Saving forever, p.8
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       Saving Forever, p.8

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
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  Now I lay on the same dock, and I was gripped by fear. Every moment, I was scared. Terrified. I could barely breathe, I was so scared. I was scared of life. Of living. Of what would happen to me. I wasn't a teenager, sure. But I was way too young and unprepared to be a mother. A mother. Mommy. Me. Eden Irene Eliot, a single mother. I didn't know what I wanted for myself, much less what I wanted for a child. I didn't know how to be a parent.

  And...I'd never even been in love.

  I stood up, clenching my fists and forcing air into my lungs. Pushed away the rampant terror. I bent my legs and dove in, the way Mom and I had, so long ago.

  By the time I reached the shore I was barely holding it together. I threw on my cover-up, toed my feet into my flip-flops, gathered my things, and hurried home. It was home, too. It felt like home. What if...what if it was the only home I ever knew? What if I had the baby here and raised him or her alone, here on the peninsula? What if I just never went back? Could I do that? Cut myself out of Ever's life? She was all that mattered, really. And Cade, of course, but he was a can of worms I couldn't deal with. Not yet. I had to push him out of my thoughts, out of my heart.

  I sat on my couch, wet from the swim and sweating from running home, hyperventilating in an attempt to keep the wrenching sobs at bay. I couldn't lose it. Wouldn't. This was life now. Alone, in this cottage.

  I hadn't loved Cade. Almost, though. I'd almost fallen in love with him. I'd seen it happening, felt my heart curling outward and trying to latch onto him. But he didn't love me, and never could and never would. Even if Ever hadn't woken up, everything we could've established would have been based on all the wrong foundations. I had refused to let that happen. I wanted better for myself.

  His trip to Wyoming had come at the most perfect moment. That last tangle in the sheets had nearly been my undoing. But then he'd left and I pushed him away, knowing it would be the end. It had to be the end. We couldn't keep doing it to each other. It wasn't helping him, and it was only confusing me.

  I'd teetered on the edge of a cliff, and then had stumbled back at the last moment. Tearing myself away, pushing him away. It had been wrenchingly painful. But far better than spending the rest of my life loving him and never being able to have him.

  And then...and then I'd found out I was pregnant, and everything changed. Now I had no idea what was going to happen to me. I had no one. I'd cut Dad out of my life, although being the stubborn asshole he was, he'd continued to pay for my tuition and room and board. I didn't know why, and never would. He wouldn't visit us, wouldn't call us, wouldn't make any efforts to repair the damaged relationships, but he paid for school, and sent us a monthly allowance. I'd saved most of mine over the past few years. I had enough money put aside to live on a shoestring for maybe a year. I'd been saving it to buy a place when I graduated, only now that would never happen.

  When Ever went into the coma, Dad had paid the hospital bills until she'd entered the Home, at which point she'd become a ward of the state. I think he had kick-ass insurance that had covered a huge portion of her bills, but it still must have cost him a staggering amount of money. I also think he paid Cade's hospital bills. I don't know if Cade even realized that.

  But he wasn't a support system. I wouldn't ask him for money. I wouldn't call him. I wouldn't let him know what was going on.

  I couldn't tell Ever or Cade, either. Mom was long dead, as were her parents and Dad's. So there was just me.

  And I was paralyzed with fear. I had no plan, a limited amount of money, no job, no degree. No friends, no family.

  I felt the tears begin again, and I lurched off the couch. I pulled Apollo from his case and sat down in the chair in the middle of the living room. I played, and played, and played. Until I broke through the calluses on my fingers and bled, until my wrist ached from holding the bow, until my teeth hurt from grinding them together. I didn't even know what I was playing, just that it was all that mattered, all I had to keep the fear at bay, to keep the brokenness from overwhelming me.

  As I finally let the bow drop to the floor, a thought came to me: Each day, facing my fear and simply moving through the day, was akin to jumping off the dock as a little girl. Just waking up was facing my fear. Taking each breath was an act of will. Not breaking down in tears each moment was an effort. All I could do, every single day, was face my fear, jump off the dock, and hope I could swim to shore.

  running from the truth

  I was lying on the beach late one evening, a few hours before sunset. To the west, out over the water, the sun was an orange ball hanging above the horizon. I was glistening with a layer of sweat, ready to take a quick swim before heading home.

