I rubbed my scratchy eyes. Jet lag was fucking killing me. I glanced at my watch and then blinked. I’d forgotten to set it back to L.A. time, and it was still reading like we were in Japan. We’d only been gone three weeks—just long enough to finish out the term and all but one final a week early. Our Civ papers were turned in, but we had to do a Skype presentation for our final grade.
It was the only way the Study at Sea faculty would agree to the time off we needed for the X Games. We’d asked for ten days. They’d agreed to seven. Like I was in any shape for the Games. I’d counted on the Nepal trip to keep my physical edge, but I would never regret the trip I’d taken with Rachel in its place.
It had been the last time I’d seen her seminormal.
The moment she’d put the pieces together—that her dad was hers biologically—she’d withdrawn. She wasn’t sad, or angry, or sarcastic—she was simply gone. Even sitting in the car next to her now as we drove toward her parents’ house, she was lost in her own thoughts.
I couldn’t blame or push her. It wasn’t like I knew the appropriate time to let her process a bombshell that big, but two weeks seemed about right. And since I knew she’d asked for both of her parents to meet her at their house, I figured the shit was about to hit the fan.
So I did what had become my usual these last two weeks—picked up her hand and kissed the inside of her wrist. “Want to talk about anything before we get there?”
She shook her head.
“I wish you would. It’s killing me to watch you go through this and not lean on anyone. Leah says you haven’t talked to her, and Penna says the same. I feel like you’re this bottled-up stick of dynamite that’s going to blow at any minute, and I wish you would talk to me.”
Even if she blew up on me, it was better than the silence, than being locked out of her head. I had zero clue of what she was thinking. Was she still pissed at me? Still doubting me? Was she just biding her time so she could walk away from me for good? Was all the progress we’d made just in my own head?
She looked over and forced a flat smile, but her eyes softened. How was it possible to miss someone so much when they sat right next to you? Fear ran down my spine, cold and unwelcome. What if this was her way of walking away?
“I don’t know what to say to them,” she said with a shrug. “I’ve gone over so many options, and none of them seem to fit. I’m not mad. Okay, maybe a little mad about the lie, but I’m mostly sad that there’s this whole history that I didn’t know, that they didn’t think I was capable of hearing.”
“Have you ever kept a secret?” I asked as we turned into her neighborhood.
“Sure,” she answered. “More than my fair share of secrets involved you,” she added with an arched eyebrow.
My heart leaped at the show of spirit—of my Rachel shining through. “Okay, we’re a great example. At first, we kept us a secret because it would hurt Pax, right?”
My gaze dropped to her lips as I remembered those days, the stolen moments, the times I kissed her while my best friend was waiting for her in the next room. Now I had her, but it felt like she had one foot out the door…as usual, and that fucking terrified me. Add that to the fact that I was delivering her to the lion’s den, where her father had successfully ripped us apart not just once, but twice, and I was ready to vomit.
“Eventually the biggest problem with keeping the secret was that we’d kept it for so long. It was no longer about the fact that we were in love, that I’d craved you since the first time I saw you standing with your dad at the Gremlin booth at the Tahoe Open. The issue was that every day we didn’t tell added to our sins until they compounded and gained interest.”
“You think they didn’t tell me because they’d kept the secret for too long already?”
“I think that it’s worth the thought.” We pulled into her driveway, and the car rocked to a stop. Too soon. I haven’t had enough time with her. I wanted to pull her into my arms and kiss away the confusion on her face, the uncertainty that clouded her eyes, but we hadn’t crossed any sexual lines since Fiji, and I knew she had to be the one to make the first move.
Maybe it was wrong, or selfish, but I needed her to need me, too. Needed her to depend on me, rely on me, to trust that I would be her safe place if the world went to shit. Trust. Ha. That’s funny. I even sounded sarcastic to myself.
“When does your flight leave for Aspen?” she asked.
“When you’re ready,” I answered.
“What? You can’t wait on me. I have no idea how long it will take to feel like I can leave.”
I shrugged. “I’m not going without you.”
She downright glared at me, and I wanted to sing with the joy of it. “And what happens when you miss your events? When you don’t win the prize money you need because you turned down Gremlin’s terms?”
Unable to stop my hand, I brushed my knuckles against the soft skin of her cheek, savoring the contact. “You’re not a term.”
“Landon, I’m being serious.”
“I am, too. What happens if you need me and I’m not here? I promised you that you are my priority, and I meant it. I’m here while you deal with this. I’ll be here when you need me, and I’ll be standing here when you swear you don’t, anyway. If you’re ready to go, we’ll go. If not, then I won’t.”
She glanced to the open door, where both of her parents stood, looking just as nervous as they should.
“What time is the flight?” she repeated.
“I have tickets on a commercial flight at noon tomorrow,” I answered.
“Commercial?” She quirked an eyebrow. “Slumming it with us normal people?”
I laughed. “All my extra money went to a private plane overseas. Now I’m on a budget until we figure out how to swing the circuit, since Pax’s dad confirmed that he’s only funding the documentary. You’re worth it,” I promised softly.
She looked away, and I wondered how long I had before she tried to bolt again. Heaviness settled in my stomach. Was there any way I would ever actually earn back her trust, or was I always going to be watching for her to run?
“Don’t wait on me,” she instructed, and I prayed she only meant for the X Games. “You can’t afford it, and I won’t be the reason you miss your medals. Not that you’d actually miss them.”
I breathed through the spark of anger her words sent through my veins. What the hell did I have to do to prove to her that she was more important?
“I’m not leaving without you. I mean it,” I said in the most serious tone I could muster without letting my absolute rage seep through. “Didn’t Nepal prove that to you?” I’d given more than my pound of flesh, and I wasn’t asking the same from her—just the tiniest glimmer of trust. How much more could I fucking take before I snapped on her and set us back when our relationship status was already so delicate?
“You did,” she admitted. “But this is different. You won’t let Wilder down. With Penna out, they need you.”
“Well, I need you!” I put my hands over my face and took a deep breath. Then I tried to rein in the anger, the frustration, the terror that she’d walk into that house and her dad would somehow turn her against me permanently. “I love you, Rachel. You know that. And I’ll wait for as long as you need me to, but I’m begging you to start giving me the benefit of the doubt. I can love you with everything I have in me, but I can’t love you enough for the both of us. At some point you have got to stop taking hits at me just to see how far you can push before I’ll leave. I’m not leaving, but I’m not sure you can say the same, and that scares the shit out of me.”
She glanced away and then back to me, but after a minute of silence, I realized she wasn’t going to respond.
“Your parents are waiting,” I told her.
“Thank you for bringing me home,” she said. “Why don’t you just check us in for the flight. If I make it, then we’ll go. If I’m not there, go without me.”
My jaw flexed.
Before I could say something that would put us on the downward spiral, she kissed my cheek. “See you later.”
I nodded as the love of my life stepped out of the hired car and took her bag from the driver. She didn’t look back, not that I expected her to.
She still didn’t believe that I’d be standing there if she did.