Saving forever, p.16
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       Saving Forever, p.16

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
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  She tapped a couple of buttons, and a machine spat out pictures of the image on-screen.

  "I've got a good potty-shot, here." She glanced from me to Eden and back. "So. You want to know the gender, or is it a surprise?"

  Eden blinked a few times. "Tell me. Please." Her frightened green eyes met mine. "Us, I mean. Tell us."

  Lisa didn't seem to notice the "me/us" gaffe. She pointed at the screen. "See that? It's a girl! Clear as day, no question." A few more taps, and another set of ultrasound pictures printed out.

  Eden teared up. "A girl."

  "Have any names picked out?" Lisa asked as she swiveled the wand around, tapping buttons and scrolling and turning the screen to shifting colors and back to black-and-white, measuring various things.

  Eden hesitated for a long time. I'd never asked her if she'd thought of names. I somehow didn't think she had.

  Her voice was barely a whisper. "No, I--no." Her hand squeezed mine so hard it hurt.

  EVER

  castaway

  Christmas was fast approaching. I'd been out of my coma for over six months now, and things with Caden had reached a kind of plateau. They weren't getting any worse, but they weren't getting any better, either. He was distant, as if some part of him was wandering the earth, separated from his body. As if he was hiding behind a wall. I could see him and I could feel him, hold him, kiss him, love him, but there was a part of Caden that I simply couldn't reach, no matter how much I tried. And for my part, the constant effort to reach him, to get him to talk to me, to open up on his own was sapping me of strength--and worse, of my desire to even try anymore.

  Things had to change, but I just didn't know how.

  I'd been working at the office, answering phones and filing paperwork, which wasn't exactly taxing work, but it kept me busy. And it also left my mind free to wander. Aside from the question of Caden, the thing most on my mind was Eden. I called her phone once a week, and it always rang once, and then went to the full voicemail message. I tried her email, and never got a response. I went by her dorm room, talked to her old roommate. I talked to the college office, who only knew that she'd officially withdrawn, no reason given. I even called Dad, who didn't answer and didn't return my call. Asshole.

  Everywhere I went, I found myself looking for her, as if she was somewhere close by, but was just avoiding me. I knew this wasn't the case. When she'd come by the Home, just after I woke up, she'd said goodbye. And to remember that she loved me. To never doubt that, no matter what.

  I doubted. Why did she leave? Why? I needed her. I needed her to tell me what I was doing wrong in terms of Caden. I needed her to eat ice cream with me when I couldn't take Cade's morose silences anymore. I needed to hear her play her cello.

  God, what was the name of her cello? Some Greek god. Apollo? That was it.

  I twisted the problem around and around in my head, worrying at it, trying to think of various reasons why she might have run away from me. Maybe she was terminally sick, and didn't want me to know. She was a lesbian. She was pregnant. She'd eloped with some guy. None of them fit. None of them made any sense. She had to know I'd never judge her, no matter what. She was my twin. She was as much a part of me as my arms and legs and lungs. Yet she'd run away.

  There was only one place I could think of that she might have gone. The cabin, up north. The problem was, there was no phone there, and I couldn't find the address book that had the address written down. We hadn't been up there since we were...what, eleven? A couple of years before Mom died. I knew it had been in Mom's name, and after her death Dad had gotten a caretaker for it, and had registered it in Eden's and my name. He hadn't been able to stomach going there, I think. He and Mom had spent a lot of time there before Eden and I were born, and once she was gone, he couldn't take the reminder. I hadn't really thought much about the cabin in the intervening years.

  I thought of going up there, but I wasn't sure I had the courage. What if she wasn't there? What if she'd gone somewhere else, somewhere I'd never be able to find her? What if the reason she'd left had something to do with me? Some reason I couldn't fathom, a reason that would have driven her away from me?

  A niggling seed of an idea germinated in the deep, dark pit of my belly, but I denied it, pushed it away. Refused to let it bloom into a full-fledged question. There had to be some explanation, some reason for it all.

  After Christmas, I'd go. I'd drive up there, and just see if she was there. Christmas was the two-year anniversary of the accident. And the closer December 24th got, the more tense and silent Caden became. He'd sit at the kitchen table, sketching. Page after page. Obsessively. The same thing, again and again. My eyes. Various expressions, but always my eyes.

