A/N: I can't believe we've just passed the two-year mark since I first posted this story! Many, many thanks to all of you who take the time to leave me a PM/review, it leaves me inspired and humbled to know what you think. I apologize for not getting back to the last round of reviews – after a year of silence it's a bit daunting to pick through my PM box, but please know I appreciate every single one of you! Thank you for sticking with me despite what appears to be yearly updates (yikes!) and I wish I could be a bit more disciplined in posting regularly, but alas, this is the best I can do and I hope this'll tide you over in the meantime :)
Previously on Unfinished Love:
(Ch 29, CPOV)
"It'll be okay." I murmur against her shoulder, giving her a playful nudge as she giggles back. Her shoulders slump in relief, a soft breath escaping her lips. It never ceases to amaze me how often she forgets who I am. To her I'm just Christian her boyfriend. I'm not a CEO, I'm not someone with a lot of money, I'm just the guy who sleeps next to her at night. I'm the one who makes her tea in the morning, and I'm the one who calls her at lunchtime to see how her day's going.
She looks at me and I see the genuineness of who she is. She's the quiet girl who gets nervous when more than one person is looking at her. She's the girl who would offer to pay for something even though no one asked her to, nor would she let the fact that she doesn't have the money stop her from trying. And she's the girl... she's the girl who after being humiliated and attacked not even two weeks ago willingly put herself in the spotlight to raise money for a cause so personal to me that it's become personal to her. It's become a cause worthy enough to her that she would put aside her own fears and her own tragedies to do this for me.
Picking up her hand I press a soft kiss against the inside of her wrist – the same spot where she sprayed perfume earlier that now smells just like her – while my heart races in my chest. All of these things are just so Ana, so honest and sincere, a few of the many things that I love about her. Kissing her again, my lips falter as I look up and catch those mesmerizing blue eyes peering shyly back at me when the thought sinks in.
Did I just say…?
CHAPTER 30 – DECISIONS
I've never opened up to anyone
So hard to hold back when I'm holding you in my arms
We don't need to rush this
Let's just take it slow
Just a kiss on your lips in the moonlight
Just a touch of the fire burning so bright
No I don't want to mess this thing up
I don't want to push too far
Just a shot in the dark that you just might
Be the one I've been waiting for my whole life
So baby I'm alright, with just a kiss goodnight
-Just a Kiss (Lady Antebellum)-
Words escape me as I revel in tonight's perfection. Surreal would only be the beginning. Never in my life did I ever imagine I'd be at a Ball, an actual Ball, much like the ones I've only ever read about in books. From the food to the décor, to the abundance of familiar celebrity faces every which way I turn, I find it all too much to be real.
Yet, it is.
However that's not even the best part. Even if I did have the courage to say hello to a few of the faces I recognize from TV or movies, I'd prefer to idolize from afar. No, the best part about this whole evening has been the man sitting next to me, more charming than any of them could be combined. Christian has been my pillar of strength tonight – attentive and sweet in all ways. Nothing else seems to hold his interest but me, and I can't deny the swell of admiration I have for him. In a place filled with beautiful women, all he sees is me. Tonight, I am that beautiful woman.
He can't help but keep his eyes on me, looking at me in the most adorable way – grey eyes soft and inviting, drawing me in.
He takes hold of my wrist, kissing it once, twice, three times. I try not to squirm; so intimate, yet not. The heat from his gaze has me melting, wanting him wickedly in front of all these people. I look away, my cheeks warm, the rest of me a slow burn as I focus on my breaths: slow, steady and calm. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
My heart stutters happily in my chest despite it all.
With this untamed feeling encompassing me, I delicately have to look away. Dropping my gaze, the swell in my chest grows uncontrollably, wild and aching for more. So much more.
Scrambling to get my mind off of this whimsical notion, I go for a joke instead, something to lighten the impending heaviness I feel. "I can't wait for our obscenely expensive dance." I start.
