Saving forever, p.19
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       Saving Forever, p.19

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
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  My hair was tangled and felt like straw, but I didn't have time do anything with it, and I certainly didn't have time for makeup. So I tossed a brush and ponytail holder in my purse, and met Carter at the door in less than five minutes.

  He grinned at me. "Now, that's a quick change. You look amazing, Eden. For real."

  I shook my head at him. "Amazingly huge, but thanks." Putting on fifty pounds of pregnancy weight was wreaking havoc on my already fragile self-esteem. I donned my oversize winter parka, which wouldn't zipper all the way, but was the only winter coat I owned.

  Carter closed my front door behind us, and then moved ahead to open the passenger door of his truck for me, handing me up. I was pretty sure I'd never actually opened a door on my own if Carter was with me. He was the most downright chivalrous man I'd ever known, and it was playing merry hell on my ability to remember that we'd never be anything but friends, no matter how gorgeous or gentlemanly he was.

  The radio played traditional Christmas songs, and I found myself singing along to them under my breath, humming when I didn't know the words. Carter watched me out of the corner of his eye as he drove, a small smile gracing his lips.

  I cocked an eyebrow at him. "What?"

  He shook his head and shrugged. "Nothing."

  "You're smirking."

  "I do not smirk."

  "You were, too. You were smirking at me."

  He chuckled. "It wasn't meant to be a smirk, how about that?"

  "What was it about?" I asked.

  "Nothing. look so beautiful, sitting there with the snow behind you, singing along to Christmas music. You have a pretty voice."

  I felt myself blushing. "Thanks. I don't really sing much. But I love all these old songs. They make me think of my mom. She had a terrible voice, but she would crank the radio and sing along, and singing while she cooked just made her so happy that none of us cared how bad she sounded."

  "You don't talk about your mom much," he said. It was a tactful way of encouraging me to talk about her if I wanted, but gave me an out if I didn't.

  "She was amazing. I don't know what else to say. She loved the cello--she was so passionate about playing. And painting, too. But that was more for her own enjoyment. She never sold any of her paintings, but she could've. She was beautiful, and always took time to make Ever and me feel special. That's hard, with twins. She never treated us like the same person, which so many people do."

  "She died?" Carter asked.

  I nodded. "Yeah. Car accident, when I was twelve."

  "Are you close to your dad?" Carter swung the truck off Center Road and onto a side street heading toward the East Arm of the bay--on the opposite side of the peninsula from my cabin, and several miles south.

  "No." I bit out the word. "He fell apart after Mom died. I haven't seen him in...god, almost two years. I saw him a few weeks after Ever's accident, but he just couldn't handle it. Some people just don't handle grief well, I guess. He shut us both out, spent all his time at work. He paid for college and gave us both money to live on, and he paid for Ever's medical bills, but...we never wanted his money. We wanted him."

  "He doesn't know you're here?"

  "No one does." I stared out the window at the snow, watching the thick, fat flakes drift down lazily.

  "Are you gonna tell him?"

  I shook my head. "No. Dad's not part of my life, and he hasn't been since Mom died. I don't even think about him anymore."

  Carter shook his head, whether in disbelief or sadness, I wasn't sure. "You're amazingly strong, Eden. You've gone through this all alone."

  I ran my thumb along the seam of the leather seat. "I'm anything but strong. I was lucky that I had enough money saved to be able to stay up here without working. I was lucky to have the cabin to go to. But I'm a mess. I'm terrified. And...I don't--I don't know how to be a mother. I'm giving birth to this baby in two months. Two months. And I don't know how to...what to do. I feel her kicking sometimes, at night when I'm trying to sleep usually, and I don't feel--I don't know...connected. Like, I'm carrying this baby, but I can't fathom being a mother. A person depending on me for everything. Calling me Mommy." I choked. "That's not me, Carter. I didn't want this. And I feel terrible about it because sometimes--sometimes I resent it, the baby, I mean, for messing up everything. If I hadn't gotten pregnant, things would've been tricky, but not impossible like they are now."

  Carter took the wheel with his left hand and threaded the fingers of his right hand through mine. "You'll figure it out. One day at a time, okay? And you're not going through it alone. I'll be there."

  "What would I do without you, Carter? You've literally saved my life. I can't even begin to thank you for everything you've done."

