Saving forever, p.20
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       Saving Forever, p.20

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
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  Karen stepped in at that point. "Marie, Alex. It's just ice cream. Relax."

  Marie cast a grateful glance at Karen. Alex turned back to the TV, grumbling something under his breath about "social media time-sucks."

  I'd watched the exchange with curiosity. Alex and Marie had basically argued in public, about what seemed to me to be a fairly serious parenting issue. Although, with the exception of myself, everyone in the house was family, so maybe to them it wasn't public. I couldn't fathom having that kind of conversation in such a public setting. But then, I couldn't fathom much of anything about how this family operated. It was just so big. There were at least ten different conversations happening all at once, with everyone trying to talk louder than everyone else. The result was that everyone was basically shouting at each other about golf scores and stock exchange tips and recipes and gossip about extended family members I assumed weren't present.

  Case in point was Carter, standing next to me in the kitchen, munching on pita chips dipped in a bowl of what looked like homemade hummus. He conducted an entire conversation with someone clear across the house at a volume loud enough to be heard across a football stadium. The Carter I was seeing in this home, around his family, was almost a different person from the one I knew. He was completely relaxed, talkative, wandering around the room restlessly, easily moving from conversation to conversation. Around me, he was quieter, not exactly taciturn, but not chatty, either. He was given to stillness, whereas here he seemed almost physically unable to stay in the same place for more than a few minutes.

  Yet, I noticed no matter where in the room he was, no matter who he was talking to or how deep in conversation he seemed to be, Carter was always aware of me. I'd feel his eyes on me, watching, checking. And as the day progressed, he made a point of always returning to where I was camped out in the kitchen.

  Karen had pulled me into the kitchen when we first arrived, and I hadn't left it. I hadn't even crossed the threshold into the living room, which seemed to be the domain of the men, for the most part. The women, who were seriously outnumbered in this company, congregated in the kitchen around Karen, or at the dining room table. I'd offered to help her cook, but she waved me off, saying she enjoyed it, and there wasn't much left to do anyway. Yet, for all that, she was always busy, chopping or stirring or spooning out.

  The other thing I didn't understand was what time we would be sitting down to dinner. Carter had rushed me out the door as if we would be sitting down to eat the moment we arrived. By all appearances, Karen was preparing a huge amount of food, and yet it was nearing three o'clock in the afternoon and the appetizers were still going strong. The table was littered with bowls of chips and dip, plates of cheese, trays of celery and carrots and peppers, a shrimp cocktail setup, sandwich rolls sliced into inch-thick snack-sized pieces, dishes of candy and unwrapped Reese's Miniatures...more snacks and appetizers than I'd ever seen in one place in my life.

  The other thing in abundance was plenty was booze. The wine was almost gone, and the men drifted into the kitchen several times to grab a bottle of beer from the fridge. I'd sipped my half-glass as slowly as I could, and managed to make it last for almost an hour, which I felt had to be some kind of record for what amounted to a few sips. Even Carter had knocked back at least three beers that I'd seen, which seemed like a lot for him, from what I knew about him.

  I snagged his arm as he passed by me to get a new bottle of beer. "I thought you said we had to hurry to get here before the sweet potato pie was gone?" I lifted an eyebrow at him. "It's past three. What happened to lunch?"

  Carter chuckled. "Well, for one thing, the hurry-up bit may have been a ploy to get you here. I knew if I gave you time to think about it, you'd chicken out. I got you out the door as fast as I could, so you wouldn't flake on me. But, yes, Christmas 'lunch,'" he made air quotes around the last word, "is kind of a misnomer, I guess. We probably won't eat for another hour or so, and then we'll all eat until we can't eat any more... and then we'll keep snacking all night."

  "All night? How is everyone getting home? Several people here seem three sheets to wind already and it's not even four."

  Carter laughed. "Oh, god, no one actually leaves, babe. There are four bedrooms upstairs, two pull-out couches, a bedroom in the basement, plus a guest cottage down the beach a ways. My folks own almost forty acres, and over five hundred feet of that is waterfront."

