Saving forever, p.10
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       Saving Forever, p.10

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
 

  "Thomas Haven," he said, shaking my hand. His voice was smooth, not too deep, and his smile was quick and genuine. "I see you met my brother, Carter."

  I shook Thomas's hand, and wondered if Carter's voice would sound anything like this. "Yeah. We were just introducing ourselves."

  Thomas looked so shocked I thought he might faint. Maybe even a little jealous. "He introduced himself? Like, out loud?"

  So it wasn't just me. Carter looked panicked, or as panicked as his closed-off facial expressions would allow.

  I gestured with the business card. "No, with this."

  Thomas seemed almost relieved by this information. "Ah. That would've been surprising."

  I wanted to ask why, but didn't. I looked at Carter, thinking maybe the presence of his brother would loosen his tongue. "So, what's your deal?"

  Thomas and I both waited in expectation, but Carter held his silence. Thomas didn't seem surprised. "That's kind of a complicated question," he said, sighing. He left then, claiming to be late for a meeting, with two other men I assumed to be more brothers. As he was out the door, Thomas turned back to me and said, "Good luck."

  "With what?" I asked.

  He pointed at Carter with a thrust of this thumb. "Him." And then Thomas was gone, and Carter and I were alone again.

  Carter's expression was even more shuttered than usual. He was pissed, though: his hands were opening and closing, fisting and relaxing, and his jaw was tensed, looking hard as a chunk of granite.

  I finished my Gatorade and called it quits. "Okay. Well. This has been awkward." I moved toward the door, needing to get away from the mystery and intensity and beauty of Carter Haven. "I'll just...be going. 'Bye."

  I fairly ran out the door, jumped on the ten-speed, and pedaled away as fast as I could. The heat hadn't lessened, but the rest and refreshment had restored some of my strength, so I pedaled hard. I made it maybe half a mile before I heard the distinctive leonine growl of his truck engine behind me. I didn't stop or slow.

  As sexy and mysterious as he was, and as compelling as the question of his silence might have been, he had no place in my life, and there was absolutely no point in even bothering. It wouldn't be doing him any favors to involve him, and it would only provide temptation for me, teasing myself with something I'd never have. So I kept pedaling.

  Only, he pulled up next to me.

  "Can I help you?" I demanded. Carter jerked his thumb at the back of the truck. He wanted to drive me home, obviously. But this had gone on long enough. He was wasting his time on me, and I couldn't afford to let him think he had a chance. I pedaled onward, ignoring him. And then he zipped past me and skidded to a stop in front of me, raising cloud of dust. He got out and stood in front of me, arms crossed. He'd put on a shirt finally. It didn't help much, though, not with the way it clung to his damp abs and stretched around his biceps. If anything, the shirt only served to accentuate the power of his lean frame by hiding it. An interesting paradox.

  He just stood there, though, and I lost my patience. "What gives, Carter?" I fiddled with the brake lever, not wanting him to leave me here, not wanting to have to ride home alone, but knowing it was best for both of us. "If you want something, say so."

  He did the thing I least expected: he wrote me a note on his phone. Let me drive you home.

  He had a cell phone? Why would he need one if he never spoke? Maybe he texted. He did have an email address on his business card.

  I told him no, and he wrote another note.

  I was exasperated by this time. How childish was this? If he wanted to talk to me, he should just talk. "This is so weird," I said. "We're passing notes back and forth like we're in third grade. I'll be fine." I stood up on the pedal to get the bike moving up the hill, back toward home.

  And, yet again, he leapfrogged me in his truck, skidding to a stop in front of me, blocking my path. I was out of patience by this time. "What, Carter? What do you want? I said I'm fine. I am. For real. I'm tough, okay? I don't need your help. And, to be honest, the whole not-talking thing? It's weird. A little creepy. No offense. Maybe you've got a reason for not talking." I pushed my sweat-damp hair away from my eyes. "I don't know, some trauma or something. But I've got enough of my own trouble to deal with yours, too, okay? So...'bye."

  I didn't wait for him to not answer. I kicked the bike into motion, figuring my rude response would ensure that I'd never see him again.

  Only, it didn't quite work that way.