With a brief glance around me, I remember where we are. Forgetting that we're not hidden away in our own private little world, I note the noise and festivity around us as voices carry all over the Sound, everyone enjoying themselves. Though the heated blood coursing through me earlier suddenly deflates to ice when my eyes meet back again with Christian's, a brief and rare insight into something he's hiding behind those granite-colored orbs. I can't help but sense his confusion before the look is gone. But it was long enough. Long enough for my own uncertainties to precipitate – who is this man and what is it that keeps him so tortured? One second he's present, the next he's not.
A small part of me can't help but wonder if he's beginning to regret his bid as part of that riptide that just washed over him, or if he's regretting making such a spectacle of someone like me. Surely as a shrewd businessman he would see the misfire of his earlier impulsivity. Quite frankly it was irrational and just plain stupid for him to throw his money away like that. Plus, I would hardly ever consider my worth-
Shaking my head, I dispel the errant thought immediately.
Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
Then I do it again, because the first time didn't work near enough as I needed it to.
Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
The non-hilarity of the moment, as both Christian and I find ourselves in our own sudden despairs, makes me giggle nervously. We both work so hard to keep our secrets secret, but now we threaten to reveal ourselves if we don't regain some semblance of control.
Fucking inhale. Exhale. Goddamn repeat.
Nudging his shoulder playfully with my own, I force a passable smile. "I bet you're hoping for this dance to be something kinda wonderful, huh? It better be really good." I wiggle my eyebrows impishly. "I bet you're hoping for me to know some really cool dance moves otherwise you're going to ask for your money back, right? 'Uh yeah, I'd like to return this dance, please. This girl's got guilty feet and no rhythm.'" I sing the last part, hoping he gets my pained attempt at humour.
At first, he just continues to stare, lost in his own haziness of misery. Widening my grin so much so that my cheek muscles twitch, I awkwardly tilt my head until he can't help but look at me, my face infringing the air directly in front of his. This overwhelming need to eradicate this mounting tension has left me uncomfortable, and I can't stop the ineptitude that ensues.
At first I don't think it'll work, his eyes just… there. But then this deep chuckle veers out of him and the fog clears from his eyes. He laughs; a real, belly-full of laughter. Those broad shoulders of his relax and the darkness swirling about has cleared from his murky irises.
Brushing my cheek with is knuckle softly, he exhales. "It's going to be the best dance of my life. And I'm going to love every minute of it."
Comprehension escapes me. Overwrought with surprise at how seamlessly that thought – that word – has so strongly rooted itself into my psyche leaves me… lost.
No, surprised doesn't cover it. I'm shocked.
I seek some sort of understanding in the rationalization that I must be ill with tumorous tumor growths on my brain, or the likelihood that some junkie has laced my champagne with powdery drugs undetectable to me. Here I am, throttled into this alternate universe where nothing makes sense, where my tumors hungrily absorb the drug-enhanced alcohol slurring through my blood. There's just no possible way for that word to be something that I know, something I could ever feel. Whose life have I fallen into? What kind of fucking rabbit hole is this?
The strength it takes me to refrain from grabbing her by the shoulders and holding her out in front of me, to allow me the time to study her and will her with the sheer force of my mind to give me the answers I so desperately need, weakens. Without her staring at me I take a moment to let the panic sink in. But then she turns back around, those eyes too much to resist, and I see the moment she sees me. Dark, lost, me.
I'm vaguely aware of her lips moving, sounds meant to be words projecting from her mouth. I fight my way through this dreary fog my head seems to be under just in time to catch her witty banter. God, I didn't think those eyes could get any bigger but they do, paired with this creepy yet adorable smile she has forced onto her beautiful face, and I laugh. Goddamn I laugh. She's teasing me, and it's just the thing to snap me out of my funk, just long enough to allow myself to dig a bigger hole to throw myself into.
"It's going to be the best dance of my life. And I'm going to love every minute of it."
What is the matter with me? There's that word again. My stomach flips uncomfortably as I try to keep up with her light mood, her hand slipping sweetly into mine as we watch the rest of the auction unfold. She leans her head onto my shoulder, placing a just-barely-there kiss on it before plopping her head where it was before, lolling it back and forth gently. She squeezes my hand, presses herself against me, touching me in any way that she can.
I can't be.
I just can't.
