~ Mike ~
Lee. My gut twists at the way her voice gently caresses the name, one I seldom hear. My mother and, occasionally JoJo, are the only people in my life who use the name. The rest of my family and friends prefer to use the nickname “Mike” that my unit had given me early in my career in the army. I still don’t know how they got Mike out of my surname Mikhail. Why they didn’t shorten it to Mick, I’ll never know.
“I’m fine,” I bite out harsher than I intended.
“I’m here if you want to talk.” She continues, her tone equally caring and motherly, which frustrates me. She’s giving me the affection I crave from her.
“You’re the last person I went to talk to about this.”
I see a flash of pain in her eyes. And my gut tightens.
I grab the coffee cup I had left on the counter and stalk towards the coffee making. Without turning around, I ask, “Would you like some coffee while we wait?”
“No.” Her words clipped are filled with hurt.
“You should let Sophie go,” I say, changing the subject as I pour hot coffee into the mug.
Twisting around mid-pour, I say, “For pizza. Lee and I could have dinner there at another table. I could have eyes on her and report back.”
“She’s my daughter. Not yours,” she says tersely, reminding me of my place within the family. That I don’t have one. As much as I love Sophie and Lee and pretend to myself that they are, the truth is they aren’t my children.
“I know that,” I snap, turning to bang the coffee pot back into the maker.
“Mike,” JoJo exhales loudly, and turning around, I see she’s seated herself on one of the chairs at the counter. Even though I fired on her first with my harsh words, her warm eyes hold an unspoken apology I don’t deserve.
I take a long sip of coffee and feel my entire body relax into its familiar warmth.
“I’m still processing everything,” I admit, a half-truth to her. For longer than I want to admit, I have known my marriage was over. I am still not sure if stubbornness, pride, or shame made me stay unhappy for so long. One day, I woke up exhausted and didn’t want to pretend anymore — to myself and everyone else.
She nods, and her lips twitch into, what I’ve learned over the last decade, is a forced smile. JoJo’s beautiful eyes continue to bore into me, forcing a further confession, “I just want to be happy.”
Without saying a word, JoJo quickly moves to stand next to me, placing her palms on my chest. Warmth spreads through me at her touch; I can’t make myself step away this time. Dropping the coffee cup onto the counter, I cupped her face in my hands, and her eyes widened in surprise.
Not giving either of us time to think, I press my lips to her full wet ones. Relaxing into their softness. I feel her gasp. When her hands fist my shirt, my heart leaps as she jerks my body closer. A voice inside my head had half expected her to slap me away at my impulsive move.
“Pop, look who we found,” Lee’s enthusiast voice when the door is thrust opened is like a glass of cold water, and we quickly break apart. I grab my abandoned coffee mug looking for something to hold onto.
“Good morning,” Derek says, following the girls and Victor into the kitchen.
“What are you doing here?” I can’t help the exasperation from leaking into my voice. Why, after weeks of living here without anyone realizing, today, seemingly everyone in my life is descending on me. I wouldn’t be surprised if my parents walked through the door and they are on a ship somewhere between Florida and the Caribbean.
“Looking for you.”
“Well, you found me,” I bite out, taking a sip of my coffee and glaring at him.
My best friend raises his eyebrows at me, catching my annoyance but not understanding where it steams from.
“We need to leave,” JoJo states distractedly, moving the girls towards the door. All the while avoiding catching my gaze.
“We’ll talk later,” I tell her as I place my hand on her arm. She jerks away, avoiding my gaze and giving me no reply.
“Bye,” the girls carouse as they hug Derek and I on their way out the door, stopping to give Victor one final scratch.
No sooner than the door closes behind them, Derek turns to me, asking, “What’s going on with you and Johnson?”
“You picked up on that?” I set my coffee cup down and scrub my face with my hands.
“I’m not clueless,” he grumbles, making me chuckle.
“Let’s ask B that.” I smile, thinking that his wife Bethany may have something entirely different to say.
“We’re talking about you, brother,” he states, not raising to the bait and staying on course. One thing about Derek is that he’s tenacious when he wants something. It’s one of the reasons he’s made the company so successful. He never gives up.
