Saving forever, p.18
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       Saving Forever, p.18

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
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  Summer faded into fall, and my belly went from bump to protruding round bulge. With the cabin remodel finished, time spent with Carter was hit or miss. He was busy all the time, I discovered. He was heading up the construction of the tasting room for the Haven Brothers Winery. He supervised the day-to-day care of the vines, and he also ran a handyman service on the side, mostly for friends on the peninsula. If you needed your cabinets repainted, you hired Carter. If you needed help with a brake job on your car, you called Carter. If your sink leaked and the plumber couldn't come soon enough, you called Carter. He could do a little of everything, and was willing to help anyone, even if they couldn't pay him. On top of all this, he also sold his hand-carved wood sculptures out of the gallery downtown, and he'd mentioned that he would occasionally do pieces on commission.

  But despite how busy he was, he always found time to stop by the cabin every day, even if just to check on me. As fall progressed and my belly got bigger, it got harder and harder for me to move around. That in itself was a hardship I hadn't anticipated. I was a fit girl. It was who I was. Being insecure about my weight and body image, I was fanatical about exercise, obsessed, even. I had to work out every day, regardless of the weather or my mood or anything else. And now, suddenly, I could barely get up off the couch.

  By the time the first snow hit in late November, I was so hugely pregnant I felt like a walrus. I waddled. Actually waddled, with one hand pressed to my back. I'd seen pregnant women, of course, and I'd always shuddered in sympathy for them. I couldn't imagine being so slow and ponderous, carrying around this whole other person.

  Nothing could have prepared me for how hard the reality of pregnancy was. As my belly got bigger and bigger, my back hurt more and more. And I peed all the time. I was hungry all the time, and craved bizarre things. According to the reading I'd done, I was under the impression that cravings were a first-trimester thing, and should fade away as the pregnancy progressed. I hadn't had any weird cravings at all in the first trimester. No pickles and ice cream, or sushi at three in the morning, or peanut butter and olive sandwiches. If anything, food made me nauseous. It wasn't really all that bad, but enough that I only ate when I was actually hungry enough for a meal.

  And then I hit my third trimester, and I was hungry all the time. I wanted Triscuits and Irish cheddar cheese, literally every moment of every day. I had to have Greek yogurt twice a day: peach in the morning, black cherry at night. With granola. Real granola, not the fake bullshit with the sticky clumps of oats.

  And decaf coffee. That was one of the hardest things. Giving up caffeine was like trying to rip my arm off. I tried cutting out coffee entirely for about two weeks, and then gave in, allowing myself one cup of actual real coffee in the morning, and then I had to switch to decaf. The idea was to psych myself out with the fake crap, but it never worked. I knew it was decaf, and it wasn't the same. But it was something.

  The one thing I wished the pregnancy books had mentioned was that I'd pee my pants. That would have been nice to know. If I had to pee really bad--which was every hour or so--I'd find myself leaking. Like...seepage. I took to wearing maxi pads all the time.

  Carter usually stopped by around lunchtime, and he always brought me something to eat, most frequently a burger from the Peninsula Grill, or the parmesan-crusted whitefish, my other favorite menu item. He'd sit in my kitchen with me, and we'd eat and talk for a while, and then he'd leave.

  I didn't dare examine why exactly my heart would start going pitter-patter as the noon hour approached. Or why it would start hammering when I heard his truck crunch to a stop on the gravel of my driveway. I'd have to stop myself from scurrying around the house, picking up before he came in. I had to stop myself from sighing every time I saw him, too. God, he was gorgeous. And the smell of sawdust and sweat that was wrapped up in his identity sent my pulse racing and made my mouth dry and made me quiver, just a little. Not as quivery as his eyes made me, though. He'd cast a glance at me with those ridiculously beautiful blues, and I'd have to blink hard and force my knees to stay locked. His eyes were so pale, so piercing, so knowing.

  I couldn't think about why I reacted to him so strongly, and there was no point in thinking about it. I knew he liked me. I knew he was attracted to me. And he was there for me. But...for how long? He had his own life. Mine was a whole train wreck of baggage, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

  And, oh, yeah, I was pregnant. Very, very pregnant.

  Which, maybe, just meant the attraction I had to Carter was just due to hormones. Some chemical inside me creating a false sense of need.

