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Beneath the Ice Ch. 08

Story Info
The conclusion of Charlotte and Alexei's (and Zoe's) story.
  • September 2021 monthly contest
8.4k words
4.95
7.3k
35

Part 8 of the 8 part series

Updated 10/20/2021
Created 08/18/2021
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MugsyB
MugsyB
2467 Followers

Thank you for coming along for this ride. I've enjoyed writing it and reading your feedback and thoughts for each chapter. I loved this couple from the first and I'm happy that so many of you feel the same way.

This story, as you might or might not guess, was partially inspired by the past several months I've been living with a single parent and three-year old kid in the apartment above mine. Although, they are nowhere near as nice as any of my characters and certainly have made little to no effort to curb their noise levels. It's been frustrating, to say the least. So in that spirit, I did want to make one comment, or suggestion, whatever you want to call it: if you live in an apartment building, with someone else living in the unit below you, whether or not you have kids, please be considerate and aware of your noise levels. Yes, kids will be kids and they're allowed to have their fun but everyone is entitled to some kind of peace in their own home. Some people may or may not be as understanding as I am (and believe me, I'm being far more understanding than my upstairs neighbor deserves) but it doesn't hurt to be considerate and kind to those that live around you, and you can do that without taking the fun away.

There. Done. I'll get off my soapbox now and let you get on with the story. Note: have tissues ready. ;)

As always, take care and happy reading! M.

****

To say Charlotte didn't sleep well that night would be an understatement. She didn't cry after her attempt to end things amicably with Alexei. She washed her face, brushed her teeth, and crawled into bed after he'd left, all the while replaying their fight in her head. Was it even a fight? She'd broken up with him, and he'd refused to accept it. No, she'd tried to end things. Hadn't she?

But the things he'd said-- Did he mean them?

Her heart skipped around in her chest when she realized the truth. That he never said anything he didn't mean. He hadn't since the day they met. And she'd tried to cut him from her life? Cart before the horse indeed. Maybe she should have listened to Ursula.

But no, ending things now, before they'd really become attached, was better. Right? It had to be. It would have hurt far more if this had gone on for another year. Or two.

Rolling over, she pressed her hot face to her cool pillow and tried to sleep. Zoe would be up early enough as it was and it was going to be a busy day.

─────

Christmas morning was as chaotic and loud as it always was with Zoe. Charlotte sat back with her morning coffee and grinned as Zoe enthusiastically went through her stocking from Santa. After the furor died, she made them breakfast of French toast and bacon, and then they watched a movie together before getting ready to head to Sarah's mother's place.

Yes, it was a great day but the big, gaping hole in the center of Charlotte's chest told her it wasn't right. As she sat in the middle of the living room hours later, with Sarah and her lovely family surrounding her, Charlotte knew deep in her bones that she'd made a colossal mistake.

She didn't want this anymore, this brave face as she spent time alone at friendly parties and the like. She wanted Alexei beside her, holding her or taking care of Zoe across the room. She wanted everything he'd said to her the night before when she'd been trying to let him go.

Had she lost her damn mind?

As her lips began to tremble, Sarah sat down next to her, the couch cushion bouncing under both of them.

Her friend started to hand her a glass of eggnog, but stopped when she noticed Charlotte's expression. A minute later, Charlotte found herself bustled into a guest bedroom on the second floor, the door closing out the noise of the rest of the family gathering.

"Talk."

Charlotte looked up at Sarah as she perched on the edge of the bed. She let out a shaky breath. "I broke up with Alexei."

Sarah shook her head, her mouth opening and closing a couple time before she managed to speak. "I'm sorry. It sounded like you said you broke up with Alexei."

"I did. Last night."

"No." Sarah crossed her arms over her chest. "That can't be what you're saying right now, not when you and I both know he's perfect for you."

Charlotte covered her face with her hands but the tears came anyway. "I'm so stupid, Sarah."

Her friend sighed and sat down next to her, one arm going around her shaking shoulders. "Okay, start at the beginning. What's going on?"

Charlotte tried to explain through fits of tears and sobs but by the time she stopped, she only reaffirmed what she'd realized downstairs in the living room: that she wanted a life with Alexei and she should never have let him go.

"What am I going to do?"

"Oh, sweetie." Sarah tugged her closer and pressed a kiss to her head. "You've managed to work yourself up into quite a state, haven't you?"

