Saving forever, p.21
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       Saving Forever, p.21

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

  She seemed to understand that there was nothing else to be said. Karen rose to her feet, extended both hands to me, and helped me stand up. "Come on. There's something to be said for movies that feature a bunch of shirtless men blowing things up."

  I laughed and joined her in the basement, finding a spot saved for me on the huge L-shaped leather sectional. Carter was beside me, his long legs stretched out, one arm resting on the back of the couch. I didn't mean to sit so close to him, but the couch sucked me in, and his arm found its way around me, and somehow my eyes grew heavy. A heavily muscled man wearing a ripped white T-shirt wielded a machine gun with one hand, firing it with unlikely accuracy, holding on to a skinny blonde with absurdly huge tits with the other. Things blew up, including jet fighters and entire buildings.

  Carter was far too comfortable for his own good. I fought it, blinked, and tried to shift away from him, but it was useless.

  I fell asleep surrounded by his family, my head lolling against his shoulder. I missed the judging of the Ugly Sweater competition. It happened between parts two and three of the movie marathon, which meant I slept through an entire two-hour movie. When I woke up, all the guys were drinking Scotch and ribbing Carter about where he finds his sweaters, so I assumed he'd now won the title four years in a row.

  It was well past midnight when I realized I was staying overnight at the Havens' home. Carter was tipsy, which made him the least drunk of anyone, yet for all that no one was obnoxious or rude, which had been my general experience with drunk people at parties. They were often just a little too loud, prone to slurring and making fun of each other for slurring and laughing at jokes that weren't funny to me, but which they found uproarious.

  I watched Carter and his brothers as they got incrementally louder and more competitive playing Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. They were playing the actual kid's game, and were taking it very seriously, it seemed. I even saw a couple of cousins put money on the outcome of the individual matches. When the competition got a little too fierce, Karen stepped in with a quiet but firm command to stop acting like barbarians, or to take it outside.

  So Max and Carter did indeed take it outside, spinning and wrestling each other near the basement walk-out door. Tom, ever helpful, went ahead of them and opened the door so they could throw each other through it and into the piled-up drift of snow. I watched from my place on the couch, a little concerned and not a little shocked as the tussle turned serious. They were rolling around in the snow, and I thought I saw actual punches being thrown. Richard was at the opposite end of the couch from me, watching as well.

  "Shouldn't someone stop them?" I asked.

  Richard just waved a hand. "Those two do this every year. They're boys. They won't actually hurt each other."

  "But they're rolling around in a four-foot-deep snow drift!"

  He laughed. "They're both drunk. They don't even feel the cold." He smiled at me. "Carter can hold his own. Trust me on that, my dear."

  Max was huge. He was three or four inches shorter than Carter, but outweighed him by twenty or thirty pounds--all of it solid muscle. Yet, as I watched, I realized Richard was right. Carter was consistently on top as they rolled around, and I saw him get in a few hard hits to Max's body. I cringed when Max returned them, but since no one else seemed concerned, I could only watch and hope no one ended up at the hospital.

  Eventually, Max and Carter went still, lying side by side in the snow, laughing and panting. Carter stood up first, then helped his brother to his feet, only to plant a fistful of snow into Max's face, laughing and ducking as Max swung blindly. That was the end of the fight, though, both boys tromping in, soaking wet and breathing hard.

  Carter peeled off his sweater and T-shirt, and I had to bite my lip to keep from moaning in appreciation. He scrubbed his hand through his hair as he stood by the sink in the basement kitchenette, picking clumps of snow from his hair and tossing them in the sink. He had a fat lip and the shadow of a bruise on his jaw, and I saw more red spots on his ribs that would turn into bruises.

  I couldn't help brushing my fingers over the worst bruise on his ribs. "Are you okay?"

  He snorted at me, smiling with amusement. "I'm fine. Not even bleeding."

  "You guys fight like that often?"

  He shrugged. "When we drink, yeah. Usually someone ends up putting somebody else in a headlock, and then suddenly it's a wrestling match."

  "Usually you don't punch each other in wrestling matches." I touched his lip, plucked a dripping clump of snow from above his ear. "But what do I know? I'm just a girl."

