Saving forever, p.26
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       Saving Forever, p.26

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
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  He pivoted slightly, assessing me. I met his gaze evenly. "She came back. She forgave me. I don't--I don't know how the fuck she can do that. After--after what I did to her."

  "Sounds like she's pretty amazing. Eden talked about her a lot."

  He nodded, ducking his head and sniffing. "Yeah." He turned away from me, took a step closer to the water, knuckling his eye socket. "Shit. Sorry."

  I stayed where I was. "No apologies, man. Shit's intense." I hesitated, wishing I knew what to say, how to draw him out. He clearly needed to talk. "So, she forgave you?"

  He nodded while staring at the ripples of lake water. "That's what she said. She did it for herself, not for me. She couldn't live with herself if she gave up on us."

  "Makes sense to me."

  Caden's head jerked up. "It does?"

  I didn't understand his confusion. "Yeah. Sure it does. Woman loves you, bro. She's willing to make the choice to forgive you. Jump at it, man. I don't know what your fucking hang-up is, but you need to jump at that shit when it's offered."

  He looked up to the sky, laughing somewhat hysterically, and spun in a stumbling circle. "My hang-up? My hang-up is what if she's just saying she forgives me, because she feels like she doesn't have a choice? Eden's got the baby, their dad isn't worth shit except for a goddamn check in the mail. She's...she hasn't finished her degree. She's worked one job in her entire life--answering phones. She's an incredible artist, but...that's hard as hell to turn into income. What if...what if she's just hanging on to what she thinks we had? What if...what if she's trying to forgive me, and she can't?" He sniffed again, wiped angrily at his face. "What if she can't?"

  I stepped in front of him. "I don't know you, Caden. I only know the little bit that Eden told me, which wasn't much. But I know you've been through a lot. You were put in a shitty situation, and you made a choice. That choice had consequences. You gotta live with that, move on. If your wife is saying she forgives you, then you have to take that at face value." I pushed at his shoulder to get his attention. "Do you even understand how much courage it took to come back here and forgive you? How much strength it took?"

  "What? What do you mean?"

  "Think about from her side, dude. She was in a coma. She lost a year and a half of her life. She woke up, and she was trapped in a body that wouldn't do what she wanted it to do. She had to relearn everything. And then she finds out that you had an affair while she was in a coma? And now you have a kid with her sister?"

  Caden stumbled, dropped to his knees in the cold wet sand, his shoulders shaking.

  I kept talking. "The easy thing would have been to keep running. Start over. She'd get over things eventually. Or she wouldn't, and she'd just be miserable the rest of her life. No way to know. But she didn't. She came back, and she told you, flat out, she's making a choice, for herself, to forgive you. Not many men in your shoes get that chance. Who the fuck are you to turn that down?"

  He looked up at me, his eyes red.

  I met his gaze, letting my words sink in. "Caden, listen. Don't think I'm judging you. It was a fucked-up situation with no easy way out. I don't know what I would have done in your shoes. But I know if the woman I loved was offering me a lifeline, I'd take it. And I'd spend every single goddamn minute of my life proving to her that I loved her. That I cherished her, treasured her. I wouldn't let a single second go by where she didn't know in her bones that I was totally and completely hers."

  Caden fell back onto his butt. "Shit."

  "Just think about it, man." I extended my hand to him. He took it, and I tugged him to his feet.

  "You're right. I don't have to think about it. You're right." He wiped at his jeans, and we walked along the beach. After a moment, he glanced at me. "How's the baby?"

  "In need of a name," I said, laughing. "I don't know anything about babies, but she's eating a lot, and pooping a lot, and sleeping a lot. And crying a lot."

  "So, being a baby, I guess."

  I nodded. "Basically."

  "Does Eden have any plans?"

  I didn't really want to talk about Eden. I was worried for her. I just shrugged. "Not that I know of."

  "She's just gonna stay up here?"

  "I really don't know. If she has a plan, she's not telling me."

  Caden seemed to sense my tension. "Well, she's smart. She'll figure something out."

  Right then I got a text from Eden: You can come back now.

  "We can go inside," I said.

