Saving forever, p.22
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       Saving Forever, p.22

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
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  "Thank you," he said.

  "For what?"

  "Everything? For coming over. For playing such beautiful music for my family. For the piece you wrote for me." He paused, licked his lips. "For being you."

  I resorted to sarcasm in an effort to conceal how deeply his words touched me. "That's a stupid thing to be thankful for. Who else would I be? Michael Jordan?"

  Carter gave me a disgusted look. "Eden--"

  I held up my hands in surrender. "Sorry. Defense mechanism. You're welcome. And thank you. I didn't realize how much I was dreading Christmas alone until you showed up."

  He held out his hand, and I took it, let him draw me to his chest. "I have a gift for you, too." He gestured at the far corner of the living room where a sculpture stood.

  I stepped toward it, my breath stolen by the beauty of the piece. It was nearly as tall as I was and, at first glance, it seemed to be nothing more than two lengths of wood woven together. But as I got closer, details came into view. It was part of a tree, or carved to look like one, two trunks split at the root and twining together, wrapping around each other, tangled until they formed a single entity. Each trunk was entirely covered with an intricate array of Celtic knot work. The amount of work that he'd put into the knot work was simply mind-boggling. It was extraordinary, each knot threaded into the next, every available inch of wood turned into an myriad of interwoven lines and forms.

  "Oh, my god, Carter. It's...I don't even have words." I looked at him, my eyes wet. "How long have you been working on that?"

  He shrugged. "Couple months. I was hiking with Tommy at the start of the summer----before I met you----and I saw this tree. Two trunks, two individual trees growing side by side, but they'd grown together until they were one. It made me think even then that it'd make a great sculpture. So when I met you and heard your story, I knew I had to make this for you. It's you and Ever."

  "Did you use the actual tree?" I asked.

  "Oh, no way. It was a huge tree. Like, forty feet tall, three feet in diameter for each trunk. That's why it was so amazing. The tree, I mean. You see trees like that every once in a while, but they're usually small, kind of stunted. This was literally two full-grown trees, just twined together."

  I didn't know what to say. I'd once felt that way about Ever and myself. As one. Totally joined, almost sharing a brain at times. Yeah, I had some petty jealousy issues, but she was my twin. Absolutely a part of me. I wasn't sure what would remain, once the pieces of the wreck I'd caused were finally out in the open.

  "So you carved this from scratch?"

  He nodded. "Yep. It's what I do, babe." He called me babe again. It made something inside me churn; I wasn't sure if it was nerves or desire or happiness, but it was intense, hearing that one word drop from his full, expressive lips.

  He held me, just held me. Threaded his fingers through my hair, smoothed his hands on my back in circles. I inhaled his scent. "Thank you, Carter. It's perfect."

  When I moved away, he didn't let me go. Instead, he looked at me, meaningfully. "I did one other thing while I was here grabbing your cello."

  I didn't want to look up. I had a feeling I'd know what I'd see. "Oh, yeah?"

  "Yeah." He smirked at me. "Look up, Eden."

  "No." I shook my head against his chest. "You're making me want things I can't have."

  "Who said you can't?"

  "I did."

  He breathed out, a long, slow, sad sound. "The only way you'll ever really take your life back is to forgive yourself."

  "I don't know how."

  "You fucked up. Everyone fucks up, Eden. You know my story, what I did." He put his palm to my cheek, turned my face up to his. "It doesn't have to define who you are, or determine the rest of your life. It doesn't mean you have to live a life relegated to misery."

  "What if she doesn't forgive me?"

  "You won't know till you ask her to."

  "What if I ruined their marriage?"

  He pushed my hair behind my ear. "That's between them. He messed up, too. That's not up to you." Carter touched my chin with his index finger, tipping my face up. "Look, Eden."

  I looked. He'd hung mistletoe from the lintel of my door. My heart stuttered, maybe even stopped for a split second, and then resumed beating with a thundering frenzy. His face was suddenly closer, his eyes palest blue and fiery, intent on mine.

  "Just once." His voice was a whisper, a plea.

  Goddamn, I did want to kiss him. But the question was, could I kiss him just once? Or would I feel his kiss and crave it again, and again?