"I thought I was doing the right thing. Alexei can do so much better than me." She sniffled and wiped her cheeks.

"Why would you think that? You're funny, smart, hard-working, a wonderful mom." Sarah sat back and half-turned Charlotte to face her, hands on her shoulders. "He'd be crazy not to love you."

"I don't want him to wake up in ten years and think he's made a mistake in settling for me."

"Charlotte Woods. I could smack you right now."

That startled Charlotte out of her tears for a moment. Sarah was blunt, no doubt, but she'd never threatened violence. It made her smile, even if it wasn't genuine.

"How about you let Alexei decide for himself what he wants?"

"Okay, so sure, he wants me right now. But I don't know if he'll feel the same in ten, fifteen, twenty years."

"Good lord, no one knows that going into any relationship. We don't even know if we'll still be friends in ten years."

Charlotte gasped and threw her arms around Sarah. "Of course we will!"

"Yeah, well, it's because I'm so fabulous." Sarah squeezed her back before pulling away again so she could look Charlotte in the eye. "But this thing with Alexei, I get that you're spooked. You've never been in love like this before. You've been on your own for so long, you've tricked yourself into thinking you can only do this alone, and you're wrong."

Charlotte had no ready response to that.

"It can be scary giving your heart to someone, of course, but you can't cut it off before you get hurt. That never works." She tilted her head, giving Charlotte a pointed look. "Are you feeling unhurt right now?"

"No." Charlotte rubbed her chest. "I feel like I scrambled my insides with a rusty knife."

"And I can guarantee Alexei is feeling the same right now."

That made Charlotte crumple into Sarah's hold again, fresh tears starting all over.

"He's never going to forgive me. I'm so damn stupid."

"No, you're not." Sarah rocked her and set her upright again to dry her tears. "Now, I'll give you a few minutes to pull yourself together. Why don't you call or text Alexei? Tell him you want to see him tonight."

That made Charlotte start crying all over again. Stupid, selfish, stupid. What had she been thinking? Poor Alexei was all alone on Christmas because of her idiotic attempt at a break-up the night before.

"He won't want to see me ever again." Even as she said it, thought it, she was pulling her phone out of her pocket.

Sarah stood up with a smile. "No. You told me what he said last night. He's never letting you go, sweetie, and you're only a fool if you keep trying to push him away."

Charlotte watched her friend leave and stared at the closed door for a long minute before drawing in a shaky breath. She didn't know if she could talk to him without bursting into tears again, but she didn't want to send a text. He deserved better than that.

He answered on the first ring.

"Charlotte."

She closed her eyes and let out the breath she'd been holding. She'd been half-expecting him to not answer and still knowing he'd always take her call.

"Merry Christmas."

A pause. "Merry Christmas, lyubov moya. Are you having a nice time with Sarah and her family?"

"I am." There was a noise in the background on his end, a shout of laughter and then a slamming door. "Where are you?"

"I came to Olle and Joelle's."

"Oh. Please tell them hello and happy holidays from me."

"Of course. Are you all right?"

"Yes." She sighed and rubbed her cheek, stifling the tears that threatened. "Well, no. Not really."

"Can I help?"

"Not right now." And she wasn't about to cut Zoe's fun evening short just because she'd been a damn fool the night before. "Can I come over later, so we can talk?"

"Yes. I'll always want to talk to you, lyubov."

She knew that. Looking down, she plucked at the hem of her Christmas sweater and let out a breath. "Okay. I'll be home before nine."

"All right. Text me when you're leaving and I'll head home too."

"Okay."

A silence fell between them and Charlotte listened to his steady breathing.

"All right, well, I'll see you later."

"Yes, you will."

They ended the call and Charlotte sat in silence for a few minutes longer before rejoining the gathering downstairs.

When she finally bundled Zoe back into the car to drive home, her little girl was asleep by the end of the block. Charlotte glanced at her in the mirror and smiled. She was glad Zoe had had such a good day. She'd been spoiled by Sarah's family, as the surrogate only 'grandchild', and Charlotte was grateful beyond words, yet again, for Sarah's friendship.

At home, she parked and wondered how she was going to manage to get the sleeping girl and all their gifts upstairs. She climbed out of the driver's side and was staring into the trunk when she heard a footstep and jumped in surprise.

"Alexei!"