“There’s coffee there if you want some,” I say, gesturing to the coffee maker.
Opening the box on the counter, he looks inside and then turns to state the obvious, “Things must be serious if you’ve taken the mugs with you.”
“Victor and I have made a strategic retreat,” I tell him before finally confiding in him about the state of my marriage and my move to end things.
“Shit.” He breathes out several minutes later. “I knew you and Karen weren’t in sync, but I didn’t realize how bad it was. I’m sorry, man.”
“I’m sorry I wasted so much of my fucking life too.”
“Anything you need, man,” he states firmly before circling back to his previous question. “But that doesn’t explain what’s going on with you and Johnson.”
“While the girls were walking Victor, I—I kissed her,” I admit, running a hand through my hair in agitation.
“What?” His coffee cup bangs against the counter as he sets it down.
“Fuck, I need a drink.”
“It’s not even 8’o’clock,” he chuckles. “Well, you don’t have a black eye, so I’m guessing the kiss wasn’t unwelcome.”
I laugh and unconsciously bite my lip, “No, it wasn’t.”
One thing was evident during our all to brief kiss, JoJo wanted it as much as I did. Her response had been genuine.
“Did you suddenly decide kissing the woman was a good idea, or what?” He asks, breaking the silence we had fallen into.
“It definitely wasn’t planned,” I tell him. This morning I had not woken up and suddenly decided to make a move on my best friend. It had been her voice, touch, and the look in her eyes that had been my undoing. At that moment, it had felt right. Although, I would be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that everything about JoJo has been on my mind a lot more than usual lately. “But—”
Pulling out a stool from behind the counter, I sit down and lean forward, resting my forearms on the hard surface. Derek sips his coffee, patiently waiting for me to continue.
“It started when JoJo was in London, and I was watching the girls. Karen was out of town too, and I didn’t miss her,” I confess. “Fuck, I didn’t even think of her all weekend. But I missed the fuck out of JoJo.”
“Ah,” Derek says softly.
“I mean, I keep rationalizing that, of course, I missed her; I was in her house and with her girls, right?”
“Right,” my friend agrees, nodding.
“But ever since then, I can’t stop thinking about her,” I continue, emphasizing, “All of her.”
Derek raises his eyebrows at the remark and silently waits for me to continue.
“Sleeping in her bed was a mistake,” I mutter. “I’ve always thought she was beautiful, but lying there every night with her scent all around me. Fuck, my thoughts went places they never have and should never go.”
“Sounds like you’ve had a dry spell, maybe—”
“It not that,” I argue. “There has always been something there between JoJo and me. It has only gotten deeper and more fucking complicated over the years. It was pathetic. While she was gone, I could hardly focus on anything but wondering what she was doing. I’m not sure how many times I fucking texted her. I didn’t like her there without me.”
Derek chuckles into his coffee.
“And did you know she saw Stroke while she was there?”
He nods, saying, “Yeah, I arranged for his firm’s help.”
“They’ve hooked up before, you know,” I tell him, feeling inexplicably jealous of the computer hacker.
“Really?” He asks, surprised before saying. “We both know nothing happened in London.”
“Are you sure—”
“Stop right there before you say something that will discredit Johnson’s work ethic,” Derek snaps.
“Agh!” I exclaim, scrubbing my face with my hands. “See how fucked my head is.”
“Been there,” he mutters, placing his mug into the sink. Turning, he gives me a severe look and says, “Give me a day, and I’ll come up with something.”
“Come up with what?” I ask, confused by his statement.
“A way to hook Johnson,” he says slowly, confused by my confusion. “You want out of the friend zone, right?”
“Okay, then.” He shakes his head and heads to the door but turns back and admits. “Just so you know, I will have to bring Bethany in on this.”
“Derek, I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” I say before reminding him, “She’s JoJo’s best friend.”
“Exactly. Who better to help?” He asks, grabbing the door handle. “Trust me.”
For the first time in our decades-long friendship, I have an inkling of doubt about his abilities.
“Don’t be late for work, and I need that list of vetted applicants on my desk by this afternoon,” he reminds me with a smile as he walks out the door.