Zoe couldn't believe she was now thirty-five years old. As she spooned with her husband of nearly seven years, she was thankful of how the past decade of her life turned out. She sighed and smiled when her husband's hand trailed down her side. He kissed her shoulder lightly before nuzzling her neck.
"We can't do this now," she told him, disappointment filling her voice. "The boys will be up soon and so will Allyson."
"It'll be quick. I promise," Kristoffer whispered against her ear. Both stopped going by their nicknames after turning twenty-five.
"The last time you said that it wasn't. It ended up being a marathon," she reminded him.
"It will be this time," he promised.
She snorted. "If I remember correctly, I ended up pregnant the last time we did have a quickie." She kissed him when he started to speak. "As much as I love my little girl, I really don't want to push out another baby at this time in my life."
"If you believed in Caesarian sections—"
"I don't. I think it's a bit of a cop-out unless it's absolutely necessary."
He sighed. "You had Morrison when you were twenty-nine, Deon at thirty-two, and Allyson is barely a year old now."
"Aren't you on birth control?"
"I am, but I've missed almost all of this week. Remember? My doctor switched the pills I was on for something she hoped would agree with me."
He kissed her neck. "Please?"
"Are you going to wear a condom?" she countered and he sighed. "I didn't think so."
"What if we do something else then?"
"Like what? Jude and Robbie can only keep the munchkins busy for so long."
He whispered his intentions as his hand put his plan into motion. She sighed and covered his hand with her own.
"Like that, do you?"
She nodded furiously. She moved her hand behind her to touch him. He moaned as she stroked him.
"I love you," she breathed before shifting to kiss him again.
"I love you, too, Zoe," he replied, covering her as he did so.
When they were each sated twenty minutes later, Kristoffer held her close and dropped a kiss on her head. "I love you so much. Thank you for never truly giving up on me," he whispered shakily, thinking about the past twelve years of their lives. "Thank you for choosing me."
Zoe wrapped her arms around him tightly and leaned up to kiss his forehead. "Even when I didn't want it to be, it was always you," she told him as she too thought about the past.
Kristoffer and the boys ended up back in Eugenia from California shortly after his twenty-fourth birthday after receiving an honorable discharge. His parents let him and the boys move into their house while he tried to find a job and get his life back together. It seemed as if one of the only good things going for him was that fact his divorce from April was final and her parental rights had been taken away.
With the help of his father, he was able to secure a job. Jude and Robbie were settled into school and generally enjoying life. The only thing missing from all of their lives was one person: Zoe. Kristoffer wanted to see her, but was afraid to ask anyone about her.
Zoe, on the other hand, didn't really want to see him. She knew the day he arrived back in town and had done everything in her power to avoid him and the boys. She had also managed blackmailed her friends and siblings into not telling Kristoffer anything about her personal life. Part of her did want to see him but at the same time she didn't want to hurt him.
She met someone while he was gone. More than that, she'd gotten engaged.
Casey Saunders wasn't from Eugenia but had family in the surrounding area. The flaming redhead had met Zoe while at a Blue Demon in the closet big city shortly after Kristoffer left for California. Zoe had been reluctant to exchange numbers with him, despite having spent the better part of the evening talking to him rather than enjoying the concert.
In the following months she realized how much she liked spending time with him. He was different and made her laugh all the time. He was seemed to know everything she needed when she was reluctant to voice it, was always supportive, and knew how to deal with her when her temper got the best of her. She enjoyed spending the night with him—their first time together had come nearly after a year of dating and been a disaster, but they'd managed to get past it.
She was slowly beginning to fall in love with Casey. But there was always a niggling thought in the back of her mind reminding her that he wasn't Kristoffer.
Throughout her life she'd always felt fate hated her, but she was certain it did when Kristoffer came back. The day before he returned to Eugenia with the boys, she had agreed to marry Casey. Her hate for fate deepened when she bumped into Kristoffer at the mall three months after he returned.
They fumbled through small talk until he spotted her moderately sized engagement ring. He paled slightly before congratulating her and making excuses before rushing away. It had taken everything within her not to run after him. Instead, she found the mall bookstore and spent half her paycheck on romance novel involving couples overcoming burdening circumstances such as exes and triumphing in the end. Casey had only been able to stare that night as she settled into bed after placing the stacks on her bed table and delving into one of them.
As Zoe continued to try and avoid Krsitoffer, she only ran in to him more often and after a few weeks of this, she found her relationship with Casey slowly beginning to suffer. She talked to Casey about it, explaining her past with Kristoffer and how she wanted to reach out so it wouldn't be so awkward for all their mutual friends. Casey, however, hadn't liked that idea. He didn't say it but Zoe could tell from the way his eyes darken as he gave told her it was her decision. Not wanting to create an even bigger hole in the fabric of their relationship, she tried even harder to avoid Kristoffer and even approached Casey with the idea of moving to his hometown instead of staying in Eugenia. Casey had liked that idea a lot.
