He pulled on the pair of jeans from last night and a thermal henley that was in his suitcase. Chris wasn’t worried about style points this morning, just making sure his ass was covered when he went downstairs to get the day started. As he opened the bedroom door, Chris noticed Henry’s door was open. As he turned to walk down the hall he froze, Mallory’s bedroom door was open and Henry was sitting in the middle of her bed, clutching her pillow to his chest.
Chris slowly approached the door, not wanting to frighten Henry. He leaned against the door, remembering the last time he had done that with Mallory in the room. His mind flooded with the emotions of making love to her in this room and in that bed. He could feel his eyes starting to sting, but he wasn’t going to fight it if the tears started to fall. He wanted Henry to know it was okay to cry because his son was going to need reassurance that he could breakdown while going through this pain.
As if he could sense that he was being watched, Henry looked up to see Chris standing there. His eyes went wide, “Did you bring me home? I just remember being at Noah’s?”
Chris pushed away from the door frame and willed himself to cross the threshold into Mallory’s room. His pulse quickened, and he could feel a tightness in his chest. His steps were deliberate, he moved toward the chair at the far side of the room. He pulled it to the side of the bed and took a seat; he just wasn’t strong enough to sit on the mattress.
“John called and told me what happened, buddy. I hopped on a plane and rushed down here to be with you,” Chris reached out his hand for Henry’s. Instead, Henry moved from the bed and landed in Chris’s lap, throwing his arms around his neck and putting his head on his shoulder. “I decided to bring you home, I hope you don’t mind.”
Chris could hear Henry’s sobs and could feel his body shake. He rubbed his back and just held his son, trying to comfort him in any way he could. He had no idea if he was doing this right, but he just held on and let Henry have his moment. When the sobs began to slow down, Henry sat up, “I’m glad you’re here. It’s my fault she’s dead, if I weren’t fighting with her, she wouldn’t have been out and been distracted. I killed my mom, Chris.” The sobs started again and the tears began to flow down Henry’s face.
“Shhh! You didn’t kill your mom, Henry. She was in an accident, it had nothing to do with you,” Chris knew that wasn’t true, it had everything to do with Henry, but not like Henry was imagining. No, if anyone in this room killed Mallory it was Chris. If what he heard was true and she was returning from an appointment with her attorney, then she had the paperwork saying he was taking her to court. The documentation that said he wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines and he was playing for keeps. He wanted his boy in his life and wasn’t going to wait for her to come around. No, he sent Mallory onto that highway and put her in the path of that truck, but no way he was telling that to Henry.
“Henry, look at me,” Chris pushed Henry back and dipped his head so he could look at his son in the face. “I know this hurts, I loved her, too. But we’re going to be strong for one another, okay?” Henry gave him a nod, letting Chris know he understood what he was saying to him. “Josh came to Atlanta with me, I know you haven’t seen him in awhile, right? I’m not sure if he is up yet, but the two of us got you from Noah’s house last night.”
“How long are you guys staying?” Henry asked, his voice was raspy from crying.
“I don’t know about Josh, but I’m sticking around for the long haul.” Chris was sure Henry didn’t know what he was referring to, but that was okay. Chris would explain it to him soon enough, right now the focus was on getting through the arrangements and the funeral. He just sat in the chair and held Henry, consoling the boy as he went back and forth between body-wracking sobs and moments of stillness.
“I’m all alone, my mom is gone and I don’t have a dad. I can’t take care of myself,”
“You’re not alone,” Chris tightened his arms around Henry, wanting him to feel secure. “I promise, you have me and I’m not going anywhere.”
Henry sat up again, “Do I have to plan her funeral?” There was concern and fear as well as pain in his eyes as he asked the question.
Chris knew this was going to be a hard one to answer. Technically, Henry was going to have to make some decisions about Mallory’s funeral, but he wouldn’t have to do it all by himself. He was willing to help, as was Josh, and he was sure John and Darby would be involved. There was no way a twelve-year-old boy would be responsible for making all of the decisions to bury his mother.
“No, we’ll help you with all of that,” Chris lowered his head, so he was looking right into Henry’s eyes, “But know that you can make any decision you want and I will back you up. I want to make sure you know that your voice is heard, okay?”
Henry nodded solemnly and was preparing to say something back when they each heard a noise at the door. They turned to see Josh standing there, “Hey, sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I wanted to let you know I was heading downstairs. Thought I’d see what is in the fridge and make some breakfast. Are you two feeling up to eating?” Josh was nervous enough to speak with Chris after last night’s conversation, but now that Henry was awake, well it just added a new layer of complexity. He tried to keep it light in the hopes it wouldn’t be too awkward.
