“I’m sorry,” she finally said. “You’re right.”
“Good. Now, are we still on for the eleventh?” He knew before she spoke he’d made a terrible mistake.
“No, Carter. I can’t do this anymore.”
“You want to know what I want from you?” She spoke with a strength that humbled him, even as his heart shattered in his chest. “I want everything. Not pieces of you doled out in perfect proportions to keep things neat and tidy. I don’t just want to fit properly into your life. I want you to love me. I want you to take the leap with me and believe you’re strong enough to handle the flight, or the fall. But you won’t even try. And I can’t stay with someone who has given up before we’ve even begun.”
He shut down, sensing the end of something beautiful and good and hopeful, and he wondered if he’d ever know what it was like to be whole again.
“You’re breaking up with me,” he stated.
“I’m letting you go,” she corrected. “If I thought time and fighting for you would make a difference, God knows I’d do it. But you have to want all of me, and I don’t think you’re ready.” She paused and he held his breath. “I don’t think you’ll ever be ready.”
“I won’t chase after you.” His words dropped like hard stone between them, and he flinched, knowing he’d hurt her.
“I know,” she whispered. “I want you to be happy. You deserve . . . everything. Goodbye, Carter.”
The phone clicked.
He dropped it on the desk. Stared at the computer. And tried to tell himself it was the only way their relationship could have ended. It never would’ve worked. They’d had a magical summer, but real life proved it was all an illusion.
His hands trembled. Nausea punched his gut. His head swam. He wondered if he was getting sick, so he stumbled to the couch and lay down. Lucy sensed his distress and hopped up next to him, worriedly licking at his cheek. He cuddled her close, shutting his eyes, and telling himself not to think about it.
She’d done the right thing. For both of them.
A week later, he called his sister to check in. Ally didn’t answer, but then a few seconds later, a FaceTime call came through. Shaking his head, he accepted it. “You know I hate video calls,” he grumbled.
Her face was wreathed in a big grin, and she stuck out her tongue, making him chuckle. “I missed your face,” she said cheerily. “Plus, I need you to give me an honest answer. You’re the only one I trust.”
“What is it?”
She held the phone all the way back and showed off her jean-clad body. “Am I getting fat?”
Instead of groaning and pretending she was crazy, he knew exactly what she needed. “Turn around,” he directed, and she did a slow spiral. “Nope, not fat at all. In fact, you look great. I think marriage agrees with you.”
She let out a relieved breath. “Thank God. And yes, marriage does agree with me, but that’s why I’ve been eating more. I don’t mind a few pounds, but I don’t want to overdo my happy diet.”
He grinned. “I hear you. Now, catch me up on things.”
She chatted about Jason and her students, and he listened to her musical voice, loving the way her face lit up. She looked . . . settled. There was a calmness about her that shone right through the tiny screen, and he was glad he’d picked up the FaceTime call. Talking to his sister always made him feel better.
“Have you seen Avery?” she finally asked, switching topics.
Every muscle locked and tightened. He spoke carefully. “Why would I see Avery?”
Her eyes danced with mischief. “Do you think I’m an idiot? It was so obvious when you danced at my bachelorette party. I didn’t want to push too soon, so when I got back from my honeymoon, I called Avery and demanded the truth. She fessed up and told me you guys were seeing each other. I’m so happy! You two are perfect together!”
Pain crashed through him. He’d figured a few days of mourning and he’d be back to normal, but the last few weeks had been brutal. He dreamed of her. He stared at his computer like a lovesick teen, sick to his stomach. It was like having the flu with no medicine and no assurances of getting better. Ever since she’d said goodbye, the life he’d fought hard to protect and maintain had shattered around him.
He debated lying, but he didn’t want to do that. “We spent the summer together,” he finally admitted. “Why didn’t you say anything sooner if you knew?”
