How to Woo a Single Parent
. . . . .
She couldn't do this.
Just knowing he was in the same room had her heart pattering hard in her chest. No amount of work could distract her from the fact that he was there. And he'd RSVP'd a plus one. Who had he brought? Had she been right? Had she just been a blip on his radar?
She forced herself not to look, not to seek him out, but that didn't stop their eyes from meeting as she made her rounds. It didn't stop her from finding the back of his head in the large crowds that milled about, waiting for the bride and groom to finish their pictures. They'd even exchanged glances during dinner. But when the real dancing started, when all the ceremony of the reception had been dealt with, Ashley made her run for the crisp October air.
Or so she'd thought.
"This is ridiculous."
Her eyes slammed closed. "You would think so."
Chris released a sound of discontent. "And childish."
"Thanks," she said softly, sarcasm colouring her tone.
"It's not a complement."
She knew that too.
"Was your plan really to avoid me all night?"
"Did you come here to see me?"
She felt more than saw him lean against the railing beside her. She didn't look, but she did turn her head to see more of him out of the corner of her eye. "Did you?"
"No," he replied. "Tessa's never been to a wedding. Ever since she and Bryce have been friends she's been talking about weddings. Planning. Maybe doing what you do." He shrugged. "It couldn't hurt. She's old enough now to handle them. And I was invited."
"Natalia told me."
Silence fell, awkward and heavy in the chill of the evening. Eventually, he broke, sighing and copying her position, leaning against the railing and looking out.
"Still think you can't do it?"
"Do what?" She could play that game too. She avoided his eyes.
Her breath caught. She couldn't help it. Because that was one picture that hadn't faded over their month apart. She could see herself getting married. She could see herself attending Fourth of July picnics, sharing the kitchen with a large family, giving Bryce a load of cousins, blood-related or not.
"Liar." But instead of continuing the argument, he sighed. "We didn't end on good terms. I know that, but I want to tell you something, as someone who loves you."
He'd never minced words, but they still made her flinch. He loved her. Present tense. He still loved her. Her heart swelled and she bit her tongue hard to keep everything at bay.
"You're scared. I know that. I knew that when I-" He seemed to shake himself. "You're scared. I was scared. Everyone's scared. But you can't run from scared, Ash. You can't let yourself get so wrapped up in protecting your heart that you let the best things in your life pass you by. And that, apparently, wasn't me. Fine. But as someone who loves you, I'm asking you to promise me something."
That was rich. Still, she turned to look at him, seeing it all in his eyes. Earnestness. Love. Absolute genuine affection. The dark shadow of an unforgotten pain.
"Let someone love you," he said. "Don't let yourself get caught up in the maybes and the danger. Let yourself fall and fall hard, Ash. Because there's someone out there for you, someone who can make your life easier, who loves you wholly and completely, and does all that when you're ready. But it won't work if you're not ready, if you keep hiding, if you don't let yourself open up to someone else. So promise me, Ash. Promise me that you will, one day, let someone love you."
Tears clogged her throat and she wrapped her arms around herself, but, after a moment, she nodded. God, it hurt. It hurt to hear him say he still loved her. It hurt her that he kept all of that emotion out of it, that he was telling her to move on even though it was painfully obvious he couldn't either.
But she still couldn't risk it.
"You're strong and you're smart and you're capable and you're going to make a man so happy some day. So don't let your fear run your life. The same way Natalia didn't let fear ruin her wedding day."
She had to be imagining the sheen of tears. Had to.
Chris seemed to blow out a breath. "That's all. I wanted to tell you that." He offered the ghost of a smile. "I'll find Tess and get out of your hair. Good luck, Ashley. It was good to see you again."
He turned, pushing off the railing, ready to leave. She'd never see him again, of that, she had ultimate faith. Her eyes slipped closed, her heart pounding hard in her chest, an uncomfortable lump in her throat. God, she knew better. She couldn't let him go.
"Don't," Ashley managed to choke out.
There was silence for a moment.
"Don't what?" he asked, exhausted. "What else is there, Ashley?"
Oh God. Oh dear God. But she'd started this. She'd made him stop. She'd given herself a second chance and if she wanted it, she had to take it.
Because he was right. Of course he was right. He'd always been right. She turned, facing him, gripping the railing until she was sure her knuckles were white.
"Us," she blurted.
He blinked. She blinked. Where had that come from?
"Us," he said.
"Us," she agreed, swallowing thickly. She could feel emotion taking over, flooding her throat, obscuring her mind. But she'd started it, she'd set up her own second chance. "I'm broken. Damaged. Terribly, terribly damaged. My parents kicked me out when they found out I was pregnant, I never told the father because, God, that would be stupid, so I've always been on my own. It's always been just me and Bryce. And that worked for us, right? It was working."
Chris nodded slowly.
