“I’m warning you, Cole. I am not to be trifled with. You know that.”
Cole rolled her eyes and raked a hand through his hair the same time as he paced his apartment. Addison didn’t care that it was late at night and he needed his sleep—well, in relative terms, he probably did. But he didn’t get more then five or six hours a sleep a night anymore. If he ever had any more, they were mostly filled with nightmares from his past.
“I know that, Addison. I just…well, you know how I was injured in that motorcycle accident. How can I even begin to get well?” he lied, “if you keep bothering me?”
“You said you would be a great help to this company, and—”
“I didn’t say that. I said that I would attend every meeting,” he corrected both sharply and bitterly. “That was my sworn oath, you know that, and I want nothing more to do with any part of this.”
“What about filing? You could do some filing work, organize the bills we get, make sure there’s always good money coming in and going out. You know.” Addison’s chuckle filled the line. “Sally does plenty, but you could do a lot more.”
Cole could just feel his blood on fire with never-ending anger. “I am not going to do something that ridiculous when you know as well as I do that I hate every piece of work you all do!”
“Oh, come on, you aren’t still on that, are you?”
Cole scoffed. “I can barely stand straight knowing where I am,” he grumbled.
“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic, Cole. It’s not like I did anything with my own two hands.” He chuckled.
Cole scoffed, but when he heard someone knock on the door, his blood froze like icicles in Antarctica. He swallowed hard.
“I have to call you back,” he said. “Something’s come up, Addison.”
Addison sighed. “All right. Fine. But you better be there at next week’s meeting. This discussion is not over, Cole.”
It never had been, Cole thought, but half his brain was on whoever was at the door. “Whatever, good night.”
“Good night, bro. Sleep tight.” Addison laughed again, harder, and the line went dead.
Cole barely remembered shutting his cell phone off and flipping it to Silent mode as he walked to the door. He let the phone slip from his fingers to the little shelf by the door, and he was very cautious as he looked into the peephole.
The sight of Madison waiting sweetly on the other side made his breath catch in his throat. He should’ve never let her drive him home the other day, because, of course, she now knew where he lived.
She knocked again, three times before glancing down at something in her hands.
Almost without thinking, Cole undid the dead bolt, and flew open the door.
Madison gazed at him, and then looked at him from head to toe. “Were you asleep?”
He shook his head. “What…what are you doing here?”
“Figured you would be up.” She gently breezed past him, and set the two steaming, covered Styrofoam cups of something, along with a mini bag of something that smelled like chocolate, on the small kitchen table. “I remember those lines under your eyes, Cole.” She shook her head, and then slipped off her coat. “I may not always be smart, but I’m certainly not blind. So here, comfort food.” She motioned to the stuff she’d brought. “Hot chocolate and double chocolate chip cookies.” She grinned widely. “Sound awesome?”
Cole rose his eyebrows. He could not believe that she had come to his house specifically for this occasion only. He’d never heard of anyone doing such a thing before. No one, not even his mother, had actually done anything like that before. He wasn’t sure what he would even call the kind of friend Madison was to him.
He studied her for a long moment, and then heard himself ask, “Did you just happen to dollop my hot chocolate with whipped cream?”
She studied him back, and then a big grin slid across her lovely face. It made her look even more beautiful than she actually was, and it beamed a bright, sunny, sparkling light into him from head to toe. He had to admit that it was an awesome feeling.
“I made the hostess put a triple dollop of whipped cream on there just in case it all melted too fast. I put triple dollops on both cups of hot chocolate. Does that work all right for you?”
Cole felt himself grinning. Grinning! Something he knew for certain he hadn’t done in ages.
“Works just fine.” He chuckled. “The only problem is…it’s one o’clock in the morning.”
“That’s exactly why I won’t stay long.” Madison chuckled. “This is just a little snack to make you sleepy and hopefully make you sleep a lot better. Take my word for it. This cookie and this hot cocoa both will soothe you right to sleep.” She grinned, and then took one of the two little bags she’d brought, along with both hot chocolates. “Lead the way to the bedroom and I’ll prove it right.”
