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Wounded Warriors Series, Book 2: Waiting for an Eclipse
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Wounded Warriors Series, Book 2: Waiting for an Eclipse


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Women who have faced pain, loss and heartache. They know the score and never back down. Women who aren't afraid to love with all their passion and all their strength, who risk everything for their own little piece of heaven...

Men who live their lives on the blade's edge. Knights in black armor. The only thing more dangerous than crossing these men is loving them...

Steve Thomas has a self-destructive wife, three kids, more guilt than one man can handle... and a chance at true love for the first time in his life--if only he can allow himself to take it.

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  • Karen Wiesner
    Jan 7, 2018, 15:18
    2004 RT Book Reviews Reviewer’s Choice Award Nominee
    2005 EPIC AWARD Finalist
    4 ½ star review and Top Pick from RT Book Reviews
    2004 Lories Best Published 2nd Place Winner
    5 star review from Dark Diva Reviews
    5 star review from Escape to Romance
    5 star review from Fallen Angel Reviews
    5 star review and Reviewer's Top Pick from Readers' Favorite
    4 1/2 star review from The Romance Studio
    4 1/2 star review from Single Titles

    5 Delightful Divas! “I really enjoyed Karen Wiesner’s RELUCTANT HEARTS, the first book in her Wounded Warriors Series, but, with WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE, I was totally captivated. I did not want to put the book down; consequently, the story moved at a very fast pace. In WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE, we get to know Steve Thomas much better. In RELUCTANT HEARTS we saw a bit of what he was going through with Jessie, but that really didn’t prepare me for the horrid reality. My heart broke over and over for him and for his kids; for Jessie I really didn’t have any feelings other than disgust. All I can say is that Karen Wiesner brought these people to vivid life. As for the unrelenting hell that was Steve’s and the kids’ life all I could do was weep for them and rage against Jess—I really lost any thought of Christian charity when it came to her. As for Kristina, wow. She’s everything that Steve needs; her friendship has been his refuge and, between the kids and her support, he’s been able to give his children some measure of stability. Certainly they know that he’s there for them, regardless. But they’ve all suffered so much, and what they’ve gone through over the years has definitely had a terrible impact. I was so caught up in the drama that was taking place in front of me that, truly, the story not only flowed but took me right in. I’m still in awe of Ms. Wiesner’s ability to create characters that live and suffer so much that I often felt that these were my friends, people whom I could relate to and completely care for... even if I didn’t always want to. WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE and, indeed, the Wounded Warriors Series is all about people; people that we may know or people whose lives may be an echo of our own. Certainly there’s no one all good or all bad, even if we want to think there are. And yes, while much of the story is difficult, there’s always a thread of hope running through it, and love...definitely love! If you enjoy a story that drags you in, is sometimes relentless, contains people that could be your next door neighbor and yet is a testament to love and hope, then you will definitely want to read Karen Wiesner’s WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE. The story does stand alone, but, read in conjunction with the other books in the series, is, I think, a much richer experience.” ~Kathy for Dark Diva Reviews http://ddrreviews.blogspot.com/2010/05/waiting-for-eclipse-wounded-warriors.html
    5 Stars! “WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE is a love story that encompasses love, passion, heartache, and pain. They know the consequences but still they take chances and fall in love. The book is also about men who live life in the fast lane. Steve Thomas led a miserable, guilt-filled life with a self-destructive wife. He meets his true love finally in the midst of all this unhappiness. This is a love story which speaks about the ups and downs faced by a man in love. The story is somber, the love story and life of the main character is filled with a lot of dramatic and unhappy happenings from which there is no escape. Steve already has a lot of demons and guilt harbored within him which makes his portrayal as a dark character apt. His attraction to Kristine is very well conveyed to the reader. The author brilliantly describes how he is trapped between his love and attraction for Kristine and his family responsibilities. The story is filled with dark passion laced with guilt and pain. It also speaks about how your past can influence many of your thoughts and behavior patterns in the later stages of your life.” ~Readers’ Favorite
    4 1/2 Stars and 2004 Reviewer's Choice Nominee! "Set in Milwaukee, this poignant book reflects on the complex dynamics of drug addiction and the profound impact it has on the lives it touches. Wiesner's ability to delve into her characters' psychological makeup to depict the sensitive topic of drug addiction makes this an exceptionally powerful story. The second book in her Wounded Warriors series, this is a must-read." ~RT Book Reviews
