I know she’s standing behind me. Before everything I’ve done catches back up with her again, I try to explain away the fact that I’ve made myself at home in her kitchen again.
“I left early this morning,” I say with my back still turned to her, “because I was afraid your mom would walk in and think I was trying to get you pregnant. Then when I went for my run, I passed by your house again and realized her car wasn’t even home and remembered you said she does those trade days every month. So I decided to pick up some groceries because I wanted to cook you breakfast. I also almost bought groceries for lunch and dinner, but maybe we should take it one meal at a time today.”
I turn around to face her and I don’t know if it’s because I’ve spent the last few weeks having to be so far away from her or what, but she’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid eyes on. I look her up and down, recognizing that this is the first time I’ve ever fallen in love with a piece of clothing before. What the hell is she trying to do to me?
“Happy birthday,” I say casually, trying not to show her just how flustered I am looking at her in that outfit. “I really like that dress. I bought real milk, you want some?” I take a glass and pour her some milk, then slide it to her. She eyes the milk warily but I don’t give her time to drink it. Seeing those lips and that mouth and . . . shit.
“I need to kiss you,” I say, walking swiftly to her. I take her face in my hands. “Your mouth was so damn perfect last night, I’m scared I dreamt that whole thing.” I expect her to resist, but she doesn’t. Instead, I’m met with eager perfection when she grabs me by the shirt with both hands and kisses me back. Knowing that she still wants me after all I’ve put her through makes me appreciate her even more. And knowing I still have a chance with her?
That I’ll still get to kiss her like this?
It’s almost too much.
I separate from her and back away, smiling. “Nope. Didn’t dream it.”
I face the stove again so that I can stop concentrating on her mouth long enough to make her a plate of food. I have so much I need to say to her and I don’t even know where or how to start. I fix our plates and walk them to the bar where she’s seated.
“Are we allowed to play Dinner Quest, even though it’s breakfast time?” I ask her.
She nods. “If I get the first question.”
She isn’t smiling. She hasn’t smiled for me in over a month. I hate that I’m the reason she doesn’t smile anymore.
I lay my fork down on my plate and bring my hands up, clasping them under my chin. “I was thinking about just letting you have all the questions,” I say.
“I only need the answer to one,” she says.
I sigh, knowing for a fact she needs more than just one answer. But the fact that she only wants the answer to one question leads me to believe she’s about to ask me about the bracelet. And that’s the one question I’m not willing to share the answer to just yet.
She leans forward in her chair and I brace myself for her question.
“How long have you been using drugs, Holder?”
I immediately look up at her, not expecting that to have been her question at all. It comes from so far out of left field that I keep my eyes locked with hers, but the randomness of the question makes me want to laugh. Maybe I should be disturbed by the fact that my behavior has given her such an absurd thought, but instead I feel nothing but relief.
I’m trying. I’m trying so hard not to laugh, but the anger in her eyes is adorable. It’s adorable and beautiful and honest and I’m so relieved. I have to look away from her because I’m trying my damndest not to smile. She’s being so serious and straightforward right now, but dammit. I can’t.
My smile finally gives way and I laugh. Her eyes grow angrier, which only makes me laugh harder. “Drugs?” I’m trying to stop, but the more I think about how much this has affected us the entire last month, it just makes me laugh even harder. “You think I’m on drugs?”
Her expression doesn’t change at all. She’s pissed. I hold my breath in an attempt to stop the laughter until I’m able to keep a straight face. I lean forward and take her hand in mine, looking her directly in the eyes. “I’m not on drugs, Sky. I promise. I don’t know why you would think that, but I swear.”
“Then what the hell is wrong with you?” she snaps.
Shit. I hate the look on her face. She’s hurt. Disappointed. Exhausted. I’m not sure which part of my unexplained, erratic behavior she’s referring to, but I honestly have no idea how to answer that. What is wrong with me? What’s not wrong with me?
“Can you be a little less vague?” I ask her.
She shrugs. “Sure. What happened to us and why are you acting like it never happened?”
Damn. That hurts. She thinks I just brushed everything that happened between us under the rug? I want to tell her everything. I want to tell her how much she means to me and how this has been one of the hardest months of my life. I want to tell her about Les and her and me, and how much it fucking hurts that she doesn’t remember. How can she just forget such a significant part of her life?
Maybe Les and I weren’t as significant to her as I thought. I look down at my arm. I trace the H and the O and the P and the E, wishing she remembered. But then again, if she remembered . . . she’d also know the meaning behind this tattoo. She’d know that I let her down. She’d remember that everything that’s happened in her life for the last thirteen years is a direct result of me.
