Home > When We Let Go

When We Let Go
Author: Rochelle B. Weinstein

 

CHAPTER 1

Deep down I already know the truth. Jude is about to propose. And I know I should do something to stop it instead of continuing our stroll through Vizcaya’s gardens, but I don’t. I tell myself the clamminess of his palm is due to the eighty-degree temperature, a consequence of tropical living, or simply a projection of my own fear, but it doesn’t shake the feeling. I know. I can read it on his face. The apprehension. The anticipation. And I love him, I do, but there couldn’t be a worse day for a proposal.

Guests flock daily to Coconut Grove’s elaborate Deering Estate, crowding its ornate mansion and lush gardens. But today the visitors have all gone home, the sun scurrying toward the west, drenching the property in magnificent light. A handful of staff lingers, tending to the parterre, and there’s Lloyd, security guard and trusted friend, making his rounds. Lloyd glances in my direction, a knowing grin strapped to his face, which only heightens my suspicion.

When Jude phoned earlier asking to stop by after work, the request wasn’t unusual. His job at the hospital involves complex cases, and we often unwind with a stroll around the property where I work. I was happy to stay later, as I often do, but here we are, nearing the Fountain Garden, and everything is about to change.

I steal a sidelong glance in his direction as he meets my eyes. Jude. Tall and boyish. Thick, dark hair framing his soft blue eyes. And just as fast, I turn, so he can’t see my worry. Two years in, and I suppose I believed I had more time to sort out the layer of indecision. It’s not Jude’s fault he doesn’t know the significance of this date, and as we pass the newly planted rose garden, Jude stops and takes both my hands in his.

Jude is both nervous and sure of himself, and his stare brings forth a flare of longing, a burst of warmth I’ve worked so hard to tame. His devotion patched many of the holes left by that tragic long-ago afternoon. But the regret remains. And when he wraps me in his arms and I sink into him, I wish to preserve the feeling, his scent mingling with the flowers and nearby bay—being safe.

“You know I’ve fallen in love with you, Avery. And I know it’s not just the two of us . . . The kids and I make a bit of a crowd.”

My body stiffens. I’ve fallen in love with him, too. Against all odds. Even when I doubted it was possible. His eyes are so sure, so sure they see me. But he doesn’t see me at all. It makes me want to burst into tears. Jude’s already done the impossible, loving me when I didn’t believe I could be loved. Awakening something in me I thought forever lost.

“We’ll take it slow,” he says. “We’ll do it together. I didn’t think I’d have another shot. But Avery, you surprised me.”

His willingness makes me feel worse, the kindness burrowed deep inside his stare, and I’m burning with a different regret. The kind that comes from secrets.

This is Jude, I remind myself. And it brings forth a reel, the afternoons we spent walking the beach, competitive games of backgammon, the first time we made love. And his kids. Henry and Milo tossing macaroni and cheese at each other from across the table, ducking noodles and snarky insults from big sister Elle.

“Avery.” He says my name, brushing the memories aside. I refuse to make another mistake. Not today. The last one left me ruined, cost me my most important relationship. But here I am, standing before a second chance, and I want it, and him.

He drops to one knee. “Avery Beckett, will you marry me?”

The words crash into me. I try to speak, but sound won’t come out. Jude blinks. His face hopeful and expectant. Birds flock overhead, but the only sound I hear is my heart. It bursts from my chest, and I want to force it down, let him know how he surprised me, too.

“Jude.”

He once told me he could read every emotion in my eyes. What he sees now has to be such a disappointment. Letting him down, causing any more pain than he’s already endured, was never part of the plan. I can’t look at him, knowing how my silence hurts. And when I try to turn away, the possibility of us fades from his cheeks, the earlier glow turning pale and dull. “Avery.” His voice shakes. “Did you hear me? I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

I clamp my eyes shut, blotting out his sadness while remembering mine. The fire. The baby. Oliver. I want to open my eyes and let Jude in, all in, but I’m paralyzed with fear. The last proposal cost me everything.

I should tell him. And I want to tell him—I tried to tell him—but we were doing fine. Fine. Because fine came with no expectations.

“Avery, please say something.”

But I can’t. His offer of a commitment and a family comes on the same date I lost both. And seeing him on his knees doesn’t only make me happy. It makes me terribly afraid it might happen again.

He slowly gets to his feet, time stopping around us. The garden sighs, a whisper of wind through the leaves.

He’s so handsome and sure. I’m so lost.

You mess everything up, Avery.

I shake my head, shake the demons away, and Jude mistakes it for a more decisive response, and maybe it is.

Deflated, he takes a few steps back. He’s slipping away. From me. From us. And I don’t know how to stop him. If I disclose the truth now, he’ll never forgive me. But saying yes and then hurting him later would be far worse. I understand that this could be it, the end, and it terrifies me to imagine another loss spreading deep within.

I watch him in slow motion as he tucks the ring into the pocket of his navy blazer, the one the kids and I picked out for his recent birthday. They were so excited to be a part of choosing; I had basked in the intimacy of picking out his clothes.

“I don’t understand,” he says.

I reach for him, out of concern, out of longing, but he pulls back. And I know how quickly this will change us. Had I been forthcoming from the start, he, of all people, would have understood. But I never imagined Jude and I would grow as we had, that he would dive under my skin and latch on as he did. And for a time, it was so much easier burying my past. But then we fell in love, and Jude saw in me what I couldn’t see in myself. By then, too much time had gone by, and I lost the courage. It was too late. Unearthing these hidden parts of me will only make him angry, make him run. I am dangerous. I make people leave. My child, Quinn. Oliver. This way, at least I am in control of how we end. And leaving is always better than being left.

When I speak, it comes out a whisper. “I thought we were comfortable with the way things were . . . Taking it slow.”

“And I thought we were happy—”

“We are,” I say. While he couldn’t repair the damage, he carved a space inside that meant I wasn’t completely dead, that I could feel something, trust that broken promises wouldn’t constrain me forever. But a proposal is a big ask. And even though the subject of our future had come up in recent months, I thought we were on the same page.

“And you’re still unwilling—”

“It’s not that, Jude—”

He faces me, steely eyed. “Then tell me what it is.”

How can I tell him that deep down inside, I don’t believe I deserve him? That I will only hurt him or, God forbid, one of the kids? How can I tell him that I am quite literally terrified to open up my heart, the risk of losing another piece too big? Ashamed, I break away, scanning the grounds for answers. There’s the reflection pool with the lily pads, the lofty palms, but it’s the roses that catch my attention, their sharp, pointed thorns.

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