  Babe. He called me "babe." I shouldn't have liked that as much as I did. He'd mentioned his parents had money, but I'd forgotten. The house itself seemed modest, to my eyes. I'd grown up in a seven-thousand-square-foot mansion in Bloomfield Hills, surrounded by auto industry executives who liked to throw around their money. This family wasn't like that, clearly. If they had money, they didn't show it the way I was used to seeing. This house wasn't small, but it was gorgeous, and tasteful. The appliances were upper-end, but not luxury-brand, and the furniture was the same, nice, comfortable, but not showy. It felt like a home, well-loved and lived in.

  I'd spent most of the afternoon talking to Karen, but I'd also met a few cousins, one of Carter's aunts, both of his uncles, and few others I couldn't remember. Everyone was easy to talk to, intelligent and willing to listen. And none of them asked me any awkward questions about my obvious pregnancy. Either Carter had asked them not to, or they were simply being tactful.

  Two single-dollar bills filled my vision. "Two bucks for your thoughts?" Carter asked.

  I smiled at him, and then shrugged. "Just...your family is amazing. They're all so kind...and there's so many of them. They've all made me feel welcome. I was kind of overwhelmed at first,'s nice. Loud, and crazy and chaotic, but fun. And did I mention that there's just so many of them?"

  Carter laughed. "So there's a lot of them? Eden, babe. This is...maybe half of just my mom's side. She has five siblings, and they all have kids. Dad is one of five, and they all have multiple kids. On his side, there's an actual metric shit-ton of little kids. The people on that side are all horny bastards. There's a dozen first cousins between Uncle Mike, Uncle Derek, Aunt Julie, and Uncle Brad. And all those dozen first cousins have at least one kid each--most of them have two or three."

  That made me dizzy. " many cousins and aunts and uncles do you have?"

  Carter leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest with his beer resting on his forearm. "Hmmm. I've never done an actual count. I don't think we've ever had all of them in one place before. I've got nine aunts and uncles, and...god, like thirty first cousins? I don't know. A lot. A lot."

  "And you know them all?" I had to actually hold onto the counter.

  Carter nodded. "Well, sure. They're family. One of Mom's brothers is kind of a hermit, so I've only met him once. He lives in Alaska, I think. Somewhere far and cold." He shouted across the room at his mother, who was perched on the arm of the couch with her fingers idly tracing through her husband's hair. "Hey, Mom! Where does Uncle Rich live?"

  She didn't even turn around to respond. "Nome!" she shouted.

  He turned back to me. "He lives in Nome, Alaska," he said, as if I hadn't heard.

  "Yeah. Got that," I said, deadpan.

  He seemed oblivious to my sarcasm. "But, yeah, we have them over for holidays all the time. Mom's family usually comes over for Christmas lunch, Dad's family comes over for Thanksgiving, and we usually have a huge Fourth bash in the summer, and whoever can make it comes." He looked at me inquisitively. "Your family's pretty small, huh?"

  I shrugged. "Yeah. Mom and Dad were both only children, and Mom's parents died when I was really little, and Dad's parents died not long after. It was just the four of us growing up, and then when Mom died Dad basically shut down. Then it was mainly Ever and me for the holidays." I gestured with my head at the gathering of family. "So this is...just amazing to me."

  Carter's dad, Richard, came over just then, and the conversation shifted to other things, but I only partially participated. I was taking it all in, watching everyone interact, wondering
what it would be like to belong to such a huge family. It would be incredible, I decided. I'd give anything to be part of this family. That was probably an idle wish, I realized with a pang of sadness. This escape to Traverse City was destined to be a temporary solution to a permanent problem. I just had no idea what would happen after the birth of the baby.

  I pushed those thoughts away as, seemingly without any kind of prompting, the huge dining room table was cleared off and places were set. Innumerable dishes were lined up down the middle of the table. People took seats where they wanted, and within minutes lunch was on, although four o'clock seemed awfully late to call it lunch.

  If the chaotic nature of conversation earlier in the day had overwhelmed me, then dinner was downright lunacy. Dishes were passed back and forth, shouts to pass this dish or that crossed the table constantly, conversations took place end to end, willy-nilly. Everyone talked to everyone, all at once. Jokes were told, ranging from idiotically funny puns to dirty and cringe-worthy, yet no one ever got offended, no one got angry, no one insulted anyone or, if they did, it was in fun and returned in kind. Carter and his brothers, in particular, shared good-natured ribbing back and forth nonstop, and at one point they even started hurling dinner rolls at each other, which wasn't stopped until Tom started flinging mashed potatoes with his fork. Sitting next to Carter in the middle of the table, with Carter's oldest brother Max on the other side of me, gave me a ringside seat for all the action.

