Saving forever, p.9
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       Saving Forever, p.9

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
 

  Why did I have this song? I just couldn't remember. None of the guys I'd ever dated had been too much into country, so it wasn't that. Cade and I hadn't ever shared music. Ever? She wasn't a country music kind of girl, either. Where had the song come from?

  And why had I let myself think about Cade and Ever again? I clenched my fists and swung my arms to get my feet moving, to push my pace faster, to get the burn and the ache to a roar loud enough to distract me. It didn't work, though. My thoughts returned to Cade. He seemed like a country music type. He'd lived in Wyoming, after all. He'd been a real-deal cowboy, living on a working horse ranch. But he and I had never discussed musical tastes. I'd played Apollo in front of him a few times, but that was about it. I had no idea what kind of music he liked. He watched James Bond movies because his dad had liked them. I knew that. What else did I know about Cade? Not much. His mom had died of cancer. His dad had died of a broken heart, otherwise known as a heart attack, caused by the burden of grief. His grandparents had died of old age. He was an artist.

  I'd spent months with him, and that was all I knew? I didn't know his favorite color. I didn't know his favorite band. I was pregnant with his child, and I knew nothing about him.

  Fuck. I was an idiot. I'd gone running to escape these thoughts, and now here I was wallowing in them all over again. I fought the sting in my eyes, focused on the beat of the music pumping in my ears, a Three Days Grace song, "Misery Loves Company." It was a workout song, hard and fast, and it let me keep my feet grinding the miles away.

  I couldn't outrun my thoughts, though.

  The reality didn't always feel real. I had morning sickness still, and some strange hormonal mood swings, but that was about it. I was only showing a tiny bit, not enough to stop me from running in my usual shorts and sports bra. I didn't really feel pregnant. I was, though, and I knew it. I'd seen the tests, several of them, all showing positive. I hadn't had a period in months. So I was pregnant. It was real and unavoidable and undeniable. But it didn't always seem like a day-to-day reality. Maybe I could just take some Tums and the nausea would go away. I'd get my period. My moods would even out on their own. Maybe it was just stress.

  But I couldn't do that.

  I was really and truly pregnant with my brother-in-law's child.

  At that moment and with that thought ringing in my mind, I felt something beside me. I glanced over and saw him, tall and toned and tan and iron-muscled, running next to me. Shirtless, as he always seemed to be. His chest muscles shifted and flexed as he swung his arms. He was running hard, covered in sweat. He wore nothing but a pair of blue shorts that matched his eyes, and a pair of battered New Balance running shoes. No iPod or earbuds, no evidence that he'd ever worn a shirt. He had no tan lines, only sun-darkened skin from forehead to hips.

  Shit. Why was he here? I was fighting sobs as I ran, fighting terrified gasps as the reality of my situation rifled through me all over again. And here he was, this mysterious and sexy stranger who never spoke and always seemed to appear at the worst possible moments. I was out of breath and sweaty and about to cry, hair tangled and sticking to my cheeks and forehead and neck, my pale skin flushed. And he looked perfect. Lean and powerful, black hair thick and messy and artfully sweat-stained. As if he spent his life in a pair of shorts and nothing else, perpetually sweating and always pushing himself.

  I looked away from him and tried to shove down the emotions, tried to pretend like I wasn't on the verge of stumbling to a stop and collapsing in tears on the side of M-37. I felt his gaze, though. As if he could see what I was trying to contain. I felt a single tear slip down my face, and I wiped at it. Another, and another, and then I was crying for real. I stifled a sob and poured on the speed, needing to get away from Beach God's too-knowing gaze. I was already running as fast as my conditioning would allow, but I needed to get away. I needed him to not see me like this. I needed to not be thinking about him. He had no place in my life. I belonged alone. I didn't deserve friendship, or company. I deserved the misery crushing me, and nothing else.

  He kept pace, damn him. And he still said nothing. He didn't ask what was wrong, didn't offer any sympathy or understanding or anything. He just ran beside me, leaving space between us. He ran effortlessly, as if this insane pace wasn't destroying him the way it was me. I couldn't keep it up for much longer, yet I still had a couple of miles left. But still I kept running, no longer jogging but flat-out running, legs burning as they stretched to eat the road, lungs on fire as they strained to provide oxygen. And the tears remained. I had to wipe them away in a vain attempt to hide them from Beach God.

