Saving forever, p.30
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       Saving Forever, p.30

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
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  Carter's eyes were watching my mouth as I spoke, but I knew he was cataloguing everything I said. He sipped his wine, his hooded eyes piercing sky blue over the rim of his glass, hot on me.

  "I've never done anal, and I've always secretly wanted to." I had no idea I was going to say that. It just popped out.

  Carter sputtered and coughed, choking on his wine. "Jesus, wasn't expecting that. Okay."

  I blushed. "Sorry. I--I'm not sure why I said that. TMI, probably."

  He chewed on his lip, and then shook his head. "No. Nothing is TMI. I've never done that, either. With Britt, it--we weren't like that. I'm not gonna go into details, but...it wasn't like that."

  "You don't have to say anything, tell me anything, but just...you can. You can talk about her, if you want. Talking about exes is usually a no-no, but that's different, I think. For me, at least."

  He didn't answer right away. "We were eighteen when we met. We weren't each other's firsts, but almost. After your first, you're sort of...you feel--I don't know. Adult? Like you know what you're doing? But you don't, not really. That was us. It was always just...simple. Nothing adventurous or crazy. I think the craziest thing we ever did was sex outside, on a picnic. A blanket on the grass, under a tree." He laughed self-consciously. "It was so uncomfortable. There was a root under the blanket, and the tree kept shedding those little helicopter things, you know? The seed things? They kept hitting me in the head. Landing on us. And ants had found our food and were freaking Britt out. But...for us, it was just...easy. Simple. Us together was all we needed. I don't think we ever even thought about...I don't know, trying stuff, I guess."

  I could see that about Carter. "There's nothing wrong with that." I set my glass down. "I'm not into anything weird, okay? Don't get the wrong idea. I've never told anyone that before. About wanting to try...that. It was a sudden confession, I guess you could call it."

  Carter reached out and took my hand. "Since we're talking about sex, I want to make something clear. I sort of said it earlier, but I want to say it again. I don't have any expectations, Eden. None. I want you. I'll be honest. Yes, I want that, with you. When it's right for you. You've been through a lot, and I don't want you to feel any pressure. You're not physically ready yet anyway, but even after you are, I didn't bring you here for that. Not for that alone, at least. I brought you here because I enjoy your company. I want to be around you all the time." He pulled me against him. His heartbeat was a steady, comforting rhythm on my cheek. "I've gotten addicted to being around you. Especially over the past few weeks. You've become a part of my everyday. And I don't want to give that up. I don't see why I should, either. Our relationship may not fit into any easy boxes or categories, and I don't care. Are we dating? I don't know. Are we a couple? I don't know. We've been together every single day for months, but we've never done more than share a couple of kisses. I've slept beside you more than once. I held your hand while you gave birth. You know all my secrets, and I know yours. But what are we? I don't know. And I don't think it matters. We are what we are. I want us to do what's comfortable and right for us, regardless of whether it has a label or box or pigeonhole." He touched my chin, a soft and tender smile on his lips. "That's all I meant when I said 'just be.' It doesn't have to be complicated. Just be you. Be yourself, in my home. Be yourself, in my life. That's it."

  I felt an ache in my chest, a swelling of hope, the germinated seed of happiness sending a tendril up toward the sun that was Carter. "I can do that. I think."

  He smiled. "Good. That's all I'm asking. Be you. Be open and honest and exactly who you are. Don't hide your fears, don't hide your insecurities. Don't push me away because you're afraid. I'm a little scared of this, too, okay? I haven't been with anyone since Britt, either, and that's scary. She was the last person I was with in any sense. So I've got my own set of nerves and fears. And I'm perfectly willing to share those with you." He lifted his glass up for a toast. "To us, whatever the hell we are."

  I laughed and clinked my glass against his. "To us, whatever the hell we are."

  We sipped our wine, and Carter began taking food out of the fridge, assembling the makings for a meal. "Lucky for you," he told me as he put pork chops into the oven, "I can cook. I'm no gourmet, but I can put some good food on the table. Mom made sure all of us boys could make real food for ourselves by the time we graduated high school. You wouldn't think it, but Tommy is the best cook in the family. He can whip up some gourmet shit, lemme tell you."