  He gave me monosyllabic answers if I asked him a question. He'd sit beside me and watch if I turned on the TV, but he never asked to change the channel, never commented. Just sat in silence, watching until the program was over.

  He'd respond if I touched him, but it seemed automatic, rather than from desire. And when we did make love, it was in silence. Gone were the grunts of need, the gasps of pleasure, the impassioned pleas for more. The sighs and the whispered protestations of love were a thing of the past.

  By Christmas, sex was almost a memory.

  On the anniversary of the accident, Christmas Eve, Caden didn't get out of bed. At noon, I finally went in and sat on the edge of the bed, near his feet. He was awake, staring at the wall. He didn't even look at me when I sat down.

  "Caden?" He slowly shifted his gaze to mine, and when he did, the pain and despair in his eyes was enough to make me want to cry. "Talk to me. Please."

  He shook his head and looked away.

  "Cade. Baby. I'm here. Look at me. Talk to me. I'm scared, Cade. What's wrong with you?"

  He closed his eyes, squeezed them shut, and shook his head. And then I watched as he gathered himself, wormed his way to a sitting position. "Sorry, Ev. I'm just...I keep seeing the accident. In my head, over and over."

  I took his hands, slid closer to him. "I'm here now. I'm okay. I'm better." I bent my head to hide my tears. "Come back to me."

  He moved his knees apart and pulled me against his chest. I lay back against him, and felt his breath on my hair. "I'm trying. God, I'm sorry, Ever. You need better. Deserve better. And I'm sorry."

  "I just don't get it. Where are you? What's going on with you? Talk to me, Cade. Please, talk to me." I grabbed his hands where they were crossed over my breastbone. "I need you. And I--I feel like I can't find you."

  "I don't know."

  "I'm here. I'm awake. It's Christmas. Shouldn't we both be happy? Celebrating?"

  "I am happy you're back. More than you know. More than I can express."

  "It sure as hell doesn't feel that way," I whispered. "It feels like...like you resent me." I almost asked him what he was hiding from me. Why he seemed so consumed with guilt.

  Before I could, he heaved a deep breath in and let it out. "Let's go celebrate. Right now. Have a fancy dinner. Maybe see a movie." He'd clearly made a herculean effort to banish the nightmares and the guilt. He sounded almost happy, almost genuine. I knew, though, if I turned to search his gaze, his amber eyes would still hold hidden pain and deeply buried torment.

  Instead of pushing it, I took what he was offering. "Sure. I'd like that."

  "Me, too."

  We both showered--separately--and dressed, and ended up at Andiamo, sipping on expensive red wine and sharing an appetizer as we waited for our entrees. Conversation stayed light, and I could tell Cade was trying as hard as he could to keep the darkness inside him at bay. I was grateful. As dinner progressed, I almost managed to forget everything. He was as close to his old self as I'd seen him since I woke up. I almost felt happy, a little. I almost felt hope that we could truly find peace in each other once more.

  Almost. Nearly. But his eyes betrayed him, though. The slight stoop to his shoulders, the way his knee bounced and his gaze shifted from place to place, rather than ever really set
tling on mine. As if he was afraid of meeting my eyes, afraid that I'd look too deeply and see the truth.

  I wanted to tell him I didn't want the truth. I wanted happiness. I wanted to be able to feel like I had a new lease on life. I'd nearly died, and had been comatose for a year and a half. I shouldn't be here. But I was, and that should be a source of joy. Yet it wasn't. Without Cade as my center, I was adrift, castaway. I couldn't find the earth beneath me, couldn't find the sky. Couldn't find up, or down. I could only slip from one day to the next, wake up and go to school and go to work. I was playing at life. Pretending at adulthood.

  It was all empty. I was empty.

  Cade sensed my mood as we picked at dessert. "Ever...don't--don't give up on me, okay? I know I've been a mess lately, and I'm sorry. I love you. So much." He set his fork down and wiped the corners of his mouth with his napkin, sat back and finally, for the first time all night, met my eyes. "Don't give up on me. Please. I'll--get better. I'll do better."