    4 1/2 Delightful Divas! “WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE is book two in the Wounded Warriors Series. After reading the first book, I was astounded by the raw emotion and very real issues that the characters dealt with. I just had to pick the second book up immediately to find out if that would be a trend, and if I would get to revisit previous characters. I quickly found out that the answer to both of those questions was yes. In the second book, we get to know more about Steve. He was a secondary character in the first book, but this book was all about him. Of course, we also got to see some of the characters from the first book, which is always a delight for me. As with all of Karen Wiesner’s books, her characters are unbelievably real, and they deal with very real problems in their day to day lives. WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE may be a romance, full of passion and emotion, but it deals with so much more. This book shows the trauma of a family, including young children, who are affected by a serious, life-long addiction. Karen did not skimp on the emotions involved in such a situation, taking me to some of the darkest places a father can go. However, I always had hope that he would find his way back, especially with someone like Kristina there to support and love him as she did. If you are looking for a regular romance that deals simply with a couple falling in love and finding their HEA, then this is not the book for you. However, if you want a book with an excellent plot, very real characters, and enough emotion to stay with you long after you have finished reading it, then WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE by Karen Wiesner is just the story for which you are looking.” ~Melissa for Dark Diva Reviews
    4 1/2 Hearts! "Karen Wiesner pens a powerful story which grips the heart at the same time it elicits revulsion at the wasted lives, sorrow, and despair brought about by substance addiction and dedication to outmoded obligations. All the characters are amazingly well-delineated, including the young children, so that the reader will feel as if these are folks living next door, or one's own friends. The plot will tug at the reader's heartstrings and refuse to let go until the end; even then, these characters will live on in one's memory for quite some time. Waiting for An Eclipse is a memorable must-read from this vastly imaginative author. It is the second installment in Ms. Wiesner's Wounded Warriors series." ~The Romance Studio
    "This is not the first Wounded Warriors book, but it stands alone beautifully. I am not sure what I was expecting, but this novel far exceeded any expectations I had. Karen Wiesner has created a poignant book, and part of the magic is that her characters are not given easy "outs" from their situations. They face difficult struggles that do not have magical resolutions. Blood, sweat and tears go into each of their hurdles.... Every character was skillfully developed and that is what made this book so special. As far as I am concerned, WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE is a must read!" ~Roundtable Reviews
    5 Angels! "While I normally prefer escapist romance fiction to nitty-gritty reality, I found myself riveted by this very unusual romance story. It is neither insipid nor sweet nor aggressively erotic, and yet it is a compelling read. The bittersweet story is so well-written that, although the true sadness and horror of Steve's situation is clearly described, the reader feels sympathy and hope rather than despair, and comes away with the satisfaction that the characters have finally found their way. The characters of Steve and Kristina are shown as real people, with human failings, and yet both of them have moral strength and an ethos of honor and responsibility. I liked them and really wanted them to find happiness. The story is well plotted, and moves along at an inexorable pace, neither too fast nor too slow to communicate the story. The conflicts the characters face are serious and, unfortunately, all too real in this day and age. If you are tired of marshmallow fluff romances, you need to read this novel. It will grab you from the very start, and won't let you go until 'The End.'" ~Fallen Angel Reviews
    5 Roses! "If you have not started the Wounded Warriors Series by Karen Wiesner, you are missing one of the best series I have had the honor to read. Karen Wiesner has taken modern problems that many people are facing daily and is turning them into a fabulous series. Steve has all the wonderful traits women look for. He has a strong character. Karen Wiesner has completely captured the feelings of neglect and loneliness children and husbands feel in this type of situation. WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE is a very powerful novel about a man with character. This novel will touch your heart. A word of caution: Once you start this series, you will not want to miss one single novel." ~Escape to Romance
