“Hey, man.” With a deep sigh, I sit down on the ground in front of Eric’s grave. Rubbing my chest, I study the engraving on the tombstone like I always do when I visit my best friend. My gaze falls on his date of birth, and I clench my jaw. He would have turned twenty-eight today.
“Happy birthday,” I mumble as I run my hand over my face. “I bring some good news. Jackson will be breathing jail air for a very long time. Wallace finally did the right thing and helped arrest him. That’s poor compensation for losing you, of course. I should have beaten the shit out of him when I had the chance, but I guess that he’s locked up now and can’t do any more harm to anyone must suffice.”
I take a few deep breaths, thinking back to the events that led to Jackson’s arrest—and the woman I entangled in this. The heaviness that drags me down whenever she’s on my mind intensifies with every minute that passes. Every moment I reminisce about her—about us—I lose more of that calm inside me.
“You remember that girl I told you about? Kaitlyn? Well, I kinda messed up. She thinks I don’t want her to stay. She said she wasn’t planning on returning home, and that after I had made my peace with her leaving. I was stupid enough to think that maybe some time apart would do me good. So I was a little shocked when she told me she would be staying. I desperately wanted to tell her she was wrong, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I just let her talk. Because as it turns out, I’m a fucking coward.” I lower my head and drag my fingers through my hair.
“I didn’t answer her calls, I didn’t read her texts. For the past four days, I’ve been telling myself that maybe it’s for the better. Guess what: it’s not. Whoever said absence makes the heart grow fonder was a fucking shithead. The longing for her is so intense, I feel it in every cell in my body. You’re probably laughing at me now. I mean, look at me! Look what she did to me. I’m such an idiot.”
“I’m with you on that.”
A voice behind me makes me flinch. I turn around and glare at my brother. “Ben,” I grumble. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
He shrugs. “It’s Eric’s birthday; I wanted to say hi.” He sits down and hands me one of the two bottles of beer he brought. He chuckles when I furrow my brows. “You gotta have a drink on someone’s birthday, right?” He opens the bottle and takes a sip, motioning for me to do the same.
With a tentative smile, I open my bottle as well and empty some of the beer over Eric’s grave. “Here’s to you.”
Ben follows suit, and we sit next to each other in companionable silence for a few moments before my brother turns to me. “How are you?”
Shrugging my shoulder, I take a sip. “How much of my rambling have you heard?”
“Enough to know that you’re an idiot for letting Kaitlyn go. She was good for you.”
I give him a sideways glance. “I wasn’t good for her though.”
“And that right there shows how much you’ve changed. The old Aaron couldn’t have cared less. Too bad you’re acting like a dickhead.”
I snort. “Shut up. You don’t know the whole story.”
“I do. I know what happened with Kaitlyn and Jackson.”
My head snaps around. “How?”
“Kaitlyn told Amy. They talked yesterday. Before Kaitlyn returned home.”
My posture stiffens, and I stare at Ben wide-eyed. “She what?” That piece of information only adds to the tightness in my chest. I squeeze my eyes shut and shake my head. “Fuck,” I mutter. “That shouldn’t surprise me; it was bound to happen. I pushed her away.”
“Get her back then.”
“And how do you suggest I do that?”
With a sigh, he fishes a note out of the pockets of his shorts and hands it to me. “If I hadn’t bumped into you here, I would have looked for you at your place to give you this. Come on, stop being an idiot and go after her.”
I stare at the note with Kaitlyn’s address in North Carolina. Taking in a long, slow breath, I try to ignore my racing heartbeat. Thinking about going after her makes my stomach flutter. What if it’s too late? What if I irrevocably ruined what we had? This is all still confusing and scary as fuck because I’ve never felt this way about anyone.
Ben groans. “Dammit, Aaron. Heartbroken you is insufferable! Go find your balls and book a flight.”
I roll my eyes with a snort. “Shut up.” I’d like to give him another piece of my mind, but I can’t argue with him when I know he’s right.
I guess I will go find my balls and book a flight.
Turns out, finding my balls cost me a shitload of money and lots of nerves. I wasn’t aware of just how far off the track Kaitlyn lives. Of course, the tedious journey was totally worth it if it means I can fix things with her.
I check the note Ben gave me, and once I’m sure I’m at the correct address, I take a deep breath. I ring the doorbell, and hearing Kaitlyn call, “I’ll be right there!” a moment later sends a sudden jolt through my body. My heart rate picks up, and a nervous tension spreads inside me. Damn, I will never fully grasp what this woman does to me.
