Saving forever, p.24
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       Saving Forever, p.24

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

  Ever came unstuck, rushing sobbing, to her sister. She slammed into her, wrapped her arms around Eden's neck, crying. "Eden--Eden. God, it's really you."

  Eden physically flinched at the contact, and I saw her wince in pain, and then her arms went hesitantly around Ever. "You're here."

  Ever let go, stepped back. "I have so many questions. But...did I just see a--a baby?"

  Eden ducked her head, and her hands went to her belly and then dropped away, as if she'd started to perform a familiar gesture and then stopped. "You should come inside." She looked up at me. "Both of you."

  In that moment, I knew. I knew why she'd run. My throat was thick, my heart no longer pounding but rather stuttering in a staccato rhythm.

  We followed Eden across the road and into the house.

  Ever stopped just in the doorway, hand over her mouth. "It looks so different than I remember."

  "Carter remodeled it. The place was falling down around me when I first got here." Eden gestured to the man who'd driven the truck. He was a few inches taller than I, but leaner. He had black hair and pale blue eyes, and he was watching Eden carefully.

  He stepped forward, held out his hand to me. "I'm Carter Haven. You must be Caden." He shook my hand, and then held out his hand to Ever. "And you're Ever."

  Ever and I exchanged a bewildered glance. "Nice to meet you, Carter," Ever said.

  "You're the sculptor," I said, because my mouth was running on its own, spitting out inanities to put off the inevitable. "We saw your woodworking sculptures downtown.

  Carter nodded. "Yeah, that'd be me. I have a few pieces displayed in a gallery there."

  Eden sat down on the couch, lowering herself slowly, a hand on the armrest to support her weight. "Are we seriously talking about Carter's sculptures right now?"

  As if to emphasize Eden's point, the urgent wail of a newborn baby filled the living room. Every eye fixed on the carrier. Carter was the first to move, kneeling on the floor to unbuckle the baby and lift it out, wrapping it in a swaddling blanket. He held the baby in his arms, staring from the baby to Eden, and then to me and Ever. He knew.

  We didn't even know, but this guy knew.

  I had no right to be angry about that, but I was. But then, I did have a right to be angry, didn't I? My emotions churned, spiraling out of control from angry to panicked to devastated to confused.

  Ever stared at the bundle in Carter's arms. Stepped forward. Reached, glancing at Eden. She took the little baby in her arms, her expression too turbulent to read. "You had a baby?"

  I moved to stand beside her, and looked down at the tiny face. I saw my own eyes staring back at me, and my knees went weak. Buckled.

  Ever wasn't breathing. Just staring. I saw the moment when understanding fully penetrated. Her shoulders shook, and she curled over the baby in her arms. Her head seemed suddenly too heavy to be supported by her neck. I wrapped my arm around her shoulders to keep her upright, and she jerked away as if burned.

  "DON'T!" she hissed. "You--you get away from me."

  A tear started down my cheek at the viper venom in her voice. I wiped it away quickly, harshly. "Ever, I--" I didn't even know what I was going to say, but she cut me off.

  "Shut up. Just shut--shut up." She stepped away, toward the kitchen, the baby clutched in her arms, turning to face us all. Her face was a rictus of agony. "Eden...how--how could you?"

  Eden didn't respond. Just sat with her hands folded on her lap, shoulders hunched.

  "It's his, isn't it?"

  "She. It's--it's a girl," Eden whispered.

  "A girl." Ever looked back down at the baby, who had gone quiet. "What's...what's her name?"

  "She doesn't have one yet. I didn't know what--" Eden's voice faltered, gave out.

  "She's his, isn't she? Caden's?" Ever glanced at me, and then away. She seemed to not even recognize me. "Of course she is. Who else's could she be? Why else would you vanish like you did? You've been gone for seven months, so she can't be his." Ever jerked her head at Carter, who had sat down beside Eden.

  "Yes," Eden whispered, barely audible. "She's Caden's."

  I should say something, but I didn't know what. I could only stare at Ever, at the baby. At my daughter.

  Ever shuffled forward, stopped in front of Carter and Eden. Held out the baby. Carter stood up, took her, and sat back down. He offered her to Eden, who shook her head, choking on sobs. "I--can't. I can't right now."