    4.5 Stars! “The second story in her Wounded Warriors Series, Karen Wiesner touches our hearts and our emotions. WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE should be required reading for anyone in a relationship with an addict. Karen Wiesner realistically portrays the heart-breaking effects on those around the addict. Love is never enough if the addict does not want to help themselves. Steve was a wonderful hero. He never gave up, but his feeling of guilt and helplessness needed to be changed into determination. But even with determination, will he ever be free? Read this excellent story and take a ride with Steve on the rollercoaster that has become his life. Your heart will never be the same. Emotional, realistic, and gritty, WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE will capture you and not let go. The story is perfectly titled as you will find out when you pick up this keeper. [This book] and Karen Wiesner do not disappoint.” ~Single Titles
    4 Roses! "This is a story of deep emotions and confusion. It deals with hard questions. When a member of the family is dependent on drugs or alcohol, it can destroy the rest of the family. The characters take us to that dark place where the hard decisions about sanity and healing are made. Steve has to take care of his children. He has to free himself. Unfortunately, that means taking away Jessie's support system. We feel Steve's conflict. He knows that Jessie needs to get better. But, by divorcing her, he could drive her to destroy herself. Steve must force himself to make the horrifying decision: his wife or his children. Kristina shows us strength against what must seem like overwhelming odds. Her strength and willingness to wait until Steve makes a decision shows a depth of character not always found. The story is well paced with enough scenes to help slow the pacing, so the reader isn't always overwhelmed with emotions. Make sure to have some kleneex nearby when you pick up WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE. This is a story that will tug at your emotions as you root for Steve to make the right choice." ~A Romance Review
    You Need to Read! "This is the third book I have read in the Wounded Warrior Series and it is my favorite so far! Although full of trauma it is also full of hope. The title is perfect as Steve and the children, and Kristina in her own way, are in a dark place waiting to come into the light and live fully again. This book presents the trauma of a family, including young children, when the mother is an irresponsible drug addict. It isn't a pretty picture but rather heartrendingly realistic and sad. I liked that Ms. Wiesner presented real emotions in the characters without creating a soap opera overload. I especially appreciated Steve's commitment to his children and to his marriage vows in spite of Jessie's behavior. He honored both the institution of marriage and Kristina by his actions. I also liked Kristina's attitude that sought the positive in the situations around her and allowed for hope to grow and flourish. Steve deserved a wonderful, caring woman like Kristina! Ms. Wiesner has woven another wonderfully emotional and beautiful romance." ~You Gotta Read Reviews
    "This one is fiction for mainly women. It clearly shows the trauma families deal with when one of the parents are addicted to drugs. The characters are well developed... Great light reading for a rainy afternoon." ~Huntress Reviews
    "WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE is almost too realistic in its portrayal of a family's disintegration. It's gritty and heartbreaking, but it's saved by the integrity of its hero, who refuses to cheat on his wife as she has done so many times to him. This means, of course, that Kristine must remain on the sidelines to be there when--or if--the matter is resolved. Steve does have a support group in the other characters from the original book: his sister Wendy and Tommie's widow Gwen, to name an important two. Ms. Wiesner really gets down into the starkness of life as lived by so many in this world. In this case, the plight of the children would be too distressing if she didn't also shine rays of hope onto her characters. Because of that hope and her belief in the saving grace of love, I don't hesitate to recommend WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE as a highly engrossing and moving story. Speaking of love and hope, at the end of this novel, Ms. Wiesner names the four books to follow in her Wounded Warrior Series, and the projected sixth book will star Jessie and Flint." ~Romance Reviews Today
    "Karen Wiesner has done it again! She's captured the joy and despair of falling in love with heartrending tenderness and sizzling sexual tension. A compelling portrayal of love and redemption, WAITING FOR THE ECLIPSE kept me reading hours past bedtime and left me smiling through happy tears." ~award-winning author Carrie Masek
    "Leave it to Karen Wiesner to always tackle the tough subjects in her books... As always, the talented Karen Wiesner makes the reader think and feel. In this 2nd installment of the Wounded Warriors series, WAITING FOR AN ECLIPSE, the reader will rethink the issues of marital fidelity and promises that do more harm than good; and the reader will do it by exploring the realistic conflicts of a family in crisis and of a wounded man and woman warring with the choices they have made and must make. A true-love-conquers-all story." ~award-winning author Barbara Raffin

