Saving forever, p.15
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       Saving Forever, p.15

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
slower 1  faster

  I recognized the music this time. She'd played it before. The first time I'd heard it was the day I'd stood outside her door and listened, unbeknownst to her. I'd heard it again, one other time. She was facing the waters of the bay, her back hunched over the cello as she sawed the bow slowly across the strings, drawing a haunting, mournful tune from her instrument. I kicked off my boots and socks, rolled up the cuffs of my jeans, and joined her on the beach. I sat in the sand a few feet away, partly behind her so as not to distract her.

  I knew enough about classical music to realize, after a few minutes, that she was playing some kind of solo suite, a collection of unified pieces, although I didn't recognize it. It was beautiful, but inherently sad. She paused between one movement and the next, taking a few deep breaths, then inhaling deeply, straightening her shoulders, and beginning once more. Her hair was loose, blonde waves shimmering in the sunlight around her shoulders, swaying as she moved. The roots were black, and I wondered, as I watched her, what she would look like if she let her hair go back to its natural color. Even more beautiful than she already was, I thought. The blonde was pretty, but her natural black would be...devastating.

  I closed my eyes to listen, feeling the soul of the music weave magic around me. Wind soughed in the trees, the water of the bay lapped gently, the sun rose and warmed the air with golden light, and Eden played.

  And then...she faltered. I heard the false note, the discordant scrape of the bow on the strings. I heard the gasp slip from her lips, and the choke of a stifled sob, and the sniff. I opened my eyes, and her shoulders were shaking, the bow tip trailing on the blanket, her cello resting against her shoulder.

  I stood up, moved across the sand, and sat down close enough that she couldn't miss my presence. I touched her knee briefly, and kept silent. She cried for a moment and then dragged in a shuddering breath, making herself stop.

  She glanced shyly at me, wiping her eyes. "Hi," she mumbled. "Sorry. I'm--"

  "Don't apologize. I'll listen if you want to tell me."

  She didn't respond right away. Instead, she closed her eyes, focused, centered, and began playing once more. This time, I recognized the piece as a well-known introduction to Bach, something I'd heard played by several soloists and orchestras. She played it masterfully, of course, but I saw a difference in the way she played it. This piece she played as if to withdraw emotionally, as if to calm herself, to push away whatever emotions had gripped her when she played the other solo. After the intro ended, she let the cello fall silent, waiting until the last note faded, and then she laid her instrument in the case, tucked away the bow, and clipped the case closed.

  Only then did she look at me. "There's not a lot to say, really. I'm just--moody. Feeling everything, I guess." She put one palm to her belly, which was growing rounder every day. "I felt the baby kick this morning."

  "First time you'd felt it?"

  She nodded. "Yeah. It...it was weird. Scary. And...incredible. It really made it real. I'm really, really having a baby. There truly is an actual human being growing inside me."

  I didn't know what to say, so I waited a moment and then asked, "What was the name of the first piece you were playing?"

  She ducked her head. "A solo I composed. There are four parts to it, so far. One for my mom, one for my dad, one for Ever, and one for Caden."

  "You wrote that?" I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was. "That was...so beautiful, Eden. It was really sad, though. Some parts were full of...I don't know. Longing? Tragedy?"

  She nodded. "Thanks. Yeah, you heard me playing Ever and Caden's parts. I composed those while Ever was in the coma."

  "Are you going to write any more?"

  She shrugged. "Maybe someday." She put both hands on her belly. "For him, or her."

  "When do you find out the gender?"

  She hesitated. "In an hour."

  "An hour? Downtown?"

  She nodded. "Yeah. Dr. Abernathy. On...Seventh, I think."

  I stood up and extended my hand. "Well, we'd better get going, then."

  She stood up but didn't let go of my hand right away, confusion on her features. "We?"

  "Yeah. We."

  She dropped my hand and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Carter. You're not coming with me to my ultrasound."

  "You'd rather go alone? It's kind of a big deal, Eden."

  A gust of wind tossed her hair across her eyes, and she brushed it away. "I know it's a big deal. I just--"

  I leaned down and grabbed the handle of her cello case. She watched me nervously, following me as I carried the huge case across the road and into her house. "You should know I've never, ever let another person handle my cello."

  I set the case down in the corner where I knew she kept it. "No? Is it old?"

