Saving forever, p.4
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       Saving Forever, p.4

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
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  "Carter, come on, I'm just messin' with you." Tom grabbed for my arm, but I shook him off.

  "Well, it's not fucking funny."

  "Lighten up, bro--" He stepped toward me, and I shoved him away, hard enough that he stumbled.

  "You're gonna get decked, Tommy," Kirk warned. "Let him go. Joke's over."

  Tom let me go, shoving his hands in his hip pockets. He'd pushed me past my boiling point frequently enough in our childhood to know it wasn't a smart plan. And really, only Tom could get me to that point, in the way only brothers can.

  Max stopped me as I stalked out of the workshop. "Seriously. It's good to hear your voice, brother."

  I clapped him on the shoulder, then left them all in the workshop admiring the bar.

  The churn of emotions in me lasted all the way from the winery to the beach. Once I stood in my shorts on the cold sand with the black sky lit by a bright half-moon and a brilliant wash of silver stars, I felt the jealousy and the anger and the confusion ebb away. The water lapped at my ankles, silence stretching and sliding around me, calming me. I shouldn't have gotten so upset with Tom. He was just playing with me, and I knew it. He was a joker, and he didn't always know when to let the joke go. But something about what he'd said had gotten under my skin.

  I had no claim on Eden. No reason to feel jealous. Except, for some reason, she had been the one to get me to break my silence. And she hadn't even really been trying.

  I moved out to deeper water, wading until it was waist-deep, ducking under the rope marking the designated swim area. I was about to dive under when I heard the cello. It was faint, distant. Low, sad notes rolled across the water. I stood with the water chilling my skin, listening. The sorrow was palpable, thick and raw, even from this far away.

  Something in the music made me want to wade back to shore, cross the road and barge into her falling-apart little house, wrap my arms around her and tell her it would be okay. Hold her until the sorrow went away. Take her sadness into myself. Even earlier today, when she'd been trying as hard as she could to pretend she was fine, to act like she didn't need help, keeping her emotions buried deep, I had felt it in her. She could pretend to herself all she wanted, but I knew she wasn't fine. I just didn't know why.

  I dove in before my feet could betray me and carry me back to shore. The swim home was long, and hard, and cold. I crawled onto the deck, shivering and gasping for breath, dragged myself inside, grateful for the exhaustion.

  The last thing I needed was to get involved with Eden, to get caught up in her drama. I had to focus on the winery. Get the bar finished. Get the new building finished. Make the tables and lay the floors, sand and polish everything, paint, hang artwork, make it perfect. Get the offices up and running, give Kirk and Max a beautiful place to do business. I couldn't afford time for a distraction. Not for a girl, not even one as gorgeous as Eden. Especially not one with such a visible burden of trouble.

  Yet, as I fell asleep, I knew I'd be at her house bright and early with a truckload of shingles. And I knew I'd get involved. For better or worse, I was getting involved.

  I was an idiot.

  EVER

  learning to live; the importance of a kiss

  I could make a fist, but I couldn't squeeze it. I could wiggle my fingers, but I couldn't grasp a glass. I could mumble a word or two, sometimes even three in a row, but I couldn't string a coherent sentence together. I could see and hear and smell and taste and feel. I could think. I was me. But...who I was had changed.

  Eden had vanished. No one knew where she was. Caden said her phone was off, going straight to voicemail, and eventually her mailbox filled up. No one had heard from her in two weeks. She'd withdrawn from Cranbrook. Everything she owned was gone from her dorm. Her roommate said she hadn't left an address or a destination. Nothing.

  I'd sensed the farewell in her last visit. I hadn't been able get out the words to demand she tell me where she was going, or why. I couldn't get out any words. Barely her name. I could sometimes repeat words like a parrot. I knew them, heard my thoughts in my mind, but my mouth wouldn't translate them.

  I missed Eden. I needed her, and she was gone.