  "Wait." His voice. God. It was raw and rusty with disuse, and exactly as rugged and imperfectly perfect as the rest of him.

  I was in so much trouble.

  CADEN

  brushstrokes and ruins

  Except for the months of pleasure I'd known with Ever before the accident, it seemed as if my entire life had been nothing but pain. I knew, intellectually, that wasn't true. Mom had died when I was fourteen, and life had been great up until then. Mom and Dad loved me. Grams and Gramps loved me. I spent summers at the ranch, and had my art at home. I'd had fourteen years of happiness. Now I was nearly twenty-three. That translated into not quite ten years of hell.

  But never had pain felt like this. Ever needed me. She refused to face the truth I knew she saw in me. I knew she'd seen the guilt in me. I'd nearly told her the truth a few times. But I always chickened out. Justified it by telling myself Ever needed more time to heal, to recover, to regain herself, her life.

  So months passed, and my guilt ate me alive. I loved her as fiercely as ever, but it was overshadowed by the lies, the guilt, the agony of knowing I'd betrayed her. I wasn't sleeping more than a few hours a night. I woke up tormented by nightmares, wracked with guilt. I woke up and stared at Ever, asleep in our bed next to me, clinging to me, her sweet soft arm across my chest, her breathing soughing in the darkness. I wanted to shake her awake and tell her to leave me, to find someone worthy of her perfection. I wanted to confess, so I could be free of the secret, rid of the weight of my silent sin. It festered within me, rotting and acidic, poisonous.

  I couldn't eat. I worked, went to the gym, tried to chase my demons away. Tried, and failed.

  I felt weak. I felt as if life was passing me by, and I was missing it. Ever was getting better every day. She was speaking normally, moving around on her own. Dressing herself, eating by herself. She wasn't an invalid anymore. I didn't have to take care of her, much. She needed me for things here and there, but overall she was making almost miraculous progress. Which meant the day I told her the truth was growing closer. And that meant I was that much closer to letting her go. I'd tell her the truth, and then I'd leave. She'd be heartbroken, but it was better than this web of falsehood I was caught up in.

  She made love to me with wild abandon. Kissed me as if she was drowning and I was her air. I had been that once, but only I knew I couldn't be that person any longer. I kissed her back, because she needed me to, and I couldn't help but kiss her back. But I felt as if each kiss was tainting her with the venom of my guilt. As if she could taste the truth on my lips. As if she'd kiss me, touch me, hold me, make love to me, and look at me and know. Divine the truth of my sick sin and confront me before I could tell her myself.

  It was my nightmare, waking me up every night. Caden, she would say. Her mouth wouldn't move, but I would hear her words tolling like bells in my skull, and her eyes would be sad and tearful and angry and confused and lost. What did you do? Why? Why her? Why couldn't you wait for me? Why couldn't you have faith that I'd come back? WHY HER? And I wouldn't have any answers. I could only offer apologies, and those were useless. They were as pointless as the condolences at a funeral. "I'm sorry for your loss," people always said, as if that had any power to soothe the grief.

  Just the same, "I'm so sorry, Ever," couldn't possibly contain any salve for the ruin of her heart when she found out what I'd done.

  Four months after she woke up, Ever came to me one day as I was making lunch for us. "I want to paint again," she said.

  She hadn't so much as loo
ked at her paintings since coming home. She hadn't gone into the studio, hadn't attempted to draw, hadn't even mentioned her art. It was too painful, I suspected. It was probably the hardest thing for her to have lost. Any other pain she could have faced, if only she had her art. But with that ability taken away, she had no way to cope. I didn't think she had the courage to face the studio, and to face the loss of the one thing that made her her.

  I set the wooden spoon down on the stove and turned to look at her. She was holding on to the post at the entryway to the kitchen with one hand, the other fidgeting with the hem of her T-shirt. She was watching me intently for my reaction.