  Carter's eyes darkened at my touch. "You gotta get in a few sucker punches."

  "You're so different here. Around your family."

  "Good different or bad different?" He accepted a bag of ice from Max and touched it to his lip.

  I had to cross my arms to keep my hands from roaming his face, soothing his bruises. "Good different. You seem more like yourself. Relaxed."

  "You've had a good time?"

  I nodded. "Yeah. It's been amazing. I'm kind of sleepy, though." I couldn't bear to tell him what I really felt, how badly I wanted this family to be mine.

  "You've got the room down here. I'll be on the couch over there." He pointed at a small couch tucked into a far corner near the pool table. "You fit in, you know. With us."

  I smiled weakly. "Yeah." It was all I could manage.

  He sensed my emotions, though. "What is it?"

  I shook my head. "Just tired."

  He frowned at my avoidance. "You slept through a movie and a half."

  "I've gotta sleep for two, you know."

  "A likely excuse." He grinned to make it a joke. "Come on, I'll show you the room."

  It was a small room, just a bed and a closet and a chest of drawers, but it was somewhere to sleep. And Carter would be on the other side of the door. My skirt and T-shirt were comfortable enough to sleep in, so I kicked off my shoes, set my cardigan on top of the bureau, pulled my hair from its ponytail, and slid under the covers. Carter watched, his hand on the knob.

  "Good night, Eden. Thanks for coming."

  "Good night, Carter. Thank you for bringing me. It was a lot of fun."

  He hesitated, as if he wanted to say something else. I hoped he didn't, because I knew my frazzled emotions couldn't take another serious conversation. In the end, he shut off the light and closed the door, leaving me in darkness except for a tiny nightlight in a plug near the floor. I felt like I was a kid again, on a sleepover at a friend's house, trying to fall asleep in an unfamiliar room. Except for the tiny foot kicking me from the inside, and the fact that I had to pee.

  I felt myself falling asleep, but my bladder screamed at me, so I groaned in frustration and heaved myself out of bed. I wasn't sure if anyone was sleeping in the basement, so I twisted the doorknob as silently as I could, cracking the door open to peek through. Carter and Tom were both lounging on the sectional, glasses of Scotch in hand, feet kicked up, another shoot-'em-up movie playing on near-mute. "I don't think she thinks she deserves happiness," Carter was saying.

  I knew I should close the bedroom door or make my presence known, but I couldn't do either.

  "I wish I knew how to convince her."

  Tom didn't answer right away, swirling the dark amber liquid in his glass. "You can't. She has to know it for herself. You can't give someone else a sense of self-worth, bro. Trust me on that one."

  Carter glanced at his younger brother. "When did you learn that lesson?"

  "Emily. She was a chronic self-hater. Anorexic." Tom shrugged. "I tried for almost a year to convince her that she was beautiful, but she just never believed me. Couldn't, I don't think."

  "It's not like that with Eden," Carter said.

  "Then what's it like?"

  Carter sighed, and didn't answer for a long time. "That's not something I can get into, Tommy. Just...it's complicated, obviously."

  "Yeah. A baby is a fairly big complication, I'd say."

  "It's not
even that, really. There's other shit. She just doesn't seem to see that I'd be willing to work past it, if she was." He scrubbed his face with one hand.

  "So what are you gonna do?" Tom asked, glancing sideways at Carter.

  "Bide my time," Carter said with his characteristic one-shoulder shrug. "Be there as her friend. She's worth the wait."

  I backed away from the door, eyes swimming, heart pounding. I tripped over my foot and fell onto my backside against the bed, fighting for breath.

  Bide my time. Worth the wait. Work past it. Could he really mean all that? Surely not.

  I heard Karen's voice in my head. We can't make choices for other people.

  I felt more lost than ever, more confused and mixed up than I'd ever been. Being around Carter's huge, boisterous, playful, loving family had given me a glimpse of what I'd have if I could be with Carter. It had given me hope. Made me want things I didn't know were even possible.

  But they weren't possible. Were they? Could I really just...let Carter love me, fucked-up situation and all? It couldn't be that simple.