But that nervousness vanishes as soon as the door opens because, as usual, seeing her puts my mind at ease. She wears one of her cute little sundresses that I love so much along with her flip flops. She has her keys in one hand and her purse in the other, so she was probably expecting someone else and wanted to go out.
When our gazes lock, she freezes. Her eyes go wide, and she drops her keys. Not a single word leaves her slightly parted lips as she keeps staring at me. With a chuckle, I pick up her keys and hold them out to her. “Hey,” I whisper. “Can I come in?”
Finally, she snaps out of her daze. “What? How?” Shaking her head, she clears her throat. “I mean, uh, how did you get here?”
“I’m wondering that too. Fuck, Sunshine, you live in the middle of nowhere. Getting here was a real odyssey.”
She blinks at me, and I wonder if she’s trying to figure out if I’m real or not. “Can I come in?” I repeat my request.
“Um...” She clears her throat. “Yes.” She steps aside, and I walk past her. She still doesn’t speak as she closes the door, places her purse and keys on a little cupboard, and leads the way into her living room.
I follow her wordlessly, checking everything out on my way. Even without seeing her whole apartment, I can already say it has a cozy feel to it. Framed photos decorate the pastel walls, and a couple of colorful plants brighten up the place. A few things lie scattered around, indicating she has been neglecting her usual habit of keeping everything tidy and where it belongs.
Kaitlyn takes a seat on the one end of the comfy couch with one leg tucked underneath her, and I sit down at the other end. While we face each other, she studies me with narrow eyes. “What are you doing here?” she asks.
I take in a long, slow breath before I answer. “You said to let you know once I knew what I want.”
I didn’t think it could be possible, but she narrows her eyes even more. “Yeah? And?”
I scoot closer to her but stop when I notice how her whole body tenses up. Shit, my idiotic behavior must have hurt her more than I thought if she seriously anticipates me to tell her I don’t want to be with her. I let out a heavy sigh. Here goes nothing! “I know what I want.”
She draws her eyebrows together. “Okay?”
With hunched shoulders, I rub my chest. “I’m so sorry about what I did. I’m shit at talking about my feelings; I never allowed myself to have any, so I should have told you right away, but I couldn’t.”
“Tell me what?”
“That I want to be with you.”
Kaitlyn frowns and closes her eyes—not the reaction I had hoped for. She presses her lips together tight before her eyes fly open and her gaze meets mine. “But I thought you were glad I was leaving.” She shifts left and right, the frown still etched on her forehead. “That expression on your face... your whole body screamed rejection.”
I take a deep breath, going over the words I want to tell her in my head. “Sunshine,” I start as I move a little closer to her. She’s within my reach, but I don’t dare touch her yet. “You’re usually excellent at reading me, no matter what’s going on in my head, but in that particular situation, you were wrong. Now listen carefully.” I scoot another few inches closer, and her expression finally softens. With more confidence, I continue, “The thought of you staying overwhelmed me because that meant we’d actually have a shot at staying together, and that scared the crap out of me. I’m not used to having these kinds of feelings for anyone, so I messed up—big time. I’m sorry I reacted the way I did. I should have told you right away, but this hit me so unexpectedly—you hit me unexpectedly, almost like an avalanche in summer.”
I’m not nearly done with my speech, but I pause a moment to examine her face. There’s a hint of something I can’t read, and I’m sure she’s not convinced of my sincere intentions yet. Even though she might not be ready for physical contact, I finally grab her hand. She lowers her eyes to where I intertwine our fingers, and when she trembles slightly at our touch, I hope the same intense shiver just ran down her spine as the one that rushed through my body. Once her gaze meets mine again, I resume my attempt at bringing my point across. “I knew you were special the moment we met. At first, you drew me in with your innocence and sweetness, and the more time we spent together, the more you turned out to be this amazing woman—in every way.”
I give her hand a soft squeeze, and I get the first positive reaction from her: the right corner of her lips lifts the tiniest bit.
“I’m a mess without you,” I go on. “You calm down my inner turmoils—even without some major shit happening. Not waking up next to you sucks, and the thought of not being with you is killing me. For a while now, I’ve been wondering if this is what love feels like, but I don’t know because honestly... I’m new to this.”
Kaitlyn’s eyes widen, and she opens her mouth as if to say something, but no words escape her pretty lips. I move even closer so our knees touch, and I take hold of her other hand, ready to tell her what I’ve never told anyone before. “I don’t know if I’m in love with you because I have no experience with that whatsoever. But if I haven’t already, I want to fall in love with you because fuck—you are my sunshine.”
With her mouth still slightly agape, she blinks at me, still without saying a word.