  When we entered the house, Ever was holding the baby on her lap, sitting cross-legged on the couch with the baby's head cradled in the crook of her crossed ankles. She was tickling Baby's little toes, her tummy, tugging her fingers, cooing and making the kind of indecipherable noises women make to babies. Cade watched, seeming drawn, fascinated. I bumped him with my shoulder, and he glanced at me. I nodded at Ever. He knelt on the floor beside Ever, reached up and touched a lock of Baby's black hair. A smile crossed his face.

  Ever lifted the newborn and handed her, somewhat reluctantly, to Eden. "We'll come back tomorrow?"

  Eden nodded. "Yeah. I'll see you tomorrow."

  When they were gone, Eden held the baby and watched as she looked around the room with avid interest. Eden seemed lost in thought. I sat beside her, reached over, and smiled as a tiny hand clutched my finger. "How'd it go?"

  "Intense. She's forgiving Cade. They're staying together."

  "How do you feel about that?"

  She lifted a shoulder in a shrug. "It's good. I'm glad for them. For both of them. I never wanted to be a home-wrecker."

  "No one thinks that was what you wanted." She didn't respond. "What about you and Ever? Where do you two stand?"

  "I don't know. The baby throws a wrench in everything. If not for this little lady," Eden touched a little button nose, "it might be less complicated. But...here she is. So, here we are. Status unknown."

  "What do you want to have happen?" I took the baby and laid her on my legs.

  Eden stood up, flipping the bun of her hair. "I don't know. I want us to have a relationship. I want Cade and Ever to be happy. I want...I want to know what I'm supposed to do with my life."

  "Maybe start with a shower and clean clothes?"

  She turned on me and laughed. "Are you saying I stink?"

  I shrugged, chuckling. "I'm just saying...a shower sometimes helps clarify things."

  "Nicely avoided." She sniffed at her armpit, and backed away with a cough. "Maybe that's a good idea."

  "I have my moments," I said.

  Baby fell asleep while I was holding her, so I set her gently into the bassinet beside Eden's bed. When I came out, Eden had a towel clutched to her chest. She was still dripping wet, hair sopping. She was crying. When she saw me, she sobbed and flew at me. I caught her, held her. Wet hair soaked my shirt, and the scent of clean woman and shampoo filled my nostrils.

  "What's wrong?"

  She buried her face into my chest. "Everything," she said, her voice muffled.

  I touched her cheek. "Tell me."

  "I don't know what to do. I don't know how to be a mother. I feel like I'm doing everything wrong. And I--I--I feel like sometimes I don't love her. Like I should. Like a mother." She trailed off, shaking and shuddering. "And I'm afraid. I'm terrified of every day. And I feel like the two times that Ever has been around the baby, she's been better with her than I am. It should be Ever. She--" Eden gestured at the door, meaning the infant in the crib, "should be Ever's. Not mine."

  I just held on to Eden, letting her cry, letting her get it out.

  "I'm so terrible."

  "No. No. God, Eden. No." I squeezed her shoulders, then took her face in my hands and lifted it so she could see me. "Eden, babe. You're not terrible. It's a hard situation, and you're doing your best."

  "I just want...." She trailed off.

  "What?" I prompted.

  "You." Her voice was a thread, barely even a sound. But I heard it.

  "I'm here." I brushed a tendril of wet
hair aside. "We'll figure things out. One step at a time, okay?"

  Eden nodded in my hands. "Okay." She hesitated, and then looked up at me. "That thing we did, when you dropped me off here, on Christmas?"

  I smirked at her. "Kissed?"

  Eden nodded. "Yeah." Her eyes were soft and green and searching mine. "One more?"

  I didn't bother with words. I bent down, her cheeks warm on my palms. She lifted up on her toes to meet me. Her lips explored mine gingerly at first, softly, questioningly. I let her lead the kiss, opened my lips when her tongue slid along the seam of my lips. She pressed up against me, lifting higher on her toes, her arms wrapping around my neck, forgetting the towel.

  For a moment, I lost myself in the kiss.

  And then I broke away, smiling down at her. "One."

  Her eyes seemed to darken. "Two." She lifted up, kissed me, demanding.

  I responded because I couldn't help it. I felt heat building inside me, need and desire. So many thoughts whirled in my head: excuses, justifications. Whispers of need. But I knew right then wasn't the best moment for what was happening.