  Ever turned away, her arms wrapped around her middle, head hanging. "I don't have a uterus," she whispered. Then she turned around to face Eden. "Did you know that? That I had been pregnant, and I lost it? They had to cut my womb out of my body. Did you know that? Did you know they took my uterus from me? Did you know I'll never have a baby?"

  Eden nodded. "Yes. I know."

  I was frozen in place, silent, immobilized. Numb.

  "You were pregnant," Ever said. "With my husband's baby. And you ran. You didn't tell us. We thought--I thought you were dead. I didn't know where you were. Or what had happened. Why did you abandon me when I needed you most?"

  "How could I tell you?" Eden asked, standing up. "You'd just come out of a coma. I'd just found out I was pregnant. You--you could barely talk. You couldn't walk, or even go to the bathroom on your own. How was I supposed to tell you that I was...that I'd--"

  "That you'd fucked my husband?"

  Eden flinched as if struck. Tears sluiced down her face. "I didn't know how to tell you. I was scared, Ever! I've been terrified for nine fucking months!"

  "You dropped off the face of the planet. You vanished without a backward glance. Without a word."

  "I said goodbye," Eden mumbled.

  "You left me! You abandoned me! I needed you, and you--you--" Ever couldn't finish. She was crying too hard.

  I wanted to comfort her, but I couldn't.

  No one spoke for a long time.

  Eventually, finally, Ever turned her eyes to me. "Did you know?"

  I shook my head, barely able to do even that. "N--" My voice cracked, broke, and I started over. "No. I didn't know."

  "You fucked my twin sister. While I was in a coma." Ever took a step toward me, and I'd never seen such hate in her eyes, such violence. "You slept with MY SISTER!" She slammed both fists into my chest, knocking me backward; she followed me, striking me again. I took the blows, accepted them silently.

  "I'm sorry." I stood and let her smash her fists on my chest a third time. "I'm sorry, Ever. I was...fucked up. So messed up. I know there's--I know there's no explanation, no excuse, but--you don't know what it was like for me. While you were--"

  "In a coma!" Ever straightened and stepped away from me, gasping for breath, grasping for composure. She looked from me, to Eden, to the baby in Carter's arms. "I have to go. I have to get out of here. I can't--I can't even look at you. At any of you." She turned away, fists clenched and shaking.

  Eden hobbled slowly to the dining room table, where her purse sat beside her overnight bag. She dug through her purse until she found her keys. She shuffled over to stand beside her sister, holding out the keys to her car. "I understand if you--if you don't come back. I just--please know that--that I'm sorry. That I love you. You're my sister. My only family, and I never--I never wanted to hurt you. Or betray you. And--and I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

  Ever stood completely still, not looking at her twin or at me. A long, tense moment passed, and then Ever snatched the keys, jerked the door open violently, stepped through it, letting it slam behind her and then she was gone. Not a single look back. An engine roared, and then gravel spat under spinning tires.

  She was gone.

  I couldn't breathe. My heart wasn't beating. My mind was an empty chasm. My legs carried me to the door, and outside. Into the cold.

  I heard a shuffle behind me, and then Carter's voice. "Let him go, Eden."

  My feet carried me at a dead run across the road, down the beach, and onto a dock jutting out into the water. The sun was low, its bottom edge resting
on the water. The wind blew, knife-edge cold. My boots echoed on the metal dock, and I tripped, fell to my knees on the frigid metal. I choked, gasped, and then broke apart.

  Eden had my baby. My baby. My daughter. I sobbed, coughing, wracked with pain. She'd run off because she was pregnant. And now Ever was gone, and I'd never see her again. I opened my eyes and looked down into the dark, rippling water. Maybe I could just fall forward into the cold blue and never come up. That'd be easier. Nothing mattered, not without Ever. She was all I had, all I would ever have, and she was gone. She hadn't even looked at me.

  Slow footsteps rattled the dock. I turned around, saw Eden approaching me, a thick coat on, the hood drawn, hands in the pockets. She stopped several feet from me. "I'm sorry, Caden. I didn't know what else to do. I panicked, and then...days turned into weeks, and I just didn't know how to tell you. How to tell her. And then it felt like it was too late to just--show up. I should've told you, but I couldn't. You had to take care of Ever, and she'd just--and she was so fragile--and..." She trailed off, staring out at the water.