  Carter made a salad of fresh spinach, walnuts, fresh strawberries, and gorgonzola cheese, as well as hand-mashed potatoes and broccoli with rice. I helped peel the potatoes and mash them--according to his instructions--and we sat in the hand-carved chairs on the small porch outside the kitchen. While waiting for the food to cook, we sipped our wine and talked of lighter things, the kind of casual, random conversation you can only have through mutual vulnerability, the familiarity of shared secrets.

  Carter plated the food and carried it out to the gazebo, where we ate and watched the sun set, going through a second bottle of wine. I was loose and warm inside, comfortable and easy around Carter as always, but now there was a subtext of desire, the knowledge that eventually, someday, sometime, we'd act on the sexual tension that was building between us.

  The air was chilly still, and on the island there was a constant wind, but Carter kept blankets and extra fleece jackets in a hidden cabinet in the gazebo. I wore one of his old jackets, a faded, well-worn rust-orange Columbia that was several sizes too big, perfect for burrowing into, my hands tucked inside the sleeves. It smelled of him, of his natural scent, and it was deliciously warm and soft. When we finished eating, I curled up against him, his arm around me. I nuzzled into his chest, my wine glass nearly empty, full of good food and full of hope for the future.

  For the first time since Ever's accident, perhaps for the first time ever in my life, I felt totally at peace.

  He'd made it clear that I could choose where I slept. There were spare bedrooms, but I didn't see the point. I slept with Carter, in his bed. He was a perfect gentlemen, offering me privacy to change, making sure I had my space in the bed if I needed it. I didn't. I stayed modestly covered, wearing a T-shirt and boy boxers to bed, but when we slid into the blankets, I cuddled against him and enjoyed the feeling of being held.

  He gave good cuddle. The bed was huge and soft, the blankets warm, and he was a solid, strong, safe presence. The knowledge that there were no expectations for sex made it easy. He just held me. I'd never been just held. Never. So at first, I was anxious, uncomfortable.

  That first night, tipsy and nervous, I was tense in his arms. Eventually, his voice, sleep-muzzy, said, "Relax, Edie. Just sleep."

  So I let myself relax, I turned away from him and curled up as I would if I was alone. And, wonder of wonders, he let me sleep however I wanted. Yet, unexpectedly, I woke up in the middle of the night cold and feeling alone, and so I turned into him and his arm slid around me automatically and pulled me tight and held me close, and I fell asleep right away, tucked against his heartbeat and his soft warm skin and hard muscles. And I slept perfectly, dreamlessly, deeply.

  We developed a domestic routine. He'd wake up at the ass-crack of dawn and work out, which I envied. I wasn't allowed to do anything strenuous yet, and I desperately wanted to get back in shape. I'd taken up yoga, which wasn't nearly as satisfying as a tough workout, but it was something to do with him while he lifted weights.

  Those weeks were idyllic. Slow, peaceful, contented, calm. He taught me to cook; it turned out I was simply untaught rather than incapable. I watched him carve and build cabinets and rocking chairs and bookshelves for clients, sculpt blocks of wood into mammoths and succubae and lynx and marten and twisting spires of abstract beauty. I played, improvising merely for the delirious joy of playing Apollo. The dulcet golden notes from Apollo's aged belly scattered across the bay, and I imagined someone on the distant shores catching faint strains of cello music from somewhere unknown.
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  We didn't kiss, by unspoken agreement. We both knew if we kissed, if we touched, it would spark a fire that couldn't be doused, once lit. So he held me and I burrowed and nuzzled into his warm embrace, and I held his hands, and it felt like being fourteen all over again with my first boyfriend, strolling the echoing marble halls of Somerset Mall, watching movies in my basement and cuddling and wondering when he'd kiss me.

