Saving forever, p.12
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       Saving Forever, p.12

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
 

  "Why are you doing this for me?" She'd followed me to my truck, and was standing right behind me. I could feel the emotions radiating off her.

  "Why are you so angry about it?" I turned around, and was pinned in place by her fierce green eyes.

  "Because...because I don't get it. Because you have no reason to help me like this. And I don't want to owe you anything."

  I sighed. "You don't owe me anything. I'm helping you because you need help and I'm capable of doing it. And because I like you. You're interesting."

  That shut her up for a moment, but she rallied quickly. "Carter, you don't even know me. You can't--you can't like me." There was conflict in her gaze, and pain.

  I took a deep breath and let it out, going for broke. "You want to pay me for the roof? Go out with me."

  She blinked at me. "Go out with you? Like, on a date? I--I--when?" Then she turned away quickly, as if stung, shaking her head in denial. "It doesn't matter. I can't."

  "Can't? Got somewhere else to be?"

  She shook her head, blonde hair bouncing in the sun. "No, I just...I shouldn't." She took a step away, her shoulders hunched as if to ward off a blow.

  That was a confusing response. "Shouldn't? Why not?" She didn't answer, and I realized she was fighting some deep emotion, something she couldn't explain and didn't want me to see. "Look, it's just dinner. No strings. No expectations. Not a date. Just dinner between friends."

  She turned back to me, her eyes dry but roiling with a chaotic welter of emotions. "Carter, I'm not--I mean..." She blinked hard, and met my gaze. "Are we? Friends, I mean?"

  "You got me to talk. I'd say that makes us friends."

  She nodded. "Okay. Friends." She held out her hand for a handshake.

  I laughed and took her hand in mine. My palm engulfed hers. Her hands were soft and small, but as she squeezed my hand, I could feel the strength in her grip. "Come on. I'm hungry." I tugged her toward my truck.

  She resisted. "Wait. I need my purse." I kept tugging, opened the passenger door, and guided her in. She complied as if trying to resist, but couldn't quite manage it.

  "No, you don't," I said. "We're just going to the Grill, and I'm paying. You'll be fine."

  She looked at me, still fighting with herself. "If you're paying, that makes it a date." That seemed to be a problem for her.

  "Then make me dinner tomorrow to pay me back."

  She frowned. "That's even worse. I suck at cooking."

  I sighed. "Look, Eden. It's only a date if you want it to be. If you don't, it's not. I haven't said a word in a year, and I like talking to you. Quit making this a big deal."

  She nodded, and I shut the door, but I heard her whisper to herself, "It is a big deal."

  I'd shed my shirt sometime after ten that morning, and I grabbed it off the lawn, sniffed it. Grimaced at the stench. Fortunately, I always had a spare in my truck, along with deodorant. I opened the driver's side-door and snagged my bag off the floor, dug out the spare shirt and deodorant. As I made myself somewhat presentable, I felt Eden's curious gaze on me.

  "What?" I asked.

  "I've seen you with that bag. Coming and going from the beach. And I can't figure out where you go, or why."

  I hopped in and started the truck. "There's an island three miles off shore. My house is on the island. I swim back and forth instead of taking a boat, when I can."

  "You swim three miles one way, every day? Just for fun?"

  I lifted a shoulder. "Yeah. It's good exercise, and I like swimming."

  "Six miles a day. And you run?"

  I laughed. "No. I only run when I can't swim. That'd be suicide."

  "What do you do in the winter?"

  "Run. Lift weights. I don't do polar bear swims, if that's what you're asking."

  She laughed. "Good, that would just be weird."

  She was always beautiful, but when she forgot to be closed up and tense, she was breathtaking.

  Conversation drifted after that, from how crazy the yearly polar bear swim was, to what winter was like on the peninsula.

  When we arrived at the Grill, Julie, the waitress, seated us and asked what we wanted to drink.

  "Just water with lemon, please," Eden asked.

  I hesitated. Julie was short and curvy, just past thirty with auburn hair. She'd worked at the Grill for years, and knew me before I went silent. If I spoke, it would be a big deal to her. There would be questions, and I didn't have any answers.

  "Your usual, Carter?" Julie asked.

  My usual was a pint of the local microbrew beer, but I'd planned on ordering wine, just to help Eden relax. I glanced at Eden. "Do you want some wine? Or a beer?"