  He squeezed my hand and smiled at me, but said nothing. I forced away the doubts and the thoughts and the fears, trying to bring myself to a more positive frame of mind. I couldn't go into his parents' house a hot mess like this.

  A couple turns, and then we were on a dirt road running parallel to the bay, the water rippling steel-blue through a bank of trees. He pulled up to a beautiful, rambling ranch. It sat high on a hill overlooking the bay, a rolling hill falling down to the waterline, with a long dock stretching into the lake.

  "It's amazing," I said.

  "It sure is." He slid out of the truck and opened my door, not letting go of my hand when I hit the ground. He touched my chin, and I looked up at him. It would be all too easy to lose myself in his blue eyes, but I couldn't. "Just be you, okay? Have fun. Don't worry about anything. And if you're ready to go home, just let me know and I'll take you, okay?"

  I nodded, and had to rip my gaze from his before tempting thoughts flooded my mind. "Thanks for bringing me here, Carter."

  He pulled me in for a hug. "Don't worry about it. No one should be alone on Christmas, especially not you."

  I had to push away all too soon. He smelled too good, felt too good. Too comforting, too familiar. "Let's go in before I lose my nerve."

  He didn't let go of my hand until we got to the front door. "Ready?" he asked me, his hand on the knob.

  I nodded. "Nope. Not even remotely."

  Carter laughed. "Quit worrying, Edie. You'll be fine." I froze at his use of the nickname used by no one but Ever. He noticed my reaction. "You don't like that nickname?"

  I could barely whisper. "Ever calls me that sometimes. Or she used to."

  "I shouldn't have done that," he said. "I'm sorry."

  I shook my head. "No, it's fine. It just took me off guard."

  He squeezed my hand once more, then pushed the door open and led the way in. A wall of noise hit me: music, laughter, voices, pots and pans clanging, a dog barking, a TV going. I'd never seen so much activity in one place in all my life, and it overwhelmed me. There were at least a dozen conversations happening, and there were at least ten people here that Carter hadn't told me about. Cousins, aunts, and uncles? I didn't know. A family this size was an anomaly to me. There was a little boy running around, clutching a toy sword and shouting something indecipherable, and, as I watched, he whacked someone at random across the knee with his sword with an ear-piercing "HI-YAH!"

  As soon as the door opened, all the conversations stopped, and every eye turned to Carter, and to me.

  "Hey, everybody!" Carter called out as he kicked off his boots. I shrank back against the door, feeling the weight of at least twenty pairs of eyes on me, assessing, wondering, judging. He pulled me forward gently. "This is my friend, Eden." He emphasized the word friend ever so slightly.

  A chorus of hellos hit me, and a woman who looked exactly like Carter bustled over to me, smiling brightly, wearing a Pepto Bismol-pink apron that was spattered with sweet potato, pie crust, flour, cranberry sauce, and who knew what else. She was tall, with ink-black hair tied up in a messy bun. "Eden, welcome. I'm so excited you're here!" She leaned in and hugged me, keeping her messy hands and apron away from my clothes.

  Why? I wanted to ask. "Thanks," was what I said. "
You have a beautiful home." I sniffed the air, smelling the various dishes she was preparing. "It all smells delicious."

  "Thank you." She turned to glare at Carter. "I'm Karen. My son seems to have regained his powers of speech lately, but obviously not his manners."

  "Sorry, Mom." Carter cleared his throat and shuffled uncomfortably. "Eden Eliot, this is my mother, Karen Haven. Mom, this is my friend Eden."

  I wondered if maybe he was overdoing it a bit with the emphasis on our friendship status. But, then again, that might have just been my subconscious wishing vainly that I could have been meeting his family under other, less platonic circumstances.

  Carter gestured at a tall, slim, athletic man with gray at the temples of his auburn hair. "Dad, this is Eden. Eden, my dad, Richard Haven."

  I shook his hand. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Haven."

  This earned me a snort, the same sound Carter so frequently made. "Richard, please. It's wonderful to have you here, Eden."

  Karen whacked Carter across the arm, smearing sweet potato on his sleeve. "Now you're just being an idiot. This isn't the court of King Henry the Eighth, son. Such formality is entirely unnecessary."

