“I love you,” he repeated, his breath tickling my skin.
My heart, already fragile, broke a little. I shook my head; I wanted to believe him but I couldn’t. He cared for me—and always had. But no, he loved being the hero more than he ever loved being mine.
“Don’t,” Everett growled. He’d seen my face. Groaning, he gently placed his hands on my shoulders and stepped back.
“I’m sorry.” And I was. He’d always been kind and gentle but deserved so much more than I could give him.
Everett released my shoulders and cupped my face in his hands, an ache sinking low in my chest. He touched his forehead against my temple, his chest rising and falling in rhythm with mine. I froze, completely confused. A moment ago he’d stepped back and now he leaned in. For a moment, just a brief moment, I wondered if he was retaliating for all the ups and downs, the hot and cold I’d given him.
Everett shifted and ran his hand down my left arm, leaving goosebumps in its wake. Turning my hand palm up, he placed a sharp piece of cold metal in the center. “Marry me. For real this time.”
“What?” I froze. He’d put an engagement ring in my hand. My mind raced. We were growing apart, not closer. With Marjorie dying, our last connection would be gone. “Everett—”
“Don’t overthink this.” He held my hand up to the lamp, the light shining on an enormous center diamond. Dozens of tiny diamonds glittered on the tiny sliver of a band. It was too cliché for my father’s store, a two-carat gemstone perched on a micro pave band. And yet, it was the exact ring I’d dreamed of—I’d never told a soul. Hope burst in. Everett knew me. He’d always known me.
I slipped the ring on my finger, so different than what I’d grown up with. No creativity or custom accents that showcased my father’s talent. And then it hit me. Everett hadn’t asked my father. Everything was still a secret. Nothing had changed. Nothing would ever change.
This wasn’t real. This was just another Band-Aid, a dream at best.
I stepped back. Instead of following me, Everett bent on one knee. “Let me give you the wedding, the ring. Everything.”
“My family is right here, Everett.” They were in the church celebrating my cousin’s wedding. Soon, we’d be celebrating my sister Elaine’s as well.
“You deserve your time in the spotlight.”
“Would you stop?” I snapped, hating myself for how I was acting. “We are not this. You are not the get on one knee kind of guy. I’m not the blushing bride.”
“Everett,” I warned but couldn’t stop the smile. I was very much the poster child for blushing bride. It wasn’t something to be proud of—not when I’d been married for this long. We’d never crossed that line, and it was all my fault. “We are not okay. We have years of being not okay.”
“We’ll figure it out.”
“Get up, Everett.” It bothered me, his giant frame on bended knee.
He shook his head, his scowl on full display. “I don’t care, Scarlett. Do you understand?”
“You’re a …” man. And men had needs.
“A man who loves you.” He stood and in one step, held my hand. A goofy grin that should’ve been on a boy instead of a grown man appeared. “I promised I would take care of you.”
“And you have. You were never the problem.” One night, over a decade ago, had left its mark; though the memory was foggy and the details fragmented. The box of old files in my garage held more secrets, more obstacles that kept me at arm’s length. “But really, come on, Everett, if I had kept my mouth shut.”
I couldn’t look at him. It’d hurt too much. The words kept coming. “I shouldn’t have told you. You wouldn’t feel this need to protect me.”
“You still think I’m here because I have to be? After everything, you still think that?”
“You flew halfway around the world because your grandmother is dying. Moral obligation is kind of your thing.”
Everett blanched, his mouth hung open. His back straightened, an argument forming in his eyes. He was no longer the outcast child. He was Everett Ashley, an international bulldog of an attorney, but this was a debate he would not win.
My lip trembled and I prayed I wouldn’t cry. He’d never believe me if he saw tears. He would stay, console … and hold me. It was my fault that Everett saw me as an orphan, someone in need of shelter and love instead of a living, breathing adult woman.
Avoiding his gaze, I sank to the ground, my back against the church’s brick building. He sat next to me on the cement, tension radiating from him. Only Everett would sit beside me on a dirty sidewalk in an expensive suit. He folded his knees and groaned, his head in his hands.
“I’m sorry, Everett.”
“Would you stop saying that?” he growled, and in some odd, dysfunctional way, the sound offered comfort. “And don’t tell me I don’t love you.”
He lifted his head and glared at me. “I’ve done enough thinking for the both of us.”
“And … what did you decide?”
He scoffed and pointed to the diamond. “Thought it’d be obvious.”
“I don’t need a ring.” I needed a cure to an insatiable, irrational fear. Not a diamond. But the fact that he’d given me one, endeared him all the more.
“Yeah, you do.” He sighed, his big, irritated sigh, and pulled me into his lap before I could protest. Cradling my head against his chest, he said, “You need a wedding too. And you need to be touched.”
His chest was too comfortable. Too warm and inviting. I heard his heartbeat and wished it didn’t affect me.
“Scarlett, I need you to listen to me.” He waited a beat before starting again. “You’re all I ever wanted. Whether you believe it or not, I staked my claim long before that night. I told you once, I wasn’t giving up without a fight. I don’t care if you’re ninety and we’re still figuring this out. It’s you and me, Scarlett.” He squeezed me against him. “You and me.”
Unsure, I curled into him. Intimacy wasn’t something he could just brush off, no man could. No man would. “I can’t promise—”
“I know.” Everett threaded his fingers through mine. “And I don’t care.”
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