Summer: Have fun today! Send pics of the places you look at. And tell me which neighborhoods. I want to know literally everything.
Bailey: Okay. Thanks.
Summer: You alright?
Bailey: Yeah. I just wasn’t expecting you to text me.
Summer: Why not?
Bailey: Beau is the only person who texts me.
Summer: Well, now it’s Beau AND me.
Bailey: Thought you might be annoyed about me moving.
Summer: Why would I be annoyed at that?
Bailey: Uh, because I just started working for you?
Summer: I know a thing or two about going after what you want. I love to see it. Make that world your oyster, girl.
Beau pulls himself into the passenger seat and the air in my truck instantly gets harder to swallow.
He looks delicious. A plaid shirt, a mixture of greens and creams, with a khaki tee beneath. I can see the silver chain of his dog tags disappearing beneath his layers. Jeans. The leather boots I helped him pick out.
It’s cool this morning, and the nip of fall creeps across the flat fields around us. It gets hot midday, and then the temperature plummets in the evening.
I love this time of year.
Shifting into drive, I pull away from the house, trying to keep my eyes on the road rather than on him.
I miss him.
For three days, I’ve missed him. For three days, I’ve forced myself not to walk back into his house.
And not because I’m trying to punish him. I realized that on day two. This isn’t even about him.
It’s about me. It’s about my fear outweighing my desire. It’s about taking my own first steps to start fresh. Being able to know I did it on my own, without anyone holding me back, and without anyone giving me a leg up. I’ve been a victim of my circumstances for too damn long.
First, I got mad at how unfair my life was.
Now I’m getting even.
“What are you doing?” he asks after we’ve left the limits of Chestnut Springs.
“Driving.” My hands twist on the wheel.
“No shit. In the city, Bailey. What are you doing?”
My tongue darts out over my lips as I consider what I want to tell him. He’s so … overbearing, overwhelming, overprotective, and I don’t want him barging in on this day for me. He made it very clear the other morning that I need to leave town. That he wants me to leave town.
And him? He’s got a family. A home. Any job he wants—that he can casually pick up at the fucking gas station.
No, doing any of these next steps with him in tow would hurt too damn much.
“You can’t come with me.”
“That’s fine.” He settles back in his seat, thick biceps straining against plaid as he crosses his arms. “I have something I need to do anyway.”
Curiosity tugs at me. “What are you doing?”
I peek at him, and he grins. My stomach does this nauseating little flip. God. He’s so beautiful.
“Asked you first, sugar.”
My eyes roll. How a dumb joke about calling me sugar tits has turned into a term of endearment is beyond me. And yet, it makes me smile.
“Going in to check out the campus. I finally activated my enrollment to start in January.”
The grin he hits me with is downright blinding. I blink away, like he’s too bright to look at directly. It hurts.
“Gonna check out a few rental places too,” I mumble. Talking about these things with him feels awkward in the wake of everything that’s happened between us. Fake, to real, to a little too real.
I guess I’m just inexperienced enough to not know where I stand with him, or how to even broach the subject, even though I know I have to.
All I know is he lied. My feelings got hurt. He brings me breakfast every morning and gives me every bit of space I asked for—possibly too much space. And he told me I should leave town.
But then he smiles at me like he loves me.
And I go right back to being confused.
“Good for you.”
I scoff. Good for me. It’s like a pat on the head, and that’s not what I want from him. I want him to toss me over his shoulder and drag me back to his house.
But I don’t want to be in Chestnut Springs.
I am so fucking lost.
“What are you going in for?”
“Work,” he replies simply. All that does is make me think he’s doing something with the bar, which reminds me he’s been lying to me out of some misplaced sense of duty.
We fall into silence once more as the fields whip by and the skyscrapers over the city come into view.
“Where am I taking you?”
He shifts in his seat, grabbing the overhead handle and looking out the window. “I’ll direct you.”
We head straight into the city.
“Right up ahead.”
Again, I turn, following the road into a cozy, tree-lined neighborhood. Older houses. Some infills. A one-level brick school with a brightly colored playground out front.