  I heard the rumble of his car first. Heard the slam of the door in the distance, followed by a few minutes of silence. Then I heard his footsteps, kicking up the sand. I pretended to ignore him, keeping my eyes closed behind my sunglasses, my hands folded low over my belly, feet crossed at the ankles. I was glad I'd worn my one-piece swimsuit--I was starting to show, just a little.

  I thought perhaps he hadn't seen me. His footsteps were passing right next to me. I felt a spray of warm sand hit my leg, and then a sharp intake of breath. I opened my eyes, and found it hard to think. He was standing above me, outlined by the sun. He was so close I could smell him. Sawdust and sweat. I tipped up my sunglasses to see him better. Sweat dripped from his nose and ran down his temple, coating his long, toned arms. He was shirtless, wearing a scuba diving bag on his shoulders. His washboard abs glistened, and the swim shorts he wore were tied low enough that I could see the top of his V-cut. I resisted the urge to lick my lips. Holy shit, he was gorgeous. And the smell of sawdust? Intoxicating. I could see it dappling his skin, sticking to the sweat on his chest and forearms. I wondered what he did to get so covered in sawdust. I wanted to watch him work. I had a vision of him bent over a worktable, scraping at a piece of wood with long, slow strokes, his back muscles rippling and his arms tensing and relaxing with each movement.

  He just stared down at me, his pale blue eyes roving over me. Oh, yes, he saw me. And he liked what he saw. I could tell that much. His mouth opened, and I felt myself anticipating the sound of his voice. It would be a low, powerful rumble like the sound of an engine. He'd ask me to go swimming with him. Maybe. I'd learn where he lived. Maybe.

  But then he shook his head, closed his mouth with an audible click, and headed toward the water. His fists were clenched at his sides as he jogged toward the waterline. Now, what the hell was that? He'd been about to say something. I knew he had. And then he'd off. Had I scared him off somehow? Although I couldn't imagine what I could have done to do that.

  I watched him plow through the water until he was waist deep, and then he dove in and was gone. Just...gone. I kept watching, expecting to see him reappear a few feet farther away, near the dock maybe, or the boat. But he didn't. He dove in and was simply gone. I stood up and moved toward the shoreline, squinting at the bright reflection of the sun on the water, hunting the orange-diamond surface for a hint of him. Where could he have gone?

  This was becoming a mystery. The man who never spoke, who appeared and disappeared on the beach. I couldn't think of any explanation for his behavior except perhaps he had some far-off destination to which he swam, somewhere out of sight. It really was strange, and it made him that much more of an enigma. Was he just shy? Did he want to talk to me, but was too nervous? But I dismissed that notion right away. He didn't seem like the shy type. His posture and his body language were that of a man who knew himself, who was comfortable in his own skin. He moved with powerful grace, athletic and in tune with his body. Yet he seemed unwilling or unable to speak to me. Maybe he was mute? But the way he'd opened his mouth just now made me think he could talk, but he just wouldn't. For whatever reason.

  I waded into the water, dove under, and swam out to the dock, letting the blissfully cold water rinse the sweat off me and cool the heat from my skin. I tried to push away thoughts of the mystery man. It wasn't eas
y, though. The scent of him was in my nostrils, a seductive mix of sweat and sawdust, all man, sexy and drunk-making. Yet I had no business thinking about him. Even if he did get the courage to talk to me, it couldn't go anywhere. I could only hide my...condition...for so long, and then I'd be forced to tell the truth, and he'd be gone. No one would want to waste their time with someone like me. I'd be a single mom soon. And the story of how I'd come by my baby would be impossible to tell.

  Where's the daddy? they'd ask. How was I supposed to tell them the father was my twin sister's husband? And that I'd conceived the baby while my sister was in a coma she wasn't expected to come out of.

  God, that sounded more horrible every time I thought about it.

