Saving forever, p.3
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       Saving Forever, p.3

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

  first words

  A month after our accidental running rendezvous, and I hadn't seen the girl again. I'd thrown myself into finishing the bar. I'd completed the front piece, and was nearly done with the first side. The side I was working on now was going to be a row of wine bottles, with curling vines stretching between them. I had the bottles completed, and was a third of the way done with the vines.

  It was a hot day on the peninsula, hitting upwards of ninety degrees, a clear, cloudless day, scorching, stifling, and humid. My workshop at the winery office wasn't air-conditioned, so I had the doors and windows open and a fan going. I was shirtless, wearing nothing but a pair of ripped, stained, and faded khaki cut-off shorts, the frayed hems hanging below my knees. I was barefoot, carving each individual tendril and vine in high relief and extreme detail. The only sound was the occasional rumble of a car passing in the distance, and the scratching of my carving knife.

  And then I heard the sound of crunching on the gravel outside. I stood up, wiping my sweaty forehead on my wrist.

  A hesitant rap on the front door. "Hello?" a female voice called from around front.

  I was the only one at the winery today. Kirk and Max had gone shopping for more wine-making equipment, and Tom was working from his house, putting together a publicity package for the grand opening next spring. The hands were all at the farthest edge of the vineyard, weeding, way out of earshot.

  I set my knife on the counter and scuffed through the sawdust and went outside, circling to the front porch. It was her. The cellist from the beach. God, I really had to learn her name. She was standing on the porch, in the act of knocking on the door again. An ancient ten-speed bicycle lay on its side near the foot of the stairs, the back tire still rotating. She was dressed in tiny blue running shorts, an orange tank top, and running shoes, and she was soaked in sweat.

  What the hell was she doing on a bicycle this far from her cottage? It was nearly three miles from the beach and her house to the winery, and M-37 was hilly as hell. It'd be grueling in this extreme heat. I let my foot clomp down on the stair, and she spun around.

  "You?" she asked, surprised. I shrugged. "Well, I'm glad someone is here. I need some water. I didn't realize how hot it really was when I left for my bike ride and--" She wobbled, swayed on her feet, and started to fall.

  I lunged up the two remaining stairs, and my arm shot around her waist, holding her upright. A moment passed, her wildly green eyes on me. And then she blinked, wiped at her face with both hands, and struggled to regain herself.

  "God, did I just pass out?" She rubbed her forehead. "I did. I can't believe I just fainted." She glanced at me. "Do you have some water?"

  I jerked the screen door open, shoved the heavy interior door out of the way, and led her into the kitchen. I felt her eyes on me, felt her curiosity. I rummaged in the fridge, found a bottle of water and a bottle of Gatorade, and held them out to her. She took them both, setting the Gatorade on the counter and opening the water, chugging it without pausing for breath. Finished, she set the empty bottle down and opened the Gatorade, drinking it more slowly.

  "So." She stuck out her hand. "I'm Eden Eliot." I took her hand, shook it, smiling. Reaching into my hip pocket, I retrieved a business card and handed it to her. She read it out loud. "'Carter Haven, Haven Brothers Winery.'"

  I nodded.

  "Okay, Carter. Are you mute?"

  I shook my head negative.

  "So you can talk."

  I nodded.

  "But you don't."

  Another negative shake.

  "Is it just me, or do you not talk in general?"

  I frowned. This was awkward. Not exactly how I had envisioned things.

  A step sounded on the stair, followed by the squeaking of the screen door, and then Tom arrived, a bottle of Fiji in one hand and a manila folder in the other. Tom looked like all four of us Haven brothers: tall, muscular, and dark-haired. He was thinner and more wiry than the rest of us, though, and his hair was more brown than black. He had the same pale blue eyes as well.

  He extended his hand to Eden. "Thomas Haven. I see you met my brother, Carter."

  "Yeah, we were just introducing ourselves," Eden said.

  Tom looked at me in shock, and then back to her. "He introduced himself? Like, out loud?"

  Eden held up my card. "Well, no. With this."

  Tom nodded. "Ah. That would have been surprising."

  Eden fixed her eyes back on me. "So what's your deal?"

  I tried to summon an explanation, but nothing came.

