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I spend the drive home trying to figure out the semantics of not telling versus lying, of trust versus forgiveness. I know River’s lie of omission wasn’t out of malice or spite but out of his overwhelming need to protect me. Ben’s lie wrecked me, changed me, and left me alone. River’s omission did none of those things. So maybe I can look past this, I think I can, actually, and I just hope I can still trust him. Why is facing our issues so much harder than escaping?
Xander’s Mercedes is parked close to the steps leading to the front door when I pull into the driveway. It’s one in the morning and I’m surprised he’s still here; he’s usually so uptight about getting up early for work.
After parking the car in the garage, I walk up the stairs and notice a huge hole in the wall next to the door. When I see the key we keep above the doorframe laying on the ground, I wonder what happened. The door is unlocked and as I enter the kitchen, I can see Xander passed out on the couch, his shoes still on, his arm slung over his head, and a half-empty bottle of Patrón on the side table. His shirt is untucked and his skin is exposed. Grabbing my concert T-shirt quilt from the hall closet, I pull it close to me for a moment, and then head back to the living room. Covering him with the blanket, I notice a hint of a tattoo down the side of his torso I never knew he had. I set the liquor bottle on the counter and turn the lights off before heading to the bedroom.
I’m a little apprehensive about seeing River. We haven’t talked all day. Since we got together we’ve never gone this long without talking. I’m not even sure anymore who was actually angrier. Me at him for not telling me he knew it was Ben’s shooter that attacked me, or him at me for having gone to see Ben.
When I see that he’s not in the bedroom, I’m a little surprised. Everything is how I left it, just messier. My wedding dress lies flat on my hope chest, with the garter and pearl earrings nestled on top of it. I put everything there so I could easily slip back into the dress and get ready again. Originally, I thought we’d be returning from Grace’s later that afternoon. I hang it in my closet, having no idea when we will be getting married. The thought makes me a bit uneasy, so I seek solace by walking over to the glass doors. I look out into the night, at the beautiful view of the Hollywood sign that I love so much. I’m not sure why; maybe because it represents hope.
As I stand here looking out, a fleck of light catches my eye and I see him immediately. He’s sitting in a chair down by the pool just staring into the darkness. Opening the door, I pause to admire him; his long lean body, his always-messy hair, and I wonder if I really want to address our issues right now.
Taking a deep breath I walk the many steps down to where he’s sitting and I know he must hear my approach. He sits there, one leg propped over his knee, leaning back, and sipping a beer.
“You decided to come home. I wasn’t sure you were going to,” he says without even a glance in my direction.
“River, of course I came home. Of course I did. I just needed time to calm down and figure things out. Get my head together.”
“Hmm . . . funny, I’m not sure ‘of course’ can be assumed in any conversation we have from now on.”
Taking another sip of his beer he adds, “And what do you mean you needed to figure things out? You needed to get your head together? I thought we did those things together, but I guess I was wrong.”
“River, I was mad and . . . ,” I start to explain but stop. He won’t even look at me and I know I need to get his attention before we continue talking.
“You can’t finish your thoughts. You could earlier. Should I help you? You’re mad at me for not telling you, but I’m not going to apologize for that, Dahlia. I had my reasons. But the next time you decide to slap me after meeting with your ex-fiancé, maybe you could at least stick around to listen to what I have to say.”
“I’m sorry that I slapped you. I shouldn’t have done that. But I trusted you and you kept something important from me. How can I trust you won’t mislead me again?”
Shaking his head he hisses, “Come on, Dahlia, you know you can trust me, I’ve never lied to you.”
“I didn’t say you lied, I said you didn’t tell me. But you also allowed me to believe I was attacked by some random stranger. I know Grace asked you not to tell me who he was, but you really should have.”
His stare is almost unbearable. He shakes his head and it infuriates me, but he says nothing so I keep talking. “Come on, River, you even hired extra security because you were worried that he would still come after me. I guess you went through all that trouble for nothing since they caught him. I’m safe now.”
“Maybe you’re right, but I’m not sure it even matters anymore.”
“Of course it matters. Why would you say that?”
“Stop saying of course. I’m done with this conversation.”
Since I’ve never really experienced him being angry at me, I’m unsure of how to proceed. Should I force him to talk about it? What will happen if I do? Am I ready to find out? I’m not sure about any of that. But what I do know is that River needs to understand that I love him. He needs to know that even though we haven’t worked out our issues he matters to me.
As tension fills the air between us, I watch him, still unsure about what to do. After a few more seconds of unbearable silence, I close the distance separating us and stand directly in front of him. Avoiding eye contact he leans forward, setting all four legs of the chair down. It kills me to be standing here like this, unable to touch him. I want him to talk to me. I have to break the silence. So I ask, “Do you know your brother’s passed out on the couch?”
“Yeah, well he did his best to keep up with me,” he says, setting his beer bottle down next to at least a dozen others. Cocking his head to the side, he just barely glances at me. “So where does all this leave us?”
I answer in complete honestly. “The same place we were yesterday. I know we both have issues to work out, but I’m not sure talking about them anymore tonight is a good idea.” Then I grab his hand and pull him out of the chair. He comes willingly. A bag of ice falls to the ground and I notice his other hand is wrapped in a kitchen towel. I swipe his hair from his forehead and try to look at him, into his eyes, but they are unfocused and the skin around one is slightly discolored. I cup his face and he closes his eyes. I run my fingers around the outline of his swollen bruise. “Does it hurt?”
“Nah, not anymore,” he shrugs.
I lift his hand and can see that it’s also swollen and bruised. “God, River, is it broken?”