There are many things in life that I "love", but it's always been a different kind of love. The love I have for my glider, Charlie Tango, my company all differ from the kind of love I have for my parents and Elliot and Mia. It's a material love versus a familial one, the only loves I'm able to understand.
The other kind of love… the one reserved for those meant to spend their lives together, to love and to cherish, to hold for eternity… that kind of love is just something my body innately repels. It's something I've never known nor wanted. I know it's not, of that I'm certain.
Or was certain.
How can I deny this most endearing girl before me? Yet, how can I possibly love someone else when I'm unable to offer the same thing to myself? I'm a fool to think otherwise.
Stealing a quick glance at the woman sitting next to me I can't help but wonder if… if maybe one day I'll be proven wrong. Maybe one day it'll be something I can have too, with her, my Ana.
There's no question in my mind that she deserves love, but is mine the one she should have? Will mine be enough? Will mine be good enough? Hope and fear conspire before me, my eyes dropping at the thought. Who am I kidding?
I can readily admit that I care about Ana a great deal. More than I ever thought possible. We've known each other a short while but we know each other in ways that no other person does. I trust her, I crave her, I miss her when we're apart. I want to hold her and kiss her and tell her things I couldn't possibly tell anyone else. I want to be everything to her, but there will always be some dark shadow holding me back, keeping all of me from all of her.
The more I think about it the worse I feel. I'm not right for her. Not in the forever eternity kind of way at least. I can be what she needs for now, but when she wants more from me and I have nothing left to give she'll leave. It's what I'd want her to do, and it will destroy me. She deserves to be with someone who will love her naturally as though it were a completely normal thing to feel. To me it's just not. I don't know how to love, how to be loved. I come with too much baggage that it would just break her. She needs to be with someone without all the darkness because between the two of us there's no possible way to see the light.
Feeling Grace's soft and loving eyes peering over at me, I look up and am met with those gentle green irises of the only angel I've ever known. She looks at me with gentle compassion, and it dawns on me that she knows what's going through my confusing head. Am I that obvious?
Perhaps it's the fact that she's a born healer, inherently knowing when someone is in need of healing. That someone being me, as I fight this urge I have to continually test my invisible confines in seeking more with Ana.
With a gentle tilt of her head and a discreet smile, that's all the answer I'm going to get. She doesn't say anything, or makes any overt inclinations as to what she's thinking. Just the look on her face says it all for me: go for it.
But somewhere in my head I can't help but misread what she's saying. In my own fucked up head, I lose sight of which side Grace lies on – the side that would allow me to give Ana my child's-play version of love and hope that it's enough, or letting her go so she can have that once-in-a-lifetime all-consuming love she so deserves from someone capable of giving it to her.
I don't question her further. If I do, I'm afraid I won't like the answer.
Our dance is everything I imagine it to be. After all the dances have been bid on I can't get out of my seat fast enough with Ana trailing next to me. I can't wait to just hold her as our bodies move as one with the music, staring into her beautiful face and whispering words for her ears only. I just want to erase all thoughts completely; instead, I just want to look at her, feel her, be in her presence while I still can.
Fitting her snuggly in my arms I steal a soft kiss on her cheek, our bodies swaying under the moonlight. A gentle breeze sweeps over us, the rustling of leaves in the distance dancing along.
She hums along with the music, her fingers thrumming against my lower back where her arms rest comfortably around my hips.
"This is perfect." She whispers, those big blue eyes staring widely up at me. "Thank you."
"Thank you for what?"
"For being here with me. For wanting to be here with me when you could be with anyone else."
"You're the only one I would want here. You're the only one I want." I reply heavy-handed. If only she knew just how much I wanted her.
"Thank you." She repeats shyly.
I want to tell her everything – bare my blackened soul to her, but I don't. I don't because she's had so much ugliness in her life, and I don't want to be another evil to mar what should have always been a thing of beauty. My blood still boils when I think about what happened to her in her past, and as recently as a few weeks ago. My legal team has been furiously working night and day in order to bring Ana some justice in all of this, but Ana just wants to forget it happened and make it all go away. Though what she doesn't understand is that it won't go away. Not as long as she's with me. The public's interest in her and us will only grow as we grow as a couple. They'll chase her, write nasty fallacies, attack her until she breaks. In their eyes she'll never be pretty enough, rich enough, sophisticated enough. All of her deepest insecurities, plastered on the daily papers mocking her until she can't take it anymore. Until I can't take it anymore.