He gave her a crooked smile, a rare one that never failed to make her heart turn over. He approached, his hands in his jacket pockets. "Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."

"That's okay."

"I saw you as I was parking." His hazel eyes skittered over her face and then down to the trunk. "Do you need help?"

"Yes, please. Can you get Zoe? I can manage the rest of this."

He nodded and moved around to the back door of the car to pull Zoe out of her car seat. Charlotte watched him for a second before shaking her head and gathering up the bags and one plastic bin of presents. She dug her keys out of her pocket again and waited for Alexei to hoist Zoe up over his shoulder. It wasn't quite a fireman's carry, but near enough that it made Charlotte snicker, the lightness of the moment easing some of the tension in her chest.

They rode the elevator in silence and inside her apartment, Alexei put the little girl to bed after removing her winter boots and jacket. He didn't bother with changing her into pajamas and it didn't matter. Zoe snuggled up to her pillow and didn't bat an eyelash as he backed out of the room, closing the door behind him.

After setting everything down in one corner of the living room, Charlotte removed her own outer wear and faced Alexei with a smile. "Thank you."

"You don't have to thank me." He shrugged out of his jacket and toed his shoes off.

Charlotte nibbled on her lower lip as she watched his movements. "Can I make you some tea?"

He shook his head as he faced her again. "No, thank you."

They stared at each other, silent, and Charlotte shifted on her feet until she turned and walked into her bedroom. Alexei followed and shut the door behind him, leaning back against it as she paced alongside her bed, her fingers at her braid, pulling it all loose until her hair was a wavy mass around her shoulders.

"Alexei, I'm so sorry about last night." She stopped near the foot of the bed and looked up at him, forcing herself to meet his eyes, as shuttered as they were. "I was--" stupid, idiotic, selfish. Terrified. "I don't know what I was." She dropped her gaze to the St. Christopher medal laying on the outside of his shirt. A shirt she was now noticing had an imprint of a Christmas elf's green outfit, with red ornamental trim around the cuffs and neckline and actual bells dangling off the bottom hem. "What on earth are you wearing?"

He looked down and sighed. "Olle made me put it on. He said if I was going to spend Christmas with them, I had to."

Charlotte clapped a hand over her mouth and struggled to hold in her laughter. But she met his eyes again and couldn't contain it. His lips quirked in a smile and he sighed again, sounding aggrieved. God, she loved him so much.

She all but threw herself into his arms and he caught her against his chest, as if he'd been waiting for her to do it. His mouth came down on her head, muttering Russian words into her hair and she buried her face in his chest, the cold medal brushing against her skin.

"I'm so sorry, Alexei. I don't know why I said we had to break up." She jerked back to look into his eyes. "I don't want to break up. I love you."

He brushed a tender hand over her head, smoothing the hairs that had come loose from her braid. "And I love you."

"I know." She blinked, tears filling her eyes. "I understand if you can't forgive me for trying to push you away, but I want you to know how sorry I am. I should never have said those things."

"Lyubov moya, I will always forgive you." He pressed his lips to her forehead and cupped her face in both hands. "And I will always be here. You can't break up with me so easy."

"Do you mean that? Because I can't promise I won't ever have another meltdown again."

He chuckled, the sound vibrating from his chest to hers, making her shiver. "I'll be here for the next one. And the one after that. You're my family, lyubov, you and Zoe."

Charlotte let the tears come. Overwhelming relief made her weak and she found herself scooped up into Alexei's arms. A moment later, they were on her bed and she was sprawled out against his chest, soft sobs hitching her shoulders.

"I'm so sorry, Alexei."

He hushed her, kissing her forehead, her cheeks, brushing away tears with his thumb.

"But I am, I don't deserve you and I was awful last night."

"You said some things you didn't mean." He kissed her once on the lips, not lingering. "We'll have more fights, lyubov. I'm not worried."

"How can you not be?"

"Because I love you."

She sighed and pressed her face to his chest, letting her tears dry up.

"Can you tell me why though?"

"Why?" She lifted her head to meet his curious gaze. "What do you mean?"

"Well." He paused, rubbing a hand up and down her back. "I thought we were okay when I left on the road trip, but something must have happened before I got back. I just want to know what I did, or said, to make you so upset."

"Oh, Alexei, no." She lifted up and grabbed his face. "You didn't do anything. It was me being... I don't know, scared, I guess."

He frowned. "Scared of what?"

