Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Forty-Two

LEXY

He's been gone for hours. Almost the entire day. No call. No text. Not one word.

Tears slowly slide down my face as I stand at Glory's stall. Every few minutes, I glance anxiously towards the door hoping Nick will come through it and come back for me. But he never does.

The stable is quiet and I am relieved to be surrounded by the stillness and solitude. I don't want to be around anyone right now. I can't handle it. I'll completely break down.

I took my mom's advice to get some space and perspective and give Nick a chance to figure things out. But, the longer he's gone, the more heartbreakingly clear it becomes that I'm waiting in vain. I ruined everything last night by telling him how I felt and now I've scared him off.

Even as every nerve in my body screams and rages against it, I know it's time to face the cold, hard truth. We're over; nothing but ashes. Nick doesn't love me and isn't going to let us be together. He's not ready to move on from Megan. And his silence is proof of that.

I know what I need to do. I just wish I didn't have to.

I can't stay. I don't want to leave but I don't think I have any choice. It will hurt too much knowing Nick doesn't feel the same. How will I face him every day, be close to him, but not able to share my heart with him, and constantly be reminded he doesn't want to give me his?

Sniffling, I wipe the tears with the cuff of my sleeve but more keep falling. I can't seem to stop them. Sensing my distress, Glory bends her head to sniff at me and I cry harder and lean into her, burying my face in her warm coat. How am I going to leave her? She won't understand. The ache is unbearable. I thought I finally found where I belong.

I can't put it off any longer. I have to let my parents know I'll be flying back with them in the morning. They need time to change the reservation. Already homesick and painfully lonely, I kiss Glory one last time before wearily turning away.

I've only taken two steps when Nick walks in. My entire body jolts as if an electric shock surged through me. Paralyzed, I stop where I am.

"Hey," he says hesitantly, and I can feel the weight of his eyes burning into me. My stomach knots up and I suddenly want to run and hide. I didn't have time to wipe the last traces of tears away. All my pain is in plain sight making me feel much too vulnerable. My heart feels as if it's pounding out of my chest, through the cotton of my shirt into the space between us. I notice his movements are careful and cautious. As if he's not sure what I'll do and is testing how far I'll let him come. "Becca said you were out here."

Even his voice hurts me. I love the low, deep drawl of it. The thought of never being able to hear it again makes me want to curl into a ball and weep. I can't find the strength to say anything. I need to get away from him or I'll shatter into pieces. Avoiding his eyes, I step around him to go back to the house.

"Lexy, wait." He reaches out and grasps my hand as I try to get past him. His touch sears through me. Why is he putting me through this?

"I have to go." I'm amazed I'm able to speak. My throat is hoarse and strained from crying. "I have to start packing."

I see him freeze which surprises me. My system is so overly sensitive that his every move makes me flinch. I thought he'd be relieved. He doesn't have to worry about me making him feel guilty over Megan anymore. "Packing? What are you talking about? Why are you packing?"

"I've decided I'm going back to California in the morning." I want to hate him for all of this but I'm too desperately in love with him. I already miss him and I haven't even left yet.

His eyes flash, change, darken. They are almost black, just like they were last night. A muscle in his jaw clenches. Is he angry or terrified? I can't tell. The gold flecks are gone. I instinctively want to back up from the intensity. He shakes his head and I feel his grip tighten on my hand. "No. You can't go."

"I get it, Nick." I can hear how dull and detached my voice sounds. I feel numb, empty, nothing. He's killing me so softly. "I saw you leave this morning. I already know you've made your choice. You don't have to tell me." I silently beg him not to. I can't take it.

Before I can walk away, he quickly steps in front of me, blocking my path to the door. "It's not what you think. I went there to say goodbye to her. I choose you, Lexy."

His words aren't registering. Confused and dazed, I get distracted by the collar of his shirt. The edge is frayed, the threads splitting at the seam. He's probably had it a long time. He's always looked good in that color blue. "But, I thought you said..."

"I know what I said," he interrupts impatiently, and I jump, breaking me out of my fog, and my eyes fly up to his. He seems panicked, desperate, on the verge of losing control. "Please don't leave. I won't make it if you go, and neither will you. You know you won't."