Cole swallowed hard. “Oh, so you mean right before bed.”
“Yeah.” She grinned, and then handed him the items. “Here. Good night.”
He looked at the items for a long moment, and then sighed heavily. “Could you…maybe…stay with me for ten or fifteen minutes?”
The grin completely wiped from Madison’s mouth, and she frowned.
“I-I get nightmares.” The confession had to be made. “A-Almost every night.”
She didn’t say anything for a long moment. And then finally, she swallowed hard and nodded. “This is comfort food. It’ll make you better.” She smiled wistfully. “I’ll sit next to you as you sleep. That’s how long it’ll take, you’re guessing, before one comes along?”
“Y-Yeah.” He nodded sharply. “I-I…I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course I don’t.” She waved a hand. “Cole, you are a dear friend to me. If I minded, I wouldn’t be there.”
“I’m pretty much ready now then.” He was wearing his pajamas, white flannel pajama pants and a matching Nike T-shirt. He took the cookie out of its wrapper, from her slender hand holding it, and had it eaten before he’d even finished leading the way to the bedroom doorway.
“My goodness, I hope you don’t daily starve,” he heard Madison say, and he winced. He led the way into the mostly dark room to the single bedside lamp lit by an unmade, full-sized bed. He climbed under the black and white-striped, warm bedsheets and let Madison sit beside him. She handed him the six ounce cup of hot cocoa, and he took several large sips. Comfortable silence lurked between them as he drank, and then he found himself asleep before he knew it. The last thing he felt was Madison’s cool, gentle hand slipping the cup from his fingers, and shutting off the bedside light.
Several minutes later, he woke up sweating, jolting up in bed only by her sweet voice.
Madison’s adorable face was filled with stark concern. She still had her coat and shoes on, and was still holding her own Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate. Her eyes were wide as, with trembling fingers, she reached up and gently touched his face hot with sweat and tears. She lightly stroked the tears from his chin, and then leaned back far enough to gaze at him worriedly.
He swallowed hard, and then leaned as far back as he could get to the bed headboard. Her vanilla perfume and strawberry shampoo mix—she was that close—was doing strange things to him. Really strange things. And he just couldn’t be this close to her in his bedroom without losing control. It wasn’t what he was raised with, or what God taught. He at least respected those parts of religion.
And for another thing, Cole did not want Madison to know for a single moment of his feelings to her.
He swallowed hard.
Madison continued gazing at him thoughtfully, and then reached out and took his hand gently. “What was it about?” she asked softly, speaking of the dream.
He swallowed hard again, and decided that it had to be said. “I was…running through a forest. A group of…people were following me with guns and knives.” He gulped yet again, and struggled to breathe. “That’s…that’s about it.”
Madison studied him for a bit longer, and then nodded. “All right. I’ll leave you for now,” she whispered, as if there was another person in the room listening in. “You have my number in case you need anything.”
He almost smiled, because the offer was so genuine. “I doubt it,” he murmured.
She raised her eyebrows, and then nodded as if she understood. Standing, she gently moved the sweat and hair from his forehead, leaning over him and bringing with her the fantastic scent of fresh strawberries and sweet vanilla.
Cole couldn’t decide which scent belonged to perfume and what scent belonged to her shampoo. But what he did know was that he could literally feel himself trembling as her lips caressed his forehead, and then she drew back.
She gasped at him tenderly, but he knew it had to be purely friendship. Who in their right mind would care anything more than friendship about him?
“Hope to see you soon,” she whispered. With that said, she turned swiftly, and left the room.
Cole listened for his apartment door to close before lying back down. He didn’t shut off his bedside lamp or tried to sleep until several minutes later. No one besides Madison had ever affected him this way before.
He wasn’t even sure if he liked it or not.