I was expecting something different when he said “work”. I have no idea what we’re doing here. At least it isn’t far from campus.
“One more block up.”
My brows furrow as I watch a stream of children make their way down the sidewalk, too-big backpacks slung over their shoulders.
“Just here. On the left.”
I stop on the opposite side of the road and look across at another brick building.
A fire hall.
“Kinda figured the big red truck out front might be a dead giveaway,” he replies on a chuckle.
I hear him unbuckling his seatbelt, but I can’t seem to peel my eyes away from the building.
“Right. But why?”
“Job interview.” He tugs the handle and opens the door to exit the small cab.
As he gets out, I ask the same question again, not quite comprehending what’s going on. “But why?”
Beau turns, and his eyes sweep over my face, like he’s trying to memorize my every feature. Then he shrugs, a nonchalant motion in contrast to the intensity of his gaze. “Told you I love you, Bailey. And I meant it.” He gives me a wink and hits the truck roof twice, like I’m a fucking cab driver or something. “Make sure whatever house you pick has room for us to host family dinners. You know the Eaton clan will visit more than we want them to.”
I sit here slack jawed, at a loss for words. Is he getting a job in the city just so he can be with me?
But I don’t get a chance to ask because he strides off, calling back over his shoulder, “Text me when you’re headed back. I’ll keep myself busy until you’re done.”
Then he’s across the street. Going for a job interview.
And me? I’m an emotional puddle.
I wander the campus in a daze.
I drink a coffee that tastes bland and watery. The ones Beau makes me are better.
I walk, checking for any cafes or restaurants that might be hiring. I drop off a resume at two that I like the looks of. Both times I’m met with smiles and enthusiasm. People who seemed excited by the prospect of hiring me.
It’s nice, but … I don’t feel that good about it.
The first rental I have an appointment at is a condominium on the twelfth floor. The woman showing it to me seems nice enough as she leads me through the space, which has big windows and lovely views. But when she says, “And there’s room for a small dining table right here,” while pointing at a practically non-existent space, I burst out crying.
Because that’s not nearly enough space to host the Eatons. And I want that. I want Beau, and I want that life, and I—god, I wish he was here with me.
Looking at places to live without him here feels wrong. Especially after that smug little bomb he dropped on me right before leaving my truck. So casual. Like he’s known all along what I don’t.
I press my palm against the center of my chest to press away the ache there as I ride the elevator down to the lobby. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the spot for me. Not only because I’m almost positive no one wants to rent their place to a girl who cries over a dining room, but also because that dining room is simply not big enough.
I miss Beau more intensely in this moment than I have in the past three days.
I wonder what he’s doing.
I wonder how he’s feeling.
I wonder if he knows what he’s doing.
I wonder if he’ll regret changing his life for me. And the weight of that is downright crushing.
I don’t go to my next appointment. I don’t think I can handle looking at another dining room and wondering about Beau. What I want is to crawl into bed with him and have him hold me.
I don’t text him. I just drive back to the fire hall, prepared to wait for him if I have to.
But I don’t have to.
When I pull up, he’s seated on a bench in the sun, knees slung open, phone held low while he scrolls the screen.
You’d think for a tier one operator he would notice me across the street, but he doesn’t. So I watch him. He smiles and his shoulders vibrate on a laugh.
I wonder what he’s watching.
I wonder how his interview went.
I wonder how long he’s been waiting.
I wonder if he’s hungry or if he ate lunch.
I wonder if he’d be okay with me coming to sit beside him.
It feels like my brain is just an ode to Beau Eaton. I think about him all the fucking time. Worry about him. Crave him.
I’m staring at him when he finally glances up, like he finally felt me here, soaking him in. Spellbound by him.
Not for the first time today, he hits me with a smile that makes my entire body warm. It’s genuine and soulful, and so damn boyish.
I love that smile.
With no further overthinking, I turn the key to stop the ignition and step out of the truck. After a quick glance in both directions, I’m walking to him. Okay, more like jogging.
“Hi,” I whisper as I stand in front of him, my eyes getting lost in his.
“Hi,” he says, patting the bench beside him.