I can't seem to figure out what is happening. Nothing is making any sense. A few minutes ago, I was devastated, certain it was the end of us. Now he's choosing me? Has he changed his mind? I can't keep up. I'm suddenly exhausted. Lack of sleep and the stress of waiting and wondering and not knowing work against me and I throw up my hands in frustration. "Why would you even want me to stay?"

"Because I love you," he blurts out, his voice louder than it should be. The words are rushed and frantic and urgent, tumbling recklessly out of his mouth. He's winded as if he took a fast punch to the gut.

I'm speechless. My mouth falls open. All I can do is stare at him. I don't think I remember to blink. "What?" I can't move even as he steps closer. His jeans brush against mine.

"I love you, Lexy," he says again, more quietly and gently this time, and I watch his lips form the words, to make sure they are true, the beauty of them washing over me.

I can't feel my legs and wonder vaguely if I'm in shock.

When I say nothing, only continue to gape at him, he lays his hands on my shoulders, leans in so he's eye level with me. "Breathe, Lexy," he murmurs.

His rippling face comes into focus and I obediently do what he says, my breath seeping shakily out between my lips, drifting over him and fluttering strands of my hair. "But you told me we couldn't be together," I finally manage. "That you didn't believe in love anymore."

Regret is like a heavy cloud around him. I can see his sorrow as if huge black wings are chained to his back. "I didn't mean it. I'm so sorry."

"You scared me last night," I confess, thinking of him shaking and sweating, his eyes wide and wild. "I've never seen you like that before."

"I know. I scared me, too." Frowning, he breaks our gaze and straightens. He seems tense, and a little uncomfortable as if he's working up the courage to admit something. Apprehensive, I watch him carefully. I'm still trying to process what is happening. "Ever since the accident, I get these... um...panic attacks I guess you could call them. I just blank out and shut down. I can't think or breathe or do anything. It was raining the night Megan died and now whenever it does, it's like I'm right back on that road watching the crash all over again and I get stuck there. It just hits me sometimes from out of nowhere. I couldn't get ahead of it in time. I just...I don't like the rain," he mutters, trailing off. Still feeling awkward, he shoves his hands in his pockets and stares at the ground, bleak and broken. "I know I must sound crazy."

I hear myself gasp a little at her name. He's never said it before. It feels sacred and holy and forbidden somehow. The air is hushed, reverent. I'm very aware what he's trusting me with and what it changes for us. My every defense crumbles and I instantly move towards him. I wish I had known what was happening to him, how helplessly surrounded he was by the flashbacks and fear and trauma.

I notice he's shifted away as if embarrassed or ashamed. I can't let him disappear again and pull him back, wrapping my arms around his waist, giving him somewhere to fall apart. A safe emergency crash landing. "No, you don't. You're not crazy at all. I'm so sorry you go through that. It must be awful."

He slowly looks at me, searching my eyes for a couple of seconds before letting out an unsteady, shuddering breath. I feel his arms at last come around me, watching as the tension gradually leaves his eyes, his mouth, eases off his neck and shoulders. As if the weight of the world is crumbling away. The gold flecks are back. It's a relief to see them. "I really wanted to tell you about that night but it's all so big and I didn't know what would happen once I said it out loud and I felt too guilty. So I just kept it to myself."

My heart wrenches as I slowly nod. "I understand," I reassure him, holding on tighter. "I can't imagine how hard it must be to carry that much pain inside of you." I think of the damage the storm caused, wreaking havoc over the land and with us. We almost didn't make it back to each other. "I guess last night wasn't the best time to tell you how I felt considering what you were dealing with."

"Or you were just in time."

"What do you mean?"

He absently plays with the ends of my hair. He's gotten into the habit of doing that. I'm not sure if he's aware of it. I remember him saying he likes how soft it is. "I was thinking today that it's been like this with you right from the start. Since the very first day you got here. I was so messed up I couldn't see straight. I was barely alive anymore. But then I opened the door and there you were." His voice is soft and tender, his eyes never leaving mine as if I'm anchoring him where he stands. "Every time I turned around, you were right in the middle of the pain and it was always exactly when I needed you to be there. Even if I didn't know it yet. It's as if I'd been waiting for you to get here and I was just holding my breath until you showed up."

"I was so worried I had ruined everything with us."

