The memories stirred, unsettled. He tried to retreat behind his usual barrier. “Something happened that affected me when I was young. It changed the way I looked at things like love and marriage. I don’t like to talk about it.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” she said, sitting up in bed and tossing him a fierce glare. “Because I’m naked in your bed, and falling hard, and you promised to give me your best. I have a right to know what made you so sure no relationship is worth fighting for.”
Shock held him immobile. Then he shook his head. “Why are you pushing me?”
“Because it’s important!” she said, grabbing his arm. “You’re important. I’m not about to just meekly accept your decision to hide and pretend it doesn’t matter. Dammit, it does matter! You deserve more, and so do I!”
Dear God, she wouldn’t stop. She’d just keep pushing, sensing something about to break inside him. Another woman would’ve retreated and left him to his secrets. But not Avery. She would never allow him to run and hide in her quest for answers. And in that staggering moment, the truth he’d never uttered to a single soul before rose up and begged for freedom. The secret broke free and shot from his lips: “My father killed himself.”
Shock filled her eyes. Her hand dropped from his arm. “Ally said he had a heart attack.”
A bitter smile curved his lips. “Because I never told her the truth. After our mother died, our father fell apart. He was so damn in love, he didn’t want to live without her.” The anger rose back up—a living, breathing thing that he’d shoved away a long time ago and refused to feel. Until now. “Ally and I didn’t seem to matter. We weren’t enough for him. So, one day, he locked himself in his office and overdosed on sleeping pills.”
He spoke the words with a calm, controlled voice. The ice closed back up again, numbing the rawness of memory. It was better this way. No need to waste time on grief or fury for a man who didn’t care enough to live for his children. A man who refused to look past his own selfish needs to join his beloved wife and forget about his responsibilities. God knew his mother had fought so damn hard to live for them. Ironic that her husband found it so easy to give up.
He watched Avery try to process his words, wondering if she’d want to talk it through or analyze it. Exhaustion leaked into his system. For so long, he’d kept his secret. Giving it space to breathe deflated him like a limp balloon devoid of its air and essence. He’d tell her everything now. It no longer mattered, and at least she’d finally understand his choices.
“I was in my first semester of college. Came home for the weekend to check on him. Mom had only been gone for four months, so it was still fresh. Ally was at her friend’s for the weekend at a sleepover.” The day flickered past his vision in slow motion. “I couldn’t find him in the house. Called his name, but no one answered. I figured he was out. I took a shower, made some calls to my friends, got something to eat. Meanwhile, he was in his office, dying.”
He noticed her beautiful hazel eyes were full of pain. How odd she felt it and he couldn’t.
“Finally, I realized he rarely shut his office door, so I went in. He was collapsed on the desk. There were empty pill bottles and my mother’s picture clutched in his hands. I called 911, but I knew it was too late.” He dragged in a breath and finished up. “I knew it could break Ally. She was barely coping with Mom’s death, and knowing her own father took his life would’ve put her over the edge. I decided to hide it. Told her it was a heart attack—which technically it was, due to the overdose. After that, I made the decision to drop out of school. The life insurance set us up for a while, and I applied for guardianship of Ally. I’d gotten into trouble for hacking before, but eventually, a start-up company came looking to hire me. It was easy after that. I was good at hacking, so I made a name for myself. I was able to be home most of the time to raise Ally. The rest is history.”
She remained silent, her gaze delving so deep, a shiver shook through him. It was as if she saw things he’d allowed no one else to view. A secret part he’d kept from everyone.
He forced a smile, looking to reassure her. “I know it’s a terrible story, but honestly, I’m fine. Ally’s fine. But that’s the main reason I made those hard choices. I never want to love someone so much I’d sacrifice everything for them. Sounds like a worthy, romantic cause, but in real life, it’s just wrong.”
“You carried this by yourself for all these years?”
He shrugged. “I was old enough to handle it.”
It was then he saw the tears in her eyes. His heart stopped as he studied her in almost-wonderment. Why was she crying?