  Tom sighed. "That's kind of a complicated question to answer." He glanced at me, silently begging me. When I didn't break the silence, Tom rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb. "And I'm late for a meeting with Max and Kirk, so I'm gonna go. See you later. Good luck, Eden."

  "Good luck with what?"

  He jerked his thumb at me. "Him." And with that he was gone.

  Wow, Tom. Very helpful, I thought, glaring at his retreating back.

  A long silence and uncomfortable tension ensued, with me clenching and unclenching my hands in frustration. Eden sipped at her Gatorade.

  After the silence had become intolerable, Eden pushed away from the counter, setting down the empty bottle beside the other one, and nodded. "Okay. Well. This has been awkward. Thank you for the drink. I'll just...be going. 'Bye."

  She was out the door and on her bike before I could move. Not good. She'd just passed out on my porch. No way I should let her pedal home in this heat. I groaned. This was going to be difficult.

  I grabbed my shirt from the workshop, fished my keys from my pocket, and took off in my truck after Eden. She'd gotten pretty far in a short period of time, and she didn't stop when I slowed to drive beside her. She glanced at me, though.

  "Can I help you?" She sounded exasperated. Rightly so.

  I jerked my thumb at the bed of my truck. She just frowned and kept pedaling, huffing and puffing, sweat pouring down her face. I sped up, jerked the truck to a halt in front of her, and jumped out. Eden skidded to a stop, wiping at her forehead.

  "What gives, Carter? If you want something, say so."

  I withdrew my cell phone, opened the Notes app, and typed a message: Let me drive you home.

  Eden read it, then shook her head. "No. I'm fine. Thanks, though."

  Please. Too hot. You'll pass out and get hurt.

  "This is so weird," Eden said, handing me my phone back after reading the message. "We're passing notes back and forth like we're in third grade. I'll be fine." She stood on the pedal and pushed away, circling around my truck and working up the hill, struggling at the steep incline.

  I watched her go. Felt panic. I couldn't just let her go. I couldn't. She shouldn't bike home in this heat, regardless of the grade of the hill. It was a douchey thing to let her do, for starters. And also...I just couldn't let her go. Something in my soul demanded that I catch up to her.

  I gunned the engine, passed her, slid to a stop in the gravel of the shoulder in front of her. I jumped out of my truck, stood waiting. She squeezed the brakes and put her foot down, stopping a couple of feet away.

  "What, Carter? What do you want? I said I'm fine. I am. For real. I'm tough, okay? I don't need your help." She was sweating profusely, red in the face, hair wisping free from the ponytail and sticking to her forehead and cheeks, panting for breath. "And to be honest, the whole not-talking thing? It's weird. A little creepy. No offense. Maybe you've got a reason for not talking. I don't know, some trauma or something. But I've got enough of my own trouble to deal with yours, too, okay? So...'bye."

  She glanced behind her for traffic, and then stood on the pedal and started moving.

  No. No. Wait. I thought it, heard it in my head. I sucked in a deep breath and focused. "Wait." My voice was raspy and hoarse and weak from disuse. She braked, hopping with the bike as it slowed to a stop, and then she turned to look back at me. I gestured at the truck. "Let me. Please." The most I could manage was a faint
whisper, but she heard me.

  She stared at me, as if weighing her options. Finally, she got off the bike and walked it to the back of my truck. "Fine." She started to lift the bike into the bed of the truck. I took it from her and set it in. I was impressed by how easily she'd lifted the bike, since it was a twenty-year-old rustred ten-speed, and heavy as hell. This girl was strong.

  "Thanks," she said as she crossed to the passenger side, glancing at me from across the bed of the truck. "I had it, but thanks."

  I just shrugged and got in, turned the AC all the way up. Eden angled the louvers and closed her eyes as the cold air washed over her face. I watched her out of the corner of my eye. Eden. Such a perfect name for this girl. She said she had too much of her own trouble to deal with mine, and I wondered what that meant. What troubles did she have? I knew they existed--I had seen the pain and heartache in her eyes.

  She sat back against the maroon leather seat and wiped her face with her palm, smoothing her wayward hair away. "Thanks, Carter."