  I couldn't make my hand hold onto a tennis ball, much less use a pen or paintbrush. I might never make art again. I might be trapped in this useless body for the rest of my life. I wanted to cry at that thought, but I refused to let myself. I had a routine. I only cried after Cade had gone home. I cried in my bed, alone. I never let Cade see my secret despair. He had to hope, because his hope was all I had getting me from day to day, getting me through each therapy session. Each grueling, agonizing hour of trying to merely grip a tennis ball in my fist. To wiggle my toes and straighten my leg on my own. To repeat single syllables: "Ball. Call. Wall. Fin. Tin. Bin. Much. Such. Touch." Over and over again until even my tongue was tired and my lips hurt from trying to make them form intelligible sounds.

  All that pain and effort, sheer exhaustion from the simplest things, when inside, in my mind, I was me, I was Ever Eileen Monroe, the girl I'd always been. The woman I'd become, with Cade. But she was trapped in silence.

  The one triumph I had, the one thing I'd managed, was to tell both Eden and Caden that I loved them. That was important.

  I couldn't ask him what was wrong. I couldn't talk to him. That was probably the worst part of it all. He was in pain. I knew his Grams and Gramps had both died just before I'd come out of my coma. That had to have been the final blow for him, for my poor sweet man. He'd endured so much. So, so much hell.

  But it was more than that. I knew it. There was something else eating at him. Something he wasn't telling me. There was a lot he wasn't saying. Maybe he was protecting me. Forcing me to keep focused on recovery. But there was a new darkness to him, my Caden. I hated it. More than anything I needed to banish it. To exorcise his demons, to kiss away the lines of worry and pain etched into his features. They hadn't been there, just yesterday.

  Or, what felt to me like yesterday. It had been nearly two years, I'd been told. Christmas Eve, I was twenty years old. I remembered the screech of tires and weightlessness. Then darkness. I woke up, and I was twenty-two, almost twenty-three, and trapped in a useless, weak, skin-and-bones body. Atrophied muscles. Art gone. Speech gone. The cruelty of it was unbearable.

  I couldn't even kiss Cade. He'd lean down, and his lips would touch mine, and I knew he was desperate to feel my lips respond to his, but I couldn't. I tried. So hard. I practiced when I was alone. I tried to purse my lips. Tried and tried to kiss the air so that when he showed up at seven the next morning, and every morning, I could kiss him back. That was my next goal. Using my hands again, talking, walking, those were all eventual goals. I'd achieve them. There was no other choice.

  But before any of that, I had to simply kiss Caden.

  Today was a good day. I'd slept through the night without nightmares of never walking again, never talking again, never kissing Cade or making love to him again. Those were the worst dreams, the nights I woke up alone, tears trickling down my face, sobs trapped in my chest. Sometimes I dreamed he got tired of me, sick of waiting for me to get better. In those dreams he'd leave me without a word. Or just not show up. Just vanish like Eden had and I'd be alone in life, and then I'd wake up with screams trapped in my gut, panic eating at me like a bird trapped in a house, banging against windows and walls.

  Today, though, I woke knowing I'd slept without any of that. I felt hopeful. I practiced pursing my lips, imagined Cade's lips against mine and pictured myself kissing him. I could do it. I knew it. I felt it. Today would be the day.

  I watched the local news while I waited for him. He always showed up at seven exactly. Today, he didn't arrive until almost seven-thirty. He looked haggard, exhausted. Bags under his eyes. Thinner than he'd ever been. Sad. Haunted. His eyes flitted around the room, taking in the walls, the bed, the side table, searching, and it seemed as if he was seeing something not physically there. It was as if he was seeing over and over again the hea
rtache that had been in this room over the past year and a half. I could see the memories in his eyes, the pain...and that something else.

  Guilt? Yes, that was what I saw in his gaze, in his posture, in the set of his mouth and the shifting of his eyes.

  I pushed it away, the knowledge that he felt guilty. I couldn't take that. Couldn't handle it. He loved me, and he was here with me. That was all that mattered. He was here.

  He perched on the edge of my bed, his thigh nudging mine, leaned down and wrapped his arms around me. I fought myself, strained, forced my arms up, up. Touched him. Hands on his biceps, trembling with the effort to keep them there. Something that should've been easy, but was anything but. I managed to hold on to his arms for almost thirty seconds before they dropped back down. He touched his forehead to mine, and I felt his breath on my face. He smelled so good, so familiar, and I pulled in his scent, drawing strength from him, from his nearness. He pulled back and kissed my forehead. He sat back then, his hands on mine on my lap.

