“You’re a hypocrite, Melanie,” he continued. “You’re all about how evil the club is, but who’s watching your kid right now so you can go out and party?”
“Dancer,” I admitted, wishing like hell I’d just hired the kid down the street. But she’d invited her boyfriend over last time, and while I was pretty sure Izzy hadn’t seen anything, I didn’t feel like I could trust two horny teens to watch her . . .
“Yeah, and who helped you move into your house?”
“You and Reese.”
“Me and Reese and Horse and the prospects,” he said. I was starting to get the ugly sense I wasn’t going to win this fight. “When your car broke down, who towed it in and had it fixed?”
“Reese,” I whispered.
“Yeah, and which one of us wound up in the hospital after that homeless motherfucker went on the attack? Call me crazy, but if I remember correctly that was you, Mel. You know, you with your job where you see more blood and guts and destruction in one night than I see in a year?”
“That’s unfair and you know it,” I snapped. “You forgot one key point—my job is fixing those people, helping them.”
“And I’m sure Izzy will be very comforted by that fact when you turn up dead because some guy named Todger ambushed you in the parking lot,” he snarled. “But the good news is that he probably won’t even remember what he did, so I guess that makes it all okay, right?”
“I hate you. I wish you’d stayed in that prison,” I hissed. “Then I’d never have to deal with your shit.”
“Is that what you really want?” he asked. “Me gone—really? Because I’m the one who shows up at your place to fix the fucking sink when it’s leaking. And the dryer—remember when your dryer broke? I found you a new one on craigslist, hauled it over, and hooked it up. Guess you forgot that part. But if you really want me gone, I can make that happen. I got offered an art fellowship in New York last week—a chance to study with people who know their shit. People who can teach me. They’re waiting on an answer, Mel. It’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of, right there on a fucking platter waiting for me. Is that what you really want?”
“What?” I gasped, stunned. “You got offered a fellowship?”
“Yeah, a damned good one,” he said, face still hard. “You know my stuff’s selling more and more . . . all those city people love it because it’s so raw. It could be a big deal.”
I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. Izzy . . . How would I tell her? Oh God. I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
“Still hate me, Mel?” he asked softly. I shook my head, because I didn’t. Of course I didn’t. The thought of him leaving again hurt me, hurt me as much as it had the first time. That was the problem, of course . . . not that I didn’t care about him, but that I cared too much. “Do you really want me gone?”
“No,” I whispered, and I meant it. “I mean, I want you to have the opportunity, but . . . God, that would kill Izzy. And what about the club?”
“Despite what you seem to think, they’re my brothers. They actually give a shit about my happiness.” Unlike some. He didn’t have to say the words. “I can take a leave anytime I need to, did you realize that? BB did when his mom was dying. I’ll admit it—I used to worry that they’d kick me out if I wasn’t useful. But they’re my family, Mel. You should understand that by now. Business is business, but family is what it’s really about. Riding bikes with my brothers. The business side is just a means to an end.”
Oh God. I shivered, despite the heat blasting through the SUV.
“You’re taking it, aren’t you? You’re leaving us.”
Painter laughed, but there was no humor in the sound.
“No, Melanie,” he said softly. “I’m not.”
“Because I’d rather die than lose my daughter. This is my home, Mel. My life was shit as a kid. No dad. My mom wasn’t worth a damn and once I hit the system it was all over. You think they can offer me anything in New York more valuable than what I already got here? I got a second chance with Izzy, and I will never let her go. Never. I’d rather be dead than lose her again.”
Sniffing, I realized my eyes were starting to water. Ah hell. I hated it when I cried. Hated. It. And how dare he turn this all back on me? I hated him, too.
Thank God he wasn’t leaving us.
“I’m glad you’re staying,” I managed to say. Painter snorted, then shifted the SUV back into gear. I sniffled a little as he started driving toward my little house in Fernan. It wasn’t much, but it had a fenced yard that Izzy loved. Not only that, someday it would be ours.
No landlords to hassle us. No leases to negotiate or rising rent.
“It was a flattering offer,” Painter admitted, turning down Sherman. “But I already lost way too much of Izzy’s life. Not to mention I fuckin’ hate cities. Way too many damned people. Just like being in prison again.”
That made me laugh, a pathetic sound but still better than crying.
“I’m sorry I called you an asshole,” I said after a long silence.
“It’s okay,” he replied. “I am an asshole. And what you went through on your own with Izzy and everything, that’ll never be okay. But I’ve grown up since then, and I’m a loyal fucker. One day you’re gonna figure out that I’m serious when I say I’m here to stay.”