  "Fine." My voice cracked, and I cleared my throat, tried again. "It's fine."

  She glanced at me quizzically at the rough sound of my voice. "Were you sick?"

  I shook my head. "No."

  "Then what?"

  "Long story."

  "I've got time."

  I let out a long breath. "It's...hard to tell."

  "Painful?"

  I shot a sideways look at her, a lifted eyebrow. "Yeah."

  "How long have you been not talking?"

  "A year."

  "I got you to talk for the first time in a year?" She sounded pleased by this information.

  "Yeah."

  "Your brother is gonna love me for that."

  "Or something." I turned onto the little dirt road that led to the beach, and her cabin. I loved this road. It was a narrow, tree-lined track, sunlight shifting through the leaves, dappling the ground in a chaotic chiaroscuro pattern.

  I could sense her thinking. She was probably wondering what could make a man go completely silent for a year. I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to tell the story. My brothers knew what had happened, but only because they'd been around for it. They'd found me, collapsed on the bathroom floor beside the tub. I'd never told them what had happened, because I hadn't spoken a word since the moment I found Britt.

  I drove past the post office, rounded the corner. The bay glittered brightly off to our right, homes lining the road on the left. I stopped in front of Eden's old yellow house.

  I really looked at the old house for the first time. The yellow paint was almost completely faded, and the white trim paint was peeling. The porch was falling in, and the steps were rotting. The roof was ten years overdue for new shingles and probably leaked in a hard rain. The screens on the windows all had rips in them. I stared at the house, wondering how and why she lived here.

  "How...how did you know where I live?" She sounded suspicious and, suddenly, a little afraid,.

  "I--I saw you come out one day. From the beach."

  She glared at me, eyes narrowed. "You're lying."

  I pulled the manual transmission shifter into neutral and set the parking brake. "Fine. Sorry. I was running one day. Heard you playing your cello. Stopped to listen. Saw you through the open screen door. Didn't want to disturb you." God, it sounded like each word was painful, coming out staccato and harsh.

  She didn't seem to notice, or if she did, she hid it well. "What was I playing?"

  I shrugged. "Don't know classical music. You looked...lost, though. In the music."

  "You're not stalking me or anything, are you?"

  I gave her an amused grin. "Would I tell you if I was?"

  She laughed. "Yeah, probably not. Now that you're actually talking, you don't give me the creeps, so I guess it's fine."

  "I'm not stalking, promise." I shut off the engine and got out, retrieved her bicycle from the bed, and set it against the wall near the door. A VW Passat sat in the driveway, under the leaning carport. I grabbed the post of the carport and shook it; the whole structure wobbled. "This place is falling apart."

  She shrugged. "Yeah. But it's mine, and it's all I've got."

  "I'll fix it up for you."

  Eden shook her head. "No. It's fine."

  "It's what I do."

  "Fix houses?"

  "Build. I'm a carpenter." I gestured at her roof. "That's gonna leak."

  Her expression told me that it already had. "Yeah." She fiddled with the strap of her orange tank top. "I discovered that the other day."

  "Was it bad?"

  "I had buckets."

  "How many?"

  She didn't answer right away. "Four?"

  I lifted an eyebrow. "Let me fix it."

  Eden sighed. "Fine. If you really want to. I can't pay you much, though."

  I just snorted. "You're not paying me."

  "Then no." She crossed her arms under her breasts, sounding adamant.

  I made myself look away from the way her arms propped up the expanse of pale flesh barely contained by the tank top and sports bra. "Why?"

  "Because I don't need help, and I don't need charity."

  "Stubborn much?"

  "Nope." She popped her lips on the last syllable.

  I just laughed. "Right. So you'd rather have a leaky roof?" I pointed at the porch and stairs. "You're gonna put a foot through the wood at some point. Cut yourself open pretty bad, probably." I crossed the little yard and stuck my whole hand through a rip in a window screen. "Can't open the windows, or you'll have bugs fly in. But if you don't need help, that's your call."

  "I'll be careful." I had nothing to say to that. She hesitated, and then sighed.. "You want to come in?"