  Julie's mouth dropped open, and her eyes went wide.

  Eden shook her head. "No, I--no. Thank you. Water is fine. You go ahead, though."

  I turned to Julie. "Coke is fine."

  "Carter." Her voice was incredulous. "You--you're talking."

  I could only shrug, my response for everything lately, it seemed. "Yeah. Finally had something to say, I guess."

  Julie nodded, knowing there was more to the story but too professional to come right out and ask, though. She eyed Eden thoughtfully, and then left to get our drinks.

  "Not a drinker?" I asked.

  She shook her head, fiddling with the strip of sticky paper binding the silverware in the napkin. "No. Not...not at the moment."

  Another enigmatic answer that hinted at something. I ignored the urge to probe, and just nodded. "Ever eaten here?"

  "No, just the deli. I shop at the market, though." She laughed. "I don't know what I'd do without the market, though. Having to go all the way downtown whenever I needed something would be a pain in the ass."

  I nodded in agreement. "That's for damn sure."

  "So, what's good?"

  "Everything. I usually get the burger, though."

  Julie came back with our drinks and took our orders, burgers for both of us. When she was gone, Eden took a deep breath and looked at me. "So, thanks for--"

  "Stop thanking me," I interrupted. "It's getting annoying." I grinned, making it a joke. Even though it wasn't, entirely.

  "You didn't let me finish. I was going to say thanks for...not prying."

  "Prying?"

  She unrolled the napkin and toyed with the knife and fork, fitting the knife between the tines of the fork and attempting to balance it. She didn't look at me. "Yeah. Prying. You've had a lot of opportunities to push for answers, I guess you could say. You don't. And I appreciate it."

  "Oh. Well, we all have stories, I guess."

  "Including you." It wasn't a question, more of a non sequitur.

  "Yep." I sipped at my Coke.

  A long silence extended between us, tense and awkward. I was pretty sure we were both thinking about our pasts, about the stories we kept so close to the vest.

  "I was married," I blurted.

  Eden dropped the silverware, shocked. "Was?" Her green eyes were rife with compassion and curiosity.

  I swirled my straw through the ice, making it clink against the walls of the glass. "Yeah. Was." I felt the words tumbling out and couldn't stop them. I couldn't have said why I was revealing my deepest, darkest source of pain to this woman I barely knew. Yet I was. "We'd only been married a year. She was pregnant. Miscarried."

  Eden's eyes searched mine, wavering. "Oh...god, Carter. I'm so sorry."

  "I found her. In...in the bathtub." Jesus. Fuck. Why was I telling her this? My insides clenched, and my chest ached, and my eyes burned. I blinked and squeezed my hands into fists. "I was working. She'd told me she wasn't feeling good. Asked me if I could take the day off. I wanted to finish the project--it was this kitchen remodel for some rich guy. We were almost done, and I wanted it finished before she had the baby. There were a couple months of work left, and I was just...focused. On that. On finishing. I left for work that morning knowing I should've stayed home with Britt. But I didn't. I got home late. Past seven. Almost eight. The house was q
uiet. Too quiet. You know? You ever just suddenly know something is wrong?"

  Eden ducked her head, nodding. "Yeah. I do." Her voice was thick.

  "It was like that." I hesitated, licked my lips, and swallowed hard. "Brittany loved music. If she was awake, there was always music going somewhere. An iPod, the stereo, the car radio. The TV. Her, singing. So when I got home and it was just...dark and silent. I knew. I knew something was wrong. I called her name, and she didn't answer. But then I heard...I heard her. Whispering. For me. I ran upstairs, to our bathroom. She was in the bathtub. She...she was taking a bath. But she--she hemorrhaged. She'd been bleeding out, alone, for hours. So bad she couldn't get up. Couldn't call me. Couldn't call for help."

  "Fucking hell, Carter." Eden's voice broke.

  My hand was flat on the table, pressing down onto the wood as if to hold myself up. Eden reached out, put her small, strong hand on mine. My hand curled, tightened into a fist, and she fit her fingers between my knuckles. A simple, soothing, warm touch.

  "Blood was...was everywhere. She'd been trying to climb out. Handprints on the walls. On the tub. She'd grabbed onto the towel rack and broke it trying to get out. And I...I wasn't there." My chest was heaving, dragging deep, harsh breaths in and out. I fought for composure.

