My pacing has me near the bedroom when I hear her arrive. The ding of the elevators sends my heart into my throat, and my mouth goes dry. Cautiously, I duck out of sight. It’s quiet so I can hear her gasp as she realizes the place is empty.
I give her a minute to acclimate. Or I give myself a minute to get it together. Either way, eventually, I find my way to her.
She’s in the library, standing over the boxes of books that I’ve given her. We chitchat and it’s safe. The way she looks at me, though, is anything but safe. Her eyes travel greedily up and down my body, and it’s all I can do not to take her up on what her body language is proposing.
Thinking of Mirabelle ends my contemplation of inappropriate advances. Besides that the thought of my sister is a turn-off, she had so wisely pointed out that I was not just trying to get laid. So I’m a good boy. And Alayna’s a good girl with a wicked smile.
“I didn’t expect you to be here,” she says after another round of ogling. Her tone suggests she’s not upset. If I had to bet, I’d say she’s even happy about it. Steps in the right direction.
“You didn’t say I couldn’t be.” There’s nowhere else I’d be today.
“It was implied,” she teases.
“You don’t seem that horribly pissed to see me.” My eyes meet hers, and they dare her to deny it.
She bites her lip, and I can tell she’s warring with herself. I can read her so well, but there’s still so much I don’t know that goes on in her beautiful mind. If only I could know right now what she’s thinking.
But she’s not willing to let me in there again. Not yet. She changes the subject. “Where is everything?”
“Your stuff is still all here.”
“But where’s your stuff?”
I’m not sure I’m ready to let the easiness of our banter go. I take a deep breath. Then, ready or not, I tell her, “I can’t live here without you, Alayna.”
She attempts to hide a frown and fails. “So you’re moving out?”
The idea seems to bother her. Good. It bothers me, too. “Actually, I hope I’m moving in.”
“H, you confuse me enough without you trying to be confusing.” Exasperation lies under her words. “Could you say something I can understand?”
“I confuse you?”
“Is this a surprise?”
I shrug. I’d forgotten how fun it is to tease her. I’ve missed it.
“So you’re moving in?” she prompts, her hands gesturing in the air, perhaps as a substitution for throttling me.
She’s losing her patience now, and that’s not what I want. I answer her question. “One day. I hope. But for now, I want you to live here.”
“What?” Her expression turns irritated and her tone weary.
She thinks I don’t understand what she wants from me. But I do. She doesn’t want me to flaunt my money or give her ridiculously expensive gifts.
It’s me who’s misunderstood. I’m not trying to buy her love. I simply want to know that she’s taken care of. And I want her in our home.
As best as I can, I try to make her understand. “I can’t live here without you, precious. But I don’t want to sell it, because I love being here with you. Someday, you and I will be here again. While I’m waiting for you—scratch that—while I’m groveling for your forgiveness, it’s a shame to let it sit empty. You and Liesl should move in.”
“I can’t accept that, H.” But she seems less angry now.
“I had a feeling you’d say that. Then it will have to sit.” I’d known she wouldn’t accept. I still had to offer.
She bites her lip as if working out a problem in her head—God, how I want to suck on that lip—then she suggests, “You could rent it out.”
“I could rent it out to you.”
Alayna laughs, and every dark cloud in the sky scatters. I’ll do anything to keep that smile on her face. Anything to keep the flirting and the warmth that passes between us. We tease like this, back and forth, her smile remaining, her eyes gleaming. The day is already worth it just because I got to see the sun in Alayna’s face.
She asks me again, “Seriously, though, where’s all your stuff? Did you get another place?”
I shake my head. “I gave it all to a charity fundraiser.” This is true. For the most part. Minus the pieces I destroyed.
“Lifestyles of the rich and famous,” she teases.
As much as we’re both enjoying the playfulness—it’s obvious she is as much as I am—there are still mountains between us. There are still things to say and explain. We have wounds that need dressing and scars that haven’t finished forming.
I start toward her, tightening the gap that feels like a cavern between us. “I wasn’t attached to any of it. This entire apartment was perfectly designed to my tastes and style, but it never felt like a home.” I stop a short distance from her. “Not until you, Alayna. You made it come alive. The things that were here—they were chosen for me by someone I want completely removed from my life. Right now, the things here are the only things that made this house a place I’d want to live. Your things. You.”
She starts to say something, but then closes her mouth before anything comes out.
I take advantage of her loss for words. And the fact that she hasn’t kicked me out yet. “And when I move back in, we can refurnish this place from scratch. Together. You and I.”
She takes an audibly shaky breath in. “You’re so sure that one day I’ll take you back.”
I study her. I know her so well, can read her emotions from her body language better than I can read my own. Maybe I’m fooling myself now, seeing what I want to see, but her features, her expression, her carriage—it all says that the outlook for us is good. Really good.
She’s looking at me with love, her eyes begging me to take her into my arms, and I’m carried away in the moment. “I’m hopeful,” I tell her with a smile. “Would you like to see how hopeful I am?”
“Sure.” The word falls easily, and that only makes what I’m going to do that much easier.
I dig in my pocket and pull out the ring. When I put it there this morning, I told myself it was for good luck, that I had no intention of presenting it to her today. Turns out I was fooling myself.
I hold it up in the air, my thumb and forefinger grasping the bottom so that the diamond is standing straight up. “I bought this.”