  I stepped toward her, wrapped her up in my arms. Her hair smelled like coconut shampoo, a different scent than I was used to. She still used the vanilla lotion, though, and I could smell that on her. That smell, the vanilla sugar lotion, had the power to wreak havoc on me. I pressed my nose into her neck and inhaled, catching the scent of the lotion, and I was torn out of the present, thrown back two years to the moment when she opened her studio door and let me in, and I kissed her, smelling this same lotion on her skin, wafting from her in waves of seductive sweetness. And I was thrown back as well to the months of her coma. I'd stand at our dresser, holding the bottle of lotion. The cap would be open, and I'd squeeze the tube, just enough to let a current of the scent hit my nostrils, enough to torture me with missing her. And now I smelled it all over again, and it was really her, yet I'd destroyed us. She just didn't know it yet.

  I inhaled again, seeking courage in the pain of her scent and her arms around me, so trusting and so innocent and so needy. "You're going to paint again?"

  She nodded against me. "I have to try. I'm just warning you. I'll probably have a nervous breakdown. So just...just be ready."

  I took her face in my hands, brought her chin up, met her vivid, fear-fraught green gaze with mine. Tried to seem steady and strong and loving. Tried to hide the guilt, which was an every-moment-of-every-day labor. "If you have a breakdown, I'll be there to hold you."

  "That's all I need." Her eyes shone with faith.

  The horrible thing about this guilt was that I still needed her, still loved her, still wanted her just as much as I ever had. More, perhaps. I would take as much as she would give me until she knew. Her faith might have been misplaced, but I would do my best to be there for her, for as long as I could. Time was short. Soon, everything would change. I knew it, and I was pretty sure she knew it as well.

  Ever lifted up on her toes to kiss me, and her lips were gentle on mine, yet still demanding. I kissed her back, because I couldn't do otherwise.

  She backed away from me, and I followed her to the closed door of her studio. I wondered if she knew I'd seen her standing here, late at night, her hand on the knob, her shoulders shaking. I watched, and she never turned the knob. Never went in. So now, the scene was familiar. She stopped at the door, her hand on the knob. Her shoulders shook. I stood behind her, slid my arms around her waist. Kissed the back of her neck.

  "What if it's gone forever, Cade?" Her voice wasn't even a whisper. It was...shreds of sound, ripped from somewhere deep within her.

  "You've learned to walk again. You've learned to talk again. You can eat, dress, write. You can do this, Ever." I had to give her hope, had to give her everything I could, while I was still here to give it to her. Even the hard truths. "It will probably be hard as hell. You'll think about giving up. But you won't. You're too strong and too courageous to give up. Art is in your veins, Ev. It's who you are. And if you can't paint, by some strange fluke, you'll find some other way of making art."

  "I'm scared." She leaned back against me, and I took all of her weight.

  I crossed my arms over her chest and stomach, kissed behind her ear. "You can do it. Just go in, Ev."

  "Baby steps?"

  I chuckled. "Baby steps."

  She twisted the knob and gave the door a gentle push. It swung open on silent hinges, bumped against the wall, and shivered to a stop. Everything was just as she'd left it. I hadn't dared touch a single thing in this room. An unfinished painting waited on the easel--a piece that reminded me of something Georgia O'Keefe might have painted. A gerbera daisy, seen from up close, an almost unlikely shade of violent orange, each petal seen in dramatic detail. The center of the flower dominated the piece, a ring of orange-red, each tiny fiber looking soft and real enough to touch. Only the edges of the painting remained to be finished, the outside of the petals. Ever stepped into the room, her eyes focused on the easel, on the painting. She walked to it as if in a trance, feet shuffling, one hand extending to touch the surface of the canvas. Her finger stroked the center of the painting, nail skritching on the dried oil paint.

  "I remember painting this. I was trying to channel Georgia O'Keefe, but with my own touch on it."

  "You got it perfect."

  She remained completely still, her fingers splayed on the canvas as if in some silent farewell. After a long silence, she spoke in a hesitant, reverent whisper. "It's like me. Interrupted. Unfinished. Even if I could finish it, it wouldn't be the same as if I'd finished it then."

  "Ever, you have to know--"

  "I'm not that person anymore, Cade." She let her hand drop, curling her fingers into a fist.

  "I loved the person you were then, and I love the person you are now." That, at least, was the pure, unvarnished truth.