  Midway through the meal, Max glanced at me with a curious expression on his face. "So, Eden. You gotta tell me how you did it."

  "Did what?" I asked, biting into a biscuit.

  "Get Carter to start talking again."

  Conversation stopped dead, going in an instant from full-roar to so silent you could hear a pin drop.

  The biscuit suddenly tasted like ashes. "I--I don't know. I didn't do anything." I stared at my plate, barely able to manage a shrug. "I didn't know he hadn't spoken in so long. I just thought he was either an arrogant asshole, or painfully shy." Everyone laughed at that, including Carter. "I didn't try to do anything. Sorry I can't make it more dramatic--I just...he just started talking to me."

  Carter, despite laughing at my jibe, seemed equally as uncomfortable with the topic as I was. "So, did you hear the one about the priest and the nun?" he asked. As a topic-shift tactic, it was kind of lame.

  "Shut up, Carter. You suck at telling jokes," Tom said. "You can't change the subject."

  "Yes, I can. I can also break your ugly face."

  "Boys," Karen cut in, her voice quiet, but they both silenced immediately. "You're making Eden uncomfortable. Carter started talking because he was ready to, and now that's enough of that. It isn't appropriate conversation for the dinner table." This from the woman who'd just laughed at a bawdy joke told by her own husband. Yet I was intensely grateful to her for taking the spotlight off me.

  Carter's eyes met mine, pale blue and concerned. I smiled at him, trying to reassure him that I was fine.

  Conversation hadn't really started up again, so I tried to break the tension. "I think it didn't really have a lot to do with me, anyway. I think he was just sick of taking shit from you guys." I gestured to each of his brothers with my fork. "He's always telling me how mean you are to him."

  The three brothers laughed, while Carter gave me a wounded expression, as if I'd betrayed him. I could see the gratitude and humor twinkling in his eyes, though. "You bitch! You sold me out!"

  There was a chorus of oooohs at that. I smacked his arm with the back of my hand. "You did not just call me a bitch. I know you didn't."

  "I think I did," he said, arching an eyebrow.

  I glanced at Tom, who gave me a meaningful nod as he swirled his fork through his mashed potatoes. I hesitated, then summoned my courage and scooped a heap of potatoes onto my spoon, brought it toward my face as if about to eat it, and then flung it at Carter at the last second, getting him in the face. Everyone at the table cracked up, except Karen, who tried in vain to stop the food fight that ensued. It was only when Kirk threatened to dump the contents of the gravy boat onto Max that Richard cut through the uproar with a calm but firm, "Enough."

  Everyone pitched in to clean up, and then a shoot-'em-up movie marathon was proposed, which brought the majority of the group downstairs, leaving Karen and me alone in the kitchen, with a few people in the living room playing a card game.

  I sensed a talk coming on when Karen poured herself a big glass of wine and pulled up a stool next to me. "I know you say you didn't do anything, but I just...I just wanted to say thank you. I wasn't sure Carter would ever really come back to us, and ever since he met you...he's been his old self again, and then some."

  I ducked my head. "I really didn't do anything, Karen."

  "Well, then, you being you was enough. And for that, I thank you. You've given me my son back, and I can't ever express how much that means to me."

  "Carter is amazing. He's been there for me in ways I can't ever repay." I knew then as I looked into Karen's eyes and saw the glimmer of hope that I had given her some element of the truth. "He told me what happened. To Britt. He deserves happiness. And, Karen, I'm just not sure that I'll ever be able to offer him that." I rested one hand on my enormous belly as supporting evidence.

  Karen nodded, sighing. "I get what you're saying. And although I am curious, that's your business and your story. But let me offer you a piece of wisdom. You haven't asked, but I'm a mother, and it's our job to hand out unsolicited advice."

  I laughed. "Okay, let's hear it.'