  "She nodded. Very. And...it was my mom's. It's the...the most special thing I own. No one touches it but me, no one carries it but me."

  "I'm sorry, I didn't know. I just wanted to help."

  She smiled at me. "And I let you. I trust you, Carter. At least, as much as I trust anyone. And if I let you carry it, I must trust you a lot. More than I should, maybe." She grabbed her purse off the kitchen counter. "Why do you want to go with me?"

  "You don't have to go through this alone, Eden. That's why."

  "But I can't--" She backed away from me as I stepped toward her.

  "Just friends, something else, whatever. I don't care. I'm not asking for anything, Eden. I'm just...here. For you. I like you, and I want to be there. In whatever capacity you need me." She closed her eyes, going still as I stood inches away from her, brushing a wayward strand of hair from her face.

  For the briefest instant, she nudged her cheek into my hand and then flinched, and turned away. "Don't, Carter. Don't. I can't."

  I stepped away, cursing myself. "Sorry."

  "Yeah, sorry," She looked up at me, anger I wasn't expecting filling her eyes. "You're sorry. For me. That's all it is. I told you, I don't need charity and I don't want pity. This is my fucked-up mess and my fucked-up life, and I don't need anyone trying to fix it for me. And I keep telling you, I can't do what you want, be what you want. I can't have...that. You. This thing between us. You fixed my house. Spent weeks and thousands of dollars. You've done so much, and I don't have anything to give you. I might not ever have anything to give you. Yet you keep hanging around, and you say you're fine with just being friends. And, damn it, I'm lonely, so I accept it. But then you do that. Touch my hair. My face. And you look at me with those fucking gorgeous blue eyes of yours and all that stupid compassion, like I--like I mean something to you." She stopped for breath, but then barreled on. "I can't have that, Carter. I don't deserve that. I've told you that, more than once. Yet you keep...pushing. And now you're gonna go to my ultrasound with me? Playing the couple? You're gonna hold my hand, too, I bet. Let me tell you something, Carter: all you're doing is teasing me with what I can't have. You don't want this with me. You've been through your own hell, and you deserve hap--happiness." Her voice broke on the last word. "And you'll never find that in me. All you'll find is trouble."

  "Your ultrasound is in forty minutes." I moved to the door, held it open, and extended my hand to her. "Are you coming?"

  She gaped at me. "Did you not hear anything I just said?"

  "I heard." I let the door close and my hand fall. "And if I choose to keep going, despite that, it's my business. If I want to tilt at windmills, that's my choice."

  "Tilt at windmills?"

  "Don Quixote. My mom is a literature professor." I shrugged. "It just means to do something idiotic over and over again. If there can't ever be anything but friendship between you and me, then so be it. If I feel something more, that's on me. I can't and won't just walk away from you. You need a friend, and I'm here. And guess what? I need a friend, too. And that's you."

  "You've got brothers. You've got--everyone on this peninsula, probably."

  I shrugged. "None of them are you."

  "If you want a fucked-up
hot mess like me for your friend, there's got to be something wrong with you."

  I sighed. "Eden, just--come on." I walked toward my truck, not waiting to see if she followed.

  She did, at a distance, with her purse hanging over one shoulder, her posture defeated, looking down at the ground. I was waiting at the passenger door, and opened it for her. She stepped up on the running board, and happened to glance back at the bed of the truck, where the chest I'd made for her sat forgotten.

  "What's that?" Curiosity tinged her voice.

  I followed her gaze. "Oh, shit! I forgot all about that! I made it for you." I left her door standing ajar and opened the tailgate, dragged the chest toward myself by the edges. "I used the wood from your old floors. It's just a chest. A seaman's chest, I guess. I thought you could put it at the foot of your bed."

  She slid out of the cab and came over to stand beside me, tracing the roughened, weathered-looking wood. "It's beautiful. But how did you get it to look so...old?"

  I shrugged. "There's lots of ways to age wood. I wouldn't be much of a carpenter if I didn't know a few of them."

  She ran her hand along the side again, and then looked up at me. "It's so beautiful. You really made it for me?"

  I ducked my head. "Sure. It's your wood--I just put it together again."

  "Thank you. I love it."

