“Yeah, I appreciate that. It’s really good to hear your voice. Nice to be able to catch up, even if it’s from a very long overdue call.”
“I get it,” he says. “You get busy and all that.”
“Not much of an excuse, really,” I say lamely.
“Listen, why don’t you come on by and let’s visit a bit. Vale’s at her second job and it gets lonely sitting in this apartment all by myself.”
I freeze in midstep. “You’re here…in Raleigh?”
“Well, yeah. Didn’t Vale tell you?”
“No,” I say quietly into the phone. “No, she didn’t.”
I pull into my apartment complex, beyond exhausted. I had three clients to train at the gym tonight and haven’t eaten dinner. As if to prove its displeasure with me, my stomach emits a snarly grumble as I turn off the ignition. At least I had the presence of mind this morning to put a roast in the slow cooker for me and Dad, and nothing sounded better to me than wolfing down some food, taking a hot shower, and collapsing into bed.
Sucks having to work two jobs, but what the Cold Fury pays me isn’t enough to cover everything. When Dad and I realized we’d need to do a fast relocate to this area, I did a mad scramble to put in applications anywhere I could think to get a job. While there’s a nice selection of collegiate sports teams in this area, the pickings for a coveted AT position were slim, so I also put in applications at all the area gyms. My certification as a strength and conditioning specialist earned me several offers, but the pay was even worse than the Cold Fury because it was commission-type work, and without a solid base of clientele, there was no way we’d be able to make it. Luckily, though, the offer came down from Gray Brannon, and after I accepted it, I was fortunate to still be able to take on a part-time position at Xtreme Fit gym just a few miles from our apartment. It meant hitting the gym early each morning before I started work at the arena, and most nights after work I was back there again, but it meant the bills were paid and there was money left over for pot roast.
My legs are heavy as I walk the stairs to the second floor. I wanted a ground-floor apartment, but there weren’t any available and the waiting list is long. So far, though, it hasn’t been a problem for Dad to navigate the stairs, and I hope that remains true.
The minute I unlock the door and open it, I inhale deeply, willing the scent of slow-cooked meat to permeate and hopefully give my stomach a promise of something good to come. Instead, I smell…is that pizza?
I step inside and my eyes immediately go to a pizza box on the coffee table, then slide over to a pair of long legs encased in dark jeans. My gaze travels up and I see Hawke sitting on the sofa with a beer bottle in hand, watching me with harsh eyes.
“What are you doing here?” I blurt out as I remove my key from the lock.
“He came by to visit me,” my father says jovially, and my head snaps over to him as he sits back in his recliner. He also has a beer bottle in his hand.
My blood pressure spikes, my vision goes hazy from anger, and I stalk up to him. “What are you doing, drinking beer? You can’t have that.”
Dad just chuckles and holds it up for me to see. “Relax, Vale. It’s nonalcoholic.”
I expect the anger to quiet but it doesn’t. I look back pointedly at the pizza box and then back to my father. “And pizza? What about the roast I put in the Crock-Pot?”
Without waiting for his answer, I spin on Hawke. “Did you buy that for him? He shouldn’t be eating that.”
Hawke doesn’t say a word, but narrows his eyes further at me.
“Honey,” Dad says, and I spin back on him. “You, um…forgot to turn on the Crock-Pot, and I didn’t realize it until a bit ago. So…we, um…we just ordered some pizza.”
My stomach bottoms out, sad to not have roast for dinner, and filled with leaden guilt that I forgot to turn on the cooker. I was so damn tired this morning when I rolled out of bed, it must have just slipped my mind.
“I’m sorry,” I murmur as I lean down and kiss my dad’s cheek. “I forgot, and I hate that you had to eat pizza. You need to eat better than that.”
“It’s okay,” he says as his hand comes up to palm my cheek, holding me a second so my lips stay pressed to him. He then pats me and I pull back. “You’ve got a lot on your plate and I don’t need you doting over me.”
I look down at my father, worry and love I know evident on my face, because his eyes get shiny with warmth. We stare at each other a moment as he silently communicates to me that it’s all going to be okay.
Except, I don’t know that it is.
Setting my purse and keys down on the table beside my dad’s chair, I lean over to grab the pizza box. Shooting a quick glance at Hawke, I bite out, “So, what, you decided to stop by and check in on an old friend?”
“Something like that,” he growls. “Of course, it would have helped if you’d just told me what the hell was going on when I asked about your dad today at the arena.”
I slam the top of the pizza box over the remaining contents—two pieces of New York style with pepperoni, and my stomach grumbles again.
“Now why would I tell you that, Hawke?” My voice is bitter with confusion and anger. “It’s not like you kept in touch with him all these years. Why would anything about my dad be any of your business?”
“Vale,” my dad says in warning. “Ease up.”