One


Sunlight seemed to pull him into its spotlight as he emerged from the DeSmet Building. Steve Thomas did what he'd done for at least half of his life: Stopped, squinted, slipped on his shades and avoided the bright rays. His glance traveled to the building across from the one he'd just left. The Drug Crisis Center shared the parking lot with the DeSmet Building. Right on time, Kristina Ingram pushed open a glass door and came out, searching for and finding him with her gaze. Her welcoming smile, even a hundred yards away, was as bright as the sunlight. He found himself soaking it up gratefully after the day he'd experienced.

For the past five years since she'd come to work at the Center as a counselor, they'd had this same ritual. Somehow, though his schedule was different most days and erratic at best, she left work at the exact same time he did each day. 

Steve relaxed, returned her smile as they approached each other. Her hair, the color of cherry wood, was caught up behind her neck in a bun that was rapidly losing form. As the wind caught the loose strands, he remembered what it looked like down and free. She's got a really nice neck. He found himself laughing inside at the crazy thought. It felt good to laugh, even to himself.   

"You did it!" she exclaimed when they were only a foot apart. "Congratulations! I'm so proud of you, Steve...I mean 'Associate Professor Thomas'."

Steve didn't bother to wonder how she'd found out. Kristina seemed to know everything going on at Eisner University. 

"Thanks. If I had to go through one more committee..." He'd had his share of congratulations today for getting tenure and making Associate Professor status. Also his share, maybe more than his share, of mean-spirited teasing and ridicule wrapped in false sincerity either behind his back or to his face. Some of his peers at the college called him "the scholar", and not fondly. They assumed he was trying to be the pet among the elders. The truth of the matter was, college, getting his master's, his Ph.D., and now tenure as he worked toward full professorship was all that'd kept him sane for the past thirteen years. 

Thirteen years--sounded like so little when it felt more like forever. Being here was where he avoided stress. Here he could fill the hours of his day, away from the loneliness, the silence, the endless problems. The black hole of emptiness sucked him in whenever he left this place. But his colleagues wouldn't understand because all they saw was that he made them look bad or he took what they thought they deserved. He didn't care to disclose the truth for most of them either.

"What was the reaction?" she asked because she knew about the rivalry he didn't encourage, let alone get involved in.

He shrugged, but she seemed to realize he'd had a tough day because of it. "They're just jealous, you know," she said, a mischievous twinkle in her eye as she brushed a strand of her hair off her lips. "You wear leather while they wear wool with reinforced plaid sleeves." She touched the sleeve of the light, straight-cut, leather jacket he wore over black jeans and a dark t-shirt. 

Steve laughed at the realistic parallel. He'd never fit in with the dress code and never tried. Most of his colleagues followed the rigid ideal of dress because it was an obvious way to get in the good graces of the executive committee.

Surprising him, Kristina stepped forward and hugged him. He almost dropped his briefcase he was so unsure of himself in the position, but then she backed off and smiled at him again. "Have you got time tonight to go out for a celebration glass of champagne? My treat."

They'd never been in a social situation before--outside of a quick lunch or soda at one of the restaurants nearby the campus. She had no way of knowing he didn't drink alcohol, even if she might know why he didn't. Why did their professional friendship strike him as unusual? There was no reason he'd see Kristina outside the campus. 

He shook his head immediately. "I can't. Too much to do. Thanks for asking though."