  "Hey, babe." He leaned in again and kissed my cheek.

  God, that was awful. A kiss on the cheek. It felt like an insult. Why not the lips? Did he not want me anymore? I was sick, I knew. I was all but useless. Skinny, pale, and weak. Unable to hold a conversation or do much of anything. But I was still his wife. He loved me. I knew he did. But did he still want me?

  I focused, concentrated. Lifted one hand up, touched my fingers to his cheek. Traced the stubble on his upper lip. Ran my thumb along the crease of his lips. Stared at his mouth, at his lips, which had once kissed me so easily, so passionately. As if he couldn't get enough of me.

  I needed that. Please, I wanted to scream. Kiss me! Love me! Hold me! Touch me! Remind me who I am to you.

  I made the words come out, but they stuttered and stumbled, tripping. "K-ki--Kiss mmmm-me." I scrunched my brows with the effort needed to focus. "Please."

  He held my palm against his cheek, kissed my thumb where it touched his lips. His gaze locked onto mine, wavered. I thought for a moment that he might cry. Slowly, slowly, he leaned in. My heart thudded crazily in my chest, and I wanted to weep with pure joy when his lips touched mine. I shifted my thumb away, felt the stubble at the corner of his mouth. He tasted like toothpaste and mouthwash and faintly of coffee. Like Cade.

  His kiss felt so right, so beautiful, so warm and soft and delicious that I couldn't breathe for the ecstasy. It felt like a first kiss somehow. I remembered what I'd practiced, and made my lips shape against his. He breathed in sharply through his nose, a gasp of surprise. I wasn't breathing, but I was kissing him, and that was better than breathing. He moved his mouth against mine, and I felt his tongue slip gently against my teeth, and I opened to his tongue, felt him taste my teeth and gums and lips and tongue, and felt him kiss me like he had been dying as much as I.

  An eternity passed in that kiss, and then he pulled away. He was shaking all over.

  "Cade?" It was all I could manage, but he understood the question.

  "I'm fine. I'm just...I needed to kiss you. I needed that, more than you could ever know. More than I think I even understood."

  "Not as...much...as--" I had to pause and focus on forming the words, the letters, the sounds. "Me. Not as much as me."

  Cade pulled me against his chest and held me. He had stopped shaking, but I felt the emotion radiating from him.

  "Talk. To me." I was proud of how easily I'd gotten that out.

  "About what?"

  "You."

  He let go of me, stood up, crossed the room in an anxious stride. "What about me?"

  "What's...wrong." That was supposed to be a question, but it hadn't come out that way.

  "Nothing. Everything." He stopped at the window, stared out of it at the beautiful summer day beyond. "I just...everything is so...hard. I love you. I missed you so much. I didn't know how to live, not without you. You were all I had, and you were gone."

  "I'm here. Now."

  "I know. I know." He turned back to me. "And you're getting better every day. You kissed me back! That's a huge improvement." I felt him pushing away the turmoil that had been boiling inside him, changing the subject.

  I let him.

  "Kiss me...again."

  He stood over me, staring down at me. Brushed my cheekbone with his thumb, brushed my hair away. His eyes were on me, and I saw the need in him. He needed me. I had to fight my way back to normality. For him.

  He leaned down and kissed me, ever so gently. I felt my lips twitch and respond, forming against his. It only lasted a second, and then he was sitting down beside me and holding me against his chest. His heartbeat was a steady drum against my cheek. I was elated, jubilant. I'd kissed him back. Barely, but he'd felt it. He knew exactly how big a deal that was for me. And I knew what a huge thing it was for him. I wanted to hold on to him. Wrap my arms around him like I used to. I couldn't, and that hurt. It was all about small, attainable goals. I knew that. But it didn't make it any easier to get so excited about something as simple and everyday as kissing my husband.

  When he finally let me go, I looked up into his eyes, and I saw the turmoil there once more, layered and hidden beneath the love and the pride. I didn't understand it, what it meant, where it was coming from. It was more than watching me struggle every day. He was always proud of every little milestone I reached, praised my every tiny success. His smiles were genuine, his love real. But...there was something beneath it. Some pain and confusion whose source I couldn't fathom. It was guilt. I knew it. Couldn't avoid the truth of it. But over what, though? That's what I couldn't figure out. Was it guilt over the accident? Surely he knew it was just that, an accident? There was nothing he could have done any differently.