  I carried the chest into her house, with Eden holding the door open for me. I set it on the floor at the foot of her bed, and she immediately went to rummaging in her linen closet, and returned with what looked like a hand-knitted blanket made of pale blue wool. She folded it in a thin, long rectangle and draped it over the top of the chest.

  "Perfect," I said. "Now come on. You're gonna be late."

  She followed me back out to my truck, then paused with one foot on the running board and one on the ground. "Carter, you don't have to go with me. I'll be fine."

  "I know. Now let's go." I pushed at her shoulder gently, and she stepped in and sat down.

  I shot her an easy grin and slid behind the wheel, stepping on the gas pedal as the engine turned over, so it caught with a beefy roar.

  Under normal driving conditions, it took twenty to twenty-five minutes to drive down the peninsula, and another ten or fifteen to get to the southern end of town where most of the non-tourist businesses were. Eden was quiet for the entire forty-minute drive. I could've made it in less time, but I drove more carefully than ever.

  I was quiet, too, thinking of the first--and only--ultrasound Britt and I had gone to. It had been a day just like this, sunny and clear, warm but with a stiff westerly wind. She'd sat in the seat where Eden now sat, and Britt too had stared out the window at the bay and the vineyards, nerves showing, just like Eden. I'd been silent then as well, not knowing what to expect from an ultrasound. Britt had explained that it would just be a lot of measurements, to make sure the baby was healthy and developing normally. I'd still been nervous, and so had she.

  Eden's hand rested on the red leather seat between us, and I was tempted to take it in mine but didn't. I was tempted to turn on the radio, but I didn't. I just drove, one hand on the wheel, the other fidgeting with the knob of the gearshift.

  The OB/GYN office was like any other, a quiet, tastefully decorated waiting room, chairs lining the walls and a low coffee table in the center, scattered with motherhood and parenting magazines, and one old back issue of Time, and a copy of US Weekly from the previous fall. Eden went to the sliding glass window and signed in with the receptionist, and then sat down. I took a seat beside her, flipping through the issue of Time while she filled out some paperwork.

  A young woman sat by herself across the room, nervously spinning her phone in her hands. Her belly was huge, seeming entirely too big for her diminutive frame. She glanced at Eden and then me, smiling. "How far along are you?" she asked, her voice bright and friendly.

  Eden seemed startled that anyone would talk to her. "Oh...um. Seventeen weeks. Eighteen tomorrow. You?"

  "Thirty. I'm high-risk, so I've had ultrasounds every other week since my first trimester. My first baby had intra-uterine growth deficiency, so they're monitoring this one a lot more closely. I'm here for an amniocentesis."

  Eden clearly didn't know how to take this flood of information. "Oh. Um. I see. Well...I hope things go okay."

  "Oh, he's doing fine, so far," the woman said, patting her watermelon-sized belly. "He's right on target, but he's inverted still, so unless he flips on his own, they'll have to do a C-section. Which, with as hard as Nicky's birth was, I don't think I'd mind. My girlfriend had one natural birth and the other was a C-section, and she said the C-section was easier." She leaned forward, whispering conspiratorially. "You don't have to wait six weeks afterward to do it, for one thing."

  Eden blushed and stammered. "Oh, I--we're...oh. Yeah. That--it would be...nice. I guess."

  The other woman finally saw Eden's hesitancy in her responses. "Is this your first?"

  "Yeah."

  "You're probably pretty nervous, huh? And here I am chattering on, probably making things worse."

  You have no idea, I thought, but didn't say anything, and she babbled on, oblivious to everything. "It'll be fine. There's a lot of pain, of course, even with the epidural, but I promise you, it's totally worth it. You completely forget about how bad it hurt after you hold that little baby for the first time, I swear. And then...oh, nothing, just nothing can compare to that feeling. They're so tiny and perfect, and...oh, my god, it's just magical."

  Eden's eyes got wider with every word, until she looked almost physically ill and ready to bolt. Her hand was clutching the armrest of her chair in a white-knuckled grip. I rested my hand on hers, and Eden glanced at me, then turned her hand over to grip mine, palm to palm, fingers closed and separate. She clutched my hand as hard as she had gripped the chair.

  Babs the Babbler opened her mouth to fire off another salvo of terrifying over-sharing, but we were spared when the door opened and the nurse called Eden's name. "Good luck!" the young woman said instead.