Madison gazed into the white chocolate raspberry mocha that she had ordered from Starbucks. She peeked through the single hole in her Styrofoam cup, and gave a long sigh. A sad sigh, one that she rarely had used before she’d even met Cole Whitworth. She didn’t understand why Cole was always acting the way he was. Why he was always acting the way he was, like every hour of his life, like his whole world was crumbling at his feet.
She shook her head in disgust, and in fatigue. Since the day she’d met him, she’d gotten even less and less sleep, because she couldn’t keep from praying about him, hoping to the high heavens of the earth that Cole would find the sunny side in life, the kind of life she knew and was now disappearing from her life. She wasn’t sure what was going on, but in the past few weeks, Cole had begun to mean more to her than a friend. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. For all she knew, Cole could be greatly annoyed by her constantly needing to make sure he was okay. He never looked happy, just always sad, and it was just depressing. Not depressing because he looked sad, but depressing because she couldn’t figure out why it just didn’t feel quite like sadness, but of something completely different.
If he wasn’t being sad, he was being constantly let down about something, and that was another thing that kept her wondering, keeping her eyes wide open at night, at what on earth it actually was.
In return, she was feeling not only out of place in her life but totally not herself altogether. She wasn’t feeling sunny anymore, and she had to read twice as much devotions every day plus her Bible just so she could be able to get through the next day with the help of God. She wasn’t sure if she was falling in love with him or—
Madison paused from dusting the bookshelf at the bookstore to stare into space. She couldn’t believe it. Was she really falling in love with Cole? In just a matter of weeks? It didn’t feel possible or plausible. One person didn’t take that short of time for the feelings to come, although it did explain why she couldn’t stay away from him for more than a few days.
Although it had been one whole week since she’d seen Cole last.
It explained so much else. But…maybe she shouldn’t jump to conclusions until she was absolutely positive.
“Madison? Are you with us?”
Madison glanced up to see her boss frowning at her from under his curly mustache. He was a humorous guy, so his eyes were still twinkling besides his frown, but she had to wonder if he was talking to her.
“There’s going to be a fifteen-minute meeting in our conference room in a few minutes,” he said, staring at her as long as Michelle was. “Be prepared.”
He turned away, and Madison breathed a sigh of relief.
Shelly stepped over to her, her face full of concern. “Are you all right, Maddie? You don’t look yourself, and you haven’t been acting that way, either.”
“I’m fine,” Madison lied, when inside she was wondering what was going on with Cole and why he hadn’t called her in a week when she’d so wanted him to. She’d prayed he would, because she’d thought that maybe, just maybe, the more time he spent with her usual sunny self, his complete attitude for life could be changed. “Let’s just go to the meeting, Shell.” She set her dust rag aside.
Madison could feel her friend’s gaze on her as she led the way to the conference room. But she didn’t want to explain herself. She didn’t want Michelle, Nicole, or anyone else to confirm the truth.
Maybe she was in love with him after all. And maybe it was one-sided, so maybe that’s why Cole was staying away from her.
Because of how she always acted, so charming and happy as her friends and family all said she was, maybe it was good that Cole was staying away. She certainly wouldn’t blame him.
After the conference meeting, Madison spent a couple more hours at work before heading home. She told herself on the drive home that she needed to act normal and not so different or unusual. Her friends and family were definitely worried, since she wasn’t acting at all like her happy and pippy self. She knew that, so maybe beginning tonight she needed to work on forgetting about her worries over Cole. Maybe she should just forget about him altogether, and let God handle the rest for good this time.
Madison parked in front of her condo in her usual parking spot, and then prayed briefly for the courage and strength to let it go. She got out of her car, collected her keys and purse, and pressed the Lock button on her key ring remote.
But the moment she finished climbing the stairs to her condo door, she froze.