  There was no way to know what he was feeling, and he wasn't telling. And if it was guilt I saw and felt in him, I wasn't sure I wanted to know where it was coming from just yet. I wasn't sure I could handle it.

  I forced the thoughts away as he went with me to therapy. I couldn't afford any distractions while I was at therapy. It took all of my focus, all of my concentration, and every ounce of strength I had. He stood beside me, held my hand. Every time I felt discouraged or frustrated, I'd look at him and I'd know I could do it. I had to. For him. He needed me. Cade had always seemed so strong, so steady despite the hardships life had thrown at him. But now he seemed...almost fragile. As if one more blow, and he would crumple. I had to get better. I had to get my speech back, had to get my mobility back. I had to be able to comfort him, to love him the way he deserved. Right now, though, I needed him.

  So I curled my fingers around the tennis ball, clutching it with all my strength, squeezing with every muscle in my arm, sweating and trembling from the exertion required to merely hold on to it. After maybe a minute, my fingers uncurled, and the ball rolled away across the table. I paused, panting, and then nodded to Darrel, my therapist, who put the ball back into my palm. I gripped it, focusing with everything I had.

  Cade stayed with me for several hours, like he did every day. Around four-thirty, he left to go to work. He'd sometimes swing by after work, stinking like sweat and looking as rugged and handsome as ever. That evening, however, he didn't come back after work. I sat in my bed, watching So You Think You Can Dance. My night shift nurse, Lucy, came by with my dinner, helped me eat. In late middle age, Lucy was a sweet woman with graying brown hair and a hint of a southern accent. As she was cleaning up, she bumped the table at my bedside, and the bottom drawer slid open. I glanced down at it and saw what looked like a shoebox.

  "What's...that?" I said, training my gaze on it.

  Lucy followed my eyes and saw the box. "Oh, that? That's your letters."

  I was puzzled. "Letters?"

  She nodded. "From that wonderful boy of yours."

  He'd brought our old letters to the home? "Old?"

  She seemed confused by the question. "Old? No, honey, those are all from since you've been here. While you were in your coma, he'd come by every single day and read you a letter.
A new one, sometimes two. There's almost two boxes full in there. He must've written you...oh, lord...hundreds of letters."

  My eyes watered. He'd never said anything. Never told me. "Every...day? Letters?" Goddammit. I hated not being able to speak clearly. I sounded like a three-year-old just learning to talk.

  She nodded, bent over and lifted one shoebox out, and then opened the upper drawer and pulled out a second one. She set them on the bed by my leg. She lifted the top off both boxes, and the tears streamed down my face in earnest. There were, as Lucy had said, hundreds of letters. He had written to me while I was in a coma. Every day. Every single day.

  "Read them?" I asked.

  Lucy sighed, pulled up a chair, and sat down. "Yeah, sweetie. He'd come in here, usually in the afternoon, sometimes in the evening. He'd sit here, where I am. He closed the door most times, and he'd read to you. Sometimes he'd talk, but after a while I think...I think all he could do was read the letters."

  "Read? To me."

  Lucy lifted a bundle of envelopes from the box. That bundle in turn was divided into four smaller bundles, each containing three, four, or five envelopes. A few had more. "The boy's organized, I'll give him that." She slid the first envelope free--it hadn't been sealed. My name was written on the front in Cade's distinctive all-caps handwriting. "Looks like he has them done up by week, and then by month."

  I recognized the system. He'd shown me the boxes containing my letters to him from our years of being pen pals, and that was how he'd bound these as well.

  Lucy pulled the folded paper from within the envelope. She scanned the first few lines, and then shook her head. "I don't think I should read these to you, hon. They're...very personal." She thought for a few seconds, clearly trying to figure out a way that I could read them, given my inability to hold a tennis ball, much less a piece of paper. "How about I lay it on your lap so you can see it? When you're ready for me to turn it over, just look at me."

  I frowned. "Patients?"

  Lucy blinked, and then waved me off. "I'm caught up on my rounds for now. I can sit with you for a few minutes." She smoothed the letter out on my lap and then sat back.

 
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