  He was waiting for me to say yes. He wouldn't kiss me if I didn't want to. He held my face in both hands, thumbs brushing my cheekbones.

  "Once," I agreed.

  He took a deep breath, and I watched his tongue slide out to run over his lips. My hands were trapped between us, my palms against his chest, and I could feel his heart beating beneath my right hand. Hammering, hard and loud, just like mine. That----the thunder of his heart--that gave me courage. He was scared, too. Nervous. Maybe he was also if he could kiss me just once.

  And then thoughts were banished. His lips closed in on mine, his eyes open. And then he stopped, his lips just barely brushing mine. "You're supposed to close your eyes," he said.

  I breathed a laugh. "But yours are open, too."

  "Because yours are."

  "So let's both close our eyes at the same time," I suggested.

  He chuckled, a low rumble. "Okay. But for the record, I don't think you're supposed to laugh before a first kiss."

  "Oh, yeah?" I wondered if I'd messed it up somehow. I fell back on sarcasm. "And you read this in which rule book?"

  "Good point."

  As quickly as it had come, the humor was gone, and the air between us crackled. Sizzled. Taut as a tightrope, fraught with all the electricity of a lightning storm. I slid my hands up, snaked them over his shoulders, clutched his neck and the back of his head. Applied the gentlest amount of pressure, a subtle encouragement. It was all he needed. His lips descended to mine, touched, shifted and moved, a whisper of mouth against mouth. My eyes were closed, and all my senses were afire. He smelled like Carter, sawdust faintly, cologne, a hint of coffee. His body was hard, filling my space, his hair soft and his chest moving against mine with each breath, his hands on my face so gentle and far too tender, and his breath was warm and his lips were warm and moist and perfect. His thighs brushed mine, his toes touched mine.

  Slow and questing, the kiss grew like ivy on a wall, strong and sure.

  I fell into the kiss, felt myself drowning, felt my heart opening, blooming like a rose seeking the sunlight.

  We might've kissed for only a moment, or for hours. I didn't know, and didn't care.

  A part of me was torn away when Carter broke the kiss. I was left on my tiptoes, eyes closed, waiting for another kiss, for more. "Once." Carter breathed the word, a reminder of his promise.

  "Damn you." I went flat-footed, fisted my hands in his shirt, and rested my forehead on his chest, inhaling his scent. "You say once, and then you kiss me like that. Not fucking fair." I stepped away, forcing my feet to take me backward, deeper into the living room, farther away from him. As if to remind me of the reason why I couldn't keep kissing Carter, the baby kicked me so hard I gasped and flattened my hands on my belly. "Shit, that hurt."

  Carter had me in his arms in a blink. "Are you okay?" Concern filled his voice and his eyes.

  I nodded, moved away from him and took his hand in mine, placed it on my belly where the baby was kicking me. "Feel that?"

  A moment of hesitation, and then Carter molded his hand to my belly, closed his eyes as the fluttering and batting of tiny feet slid against the skin of my womb. "Holy shit." He laughed, a sound of amazement and disbelief. The baby kicked hard, and I winced. "Damn, that must really hurt, huh?"

  "Yeah, sometimes. If she kicks me in certain places, it can really hurt. Other times, it's just...fluttering."

  His eyes held his awe
. "I've never felt that before. It really makes it seem...I don't know--"

  "Reminds you that I really do have a baby inside me," I finished for him.

  "Yeah. Exactly." He took my hands, wove our fingers together, and held them up between us, chest height. "Promise me one thing?"

  "If I can."

  "When it's time, call me." He squeezed my hands. "False alarms, three in the morning, I don't care. Call me."

  "Carter..."

  He dipped down to look into my eyes. "Promise me."

  "I promise."

  "Okay. Good." He let go of my hands and backed toward the door. "I'll see you later."

  "'Bye." And then he was gone, and I was alone.