  But what if it was?

  The thoughts went round and round in my head until my bladder reminded me why I'd gotten up in the first place. I made sure the doorknob snapped loud enough to announce my presence. I gave the boys a shy glance and awkward wave on the way to the bathroom. When I returned to the bedroom, Carter poked his head in.

  "Can I come in?"

  I nodded, and patted the bed beside me. "Sure." I couldn't quite look at him.

  He perched partially on the bed, facing me. "Something tells me you overheard Tom and me."

  I nodded. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop."

  "What'd you hear?"

  "You think I don't think I deserve happiness, and you don't know how to convince me. I'm complicated, but you'd be willing to bide your time and work past it." My voice lowered to a whisper. "I'd be worth waiting for."

  "So you heard all the good stuff, then." He did the Carter thing, reaching out with the middle finger of his right hand to brush the hair away from my face. "No matter what happens or doesn't happen, I'm your friend, Eden. Please remember that."

  I couldn't stop a sarcastic laugh from escaping. "If you were trying to stick to the just-friends agreement, you kinda fucked that up a bit."

  He didn't seem insulted. "I am trying. I'm just not succeeding, apparently."

  "Apparently." I debated how much to say. "This has been...an incredible day. One I'll always remember."

  Carter's face clouded. "Why does this feel like the beginning of a rejection?"

  I picked at a loose plastic thread on the somewhat dated floral print comforter. "It's not. It's just...I'm messed up. In my own head. And I'm not sure if I'll ever get straight. If I did, and if I ever got to a place where I felt I could take on something like a relationship, you'd be my first and only choice. But I...can't. Not now. My life is so up in the air, and I feel like sooner or later Ever's gonna come looking for me and then the shit's really gonna hit the fan. I don't know what my life's gonna look like in two months, let alone two years. And I don't know how much of...of my heart I have to give." I made myself look him in the eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm just trying to give you honesty."

  "So you like me."

  I gave a bark of disbelieving laughter. "You missed the entire point of that whole speech, didn't you?" I shook my head. "God, Carter. Yes. I like you." That was an understatement.

  "I was just being funny." He sighed, ran his hands through his hair. "Knowing where I stand is huge. You're not leaving me in limbo or leading me on. So, for that alone, I have a lot of respect for you. And even though there's no guarantee of anything in the future, if it's all the same to you, I think I'll stick around for a while."

  "Carter--"

  "If I'm walking into heartbreak, that's my own choice, Eden." He stood up, backing away. "I'll be there for you, no matter what. Whether you can give me what I want in return or not, I'll be there for you." He left then, and I was bathed in darkness once more.

  mistletoe reminders

  Christmas Day at the Havens' was even more delightful than the day before. Breakfast was pancakes and bacon and scrambled eggs and waffles from a real waffle iron, toast and buckets of coffee (they even had decaf, miraculously) and orange juice and muffins and...more food than I knew what to do with.

  Watching the family exchange gifts was...heartwarming. That was the only word for it. They had all clearly put thought and effort into buying or making a gift that suited the recipient. I loved giving gifts and I wished I'd been able to bring something for everyone, but it was nearly made up for by just watching everyone else get excited and rip open their presents. All the joyful energy of a Christmas morning.

  Everyone had opened their presents, the wrapping paper was cleaned up, and then Karen reached beside her chair and handed me a slim, small package wrapped in glittery purple paper. She reached across the space between us, handing it to me.

  I took it, stared at it, then looked up to Karen. "I--what? I didn't even know I was coming until Carter brought me here. I don't have--I can't..."

  "You can," Karen said. "It's nothing much. Something I had that I thought you could use."

  I hesitated, but everyone was staring at me and I couldn't very well refuse. So I opened it. Inside the wrapping was a thin black case, the kind of thing a necklace or bracelet would have been in. Jared's was written across the top.

  "Don't worry, I didn't go to Jared's," Karen joked. "It was just what I had to wrap it in."

  I opened the case, and inhaled sharply. Inside was a silver chain with a heart-shaped pendant. Courage was inscribed on one side of the heart, Trust on the other.