  "Life is never simple. Never." Karen ran her index finger around the rim of her glass. "I was a single mother when I met Richard. I had an eighteen-month-old daughter and a messy divorce that wouldn't be finalized for another six months. It was complicated as all hell. I liked him, a lot, but I didn't think anyone would ever be able to understand my life. Or that I'd ever find happiness again. Especially considering the circumstances that led to my divorce. I was so young, you know. Twenty-one, with a daughter and a divorce and a broken heart." She glanced up at me, as if weighing how much to tell me. "My boys don't know this, because I just...I just never knew how to tell them, first husband was abusive. Mentally, emotionally, and physically. So on top of the baggage of my life, I had distrust and trauma and all this other bullshit. I decided I was too much for anyone--even someone as amazing as Richard. So I pushed him away. I did everything I could think of to make him leave me alone. To hurt him. Because I knew he'd hurt me eventually, and I didn't think I could survive that."

  "You had four kids together, so obviously Richard didn't listen to you. What happened? How did you end up together?"

  Karen smiled, a small, private smile of reminiscence. "There's one problem, sweetie. We didn't end up together. We made choices. Richard told me something I've never forgotten: 'You think I don't know you have a messed-up past, Karen? Of course you do. Yours may be more complicated than mine, and you may be afraid.'" Her voice took on a tone that told me she was quoting words she'd had memorized for thirty years. "'But the choice to love you is mine. Not yours. You don't get to make that choice for me. You can choose to not let me love you, but you can't tell me what's too much for me to handle. That's for me to decide.'"

  I sniffed away the tears that trickled past my nose. "God, Karen. And you let him, huh?"

  Karen stared at me incredulously. "Have you seen my husband? Of course I did! He's a fox!"

  I laughed. I had met her husband and, for a man thirty years my senior, I knew he was attractive. I could see where the boys got their looks. Richard Haven, even at fifty or sixty or however old he was, was tall and well-built, with wavy auburn hair just starting to go silver at the temples. His sharp features and ice-blue eyes were passed on to his sons.

  Karen sobered. "Seriously, though. How could I deny what he'd said? I wasn't pushing him away because I didn't want him, but because I was afraid my baggage was too heavy for him. And he was right, Eden. We can't make choic
es for other people."

  I sat perfectly still, barely daring to breathe, holding back all the things I wanted to say and trying to prevent the gush of yet more tears. "You know what I hate the most about being pregnant? Being so emotional. Literally everything makes me cry."

  Karen laughed at that. "Sure, blame it on the hormones. That's a classic pregnant lady line: 'I'm not usually so emotional, it's just these damn hormones!'"

  I gave a mock-glare. "Well, in my case it's true. I went the first twenty-plus years of my life rarely crying. A really bad breakup here and there, maybe. But suddenly, all I do I cry, and I'm sick of it, but I can't seem to stop it!"

  "Oh, honey. I understand more than you know."

  I doubted that. She couldn't possibly understand the tangled web I was caught up in. No one could. I nearly snorted out loud at that, realizing I was doing the exact thing that Karen was warning me against.

  She must've seen the skeptical expression on my face. "All I'm saying is, try to keep an open mind. You never what's possible until you try. Such an old cliche, but it's true. Things always seem impossible when you're on the wrong side of fear."

  "The wrong side of fear?"

  "Well, sure." Karen drained her glass. "Fear can either make you cautious and keep you from making stupid mistakes, or it can blind you and paralyze you. That's the wrong side."

  I nodded, understanding. "I'll try."

  "One more thing. I'm saying all this because you obviously need to hear it, but I have more selfish and ulterior motives. I like you. And I like who my son is when he's around you. I've seen him change a lot, and for the better, and you can deny it all you want, but it's due in part because of you. So, yeah, I want you for my son. Plus, there're never enough women around here! I'm always outnumbered two to least."

  I sniffed while laughing. "You have a beautiful, amazing family, Karen. And, honestly, spending Christmas Eve with you guys has been the happiest I've been in--oh, god, years."

  "We've all enjoyed having you here."

  I blinked against the burn. "But I just can't--can't promise--" I bit my lip until the pain pushed away the turmoil of emotion. "You don't know, Karen. You just--you don't know." I'd only known her for a few hours, but I already felt close to this woman. I wanted to tell her everything, but I just couldn't. The words wouldn't come out.

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