Authors: Stephanie Rowe
Tags: #Ever After#2
"Hi." Warmth flooded her at his warm tone, at the possessive way he looked at her. This wasn't a man who was going to pretend yesterday hadn’t happened. This was a man who was fully engaged and ready to claim her, and it felt incredible.
Dammit. Why couldn't she resist him?
"Hi!" Noah piped up from the back seat. "I'm Noah!"
She glanced past Jason into the backseat, and saw Noah sitting on his booster. He grinned at her with the effervescence of a boy who thought the world was his playground. "Hi, Noah. My name is Astrid."
He waved. "I'm going to my new camp today. They have swimming, soccer and they even have archery!" He made a shooting motion with his arms. "And guess what! They have a huge playground there. Bigger than the one at my old school in New York."
Astrid's chest tightened at his tremendous blue eyes and long black eyelashes. He was so adorable, so engaging, and so open. "How old are you, Noah?"
"Six." Her son would have been three. Riding in her backseat just like Noah... Astrid's heart ached, and she tore her gaze off Noah, struggling to tamp down the emotions she usually had locked away. She focused on Jason, who was studying her so thoughtfully that chills ran down her spine. "What?"
"No." God, no. Not when every fiber of her being was screaming at her to accept his invitation and fall into his spell, to allow him to sweep her up into his life and help her forget everything she was dealing with. She couldn’t do it, because it was so much easier to be alone, than to trust and then be destroyed again. She couldn't recover again. It would be too much.
Jason's eyes were flashing with challenge, and Astrid suddenly realized that he wasn't going to give up. For some asinine reason, she had become a challenge that he wasn't going to abandon. As much as she wanted to believe it, she knew it wasn't because she was so special that he wanted to sweep her into his life and give her the fantasy. She wasn't the naïve girl who thought she was enough for a man like Jason Sarantos. He didn't want
He wanted something
her, and once he got it, he would no longer want her or need her. She stepped up to the window and lowered her voice. "Why, Jason? Why me?"
Those same shadows flashed in his eyes, and she remembered the depths of his pain last night when they'd met under the sunset. "Because you make me smile," he said.
And then she knew. Jason wanted her because he was hurting so deeply inside and he felt like she was his gasp of relief. It was just like how she'd met Paul on the heels of his breakup with his girlfriend of seven years. She was the relief, the rebirth, the desperate grasp at survival. What would happen when Jason got his feet under him again? When he didn't need a hand to hold him up, and then he realized what kind of woman he'd brought into his life?
She already knew.
She would not make the same mistake again of trusting a man's beautiful words and believing that he meant them forever. Jason was a single dad with an impressionable son. He might want an angel to breathe life into him now, but ultimately, he would want a mother for his son, a beacon of domesticity to flood their home with security and love, and that was one thing she couldn't offer. Not
Thanks, but no thanks. She wasn't going to throw herself out there and get crushed again. "I'm sorry, Jason, but not Friday, not Saturday, not ever." She stepped back from the car. "Good-bye, Jason. Have a good day at camp, Noah."
"Bye!" Noah shouted from the back.
For a long moment, Jason didn't drive. He simply stared at her, and after a moment, his expression began to cool, and she knew that he'd finally accepted her rejection. It was done.
She felt no relief. She simply felt the painful ache of loss, even though she knew it was the only way it could be. Damn him for reminding her of all the things she used to dream of, for showing her how alone she really was.
"As you wish, Astrid." Then, without another word, he took his foot off the brake and let his car coast away from her.
And with that, it was done.
But as he rounded the corner, Astrid knew that it wasn't. Not really. Because this was a small town and she would see him all the time. And every time she saw him, it would remind her of what it had felt like to be needed, even if it had been only for a moment. He would make it impossible to forget all that had nearly destroyed her before.
Could she survive being constantly reminded of that?
As she got into the car, she knew what the answer was. No, she couldn't. The only way she could survive was to not feel that kind of pain, and she simply wasn't strong enough to see Jason every day and not feel anything. It was time to move on.