  I pulled away again, settling her to her feet. I was careful to push the ends of the towel around her sides. "We should...slow down."

  Eden breathed a sigh. "God. Yeah. I'm sorry, I--"

  I stopped her with a finger to her lips. "Slow down, because I'm getting carried away. And I think we need to focus on the situation at hand. You need to sort things out with your sister. You need to make some decisions about your life. Hiding away up here won't last forever. You need to make some plans. Start living."

  Eden nodded. "I know. You're right. God. I'm all over the place, huh?"

  I traced her jawline with one finger. "I'm keeping up just fine."

  "I don't know how."

  I just smiled at her. "Why don't you get dressed? Let's get out of the house, go get some food. If you're up to it."

  Eden ducked her head. "I'm not sure. I'm still a bit...tender. I'd like to go out with you. But...maybe not yet." Something in her body language spoke of avoidance.

  "What else?"

  She frowned at me. "What else what?"

  "Why else don't you want to go out?"

  She sighed. "How do you always know?" She turned away from me, tucking the towel tightly in place. "I just had a baby. I don't feel...ready. I need to work out." She whispered the last sentence.

  And then I understood. I moved in front of her. Sat on the couch, and tugged her by the hand toward me. She fell sideways onto my lap, her legs hanging over the side of mine. "Eden. You're beautiful. You don't need to go to the gym. You don't need to work out. You don't need to lose weight." She flinched at that. I kept going. "You need to be happy. You need to find peace with yourself and with your sister. What you don't need is to think you have to suddenly drop every pound of pregnancy weight. You're beautiful. More than beautiful. So much more."

  She licked her lips, shifted, uncomfortable. "Yes, I do. I gained, like, fifty pounds. I've never been this big. I feel...shit. I feel like even though I had the baby, I'm still carrying her around." She ducked her head, sniffing. "I know I want something with you, at some point. And I want to be beautiful for you. As beautiful as I can be, at least. I'll never look like Ever, but--"

  I cut her off with a laugh. "You're identical twins, Edie."

  She frowned at me. "That doesn't mean we're the same. I've always been a little heavier than her."

  I slid my hand around her to cup her hip through the wet towel. "What if I like you this way? What if I think you're beautiful, and sexy, right now?"

  "I've got stretch marks. Loose skin. My roots are taking over my whole head. I'm, like...thirty-five pounds overweight."

  "God, Eden. You're not overweight."

  She groaned. "I know! But it's how I feel, okay?"

  I sighed. "I get it, as much as a guy can, all right? I do. But...I want you to believe in yourself. And I want you to know I like you, a lot, just the way you are."

  Eden sagged against me. "I'm sorry I'm a mess."

  I laughed, smoothing her damp hair away from my mouth. "You're allowed. I was a mess for a long time. I still have my moments. And being a mess isn't going to scare me away. I watched you give birth, Eden. I'm not going anywhere."

  "You did, didn't you?" She laughed, sniffling. "Did I poop myself?"

  I barked a laugh. "I don't know, I didn't see. I don't think so. I was kinda busy holding your hands."

  "Getting your hands crushed, you mean."

  "You do have a pretty strong grip."

  She sighed. "Thank you, Carter. I feel like I'm going to be thanking you for a long time."

  "Don't thank me. Just...be you. Be happy." I ran my hand along her back, across her shoulders, ignoring temptation. "Why don't you play your cello?"

  An hour later Baby was awake, sitting on my lap and watching Eden play her cello. With every note, Eden seemed to strengthen, to find calm, to find center. After an hour of playing, she let the instrument go silent, the bow hanging near her foot, the strings still humming.

  She looked up at me, and I saw determination in her eyes. "I know what I have to do."

  EVER

  saving forever

  I dreamed of Eden's baby. Eden and Caden's baby. The baby I'd never have. I never knew how much I'd wanted that with Caden until the potential was taken away. Until I saw the visual evidence of what we could have had.

  I woke up crying. The room was dark and silent, a hint of silver moonlight shining through a gap in the curtains. Cade was beside me, curled at the edge of the bed. Far away from me, emotionally and physically. I didn't understand why he still seemed so distant. I thought he would be relieved. Happy--at least a little--knowing things weren't over between us.