  Silence had never seemed so loud.

  childbirth

  It started with a slight ache in my womb. No big deal. Every once in a while over the past few weeks I'd get a couple of hard pains, contractions, but they were never regular or consistent. My doctor told me that if I ever felt contractions to time them. When they were evenly spaced and regular, and got closer together and stronger, then I should go to the hospital. If there were just one or two, or if they came sporadically for a few minutes, they were false contractions. Not because they hurt any less, she was quick to add, but because they were my body practicing, basically.

  So, the ache. A long, slow ache, and then it faded. Another one, half an hour later. A third, after another twenty-five minutes, slightly more painful.

  Shit. Shitshitshit. Three contractions almost exactly thirty minutes apart. It was three in the afternoon, Sunday. Maybe it's just a coincidence, I told myself. Give it more time. So I waited another two hours. And yep, every half an hour, a tightening in my belly had me hissing. Then, at the beginning of the third hour, they got a little closer together, coming every twenty-five minutes. And then those fuckers started hurting. By seven that evening they were so painful they stole my breath. I set down the PB-and-J sandwich I'd been eating to calm my nerves. I dug my phone out, rifled through my purse until I found Carter's business card, and called him between contractions.

  I ignored the red icon on my phone signaling that I had voicemails--thirty-seven of them, to be exact.

  The line rang twice. "Carter."

  "It's time."

  "Be right there."

  He was at my door in ten minutes, by which time I had a bag packed with everything I'd need. He took my bag from me, wrapped his arm around my waist. "We'll be at the hospital in about forty minutes." His eyes searched me, concerned and compassionate. "Should I call an ambulance?"

  I shook my head. "No. They're still more than fifteen minutes apart, but it's for real. I've been timing them since three."

  He glared at me. "Since three? Why didn't you call me sooner?"

  He had the passenger door open and handed me in, slammed his door closed as he slid in, and the truck jerked forward as he peeled out. "We're not in a hurry, Carter. I'm not gonna have the baby in your truck." I hope. I clicked the seatbelt in place. "I wanted to be sure before I called you. And, anyway, from what I've read, once you're in the hospital it's just a lot of waiting and sitting through contractions, and I can do that more comfortably at home. But they're getting really painful now, and...." I trailed off, clutching my belly and hissing as a contraction speared through me, gripping me in a vise. I tried to breathe through it, and eventually it passed. "God, it's really happening. I'm gonna have this baby. I don't even know what I'm going to name her. I don't--holy shit."

  Carter took my hand. "One step at a time. Let's get you to the hospital. Worry about names later."

  A few minutes passed, during which my brain began to spew out all sorts of worst-case scenarios. What if there was something wrong with the baby? What if I'd had too much caffeine? Or ate the wrong food? What if...what if something went wrong during the birth and I died? What if the baby died? What if they had to do a C-section?

  Another contraction gripped my body, and I clutched the door handle with one hand and Carter's hand with the other, gritting my teeth and trying to breathe through it: one--two--three--four--five--six....

  "You've got it," Carter said, glancing at me briefly. "Breathe through it, babe. That's it."

  When it passed, I gasped for breath and wiped at my forehead. "Oh, my fucking god. Those are starting to hurt." I looked at Carter, my eyes wide. "I'm scared, Carter."

  "I'll be with you the whole time, Eden." We were stopped at the Garfield/M-37 intersection, and he turned to brush my sweat-damp hair away from my cheek, offering me a reassuring smile. "I promise. Okay? I won't leave your side. You're not alone."

  "You're amazing."

  He shook his head, focusing on the road as the light turned. "Not really."

  Another few minutes of driving brought us to the Munson Medical Center. Carter parked and circled the truck, grabbed my bag from off the floorboard, and held my hand to help me down. His arm wrapped around my waist and guided me through the melting slush and swirling snow to the entrance. As we passed through the doors, a wave of pain seized me, the strongest one yet, doubling me over. I stumbled, and Carter caught me, holding on. I gripped his bicep with both hands and hung on, teeth clenched, trying not to cry.