It was time to leave her home.
It was time to find a new place.
It was time for another fresh start.
The mere thought of leaving Birch Crossing brought a swell of anguish to her chest, and she was already crying by the time her wheels started to roll.
But by the time she reached the one stoplight in town, her eyes were dry, and her shoulders were back.
Another adventure meant another beginning. One of these times she was going to get it right. There was simply no other option.
"Here's to Astrid! The coolest chick ever to live over a mechanic's shop!"
Astrid grinned as Clare raised her beer in yet another toast to her. After three weeks of packing and avoiding questions, this morning Astrid had finally told Clare and Emma during their daily morning coffee that she was leaving town the next day. Clare and Emma's shock and outrage had been so genuine that Astrid had almost considered changing her mind, but she hadn't.
She wasn't a "forever" kind of person, and it was time to move on. She'd thought they'd accepted that, until they'd showed up at seven o'clock this evening while she was packing the last of her things and kidnapped her for a going away party of booze, sex and roasting. In Birch Crossing, that kind of party involved a corner table at Johnny's Grill and Swill, a couple pitchers of beer, and too many platters of nachos. The sex part involved making raunchy suggestions about the well-muscled bartender with a military buzz cut and a healthy dose of tattoos.
"We have presents," Emma announced, holding up a blue and yellow sparkly gift bag and setting it on the table, almost on top of the third platter of nachos. "We can't send you off without being properly gift-laden."
Astrid laughed, touched by the gesture. Of all the times she'd moved, no one had ever given her a going away party. She and her mom had just slipped away, because good-bye hurt too much. She'd considered going that route this time, but she hadn't been able to do it. Clare and Emma simply meant too much to her. "You guys are crazy."
"Not crazy," Clare said as she took a drink of the beer. "Just totally devastated that you're really moving away. I have a guest room. Please live there."
"And listen to you and Griffin have crazy monkey sex all night while I'm sitting there by myself?" Astrid snorted. "That is cruel and unusual punishment for a single girl."
"Amen, sistah," Emma said. "No secondhand sex necessary." She grinned as she picked up another nacho laden with cheese, chili and olives. "Sleep on my couch. There will be none of that to bother you. In fact..." She dug into the bag and pulled out a small box wrapped in blue foil. "Here you go. This should help you sleep."
Astrid grinned as she started to unwrap it. "I must admit, I've never felt so loved. I really appreciate it."
"Is it enough to keep you here?" Clare said hopefully. "I mean it, Astrid, I don't think you should go—"
"You're kidding!" Astrid burst out laughing when she saw what was in the box. "A vibrator?"
"Yeah." Emma leaned forward and pointed at the box. "The guy at the store in Portland said this is their best seller. It's got this dual action thing with the penetration and stimulator—"
"Perfect." Astrid grinned. "And it's in pink. My favorite color."
Emma nodded. "I thought you'd like the pink." Then she winked. "I bought one for myself, too. I figured why not, right?"
"You got it, girl." Astrid tapped her beer against Emma's, exchanging knowing glances with her. It was such a thoughtful gift, actually. It could keep a girl out of trouble...
"What about me?" Clare picked up the box and studied it. "Why didn't you get me one? This actually looks kind of interesting."
"Because you have Griffin. Women who have real men have to buy their own sex toys," Emma said.
"What is that?" Eppie plunked herself down at the table and yanked the box out of Clare's hands. "Good lord, Almighty, is that really supposed to fit inside a woman? They didn't have things like this when I was your age. We had to make do with a—"
"So glad you could make it," Clare quickly interrupted, mercifully sparing them from whatever Eppie was about to describe. "Have a beer."
"I want one of these." Eppie flipped the black box over, tugging at the corners. "How do I get this open? I want to check it out—"
"Can I get you anything—" Their waitress stuttered in surprise when she saw what was in Eppie's hand. "Oh, how cool! I've heard about those. They're supposed to be great."