He shook his head. "You haven't. You didn't do anything, Lexy. It was all me." His expression is pained, apologetic. "I swear I wanted to talk to you last night. I kept trying to think of something to say, but the rain wouldn't stop and my mind wasn't right. I knew I needed to deal with everything first. I didn't want to hurt you anymore. Megan was really important to me and I owed it to her to say goodbye in the right way. It's time to lay her to rest. For her and for me. I don't think the grief ever fully goes away, and I can't promise that what happened last night won't happen again. It's never really gone and I still have nightmares sometimes. But, you've made things better and a little easier. And I don't want to lose you. I finally feel like I'm ready to start over." He pauses, unsure and vulnerable as he searches my face for a sign, my feelings, his future. "If you still want to start over with me."

I smile brilliantly at him as I nod. If this is a dream I never want to wake up. "I do."

I'm still saying the words as he kisses me and we fall into each other. He tastes different, sweeter somehow, as the salty, metallic sting of death is soothed away. We hold nothing back. The kiss is hungry and feverish as if he's pouring out years of unspoken pain into me. His hands are everywhere, pressing me against him, tangling into my hair, as if he needs to touch every inch of me to prove we're both still alive and here and real.

There are no longer any secrets between us, no barriers or walls, no past or ghosts haunting our every glance and hope and heartbeat. For the first time it's only the two of us.

After a long while, when my pulse is thundering and my limbs are trembling, I finally break the kiss. Breathless, I pull back and look up at him. His skin is flushed, his breathing heavy, his eyes dark and full of need. He's so warm and close it makes me dizzy.

Very softly, very gently, I reach up and lightly trace my fingertips over his scar. The edges are jagged and white and harsh, the skin sensitive to touch, the emotions it stirs up still very raw. He immediately goes still and sucks in a sharp breath. The moment is intensely exposing and somehow more intimate than any kiss we've shared. I meet his eyes and we stare at each other with his deepest pain in my hands. I feel like it's the first time I'm really seeing him. His wounds are beautiful to me.

"I love you, too," I finally tell him, holding his gaze so he will believe me.

Overwhelmed, I feel him stumble as if his knees are buckling. I catch him as he sways and he rests his head weakly against mine. "Please stay with me."

"Always," I promise, and he pulls me back to him, so tight and fierce it steals my breath but I don't mind.

I lose track of time as we stand in the quiet surrounded by the scents of hay and seed and grain, oiled leather, and the musk of horses. The sun will set soon. Shadows are creeping along the dusty ground, crowding out where light used to shine.

"We should probably get back," I murmur, my lips pressed against the curve of his neck, but make no move to leave the shelter and heat of his arms. "I need to let my parents know I'm staying."

Nick glances over my head at the door. "I have a feeling your mama already knows," he says. "She's way too perceptive. Just like you."

I think of my conversation with her earlier. She'd been right. Everything worked out. I can't wait to tell her. She's the first person I want to know. "I get it from her." It's one of many things I'm realizing she's passed down to me.

"You sure do. You both know how to read minds. It's spooky." I'm laughing as Nick kisses me once more. Straightening, he takes my hand. "Come on." He leads me out of the stable. "Dinner will be ready soon anyway. You know how Becca is about us not being late for family meals."

"House rules." We're both smiling as we walk hand in hand up the old, worn path.

I look out over the lush miles of green, the weathered outbuildings, the horses peacefully grazing, the arch of my grandfather's gate standing tall against the darkening October sky. I remember the very first day I walked underneath the thick timber posts all those months ago. I knew nothing of Beau and Adelaide Montgomery who originally settled here or how following in their footsteps would help me discover my own purpose and heritage and legacy.

When the sun rose this morning, I thought everything was hopelessly lost. I was afraid I would have to leave this land, my family and Nick far behind. I was convinced my dreams were over.

But, life can change in a split-second or an hour or even forty-two minutes.

And as the sun sets on another day on this beautiful ranch in Tennessee, I've got Nick back at my side, right where I hoped he would be. And he loves me. And I love him. And I am home.

The old farmhouse comes into view as the path weaves and winds through the wild grasses, faithfully guiding us back as it has for over one hundred years. All the lights are on, the golden haze glowing out into the pale lavender evening. As we get closer, I see my family in the kitchen, preparing dinner, setting the table, talking and laughing, and simply enjoying being together.

We are almost to the back porch steps when it suddenly dawns on me that I am no longer an alcoholic's daughter.

For the first time in my life, I just get to be me.
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