“It was obvious you were both crazy about each other, and honestly? I didn’t want to interfere. I figured if I played dumb, you guys would just do your thing. I also know how weird you are talking about your love life, so I wanted to give you time before I pounced. Now, tell me everything.”
“Unfortunately, we broke up,” he said.
Her face dropped. “What? Carter, I’m so sorry. What happened? I’ve never seen you like that around a woman—it was obvious you were crazy about her. Oh my God, Avery never even told me you broke up!”
She hadn’t even told her best friend? Hurt and annoyance warred inside, but he just shrugged and forced a smile. “We couldn’t do the long-distance thing.”
A frown creased her brow. “That’s it? Dude, why don’t you just move?”
“People don’t just move and change their entire life after one summer. It doesn’t make sense.”
She snorted. “Love isn’t supposed to make sense. Mom and Dad met and were married within six months. The moment Jason and I began dating, I knew he was the one in a few weeks. Sure, we took time getting engaged, but we both committed to the relationship immediately. It’s a heart thing, Carter, not a brain thing. Love sometimes just doesn’t make sense.”
His heart pounded at the simple explanation. “You think I should sell my house, quit my job, and move to a small beach town after only really knowing this woman for a few months? You don’t think that’s impulsive, reckless, and foolhardy?”
She laughed. “Yes.”
“I can’t. I’m not like you, Ally-Cat. I don’t believe in the things you do.”
“Like what? Relationships? Love? Marriage? I call bullshit. And I think it’s time you begin to realize this little martyr act you put on will only get you one thing—loneliness.”
Temper pricked. She had no idea what he’d gone through because he’d chosen to protect her. But he wasn’t about to let her think he hadn’t tried. “I’m not a martyr, and I don’t pretend to be. I made hard choices, and I don’t regret any of them. And I did try with Avery. She was very clear that the distance between us wasn’t what she wanted.”
“The mileage? Or you?” She groaned and threw up her hands. “Carter, please listen to me. I’ve minded my own business because I trusted you knew what you were doing. But all those sacrifices you made for me? Quitting college, giving up travel, and making sure I was always your priority? They haunt me. You don’t think I lie awake at night sometimes and cry, knowing everything you gave up?”
Shock barreled through him. He’d never imagined Ally had these feelings—he’d worked so hard at making sure she never thought of herself as a burden or sacrifice. Because she wasn’t. “Ally—”
“No, wait. That compass tattoo you got before Dad died? It meant something to you. It was a symbol of freedom, right? But this past decade, when you finally were free, you chose to do nothing. You have the same solitary life as when I was young. I’m married and happy. I’m going to raise my own family. Why do you still cut yourself off from living? What makes you so afraid?”
It was the same question that Avery had asked. He’d told her the story about his father, but now he began to wonder if it had gone deeper. Had all those years of sacrifice for Ally become habit? Had he used her to hide, playing a martyr role so he’d never be tested or challenged to take risks? Why was he still in the same place, at the same job, when there was nothing holding him back any longer?
The thoughts spun in his head. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “Each time I saw Avery, I freaked out a bit. In some ways, I thought she was too good to be true, and then I worried if I fell hard for her, that I’d get hurt. Like Dad.”
“How so?” she asked.
Knowing he was in tricky territory, he tried to navigate his answer in a way she could understand. “Do you remember what you said about Dad at your wedding? That you worried his heart had given out because he didn’t want to live without Mom? What if you were right? What if he just gave up on his body and left his children because he was too weak to be alone?”
His sister shuddered out a breath, then took a while to answer. She looked deep in thought. “I always suspected that was the case,” she finally said. “It was too soon after Mom’s death to be a coincidence. I actually read plenty of articles on soul mates who let their body stop working because they couldn’t bear a world without their spouse. But, Carter, you can’t compare yourself to Dad. You’re the strongest person I know. We were orphans too young, and you had to grow up so fast. You could have chosen not to do it. You could have walked away and put me in foster care. Do you understand that you chose love over selfishness?”