Lightning strikes across the murky night sky, illuminating the dark interior of my car. My spine straightens against the seat as I wait for the thunder, counting the seconds as they pass. One. Two. Three. Four. The loud boom sounds overhead, and I inhale a sharp breath, as if I hadn’t been anticipating it. The truth is, it’s not the storm brewing outside that has me on edge. It merely reflects the chaos inside my head.
My erratic heart beats wildly in my chest as I pull my eyes away from the building I’ve been parked in front of for the past hour—waiting and watching for him. I lean up to check my reflection in the rearview mirror, my hand trembling as I try again to wipe away the black smudges under my eyes. There’s no use. I look as wrecked as I feel. I collapse into the seat, leaning back into the head rest as I close my tired eyes.
This is not how I expected my day to end. When I agreed to go to Steven’s for dinner tonight, I was certain he was going to propose. He must have been planning to, at least at some point. There wouldn’t have been a ring otherwise. Only, instead of getting down on one knee and slipping that diamond on my finger, he ended things. Not that I blame him; he was right to do it.
After I accidentally confessed what I’d done, how I’d betrayed his love and trust, there was a look of shock and confusion on his face. Realizing my exposed secret had nothing to do with his decision for breaking things off, I lashed out, accusing him of things I knew he’d never do. I was the one who had done something unforgiveable—not Steven.
And if that hadn’t been awful enough, I left Steven’s and went straight to my best friend’s house. When she opened her door, I unleashed all my shame, fear, and sorrow onto her. It was like I couldn’t control the words coming out of my mouth—like it was someone else standing there saying those horrible things. Through it all, Lori remained calm and collected. But I saw the hurt in her eyes. I don’t see how she can ever forgive me. I know I’ll never be able to forgive myself.
In a matter of hours, my entire life crumbled at my feet—and I’m the only one to blame. I’ve been selfish, stupid, and reckless. Even now, even after I’ve managed to alienate myself from two of the people I care for most in this world, I’m still making poor choices. I should be trying to fix things—to make them right. Instead, I’m here, for him.
My breath is ragged as I draw it in, and it does nothing to ease the tightness in my chest. Another loud rumble in the sky causes my head to shoot up and eyes to pop open, landing back on the building just as he exits through the front door.
An icy panic runs through my veins as he works to lock up the shop, and I realize I still have no clue what I’m going to say or why I’m even here. When it comes to him, all thinking and common sense seem to go out the window. My mind and body respond on an odd impulsive instinct to be near him. It’s that driving force giving me the courage to get out of my car.
Lawrence Grier knocked my world off its axis when I met him twenty years ago, and he managed to do it again when he walked back into it a few weeks ago. He was the catalyst to my imploding life.
Still unaware of my presence, he heads toward the parking lot, and I hold my breath as I shut the driver’s side door. When his eyes finally land on me, his steps hesitate before he begins taking quick, angry strides in my direction. My stomach drops.
By the time he comes to a stop in front of me, my mouth is dry and my brain empty. His teal eyes lock on mine as he folds his arms.
“What are you doing here, Cat?” His words are clipped, his voice strained.
He isn’t happy to see me. It hurts, but I can’t say I blame him. The last time we saw each other, I hadn’t been kind. It felt like I was drowning and he was the thing pulling me under. I realize now how wrong I’d been.
I bite into my lip to keep my tears at bay. “I’m not sure.”
His nostrils flare as he sucks in an agitated breath. His eyes leave mine, falling to the ground, and he shakes his head. “It’s been a long day, and I’m pretty sure we said everything that needed to be said the last time we spoke.”
He couldn’t be more wrong about that. Everything I said to him that day was a lie. It was all so terrifying. How I feel about him, the things I’d done, and all the ways my life would change if I faced any of it. Like a coward, I’d chosen the safe path and hurt him in the process.
When he lifts his head, the weariness behind his eyes has been replaced with fury. His hard glare locks on mine again, awaiting my response, but words fail me. I shift on my feet as I tuck my hair behind my ear, and his eyes narrow as they flicker over to my left hand.
He snarls, his expression a mixture of disgust and condescension. “Still no ring I see.”
Sighing, I shake my head. “There was a ring, but I walked away without it.”
His back straightens, his lashes fluttering as confusion washes over his features. He scratches his head and runs his palm over his face before taking a step toward me, leaving only a sliver of space between us.
“What does that mean? Are you saying you aren’t going to marry him?” This time, there’s a seductive hopefulness in his tone.
Nodding, I swallow the lump in my throat. “It’s over.”
“No,” he breathes. “Please don’t do that. Don’t dance around the facts. I need you to be clear. Did you break things off, or did he?”
My stomach knots, and I duck my head as my eyes fill with tears, then stuff my hands in the back pockets of my jeans. “He did.”
His dark laughter echoes through the nearly empty parking lot, and I cringe as I look up at him. He cups his head in his hands, making a circle as he spins away from me, then back. His stare is cold as his hands fall back to his sides.
“So, what? You thought you could come here and change your mind? Now that he doesn’t want you, I can have you. Is that it?”
My eyes widen as I pull in a quick, sharp breath. His words feel like a physical blow—one I know I deserve. “Of course not. It’s not like that.” His jaw ticks, his narrowed eyes unblinking as I take a deep breath to calm my quivering chin. “I know you probably hate me after the things I said, but I didn’t mean them. I was just…I couldn’t…” my voice breaks as thunder cracks above us, forcing me to give up my search for the right words. A shiver rocks through my body as a gust of wind blows around me, and I wrap myself in a hug as I hiccup a sob.
A tear rolls down my face, and he lets out a defeated sigh. My breath stills when he reaches up to brush it away with the pad of his thumb. His hand lingers at my jawline, and he dips his head, as if he’s going to kiss me. He stops just short of touching his lips to mine, looking as if it pains him to do so.
“Damn it, Cat. Why did you come here? What do you want?”
“I don’t know.” It’s a lie. I know—I’ve known all along. But I’ve always been too afraid to admit it. I still can’t. Not even now.
He loosens a sorrowed breath that brushes across my lips, his eyes closing as he rests his forehead against mine. I remain frozen, fighting the urge to embrace him while relishing in his touch. He pulls away, taking a step back as he removes his hand. When he finds my gaze again, my heart sinks with dread.
“I fell in love with you even when I knew I shouldn’t. I continued to be in love with you even when I tried not to. Even after years apart. Even now, I love you. But I can’t stick around while you figure out what you want, hoping it’s me.”
“I’m here now, doesn’t that count for anything?”
He sighs, shaking his head. “You were going to marry a man out of some sense of obligation. For all I know, you’re only here now because it’s what I want. You need to figure out what you want—to think about your own happiness for once. I can’t do this with you until you know for sure. I don’t want to spend my life wondering if you’re with me because it’s really what you want, or if you’re simply trying to right a wrong.”
Tears stream down my face as he begins to back away, and I adamantly shake my head. I know what he needs to hear, what I need to say, but all I can manage is a simple plea. “Please don’t go.”
He freezes, as if reconsidering, his head shaking as he fights internally with himself. Rubbing the back of his neck, his cheeks puff as he blows out a long breath. When he shoves his hands into the front pocket of his hoodie, he lifts his eyes, looking through me instead of at me.
With that, he turns on his heel and jogs away. Then, as if on cue, the sky opens, releasing a pounding rain. Perfect.