  "You, too," Eden said, and then, once the door was swinging closed behind us she muttered, "TMI, much? Jesus."

  I laughed. "She was a little...exuberant."

  Eden stared at me. "Exuberant? She was fucking ecstatic! How could anyone be that happy about shitting a watermelon out of her vagina? It's unnatural." She made her voice go high-pitched, mimicking the other woman. "'It's magical!' God. I'm so nervous I could puke, and now I'm worried about upside-down babies and C-sections."

  The nurse patted Eden's arm. "Everything will be fine, you'll see. Just relax. Let me get you up on this scale first, okay?"

  Eden stepped up on the scale, and then shooed me away with her hand. "Don't watch this part."

  I snorted, but turned away. The nurse seemed perplexed. "You're not honestly concerned about him knowing your weight, are you?" She obviously assumed we were together, and that I was the father. "That's just silly."

  "He's not--" Eden started, then stopped. "It's just a pet peeve."

  I shoved my hands in my pockets, examining a poster on the wall until the nurse led Eden and me into an ultrasound room.

  "Just lie down and sit tight, sweetie," the nurse said. "Lisa will be here to perform the ultrasound in just a moment."

  "Do I--do I need to change or anything?"

  The nurse shook her head. "Oh, no. This is a standard external ultrasound. She'll just roll your shirt up a bit and move the wand over your belly. Nothing to worry about." She was gone with a perky smile and a click of the door.

  Eden let out a shaky breath, and then slid gingerly onto the exam table, smoothing her hands over her stomach. "It's just an ultrasound. Why am I so nervous?" She looked at me, her eyes wide and fearful.

  I reached out and took her hand. "Why wouldn't you be nervous? It's normal. And I'm here. You'll be fine."

  This time, Eden threaded our fingers together. "Thank you, Carter. I think I would've fainted if you hadn't been here."

 
I squeezed her hand and smiled. "I'm not going anywhere. I'll be here every step of the way."

  Eden looked up to the ceiling and let out shaky breath. "God, why do you always make me cry? I swear to God I normally don't cry this much." She tried to smile at me but couldn't quite manage it.

  "Just blame it on the pregnancy hormones, yeah?" I joked.

  Eden laughed, sniffing. "It is that, to some degree. But it's also...everything else. Ever. Caden. The whole thing. I'm just a mess."

  "Here's the thing about messes, Eden: they can be cleaned up."

  "Not mine."

  "Yes, even yours."

  The ultrasound tech came in at that moment, a slim, middle-aged woman with brown hair going silver at the temples and a kind smile. "Eden, how are you? I'm Lisa."

  "Hi, Lisa. I'm okay."

  Lisa sat on the swiveling desk chair and rolled across the room to sit at the ultrasound machine, glancing at Eden. "Okay, huh? You look like you might be a little nervous. Am I right?" Eden just nodded. "Well, that's perfectly normal. We're just gonna take some measurements, make sure Baby is developing on track and all that, and, of course, we'll determine the gender, assuming he or she cooperates and gives me a good shot. Just hold onto Daddy's hand, and everything will be fine."

  Eden didn't correct the assumption that I was the father, and neither did I. I understood why, too. Explanations were far harder than just going along with incorrect assumptions. It was simpler, and I didn't blame her.

  Lisa squirted a bit of blue goo on the wand, and then touched it to Eden's belly and smeared it around. "It's a bit cold at first, but it'll warm up." She moved the wand around, wiggled it back and forth, swept it from one side of Eden's belly. "Let's see...a-ha. There's the baby. See?"

  Eden and I both looked at the black and white images on the screen. Things were blotchy and distorted at first, but then shapes began to appear. I saw the curvature of the skull, a leg, an arm.

  Lisa pushed a button and moved the wand around a bit, hunting for the right angle. "Looks good so far. Baby is head down already, which is good news. Ten fingers, ten toes. There's the heart, pumping steadily, but we'll look at that again later. Lungs. And...oh, come on, move for me, huh?" Lisa seemed to be talking partly to herself, partly to the screen, to the baby, and to us. She moved the wand up to the top of Eden's belly, angled it downward, and then shifted it incrementally one way and then another, altering the image on the screen slightly. Finally, she seemed to find the angle she was looking for. "A-ha! Gotcha!"

 
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