  I couldn't afford to hope that he'd stick around for much longer. He'd get tired of hanging out with a guilt-stricken pregnant woman, one who was prickly and moody and complicated. And...I got exhausted just thinking about what it must have been like for him, being around me.

  Why would he want to? He owed me nothing. He hadn't knocked me up; he had no responsibility to me. And I'd told him, numerous times, that there couldn't be anything between us. Not now, while I was pregnant, and not later, because I'd be busy trying to figure out how to be a single mother with no job and no degree. My only real talent or ability was playing the cello, and that was kind of hard to turn into a career when you had a newborn and no support system.

  He wasn't a support system. I couldn't rely on him. Refused to. He was a friend. An acquaintance, even.

  But...he found ways to support me and help me without ever being asked. He'd swing by with his mower and mow my grass. He came by three times over the fall to rake up my leaves and cart them away to burn at the vineyard. He replaced the garbage disposal when it quit on me. He took me grocery shopping a couple of times every week.

  And those trips, the ones to the real supermarkets down the peninsula, they were the hardest for me. He was so attentive to me, always pushing the cart and opening the car door, grabbing the heavier items and loading and unloading. People always assumed we were a couple, which embarrassed me and made my heart ache a little, but Carter seemed to take it in stride. We didn't usually bother to correct the misconceptions. I'd answer their questions vaguely, wait through the awkward exclamations of how big my belly was and questions about when was I due, and were we having a girl or a boy, and oh, I bet the baby would have Daddy's eyes. Carter would just smile and wait patiently.

  Basically, Carter was doing all the work of acting like my husband or boyfriend, just without any of the benefits. Especially since my company wasn't all that stimulating or fun most of the time.

  The closer to my due date I got, the more the panic and guilt and worry consumed me.

  By Christmas--a little more than two months from my due date--I was so afraid and worried and stressed out that I couldn't get out of bed, as it was often simply too arduous a process to even bother. The only times I'd go through the effort of shifting my whale-sized body out of bed was to pee and to get something else to eat while I read my thousandth book.

  Playing the cello was nearly impossible. Getting my bow arm around my belly and my cello required an act of contortion that was physically painful.

  I was bored.

  I was scared.

  And, through it all, Carter was himself, calm, quiet, supportive. Attentive, occasionally more physically affectionate than I could tolerate.

  Not because I didn't want him to touch me, but because I did. So much. I lived for the moments when he'd accidentally reach out and brush my hair away from my eyes. Once, when crossing the parking lot on the way into Meijer, I slipped on a patch of ice, and he caught me in his arms. And, as if the feel of his arm around my waist wasn't enough, he held my hand the rest of the way. I felt like a teenager as we walked across the parking lot, hand in hand. That tiny, innocent gesture made my heart hammer so hard I felt it in my ears. His hand was warm, despite the bite in the air. Rough, and strong. Like him.

  Ever since Mom's death, Christmas had been a strained, difficult holiday. It had been her favorite time of year, and like everything else Mom had
loved while alive, Dad hated it after she died. By the time college rolled around, Dad was simply a check in the mail, and Christmas was just Ever and me, usually at her place. We'd watch Christmas Vacation and stuff ourselves sick with eggnog and cookies and pie, and then on Christmas Day we'd exchange gifts and spend the day on a movie marathon.

  This was the first time I'd ever been truly alone for the holidays, and maybe it was just the hormones, but the idea of spending Christmas Eve alone made me cry. I actually had to sit down on the couch and cry, and try to catch my breath. I missed Ever. I wanted to call her. I wanted to see her breeze through my door with a tin of green-and red-sprinkled sugar cookies and a bottle of rum. I wanted to hug her and have her tell me it would be okay. Tell me I was being an idiot and to woman up.

  But she wouldn't. How could I just call her now? Oh, hey, sis. How are you? I'm good. Just thirty weeks pregnant and carrying a beach ball around in my stomach. Who's the daddy? Your husband. Sorry I didn't tell you sooner--I've just been busy being a coward.

  I'd run away, and now it was too late to take it back. I couldn't figure out what I could've done any differently, but that didn't make it any easier to deal with my own cowardice. I'd have to face them someday. But when? It would never be easy. There would always be the questions and the heart-wrenching answers. The marriage-ruining answers. The home-wrecking answers.