  I dove off the dock and swam to shore, gathered my book and blanket and bottle of water. I jogged home, tripping on rocks and wincing as pebbles dug into my heels and arches. I barely made it home before the tears hit me.

  What had I done? I couldn't imagine how to fix this. How could I ever face my sister and Caden again? Just show up at their condo one day with a black-haired and amber-eyed baby in my arms? Hey, sis, meet your nephew. Oh, by the way, Cade's the daddy. How 'bout them Lions?

  It was better I was gone and out of their lives. Sure, they'd wonder where I'd gone. They might even come up here and look for me. Ever would think of this place eventually, and come looking.

  I'd probably have to move away. Find a job and someone to watch the baby. Find an apartment. Maybe I could teach cello from home, and that way I wouldn't need to find a sitter.

  Fuck me. I knew nothing about babies. I'd never even held one. I had no friends with children. No nieces or nephews or cousins. The closest I'd gotten to a baby was when my classical music history prof had had her baby and brought the strange pink, gurgling little thing to campus. I'd watched in horrified fascination as she held the baby, cooing and making bizarre noises and tickling its chin, making faces and talking in a high-pitched voice. I remembered seeing Professor Ennis with her huge belly. She had been barely able to totter and waddle from one end of the classroom to the other. She'd always been a pacer, Professor Ennis. She'd pace from one end of the room to the other, waving her hands and gesticulating wildly as she discoursed. By the end of her pregnancy, she'd had to lecture sitting down, her belly a massive thing almost big enough to topple her forward. And then she'd appeared after a month of leave to show us her baby, and everyone had oohed and ahhed, and one of the older students who had children asked a question about the birth and we'd all been privy to some truly horrifying details none of us had wanted to know.

  That was going to be me, in a little over six months.

  What was I going to do? How was I supposed to be a mother? I couldn't change a diaper. I didn't even know how to hold a baby. I was so unprepared.

  I fumbled Apollo from his case and drew the bow across his strings, choking on my sobs of terror. The note was discordant and screeching, and I had to try again. This time, the note came out properly, and I focused on the sound, on the wavering golden tone. I drew another note. A third. I brought the bow across and tilted to hit the D string. Found myself playing the intro to my solo. Lost myself in it. The music dried my tears and buried the fear and the guilt beneath the weight of perfect notes. Music was the one thing I could do right. It was my only solace. I played the whole solo through, refusing to think about Ever and Cade even when I played the parts dedicated to them. It was just music, notes on a page, sounds in my heart.

  Eventually I was calm enough to sleep, but when I did, I dreamed of an amber-eyed baby, and of Ever, her green eyes distraught with confused grief and betrayed hurt. I woke up crying, as I did so many nights after dreams like that.

  The beach was my haven. I always ended up there somehow. Early in the morning, after my run, I'd stop at the beach and watch the sunrise. I'd put away Apollo late at night with aching fingers and turmoil in my mind, and I'd go to the beach with the stars shining like countless diamonds, clustered and scattered across a black felt cloth. The moon would be reflected in the rippling lake water and the waves would lap gently, and I'd find some measure of peace.

  It was early morning, just past 6 a.m. Dawn was breaking on the water, and I'd already run three miles. I hated running, but it was all I had to keep fit, to distract myself. So I did it----three miles every morning. Maybe next week I'd try for four. I'd run until I was too pregnant to do so.

  I was panting for breath, slimy with sweat, and my thoughts were starting to run wild with fear and panic. I straightened, gazed out at the water, and I saw him. The water god. He was suddenly there, just like last time. Waist deep in the bay, water sluicing down his lean, powerful body, hair wet and black as night and slicked back against his scalp. I stood watching him as he waded to shore and stopped about ten feet from me. I felt his gaze, felt his presence like some kind of electric force blazing in my blood. Blue like ice, like a clear winter sky, his eyes were inscrutable and piercing. I wished, stupidly, that I wasn't in my running gear, dripping sweat and gasping for breath. This stupid sports bra was too small, and I felt his eyes flick down to my cleavage, and then away. To my hips in my skin-tight shorts, and then away.