  I'd woken up next to enough men in my life to know what happened to them early in the morning, and I knew that was part of the reason Carter always woke up and got out of bed before me. I'd felt it, once in a while, as I drowsed in the pre-dawn gray, the hard thickness pressing against me. And then he'd stir, take a deep breath and yawn and stretch, and then he'd start gently. Slip out of bed, tug on a tank top, and hit the weight bench adjacent to the workshop. I'd get out of bed more leisurely, put on a sports bra and join him in the exercise room, put my mat down and stretch out. Basic stretches first, toe touches and lunges and palms planted on the floor between my wide-spread feet. Then I'd go into Downward-facing Dog, and hold it, pushing until I felt the burn in my muscles. I'd slide from one pose to another, and I always felt his eyes on me, especially if the pose required bending over. I liked his eyes on me, and I wasn't shy about watching him, either.

  As the weather got warmer, Carter began testing the water. He'd dangle his feet off the dock, and then he'd wade out to waist-high, coming in shivering and laughing. A week before my six-week appointment, he went for his first actual swim, a slow circuit of the island. I sat on the gazebo with a cup of coffee, the sun a half-circle on the water, and watched him do an easy crawl stroke, graceful and powerful. He emerged dripping on the dock, shaking, his lips blue, a triumphant grin on his face.

  "First swim of the season! Brisk, baby!" He shook his head like a dog, water spraying on me, so I laughed and shielded myself with my hands. "You gonna swim with me?"

  "Maybe when it's warmer?" I said, wiping my face with my sleeve.

  "It's not that bad. I'll have to spend a few weeks getting into condition before I make the whole distance to the mainland. If you start swimming with me now, you'll probably be able to keep pace with me. You're pretty badass. That run south from the lighthouse? You remember that? I thought I'd die trying to keep up with you." He sat down on the bench next to me, stretched his arm out behind me, and stole my coffee from me to take a sip.

  I laughed. "God, that was crazy. I was so pissed off that you wouldn't talk to me, but I would be damned before I let you show me up. By the time I got back home, I could barely walk. I had to literally crawl into the house." And then what he'd said about me penetrated. "You think I'm badass?"

  He lifted an eyebrow. "Um, yeah."

  I blushed. "Thanks, I guess. I don't feel badass right now. I feel fat and sloppy and slow and soft. I used to be...fit. You could bounce a quarter off my ass. I could run a mile in six minutes and almost lift my own body weight. I was actually thinking about doing the Tough Mudder at some point. That was before, though. Now? Probably not. I'd be lucky to be able to run a mile at all, let alone in any kind of time."

  Carter frowned. "You're really hard on yourself, physically, aren't you?"

  I nodded. "Yeah. I struggled with my weight all my life. I was never actually overweight, and I know it. But I always compared myself to Ever. She'd always been effortlessly slim. She can eat whatever she wants and not have to worry about it. If she'd been the one to get pregnant, she would've been back to her initial weight already. I'm still twenty pounds over my pre-pregnancy weight, and I'm super out of shape. I just...it's part of me now. The need to exercise. Work out. Stay fit. Run off what I eat. I work out when I'm upset. If I'm super pissed off, I'll work my legs until I can't move. If I'm depressed, I'll work a heavy bag until it goes away."

  Carter's eyebrows went up. "You box?"

  "Kickbox. Used to. Haven't in a long time, though."

  "I'd like to see that," he said. "It'd be hot."

  I laughed, blushing. "You have a heavy bag?"

  He shrugged. "Not yet. But I'll get one now." He rested his hand on my waist. "You're beautiful the way you are, right now. I want you to feel good about yourself, so if there's any exercise equipment you need, let me know. But you don't need it. You're gorgeous, okay?"

  I shook my head. "You're sweet, Carter. Thank you."

  "But you don't believe me?"

  I sighed. "Yes, and no. I know you believe that, and I know your feelings are genuine. But that doesn't change how I feel. It doesn't change the fact that I need to work out to feel okay about myself. I'm not as worried about my weight as I used to be. I'm not panicked or comparing myself to Ever, or watching my pants size. I just have to feel in shape."

  He bobbled his head side to side. "I get that. I feel the same way."

  "The other thing is, I'm getting bored. I need to find work." I glanced at Carter to make sure he didn't misunderstand. "I love being here, and I love your house and I love how things are, but I need to be busy."

