“Gotcha,” Trudy replied, snatching up the menus and then she was again off, which meant I again had Ham’s attention.
“Last thing I wanna do is piss you off, cookie,” he told me quietly.
“You didn’t piss me off,” I assured him.
“Good, ’cause, your man can handle it, I wanna find a way where I don’t lose you.”
The instant he was done speaking, I felt my throat tingle.
Oh God, we were already here. I suspected our lunch would lead us here, just not this soon.
We were at the place where I had to make a decision.
Greg wouldn’t care if Ham and I worked out a way to stay in each other’s lives. Maybe somewhere deep inside Greg would mind that I kept an ongoing friendship with an ex-lover but I’d be surprised if he’d let that show. Even so, I wouldn’t want to do something like that to him.
So that was a consideration.
But also, I had to decide if I could live with even less from Ham than I had before.
No decision, really.
I couldn’t. I knew it. I’d known it for ages because I couldn’t even live with the little bits of him that he already gave me. I just told myself I could so I wouldn’t lose even those little bits.
And, knowing this, finally admitting it, killed me.
“I don’t think I could do that to Greg, darlin’,” I told him carefully and watched his eyes flare.
“So this is it,” he stated.
That was all he gave me. An eye flare and confirmation that he got that this was it. I swallowed past the lump in my throat.
“This is it,” I confirmed.
“Do me a favor,” he said, then kept talking before I could get a word in. “Don’t lose my number.”
That knife pushed deeper.
“Ham—” I started.
He shook his head. “You change yours, you call me. I change mine, I’ll call you. We don’t gotta talk. But don’t break that connection, cookie.”
“I don’t think—”
“Five years, babe, through that shit your parents pulled on you. You breakin’ your wrist. Your girl gettin’ cancer. We’ve seen a lot. Don’t break that connection.”
We had seen a lot. He might not always have been there in person but he was always just a phone call away, even if he was hundreds of miles away.
I closed my eyes and looked down at the table.
“Zara, baby, look at me,” he urged and I opened my eyes and turned to him. “Don’t break our connection.”
“It was always you,” I found myself whispering, needing to get it out, give it to him so I could let it go.
I watched his chin jerk back, his face go soft, and then he closed his eyes.
He wasn’t expecting that, which also killed. He had to know. I’d given him more than one indication over five freaking years.
Maybe he was in denial. Maybe he didn’t care. Maybe he just didn’t want that responsibility.
Now, it didn’t matter.
“Ham, baby, look at me,” I urged. He opened his eyes and there was sadness there. “I won’t break our connection,” I promised.
The last thing I had to give, I’d give it.
For Graham Reece, I’d give anything.
Unfortunately, he didn’t want it.
“Not that man,” he said gently.
“I know,” I told him.
“Not just you, cookie, know that. I’m just not that man.”
“I know, honey.”
“Also not the man who wants to walk away from this table not knowin’ his girl is gonna be happy.”
He needed to stop.
“I’ll be happy,” I replied.
“You’re not being very convincing,” Ham returned.
“Broke ground on my house last week, Ham. It’s sweet,” I told him and watched surprise move over his features. “Great views,” I went on. “Roomy. Got a good guy who thinks the world of me.” I leaned toward him. “I need to move on, honey.” I swallowed again and felt my eyes sting before I finished. “I need to be free to find my happy.”
After I was done delivering that, Ham studied me with intense eyes for long moments that made my splintering heart start to fall apart.
Finally, he stated, “I could never give that to you, baby.”
You’re wrong. For four months, you gave me everything. Then you left and took it away, I thought.
“I know,” I said.
“Want with everything for you to find it,” he told me.
“I will, Ham.”
“Don’t settle, cookie.”
I saw his jaw clench but his eyes didn’t let mine go.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I should have said this over the phone. I wasn’t ready then. I hadn’t… well…” I lifted my hands, flipped them out, and then rested them on the table. “Whatever. I shouldn’t have made you come out of your way—”
Ham interrupted me. “You gave me the brush-off without me seein’ your pretty face, that would piss me off, Zara. I’d come out of my way for you any time you needed it. You know that.”
I did. It always confused me but I knew it.
“Yeah, I know that, Ham.”
“Him in your life, he f**ks you over, it goes bad, it doesn’t and you still need me, you’ll have my number and that always holds true.”
Really, he had to stop.
“It’ll suck, walkin’ away from you.”
I looked at the table.
“But, one thing I always wanted is for you to be happy,” he continued.
I looked at him.
“You mean the world to me, cookie,” he finished.
So why? my thoughts screamed.
“You, too, darlin’,” I replied.
He reached a hand across the table and wrapped it around mine.
We held on tight as we held each other’s eyes.
Then we let go when Trudy came with a refill of my drink.
* * *
Half an hour later…
“Go,” Ham ordered.
We were standing on the boardwalk outside The Mark. My shop was a ways down the boardwalk, same side.
Now was the time.
This was truly it.
And I didn’t want to go.
Tears flooded my eyes.
“Zara, go,” he demanded.
I pressed my lips together.
Suddenly, his hand shot up and curled around the side of my neck. His head came down and his lips were crushing mine.
I opened them.