Cole stood from the porch swing right outside Madison’s condo, and swallowed hard. He looked terrible, like he didn’t even know what sleep was anymore. Dark circles were under his eyes like black eyeliner, puffy and plain as day. She just wanted to make him lie down and sleep for months and catch up on it all. His hair was combed neatly, as if he was prepared for this meeting, and his shirt looked wrinkled from lack of ironing.
As if not sure what to do with his hands, he shoved them in the front pockets of his faded blue jeans.
“I…” He began, and moistened his lips. “I…don’t know what I’m doing here.”
Madison swallowed hard, and then reached up to curl a strand of honey blond hair behind her ear. She looked him up and down, and then gazed into his lost-looking, hazel-green eyes. One glimpse at that handsome gaze, and she knew. She knew. Nothing could prepare her for the violent blow suffocating to her chest. She was really in trouble now if she felt this strongly for him—she most certainly was in love with him, no matter how unsure she was of how it had exactly happened, or why it had happened so fast.
“W-Well.” She itched to hug all the dark emotions probably swirling inside him right out.
But she had to act right about this, Christian-like. First of all, it was probably unhealthy for a girl like herself to be around someone who might not even believe in God the way he acted, and she hoped God forgave her for thinking such a thing. She wasn’t sure if lack of sleep was causing her to think such stuff, but it was still true. Maturely true. She could not stay around Cole when he was this way, and wouldn’t give her neither the time of day nor any information she inquired about.
Today had to be the last time she ever saw of him if he still refused to tell her everything she was almost dying to know about.
“Well,” she began again in a hoarse, ragged voice. “You’re here, s-so…” She shrugged stiffly. “I hope to think you probably had a good reason for coming here.”
Cole swept his gaze over her, and it irked Madison to see pain come into his eyes. But it both looked and felt different than the usual pain she seemed to see on him. She could hardly explain it even to herself, but something was definitely wrong anyway.
“You…I haven’t seen you in a whole week, Madison.” He tried for a smile, and lost. “H…How are you?”
“I’m fine,” she lied, and hugged herself. “How are you?” She forced the words out, “Nightmares still there?”
He tensed, and she already knew the answer. “C-Cole…I don’t know why you’re here either…”
Cole looked up at her in an almost pleading expression.
She fought away the tears biting her. It had to be impossible to feel such longing; such want and need to even hurt whoever was making him look so terrible. What were the nightmares even about?
“But, Cole, I’m afraid nothing can become of this if you won’t…” She forced the last words out, “If you won’t tell me anything. I won’t see you anymore if you keep hiding such obvious pain from me, Cole, so just…” She clenched her teeth. “S-Spare me, okay, and just…” She closed her eyes briefly.
Cole gulped, but then his gaze shot to her move to hoist her purse strap higher on her left shoulder. “You’re trembling,” he murmured, and lurched forward.
Gasping, Madison stepped back. “Don’t, Cole. If you can’t tell me anything, then this will have to be the last time you ever meet me.”
On rubber legs, she walked slowly to the door and fisted the keys from her trembling hands. She was only a single unlock away to freedom away from him.
Cole’s cold hand wrapped around her left wrist gently, and she stiffened.
She looked up at him, and swallowed hard in preparation.
He gave her a small, sad smile. “Please. Let’s…how about I take you out for ice cream. Huh? Then…then I promise I’ll try to explain everything.”
Shock shot through her like a bullet, and Madison almost lost her footing. “Really?” she asked softly.
He nodded, and tenderness came over his face, but Madison refused to think of that look as more than friendship.
“But first I need you to trust me, Madison. Please.” He smiled wistfully. “Whatever I tell you will be worth telling, then. I promise.”
Madison thought about this for a long moment, and then felt relief from the bottom of her heart. She could trust him. It was going to be easy.
“All right.” She grinned, and suddenly felt like her own self again. She was so pleased to hear he was finally going to tell her, or at least try to. “Let’s go.”
Cole chuckled, and for the first time in her life, to Madison it felt like her world was finally back in place again.