  My foot hit a rock, pitching me off-balance. I felt myself going down, and I braced, knowing I'd hit painfully hard. Except the fall never came. A huge, strong, callused hand grabbed my left arm just above the elbow and held me upright as I stumbled a few steps and found my balance. My heart was pounding in my chest, adrenaline making my heartbeat loud in my ears.

  I glanced at Beach God. "Thanks," I said, between breaths. He just nodded and kept running. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. "You don't...talk much, do you?" It was a lame conversation gambit, but it was all I could think of.

  He just shook his head and kept running.

  "Can't, or don't?" I asked, giving in to curiosity. He only shrugged noncommittally. I waited, thinking he might be trying to think of a good answer, or trying to catch his breath to speak, but he didn't. He just kept running.

  I was irritated now. If he was mute, wouldn't he use sign language, find some way to communicate with me? He seemed interested in me--unfortunately for him--but if he was, he had a funny way of showing it. I couldn't figure him out, and there was no point in trying. As soon as he found out the truth about me, he'd be long gone.

  I somehow found the strength to put on speed, leaving him behind. I ran, tensed, waiting for him to catch up and make an excuse, apologize, something, anything. But...no. He just let me run ahead, let the distance expand between us.

  I couldn't deny the sense of disappointment I felt.

  rusty

  I altered my routine after that. I ran at night, late, usually. I avoided the beach at sunrise and sunset, which were the times when he seemed to be there the most. I didn't see him again for a month. During that month, I began to show for real. Just a bump, really, a slight protrusion, enough to seem like maybe I'd fallen off the diet and exercise wagon. I had to start wearing shirts that covered my belly when I worked out, though. I ran in tank tops, swam in my purple one-piece.

  I wondered how long it would be before I was unable to run. Or if it was unwise to do so. I'd seen a doctor a few days after my arrival up here, of course, at the hospital in downtown Traverse City. He'd examined me, said things were "progressing apace," whatever the hell that meant. He gave me a prescription for some prenatal pills and told me to make sure I kept eating healthy and avoided caffeine and alcohol. Things I knew from TV, really.

  I'd always been strict about what I ate, allowing myself a few treats here and there, a few indulgences. I let myself drink alcohol--or rather, I had, before--and to justify the caloric intake of booze, I didn't eat red meat and avoided cheese as much as I could. So cutting alcohol and caffeine out of my diet hadn't been as hard as for some women, I imagined. The alcohol I missed simply because I desperately wanted to seek the oblivion of forgetting, even if it was only temporary. Instead, I ran, and played Apollo. Which just wasn't the same.

  And now, with my belly getting bigger, I knew my days of five-mile runs were numbered.

  It was midsummer now, and the days were blazing hot. Too hot to run, even for me. I walked instead, just to get outside, away from the sagging roof and peeling wallpaper and rotting porch steps of my cabin. Away from my thoughts, which was never effective, but worth trying.

  One day, a cloudy but stiflingly hot and humid afternoon, I passed a pile of junk heaped on the side of the road. Mostly trash, an ancient, boxy TV with rabbit-ears, a box of broken dishes and pitted, grease-stained pot
s and pans, an old broom and moldy-looking mop. An exercise bike missing a pedal, a black plastic garbage bag overflowing with stuffed animals and mismatched clothing. But what caught my attention was the bicycle, a ten-speed older than I was. It had once been red, I thought, but was now more rust-colored than anything. I pulled it free from the pile and pressed my thumb on the skinny, oversize tires, found them airtight. It had its chain and gears, the shifters, a scuffed but intact seat, brakes pads, levers, and handlebars. I noticed a stout woman wearing a floppy gardening hat kneeling in a bed of flowers beneath the porch of the house.

  "Excuse me," I called out. She turned and looked at me. "Can I have this?" I gestured at the bike.

  "All yours, sweetie," she responded with a wave.

  "Thanks!"