  "I just want us, Cade." I searched his eyes and saw what I knew I'd see----the guilt and pain and torture----but I also saw hope, and love. "I want you. I want you to...I don't even know. I just want us back."

  "Me, too." He ducked his head, twisting the cloth napkin into a tight spiral. Fighting emotions.

  Tell me what's wrong. The thought skittered through my head, but it wouldn't come out. I was terrified of hearing the answer. Scared shitless of the truth. So instead I reached across the table and took both of his hands in mine. Felt the familiar comfort of the strength in his grip, the rough calluses.

  "I'll never give up on you, Cade. I swear. I promise. Forever and always, right?"

  "Forever and always."

  But why did he sound as if the three words were choking him?

  promises and portraits

  For Christmas Cade gave me a framed drawing he'd done. It was full color, and huge, a life-size portrait of me...and Eden. I was on the left, smiling, hair down, loose, caught by a breeze. Eden was on the right, her hair pulled back, a more serious expression on her features. He'd captured our eyes perfectly, as well as the subtle differences in our faces, which he'd merged at the centerline. He'd even given Eden dark roots near her scalp.

  I teared up when I ripped open the gift and saw Eden looking back at me, joined with me on paper as we were in life, body, mind, heart, and soul.

  Or should have been, if she hadn't run away.

  "I know you miss her," Cade said as I stared at the portrait.

  I could only nod. When I found my voice, it was quiet and tremulous. "Yeah. I just don't get it. Where did she go? Why did she leave?"

  Cade didn't answer right away. "I don't understand, either." Yet there was a lie in his eyes.

  I handed him his gift from me. It was a self-portrait. In it, I was nude, sitting upright with one knee crossed over the other, using my hands to cover my breasts. It was an intimate, provocative pose. I'd used my camera and tripod and a timer to take the picture, and then had painted the portrait from the photograph. As I'd posed, I'd thought of Cade as he had been. The Cade I missed, not carefree exactly, but present and passionate, and I'd thought of the way we used to be together, and how badly I wanted that again. I'd tried to communicate all that in my expression. My desire for him, the way I missed him. The way I loved him.

  Cade stared at the portrait for a very long time, his features shifting from one emotion to another, from desire and love to guilt and sadness and back again. Finally, he looked up. "God, Ever. It's...amazing."

  I'd worked on it for weeks. Nothing had ever been so hard as that portrait. I didn't feel beautiful. I didn't feel desirable. Even alone in my studio, with the blinds drawn and the door closed, I'd felt awkward and vulnerable and gawky, posing naked like that. And even the process of painting had been different. The way I formed my brushstrokes had been different--shorter, choppier, less smooth than before the accident. I had to focus intently on each individual stroke, and I'd messed up a hundred times, had to retouch and fix again and again. When doing my eyes, I'd messed up so badly I almost had to start over. And when I'd finally finished, I knew it was good, but not as good as it would have been before. But it was the best I could do.

  "Turn it around," I said.

  Cade glanced at me in confusion, and then flipped the frame around. I'd printed out the original photograph and tucked it between the canvas and the frame. He slid it free, held it in both hands, staring at it.

  "You are...so gorgeous."

  I closed my eyes. I wondered if he had any idea how badly I'd needed to hear that. "I don't feel like it."

  His face constricted, contorted into a mask of pain. "I'm failing you. You need love. You need me...and I just...I'm not giving you what you need."

  I tangled my fingers in his hair. "I just need you, Cade." I leaned in and pressed a kiss to his cheekbone, to the corner of his mouth. "When I married you, I promised to love you, no matter what. I promised to love you in sickness and in health. For richer or poorer. I promised to love the good and the bad. And I do. I always, always will."

  Cade buried his face in the crook of my neck, and his hand fisted in my hair. He turned his body toward mine, breathing me in, shaking and shuddering. "What if--what if I mess up?"

  "I'll forgive you." My heart was hammering, pounding, pouring fear-spiked adrenaline throughout my body. My pulse was thundering in my ears, and my fingers trembled as I clutched the back of his head. "Anything. I love you, Cade. I'll always love you."