"And then you showed up. You were there, taking care of my son, taking care of me, even in the early days when I didn't notice. You just… did it. There was never a question, never a returned favour, it was just you, having a blast with us. You weren't supposed to be there, Chris."
She paused to breathe, but he just stared, watching her with a solemn face.
"I didn't know what to do with myself. I still don't know what to do with myself. There's something missing in my life and I knew it was you. But, you scare the hell out of me. You terrify me, because what happens if something goes wrong? What happens if we can't make it work? I'm not that strong, Chris, I'm really not, because these last four weeks have been hell and I don't know what to do."
And there it was. All of it, right out at his feet. His face remained impassive as he kept his eyes on her, on everything that was going on inside her. She swallowed absolutely and totally unsure of what he was going to say.
"Risk it," he finally said, voice soft but resolute. "You risk it, Ash. You go forward, you fight for what you love as hard as you can and even if it walks away, if you're presented with the opportunity to try again, you grab on with both hands."
She swallowed. "I can't."
"You can," he told her. "You've known me for six months. Have I ever once let you fall?"
"No," she admitted in a whisper.
"No. In six months, have I ever let Bryce fall?"
"No," she said again, this time a little bit stronger.
"No. I'm not perfect, we're not perfect, and we're both going to screw up and get angry and hurt each other but that's a damn coward's reason not to try." He took her hands. "You lied to me when I asked you if you love me. I can see it in your face. You're scared. I'm scared. But if it is within my power to keep you standing, to catch you when you feel like you're pitching yourself into space, I will."
She swallowed as he squeezed her hands.
"It's not about guarantees. It's not about one hundred percent. It's about whether or not you're willing to work with someone else, every day, for happiness. And I will be damned, Ashley, if I just let you walk away again."
"I don't know if I can."
"But what if-"
"It all works out," he interrupted. "What if you're standing there, having this argument with me, and ten, twenty, thirty years down the line, we're still together and happy? Will that be worth the struggle?"
She watched him carefully. "You believe it," she said softly. "You believe we can do it."
"I believe we already have."
"I'm not easy, Chris, I-"
"You're killing me," he growled. "I don't want easy. Easy doesn't have layers. Easy doesn't keep me on my toes. Easy doesn't hold my interest."
He released an impatient, irritated sound and she winced. It was already too hard. She tried to tug her hands out of his, but he refused to let go. He tightened his grip instead.
"It doesn't matter. Do you hear me? It doesn't matter how hard it is, how much work we have to put into it, how bloody difficult you are to convince. I don't care what happened before me - though I'd love to get my hands on your bastard of an ex for leaving you alone and pregnant - or that I've worked my ass off to show you that not everyone is like that only to have you push me away. None of that matters, as long as you say yes now."
"Why?" she whispered after a moment. "Why do you want me?"
He released her hands to cup her face. "Because you are so worth it, Ashley. I'm happier with you. I'm calmer with you. I'm better with you."
"You deserve better."
"There is nothing better. I want you."
God, she was scared. She was terrified. Absolutely paralyzingly scared. Because she did love him, and she wasn't sure she could survive him leaving. Not this time. Not Chris. Tears were welling in her eyes, overwhelmed tears, and the first one leaked down her face when he pressed his forehead to hers.
"I can't put it into words," he told her quietly. "I can't explain how happy I am when I'm with you, or how much it means to me to have the privilege of knowing your son. There aren't words for those emotions. And I can't prove I won't leave if you don't let me try. Trust me, Ashley. Please. I won't break your heart."
Her hands came up and settled on his hips. Her eyes fluttered closed. "Okay," she whispered. "Yes."
She heard his breath catch, felt his hand slide down until they cupped her neck. His relief was palpable, easy to read in his kiss. The tears streamed down her face in earnest, even as she felt laughter bubble up in her throat. He held her when they broke, just wrapped his arms around her and held on tight. She reveled in the feeling of him pressed against her, of how small and protected she felt, despite the fear that lingered.
"I love you," he whispered. "I love you."
Ashley sucked in a deep breath, letting those words truly sink into her for the first time. A smile stretched across her tear-streaked face as she met his gaze. "I love you, too."
I'm singing another one bites the dust in my head. It's rather entertaining if you generally like people singing in your head.
Seriously though, this is another story in this 'verse finished. I think it's the first one where I've just focused on one kid too. I could be lying. I'm trying to remember. And I mean complete, not like AJ's which is still in progress.
I've got Calleigh's, Nate's and Seth's all started. I'm not entirely sure who goes next. I think it's Calleigh, which means I need to get back working on that. Smoothing out some edges. Which means back to a steady diet of ER and Grey's Anatomy. It'll make sense when I start posting.
For those of you who still read and love this universe like I do, thank you from the bottom of my heart. The kids that have grown from this are, in the writer sense, real to me. Living things that crawl and live inside my head, and it is an absolute and utter joy to share them with people who love them the same way I do.