  I had to hide my smirk as Carter wiped at the smear of goo on his sweater. Seeing him put in his place by his mom was both funny and heartwarming. "It's nice to meet you, Karen."

  Karen curtsied, spreading her apron in lieu of skirts. "Likewise, I'm sure."

  I snorted, and matched her curtsey as well as I could, at least. "Milady."

  Carter's glare shifted from his mom to me. "You're not supposed to encourage her, Eden. Whose friend are you, anyway?"

  Karen took me by the arm and pulled me toward the kitchen. "Mine, now. Go say hello to your cousins, Carter. You can have her back later."

  I followed Karen into the spacious kitchen. There was a huge island in the center of the room, clearly the focal point of the space. It was comprised of an enormous butcher's block, a slab of wood several inches thick. The rest of the counters were dark marble, and the cabinets were stained the same shade as the butcher's block. At the moment, every available inch of counter space was cluttered with bowls and utensils and covered plates, foil-covered casserole dishes, spice bottles, the weapons of a culinary war. There was a giant bottle of wine sitting on the island, opened, with a cluster of wine glasses surrounding it. I stared longingly at the wine, wishing I could have some.

  Karen followed my gaze, and laughed. "Honestly, that was the hardest part of all five of my pregnancies. No wine for nine months?" She faked an exaggerated shudder. "Shoot me now."

  I laughed, feeling at ease around this woman after not even five minutes. "It's pretty tough," I agreed. "And five times? How did you do it without going crazy?"

  "This is your first, I assume?" Karen tipped a couple of inches of wine into a glass, and handed it to me. "You're allowed one half glass, I think."

  I hesitated, then took the goblet, swirling the ruby-red liquid in the glass. "Are you sure? I don't want to hurt the baby."

  Karen smiled gently. "Oh, I'm sure. A few sips of wine, once, isn't going to do any harm." She gestured at the living room, where the Haven brothers were rough-housing and laughing. "Richard had a knack for knocking me up in time for the holidays, so I could never drink with everyone else. I'd allow myself one glass, for Christmas Eve lunch. They all turned out just fine, I think."

  I eyed the four men. They were all tall, dark, and handsome, each different than the other, but all four were gorgeous. None of them were quite as incredible as Carter to me, though. "I'd say so," I deadpanned.

  Karen snorted, swallowing a mouthful of wine. She had to cover her mouth to keep from spraying me. "They're quite a collection, aren't they?"

  I took a tentative sip of the wine. My eyes slid closed, and I moaned in appreciation as the dry, velvety liquid hit my palate. "God, that's good. You don't know how bad I've wanted this."

  Karen chuckled. "I think I do. Five times, remember? Try being pregnant with three boys under seven running around."

  I paled at the thought, watching the toddler as he tirelessly sprinted from one corner of the house to the other, leaping off the back of the couch, rolling across an ottoman, slicing at the air with his sword all the while. "Were they all like that?" I gestured at the little boy, who I thought might be three or four, but wasn't sure.

  Karen nodded, peeking into one of two stacked ovens. "Oh, yeah. Danny there is a handful, but there's only one of him. All of my boys were wild little hellions. And they'd team up. Kirk was the brains, always coming up with devious plans, and Max and Carter would carry the plan out."

  "What about Tom?"

  "Oh, Tommy was the distraction. I'm telling you, they were tactical." She closed the oven, and turned back to me. "I remember once...Max was nine, which means Kirk was seven, Carter five, and Tommy three. Max wanted cookies. I'd just baked a tray of chocolate chip cookies, and I'd told him he couldn't have any until after dinner. So Max, he convinces Kirk and Carter to help him get some anyway. Poor little Tommy, he was too young to know any better, and he idolized his older brothers, Carter in particular. He'd do anything they asked. So they wait until Tommy was playing with his favorite toy, and then they snatch it from him. He goes haywire, of course. Which was what they wanted. I go to see what's wrong with Tommy, and while I'm in here trying to translate screaming toddler, the three older ones are in the kitchen, sneaking handfuls of cookies."

  "Did they give Tommy any?"

  Karen laughed. "Of course they did! They waited until I'd calmed Tom down, and then gave him a cookie. I didn't figure out what they'd done until Tommy comes into the kitchen, smeared with chocolate, asking for more cookie, more cookie."