  Carter took my coffee again and sipped it. "I need more coffee. I've drunk most of yours." He stood up and held out his hand for me. We walked hand in hand up to the house, and he made us both coffee. "So, give music lessons. It's something. There's always kids around here, and I bet you'd get some pretty steady clientele with only a little advertising."

  It turned out he was right. I used Carter's massive iMac to make a flyer: Private cello lessons with Eden Eliot, Cranbrook Academy educated, first chair cellist. To inquire, call 248-555-3456. I included a close-up photograph of Apollo's bridge, and my official headshot in the ad, printed out a few, and the next time we ventured downtown for dinner I posted them in a few places, leaving them in restaurants and bars and music stores.

  Within a week I had my first client, a little eight-year-old girl named Annie. I developed a relationship with the proprietors of the music gear stores, so I could refer my clients to a rental facility. I taught out of the cabin three days a week, and I made a hundred and fifty dollars a week. It wasn't much--not enough to sustain me on my own, but it was something. It was my own thing, and it kept me busy while Carter tended to the vineyard and the tasting room and delivered art pieces to clients.

  Weeks passed in that slow-fast taffy way time has. Carter took me to the doctor for my six-week, post-natal checkup. He stayed in the waiting room for the actual vaginal exam, thankfully. I wasn't quite ready to include him in that kind of thing yet. I wanted to be, though.

  The doctor tugged off his rubber gloves, tossed them in the trash, and washed his hands, then turned to address me. "You're in perfect health, Miss Eliot. You're clear to resume exercise, sexual activity, what-have-you. If you feel any unusual discomfort or bleeding, however, please call the office immediately. Otherwise, you're good to go." He leaned back against the counter. "Will you be going on any form of birth control?"

  I nodded. I'd thought about that. "I think I'd like to go with an IUD, actually."

  A few minutes later, I was on birth control, with a clean bill of health, and ready to go. I thanked him and left with Carter, feeling relieved, excited, and more than a little nervous. As we drove back to the marina, Carter clearly wanted to ask how it went, but didn't seem to know how. I decided to spare him.

  "Everything's fine," I said. "I can go back to working out, and...whatever."

  "Good. I'm glad you're healthy," Carter said.

  To celebrate, he took me to The Boathouse, a beautiful, upscale restaurant overlooking the West Arm. We ate rich, delicious food and drank expensive wine, and talked about anything and everything except what my all-clear meant for us.

  I was thinking about it, though. I was thinking about how it would happen. Would he wait for me to start something? Should we ease into it the way teenagers did, gradually? No, that wouldn't work. We were both adults and totally aware of what came after kissing. I didn't want to be the one to start things between us; I wanted him to. I wanted to feel pursued by him. He'd been a perfect gentleman for
months----now it was time for him to show me his dirty side. His passionate and loving and voracious side. It was time for me to show him mine. It had been buried for so long, suppressed and ignored and pushed away, that it felt like a distant memory--like an old me, somehow. But I realized I'd changed. I wasn't the same woman I'd been before Ever's accident. That single event had changed all of us, each of us in different ways.

  I wanted to think I was smarter, wiser, and more mature now.

  Maybe not. All I could think of was getting Carter home and finding out what he'd do. How he'd handle this all-clear. Would he shy away? Want to wait? Would he pounce on me as soon as we hit the kitchen? Or maybe even sooner. Maybe he'd be so overcome by need for me that he'd ravish me on the boat.

  I almost laughed. Not likely. He'd be waiting for some kind of signal from me, I knew.

  He paid the tab, and led me by the hand to his boat docked at the marina connected to The Boathouse. He climbed aboard and started the engine while I untied us, a routine now familiar to us both. He'd taught me the proper knots, and I tied us up when he pulled into the slip, and untied us when we pulled out.

  The ride across the rolling waves, lit orange and pink by the setting sun, was quiet and tense. Carter seemed uncomfortable, at loose ends. As if he didn't know what to say, how to act. I knew he wanted me. I'd felt his gaze, felt the heat in his eyes, felt his hands on my waist, going lower until he chickened out. He'd told me he wanted me. But he was too aware of my past to push it on me.

 
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