Her obvious disappointment almost had him wishing he could say yes. She knew why he couldn't and didn't push it. They left the sidewalk for the parking lot. After she unlocked the door of her car, he opened it for her. 

"See you tomorrow," she said softly. "Do something for yourself tonight. All right?"

Steve nodded and got the feeling she understood the impossibility of that from the concerned look in her eyes.

"'Night, Kristina." 

She smiled, and he remembered the sunlight when he'd come out of the music building. Her smile was like that. Blinding. Revealing. Only he didn't want to avoid it. Sometimes he wished he could stay where she was, where things weren't complicated or stressful. It wasn't fair to think she was the only sunshine in his life. Not at all. But he thought it anyway. 

After shutting her door, he walked toward his car, turning to wave at her as she drove past him out of the lot. Sighing, he got into his car, remembered her comment about the wool sweaters and laughed. 

The memory of her hug returned. Just a friendship hug. Warm friendship hug. Body to body. The laughter dried up and made his throat feel cramped with emotion. Confusion and straight-out fear gripped him.

No. He had to think about getting dinner ready. Doing dishes. Helping Val with her homework. Laundry needed to be done. Then getting Val to fall asleep, to stay asleep for a while anyway, just until there were no monsters or nightmares to wake her. Only then would he have time to do the work he brought home every night. None of those tasks applied to his wife because he couldn't predict Jessie. 

A few minutes later, he was on the freeway and leaving Brookfield. He lived in Greenfield on the southwest side of Milwaukee. Ironic, he often thought driving home, that his family lived in such suburbia.

The closer he got to home, the more his stomach clenched. He lived in a good neighborhood, in a solid, two-story bungalow. It was about the only thing in his personal life that was good. 

As soon as he turned the corner down the street he lived on, he knew something was wrong. Evangeline, the nanny who worked for them, picked up and stayed with the kids after school every day, wasn't there. Her car wasn't in its usual spot--parked on the street in front of the house. That meant Jess had to be home. She'd come home and sent Evangeline away. The fact that no one had paged him didn't make him feel any more relieved. 

Every light in the house was on. The front door stood open. Music spilled out into the street as if a live band rehearsed in their garage. 

Steve didn't bother pulling into the garage. He didn't take his briefcase. He parked on the garage approach on a slant and jumped out of the car. As soon as he ran up the porch steps, he saw his eight-year-old daughter huddled in the corner crying. 

His teeth clenched as he picked Valerie up and held her tight against him. Now what, Jess? Now what, d*t? 

He didn't want to go inside the house, almost as much as Val didn't, when he took the steps toward the screen door.  "Please, Daddy, I don't want to go inside. Let me stay here," begged Val. 

If not for the chill in the September air, her thin shirt and alarming frailness, he would have let her stay outside. 

"Val, baby, where're your brothers? Is Ronnie still at football practice?"

Her face red, pinched, and miserable, she nodded. "Tom's at Aaron's."

When Steve opened the screen door, Valerie huddled her face into his shoulder and he barely heard her whisper, "I hate her, Daddy."

He increased the pressure of his arms and prayed he hadn't heard her right or that it was the wind. Regardless of whether she'd voiced it, he knew the truth he didn't want to face. 

The stereo in the living room was the one blaring, and he slammed the button to get it to shut up. In the silence, he knew Jess wasn't downstairs. She'd come home, told Evangeline to get out, turned on the stereo to block out the silence and had gone to their bedroom. Left the kids alone again. 

"Go in your room and close the door, baby," Steve said softly on the landing upstairs. Val did it without a moment's hesitation. Then he turned toward the closed door of his bedroom. 

From outside, he heard the screech of tires in front of the house. One of Ronnie's much older friends dropping him off. Just in time, too.

Steve shoved open the bedroom door, wondering almost inappropriately why she never locked it. Or didn't she think she had anything to hide? Hell. 

Inside his bedroom, he saw exactly what he expected to see: his wife lying naked in their bed next to another man. A needle was stuck in her arm, and she wasn't moving. Even when Steve said her name, she didn't stir. All the rage and fear and humiliation crumbled inside his head, yet Steve acted by rote. He checked her pulse and found it slow, erratic, barely there. 