  Eden shook her head. "My god, Carter."

  The guilt that had been eating me alive for the last year tumbled from my lips. My secret, my sin, my guilt. "If I'd been there...if I'd stayed home like she wanted me to...I could've...she'd still be here."

  "You can't blame--"

  "Yes, I can." I spoke over her, cutting her off with the quiet, hissing intensity of my voice. "The doctor told me as much. If I'd gotten her to the hospital sooner, they could've saved her. But I was gone. I was working."

  "And you haven't spoken since?"

  I shook my head. "Not until the other day." I scraped at a streak of dirt on my index finger. "I just...couldn't. I tried, god knows I did. I've never told anyone what happened. I don't even know why I told you."

  "I'm glad you did. You had to get it out."

  I scrubbed my hands through my hair. "God, what a downer, huh? Sorry."

  Eden's hand was still on mine. "It's fine, Carter. I'm not exactly a barrel full of laughs myself."

  Julie approached with our food, and we both fell silent. I was sure Julie could feel the intensity in the air, but she didn't say anything. Eden and I ate without talking, and this time the silence was companionable. After I'd finished, I excused myself and went to the bathroom. Our table was around the corner from the bathroom, so I overheard part of a conversation between Julie and Eden.

  "It's kind of unbelievable, actually," Julie was saying.

  "Why?"

  "After what happened, he just stopped talking. Just...complete silence. He wouldn't say anything after Britt died, not to anyone, not for anything. He wouldn't even communicate for the first couple weeks. He was...gone. Eventually, he would at least respond when spoken to, even if it was nonverbal." Julie spun her tray on its axis, an idle habit of hers. "It was so tragic. He was one of the sweetest, kindest men I've ever known, and then Britt passed, and he just shut down. Went reclusive."

  "He's still sweet and kind." Eden sounded oddly defensive.

  "Well, sweetie, I don't know how you did it, but you worked a miracle in that man."

  "I didn't do anything," Eden protested. "For real. I didn't."

  I rounded the corner, scuffing my foot on the floor on purpose. Both women started and glanced back at me. I handed Julie enough cash to cover the bill and then some. Eden stood and waved at Julie, then accompanied me to my car.

  "You heard us talking about you?" she said, once we were heading north.

  I shrugged. "Yeah. People talk. It's fine."

  Eden glanced at me, a worried expression on her face. "I didn't tell her anything. About what you said to me, I mean. She asked me how I'd gotten you to talk, and I just told her I didn't know."

  "It's fine, Eden."

  "I just didn't want you to think I'd talk about you."

  "It's not a secret."

  "But it is private." She tugged on the seatbelt, loosening it and letting it snap back into place.

  "Yeah, guess so." I felt strangely exhausted, and couldn't offer up any more conversation. Eden seemed content to ride in silence, a quality I appreciated.

  I pulled up in front of her house, left the truck idling, and walked her up to her door.

  "Thanks for dinner," she said, not quite looking directly at me.

  "No problem." I was tongue-tied now, as if telling Eden my story had sapped me of words. I was confused as to what it was about her that seemed to draw me out, pull things from me. And I was still reeling from the renewed onslaught of pain and guilt that the memory of Britt's death engendered.

  I backed away, glancing at Eden as I went down the porch steps.

  She stopped me with a touch to my elbow. "Are you okay?"

  I shrugged. "As okay as ever."

  She seemed to be struggling to find the right words. "Guilt sucks."

  Not what I expected her to say. "Yeah, it does." I'd expected her to offer up the same old "it wasn't your fault" platitudes that people seemed to think I needed to hear.

  It was my fault. I could've prevented it, could've saved her, if I'd only gone home earlier. Nothing could change that essential truth, and nothing could lessen the pain. Only the time would bring me any kind of healing.

  I wanted to ask her what she knew about guilt, what had happened to put such pain in her eyes. But I didn't. Instead, I waved at her. "See you tomorrow."

  She offered a small, tight smile and a little wave. She stood on her porch and watched me drive away. I wondered if I was imagining the regret I thought I saw in her eyes.

  a pregnant pause

  Despite everything, we settled into a pattern. I'd show up early in the morning, my truck bed full of supplies. I'd started taking the boat to the mainland, to save time and because the reno work was tiring, if satisfying. She'd be dressed, with coffee ready, and we'd sit on her porch talking and drinking coffee as the sun rose behind us. We never let the conversation get heavy, though. I never pried into her story, nor she into mine. We talked about music, about movies and books. Our favorite bands, favorite actors and actresses. Even with Britt, I hadn't been this open, this talkative, but something about Eden made it easy for me to just talk.