He laughs slightly before saying, “You know, I have no f**king idea, but it hurts like hell. Xander had me move my fingers and when I did, he told me to suck it up.”
I carefully caress his hand and bring it to my mouth, softly kissing it. “You can’t go after Ben every time you see him. Fighting with him isn’t going to change anything.”
“Might not change anything, but makes me feel a hell of a lot better.”
His body tenses and I know this still isn’t the time to discuss Ben, but it is the right time to tell him how I feel. I run my fingertips along his cheek, silently apologizing for slapping him before saying it. “I really am so sorry.” I hope he knows I mean it for more than just the slap. Leaning into him, I take his other hand and bring both to my mouth as I tell him what I’ve wanted him to know since I drove away this morning. “River, I love you, Ben being alive doesn’t change that. You know that—right?”
Exhaling, he grabs my face and looks directly into my eyes. Despite his drunken state, his eyes seem more focused and his words are clear. “I want to believe your love is only for me. That your lips are mine. That your kisses are meant for me. That your body belongs to me.” His arms move to my waist and tighten around me and he presses his hard body against mine. “But when you leave me to see him, it’s hard to know for sure.”
My breath quickens in anticipation because I know if my words can’t put his mind at ease, erase his worries, or ease his fears—my body can. It always responds to him. It’s not forced. It’s natural. No one can ever make me feel the way he does. He knows this . . . I just need to remind him.
He shuts his eyes tightly as if he’s trying to read my mind, but he doesn’t have to. I know if he tries hard enough, he can feel my love. Opening his eyes, he stares back at me, as if waiting for me to respond to him, but I need to show him. So I crush my lips against his. And I’m surprised when he opens his mouth hungrily and allows me complete access. I wrap my arms around his neck and rub flush against him. I want to be one with him and I know he wants the same. His kisses start off hesitant, but when I push my h*ps into his, they become more aggressive. He runs his mouth down my neck to the bare spot that Aerie’s sweatshirt doesn’t cover.
Gasping, I push him back slightly, feeling guilty for using my body to explain my feelings when I know we should discuss what happened. “Maybe we should finish talking.”
His lips find my neck again and at first he merely growls in response. “I don’t think talking is what we need to do right now.”
I drop my head back and let him find his way. How can I not? My body responds on its own. It’s his. My anger completely evaporates at his touch. Leaving no bare place on my body where his mouth hasn’t touched, he looks at me in a way that leaves me breathless, wanting him, wanting more.
He steps back and strips his shirt off before bunching the bottom of mine and doing the same. Not wanting to lose his touch, I lean into him. I need to feel his bare skin against mine before the sweatshirt is even over my head. He swiftly tosses it to the ground and snakes his arms around my waist, pulling me to him, thrusting his h*ps into me.
He moves his mouth to my chest and when I run my hands down the front of his jeans I hear his sharp intake of breath. We are both much more aggressive than we have ever been. I moan as he pulls and tugs on first one nipple then the other. I hastily unzip his pants and shove a hand into them. His head drops back, but he hastily brings it back to mine and kisses me again.
Taking my hair down, he tries to run his fingers through my tangled strands and I know he can feel the sand in it. He stops immediately and looks at me questioningly.
“Did you go to the beach again today after I saw you?”
I nod and swallow, wondering why he’s asking, but I answer truthfully. “Yes. That’s where I went when I left Grace’s.”
“Why would you go back there? Did you see him again?” he hisses.
“No—of course I didn’t go see Ben again. I went to the beach because it brings me peace. I needed to figure things out. If you would’ve called or texted me you would’ve known.” I swallow back my hurt.
“Like I said, ‘of course’ is no longer assumed. And what exactly were you figuring out?”
“Nothing. Everything. You. Me. Ben. I don’t even know.” I notice he doesn’t address not calling me, but let it go.
“I didn’t realize we needed figuring out,” he seethes.
“We don’t. That’s not what I meant.”
He goes back to sit in his chair. He scrubs his face with his hands before picking up his nearly empty beer bottle and swallowing the rest of it down, but he never breaks his unnerving eye contact with me.
As he continues to stare at me in a way I haven’t seen before, I decide I need my old River back before we can keep talking. I don’t want to let him slip away, but don’t know what to do. Averting his intense stare, my eyes dart to the stillness of the water and I know that is where I can find peace. So I strip off my pants and dive into the pool, wanting to wash my body of the sand and bottled-up emotion. Tranquility shoots through me as my skin meets the coolness of the water. Surfacing, I swim to the side and gesture to him to join me. He sits there, his pants unzipped, and shakes his head no.
Splashing water in his direction, I goad him, “What? Are you too drunk to swim? Because there sure as shit are a lot of empty beer bottles next to you.”
He crosses his arms and smirks at me and I can tell he’s trying not to laugh. A few more seconds pass. When I splash him again his expression changes and this time he smiles. “I could swim laps around you with all these bottles tied around my waist.”
“Prove it. Come on. Don’t be chickenshit. I bet you tomorrow’s coffee run you can’t beat me in your condition. In fact, I’ll even throw in a hold-your-breath contest.” I figure even though he always swims faster and can hold his breath longer, I doubt he can best me at either now. And honestly, I don’t care if I win or lose—I just want him back.
“I’ll take that bet and I’ll have a double espresso, but it doesn’t mean I’m not still mad as hell at you.”
Without another word he stumbles slightly as he removes his jeans and boxers, then dives in. He swims to the opposite end of the pool and grabs the ledge. I stay where I am, giving him his distance.
“So how’s this contest going to go?”
He shrugs his shoulders. “Hold your breath first works for me.”
“Okay, why not. Let’s do it. On the count of three. One. Two. Three,” I say and then I plunge underwater.