I was Patrick Hayward, a broken man with a lot of bravado, a man who’d lived two centuries without realizing I wasted them until I met her, a man who loved a woman more than was healthy for both his sanity and well-being. A man who wanted this woman forever, in the Mortal or Immortal sense, whatever way he could have her. A man who now, staring at her face, was no longer certain he’d have tomorrow to look forward to with her.
“Em,” I said, like a question, an answer, a plea, a promise. Everything was crammed into that one syllable because there was nothing else to say at this moment.
Her response was immediately backing away from me before she turned and ran out the back door like the devil was chasing her. The screen door hadn’t had a chance to screech closed before I was halfway across the kitchen, weaving and shouldering past the herd of stone-faced Haywards.
“How much did you tell her?” I asked through a clenched jaw, not pausing for an answer because everything I needed right now was running away from this room.
However, I got an answer.
“Not enough,” Joseph called after me.
I laughed a one-noted dark one. “Since my girlfriend is presently running away from me like I’m a bonafied monster, reason would give way to the conclusion you told her way too damn much.” The screen door slammed shut behind me as I caught a glimpse of her disappearing into the night.
Knowing who she was and who I was—her innocence juxtaposed to my worldliness—I felt like the angel I’d fallen for had finally seen me for the demon I was.
I guessed she needed space. I assumed she needed time to sort things out.
But I knew she loved me.
And I loved her.
At the core of it all, that was our bond. And it wasn’t the kind of bond that didn’t stand the test of trials and time.
So that’s why I went to her about five hot seconds after she’d fled in the other direction. She’d have more than enough time to over, under, and around analyze the hell out of my—and now, her—situation. I wasn’t going to let tonight go by without her in arm’s reach, preferably in them. I had tonight to ensure we still had a tomorrow.
A prayer so primal it was silent was on my lips.
She was heading in the direction of the lake, and I just let her keep going, staying close, but giving her space. An angel wouldn’t have looked as ethereal as she did weaving through the fields.
Finally, after a couple of miles, the lake came into view and Emma stopped, staring at it like it wasn’t real. I gave her a few more minutes before closing the space between us, making enough rustling so she knew I was coming.
She didn’t turn as I approached, she didn’t even look over at me through the corners of her eyes when I stopped next to her. The agony was so intense it felt like a colony of fire ants had taken up residence in my gut.
I gave her this. The silence she needed. I didn’t twitch a muscle, I didn’t blink, I didn’t breathe. We just stood beside one another, staring at the still, black lake. And it felt like two minutes of this would kill me.
Then, when I was more than half certain she’s done with me and my complicated existence, she crushed against me, her arms winding tight around my neck. Mine reciprocated, pulling her harder against me. Every muscle in my body breathed in relief; everything felt right in the world again.
“I love you,” she said, her words muffled against my chest.
And that’s when I knew it. When I knew she has the whole unconditional thing that I have. If a person can know what they know of me and still profess love, that’s unconditional in its rarest form.
“I love you,” I replied, holding her to me for the first time in four months. Four long months. “Damn, this feels good,” I said, burying my face in her hair.
She laughed. “My boyfriend is so romantic.”
So she still loved me and still considered me her boyfriend, after whatever little or however much she was told about my mortal handicap. We were going to be all right.
“So,” I began, “you’re good?”
When her eyes flicked up to mine, I knew she’d read in between the lines. “Absolutely not,” she said, looking aghast, or at least trying to. “I just had to do that before we breech the next topic.”
“Yeah,” I exhaled. “I didn’t think this would be that easy.” Hoped, sure, but what girl in their mostly right brain could hear the word Immortal and her boyfriend’s name in the same sentence and not have some serious questions?
Backing out of my embrace, she looked at me with something in her eyes I’d never seen directed at me before. Uncertainty and even a bit of fear. I hated that she would have any reason to fear me, but I also understood why.
“It’s not like you’re dropping something like, Hey, would you like to move in together? or I used to wet the bed until I was ten, or I got suspended when I was in junior high for smoking pot in the boy’s locker room. ” She paused, swallowing, unable to get the word out. “This is…you’re a…” She paused again, taking a seat in the sand. The word was so heavy she couldn’t stand and say it. “You’re a…” I couldn’t take her struggling to get the word out anymore. “Immortal?” Looking at me from the corners of her eyes, she nodded.
“You can say it, you know?” I said, taking a seat beside her. “I swear it won’t bite.” She studied me, like she was trying to ascertain I was still the same guy she met on a sunny day in a grassy courtyard. “Immortal,” she whispered, drawing in a breath. Pulling her sweater tighter around herself, she stared at the partially frozen lake.