  I walked the bike home and gave it a more thorough examination. The brakes were loose, but usable, and the chain could use some oil, but other than that it was just old. Maybe this bike would buy me a few more weeks of exercise before I got too pregnant to get off my couch.

  The next day was brilliantly sunny, the sky clear blue and the air hot. I was restless, antsy. Even Apollo couldn't quite push away the fear of motherhood, the panic my increasingly pregnant body inspired. What would I say when it was obvious to anyone who looked at me? I hadn't had to answer any questions yet. Of course, I rarely left the peninsula. I shopped at the cute little combination bar-and-grill/sandwich deli/gas station and grocery store that was about ten minutes south. It was the only place to eat or shop within a half-hour drive of the tip of the peninsula where I lived, and the lady who worked behind the counter most days seemed to know I didn't welcome chatter. She rang up my purchases, swiped my card, and let me leave without expressing any of the idle curiosity that was often so prevalent in small towns like this. Thank god for that at least.

  I was due for an ultrasound at around eighteen weeks, which was in a little over two months. Until then, I was hoping to avoid going any farther south than the Peninsula Market. The mainland and downtown meant people, which meant curiosity and stares and questions. Oh, where's your husband? How far along are you? Is it a boy or girl? Do you have any names picked out? I couldn't answer any of that. Except how far along I was: almost eleven weeks. Nearly into my second trimester. I'd read What to Expect When You're Expecting, of course. So now I knew what to expect, more or less, but that didn't really help much. Knowing the morning sickness would pass by the second trimester was nice, but the talk of back pain and the ache of my boobs getting bigger and always having to pee...I wasn't looking forward to that.

  I couldn't even begin thinking about actually giving birth. Or what I would do once I had. I knew I should be making plans, trying to adjust my life to my new reality, but I just couldn't. All I could do was try to survive emotionally and hope things would work out. That was stupid and foolish, and would only hurt me in the long run, but I was terrified, and alone, and confused, and wracked with guilt. And I just didn't know what to do.

  Eventually, my chaotic thoughts drove me from the house. I got onto the old bike I'd rescued from the trash and pedaled toward M-37. It didn't seem so bad at first. Hot, but bearable. And then I got to M-37, and the shade from the trees disappeared and the real hills began, and the heat began to mount. My thought initially was to ride to the market, get some lunch at the deli, and then bike home. But I wasn't even halfway there when I realized I might have made a mistake in trying to ride today. The heat was intense, the sun a glaring ball above me. The hills rose and fell, each one more brutal than the last, especially heading south. I usually ran north to the tip of the peninsula and back, which was mostly flat. But going south the topography became ever more hilly, which was part of the reason vineyards were so popular. Hills were good for grapes, and so was the heat, but it wasn't so good for pregnant Eden. I hadn't brought a water bottle, since there was nowhere to put it. I was drenched in sweat from head to toe, and the pedals were getting harder and harder to push. The hills seemed endless. Each rotation of the pedals seemed like a minor victory.

  I wiped my forehead with my wrist, gasping for breath, and glanced ahead. Another steep uphill grade. I was far enough away from home now that to turn around only meant more work. And I had to get something to drink. My mouth was dry, feeling like it was splitting apart. My head spun, my eyes felt heavy, and my legs were jelly. I had to find somewhere to stop. There was nothing, though. Only acre after acre of cherry trees, row after row of grapevines. An occasional dirt track leading through the vineyard or orchard, maybe a little shack used to house equipment. No houses, nothing.

  I focused on the white line at the side of the road, focused on keeping my front tire on that line. Pedal, pedal, pedal. Don't think about the hill. Don't think about the ache in my legs, or the burn in my lungs, or the sweat stinging my eyes. Just pedal, and hope for someplace to rest and get a drink. Don't think about the miles to get back home.

  This can't be good for the baby.

  I pushed that thought away and kept pedaling. Finally, I saw an old white clapboard building with a deep porch, and beyond it the bones of new construction on a high knoll where it would overlook the eastern arm of Grand Traverse Bay, all surrounded by what had to be a couple hundred acres of grapevines. A vineyard, and a real winery. Which meant people, and air conditioning. And water, hopefully. I turned off the road and let my bike carry me down the gravel driveway to the foot of the porch. I wobbled to a stop, hopped off, and let the bike fall to the ground, the back tire click-click-clicking around slowly. I heard nothing except the whir of a fan from somewhere. I mounted the four steps to the porch, knocked on the door. No answer, no footsteps from within. If there wasn't anyone here, I might just cry. I didn't see any cars, didn't see anyone in the vineyard. I wasn't going to cry. It was just hormones. There'd probably be another winery in another mile or two. I could make that.