"I know," Emma said. "That's why I got it—"
Eppie started to tear at the box, and Astrid plucked it out of the old lady's hands. "Get your own, thank you very much. That's mine." And she truthfully was kind of excited about it. Maybe it would keep her from making insane choices like sleeping with Jason Sarantos twelve hours after meeting him just because it felt so damn good to have someone look at her the way he had...
"Okay, well, I have a different theory about how you should be living your life." Clare pulled a twelve-inch wooden box out of the gift bag. "This is my going away present."
Astrid took the box, marveling at the intricacies of the wood overlays. The wood was beautiful, and it was hand-carved with dozens of beautiful flowers that had once been painted. The colors had faded now to a bare hint of rose and green, which made it almost even more stunning. "That's beautiful."
"I thought you'd like it." Clare smiled. "It was my mother's jewelry box. I want you to have it."
"Your mother's?" Astrid immediately shook her head and set the box on the table. Clare's mother had died several years ago, and Astrid knew how much Clare still missed her. "I can't take a memento of your mother, Clare. There's no way."
"I want you to have it." Clare picked it up and put it in Astrid's hands. "When I see it, it reminds me of when she and I used to sit at her dresser and model her jewelry. They were beautiful memories I had with her, and I cherish them."
"But you are all about jewelry, too, Astrid," Clare said. "That's how we met, with you sitting there in the alcove in my office, making these amazing designs while I wrote out wills. Use this box for your most special pieces and think of me. There's so much love in that box, and I want you to have it with you, so that you always have a piece of me with you, so you always remember that you are loved."
Tears filled Astrid's eyes, and she started to cry. "How am I supposed to leave when you say things like that?"
"That's my hope," Clare said with a misty grin. "By the end of tonight, you'll be so weepy that you'll decide to sleep in my bed between me and Griffin because you love us so much."
Astrid managed to laugh through her tears. "God, no, that's just creepy." Then she opened the box and started laughing again. "How many boxes of condoms are in here?"
"Twenty. It was all that would fit." Clare grinned. "When you gave me that box of condoms last spring, it changed the entire direction of my life, so I thought I'd return the favor."
"With twenty boxes?"
Clare grinned. "Well, maybe your life needs a big change."
"That it does." Astrid flipped through the boxes. "You've got every type in here. Even flavored? Cinnamon? Really? That just doesn't sound appealing—-" Then she uncovered what was at the bottom and her stomach dropped. "A pregnancy test?"
"Two!" Clare laughed. "You know, condoms are only about ninety-seven percent effective, so I figured if I was encouraging you to have sex more than a hundred times, I should at least give you a couple tests."
"That's why the vibrator is better," Emma announced cheerfully as she refilled her beer from the pitcher. "No risk there."
Astrid suddenly felt sick, and she pushed the beer away from her. "Thanks," she said, suddenly not able to stop thinking about the fact that she and Jason had not used a condom.
How long had it been since they'd been together? She quickly counted off the days. It had been over three weeks. Her period had been due last week, but she hadn't even thought about the fact she was late because she often missed her period when she was stressed. She was accustomed to missing it, and had not given it a thought since her stress level was off the charts. She was exhausted. She hadn't slept more than two hours a night due to worry and working on her jewelry. So it made complete sense that she'd miss her period. It happened often, and she was never pregnant.
Except that this time, there had been sex involved, so that changed everything. This time, there was a possibility that it wasn't the stress or lack of sleep… "Oh, shit." She gripped the edge of the table, suddenly having trouble breathing.
"Here's my gift," Eppie said, as the girls chatted about condoms and vibrators, clearly not noticing Astrid's sudden panic. She handed a small envelope to Astrid. "For you."
Her fingers shaking, Astrid took the envelope and opened it. Inside was a small pink notecard with two words written on it: "Angel27" and "beli3ve4u." "What is this?"
"Your loveforever.com profile name and password," Eppie said. "I bought you a year's subscription and put together a lovely profile for you after you showed me how to work it. You already have sixteen messages, and some of the men are quite lovely. I screened out a couple who were clearly no-good-womanizing bastards, but left the ones you might be interested in."