Behind him, he heard his son, a twelve-year-old boy with the eyes of an old man, swear. Steve covered Jess before turning to Ronnie and saying with the last vestige of his control, "Call an ambulance." 

The long-haired guy next to Jess stirred. Steve didn't wait for him to come to full consciousness in his own good time. He walked around the bed and yanked the b*d straight up before shoving the clothes he'd gathered at him. "What did you two shoot up?" he demanded, and the creep stumbled, incoherently telling him sheet rock--LSD and crack--as he struggled with his pants.

"Get out. Now." 

As soon as he fled, falling down the stairs judging from the ruckus, Ronnie picked up the phone next to the bed. Steve watched him punch out the number without taking his eyes off his mother for even a second. He summoned an ambulance as though he'd been doing it forever. And he had. He was twelve years old, and he'd done this more times than he could remember. 

Damn you, Jess, how much more? How many times can you put us through this?

He'd known the peace wouldn't last. He'd never believed for a second it would. 

"Daddy?" Val's voice drifted into the room from the hall, and Steve glanced at Ronnie. Even Ronnie's glare at him was familiar, and all Steve could think was that this had to end. All this s*t. Somehow. Soon. 

It had to. 

* * * *

"I'm hungry, Daddy," Val said softly. Steve brought his hand to the back of her head, smoothing her pale yellow hair. She eased closer to him on the waiting room chairs, putting her head on his chest.

"I know, baby. It won't be long now. We'll pick up Tom, then go through the drive-thru on the way home. Get anything you guys want."

Small consolation, but their lives were built on small consolations and Steve gave them whenever he could. Maybe it wasn't good for them, maybe he wasn't firm enough, maybe he indulged them too often. He'd never been able to withhold the little joy he could give them. When they looked back at all this when they were older, he hoped they'd remember these things and say it wasn't all bad. 

Glancing across the waiting room of the ER, Steve caught his elder son's dark eyes. Ronnie looked away immediately, hostility so fierce that Steve felt it run through him like a hot knife. He couldn't help Ronnie. It was too late. The damage Jessie had done went too deep to ever bring him back. 

All of his life, Ronnie had seen his mother's insanity--her drinking, her drugs, her cheating. He saw and heard the fights. He saw the way Jessie remained oblivious to his brother and sister. Occasionally, Jess noticed Ronnie--when she needed him. Then and only then. Not a minute sooner. It'd created a vicious cycle in him. He wanted his mother's love more than anything, so he remained loyal to her, making excuses for her bad behavior, even when she ignored and used him. In order for him to remain loyal, her enemies had to become his enemies. Steve had become his own wife's enemy because he hated the things she did, couldn't accept them anymore. He'd spent years trying to get her to change. He'd spent years failing. He'd lost the war for his son as well.

Feeling his continued gaze on him, Ronnie turned to him, his lip curling. "You shouldn't have let her go back to work. You should've let her recover longer."

"She made the decision, Ronnie. I didn't say anything one way or another." Steve heard the desperation in his own voice. He wanted his older son to believe him, just once. To assume the best of him instead of the absolute worst. 

"When do you ever need to say anything to her? She knows what you think of her. She tries so hard to please you, and it's never enough for you."

Swallowing, Steve felt tears sting his tired eyes. 

"Stop defending her!" Val said, her voice watery as she turned toward her brother. "She did it to herself. Daddy tries to help her and she just... She'll never change. Why do you defend her? She doesn't care about you. She hates everyone, but she needs us."

"Val..." Steve started, but Ronnie was already on his feet, stalking out of the room.

Steve's attempt to call him back went unheeded, and he sat forward, his head in his hands. He wanted to let the scream building in his throat out. Let it fill the room, the whole world, until he collapsed under its weight. 

"I hate her, Daddy. I hate her," Val said on a sob. 

