More than once I lean toward Alayna with the intent of telling her that Celia may be here. Each time I stop myself. Finally, I start praying for the improbable. Don’t let her be here. Tomorrow, I’ll contact her. I’ll start making things right with her. Though I have no idea how.
Much too soon, long before I’m prepared, we are led by the host to my family’s table. Everyone’s there—Chandler, my parents, Mira and Adam, the Werners. Celia.
My stomach drops.
I know the moment Alayna spots her. She releases my hand and looks at me with pain-stricken features. “I thought you said this was family only,” she mumbles. And she bolts.
Well, that wasn’t a reaction I’d expected.
I nod to my family, catching my mother’s scowl as I make an apology. “She left something in the car. Excuse us a moment.” Then I follow after my date. While she may just need a moment to calm down, she has to know she can’t run from me. I will always come after her.
She takes the stairs. I pause at the door, trying to discover if she’s gone up or down. Her shoes echo on the concrete, but when I peer over the rail, I don’t see her below me. So I head to the roof.
At the top of the stairs, I open the heavy door and spot her rushing past the lounge area to the far edge of the space. There’s not many people here—a couple absorbed in each other on a couch, a small party conversing around an unlit fire pit. Not wanting to make a scene, I slow my pursuit. Alayna’s trapped in my sight. I can’t lose her.
When I’m close to her, I stop. Her back is to me, taking deep breaths. Her body rises and falls with each new lungful of air. I want to reach for her, but I’m tentative. Though I’m ready to move everything in my life to be with her, our whole arrangement is new to me. I’m making mistakes already, and I’m desperate not to make more.
I should have told her.
Now I have to say something, so I settle on the only thing that comes to mind. “The Werners are practically family.”
She doesn’t turn toward me. “Right. Uh-huh.”
“What, do you think I didn’t tell you on purpose?” Okay, I didn’t tell her on purpose, but not for the reasons she thinks. I’m in defense mode, and my phrasing tends to get manipulative when I am.
She chortles. “You don’t want to know what I’m thinking.”
“Actually, I do.”
She spins toward me. “No, you don’t.”
I watch her as she backs away from me, stopping when she meets the wall. She should be angry at me. Aggressive, not retreating. There’s more to this than simply jealousy, but I don’t understand what.
And I want to understand. “Trust me when I tell you I do.”
“Hudson, you can’t say that when you don’t know what I want to say.” Her voice is strained, as if she’s holding back. “It’s not good. In fact, you need to leave me alone. Or I’m going to blame you for things. Things I’m probably overreacting about, and you’re going to be offended. And I’m going to lose you.”
The light goes on, and I feel like an idiot. She’s told me that she makes things bigger than they are, and here she is, afraid that that’s what she’s doing. She’s not, of course. I deserve her accusations, misguided as they may be. I deserve blame.
But, ass**le that I am, I don’t tell her that. It will push her away, and I need—she needs—to be pulled in. So I do everything I can to make her see that her issues don’t scare me. Make her see that I’m not going anywhere. “You aren’t going to lose me.” I take a step toward her to prove it.
Her face is anguished, disbelieving. “You haven’t seen this side of me, Hudson. You don’t know.”
I don’t know what she’s like, what she can be like. I’ve seen glimpses of her obsessive tendencies, but nothing substantial. She’s been so strong, hiding her weaknesses from me.
I’m selfish because, even though I won’t show her all my darkness, I want to witness hers. “Then I need to stay. I need to see every side of you.”
Because I’ll love her through it all.
She shakes her head and bites her sexy red-painted lip, and I can tell she’s fighting tears.
But she’s also considering. I see it in her eyes. So I press her. “Go ahead. Ask me.”
“It won’t be asking; it will be accusing.” Her voice is smaller, and I can tell her resolve is weakening. It won’t take much to coax her thoughts out of her.
Am I a bully because I’m pressing her like this? Am I a masochist because I’m eager to hear what she has to say? Her accusations won’t be accurate, but I deserve to be questioned and grilled. I deserve to have to fight for her.
That’s not why I push her. I push her because I can’t live without her, and that means all of her, even this. “Do it,” I say. “I want to hear it. I need to know what you’re thinking. Trust me.”
She lets go. “You didn’t invite me tonight because you knew she’d be here.” It’s barely a whisper.
I nod in understanding. It’s not the reason I didn’t invite her, but if I’d known this morning that Alayna didn’t have to work this evening, I don’t know if I would have invited her then, either. And Celia would be the reason.
That admission would lead to things I don’t want to talk about, things I don’t want to face, and so I say, “That’s not true. I told you why I didn’t invite you. And I did invite you in the end. You’re here.”
“But you didn’t want to at first.” Though she won’t meet my eyes, her posture is stronger. “That’s probably why you had to doll me up. To show up Celia, whatever your game with her is. It wasn’t about your mother at all.”
This punches me in the gut. “You’re right.”
Her head whips up.
“You’re right that it wasn’t about my mother. It was about you. I wanted everyone to see how beautiful you are. How beautiful the woman who loves me is.” It’s hard for me to even say these words because I know that she really does love me and I don’t deserve it.
Worse, she doesn’t understand how much her affection means to me.
“Celia. You wanted to show Celia, you mean.”
I shake my head, not knowing how to get through to her.
“She’s here, Hudson!” she shouts. “She’s here with free rein, and I had to beg to be here. And you told me you wouldn’t see her without me. What is she to you?”