I take a deep breath and sit down next to him. The wooden slats are warm beneath my bare legs, and I feel safe next to Beau’s strong body. “How was the job interview?”
“I got the job.” His voice brims with pride, and my eyes sting. “And not because they knew who I was. They’ll put me straight into a training group because of my JTF2 experience. And that … I earned that. I worked really hard to get into that unit. It’s a big part of who I was, who I’ll always be. I miss it. But I was offered a chance at a job today based on that merit. It’s not a favor from a friend or a built-in job from my family.”
He turns now to look at me, shoulder bumping mine lightly. “Been sitting here thinking about today. It feels good to be wanted because you bring something to the table. I’m really proud about this possibility, Bailey. It feels like I earned it. And I’m sorry I took that away from you.”
I hum, or sob. I’m not sure which, but it lodges in my throat, and I blink my lashes wildly to keep from crumbling in front of him. “Thank you,” I whisper, and then I reach across the sun-baked wood and take his hand in mine. Calloused fingers envelop my own, and I sigh, enjoying his touch.
I close my eyes and soak up the moment.
“Did you find us a nice place to live?”
“No. I couldn’t look without you.”
His fingers pulse.
“Actually, I went to one. She showed me the dining room, and I started crying.”
“Why? Was it nice?”
“No.” I sniff, feeling the tears slip out past my lashes. “It was too fucking small for our family dinners.” I finish the sentence with a true sob, one that he hears loud and clear.
“Oh, Bailey.” His voice is so tender, and his grip is so firm as he gathers me against him. Strong arms encircle my shoulders. “Baby, please don’t cry. I’ll do anything to make you not cry. I’m so fucking sorry.”
I bury my face in the crook of his neck and breathe him in. “Don’t lie to me again. Ever. Don’t pull the rug out from under me again. Ever.” I draw back, gripping his handsome face in my hands, searching his eyes. “I fucking missed you. God. Even when I’m furious with you, I want to be with you.”
“It’s not funny. I think I’m obsessed with you. Like every other starry-eyed girl in that godforsaken town.”
“Don’t laugh. It’s diagnosable. I’m mad at you, and I lay awake all night wondering if you were sleeping. Or if you’d eaten. After years of holding it together, I’ve finally lost it.” I try to pull a hand up to swipe away my tears, but he’s holding me so tight, so close that I can’t.
I opt to wipe my face on his shirt instead.
“You haven’t lost it. Or if you have, so have I. Because I was wondering all the same things. Shit, I don’t know how many times I got up to check the perimeter of the house. So the answer is no, I wasn’t sleeping.” He chuckles, like that’s funny.
I gaze at him in wonder. “But why?”
“You ask an awful lot of questions some days, Bailey Jansen.”
“I don’t understand, though. You. This. The breakfasts. None of it makes sense to me.”
His smile is different this time, tinged with sadness, brimming with reverence as he touches me urgently, brushing my hair behind my ears. “You’re not used to anyone showing up for you, Bailey. This is what that looks like. I told you I love you. I’ve never loved a woman before. Wasn’t sure I ever would. But now I do. And you and me? We’re a team. You don’t quit on your teammates. You don’t leave a man behind. So now you’re stuck with me. I’m just being patient. Waiting for you to come back.”
My tears fall freely as I listen to him pour his heart out to me.
“It’s like I’ve been searching for something, something to tie me to this new reality. I wasn’t looking for love; I was looking for a purpose. I just didn’t expect my purpose to be you.”
I say the only thing I can say in the wake of his words, in the wake of everything he’s done for me. “I love you, Beau.”
That blinding smile is back, but this time it’s matched with glassy eyes. He nods at me, every motion swimming with love. Admiration. I can feel the affection in everything he does.
And it feels so foreign. It feels so good.
“I told you once that I don’t think anyone has loved me before. But … ” I nibble at my lip. “But I don’t think I’ve ever really loved anyone either.”
His thumbs swipe at my cheeks, brushing away the tears that slip over my skin.
“That’s okay, baby. I can be your first,” he says.
And then he kisses me.
The first, last, and only man to love me.
And I’m okay with that.