  I was lost in a downward spiral of self-loathing and self-pity when Carter showed up. It was eleven in the morning, Christmas Eve. He was dressed in a pair of tight, faded blue jeans and a terrifyingly ugly Christmas sweater. It was glaring red and had Frosty the Snowman embroidered on it. That wouldn't have been so bad, except that Frosty was wearing a red and green scarf. An actual, physical scarf sewn across the sweater. It was horrible, but yet I couldn't look away.

  He rapped on the door as he let himself in, as usual. I looked up at him from my place on the couch, eyes red from crying and my nose running, and I saw him.

  "What--what the fuck are you wearing, Carter?" I couldn't help laughing. Except laughing made a little pee squirt out, so the laugh turned into a moan of frustration.

  "It's my Ugly Christmas Sweater," he said, and something in the tone of his voice lent the capital letters to the title. "What's the matter?"

  I sniffed and wiped at my eyes. "Well, for one thing, I just peed." I'd already explained the pregnancy-pee scenario to him. "And aside from that...everything."

  Carter sat down beside me, and put his arm around my shoulders. I couldn't help nuzzling into him, burying my face in the wool of his sweater and inhaling his clean scent. He smelled like shampoo and faint cologne and, of course, sawdust.

  "Everything?" he asked.

  I nodded. "Everything. I'm due in two months, and I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm almost through my savings already. I should've been working over the summer, but I just...couldn't. I didn't know anyone up here except you, and by the time I knew people I was too pregnant to be able to do anything. Besides, I'd have to quit before I had the baby anyway, so there wasn't a point." I felt the tears start all over again, and tried to stop them. It seemed all I did was cry anymore. "God, I'm sick of crying. You have to be sick of it, too, I imagine."

  Carter just shrugged. "It's fine." He leaned away from me, looking at me. "There's something else, isn't there?"

  I sighed. "It's Christmas. I miss my sister. She's the only family I really have, and I can't just call her. I can't spring this on her now. Not at Christmas."

  "There'll never be a good time," he said, his voice quiet.

  He thought I should just bite the bullet and tell them, get it over with. He was right, but it was easy to say, and hard to do. I'd nearly called her once, had my phone in my hand. Ever's number was on the screen, my finger on the "call" button. But I just couldn't do it. I'd turned the phone off and buried it in my sock drawer.

  "I know," I said. "I'm a coward. I don't know how you can stand me."

  Carter sighed, and when he spoke, irritation tinged his voice. "Eden. Being afraid to tell them this is perfectly understandable. It doesn't make you a coward. It makes you human. And I'm just saying, the longer you wait, the harder it'll get. She's your family. She'll understand."

  I shook my head. "How could anyone understand what I did? I betrayed her in the worst possible way."

  Carter hesitated a moment. "Look, I know it was his wife--your sister--that was in the coma, and I know he'd been through a lot, but.... This Cade guy has to bear at least some of the responsibility, doesn't he? He made the choice just as much as you did. You can't take all the blame yourself, Eden."

  "I know, and I appreciate what you're saying," I said, pulling away from him. "But knowing Cade is partially responsible doesn't make my part of the blame any easier to bear. It doesn't change the fact that I'm about to have his baby, and that Ever will never have that choice."

  Carter had no answer for that, because there was none to give. He stood up, turned to face me, and extended his hands to me. "Come on, we're gonna be late."

  I took his hands, and he pulled me up to my feet. "Late for what? Where are we going?"

  He traced his middle finger across my forehead, over my temple, and behind my ear, his touch gentle and tender and tempting. "Christmas lunch, of course."

  "With who? You and me?"

  "You and me...and my brothers, and my mom and dad. A few other close family members. Nothing huge."

  Ice flooded my veins. "Oh, hell no. Thanks for thinking of me, but no."

  He frowned. "Oh, hell yes. You're coming. There's no way I'm letting you sit here alone on Christmas Eve. I already told Mom you were coming, so she's expecting you. She set a place at the table and everything."

  My hands shook. "Who did you say you were bringing? Your single, pregnant pity-friend?" Carter's expression shuttered. I'd hurt him with that one.

