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The Darkest Corner of the Heart: Chapter 37

Maddie

Ice blankets the streets of Norcastle as the first week of December rolls around.

When I woke up this morning with a big hand splayed against the bare skin of my stomach and a warm body pressed to my back, I instantly knew what day it was. But, unlike last time, my heart doesn’t feel heavy and my brain doesn’t go down yet another self-pity spiral.

The man behind me is part of the reason why, but mostly it’s my own growth that has led me here.

Today is the last day to send my application for the new open audition to The Norcastle Ballet, and I’m not even going to open my laptop. My body isn’t ready to go back, and my heart has finally accepted the harsh truth.

The Norcastle Ballet isn’t for me.

Call it a hunch, a conscious decision, or both at once. It doesn’t matter.

The reality is that the dream I had worked so hard for all my life doesn’t appeal to me anymore, and it’s okay. My future isn’t set in stone, and I refuse to pretend it is for the sake of stability.

The fact that I’m not going to work there doesn’t mean I failed. It doesn’t mean I drive people away or ruin things for myself—it only means my goals change as I grow, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

I’m building a future for myself and leaning on people I choose and who choose me back. And if the day comes when they don’t want to choose me anymore… Well, that has nothing to do with me. Unless I do something truly horrible, it’s not my fault if someone walks away. People can make their own decisions, and sometimes those decisions include leaving me behind.

That doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, friend, daughter, sister, or girlfriend. It just means I’m not part of their journey anymore, and they aren’t part of mine, and we can all move on and thrive.

My new therapist, a lovely woman named Kendra, tells me as much.

I was hesitant to go back to therapy, but after telling Sammy and Grace about everything that went down with my former therapist years ago, my sister-in-law asked her own therapist for referrals in Norcastle.

I hope that witch enjoys the complaint I filed two weeks ago.

Throughout the years, I felt an unreasonable need to prove to my brother that he didn’t waste his time, that he didn’t make a mistake when he took me in. Because if I took my passion and made it to the top, that would make me more worthy in his eyes.

How sad is that? How insane?

Somewhere along the way, I lost sight of what is truly meaningful to me—always doing my best and being able to dedicate my life to this craft. And I did it.

I did it, and I couldn’t see it.

I was so blinded by a dream that didn’t belong to me. Not for the right reasons.

Weeks of working as a ballet instructor have taught me patience, not only with kids and young girls, but also with myself. And I vow to cherish the opportunity to be able to make ballet my livelihood and make kids fall in love with it just as much as I have, while making sure they don’t push themselves too hard.

And if I pair that sweet realization with the love the man behind me shows me every single day, deeply and unconditionally, I’d say I don’t have it too bad.

My life is looking pretty amazing, in fact.

James stirs behind me, his lips dropping to my shoulder as he kisses it. “Morning, baby.”

God, his morning voice. Someone put me out of this misery.

“You woke up before your alarm again,” I point out, noting how he still has nearly an hour to spare before he needs to leave for the clinic.

He buries his face in my neck, his stubble tickling me the way he knows makes me shriek.

“Stop,” I pant, out of breath as he attacks my sensitive skin.

“Or…” He plants a kiss right behind my ear, and I shiver. “I could tickle you somewhere else.”

I’m not saying no to that.

James’s huge body disappears under the covers, dropping kisses on my skin as he goes. He stops at the hem of my pajama pants, his lips grazing my lower stomach as he pulls my clothes off slowly, so painfully slowly I find myself whimpering his name before he even does anything.

“Perfect,” he murmurs against my skin. Then he stops. “I never asked you. What does your tattoo mean?”

My back arches as he plants open-mouthed kisses over the inked butterfly. “It’s a reminder that I’m meant to fly away. Find my own path.”

His kisses become tender, shorter.

“That I’m meant to transform the pain of my past into hope for the future. A symbol of rebirth.”

“And you did,” he whispers. “All of it. Because you’re amazing, and I love you so damn much.”

“I love you too.” My fingers tangle in his hair, urging him down. “But please.”

He only chuckles. “So impatient.”