  I forced myself to my feet. "I don't even know what to say. What to think." I turned to look at the road down which Ever had disappeared, as if I could conjure her from where I was. "Think she'll ever come back?"

  Eden shrugged, a tiny, defeated motion. "I don't know."

  "What do we do now?" I asked.

  "I don't know." She tipped her head back, shuddering. "Fuck, I don't know! I don't know who I am anymore. I don't know what to do. Where to go. How I'm going to--to make it. How I'm going to survive this. I don't know how to be a mother, Caden! I don't know anything. Not anything at all."

  "You've had nine goddamned months to get used to the idea that you're gonna be a mother!" I shouted. "I just found out five fucking minutes ago! How am I supposed to suddenly be a father? How am I--how am I supposed to do anything without her?"

  An icy wind blew, and Eden shivered.

  "You shouldn't be out here," I said.

  Back inside, Eden shed her coat, and accepted the crying baby from a frazzled-looking Carter.

  "I think she's hungry," he said, visibly relieved that she was back.

  Eden dug with one hand through the overnight bag on the table, found a four-pack of tiny little bottles of tan liquid, as well as a bottle. Carter took the bottle and opened it, fixed the nipple to it, handed it back to Eden, who sat down on the couch with the baby in her arms. The baby mewled and whimpered, cried out, and then settled in to sucking as Eden tickled her mouth with the bottle.

  I watched in misery, confusion, and amazement. That teeny little thing in Eden's arms was a part of me. It felt surreal. I moved to sit on the opposite end of the couch and reached out. "Let me." I didn't know what prompted me, but it felt right.

  Eden stared at me for a moment and then leaned toward me, settling the baby carefully in the cradle of my arms. I hadn't thought I would know how to hold her, but as soon as the warm bundle touched my arms, I knew. Her little head fit perfectly into the crook of my arm, and my forearm nestled beneath her, supporting her. She was so light, so small. She felt like nothing at all in my arms, but she changed everything. I held the bottle with my free hand, watching her mouth move as she drank, her eyes closed.

  She opened her eyes, just a little, and I saw amber.

  acknowledgment of paternity

  There was an inn down the street from Eden's cabin. It was really truly an inn, rather than a hotel or motel or B-and-B. I retreated there, sat on the old white metal-frame bed with the fifty-year-old quilt, and I sketched. Feverishly, obsessively. I drew Ever, again and again. I drew the baby, who did not have a name as yet.

  Days passed. I didn't leave the inn, except briefly to find food at a gas station a few miles south. I called Ever, but she answered the phone and hung up without a word. It was her way of letting me know she was alive without talking to me. I wasn't sure if she would ever talk to me again.

  I got a text from her, at three-thirty in the morning, three days after she left: Don't call me again. I need time.

  Okay. Im at a little inn not far from the cabin. I hit "send" and waited for a response. There was so much else I wanted to say, but I knew I couldn't, not via text.

  My phone vibrated with her single-letter response: K.

  Nothing else after that, for two more days.

  And then, at eleven at night: Do you love me.

  I'd been asleep, too distraught and numb and afraid and mixed up to function. I was barely eating, barely sleeping, floating through the days, hoping against hope that she'd come back, or call me, or anything.

  I answered immediately. Yes.

  You do?

  Yes. Forever and always. I don't deserve your love back, and I don't expect you to forgive me. But I'll always love you. I sent it, wishing I could pack more into the message as it sped through the ether.

  Don't, Cade. Just don't. I'm not ready yet. I might never be.

  The next morning, a knock on my door woke me up. I opened it, wearing a pair of gym shorts and nothing else. Eden was standing there, looking uncomfortable.

  "I won't be long. I just--" She glanced up, then quickly away. She had a piece of paper in her hands. "I wanted to give you this. It's an acknowledgment of paternity form."

  I took it, stared at it. "I don't have a pen."

  She shook her head. "No, you don't understand. I'm not...making any sense." She blew out a shaky breath. "You don't have to sign it. I've thought a lot about this, and--god, I'm so nervous. I don't expect anything from you, Cade. If you...you can go. You can...do whatever you want."