  "The problem is, I don't know who I am anymore. I lost something. Some part of myself, and I don't know what it is or how to get it back. And I know you love me." Ever turned in my arms, brushed my hair away from my face. "And I love you. But...it's not enough. You loving me doesn't fix what's wrong with me. And...goddammit--" She squeezed her eyes shut and sighed, stifling a faint sob. "You're not the same, either. You're broken, too, Cade. Everything...everything is broken."

  I'd never seen this side of Ever, this raw and agonized despair. I didn't know how to make it better. "I know." It was all I could say. The only words that would come out. "I'm sorry. Fuck, Ever. I'm sorry."

  "For what?"

  For betraying you. "For being broken when you need me to be whole." I just couldn't get the words out; the truth was lodged in my chest. "For...for everything."

  Her eyes searched me, and I saw the knowledge there. She knew. Not what, but that there was something to know, a truth hidden between us. A moment passed, and I met her gaze, unwavering. Pleading with her silently, begging her to demand the truth from me, to vilify me as I deserved. Instead, she clutched my face with shaking hands and drew my mouth down to hers and kissed me, and it seemed a vampiric kiss in a way, as if she was sucking strength from me, courage from me. I gave it willingly. She could take all of me, leave me limp and dead, if it would mean she was alive and happy.

  Pulling away, breathless, she stepped back, searched the room for something. Found the age-soft and paint-splattered button-down white shirt, hanging on the back of a kitchen chair. Took it in her hands and stared at it. Memory showed in the bow of her shoulders. I stood, watching, waiting. Ever set the shirt on the chair back once more, reached down to the hem of the green V-neck she was wearing, pulled it off, folded it, and set it on the seat of the chair. She didn't spare me a glance. This wasn't about me anymore; I was merely a witness. Her fingers shook as she unzipped and unbuttoned her jeans, put them neatly atop her shirt. Standing in gray cotton panties and a green silk bra, she was more beautiful to me than she'd ever been. Courage made her beautiful. Tenacity made her glow. To reclaim what was stripped away so unfairly took more guts than I'd ever have.

  She had to pause for breath, pause to gather her nerves. And then she reached up behind her back, freed the clasps of her bra, and hung it from the corner of the chair back. She was facing away from me, and I couldn't breathe for the sight of the curve of her bare back. I stared, branding the image into my mind. This moment, this vignette, it was now something sacred to me. She was physically exposed, emotionally vulnerable, braving her deepest fear, and she was doing it alone
. I didn't think she was even aware of my presence any longer and, in a way, that was as it should be. She'd have to learn to live without me.

  She stepped out of her underwear, set them on the chair. Ever stood naked in her art studio, her pale skin pebbling from the chill in the air. I devoured her naked form with my eyes, buried the memory of this moment deep within me. I would need something to hold on to, when it all fell apart.

  At long last, she slid her arms into the sleeves of the shirt, buttoned it with shaky fingers, smoothed her hand down her front, over her hips, as if to press the reality into her skin, as if to tell herself that she was truly doing this, and that she could. I stood with my back to the wall near the door, willing her onward.

  She took a black Sharpie from the tray on the easel and signed her name carefully to the bottom right corner of the daisy painting, and then, beneath that, wrote: "Interrupted." Ever heaved a deep sigh, then lifted the four-by-six canvas from the easel, carried it across the room, and set it on the floor with a stack of other finished paintings.

  She considered it finished, I realized, and I understood the symbolism in her choice.

  Four-by-six was her favorite size of canvas to work with, and she had a stack of them pre-stretched. Ever chose a canvas, set it on the easel, added fresh paint to each primary color splotch on her palette. Chose a brush. Held the palette in one hand, her brush hanging at her side. Her chest rose and fell with heavy breaths, nervous and afraid to begin. I could almost hear her thoughts. What if I can't do it? What if I forgot how?

  She stood still and silent for a long time, staring at the blank canvas. I was beginning to think she'd frozen. She nodded once, and then set her brush down and chose a different one, a thick, fat brush for broad strokes. She touched the tip to the black paint, and I could see her hand trembling as she drew the brush across the middle of the canvas. It was a thick, gloppy stroke, a harsh line of black on the clean white. Another long pause, and then she flattened the brush against the black paint and spread it around, added more, and more. With every stroke she grew more confident, and soon the whole canvas was black and she was filling in missed slices of white.

 
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