"Hey, come back to me." She says gently, tilting my head down towards her. "Where'd you go just now?"
I shake my head, pushing down the mounting hatred inside of me for the pathetic bottom-feeding leeches that is the media. The public. The disgraceful humanity that continues to breed and exist. Instead of answering her back, I kiss her overtly and publicly – a heavy kiss with both hands cradling her face; fuck if I care that that's all anyone talks about tomorrow. She's my girlfriend dammit, and if I want to fucking well kiss her, I will.
The cute rosy tint on her cheeks afterwards leaves me satisfied. Nose-to-nose, I whisper how beautiful she is, shutting out the rest of the world.
The night continues on, but as well as it's been going I can sense a hesitation coming from Ana that something just isn't right. I try to tell myself that I'm reading too much into this, that of course Ana would be a bit off tonight, but something else tells me that it's not just the pomp and circumstance of the evening. Then I worry that she knows about my earlier… traitorous… thoughts, and she's as freaked out as I am. Now, she's merely struggling to find a way to let me down easy, to tell me that it's all over.
Is it possible?
As the night winds down, and Saturday becomes Sunday, Ana and I stay on the dancefloor for a few more dances before calling it a night. The rightness I feel when she's in my arms is devastating; knowing just how perfect we are together and that I'd never be satisfied with anyone else but her is a daunting thought. Just thinking of anything untoward happening to Ana becomes my undoing. There's this fallibility, this frail vulnerability that surrounds me knowing how much I care about her, but looking into her sweet face as I hold her to me makes me wonder what it'd be like to be with her and to not be afraid of what we have. Would it really be so bad to just try? If I try my hardest, maybe it'll be enough.
I'm broken from my thoughts by a sudden apology coming from her lips.
"I'm sorry." She murmurs as we sway beneath the stars, her arms wrapped around my waist. She's still having trouble moving with ease for long periods of time so she's rested her arms around my waist as we dance, the gentle strums of notes floating around us. My own arms around her, I hold her close, her head tilted back as she looks up at me but I'm jolted with a sudden panic. This is it – she's going to end it because she knows I could never love her the right way.
"You say you're okay, but I know you're not." She tells me softly. "Can we please just talk about it? Talk about what happened? I'm tired of feeling like this."
"Feeling what? Talk about what?"
"You're angry with me. I don't like it."
"I'm not angry."
Where is this coming from?
"Okay, maybe angry was the wrong word. But, I just feel I really screwed up… you know… when I touched you and we haven't talked about it. You keep telling me there's nothing to worry about every time I apologize but it just feels like you're rejecting my apology."
I sigh; this was not how I wanted tonight to go. Nor is it where I thought it would go. I just wanted to get through this night without incident but Ana seems to have other plans. She wants to fix things, but there isn't anything to fix.
I'm fine… I lie to myself.
The lies continue to build.
"You can sigh all you want, Christian," She huffs, "But it's an issue and it's bothering you, and so it's bothering me. You can't just tell me I have to be honest with you without being honest back. It's a two-way street, buddy."
I smile, this tiny little angel in my arms wanting to pick a fight. She remains stubbornly planted in one spot, no longer swaying to the music. She gives her arms a squeeze around my waist urging me to speak.
"What do you want me to say Ana?"
"The truth!" She hisses.
"That you're mad at me!"
"But I'm not!"
"You're lying!" She huffs once more. The indignant look on her face makes me want to kiss her, so I do. I give a gentle kiss on the corner of her mouth, wanting to erase those frowning lips. Her sweet sigh makes me kiss her a few more times, soft pecks before pulling away.
"You're starting to get shouty."
"No I'm not."
"Maybe you're the one who's upset."
"Christian!" Frustrated, she drops her arms from around me, taking a step back. Eyes narrowed, she raises her eyebrow in challenge.
"I'm honestly not upset!" Though I'm beginning to get frustrated myself. Why does she have to continue to push whatever this is?