Somehow shortly after she told her family and friends about the idea it reached Kristoffer who came to see her at her parents' house after Sunday night dinner. Casey had gone home for his niece's birthday.
"You can't leave," Kristoffer had told her without much preamble after she'd let him in. They moved into the living room away from questioning eyes and straining ears. "I can go if you can't stand it here because of me but—"
"You have two kids, Kris. They've settled in again. I don't have kids to worry about. I can move away," Zoe replied. He shook his head. "It's awkward for everyone when we're in the same place for even seconds."
"You belong here. Stay here in Eugenia."
"I don't want you to go."
She turned away at the intensity in his voice. She clenched her hands. "Don't say that. I'm trying to move on," she said shakily as he moved closer. "I'm happy right now. I love Casey and he loves me."
"Do you love him or are you in love with him? And are you really happy?" He stepped even closer, backing her into a wall. "I miss you. I need you."
"Even if you don't want to be with me, even if you still marry Casey—which is a dog's name, by the way—then I'll settle for being your friend. I need you in my life. Desperately, Zoe. Don't leave. I can't not have you in my life anymore."
"Casey doesn't like you."
"He doesn't have to know. You say you love him, fine. I'll take your word for it. But at least let me have your friendship. I don't deserve it, but I need it."
"I'm not going to lie to him, Kris. That wouldn't be fair to him. He's been decent about this whole situation so far. That would just kill everything we have. I'm…I'm sorry. I can't be your friend."
He looked so much like a lost little boy as her words hit him. He promptly looked down and ran a hand through his long hair. "I guess…I'll just go then. It was nice to have known you for so long even if they were never the best years of your life," Kristoffer said quietly before quickly moving past her. She didn't cry until she heard the front door close.
Zoe didn't tell Casey about her conversation with Kristoffer although she was sure her parents' neighbors made sure to whisper about it so it spread through town. They had to have been the ones to say something because Kristoffer was only on speaking terms with blood relatives. He just grunted at everyone else.
But one evening as Zoe made Casey's favorite meal he walked into the kitchen and accused her of having an assignation with Kristoffer. She was so surprised by his accusation she near sliced off her finger.
Reaching for the dish towel, she immediately wrapped her finger and glared at him. "What did you just say to me?" she demanded. Her finger stung like a bitch and she was almost certain she would need stitches.
"Are you sleeping with your ex-boyfriend?" Casey demanded.
"No! I'm not. How could you ask me that?" she asked as she turned off the stove and tried to leave the kitchen. He blocked her path. "I'm bleeding, in case you didn't notice, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to need stitches so if you don't mind, I'd like to go to the emergency room."
He didn't move.
"So help me God, Casey, if you don't get out of my way. Either drive me and yell at me or get the fuck out of my way!" she shouted, pushing past him.
He followed her and grabbed his keys. They rode to the emergency room in silence. Zoe couldn't help but notice he seemed to take the longest route there.
"Way to be passive aggressive, Casey," she finally snapped as they sat waiting for a train to pass.
"If you aren't having an affair, why didn't you tell me you talked to him or saw him?" Casey demanded.
"I see him all the time. It's a military town. It's not that big, Casey. And he came to my parents' house. We stood in their living room and talked that was it. I didn't tell you because I know you don't like him and I didn't want to upset. I didn't want there to be a bigger rift between us than there already is."
"What did he want? Did he want you to leave me?"
"What does it matter? He isn't—"
"Stop answering my questions with questions! Damn it, Zoe! Just answer my question."
She glared at him. "Which one?"
He blasted her with a litany a curses that didn't end until the train had finally passed nearly three minutes later. When they finally arrived at the hospital, she jumped out of the car and slammed the door behind her. He caught up to her minutes later as she filled out the paperwork.
"You don't get to be upset at me for asking, Zoe. I have a right to know when you talk to him."
"What right is that? He's my ex-boyfriend. I've done everything I can to avoid him. I've never approached him, I've changed my routes and patterns, and God knows what else. I love you, Casey. I want to marry you."
"If you love me—"
"Don't finish that sentence. Don't you dare try to manipulate me because I won't tell you want we talked about. I haven't betrayed you in any way. I may have been tempted to go see him or the boys but I haven't. I have been true to you. I wouldn't lie about that." He looked away from her. "Do you even trust me, Casey?"
"It's not you I don't trust."
He looked at her.
"You know I love you. I agreed to marry you. I've committed myself to the idea of spending the rest of my life with you. Whatever he says or does doesn't mean a damn. I wouldn't cheat on you, Casey. I wouldn't betray your trust like that. Trusting him is irrelevant. If you don't trust him around me that means you don't trust me around him and that's…that's not okay."