  They tell you childbirth is the some of the worst pain a human being can experience. Sounds scary enough. But I was finding out with every contraction that nothing can prepare you for the reality of childbirth contractions. There are no words to explain it, no comparisons that do it justice. And these were the just the start. When it passed, I gasped for breath and blinked away the mist in my eyes. A nurse had seen me doubled over during the contraction and brought a wheelchair over, helped me sit down. I sighed in relief. I was brought to triage first, where monitor leads were attached to my belly before I'd even changed into a hospital gown. A different nurse appeared with a laptop on a rolling cart, and started processing me for admittance. Partway through the questioning, a contraction tore through me, and I was too out of breath to answer.

  The nurse, naturally enough, turned to Carter. "Has she ever had any kind of surgical procedure?"

  Carter's mouth flapped. "I--um. I don't know. Not that she told me."

  I sucked in a breath. "No. No surgery," I grated through clenched teeth.

  "Is she allergic to any kind of medication?" She addressed the question to Carter again, who watched me. I shook my head slightly, all the motion I could manage.

  "No allergies."

  "Is this her first birth?"

  "Yes," he said, glancing at me for confirmation. I could only incline my head slightly as I struggle to breathe through the vise-grip of the contraction.

  "Any history of illness in the family?"

  "I--I don't know."

  The nurse seemed irritated. "You don't know."

  The contraction had passed, and I slumped back against the triage bed. "He's not the father, okay? He wouldn't know any of this stuff." I wiped at my forehead. "No conditions in my family that I'm aware of. The father's...I'm not sure. I know his mother died of breast cancer, but I never heard about any other family illnesses."

  The nurse was tactful enough to stick to the questionnaire, but I could sense her disapproval. I didn't know much about the father, who wasn't the same person as the man at my side. Skanky indeed. When all of the information she needed had been entered to her satisfaction, she gave me a cursory glance. "We'll get you to an L and D room in a few minutes. Just hang tight." And then she was gone in a bustle of efficiency.

  "I'm sorry, I should have thought to find out--" Carter started.

  I interrupted him. "Don't. Please don't apologize. You have no reason to know any of that."

  I was already aware of the difference between a hospital's notion of "a few minutes" and reality, but I soon learned that when you're giving birth, the discrepancy is even more pronounced. In my case, a few minutes turned into more than an hour before someone showed up to transfer me to a labor and delivery room. The nurse gave me a gown and asked me to change into it. I step
ped into the bathroom and managed to get changed before another contraction hit. I felt bare, exposed. Nobody likes hospital gowns, obviously, but when I stepped out of the bathroom wearing it, clutching it closed at my backside, I felt ugly and frumpy and awkward and naked. My hair was a sweat-tangled mess already, I was red-faced, and all my bits were on full display, and not in a sexy or attractive way.

  Nothing to kill a budding romance like giving birth, right?

  Carter had only ever seen me at my worst. Except for the first few weeks before I started showing, he'd only seen me gain pound after pound, retaining water and getting increasingly awkward. I couldn't imagine he'd still feel even a shred of desire for me once this birth was done. I'd seen and read enough to know it was going to be messy. Bloody. Nasty. There might possibly be poop.

  That thought struck me like a lightning bolt. I crawled clumsily onto the delivery bed, covered my lower half with the thin white blanket. Carter watched me, hands in his pockets, looking slightly nervous. I felt like I should probably warn him.

  "So, Carter." I pulled my hair free from the ponytail holder, combed my fingers through it. "This is going to be messy. Just FYI."

  He nodded. "Yep."

  "No, I'm not sure you understand. There'll be blood. I could possibly shit myself. There might be boobage, and not in a hot and sexy Mardi Gras sort of way." I tried to sound casual, funny. "You might very well be scarred for life."

  Carter laughed and moved to stand beside me. He took my hand in his. "Eden. You're not going to scare me away."

  "Okay, well, I'm scaring myself off, here."

  He gave me a steady smile. "You'll be fine. You'll get through it. And I'll be here the whole time. No matter what."

  "Even if I poop myself?"

  He laughed. "Yes, Eden. Even then."

  "Why? Why would you volunteer for something like this? I can't ever repay you for everything you've done for me." Damn tears, making my eyes burn. Damn Carter, being so fucking perfect and selfless.

  He brushed a tear away from my cheek with his thumb. "Eden. You still don't get it, do you?"

  I shook my head. "Nope."

 
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