"Of us. Of growing too attached to you and having it end."

"Why would it end?"

She shrugged. "Why does any relationship end? I freaked out and didn't know what to do."

"So you tried to break up with me?"

"Yes. Stupid, right?"

"No." He touched her cheek, his expression softening. "You're not stupid."

"Thank you." She turned her face in his hold and kissed his palm before drawing his hand down. "Honestly, it was something Theresa said to me."

"She was mean?"

"No, nothing like that. She meant it in the best way, really. I just took it the wrong way, I think and it freaked me out."

"What did she say?"

Charlotte recapped what she could recall of her conversation with Theresa. Repeating it out loud now made her realize how foolish she'd been, and how silly to jump to the extreme that she had, in trying to end things with Alexei.

"I've been on my own with Zoe for so long and I've loved having you step in and become a part of our little team, you know?"

He nodded, his brow still furrowed as it had been while she explained.

"Then I freaked out that I might not have it forever."

"Lyubov--"

"No, I know that you never intended to leave me." It made her warm all over, inside and out, when she replayed his words in her head but she shoved that aside for now. "Now I do, anyway, but after dinner with Theresa, and what she'd said, I don't know. It rubbed me the wrong way and I let it take over my head. Does that make sense?"

"Yes." He rubbed his palms up her arms and down to her elbows. "I understand."

"I love everything that you do for me and Zoe, even if I seem stubborn sometimes."

His lips thinned, as if he was holding back a smile. "Yeah."

"And I was scared that I'd come to rely on that too much, only to have the carpet yanked out from under me. Again."

"I would never do that." His hand lifted, sinking into her hair and drawing her head down to his until their foreheads connected. "I'll always be here to take care of you."

Charlotte closed her eyes and soaked in his warmth and familiar scent. It had only been a day since she'd last been this close to him but she'd missed it.

"I know that." She opened her eyes, blinking at him. "But I also didn't want you to think I'm only with you because of what you can do for me, or buy for me."

"I never thought that." He started to rub his hands up and down her back. "We've hardly even done anything that requires more than our time."

"Well, there was the dress thing."

"Sure." He chuckled. "And you gave in eventually."

"Yes." She shivered as she recalled exactly how she'd given in later that day. "I am scared still that we're not equals in this relationship though."

"Equals?" He looked confused now.

She smiled and shifted, stretching out beside him a little more. Now that she was back in his arms, her relief and contentment was making her more and more relaxed.

"Yeah, I mean, you're you, with your big career and all. And I'm me, single mom with little to no savings, and only a vague plan for returning to school for a degree in something." She let out a dry laugh. "See? I don't even know what I want to go back to school for!"

He laughed with her and turned so they lay on their sides, facing each other, sharing one pillow. "What were you going to major in when you were in college?"

"I hadn't declared it before I got pregnant." Charlotte rubbed her fingertips over his St. Christopher medal where it dangled now. "But I was considering psychology, or something along those lines. Maybe get my masters and become a school guidance counselor."

"You'd be wonderful."

"Thank you." She smiled at his simple praise. "But it seems too daunting now to consider it. Working, taking classes when I could afford it. God, I'd be forty by the time I finished."

When she met his gaze, she had to laugh at his expression.

"You know I can pay for it. All of it. You wouldn't have to work."

"I know that but I would never ask." She pressed a kiss to his chin, bristly with whiskers.

"You're not asking. I'm offering."

"Alexei--"

"I am. Right now." He lifted his hand and cupped it around her neck, making her shiver yet again. "I will pay for your school if you would like to return."

She stared at him, her mouth opening and closing. "You mean that."

"I mean everything I say to you."

She knew that. Of course she did. "You are so--"

He waited, one eyebrow arched, and she let out a giggle.

"I love you, Alexei."

His expression relaxed into a smile and he rolled her to her back a second later, covering her mouth and smothering any more of her giddy laughter. It turned into moans and gasps in seconds and she squirmed under his weight as he slid his hands down her sides, finding her warm skin under her sweater.

"Lift."

She shuddered at his deep-voiced command. God, she loved his single word orders. She lifted her arms and he swept the sweater off her torso. Then his hands were at her waist, plucking the button of her pants loose as he closed his lips over hers again. She opened under him, groaning at the taste of him and curling her tongue around his as she lifted her hips so he could slide her pants and panties off.

MugsyB
MugsyB
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