She forced herself to take a deep breath. "It was inevitable that he was going to end up back here. It's his hometown. He was born and raised here. I dumped him. I moved on. I met you and we've been great. Kristoffer being here shouldn't change that."
Casey was saved from replying when a nurse called her name. Zoe waved him off when he stood to go with her and he let his head fall back hard against the wall. Later that night when they were finally home, she went straight to bed and left him to clean up the kitchen.
The strain between them continued to grow even though Casey apologized and she told him what she and Kristoffer had discussed. Each sought their parents for relationship advice and tried to implement what they were told but nothing seemed to ease the ever growing tension. They way Zoe looked at it was that she and Casey were dangling from a skyscraper and their relationship was the rope keeping them hanging, but slowly the rope was thinning was about to break.
It finally broke on her twenty-fifth birthday. She woke up to the smell of blueberry pancakes—which she hated—and found Casey standing next to her side of the bed with a tray and a smile. She could only stare at him and he eventually let his smile drop and set the tray down on her bed table.
"I don't want to do this anymore," she said, slipping off her engagement ring. "I can't do this anymore. We've tried. We've done counseling and it just isn't working. I can't marry you. I don't want to marry you anymore. I'm not…I'm not in love with you."
"So you'll go to him then?" Casey asked tonelessly.
"I don't know what I'll do," she replied.
The same day Casey packed a bag, moved out of her apartment, and left Eugenia. Zoe promised to ship his things to his parents' house. When her family and friends showed up later that morning, she told them what happened and told them she was taking a year for herself again. But this time, she wasn't going to get involved with anyone. And she didn't.
A week after her twenty-sixth birthday, she went to see Kristoffer and asked him out to dinner. She told him she wanted to be friends with him and that she was still in love with him, but she wouldn't foolishly get involved or rush into a relationship with him again. She told him that if he wanted them to be together then they would have to start from the very beginning like they were just meeting for the first time.
"Whatever you say," he'd said. "I'll do anything you ask."
She nodded and smiled before adding, "If we do this and you screw me over again, I swear to God I'm going to put you in a wood chipper piece by piece. And you can guess which part I'm going to start with."
"I won't screw up again. I promise." He stuck out his hand. "Hi, I'm Kristoffer. I don't think I've seen you before."
"Hi, Kristoffer. I'm Zoe, but my friends call me Blue. And it's odd that you've never seen me before since I've lived in this town for most of my life. I've noticed you before."
"Uh-huh. It's hard not to notice a great, hardworking single father who happens to be a very good looking man." She smiled when he blushed. "I'm sorry if that was too forward and this will be too, but I have the strangest urge to kiss you right now. And it's all because of that blush."
"You were right that day we had the fight," Kristoffer said quietly, bringing Zoe out of her thoughts. "You deserve much better than me. Casey would have been perfect for you. If I hadn't come back—"
"If you hadn't come back then we wouldn't be married with five kids. And yes, Casey would have been the logical choice, but I would have spent the rest of my life wishing he was you," she interrupted. "We both made plenty of mistakes before—"
"Me more than you," he interjected.
"—but we've learned from them and now our relationship is stronger than ever. And even though we're still quite dysfunctional together, we've both become better people. I've stopped hitting everyone that pisses me off and I now communicate what I'm feeling better without taking it out on others or myself."
"And I've stopped being so selfish and am more attentive to your needs. I'll give you credit, couple's counseling wasn't that bad." She snorted and he pinched her lightly. "I mean it. I may not have acted like I wanted to go but I did. I was just…nervous about everything. I didn't think you'd really want me back if I laid out all my cards. And I was always such a dick to you."
"Stop it right there. We're not dwelling on the past anymore. Only the present and the future. We have a beautiful life, Kris. We have an amazing family and a great marriage. The past is irrelevant now."
He rolled onto his side and touched her cheek. "You are way too forgiving. If it wasn't me you were always forgiving, I would say it's your worst and most annoying trait."
"I thought my worst trait was the fact that I hold on to grudges."
"No, it's not that. Although you've definitely gotten better with that," Kris told her and she beamed at him. "I love you."
She leaned in for a kiss. "I love you, too."
"I can't believe how lucky we are," he said softly as a distant thundering loomed nearer. "I think we're going to need a bigger bed."
"Not if we don't have any more kids," Zoe replied with a smile as their bedroom door opened. She interlocked her fingers with his and squeezed his hand. "I can't believe how far we've come."
Author's Note: It's a feel good ending. I just wanted to get this out and be done with this story for a while. I need to detox from Zoe, Kris and all their drama before I even think of rewriting and revising. I've already started rewriting the first three chapters of Son of a Preacher Man—I don't like how I started the story—which is going to be renamed Sweet Surrender when I get around to posting the three new chapters. Thank you to all of you who read, reviewed, and stuck with this story in the two-plus years it took to write it. I appreciate it.