“It’s perfectly fine for you to be totally freaked out right now,” I said, trying to convince myself as well.
“Oh, yeah? How do you know?” she asked, arching a brow at me. “Dropped this bomb on more than one…” she choked on another word, “Mortal girl before?”
“No. You’re the first.”
The corners of her mouth curved up ever so slightly. “I guess I should feel privileged, but you’re right. I’m pretty freaked.”
I sighed. The last thing I wanted to do was complicate Emma’s life more than it already was. “Em, I don’t know how to navigate through this, I don’t have a road map, so let’s figure it out together,” I said, clearing my throat. “That is, if you’re up for figuring it out with me.” The thought of losing her crippled me. I’d rather die a hundred deaths a hundred different ways than spend my existence without her.
Love was powerful stuff.
Her hand curved around my cheek, its warmth seeping deep inside. “I’m not going anywhere. No matter what you say, or do, or are,” she said, her words strong, almost petulant. “Got that?” And then, before I even knew I was going to, I knotted my fingers through her hair and drew her to me. Our mouths came together, and right then, Armageddon could have raged around us and I wouldn’t notice. Emma was my religion, and kissing her was my form of prayer.
Her hand molded to my chest as she scooted closer, her lips unyielding. All I could think about was laying her down and shedding our clothes and inhibitions in one fell swoop, alerting me I needed to back off before I crossed the point of no return. I might be ready for it, but I wasn’t sure Emma was and I wasn’t going to risk what I had with her for anything.
Moving her head back, I pressed one lingering kiss onto her mouth.
Her eyes were wide and her breathing heavy. And I was the one responsible for that. I loved knowing that.
“I thought you said you didn’t have a roadmap,” she said as her breathing slowed.
“I don’t,” I said, scooting farther away, hoping space would squash my urge to kiss her again and, this time, not stop until the sun rose. Wasn’t really working.
“Please,” she said, flashing me a look. “That kiss was an attempt to weaken my resolve and put me into a stupor so I’d forget all my questions and apprehensions and go along with this whole…”—she bit her cheek, surveying me—”Immortal thing without doing my due diligence of at least trying to make it difficult on you.”
The kiss had loosened her up. It only took her two seconds to get the “I” word out this time, not five.
“Making things difficult isn’t a requirement,” I pointed out, to which she replied with an unconvinced expression. “Yeah, probably the given, but not the requirement,” I added to appease her. “You can ask William about the time he told the woman he loved—who happens to be his wife now—about Immortality when she—”
“Bryn, you mean,” she interrupted. It should make me more nervous than it did, having the first and second loves of my life on a first name basis with each other.
“That was William’s wife’s name the last time I checked,” I said, hoping she couldn’t see right through me.
“And when was the last time you checked?” she asked, looking at me in a way that confirmed she saw right through me.
However, I wasn’t going to answer that.
“So you gals have met,” I said, keeping my voice unemotional. “Swapped Hayward brother stories yet?”
Why did I sound defensive?
“Not really,” she said, looking at me like my discomfort was amusing. “But she’s the one that was brave enough to give me some answers tonight when everyone else pretended they’d lost their voices.”
“Wait.” Serious case of whiplash. “Bryn was the one that told you about all this?” Would be the last person I suspected.
“I wouldn’t say all, but some,” she answered, drawing a finger in the sand. “A lot. Enough to get me through so I didn’t go insane waiting.”
Now it was my turn to choke up. There was something wrong, and right, and cathartic about having the first woman I’d loved explain all the dark secrets of my world in a way that hadn’t made the woman I was going to spend the rest of my life loving want to run away from me forever.
“What else did you BFFs talk about?” I asked, working the ball out of my throat.
“Now there’s a recipe for never ending conversation.” I really needed a bottle of root beer to handle this conversation.
“Never ending, indeed,” she said, tucking her knees under her chin.
“Anything you found particularly interesting?” I asked, guessing from the blank face she was forcing that plenty of it was interesting.
“Not particularly, nosy,” she said, smiling to herself. “However she did mention this one time she got you to wear these daisy dukes and clogs or something when you all were in Germany.” She bit her cheek to keep from laughing.
“Yeah, I don’t talk about that,” I said, cringing. “And there’s no physical evidence, so it’s her word against mine.” I burned that damn outfit in the slash pile out back the minute I got back.
“I’m sure you looked very dashing,” she said, now choking on her laughter.
“Not funny, Em,” I said, hooking my arm around her neck and pulling her to me. “Anything else you girls chatted about?” I asked, clearing my throat.