I groan. “I wouldn’t be if you weren’t such a tease.”

“But I love teasing my girl,” he purrs, kissing the inside of my thigh.

“James…” I squirm. “I swear—”

“Shh… I’ve got you.”

When the tip of his tongue parts my wet folds, I shatter. My back arches as I pull him closer, needing to feel his tongue in the deepest part of me.

He grabs my hips, securing me into place as he feasts. The roughness of his stubble and the way he sucks my clit into his mouth, licks my folds, has me over the edge in minutes.

“Mm…” His tongue pierces my entrance as I pulse around him, moaning and begging him for a release I know he won’t give me. “So fucking sweet. I can’t wait to fill you up. Do you want that, baby? Do you need my cock in this tight pussy right now?”

“Yes,” I pant. “God, yes.”

“Yeah?” he teases.

“I need your cock inside me. Shit,” I whimper as he continues to eat me out. “I want it so bad.”

James throws back the covers until he’s kneeling above me, looking more imposing than ever before. He doesn’t even shove his underwear all the way down as he pushes inside me, stretching my walls with his hard girth.

“Fucking hell,” he curses under his breath, taking me rough and fast like all he wants is to ruin me.

He sits back in bed, pulling my legs around his torso. From this angle, he hits so deep, I scream. My hand finds my clit, and I finger myself as he watches his cock slide in and out of me.

“There’s my pretty girl,” he coos. “You take my cock so well. It stretches you nice and good, doesn’t it? Fuck, yes. Keep touching yourself like that.”

An intense wave of pleasure overcomes me, and I know I won’t last long. James knows it, just as he always does, and moves back on top of me until his lips are hovering over mine.

“I love you,” he whispers, the softness of his voice contrasting with his punishing thrusts. “I love you so much, Maddie. More than anything. More than life itself.”

His words throw me over the edge, but I don’t want to fall without telling him, “I love you too. I love you. I love you.”

James presses his forehead against mine, his eyes never leaving mine as I fall, and he falls right behind me.

Our kiss is passionate and slow, our tongues intertwining as he brings me closer. He’s inside me, around me, in me, and I don’t think I could ever feel more loved if I tried.

After he takes me into the shower and makes sure I’m thoroughly clean, he makes us a quick coffee and toast as I cuddle our fur babies on the couch.

He brings it over with an extra kiss to my forehead, and we eat on the couch, enjoying the sunrise above the city.

“What time are you meeting your mom today?” he asks over the rim of his steaming mug.

“Lunchtime,” I say, munching on a bite of buttery toast.

“Are you nervous?”

I shrug. “Not really.” Not anymore. When I finally texted her last week, she was eager to meet me, which I’m going to take as a good sign. Sammy does too. “I was way more nervous about meeting your parents.”

He snorts. “Please. They loved you,” he says with a genuine smile as I recall our lunch together last weekend. “My mom can’t wait for the holidays so she can bake you all the cakes in the book.”

James’s parents couldn’t be sweeter, which is quite funny, given how grumpy their son is. They didn’t bat an eyelid at me being so young, and they sounded interested in my ballet career, so the prospect of seeing them over the winter holidays isn’t as daunting as I imagined it would be.

His mother assured us that his brother, Andrew, wouldn’t be there. Apparently, he lost his job after he punched James in the middle of his office—who does that?—and he moved away from Norcastle.

“Good fucking riddance,” James had muttered under his breath, and I couldn’t agree more.

His wedding to Alexandra has been called off, too, according to his parents, and they have no idea if they’re still together or if she’s still in the city.

And honestly, we couldn’t give less of a crap.

Just like I suspected, Beth and Kyle love James. Just yesterday I had to endure hours of their rants about how they totally saw it coming and how amazing we looked as a couple. And when Kyle asked what James was like in bed, I might have pinched his nipple.

The day after we flew to Norcastle from the funeral, he spoke to management at the rehabilitation clinic about dating a former patient. He was ready to change jobs if he needed to, but luckily, we were told personal relationships between doctors and former patients were allowed as long as I never became his patient again. Since I’m not planning on injuring myself again—I’ve learned my lesson—it works for us.