“Eating sounds like a great idea,” Chris said, trying to feign some enthusiasm. “C’mon Henry, I think we need to go downstairs and talk and start to move forward. I’m not saying we aren’t going to mourn your mom and cry about her being gone, I just don’t think we should sit in her room all day.”
Henry nodded and moved to get off Chris’s lap. As he moved toward the door, Josh sidestepped to let Henry pass, but he didn’t move away from the door completely. “You gonna be alright?” Josh asked, attempting to gauge how Chris had done with Henry, in Mallory’s room.
“I’ll be fine,” Chris said pushing past Josh and heading for the stairs. He glanced back over his shoulder, “This isn’t going to be easy. I’m not sure I’m completely up for it.”
“I got a text from John, he’s coming over in about half an hour,” Josh offered, “It might help to have him here.”
~ * ~
John knocked on the front door as the guys were in the midst of cleaning up their breakfast plates. Chris looked at his watched and realized John was later than originally expected. However, he wasn’t going to say anything about it, after all, John had more important thing to worry about at the moment. Chris made a mental note to make sure he inquired about Darby and if he could go and see her. Since she was in the car with Mallory, she would know what prompted the visit to the attorney. He needed to know just how angry Mallory was with him when she died, it was eating at him and he needed to know.
Henry took off running so he could answer the door. Chris followed closely behind, watching as John embraced Henry and they shared a moment. Finally, Chris cleared his throat, “Henry, let John get in the house. We can shut the door and you two can go into the living room.”
John looked up at Chris and smiled; Henry nodded and let go of John’s neck, stepping back so he could stand up and finish walking into the house. John shrugged out of his coat and Chris was quick to take it and hang it in the closet. Chris turned back and extended his hand to John, but he rebuked it and pulled Chris into a hug. No words were spoken between the two men, but the moment was powerful. John patted Chris on the back and then released him, stepping back and moving toward the living room where Henry and Chris quickly followed.
John took a seat in one of the wingback chairs and began rubbing the arms of the chairs, “You know, Mallory hated these chairs. When her aunt bought them, Mallory wanted to scream. She hated the design, she hated the pattern, and she hated the color. But I think in the last two years her opinion on them changed since she never threw them out.”
Henry started to laugh, “She usually read over on the couch, but if she had a fire in the fireplace, she’d pull one of these chairs over and sit in it all night and read.”
An awkward silence fell over the room, no one knew exactly what to say. Josh, entering the room by way of the kitchen, took care of that for the group. “John, how’s Darby doing?”
John turned, “Hey Josh, she’s holding on. She has some extensive injuries and is pretty banged up. She’ll have to go to a rehab facility following her release from the hospital, we just don’t know when that’ll be.”
“Can she have visitors?” Chris asked cautiously, “I’d like to stop in and see her.”
A faint smile crossed John’s lips, “I think she’d like that, Chris. She’s in ICU but can have visitors, we’ve kept the kids away only because we’re afraid the tubes and wires might scare them. But I think she’d like to see you.” John turned his attention back to Henry who was sitting quietly on the other wingback chair. “Henry, do you want to come and visit with Darby?”
“No,” he shook his head but couldn’t raise his eyes to meet with anyone. “I don’t think I’m ready.”
John reached over and put his hand on Henry’s leg, “That’s alright, I understand, there’s no rush for you to feel ready. You’ll know when it’s the right time, Darby knows that.”
“She’s not gonna die, too, is she?” Henry’s voice was faint and almost came out like a whisper.
“No, she’s not,” John choked out, “But it’ll be a while before she’s fully recovered.”
Josh had walked over and joined Chris on the couch. Both men looked at each other, the unspoken words conveyed they were thinking the same thing. This was way too much for this little guy to handle at the moment. Josh almost wanted to just scream out that Chris was Henry’s dad just so Henry had something new to focus on. Even though he knew that wouldn’t solve anything and would only bring on an entirely new set of issues.
John sat back in his chair, folded his hands in his lap and took on a grim expression. He hated to bring up the funeral, but he had to. “Henry, I hate to ask you this, but I have to. Do you know if you want to bury your mom here in Atlanta or do you want to take her home to Boston?”
This question caused Josh and Chris to glance at one another again. This wasn’t even something the two of them had considered. Josh leaned over to Chris and whispered, “You know, if you’re taking Henry to Boston, maybe you should bury her there.”