I look her in the eyes and answer her with the most honest answer I’ll allow myself to give her. “I didn’t want to let you down, Sky. I’ve let everyone down in my life that’s ever loved me, and after that day at lunch I knew I let you down, too. So . . . I left you before you could start loving me. Otherwise, any effort to try not to disappoint you would be hopeless.”
Her eyes cloud with disappointment. I know I’m being vague again, but I can’t tell her. Not right now. Not until I know for sure that she’ll be okay.
“Why couldn’t you just say it, Holder? Why couldn’t you just apologize?”
The hurt in her voice grips my heart. I look her directly in the eyes so she’ll see how important it is to me that she never accepts how I treated her. “I’m not apologizing to you . . . because I don’t want you to forgive me.”
She immediately squeezes her eyes shut, trying to hold back tears. Nothing I can say could make her feel better about what happened between us. I release her hand and stand up, then walk to her and pick her up. I set her down on top of the bar so that we’re at eye level. She may not believe the words that come out of my mouth, but I need her to feel me. I need her to see the sincerity in my eyes and the honesty in my voice so she’ll know I didn’t mean to hurt her. I only wanted to protect her from feeling this way, but I’ve only made it worse.
“Babe, I screwed up. I’ve screwed up more than once with you, I know that. But believe me, what happened at lunch that day wasn’t jealousy or anger or anything that should ever scare you. I wish I could tell you what happened, but I can’t. Someday I will, but I can’t right now and I need you to accept that. Please. And I’m not apologizing to you, because I don’t want you to forget what happened and you should never forgive me for it. Ever. Never make excuses for me, Sky.”
She’s taking in every word I’m saying and I love that about her. I lean in and kiss her, then pull back and continue saying what I need to say while she’s still willing to hear me out.
“I told myself to just stay away from you and let you be mad at me, because I do have so many issues that I’m not ready to share with you yet. And I tried so hard to stay away, but I can’t. I’m not strong enough to keep denying whatever this is we could have. And yesterday in the lunchroom when you were hugging Breckin and laughing with him? It felt so good to see you happy, Sky. But I wanted so bad to be the one who was making you laugh like that. It was tearing me up inside that you were thinking that I didn’t care about us, or that spending that weekend with you wasn’t the best weekend I’ve ever had in my life. Because I do care and it was the best. It was the best fucking weekend in the history of all weekends.”
I run my hands down her hair to the base of her neck and brush her jawline with my thumbs. I have to take in a calming breath to say what I want to say next, because I don’t want to scare her. I just need to be honest with her.
“It’s killing me, Sky,” I say quietly. “It’s killing me because I don’t want you to go another day without knowing how I feel about you. And I’m not ready to tell you I’m in love with you, because I’m not. Not yet. But whatever this is I’m feeling—it’s so much more than just like. It’s so much more. And for the past few weeks I’ve been trying to figure it out. I’ve been trying to figure out why there isn’t some other word to describe it. I want to tell you exactly how I feel but there isn’t a single goddamned word in the entire dictionary that can describe this point between liking you and loving you, but I need that word. I need it because I need you to hear me say it.”
I kiss her and pull back, but she’s still looking at me in disbelief. I kiss her again and again, pausing after each kiss, hoping she’ll respond with something. I don’t care if she slaps me or kisses me back or tells me she loves me. I just want her to acknowledge everything I said. Instead, she’s just staring at me and it’s making me so damn nervous.
“Say something,” I plead.
She continues to stare at me for a long time. I try to stay patient. She’s always patient with me even though she’s so quick-witted. What I wouldn’t give for her to be a little more quick-witted in this moment. I need a reaction from her.
“Living,” she finally whispers.
That’s not what I expected to come out of her mouth, but at least it’s something. I laugh and shake my head, confused about what she means. “What?”
“Live. If you mix the letters up in the words like and love, you get live. You can use that word.”
Not only does she get me and not only is she smiling at me; but she just somehow gave me the one word I’ve been searching for since the moment I laid eyes on her in the grocery store.
I don’t deserve her. I don’t deserve her understanding and I sure as hell don’t deserve the way she just made my heart feel. I laugh and take her in my arms, bringing my mouth to hers. “I live you, Sky,” I say against her lips. “I live you so much.”
And as perfect as that word sounds, as perfectly as it describes the point we’re at, I know it’s a lie.
I don’t just live her. I love her. I’ve loved her since we were kids.
I’m not reading that letter. I’m never reading it. Ever. And I’m done writing in this fucking notebook. So I guess that means I’m done writing to you, too.