James’s parents and my family are the only people whose opinions truly matter, and all of them approve of our relationship.

Well, Sammy is still getting there, but I know he’ll come around.

Lila begs me daily to bring James to our house for the holidays because she thinks he’s so cool, so there’s that. After we left the funeral home all those weeks ago and had lunch together, he let her play some popular games on his phone. I think that may be the sole reason my brother has warmed up to him, but hey, I’ll take it for now.

“I’ll be back before you are.” I kiss him on his stubbled cheek. “And I’m making lasagna for dinner.”

“I’m not above getting on my knees and begging you for it,” he says, and I know he’s serious. What can I say? I make a mean beef lasagna.

“I’ll have you begging later, but for a whole different reason,” I tease, which earns me a smack on the butt as I stand up to leave my mug in the sink.

We’re not living together—not yet—but sometimes it feels like it. We sleep together every night, usually at his place because of Shadow and Mist, but I don’t mind it at all. His place feels like a home to me, even if I still love my apartment and spend time there as often as I want.

He’s hinted several times that I’m paying rent for a place I’m only half using, and while he’s kind of right, we both agree that we don’t want to rush into anything. We know we’re in it for the long run, so there’s no reason to hurry when we have forever.

Plus, I still need to have a little more independence in my finances before making such a big decision. Our age difference is something we actively don’t ignore, and it’s obvious that James has more financial stability than I do. So until I feel comfortable in that department, we’ve both agreed it would be better if we kept separate homes.

It feels right to live like this for now, so why should we change it?

He drops me off with a kiss at my apartment before he leaves for the clinic, and while I get ready for work and think about the audition I missed and the mother I’m going to give a second chance to today, I realize something.

For the first time in twenty-one years, I feel like I’m exactly who and where I’m supposed to be.

✽✽✽

I get a sense of déjà vu as I wait for my mother in Monica’s Pub, but nostalgia hits me the hardest.

My boss at the dance school was so happy with my performance, she decided to give me more shifts, which meant my days of working as a waitress had to come to an end. It would’ve been exhausting to juggle both jobs.

Still, I miss this place and the chosen family I found here. As Monica comes up to me with a big smile and asks me about my new job, I realize I’m never going to lose what this bar has gifted me.

Some things stay forever, and this is one of them.

“Maddie.” My mother’s voice is gentle as she takes a seat in front of me. She even spares Monica a greeting and a genuine smile, and I almost don’t recognize the woman in front of me.

Her skin has a healthy glow to it, and she moves with more confidence now than I ever remembered her having. It’s hard to reconcile this new person with the memory of the careless and unkempt parent she was while I still lived with her.

“How are you, dear?” she asks, her undivided attention on me. “You look beautiful. Did you do something to your hair? It looks great on you.”

She noticed? She can tell the difference?

“I straightened it.” Which I never do. I prefer it when my soft waves run wild, but I wanted to put some effort into my appearance today. For some reason. “You look good as well.”

She smiles, and it’s only now that I notice how much her smile looks like mine.

I’m not bothered by this realization. Not one bit.

“Thank you. I’ve been happy.”

Happiness. That’s what it is. That’s the secret.

As we wait for our orders, she tells me about how good Dave is to her and how he’s encouraged her to go back to school. “It’s just a silly diploma.” She waves it off as if it weren’t the hugest of accomplishments.

“Are you kidding me?” I gape, my shock quickly turning into a proud smile. “That’s amazing! What are you studying?”

Is that a blush on her cheeks? “I don’t know if it’ll ever get me any job—I’m not getting any younger, after all—but it’s a certificate for working as a receptionist.”

“Oh my God, Mom, that is incredible,” I beam. “Do you like it? How are classes going?”

She tells me she’s just enrolled in a local community college, so she’s still adjusting to being a student again. When she mentions the teachers are really supportive and she’s making more friends her age than she ever expected, I almost burst into tears.