My already racing heart beats even faster with every second she doesn’t respond, and my nervousness grows. I clear my throat and whisper, “I’m done. Say something.”
She draws in a long, shaky breath as her eyes glaze over. “Okay, um,” she says in a quaky voice. “I want to fall in love with you too.”
Relief floods my body as soon as Kaitlyn’s words register and her lips lift in that sweet smile I missed so much these past days. Still, I have to ask, “Even though you deserve so much better than me?”
She rolls her eyes and lets out a half sob, half laugh. “You’re such an idiot. I don’t care what you think I deserve. I only care what I want. And that’s you. So shut up and kiss me.”
More than happy to comply, I lean in with the biggest grin on my face, and as soon as my lips touch hers, everything is right in my world—in our world. It’s a light and sweet kiss, but it affects me more than every past passionate encounter between us because this hits me on a whole new level. One fact stands above all others: she’s mine, but what matters more—I’m hers.
The softest moan escapes her, sending a jolt of desire through my body. I’m more than ready to deepen the kiss, but without warning, she pulls back. “Shit!” she shrieks. “I need to call Amber. She wanted to pick me up after work, but I better reschedule.”
I chuckle as she jumps up and dashes to the front door, where she left her purse. She’s back a moment later, phone pressed to her ear. “Amber!” she starts as she sits down next to me. Her hand reaches for mine instantly, making that goofy grin reappear on my face. “I’m sorry, I need to cancel our date. Aaron is here, and we need to-” She holds the phone away from her ear because her friend screeched so loud that even I could hear it. “Amber... Amber!” Kaitlyn tries to get through to her. “Amber, listen to me! It’s all good!”
But Amber talks first. Kaitlyn listens for a few moments what her friend has to say before she holds the phone out to me. She grimaces. “Amber wants to talk to you.”
My eyes widen as I take the phone. I clear my throat. “Um, hi...” I say hesitantly.
“Aaron!” Amber’s shrill voice greets me, making me flinch. “It’s so nice to finally talk to you. Kaitlyn has told me so much about you!”
“Uh, yeah,” I mumble in an uncertain tone. “It’s nice to talk to you too.” I look at Kaitlyn with furrowed brows, but she just shrugs her shoulder.
“Aaron,” Amber continues in a soft voice that gives me the chills. “Listen carefully. If I don’t hear from my best friend tomorrow that you apologized for your stupidity and made up for it by fucking her senseless all night long, I will personally rip off your family jewels and feed them to my dog.”
Even though I believe every word she says, I can hardly hold back a chuckle. “Don’t worry, that’s exactly what I had in mind.”
“Great! Now, I don’t want to keep you from implementing your plan any longer. Tell Kaitlyn to call me once she’s able to walk again.”
This time, I can’t suppress a laugh. “Okay.”
We end the call, and Kaitlyn squints at me. “Did she tell you she’d feed your balls to her dog?”
Biting my lips, I shrug. “Something along those lines.”
She rolls her eyes with a deep sigh, and I place her phone on the coffee table before I turn back to her. “Now that we covered the complimentary death threats, where were we?”
My lips are about to touch hers when she holds me back with her hand to my chest. “Wait! There’s something I’d like to talk about first.” Fidgeting, she draws her eyebrows together. “How is this gonna work in the future?”
With a deep breath, I lean back. I know we have to talk about this rather pressing matter, but I was hoping we could do other things first. “Well, as I had some time to think about this... do you know of any available apartments in town?”
Her eyes widen. “What? You would move here?”
“Yes. If that means we can be together. I don’t care where I live as long as you’re there too.” I add with a smirk, “With my talented hands, I’ll find a job anywhere.”
Kaitlyn gasps but bursts out laughing, a sound that lifts my spirits like nothing else ever has. “You’re impossible.” She swats my arm, but I grab her wrist to pull her closer. With a happy grin, she plants a tender kiss on my lips before she says, “You don’t have to move anywhere because I’m going back to New York.”
I straighten up and stare at her open-mouthed. “You what?”
Linking her fingers behind my neck, she chuckles. “Yeah. I talked this through with my parents. As much as I love my family, I need to be away from them to realize my full potential. So I’m gonna live with Jannie for a while.”
“Wow. I don’t know what to say.”
“Then shut up and put those lips of yours to better use.”
Again, I gladly obey. We certainly will do more talking later to process what happened and to plan our future—our common future as a couple. But first things first.
Being the new sexy seductress she’s become, Kaitlyn pushes me back onto the couch, lying on top of me and capturing my lips in a passionate kiss, and only one thought remains.
I’ve found the one who holds my heart.