  "I'm not your friend out of pity, Eden." He turned away, scrubbing his hands through his hair, which he'd taken the time to actually comb and style. "I'd hoped you thought more of me than that."

  I moved closer to him, resisting the urge to smooth his hair down. "I'm sorry, Carter. I just--I'm not--"

  "We're not having the what-we-aren't conversation right now. I can't deal with it. Just tell me if you're coming or not."

  "You really want me at your family's house for Christmas? Won't that be...awkward?"

  He pivoted to look at me. "Yes, Eden. I wouldn't have invited you if I didn't want you there. And, no, it won't be awkward. Kirk's bringing his fiancee, and my half-sister will be there with her boyfriend. So you won't be the only non-family member."

  "Half-sister?" He'd never mentioned a half-sister.

  "Yeah. My mom was married before she met my dad, and she had a kid. Lucy lives in San Antonio, so I don't see her much, but she comes up for the holidays. She's cool. She's two years older than Max."

  "Did you tell them I was pregnant? I mean, how are we going to explain it?"

  "We don't have to explain anything to anyone. It's your business. You aren't the first unwed pregnant woman in history, you know." He gave me a reassuring smile. "It'll be fine. No one's going to judge you."

  Yes, they would, if they knew. But like he'd said, they didn't have to know any details. I was tempted to go. I really didn't want to be here alone. But...it would be awkward. They'd be wondering if we were together, and how that worked if I was pregnant with not his baby.

  "Come with me, Eden. No one should have to spend Christmas alone."

  "Okay. Okay. I'll go." I tried to lighten the mood. "I don't have any ugly sweaters, though."

  "It's fine, the Ugly Christmas Sweater competition is more between the guys anyway."

  "It's a competition?" I asked.

  He grinned. "Oh, yeah. Every year my brothers, my dad, and I try to find the ugliest sweater possible, and the girls vote on whose is the ugliest. We all pitch in on a bottle of Oban, and the winner gets the bottle. I've won the past three years in a row."

  I laughe
d. "You must have a lot of ugly sweaters, then."

  He snorted. "You have no idea. I've got, like, four huge storage bins full of them. It's kind of a problem, actually, 'cause there's not much you can do with a collection of ugly Christmas sweaters. You can't wear them again, because every year you have to have a new one to compete with, but how do you get rid of it? Just throw it away?"

  I nodded, keeping my expression serious. "That is a problem. Whatever are you gonna do?"

  He gave me a fake glare. "You're mocking me, aren't you?"

  I held my fingers an inch apart. "Just a bit."

  "Not nice." He tugged me toward the door. "Now, let's go. They'll eat without us, and then there won't be any of Mom's sweet potato pie left. And I can't miss out on that--it's my favorite part of Christmas lunch."

  I laughed at him. "You're funny. Okay, let me just change real quick. I can't wear this to meet your family."

  I was in my preggo uniform: yoga pants, a tank top, and a zip-up hoodie. It was comfortable, and the tank top/hoodie combo let me adjust to the hot and cold flashes that hit me without warning. It was a far cry from flattering, however.

  "Why do you have to change?" He looked me up and down. "You look fine. It's just family hanging out. Dad will probably be in sweats, and I don't think I've ever seen Lucy wear anything but pants just like the ones you're wearing."

  "Carter. I've worn these clothes for two days straight, for one thing. And you just don't do that. You don't meet someone's family for the first time wearing this." I gestured at my outfit. "I'll be quick, I promise. Give me five minutes."

  "Hurry."

  I tore through my closet, hunting for something remotely acceptable that would still fit. What did you wear to something like this? I'd never dated anyone seriously enough to meet his family, especially not for Christmas. Except I wasn't dating Carter, so it didn't count. But I was still meeting his family.

  I couldn't find anything, and started to feel as if I was going to hyperventilate. I rifled through the closet again, and finally found a stretchy cotton skirt, plain black and calf-length. It was nice, but comfortable, and it would stretch to fit under my watermelon-sized belly. I had a fairly nice gray T-shirt that would work, and a plum-colored cardigan. I threw the clothes on, slipped my bare feet into my Toms, which were my new favorite footwear. Easy on and easy off, comfortable, and went with everything.

 
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