"Don't say that, baby. Please don't say that." She was crying again, and he was helpless to her tears. Nothing he did ever mattered. His actions, his words, couldn't change anything. Yet he pulled her into his arms and held her against him.

"I wish she'd die this time," Val whispered, and Steve wanted to scold her and beg her not to voice that ever again. But he understood. God in Heaven, he understood. She wanted this all to end. She didn't want her mom to wake up, leave the hospital saying she'd go to rehab and everything would be all right again soon. A couple weeks later, she'd come home, clean, apologizing and claiming she wouldn't slip up this time. That she'd be a model mother and wife. 

None of them believed her, not anymore, but predicting how long before her restlessness, boredom, and depression took over was impossible. Sooner or later, she'd be back on the drug and booze binges, screwing everybody in sight before she landed in the emergency room. Again. It never ended. 

Valerie wanted all that to end. Steve couldn't blame her for that. While the kids knew what had made their mother the person she was, they couldn't understand it. A part of Steve didn't want them to understand. He'd already lost Ronnie. He wouldn't risk losing Val or Tom. 

Footsteps came toward the waiting room, and Steve turned to see Dr. Harvey coming in with his arm around Ronnie. Steve stood, lifting Val in his arms at their approach. The doctor greeted Val, handing her a lollipop and asking where Tom was. He gave her an extra lollipop to give to him. He'd been handing out lollipops to the kids since they were babies, all at events similar to this, and he hadn't seemed to notice they weren't two feet high anymore. 

"How's my mom?" Ronnie asked, and Steve heard the accusation in his voice as he shot a glare at him. In Ronnie's mind, Steve should have been the first to ask.

"It's touch and go at this point. You know how these things work. Who knows better than you?" 

Steve felt his face flush at the humiliation he knew Dr. Harvey hadn't intended to make him feel. 

"Wasn't she just in here a month, month and a half ago?"

By sheer chance, Dr. Harvey had been working the emergency room that time as well. 

"Rehab didn't take?"

There was nothing to say. Rehabilitation was part of Jessie's cycle. From a doctor's point of view, it had to sound like a waste of time and money. There was no such thing as permanent rehab, not for someone like Jess.

"There's nothing more you can do here tonight, Steve. Why don't you take the kids home? We'll call you if there's any change. Get some rest."

"I wanna see my mom," Ronnie said instantly, predictably.

Dr. Harvey nodded, putting his hand on Ronnie's shoulder. "Sure. But not too long."

"I don't want to go in there, Daddy," Val whispered as soon as her brother followed the doctor out of the room. 

Tom hadn't wanted to be here either. Steve had called his middle son from the house, after the ambulance came and went and before he followed it to the hospital. Tom had said they didn't need him there, he'd rather stay at Aaron's tonight. Steve promised he'd pick him up from his friend's after they left the hospital. He wanted Tom with them tonight. Besides, he'd had a bad feeling about Aaron from the first time he met him and not just because of his foul mouth and nose rings. Tom had agreed to be ready when they picked him up. 

"When can we go home?" Val asked twenty minutes later. Ronnie hadn't come out yet. Steve knew he'd have to go in after him. I don't want to see Jess either. If he could get away with it tonight, despite Ronnie's wrath, he would leave without seeing her. 

At the admitting desk, he asked the nurse--a familiar face--to watch Val for a few minutes. With a sad, pitying look on her face, she said, "Sure. Why don't you come back here, honey?"

Getting Ronnie to leave the hospital without his mother would be hard. It never got any easier because the boys' determination grew almost in sync with his physical growth. At twelve, he was already five-seven and well-muscled. Steve knew it wouldn't be much longer before he'd be using his physical strength to protect his mother. And then what would Steve do? He wouldn't hit his own son to get him in line.

Ronnie stood by his mother's bedside and stoically refused to look up when Steve came in. 

"Ron, Val's tired and hungry. We have to get your brother--"

"I wanna stay with her."

