I feel like she’s slapped me. “How can you ask that?” That she loves me means everything. It’s the reason I’m here with her now, floundering with no direction. Her love is the only beacon of hope I’ve encountered in my dark world. I cling to it. I hold it like a lifeline. “Of course, it does. But, Alayna,” always that but, “you don’t know that you’d still say that if you knew me.”
“I do know you.”
“Not everything.” Secrets push against my lips, begging to be released.
“Only because you haven’t let me in!”
I spread my arms out in frustration. “What is it you want to know? About what I did to other women? About Celia? I’m the reason she got pregnant, Alayna. Because I spent an entire summer making her fall in love with me when I felt nothing for her. For fun. For something to do.”
The words spill like the tears that still stain Alayna’s cheeks. With them, the pain and anguish that I didn’t feel then sprouts within me. The horror of what I did takes root. The disgust at my actions, the regret, the guilt—all of it overwhelms me with each syllable I pronounce. Yet I can’t stop them. “And then, when I’d completely broken her, she became destructive—sleeping around, partying, drugs. You name it, she did it. She didn’t even know who the father was.”
The last part is a lie, but I’m not about to implicate Jack right now. It’s not the point, anyway. The point is that it’s out there now, one of my biggest secrets. And while there’s relief in the admission, a blanket of uncertainty hangs in the air like a heavy mist that cloaks my vision. Before I could read Alayna so well, every expression, every thought that darted across her eyes. Now I see nothing. I’m certain this story turns her off, disgusts her—how can it not? But I can’t see it on her face.
She takes in a shuddering breath and wipes her eyes. “So you claimed it was yours.”
“Yes.” I narrow my eyes, studying her as she works through this.
“Because you felt responsible.” Her voice is even, void of any inflection.
“Yes. She lost the baby at three months. Likely from the drinking and drugs she’d consumed early on. She was devastated.” And I’m devastated now, as if the loss has just happened. There’s a familiarity in the pain, and I remember feeling a hint of this ache back then. I’d been convinced that Alayna had taught me sensation, but now I wonder, have these emotions always been inside me, locked away, waiting for someone to set them free?
“That’s awful,” Alayna says, and I leave my introspection, returning my focus to her. I still can’t read her, still can’t figure out what awful things she’s thinking behind those beautiful brown eyes.
“It’s awful,” she says again, her voice tinged with confusion, “but I don’t understand. You thought this would make me not love you…why?”
I fall onto the arm of the sofa, baffled by her lack of concern. “Because it changes everything. I did that. That’s who I am. It’s my past, and it’s very ugly.”
Finally, her face breaks, but it’s not disappointment that I see on her features—it’s compassion. She moves to me and settles her hands on my shoulders. “Do you think your ugly is any different than mine?”
Her touch, her words—they’re hard to bear. She’s making too light of my sins. They’re nothing like the things she’s done. “This isn’t like following someone around or calling too many times, Alayna.”
“It was an unforeseen tragedy, Hudson. A game that got out of hand. You didn’t set out for Celia to get pregnant and have a miscarriage. And you can’t diminish the things I’ve done to a simple statement like that either. I hurt people. Deeply. But that was before. Less than ideal pasts, remember? It doesn’t mean it defines our future. Or even our now.”
Her words reach deep inside me, through my skin, into my bones, and I hear her. Really hear her. She’s voicing an idea I’ve played with since I’ve met her. Can I—can we—break free of our pasts and step into the future unchained?
I let out the breath I’ve been holding and brush a tear from her eye. “When I’m with you, I almost believe that.”
“That just means you need to spend more time with me.”
That almost makes me laugh. “Is that what that means?” Maybe that is what it means. I entertain the idea with more sincerity than I have previously. Could I be with Alayna like this? For real? Put another way, could I ever find the strength to not be with her like this?
I slide my thumb down to caress her cheek. “Yesterday morning, when I got the phone call that required me to be in Cincinnati—I couldn’t even let myself look at you, sleeping in that bed. If I did, I wouldn’t have been able to leave.”
Her face lights up. “I thought you left because you were freaking out. Because of the love stuff.”
“I wasn’t freaking out.” Not about the love stuff. That I’d welcomed. “I was surprised, that’s all.”
“That that’s what we were feeling.” I hedge around an actual declaration. “That it was love.”
“It was,” she says with certainty. “It is.”
“Hmm.” I let her affirmation settle around me. This thing I’ve felt for Alayna began when I first met her, the first spark igniting at the moment I first saw her. Since then, it’s remained constant, growing and brightening, refusing to take a shape that I could identify, but always strengthening in intensity. Love, she calls it. It’s new. It’s amazing. “I never felt this before. I didn’t know.”
I sweep my hands down her sides to rest on her hips. “But, Alayna, I’ve never had a healthy romantic relationship. Every woman who’s loved me…” My throat clenches as I recall the pain I caused Celia and others who claimed they’d fallen for me. “I don’t want to break you too.”
“You’re not going to break me, Hudson.” She’s so sure. “I thought you might, at first. Turns out you make me better. And I think I do the same for you.”
“You do.” She’s the only thing that ever has.
“If you decide to not…follow through…with whatever this is that we have, it will hurt. But I won’t be broken.”
“But it would hurt?” I’m already committing to a new plan, one that hasn’t fully formulated in my head.