  I laughed. "Sounds like you were busy."

  "Busy is one word for it. It was chaos, complete and utter chaos. The house was always a disaster, the sink was always full of dishes, the garbage overflowing. Toilets were nasty, showers needed cleaning. was worth every minute."

  Carter came in at that moment and poured himself a glass of wine. "Are you telling embarrassing stories, Mom?"

  "Yep. I was just getting to the part where you ran around the neighborhood buck-ass naked until you were three."

  I laughed, choking on my mouthful of wine. "He did?"

  Karen nodded. "Oh, yes. I couldn't keep clothes on the boy. I'd get him dressed and he'd be naked as the day he was born within an hour. And he'd run away. I'd have to chase him down the beach, his skinny little behind waggling."

  Carter shook his head, glaring at his mom. "Seriously? Are you gonna bust out pictures next? God, Mom."

  With a devious laugh, Karen pulled out her phone. "Well, now that you remind me.... Richard scanned all of our family photographs in the computer last spring, and I have a few favorites on here." She tapped and scrolled through her photo album, and then handed me the phone. "Swipe right. Lots of good ones of the boys. And yes, there's the obligatory naked Carter in the bath pictures."

  I giggled as I swiped through the images of Carter's childhood. He was an adorable little boy and, judging from the pictures, fearless. She had shots of him at all ages, from infancy to adulthood, and in many of them he was climbing trees, riding dirt bikes and horses, racing four-wheelers. And, as Karen had promised, there was a photo of Carter at age two or three in the bathtub. It wasn't a tastefully posed one, either. All of his little-boy bits were on display. In one of the bathtub pics, he was actually playing with himself. I could almost hear him, tiny little voice saying "boing...boing...boing...."

  Carter glanced over my shoulder, and then started coughing and hacking. He snatched the phone out of my hands and held it up out of my reach. "MOM! Are you fucking serious? You're actually showing her bathtub pictures? Who even takes those?"

  Karen just laughed. "When you have kids, you'll understand. It's cute! And, in your case, always good for a laugh." She glanced at me. "Did you see the one where he was--"

  I snorted, reenacting what Carter had been doing in the
photo. "Boing! Boing! Boing!"

  Carter glared at us both, and Karen laughed so hard she doubled over.

  A little hand grabbed a fistful of Carter's sweater and tugged. "You said a potty talk, Uncle Carter."

  Carter looked down at the toddler. "I sure did, Danny. And I'm your cousin, not your uncle."

  Danny frowned. "You shouldn't say potty talk. Can I call you Uncle anyway?"

  "Sure you can. And no. I probably shouldn't say bad words around you, should I? I'm sorry, Danny. How about we make a deal? I won't say bad words if you won't." Carter knelt down and held out his hand to shake.

  Danny crossed his arms. "How 'bout you pay me a dollar? Sometimes Daddy says bad words when he's watching feetsball. Mommy gets mad at him, and he has to give me a dollar every time he says one."

  "You must have a lot of dollars, huh?" Carter asked, shooting an amused glance at the cousin who I assumed was Danny's dad, a burly, auburn-haired man with a long beard.

  "He's got more money than he knows what to do with," the man said, not looking away from the game on the TV.

  "Nuh-uh," Danny said. "I spended it."

  This caught the father's attention. "On what?

  "The ice cream truck."

  "The ice cream truck? You spent all of it at the ice cream truck?"

  Danny shrugged, looking down at the floor. He was realizing he might've said something he shouldn't have. "Not all of it. I got few dollars left."

  "There was more than twenty dollars there!" The father glanced from Danny to a pretty woman with white-blonde hair and a lip piercing. "Where was your mother while you were buying ice cream?"

  Danny glanced from his mother to his father. "Looking at her people books. I asked if I could play outside and she said yes, and the ice cream truck always comes right up to the fence and I don't even gotta go in the street or nothing!"

  "On people books," the father said, lifting an eyebrow at his wife in accusation.

  "I knew where he was, Alex," the woman said. "I just didn't know he was smuggling money outside."

  "And you didn't notice he--oh, I don't know--had ice cream?" Alex demanded. "Maybe that's why he never wanted to eat his dinner all summer long!"

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