  He just held onto me, fingers gripping my hair near the roots in a death-grip, almost painful. His breath scraped past his teeth, and he swallowed so hard I could feel it, hear it. "Always."

  "I swear it." Could I say that? A sliver of me doubted. "Just be mine."

  "I am. Only yours." He tugged my hair gently, pulling my face away from his long enough to look into my eyes.

  I saw love, determination, and need. Fear, too. Hurt and guilt. But all that was subsumed by the need.

  I flattened my body against his, crushed my lips to his. Inside, I was pleading for him to give me the passion I so desperately wanted, the soul-baring fervor my dried-up and starving heart needed.

  His mouth responded to mine, hesitant at first, and then with growing strength. His fist released my hair and slid down my neck, palmed my shoulder, caressed my spine. Rested on the bell of my hip. His kiss took on heat, and I breathed a whimper of needy relief when his mouth left mine and touched my neck. I tilted my head back to bare my throat, my hands clasping his head against me. His lips touched my breastbone above the buttons of my blouse. His teeth nipped, his tongue flicked.

  His fingers curled into the flesh of my hip.

  "Ever. God, Ever." He brought his free hand up to my face, brushed my wayward hair aside. "How could you not know you're beautiful? You are. You're perfect. Inside and out. You're too good for me. Too much, too incredible. I don't deserve all that you are." His mouth slanted across mine, sipping at my breath.

  "Because you...you're what makes me feel beautiful. This. Us."

  He shook his head. "No, Ev. You're beautiful in every moment. With me, without me. You have to know that."

  "I don't. I can't." I slid my hands around his waist and under his shirt to glide my palms up his strong back. "You have to show me." I wouldn't push it. This had to come from him, not me.

  He searched my eyes with his and, as always, I saw the mountain of tangled emotions in his gaze. But as I stared, I watched him push all that away, focusing instead on my mouth, my lips. Down, to the swell of my breasts and the hint of cleavage. He breathed in, and lifted both hands to the top button of my shirt. His brow furrowed, and his hands shook with nerves or desire as he slid the button through the gap. I breathed deeply, swelling my chest, straining against the remaining buttons. Hints of black lace showed, a sliver of the cup of my bra and my pale skin. I was still, sitting beside him, my body facing him, my knee pressed into his, thighs touching.

  He leaned in, kissed the hollow at t
he base of my throat, and his hands circled my waist. Tugged me toward him. I brought my leg over his thighs and sat astride him on the couch, looking down at him now. My calf-length skirt caught, stretched tight, and tangled, and I lifted up on my knees to free it, then sat back down. Lips slid across my skin, descended between the valley of my breasts. Cade's fingers fumbled at the buttons, freeing them one by one, and then his palms carved over my shoulders to push my blouse off, letting it tumble to the floor. He reared back, gazing at me, eyes dark and hooded with desire as I straddled him, each deep breath swelling my chest.

  Still I didn't move. I let my hands rest on his shoulders, watching him.

  He glanced up at me and then touched my bare shoulders, palms skating down my arms, back up. Around to my shoulder blades, pulling my body to his mouth. He pressed soft kisses down the swell of one boob, stopping at the edge of the cup and crossing over to kiss the other slope of flesh. His hands fluttered up my spine, teasing and tickling, and then he ran a finger inside the strap of my bra. Another kiss, this time nudging the cup down with his chin to nip at the darker circle of my areola. I sighed, curling one arm around his neck, fingers tracing the shell of his ear, the shaggy hair at his temples.

  A brief fumble of his fingers, and then my bra fell away. He leaned back, pulling the undergarment free from one of my arms, and then the other, and then he tossed it to the floor near my discarded shirt.

  "God, Ev. So fucking gorgeous." He dipped in, flicking my nipple with his tongue. "What would I do without you? What beauty would there be in this life without you?"

  I cupped his head with both hands, moaned as he scraped his teeth over my nipple. "Don't--don't ever find out."

  Cade buried his face between my tits and inhaled, then cupped each heavy globe in his hands and pressed them together, took both of my erect nipples in his mouth and tongued them. I moaned again, and the sound shifted into a drawn-out sigh as he slid his palms over my back, scratching and smoothing, caressing and touching. Tender, gentle, insistent.

 
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