She stiffened. “Sorry to inconvenience you by not being Mary Poppins every damn day. Maybe if you’d pick up more of the slack and get me a new assistant, I’d do better.”
Bella sighed. “Oh, it’s worse than I thought. She’s getting mean like you, T.”
“Dammit, we’re your sisters! Ever since Carter left, you’ve been spiraling, and it’s our right to know why!”
“I’m sad, okay?” Avery battled the raw emotions and tried to keep herself calm. “This isn’t working out like I wanted it to.”
Immediately, her sisters moved to flank her. “What happened?” Bella asked.
Avery squeezed her eyes tight, willing the tears back. “I fell in love with him. I know it was a short time, but I know the difference between lust and love—between an affair and a man I want forever with. He’s it.”
“Babe, that’s wonderful. I’m so proud you went for it even though you were scared. How does he feel about you?” Taylor asked.
“I think he loves me, too, but he’s too afraid to say it. He’s got these ideas that are still lodged in his mind. He’s scared, and I’m not sure if time is going to make a difference. Things have been . . . different since he left.”
Bella frowned. “Like what? You looked happy to see each other last weekend.”
Avery thought back over their time together. She’d gorged on his presence, intent on hibernating in bed and spending endless hours in his company. But there was something between them she hadn’t felt this past summer. He’d begun to pull back, as if rebuilding the wall that had crashed down a month ago. Oh, they talked, and made love, and planned for their next visit, but Avery knew he wasn’t fully present and open. He’d blocked off an important piece of himself. The breakthrough after he’d confessed the truth about his father seemed to have faded. She’d prayed the distance would benefit their relationship, but last weekend had proved her fears.
They were already growing apart.
“He’s not able to give me what I need,” she said softly. “Is it wrong to want to share your intimate self with someone you love? To hope for a future? To want a partner?”
“No,” Bella said. “You deserve that, Avery.”
“How long do I need to fight for him? How can I give up so soon? I have this awful fear that we don’t have a chance unless we’re together.”
“You need to talk to him,” Taylor said. “He deserves to know exactly how you feel and the doubts you have. And if he’s not ready to fight for you, too, then you have your answer.”
“Love hurts,” she whispered, bowing her head.
Her sisters hugged her tight, and Avery leaned into their support, taking comfort in the strength and bonds of family.
Taylor was right. She needed to be honest with Carter. She needed more, and pretending things were fine the way they were wasn’t fair to either of them. She only hoped she could explain it in the right way and show him what he meant to her. God knew she didn’t want him to feel trapped or bullied into a relationship. But she deserved his whole heart and not pieces of it.
She just hoped she was strong enough not only to fight for him—but to walk away if it was the only choice left.
Carter was working on important code when his phone rang. He glanced down, saw Avery’s name, and experienced an odd mixture of eagerness and reluctance, joy and fear. It was a cocktail he despised because it only clouded his mind and gave him no clear-cut answers.
He didn’t know what was wrong between them.
Last weekend, the moment he saw her, his heart did a crazy jump in his chest. So many emotions bubbled up to the surface, but instead of allowing himself to let go, he’d begun to clam up. Sure, he talked and made love to her and held her close, but it was as if the familiar wall inside him he’d lived with since he’d found his dad had reappeared. He watched her from an odd distance, analyzing her words and her affection with judgment.
He’d truly believed the distance would work to their advantage. But if he was honest, he realized it’d become easier to slip into his old ways. He dove deep into work, getting lost in endless code and the puzzles of unlocking each layer of his new project. Work was a shelter, a distraction, and a reminder that there was no emotional upheaval when he was focused.
Avery was a bright light in his drudging existence, and that fact scared the shit out of him. Because if he got used to her, what would happen to him if she left? Would he become exactly like his father—unable to cope, weak under the idea of love?
He wasn’t stupid. He knew she realized things weren’t the same, but he tried to cover it up, and when he finally retreated back to DC, he may have been empty, but God knew he was safe.
Jerking himself out of his computer mode, he picked up his phone. “Hey, sweetheart. How are you?”
Her voice vibrated with an undercurrent of tension. “Okay. I had to deal with a ring-bearer tantrum, and a fight between a best man and groomsman over a girl at a bar the night before. Nightmare.”
He pictured the roll of her eyes and smiled. “It’s always about a girl, right?”
Silence hummed over the line. “I don’t know, Carter. Is it?”
Her soft question seethed with the threat of a serious discussion. He tried to tamp it down, not sure he could handle in-depth questions tonight. “If it’s a woman as beautiful as you, then yes. Every time. How’s Zoe? Is she liking school?”
“The girl has a bigger social life than I do. Bella is driving her back and forth to playdates, and now she’s in dance lessons. Lady Gaga’s got nothing on our Zoe.”
He missed the little girl’s infectious giggles, and the way she ran to him with open trust. Who would’ve thought he could’ve gotten attached to them all so quickly? The fact only solidified his decision to take it slow. Yes, he had deep feelings for Avery and her family, but taking their time was key in controlling the overabundance of emotion. She’d told him she loved him so soon. Too soon?
“What about everyone else? Gabe texted me his promotion went through.”
“We announced it this week. He said he’d call you later. He wants to get you out here for a celebratory beer with Pierce.”
“Sounds good. I know our next scheduled meeting is October eleventh, but if I sink hard into this coding, I may be able to finish quicker and take a few extra days to spend with you.”
“I’m grateful I can be properly scheduled in,” she said tightly. “Have I now been relegated to a meeting status?”
“You know what I meant.” Annoyance flickered. “Are you tired? You seem . . . off.”
A humorless laugh came over the phone. “Funny you should ask. I’ve been thinking that this relationship has been a bit ‘off’ lately. You promised total honesty and openness, Carter. It was the only way to move forward with us, so I need to know. What’s really going on?”
Panic grabbed at his throat. She wanted to back out already. After only three weeks of being apart, she was ready to give up.
He should have known. Relationships were too hard. The path was filled with challenges and thorns that made you bleed. It was so much easier to be alone.
His voice chilled, and he felt the blessed numbness begin to come back, the same he’d experienced after seeing his father’s dead body. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “Are you trying to pick a fight? I thought things were fine. We had a good time this past weekend. We’re on the schedule for another visit in two weeks. Isn’t everything going according to our plan?”
“I’m not a damn plan, Carter! I’m not looking to fit nicely into the calendar of your life.” Her voice shook with intensity. “This summer, I fell in love with you. We were connected. But since you’ve gone back to DC, I feel this barrier between us, as if you’re afraid to let go. What are you scared of? That I’m too important? That I’ll wreck your orderly existence? Or that I’ll break your heart?”
He sucked in a breath. It was too much. Her words pushed and prodded and probed until he only wanted to protect the rawness inside. He reacted like a wounded animal being threatened. “Does saying you love someone make all the issues magically go away? You plan weddings and happily ever afters for people on a daily basis. Did you ever stop to think that it could all be an illusion—and that behind the curtain is disappointment? I’m trying to take it slow here, Avery. Let us catch our breath after an intense summer. Get to know one another on a regular basis to see if we fit. I’m not sure what else you want from me.”
“You’re not your father! He made his choices, and now it’s time for you to make yours—to live your own life. Can’t you see you’re punishing yourself for something that’s not your fault? That you’re strong enough to love someone and not lose yourself?”
The mention of his father made him shudder with rage. “The only thing I see is you trying to push me to say something I don’t feel,” he shot back. “Will those three words finally make you happy?”
The tiny gasp sliced through him.
His gut churned. He gripped the phone, wanting to take it all back, but he remained silent.