  Hopefully.

  "Hello?" I called out, loud enough that anyone inside should have been able to hear me.

  I heard footsteps on the stairs behind me and whirled around in surprise. And then my mouth went dry. It was him, the Beach God. And again, he was shirtless and sweating, and this time he was covered in sawdust, and little curled shavings of wood clung to his arms and chest and hair. He was barefoot, wearing tattered cut-off khaki shorts, long and loose, hanging off his trim waist. Damn him for being so sexy. He really needed to wear a shirt, just to keep me from ogling him, which I had no place doing. I mean, he was nice to look at, and looking never hurt anything. It wasn't like it could go anywhere, after all.

  And of course, he was yet again seeing me in workout shorts and a tank top, sweaty and out of breath and about to pass out.

  "You?" I asked. I heard myself making some idiotic excuses about a bike ride and the heat, and then the world wiggled and spun and tipped, and then I felt myself held aloft by something warm and slippery and strong. And he was above me, his blue eyes so pale as to be almost colorless, piercing me, but warm with concern. He was holding me. Jesus, he was strong. One arm around my shoulders, holding me easily. And he was fast. I hadn't even seen him move, and he'd been at the bottom of the stairs, several feet away. His cheekbones were just perfect. I was dizzy, and staring at his cheekbones. They were high and pronounced, and I wanted to run my fingers over them. I wanted to just stay like this, held by him, just for a minute.

  I blinked the dizziness away and struggled to my feet, trying to wipe the stupid thoughts from my mind as I wiped the sweat from my face. There was absolutely no point in thinking about Beach God like that. Whoever he was, he didn't belong in my life. Once he got a whiff of the mile-long train of baggage that came with me, he'd be gone in a blink. And good for him, because I wouldn't wish my troubles on anyone.

  Embarrassment shot through me. "Did I just pass out? I did. I can't believe I just fainted." He edged away from me as I regained my composure. "Do you have any water?"

  He didn't answer, which at this point didn't surprise me. Instead, he led me inside, into a kitche
n that looked as if it hadn't changed since 1966. There were white lace curtains on the window, held up by a brass rod and sagging hooks. A green fridge the size of my Passat sat in the corner. An ancient two-slot pop-up toaster that might have come from The Brave Little Toaster was the only small appliance in sight.

  Beach God offered me a bottle of water and a bottle of Gatorade. He probably meant for me to choose one, but I took both and slammed the water so fast my teeth ached and my head hurt. Then I cracked open the Gatorade and drank that at a more sedate pace. He sipped at blue Gatorade and watched me drink. Finally I couldn't take it anymore. I stuck my hand out and introduced myself. He shook my hand with a polite smile, and I thought for a split second that he might just break his code of silence and actually tell me his name, but he didn't. Instead, he produced a business card and handed that to me. It was plain white with black letters. I read it out loud. "Carter Haven, Haven Brothers Winery." There was an email address, the address of the winery, and the words "finish carpenter." No phone number, which made me think this not-talking thing was a long-term issue for him.

  I felt a question bubbling on my lips, the kind that was taboo to come right out and ask a person. It came out anyway: "Okay, Carter. Are you mute?"

  He shook his head, and didn't look as insulted as I'd expected him to.

  "So you can talk?"

  His eyes narrowed, and his lips tightened. He nodded.

  "But you don't?"

  This time, he shook his head. His expression was stone-hard, and when I asked if it was just me he didn't speak to, he didn't even have the decency to look chagrined. He did look upset, but whether it was my questioning that was upsetting him or the fact of his silence itself, I didn't know.

  The door squeaked and the screen door slammed, and then a younger version of Carter walked in. This man lacked the power of Carter's frame, and his hair was lighter in shade, but they were clearly related.

 
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