“Sweetheart, don’t cry.”
A sob caught in her throat, and suddenly, she was in his arms, wrapped tight around him. Head tucked by his shoulder, she squeezed him as if trying to protect him from harm. Her wet cheeks pressed against his chest, and he returned the embrace, dropping kisses on the top of her head and whispering her name. She cried for a long time, cried for him and his past, releasing all the grief and anger on his behalf. And as Carter comforted her, his chest began to ease. A lightness he’d never experienced before settled over him. It was almost as if the tears he’d never been able to cry had finally released. Through Avery.
They held each other tight even after her sobs had eased. The soft, solid weight of her broke the icy numbness, and slowly, heat seeped back into his body. Hours or minutes or seconds later, she tipped her head up.
The naked longing and need in her luminous eyes rocketed through him. His hands cupped her damp cheeks, his thumb tracing the trembling curve of her lower lip.
Her words wrecked him to his very soul: “I love you, Carter Ross. I know there are a million reasons you don’t believe in it, and you’ll never be able to say it back to me, but it’s the truth, and you deserve to hear it. I love the boy who protected his sister and had the bravery to sacrifice his youth and dreams. I love the man who makes Zoe laugh and writes a letter to the tooth fairy for a stranger. I love the man who spoils his dog, and brings me chocolate croissants, and looks into my eyes when he makes love to me.” Her smile wobbled, but her face was lit with a giving joy that stole his very breath. “So there it is. And you’re just going to have to deal with it. Okay?”
His world shredded and a new path opened before him. A path with thorns and brush leading to an unknown track he’d always avoided. But looking into her face, everything inside him sighed and opened and wanted for the first time. Fear and need warred inside him, battling for dominance.
Carter closed his eyes. This woman had given him everything without expectation. He struggled to say the words in his heart and mind and soul, the same words that had destroyed his father. The words he’d spent his life rejecting to protect himself. The words he hoped and feared were his new truth.
But they died on his lips, unspoken.
He opened his eyes. Gazed down at the woman in his arms. And took her mouth with his. This, he could give. His body could give her everything, and maybe, it would be enough.
He pressed her back into the mattress and spent the next few hours showing her his heart.
“He’ll be right back.”
Lucy stared back at her in dismissal. She whined again and circled by the door, obviously upset that the love of her life had left her with his new squeeze.
Avery sighed, tugging down the shirt she’d borrowed from him, and refilled her coffee mug.
For the past week, Lucy had been making it crystal clear she was unwelcome. When Carter was in the shower, she’d jump up on the bed, curl onto his pillow, and show her teeth in warning when Avery tried to join her. If Avery tried to explain the behavior to Carter, he stared at her in disbelief and asked Lucy if she was being nice.
Yeah. Like the dog could answer him. Even if she could, Avery knew she’d lie.
Yesterday morning, she’d discovered a surprise in her shoe. Lucy’s punishment consisted of a light scolding and an extra walk, peppered with excuses that she hadn’t been walked enough last night. But when Lucy turned back and nailed Avery with a stare, triumph glimmered in her big brown eyes.
She was beginning to understand exactly what Selena had been talking about with Gus. Lucy was out to get her, but she couldn’t let the dog win.
Avery rummaged through the cookie jar, knelt down, and offered her a treat. She planned to kill the dog with kindness until she was finally accepted. After all, since Carter had confessed the truth to her, their relationship had grown stronger. Understanding how he’d gotten twisted in his mind over his ideas of love helped her be patient. In her heart, she knew the man was capable of being a great partner, if only he faced his fears and left the past behind.
But first he needed to heal. Believe. And let himself love.
Was she the woman meant to be part of his journey toward healing, or would she be unable to truly break through?
She pushed the disturbing thoughts away and tried to concentrate on bonding with her nemesis. “Lucy, want a treat?”
She’d watched the dog gobble them up from Carter’s fingers, but now, Lucy just gave an annoyed sigh and plopped her butt down by the door to wait.