“You leaving?” I ask, trying like hell to keep the disappointment from my voice.
Turning to face me, she’s chewing her bottom lip, and I walk over to her, gently pulling it from her teeth.
“Actually Jace, would it be all right if I showered here?”
I nod. “Of course.”
“Then if it’s okay, I need to talk to you, please?”
Cupping her face gently, I press a kiss to her forehead.
“Anything you need, baby.”
With a jerk of her head, she heads into the bathroom, and I follow behind her. Grabbing a couple towels from the shelf, I set them down on the vanity for her and reach under the sink for a basket of assorted bath products.
“Here, this is left over from Drew. He stayed with me for a few days a couple months ago, and he brought all these full bottles of shampoo and body wash with him and then left them. Clearly he’s never heard of travel-sized bottles,” I joke, watching as she grabs shampoo and conditioner.
Giving her privacy, I walk out of the bathroom and close the door behind me. From my bureau, I grab one of my old shirts from the academy and toss it on the bed for her, unsure if she’ll need anything else. I change into a pair of shorts and a gray T-shirt. While she showers, I go out to my living room and flip on the news, wanting to check the weather. If she’s feeling better after her shower, I have an idea of what we can do today.
As the meteorologist finishes up the weather report, Stella comes back out into the living room. Her hair hangs long and wet over one shoulder, and she put the black sleep pants she had on before back on. I pat the cushion next to me, inviting her to sit with me, and she does, not a millimeter of space between us. I can’t help the smile when I realize she used my bodywash. The idea of her smelling like me is something I love.
“Feel better?” I ask as she rests her head on my chest. She shakes her head, and instead of pressing her for information, I let her sit silently.
I have no idea how long goes by when she finally sits up and turns cross-legged on the couch to face me. Without another thought, I reach over and switch off the television.
“Can we talk?” she asks, and I reach my arm up around the back of the couch, running my thumb down her arm.
“I just want you to know this isn’t something I ordinarily talk about, but after yesterday, I feel I need to. I can trust you, right, Jace?”
“Always. No matter what.”
I reach out for her hand and she lets me take it, her eyes closing when I rub my thumb across the back of her hand. Her bottom lip trembles and my heart clenches, completely unsure of whatever she’s about to say.
“I want to take you somewhere today, if that’s all right. I already talked to Mason, and he told me it was the right thing to do.”
My brows furrow at her words, but I agree.
“I keep an extra change of clothes in the trunk of my car, in case I get puked on or something at a home visit. I’m gonna get changed, and then we can go, okay? And when we’re done, if you still want to spend the day with me, I’d love to.”
“Sounds good, Stell. You go get changed, and I’ll get my shoes on.”
She leans over and kisses me, and I grip the back of her head, holding her to me.
“Be right back.”
She unlocks the front door, and then I hear it slam a moment later, Stella rushing back inside with a duffel bag in her hand. While she’s in the bedroom, I slip my feet into a pair of Nikes. I’m looking for my wallet when she comes back in wearing a yellow sundress and a cute pair of white sandals. She’s tied her long hair up in another bun, and she has her purse over her arm.
“Do you mind if I drive?” she asks, and I shake my head.
Finally locating my wallet on the entry table, I shove it in my back pocket and follow her outside. We walk out to her car, and she smiles when I hold her door open for her like always.
I climb into the passenger seat as she starts the car, and we pull out of the driveway, rolling down the windows as we go. We take back roads until we reach the outskirts of town. I’m trying to figure out where we’re going, but I’ve never been down here, so I’m not sure what’s in the area. It’s not until she takes a right that I see where we are.
Slowly we make our way through an older cemetery, and my stomach hurts just thinking about why we’re in here. Reaching for Stella, I rest my hand on her leg and just watch her drive. We come to a small portion of the cemetery that looks older, and she parks the car, killing the engine. Leaving the keys in the ignition, she climbs from the car, and I follow her out.
Meeting her in front of the car, I grab for her hand and look down at her beautiful eyes, sadness overtaking me when I see tears in the corners.
“Why are we here, Stella?”
Still holding her hand, I follow her, letting her lead me wherever we’re headed. We’re at the far end of the row when she stops in front of a double headstone.
Husband. Father. Son.
November 22, 1962-October 14, 2001
Wife. Mother. Daughter.
January 19, 1964-October 14, 2001
Together forever in life and death.
I swear my hearts stops beating. Stella’s crying, but not as hard as she did last night. She takes a minute to compose herself, and then she looks at me.
“Jace, meet my mom and dad.” Resting her head against my shoulder, she continues to cry, her grip on my arm tightening. Wrapping my arm around her shoulders, I support her as best I can, my own knees wanting to give out.
“I’m so sorry, baby.”
Together we kneel in front of them, and Stella reaches out to run her hands over the smooth stone. She sniffs loudly and then comes back to my side.
“What happened?” I ask, unsure of how to ask the right questions. I don’t want to hurt her.
“House fire. I was fourteen, at a sleepover at my friend’s house. The next morning, my mom didn’t pick me up, Mason did. He was a freshman at the University of Tennessee. He brought me to his dorm room and I didn’t think anything of it, because I’d been up there a few times to visit him since he had his own room. He broke the news to me there, and I don’t know, I just always felt this weird peace that they were together. They’d been together since they were sixteen. That epic love story, you know?” She laughs through her tears, and my lips turn up in a small smile.
“The coroner said they didn’t suffer, that it happened in their sleep. The smoke overwhelmed them, and that’s what the official cause of death was. We lost the whole house, faulty wiring from some asshole who cut corners fixing something.”
“Mason got me through high school and college. He’s done everything for me, and he’s all I have in this world. It’s been almost twenty years, and while I’ve found peace and comfort, there are still times it hits me head-on.”
“Katy,” I whisper, realizing she had also lost both her parents at the same time. Not the same kind of circumstances but heartbreaking nonetheless.
“I know I was much older when I lost them, but looking down into her scared eyes, I felt like I was looking at myself.”
Stella moves so she can look into my eyes, and I know mine mirror pain. I hate even the idea of Stella losing someone she loved, and I hate knowing she’s hurting right now.
Her soft hand comes up to grip my jaw, and I lean my forehead down to hers.
“Thank you for trusting me with this,” I whisper to her.
“I care for you, Jace. More than I ever have for someone else, and I know eventually I would have told you. But this just felt like the right way. And now you’ve met my whole family. I felt so alone for so long, but I don’t feel like that anymore.”
“You’re not alone. You have Mason and Jules. And now you have me, baby. And you have my family. I know once you meet them, they’ll love you.”
“I want that so much.” I’ve never heard Stella be so open and vulnerable with me, and while I hate the circumstances behind it, it only makes me care about her even more.
Fall just a little harder.