“Tough shit,” I growled, giving his arm a yank. “We’re talking about it. I pursued him, and I wasn’t going to stop until I wore him down and he eventually gave in, because I love him.”
“Love?” Noel sneered and shook his head. “You have no idea, little girl. I’ve seen what you thought love was, and it ain’t even close.”
Sucking in a pained breath from that jab, I closed my eyes briefly, but then I looked up at him, steeling my resolve. “I know you totally lost faith in me a year ago. I know you thought I became something that couldn’t be trusted with my own heart, but believe it or not, I actually learned from my experience with Sander. And Oren is nothing like him.”
Noel snorted and shook his head, not believing me. I yanked on his arm again. “I’m serious,” I said. “He may not have taken me on a conventional date, but he was more considerate and attentive than I ever could’ve imagined a boyfriend could be. I never started a day without some kind of message from him, letting me know he was thinking about me. He took me to Rainly Park and even showed me a hidden waterfall there.”
When my brother shot me a startled glance, I nodded. “We did all kinds of things in the apartment with Quinn and Zoey. He even introduced me to his parents.”
Noel glanced around the yard, probably to send Quinn a scowl of betrayal, but all our friends had left, respecting his wishes.
“Honestly, the only person we didn’t tell was you.” As Noel fumed, I lifted an eyebrow. “Why do you think that was?”
Shaking my head, I left him in the backyard to stew. Then I hiked to Oren’s apartment. But when I didn’t find him there, Zoey let me borrow her car to drive to his hometown. I wasn’t sure how I knew he’d go to his place, but I just knew.
When I reached it at dusk, he was sitting by himself, his arms wrapped around his knees as he watched the colorful sunset.
He didn’t acknowledge me as I sat beside him, so I didn’t say anything either.
“Did you listen in on the conversation I had with your brother in the front yard?” he finally asked, turning his face to consult me.
I shook my head. “No. They kept me in the back while you two were supposed to iron it out. But you didn’t iron it out, did you?”
He laughed softly. “Not even a little.”
I reached for his hand. He didn’t pull away, so I tightened my grip around his fingers. “What did he say to you, Oren?”
“Oh, you know...” He blew out a breath and returned his attention to the sunset. “He just verbally bitch slapped the shit out of me with a couple of hard-to-accept truths.”
“Like I’m no good for any woman, least of all you. And if I ever cared about you and wanted what was best for you, I’d let you go to find someone else who deserves you a hell of a lot more than I do.”
“So then...” I shook my head, not sure what he was trying to say to me. “It’s over between us? Because of what he said? You’re letting me go? Just like that? After you promised me nothing he said could break us apart.”
“Damn it,” he muttered as he spun to me. “Since when do you know me to do what’s best for anyone else? I do what makes me happy, with no care how it affects those around me. And what I want more than anything is you.”
“Then why did you just leave me there?” Tears filled my eyes without my consent.
“I didn’t—fuck.” His expression flashed with worry. He reached for me and tugged me tight into his arms. “I’m sorry, baby. I wasn’t thinking. I’d just lost my best friend. I wanted a few minutes to myself. I just...I thought you knew none of this had changed anything we have.”
I clutched his shoulder and buried my face in his neck. “Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything right now. I don’t know up from down, if my brother hates me or forgives me, if you...” My voice choked up, and he pulled me tighter against him before he grasped my chin and made me look up at him.
“Here’s one thing you can take to the bank. I love you. And that’s not going to change. Ever.”
“Say it again,” I demanded.
Cupping the back of my head, he urged my face up until his earnest gaze was focused on nothing but mine. “I love you, Caroline. You’ve had me from the moment your brother carried you out of the bathroom in that run-down old trailer house. And no matter what happens, I’m going to keep on loving you.”
Sobs took me over. “I love you, too,” I admitted through my tears. “I just can’t help it. There were so many reasons to stay away, to hate you, but...it’s like you’re a part of me or something.”