  On the way back up here I'd stopped by our condo, on a whim, to get the boxes of letters. There were four shoeboxes full of envelopes. While Cade slept, I sneaked down to Eden's car and retrieved the boxes, sat on the bed, and read through them again.

  Something woke Cade, and he rolled over to look at me, blinking sleep from his eyes. "What'cha doing?" Instead of an answer, I showed him the letter. "Why're you reading those?" he asked.

  And I realized maybe he'd forgotten what we had. Things since I'd woken up had been so difficult, so strained and strange and dark. He needed to remember what we had once been like. Happy together. Free.

  A deep breath, and then I started reading out loud the letter in my hands.

  "Ever,

  I finally got the insurance company to pay for a new truck. A Jeep Grand Cherokee. Brand new. You'd like it. It's green. Almost the color of your eyes, but a little darker. I wish I'd had you there to help me decide what to get. I wanted to pick something you'd love, but I just...I didn't know what. I almost picked another F-150, but I've had enough of those. I needed something different.

  Your hair is getting long, you know that? They had to shave it all off when they did the surgeries on you. And now it's almost to your chin. I think it's actually a little darker black somehow. I think I remember reading that when you shaved your head, sometimes the hair would change a little. But then I read somewhere else that that wasn't actually true, it was just the ends of the hair being different or something.

  I miss you so much, Ever. I miss talking to you. I miss waking up next to you. I miss the way you'd smile at me first thing in the morning. Sleepy, sexy, hair messy, like seeing me was the best way to wake up. I miss watching you put on your lotion. The way it made our bedroom smell like vanilla. I miss sleeping next to you. Jesus, I miss, most of all, the way you sounded when we made love. Your voice. How dirty you'd talk to me.

  I'm going nuts, baby. Six months without you. Six months without touching you or kissing you. Six months, and I don't know what to do. About how horny I am. How I ache. For you. I wake up at night sometimes, and I've dreamed of you. Sex dreams of you. And I'll be on the verge of coming, just from the dream, but I always wake up, and then I remember that you're gone and I c
an't get the dream back, can't get the feeling back."

  I had to stop and breathe, hold back the emotions. After a moment, I started again.

  "I miss your skin. Soft, smooth, warm.

  I miss you so much sometimes that I could cry. But I can't. Don't. Won't. It's stupid, maybe, but if I don't mourn you, don't cry for you, then part of me thinks maybe you'll come back. And I won't have to.

  Come back to me, my love. Please. Come back to me, and make love to me.

  Forever yours, and yours beyond forever,

  Caden

  "That was us," I said. I set the letter down on the bed. "Do you remember? You and I? Before?"

  He shifted to a sitting position. "It's hard to, honestly. The coma, and the last several months have sort of...taken over."

  "We can't move on if you're still stuck in what happened. I feel like maybe you're trapped in what was. In how things were. Me in a coma, and then afraid of all this." I gestured vaguely toward the outside, toward Eden's house. Meaning everything that was going on. "I love you, Cade. I want us back. That's all I want. Us. The happiness we had."

  "Sometimes I think it's gone," Cade whispered. "I destroyed it."

  I pressed my lips together, feeling a hopelessness. It wasn't just what had happened between him and Eden that had me so upset. It was how...broken Cade seemed. I sorted through the pile of envelopes on my lap. Picked one.

  "I don't know who I am anymore, Ever. I'm a castaway. Lost. Drowning. I love you. That's the only true thing I know, and it's all I have to hold on to. I love you. I'll love you forever. Until the day I die, and I'll love you in whatever world comes after this one." I looked at him, holding the letter up. "Is this still true? Or did you let go?"

  "Part of it is true. I still don't know who I am. I still feel lost and drowning."

  I swiveled on my backside to face him. "I'm right here, Cade. Don't you see? The only thing that matters is now. The future. Us. Everything else, what happened, it's done. Hold on to me, Cade. Let go of all that, and hold on to me. I'm here, and I love you."

  "How can we get us back? How can you just...forget?" He closed his eyes. "What I did?"

  "Not easily. But I can. I'm not saying it'll all suddenly be great and fine and wonderful. But...this? You, acting like life is over? I can't handle it. I just can't. It's worse than anything else. I feel like I can't reach you. Like you're gone. Like you're not you."

 
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