“Fuck, I didn’t even consider that,” Chris quietly spit out.
Henry’s eyes went wide, “I don’t know, we never talked about it. I can’t make a decision right now,” panic was rising in his voice.
“Hey, buddy,” Chris said as he rose from the couch and moved to Henry’s side, “You don’t have to make the decision right this minute. John wants you to think about it and consider what your mom might have wanted and what you think is best.” Henry nodded slowly and then looked from Chris to John for reassurance. “John, when will they be ready to release her?” He didn’t want to finish the sentence as he knew that John understood.
Since there was an accident reconstruction being done and pending criminal charges for the truck driver, Mallory’s body was being held a little longer than normal before being released to family. She had a full autopsy, as expected, and they were making sure to run toxicology reports on her as well as the truck driver. While she had a green light when she proceeded through the intersection and was held up due to traffic, the truck driver should have slowed down to the conditions. The eyewitnesses were being interviewed to see if the traffic was flowing properly in the first place for Mallory to have even attempted to move on through the green light or if she had stayed in place. It was a messy situation.
“Probably sometime tomorrow, I would imagine. Since I’m her estate attorney, I’ll be contacted when she is ready for release.” John looked over at Chris and Josh and could tell they had questions but were almost afraid to ask. He figured he would go ahead and set a few things straight for them, “Mallory had a Will, but she didn’t update it after her trip to Boston.” His comment was meant for Chris.
Josh took the opportunity to expand on it, deciding to ask a few questions that could get the answers Chris would want without giving away any secrets to Henry just yet. “So, in other words, some of the things that came to light in Boston, including the money from her parents isn’t accounted for in the document you have?” Josh turned his attention to Chris before looking back at John.
John caught on very quickly to what was being inferred but not spoken, “That’s correct. The documents from her parents covered some of the situations but not all. There will be some things that will need to be discussed, we can do that separately.”
Henry put his head in his hands and leaned forward, “I can’t do this, it’s all too much.” He began to rock back and forth slowly, Chris was fairly certain he was starting to cry softly.
Chris stood this time and walked over to Henry, crouching down in front of him. “Look at me,” he said softly as he pulled Henry’s hands away from his face. “Why don’t you go upstairs and I’ll come up to see you in a minute. Let me finish talking to John and then I’ll be right up, okay?”
When Henry had made it up the steps and was out of sight, Chris turned back to John. “So, her Will doesn’t mention me, is that what you were trying to say?”
John stood and faced Chris, “Yeah, Darby and I are listed as Henry’s legal guardians in the event of something happening to her. We’ve always known who you were, but we also knew that she wasn’t going to come forward to you because of the publicity and the fear you would think she was coming after you for money.” Chris let out a harsh laugh, he then turned to look at Josh who had no comment on the situation.
“Chris, when we came back from Boston she said she wanted to discuss changing the Will. We never got around to it, the two of you were fighting and you hadn’t told Henry the truth yet. She wanted to make sure you were in it for the long haul before she saddled you with him in the event of an emergency.”
“Yeah, well we see where waiting got her,” there was a tone of bitterness in his voice. It was the first time he had displayed that since news of the accident had broke. “Sorry, I think it’s the lack of sleep coupled with the stress and the pain. You know I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Yeah, I know,” John offered as he placed his hand on Chris’s shoulder. “Look, Darby and I aren’t interested in a court battle with you. But you have to understand, the State of Georgia is going to go by her Will first and will take a parental challenge seriously. They’ll want a DNA test and a modified birth certificate before they’ll consider placing him with you. I can help expedite it, we have records that show she’s admitted you’re the father but just know, you’ve got a fight on your hands.”
Chris started to pace and was taking several deep breaths. “Josh, make sure Henry isn’t lurking at the top of the steps,” Chris barked out as he stopped pacing and turned around to face Josh and John. When Josh gave him the all clear, Chris blew out a breath and began to speak, “I have a DNA test. I’ve got the proof that shows I’m Henry’s father.”
John was shocked at Chris’s admission, “What? When and how did you get it done?”
“I took a sample back with me when I left Atlanta a few weeks ago. I paid a private lab to expedite the test and got the results. I have an attorney who filed the petition to have me added to the birth certificate. Matter of fact, I’m pretty sure that my petition is what sent her to her attorney on the day of the accident.” Chris ran his fingers through his hair and then threw himself into one of Mallory’s beloved wingback chairs, “I’m pretty sure I’m the reason she’s dead.”