My mother was able to finish high school by some kind of miracle, since she had Sammy when she was sixteen. Life hasn’t been kind to her, which meant we also struggled growing up.

My brother was able to make a name for himself when a family friend who saw his drawing skills took him under her wing and taught him all about tattooing. If my brother hadn’t stepped up, I wouldn’t have this good, happy life, but I don’t blame my mother anymore.

For better or for worse, she’s the reason I’m the person I am today.

And I love this new Maddie with all my soul.

“I’m proud of you, Mom. I’m sure things will look up for you from here on out.”

She gives me a small but hopeful smile, as if she were too scared to think she deserves a little bit of luck. “I hope so, Maddie. I really hope so.”

As I look at the almost unrecognizable woman in front of me, I realize she did all she could. Consumed by an addiction that started long before I was born, she couldn’t give me everything I deserved, but she gave me love. I remember that much.

It wasn’t enough, but at least it was something. And at least that love has always been genuine.

She used to pepper my cheeks with kisses until my giggles filled the room, make me my favorite foods when I was upset, and work hard to make sure she kept a roof over my head.

But after I moved in with Sammy and Grace, we progressively lost contact as the years went by, and I’ve always wondered why.

It’s time I get the answers I’ve been craving for seventeen years.

“Mom,” I start, unsure how she’s going to take the shift in conversation. We’ve only talked about positive, happy things until now, but she’s the one who wanted to have an honest conversation. So here we go. “Why…” I clear my throat. “Why didn’t you visit more when I was living with Sammy?”

I expect her to close off, to stiffen. Instead, her eyes water, and it’s a hundred times worse. My hand moves on instinct as it covers hers.

“I’m sorry I caused you so much pain, Maddie.”

I don’t like how weak her voice sounds. Months ago, I would’ve rolled my eyes and thought she was playing the victim, but my heart holds no space for bitterness anymore. For the people who truly deserve it, it only holds compassion.

“I was scared to disappoint you,” she sniffs. “Your brother took such good care of you. He always has. That’s why… That’s why I held that stupid, unfair grudge against him. He’s such a natural and gave you all the things I never could, and… God. It sounds so wrong.”

I squeeze her hand. “I’m not here to judge you. I only want to understand.”

She blinks, shocked. “Really?”

“Yes.” I nod, more convinced than I’ve ever been before. “I used to resent you for walking away, for not being a present mother, but…I think I understand where it came from. It doesn’t make it okay, but I don’t want to live in the past anymore.”

Her gaze lowers to our intertwined hands. “You’ve always been such selfless souls, your brother and you. So strong, so full of love to give. I don’t deserve you.”

“Yes, you do,” I tell her firmly. “Please, Mom, stop punishing yourself for this.”

She chuckles, but it’s humorless. “It’s going to take a while.”

“We have time,” I assure her. When she meets my eyes, unsure, I nod. “But I want you to reach out to Sammy and apologize to him too. He loves you, Mom. So much, and he doesn’t deserve this. You’re missing out on an incredible granddaughter too.”

“I see her sometimes.” This time, her smile is genuine. “It’s always Grace who comes with her, though. I’ve always liked her, you know? She’s so good to my children, always has been. She’s a great mother to Lila, the kind of mother I would’ve loved to be for you. But…”

“But you want your son back,” I finish for her.

She nods.

“Did you talk to him at the…at the funeral?”

I’m still not used to the idea that my father is dead. He’s not present, just like he’s never been…but in a different way.

Kendra—my new therapist—says we still have a long way to go until I learn to live with what he did and didn’t do, as well as how his death makes me feel, but we’re getting there. I’m doing well.

My mom shakes her head. “I went to find him, but I couldn’t… I wasn’t brave enough to speak to him then.”

“You can still salvage the relationship. I know it’s scary, but trust me when I say that your absence hurts him. He wants his mom back, and so do I.”

She rubs furiously at her eyes, and she leaps from her seat so she’s right next to me, hugging me so close to her it takes me right back to my childhood. “Thank you, Maddie. Thank you,” she whispers. “I love you so much, dear. I will never forgive myself for hurting you, but I promise to be the mother you’ve always deserved from now on. If you’ll accept me.”