Steve glanced at the wall. He couldn't look at Jess. He knew he wasn't strong enough to see her. If he looked at her, he'd remember she needed him, but he wouldn't remember why. He'd remember being needed to the point where he didn't exist for any other reason. He'd remember he owed her that much. 

"No," Steve said softly. "No, Ronnie. But we'll come back here right after dinner tomorrow. Okay?" When he put his hand on the boy's shoulder, his son shoved away and left the room. 

Closing his eyes, Steve took a deep breath. His mind filled with the memory of a cherub with chocolate brown eyes, a mass of dark hair, always smiling, drooling and trying to satisfy his every curiosity. Ronnie had been exuberant about life back then. He'd loved everyone and everything. When Steve held him, he'd stayed there in his arms. He'd wanted to be there. 

Steve left the room without looking back. Ronnie already had Val by the hand, leading her out of the hospital. 

As Steve drove out of the parking lot, Ronnie said, "I'm gonna quit football."  

Ronnie was in a community football team for kids his age that practiced after school and on weekends. He'd been the first to make the team and probably would be the first to quit as well. Taking care of his mom was his top priority. Besides, sooner or later, Jess would ask him to stop going. 

"You need a life outside the house, Ron," Steve said, knowing anything he said wouldn't mean a damn thing to his son. He'd enjoyed football in high school, purely for the sport of it, not the competition, and Ronnie loved sports.

"Mom needs me. She counts on me."

She's the mother. You're supposed need and count on her"Don't quit," Steve said simply. 

Ronnie didn't answer. 

The silence in the car continued after Tom got in. Steve noticed he didn't ask about things. He just said he was hungry. At eleven, his middle child was even more withdrawn than Ronnie. Tom spent most of his time in front of his computer or the TV, headphones on to block out everything else. 

Dinner was something Steve could take care of. He could make a meal, set the table, force himself to eat, hoping they'd do the same. Ronnie took his food up to his room, saying he wanted to start his homework. Steve wanted to forbid it, but he had no desire to fight. None of them did. 

"You want me to help?" Tom asked after the meal, and Steve shook his head. "Thanks, buddy. I'll take care of it. You got homework?"

Tom shook his head, muttering, "Did it at school."

He never seemed to have homework, always said he did it at school. He appeared to make no effort based on an avid disinterest in school, but Steve couldn't lecture him for it since he got B's easily enough.

Steve kissed the top of Tom's head and noticed the length of his hair. The smell of smoke in it. He didn't mention either. Despite his middle son's seeming obliviousness to most of life, Steve knew Tom was sensitive. Getting on him about his homework would make him withdraw even more. Even saying a haircut was in order might hurt his feelings. Asking him if he'd been smoking would be worse. Maybe Aaron's parents smoked. 

Sullen as usual, Tom got up from the table and went to the living room. A minute later, the TV blared. 

"Will you help me with my homework?" Val asked. She'd barely eaten anything. From the time she was born, she'd been apathetic about food. She barely ate enough to keep herself alive. She was much smaller and frailer than most of her classmates, so pale that her veins stood out starkly beneath her skin and her lips always looked blue. Her brown eyes looked huge within her tiny face. 

Helplessly, Steve looked at her sipping her milk because he'd asked her to drink all of it, and he suddenly wanted to get the kids together, get in the car and go. Anywhere. Never look back. His hands tightened so hard on the back of the chair, he was afraid he wouldn't be able to disconnect from the reckless feeling inside him. 

He'd brought his kids to this. He'd been the one to go against everything he knew was right because he couldn't say no. He couldn't resist temptation. He'd told himself it was okay because he could be everything Jessie needed. Now Ronnie was caught in the same net he'd been ensnared in. Tom wanted to avoid the world so no one and nothing could hurt him, ever. And Val was afraid of the world. She was helpless in it, and the demons around her tormented her night and day. The only way out for all of them was the one thing he couldn't allow himself. They suffered for that inability as much as he did.

"Daddy?"

He needed to clean the kitchen, get laundry started, or he'd never get any sleep tonight. But he said, "Yeah. Yeah, baby. Whatever you need."


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