Take My Dare

By: J. Kenner

When he reaches me, he smiles, and I can’t help but smile back, my nerves calming simply by virtue of his presence.

“Jeffery?” I ask him, as Stella starts to climb the stairs.

“Just waking up. Stella’s going to get him changed and dressed.” He cocks his head in the direction of the front door. “They’ll be here any minute. I saw Ethan’s car turn onto the street from the nursery window.”

“Oh.” That sense of calm I’d been enjoying disappears in a flash, as if chased away by a swarm of crazed butterflies. “But Cass and Ronnie aren’t back yet.” I’d sent them to Ralph’s, the nearest grocery store, to get slice and bake cookies since Ronnie wanted to “bake” with her grandfather. I’d hoped they’d be back by the time my dad arrived, but the rising panic I hear in my voice is disproportionate to the crisis.

“Hey,” Jackson says, putting down the stack of dishes so that he can take my hands. “Everything is going fine.”

“I know. I do.” My shoulders rise and fall as I take a deep breath. “I’m just…” I trail off with a shrug.

“Nervous? Why wouldn’t you be? But, baby, all he cares about right now is that he’s free and that he finally gets to hug his grandchildren. That, and what you think of him.”

I don’t mean to, but I grimace, remembering something else I’d said to my father after he confessed. I told him I wasn’t sure I could forgive him, but that I wanted to try. Now he’s coming to my home expecting things to be better. As if his jail time had been a line in the sand and now that he’s crossed it, everything is sweetness and light, hugs and puppies.

Except it isn’t. It really isn’t.

“I know,” Jackson says simply, obviously understanding my unspoken thoughts as he so often does. “Just tell him the truth, baby.”

“The truth?” My voice rises as if in irritation, but is in fact nerves bordering on hysteria. “That I’m still not sure if I love or hate him? That I love what he did for me even though a man is dead because of it. That I want to forgive, but that I’m having a hell of a time letting myself, because isn’t that like saying that what he let Cabot do to me doesn’t matter anymore? Is that the truth you mean?”

“Yes,” he says simply. And then, as I gape at him, he raises my fingers to his lips and kisses them. “Sweetheart, that’s exactly what I mean. Your father made a deal with the devil and you were the currency. Maybe it’s time to forgive him, or maybe it isn’t. Only you know that. But you don’t owe him a thing, because killing Reed didn’t magically balance the scales.”

He draws a breath, and I watch as he forces his body to relax. “But he already knows all of that. He knows the truth. He knows what he did. So whatever the truth is—whatever you now feel about him and however you want to deal with him—that’s what you have to tell him. The truth.” He caresses my cheek, then meets my eyes, sharing his strength. “It’s what you both should expect,” he says. “And it’s what you both deserve.”

“Oh,” I say, as the doorbell chimes and my stomach does another backflip. I draw in a deep breath. “I love you, you know.”

“I do.” He grins. “And I love you.”

I nod, letting the purity of those words soak through me. Because when you get right down to it, today and every day, that’s all that really matters. “Okay,” I say, tightening my fingers around his. “Let’s go.”

We go together to the door, and I straighten my posture before reaching for the handle. I’m not particularly tall and that rarely bothers me. But sometimes I want all the ammunition I can get to feel stronger and more confident, and right then a few extra inches would have made me happy. Too bad we were doing this casual. Otherwise, I could have worn stilettos.

I flash a quick practice smile, then open the door to reveal Ethan and my father. Ethan rushes forward, wrapping me in a tight hug. “Missed you, Silly,” my brother says, and I grin happily at the ridiculous nickname.

“You saw me last week,” I remind him, laughing.

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