  When I finished my coffee, I'd get to work. It took me three days to finish her roof, and then I started on her porch. I was qualified to do roofing work, but I disliked it. Building her a new porch, however, was different. I ripped the old rotten structure apart and had the basic frame of the new one built in one day. The next day I finished the build, then sanded and stained it.

  After a day's work we'd eat dinner together, usually at the Grill. As the days turned into a week, I managed to get the complete exterior repainted, but Eden seemed more and more reticent to leave her house. She was closed off, hard to read, hard to gauge. Every moment she spent with me, she seemed to be at war with herself. It was as if she wanted to hang out with me, but kept trying to come up with some compelling reason not to. I couldn't figure it out, and I refused to pry. So I kept working also but kept asking myself why I was doing all this for someone I barely knew. It was a question Eden asked me frequently as well, but I didn't have any answers.

  All I knew was, she never had visitors. Never took a phone call. Never got mail. Never left her house, unless it was with me, or to go to the beach, or on a run. She played cello, read books, and talked to me sporadically...and very little else. I don't think I ever saw her leave the peninsula, or go south of the Grill.

  Something told me she was hiding, but from what? From whom?

  I desperately wanted to know.

  As the days passed, I also noticed changes in her, physically. Her clothing got progressively looser and more conservative. Gone were the spandex workout shorts and sports bra. Gone was the bikini. We'd gone swimming toge
ther the other day, and she'd worn a cover-up dress until she'd gone into the water and, even then, she'd faced away from me until the water hid her body. She seemed...ashamed of herself somehow. And I couldn't fathom why. Why would a woman as stunningly beautiful as Eden be self-conscious? And why so suddenly? It had been a noticeable transformation, to me at least.

  Still, I never asked questions. She'd respected my privacy, and I would respect hers. I worried for her, though. She was vulnerable. She was clearly trying to project an aura of self-sufficiency, but it was a thin veneer at best.

  Once the outside of Eden's house was taken care of, I turned my focus to the inside. Her floors needed redoing, badly. So I started in the bathroom and spare bedroom, ripping out dated, threadbare carpeting in the bedroom and the scuffed, peeling laminate in the bathroom. I left the old scratched and gouged hardwood floor in the bedrooms that lay beneath the carpeting and put down tile in the bathroom, one-inch squares in a complex pattern of slate gray and sky blue. Eden sat on her couch and read a book, a thick, dog-eared romance novel, what my mom would call a "bodice ripper," and watched me work.

  "You're seriously crazy, Carter."

  I looked up at her from the bathroom floor, where I was laying down caulk around the tub. "Why?"

  "All this work. It's nuts. You really need to stop." She slid her index finger between pages to mark her place. "How much have you spent on materials?"

  I went back to caulking, adding up mentally. "Not as much as you'd think. My brothers and I are building a tasting room for the winery, so a lot of the materials have come from there. I'm not worried."

  "But I am. You keep brushing me off, saying it's fine, you're not worried. But you've spent hours and hours every day for almost two weeks, and I don't even know why. I can't...I can't repay you. And I can't be--I mean there can't--god. Between you and me. This can't be what you want."

  I didn't answer until I'd finished caulking. I stood up, brushed off my knees and washed my hands in the sink, and then sat down next to Eden on the couch. I scratched at a ribbon of dried grout on the back of my hand. "Honestly, I don't really have an answer for why. It needs to be done. You can't live in a house that's falling apart and leaking. That roof would've given way with the first heavy snow. The insulation beneath it is molding. It's unhealthy and unsafe. The floors in here are just as bad. I think some of the paint on the walls is lead-based. Also super unhealthy." I glanced at her, took in her fearful, worried expression. "I mean, as long as you don't, like, eat the paint, it'll be fine. But it needs repainting." I sighed. "Look, I enjoy this kind of work. It's what I do. I'm a carpenter, a builder. It's what I've done my whole life. So it's not even really work for me. And I don't want you to repay me. Just spending time with me is payment enough."

 
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