  I nodded, and she let herself into the house. I followed her, and discovered that the inside needed as much help as the outside. She'd done a lot of work already, scrubbing down what had to have been filthy walls and baseboards, replacing outdated furniture and appliances. But the ancient Formica counters were peeling, the kitchen floor sagged in places, and the hardwood floors in the living room and bedrooms needed a huge amount TLC, if not completely replacing. The wallpaper was hideous. And falling off the walls in places.

  "Don't say it," Eden muttered, grabbing two bottles of water from the fridge. "I know. It was empty for a long time. I'm doing what I can, but it...." She trailed off.

  "Needs some help," I finished.

  "Yeah."

  "I nearly offered to buy this place, a few years ago," I said. "But I opted for something a little more...remote."

  She didn't ask where I lived. We both leaned against the counters and sipped at our water, neither of us talking.

  "So why'd you move up here?" I asked.

  "Why didn't you talk for a year?" she countered.

  Neither of us answered the question, and eventually the awkward silence was too much. I finished my water and set it down. "Thanks for the drink."

  "Thanks for the ride," she said.

  I pushed through the screen door, letting it slam closed behind me. As I was opening my truck door, Eden called out my name. I turned and glanced at her.

  "You really think you can stop my roof from leaking?"

  "Yeah."

  "Maybe...maybe I wouldn't mind a little help."

  "I'll see you tomorrow morning, then."

  "See you tomorrow."

  I drove back to the winery and set to work on the bar once more, feeling strangely triumphant. I'd spoken. I'd had an entire conversation. The rest of the day flew by as I scraped and carved, going through in my mind the list of supplies I'd need to do Eden's roof, planning, thinking about Eden, wondering what her story was and how I could get her to tell it to me without having to share mine. Darkness fell, and I was lost in thought when Tom and Kirk wandered in, laughing and shoving each other. Max trailed behind, nose in his phone. They all stopped in the doorway, staring at the bar. It was after ten at night, I suddenly realized, and I'd finished the front piece and most of one side.

&
nbsp; "Damn, dude," Kirk said. "That looks amazing." He came to examine the front piece with the carved vines, and then moved over to the one side I'd finished, tracing the contours of the wine bottles. "What's the other side gonna be? Grapes?"

  Time to shock them. "Red wine glasses."

  Max was tapping at his phone when he heard my voice. He actually dropped it on the floor, then cursed as he bent to retrieve it. Kirk and Tom just stared at me.

  "Holy shit." Tom laughed, incredulous. "You spoke."

  "Yep."

  Kirk and Max exchanged looks. "Say something else," Kirk said.

  "Fuck you." I grinned.

  "That's Carter for you," Tom said. Then his gaze went narrow, sharp with suspicion. "Does the fact that you're talking have anything to do with that girl who was here earlier?"

  I turned away instead of answering, picking up my tools and tossing them onto the worktable.

  "It does!" Tom slapped my back. "Did you bang her? Is that what did it?"

  I shoved at him. "Don't, Tom. It's not like that."

  "Girl? What girl?" Max asked. Max, the oldest Haven brother, was the shortest of all four of us. He was built like a tank, hugely muscled, burly, biceps the size of my thighs and legs like tree trunks. He had the same black hair and blue eyes, but he kept his hair cropped close to the scalp and he wore a goatee. Kirk, Max, and I all tended to be taciturn, tight-lipped like our dad, whereas Tom was more like Mom, chattery, voluble, easily excited. Max, however, was the most reserved of all of us. He came across as grumpy to most people, but you had to know him to understand that he just didn't have much to say.

  I glared at Tom. "Just someone I know. Not like Tom's thinking."

  Tom laughed at my denial, then sobered. "If she got you to talk when no one else could for a solid year, she's something special, and I don't give a flying fuck what you say." He nudged me with his elbow. "Besides, she was hot as hell. You should make a play for her, if you haven't already."

  "Back off, Tom," I warned, my voice a growl.

  He held up his hands in surrender. "Hey, I'm just sayin'. If you won't, I will."

  "The fuck you will." I turned and glared at him. The thought of Tom "making a play" on Eden made something in my gut churn. It felt an awful lot like jealousy. "Leave it alone. Leave her alone." My voice and my body language were all screaming she's mine, and my brothers sure as shit hadn't missed that fact.

 
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