  I felt a burst of something hot inside me at his gaze on my body. He liked what he saw, I knew that much. And Jesus, did I like what I saw. He was so, so beautiful. I didn't look away, expecting him to say "hi." To shake my hand or something. Anything. Make a move, even though I'd have to find a way to shoot him down, but not wanting to.

  But he didn't. He just smiled at me, a small polite, not-quite warm smile. A nervous, forced thing. And then he moved past me, wiping drops from his face, and then making a fist. I turned to watch him go, and damn it if he didn't have the most amazing ass, outlined by the wet fabric of his shorts, round and firm-looking. I shook myself, forced those idiotic thoughts from my head. That was the kind of thing that I didn't have any time for, and had no place thinking.

  But yet I couldn't help watching him go. He was striding quickly, as if angry.

  Was he mad at me? It was a public beach, so I had every right to be there. I didn't get his reaction. He'd stared at me, acted like he was about to say something, and then he just took off. Maybe he was shy? But a guy that hot, with that kind of body? No way he was shy. Guys who looked like him were cocky, arrogant. Self-assured. he'd been. As if afraid to even say hello.

  He rounded a corner, and then a moment later I heard the same throaty rumble I'd heard last time, and I watched the road leading out to M-37. A classic truck of some kind. Not a sports car like I'd thought. I didn't know anything about cars, classic or otherwise, but I knew his was sexy. Masculine, powerful, but not showy, not overdone. It suited him.

  I went home and spent the day working on the house. It wasn't in good shape. There were things I just couldn't do, didn't have the tools or skills to fix, or the money to have them fixed. So I'd just have to live with it. Like the leaky roof, or the peeling paint on the outside. The floors that dipped in some places and bulged up in others. The screens that needed replacing. I could peel the wallpaper off, though, and I could probably manage to paint the walls. Maybe I could start on that. Or not.

  The next day was rainy, so I spent it inside reading. I'd brought my box of favorite books with me, of course, and I'd also bought myself a Kindle and loaded it with about a hundred novels. It was summer, and I was determined to act like I was on vacation for as long as I could. I was trying to ignore the fact that this broken-down cabin on the beach on an isolated peninsula was my new home. It wasn't a vacation. Not really. It was life. I could pretend, though. Sit on the beach and read. Jog, swim, play the cello.

  I was curled up on my couch with a steamy novel when I felt a drip on my head. And another. I looked up, and cursed. There was a huge dark spot on the ceiling. Another leak. Great. That made four. I tossed my book onto the coffee table, which was several years older than I was, and found an old plastic bowl in a cabinet, then set it on the couch beneath the leak. I already ha
d a bucket on the kitchen table and one in the bathroom next to the toilet. I had another bucket in the second bedroom, near the closet.

  God knows what would happen in the winter. The whole roof would cave in, probably. While I was sleeping, most likely. I'd be buried in snow and never wake up.

  Maybe that would be the easiest way out.

  I shook my head at the dark thought. I was no coward. Well, okay, so I was. I'd run away rather than deal with the fallout of my actions. But it wasn't just for me, I reasoned with myself. Maybe I'd go back someday. When Ever was stronger, physically and emotionally. When she wasn't so vulnerable.

  By then, maybe, it'd be easier to tell the truth. Or maybe not.

  The rain had stopped by late afternoon, so I changed into my running gear, needing to get away from my whirling thoughts. I put on my headphones, set the iPod to repeat my playlist--mostly electronic dance tunes with a fast beat and few words. It was humid and hot, the post-rain air thick with moisture.

  I headed north, toward the lighthouse, setting myself a hellishly hard pace. After turning through the lighthouse parking lot at the tip of the peninsula, I headed south with the lake on my right, hidden here and there by a thin scrim of trees. I was panting and sweating, and I was sick of my playlist. I hit the "skip" button several times until a beat I didn't recognize came on. I had no recollection of downloading the song, but it was fast and lighthearted, a country song I'd heard once or twice before. I didn't usually like country, and rarely listened to it, so the appearance of Dierks Bentley's song "What Was I Thinkin'" on my iPod was a little strange. It was fun, though, and it helped me pick up my pace and kept my feet moving.

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