  "It was a gift from Carter, actually. For Mother's Day. He was thirteen. He'd spent the winter shoveling snow to earn money, and he bought that for me himself. It was very sweet, but--"

  "Completely random," Carter said. "I didn't know what to get you, and that's all the jewelry store had that I could afford."

  I lifted the pendant. Courage and trust. Two things I didn't have. Two things Karen Haven seemed to instinctively know I desperately needed. "Th-thank you. So much." It was a fifteen year-old necklace that she'd probably never worn, yet it meant something to me. "I wish I'd known, I'd have--"

  "Actually," Carter said, standing up, "you do have something you could give all of us."

  "I do?"

  He nodded, and then went to the closet by the front door and retrieved my cello case. "I went and got it early this morning. I know we'd all love to hear you play."

  I closed my eyes and tried to breathe. "I don't know, I haven't prepared anything--" That was a copout, though, and I knew it. I could play fifty different pieces from memory. "Sure, I could play for a few minutes." There was a chorus of encouragement from the gathered family, Carter's voice the loudest. "I need a chair from the kitchen, though. One without armrests."

  Carter brought the chair, set it in front of the fireplace facing the room. I opened Apollo's case, lifted him out, spent a moment wiping him down with the soft cloth I kept in the case. Plucked, strummed, tuned. I tried not to look at the faces watching me eagerly, expectantly. I wasn't typically nervous in front of crowds, especially once I started playing, but this was different. I settled Apollo between my knees, having to tip him back farther than normal to take into account my huge belly. I started with a piece I knew backward and forward, the intro to Bach's cello suite. It was like a warm-up for me, a familiar friend. Within a dozen strokes of my bow, I was lost to the music. God, Carter knew me so well. He knew this calmed me, knew I needed to play.

  I went through the first suite in its entirety, and then paused. Part of me wanted to play my solo, but I knew I'd be emotional if I did. I was always a wreck after I played that. I glanced at Carter, found courage in his eyes.

  "So...I thought I'd play something kind of special. I've been composing a suite of solos over the past few years. I've written pieces for those closest to me. My mother who passed away
, my dad, my twin sister. Her husband--" My voice caught, and I forced myself to keep going, to cover over it. "Well, over the fall, I wrote a piece for someone else who has come to mean a lot to me. Carter, this is for you. It's...it's my Christmas present to you."

  I closed my eyes, pushed away all thoughts and all emotions. I opened my eyes and focused on Carter, seeing only him. My bow drew across the A string, sending a high quavering note into the air. I held the note for a beat, drawing the bow back across the string, and then cut loose, my fingers flying across the fingerboard, the bow slanting and diving wildly. It was a fast, hard-driving intro-- --crazy like the crazy way we'd met. The pace slowed, turned melancholy and deep, no less complex for the slower pace. There was longing in the notes, places where the shifting of the tune seemed almost discordant, reflecting my inner turmoil over Carter. It was the longest piece I'd composed, oddly, considering I'd only known Carter for seven months. But in that short span of time, he'd managed to infiltrate my life, bringing a chaotic and turbulent mix of emotions into my life, disrupting my intentional isolation with his quiet strength and consistent presence. As I thought about Carter while I played, my hands had a mind of their own. They took over the cello and seemed to go haywire, flooding my normally smooth and precise style with intensity and frenetic speed and an edge of abandonment.

  When the piece was finished, the room was silent for a tense heartbeat. Karen had tears in her eyes. "My god, Eden. That was...breathtaking. Thank you for sharing that with us."

  I ducked my head. "Thank you for sharing your Christmas celebration with me. It's been...magical. You don't even know how much it's meant to me."

  An hour later, Carter took me home. I paused at the front door of the Haven home, turned to wave goodbye to everyone. I got hugged a good twenty times, twice by Karen. "We'll see you again, right?" she asked as she stepped away from me.

  I nodded. "I hope so."

  Fifteen minutes later, Carter pulled up into my driveway and helped me into the house. He carried my cello for me, and I could tell he was nervous to do so by the way he held it and by how gingerly he set the case down. I hung up my coat, and turned to find Carter standing at the front door, watching me, staring at me intently.

 
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