  I shuffled backward, confused and needing time to regroup. "Come in. Let me grab a shirt." I slipped a T-shirt on over my head and sat on the edge of the bed. Eden took a chair in the corner, by the window. "I don't understand what you're saying, Eden."

  She didn't look at me. "I'm giving you the option of--of walking away."

  I was angry. "Walk away? What kind of man do you take me for? She's my daughter. My child. I had my parents taken away from me, and you think I'd--I'd just--fucking walk away? Leave her with one parent?"

  Eden shrank away from me. "I just wanted to give you the option. Let you know that I don't--I don't expect you to--"

  I cut her off. "I don't know how this will work, but I'll never just walk away. There's no us, there will never be an us," I gestured between the two of us, "but she's my daughter, and I'll always be a part of her life. I don't know how, but I will."

  Eden sniffed. "You're a good man, Cade. I didn't think you'd walk away, but I had to tell you. You deserved the option, at least."

  "Give me a pen." She dug in her purse, handed me a slim gray ballpoint pen. I signed my name to the form without hesitation. "Have you named her yet?"

  Eden shook her head. "I'm...trying, but...nothing seems right. And I'm--I'm fucked up, in my head."

  "Me, too. God. Me, too." I glanced at her, saw the guilt etched on her face. "This is my fault," I said. "I let this happen."

  "We both did." She stood up. "You should be the one to name her."

  I nodded. "I'll give it some thought."

  She paused in the doorway. "Have you heard from her?"

  "A couple of texts. She's alive, and needs time. That's about all I know."

  Eden nodded, and then left.

  I was officially a father, legally. I'd claimed a baby as my own.

  The next day--after a week away--just past eight in the morning, Ever came back.

  it's not for you

  I was sleeping, and I dreamed she was there with me. Watching me, sadness in her eyes. Anger in her posture. I dreamed she watched me, crying silently.

  And then I woke up, and realized the dream wasn't a dream. It was reality.

  She was in the same clothes she'd been wearing when she left, a pair of tight, dark-washed jeans, a white V-neck T-shirt, and a black hooded North Face fleece. Her hair was tangled, tied back in a messy bun, unwashed and greasy. Her eyes were dark-rimmed with exhaustio
n, and held a thousand-yard stare of resigned bitterness.

  I was still in bed, my hair sleep-matted, naked from the waist up. "Ever." I kicked the blankets off, lurched out of bed.

  "Stay--stay over there." She pointed at the bed.

  I sat back down. "Ev, babe--"

  "No, Cade, you don't get to call me that. Not now." The venom was quiet, but it sliced like razors.

  I slumped, rested my forehead on the heels of my palms, knowing what was coming. "This is goodbye." I glanced up at her, my eyes burning already. "Isn't it?"

  She pulled her legs up onto the chair, folding them beneath her. She shook her head, the bun containing her black hair wobbling. "Just listen."

  "Okay." I felt a sliver of hope.

  She glanced over her shoulder at the small bathroom, and sighed. "You know what, I feel nasty. I haven't showered in I don't even know how long. I don't even know what day it is."

  "It's Thursday. You've been gone a week."

  "A week. Jesus." She stood up and moved toward the bathroom, then paused and glanced at me. "Is there a toothbrush?"

  I pointed at the small suitcase in the corner, zipped closed, untouched. "That's all your stuff. I brought it in from the car. You should have all your toiletries."

  She knelt by the bag, opened it, pulled out her toiletries case. "Thanks." I just nodded, and she closed the bathroom door behind her.

  Half an hour later, she emerged wrapped in a towel, another turbaned around her hair. She tossed her brush on the bed and sat down beside it, shaking the turban loose. She bent over at the waist, squeezing her hair dry and then brushing it. I watched her from the other side of the bed. I'd dressed, and took a moment while she was brushing her hair to brush my teeth. It was an odd moment, strange yet comfortably domestic, familiar but poisoned with tension. When her hair was straight and shining, she turned around on the bed, facing me while sitting cross-legged, still wearing nothing but the towel.

  Her jade eyes were rife with a myriad of emotions, too many to name, to list, to understand. She just stared at me for a very long time, as if trying to sort out what she was going to say. I could only wait.

 
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