Tears fall from my own eyes, and I do nothing to stop them.

I’m not ashamed to cry for someone who deserves my sympathy.

It might take a while to build this relationship back up from the ground, but it’s not impossible because I don’t want it to be.

“I want you in my life, Mom,” I tell her, holding her close. “Sammy does too. We love you, and I forgive you. I want to start anew. Do you?”

“Yes. So much.” She pulls away, wiping my tears away like she would do when I was a child. “I’m proud of the selfless, loving, giving woman you have become, and I couldn’t be prouder to be your mother. Don’t ever forget that.”

I won’t. For as long as I live, I won’t.

My mother might not have been dealt a fair hand in the past, but her luck changes now. Our future changes now. And I couldn’t be happier I decided to stay by her side to witness it.

✽✽✽

The moon is already shining above the Norcastle skyscrapers by the time James comes back. He texted me earlier that Graham wanted to grab a drink and watch the hockey game, and I insisted that he spend time with his friend. He still feels bad about leaving me alone at home, but frankly, I’m in my element cooking in his kitchen as Shadow and Mist make sure I leave no ingredients out.

“Maddie?” he calls out as he closes the front door behind him. He appears in the kitchen a moment later, wearing the most handsome of smiles. “It smells good in here.”

I beam. “Dinner is ready. I was just keeping it in the oven so it wouldn’t get cold.”

“Mm.” He wraps his arms around my waist and presses our foreheads together. “I missed you. Did you have a good day with your mom?”

Not wanting to break our hug, I place my head on his chest and tell him about second chances and forgiveness, all while he sways us softly in the middle of the kitchen to the rhythm of some silent tune.

He grounds me, calms me, and I know without a doubt now that this is where I’m meant to be. He’s the one I was always meant to find, the one I was meant to share this journey of healing with.

“I have something to tell you,” I say, my voice firm but shy all at once.

His fingers tangle in my hair as he massages my scalp in the way that always gives me the best kind of tingles. “Do tell.”

I draw back as I work a nervous swallow, still in his embrace. “I think I know what I want to do with my life.”

His eyebrows shoot up in surprise, a small smile forming on his lips. “Oh, yeah?”

“It’s like, a really long-term thing, but I’m excited about it.”

He presses his forehead against mine, and I don’t imagine the pride in his voice as he says, “Tell me about your new dream, baby.”

So I do.

I tell him how I don’t regret, not for one second, everything I went through to try to get into The Norcastle Ballet, because that path led me to him and this new me.

I tell him how Suzanne Allard’s comment made me realize something I didn’t even know I had within myself and how my own journey inspired me to be there for others.

“I’m really happy teaching at the studio right now, but I’d love to open my own one day,” I confess out loud for the first time, and it doesn’t sound silly or far-fetched.

James is looking at me like I’ve finally figured out an answer he’s known for a while.

“I want to offer inspiration to young girls, to teach them to cherish their bodies and embrace the journey, no matter where it takes them.”

“That’s a beautiful dream, my love.”

My love.

It’s the first time he’s called me that, and my heart reacts accordingly.

God, I love him so much.

“All I want is to prevent other dancers from going through the same thing I did. And I’m not talking about the injury—I’m talking about their own dreams. That no matter what they want to do in the dance industry—teaching others, joining a company, or just doing it for fun—it will be important. That it will be enough,” I tell him. “I can’t change what happened in my past, but maybe I could change somebody’s future.”

“That’s all that matters,” he says, pressing our lips together. “You’re a gift to this world, Maddie. I’m so goddamn lucky I’ll get to be with you every step of the way, holding your hand. I’m sure you’ll make a difference. You already did with me.”

He smiles, a smile so soft and full of love, I almost can’t believe this incredible man is all mine.

I wrap my arms around his torso again, hugging him against me. “Ugh,” I groan, which makes him chuckle. “I didn’t think I could possibly love you more.”

But I was wrong.

So wrong.


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