"Well whatever you're feeling, you're feeling something!"
"I don't know, okay? I don't know!"
And there it is.
I don't know. I don't know whether I love her or not. I don't know whether I'm still upset by her touch. I don't know why she's upset, I don't know why she cares so much, and I don't know why she's even here!
I'm feeling too much of everything at the moment, once again managing to make a mess of tonight.
But then, she slumps her shoulders in relief. Her triumphant smile confuses me. She takes a step closer, that challenging eyebrow raised once more as she wraps her arms back around my waist, a minor flinch on my part.
"You shouldn't have to be sorry." I tell her, kissing her forehead. "It wasn't your fault, it was an accident. These are my issues; it's not you touching me that bothers me."
"I panicked, but I shouldn't have touched your chest with my hands. I knew the rules."
"We don't have rules." Does she think we do?
She nods, reading my mind.
"You told me touching your chest was a hard limit. I know why I can't, and I'm sorry for breaking those rules."
"Stop with the rules. I don't want rules with you."
"Because you're not my sub. And regular boyfriends and girlfriends don't have rules." I whisper just loud enough for her to hear. She fights the smile threatening her face. The smile wins.
"They have some rules. The regular couples, I mean."
"Yes. But I thought we were vanilla… with a little extra on the side?"
"You know what I mean."
"The backside?" I grin wickedly. Cue the blush.
She murmurs absently. I'm not able to catch what she says, but I know I didn't hear a protest much to my delighted ears. Oh yes, one day indeed.
Bringing my focus back to the conversation, I kiss her soft cheek. She looks up at me expectantly; oh right, she wanted answers.
Tentatively, I stare at her mouth, willing myself to just talk to her. I can't look her in the eye when I tell her this, but at least she'll know. "I didn't like being touched on the chest." I rush the words out quickly. "The burn… I can still feel it… and it hurts when I think about it."
Unsurprisingly her lip quivers, her sobs loud enough that I have to swiftly take her to the side for some privacy. We're near the boathouse, so instead I lead her down to the docks and away from peering eyes.
"What have I done? I'm so sorry!" She whimpers, her hands reaching out to touch me before she catches herself. Instead, she grips her arms tightly around herself, pacing back and forth. "You hate me don't you? Of course you do, that's why you've been acting like this. You can't help but think of what happened to you when you look at me! That's it, isn't it? Isn't it?!" Her grief lingers in the air between us, a shrill ringing in the sudden silence.
All day I've had this foreboding sense of something going wrong tonight, only I thought it would have to do with Ana and her fears. Turns out, it's about mine. And the number of fears I have has grown as the night went on and my feelings grew stronger for her.
This is exactly what I didn't want to happen.
"Tell me how I can make this right, how I can make it up to you. You can… you can…" She looks around, as if the answer lies somewhere in the grass. "You can do whatever you want to me. You can punish me, you can hit me, you can-"
Her erratic movements stop, the words registering in her own head. The rage I feel as I hear those words cuts me infinitely. I'm truly hurt that she would even suggest such a heinous thing, that she would think that that's what I would want to do to her, ever. In this moment I want to hit something alright, but it's most definitely not her. It will never be her, end of story. Is this who she thinks I am?
"I should go." She says softly, suitably chastised. She goes to pick up her shoes, which she had kicked off in her earlier pacing, whimpering as she bends over. Stopping her as I pick them up, I hand them to her tentatively. "I'm sorry I said that. I wish I knew why I did, but I didn't mean it. I know you would never do that to me… and I would never let you anyhow… I-I just can't stop screwing up around you. I'm so sorry, Christian. Please find it in your heart to forgive me for being like this. I'm so sorry." She starts to walk back towards the tents, but my limbs can't seem to work. Instead, I call out for her hoping it's enough.
She turns, only halfway, her head never lifting.
"You're not leaving. I…" I choke, my voice cracking. "You asked me a question and I answered. Now it's my turn."
"I'm not going to shout like this all night, so please come back down." I rasp.
"I shouldn't be here, Christian. I have to go."
"Because all I do is mess things up! When I'm not crying or yelling at you, I'm hurting you. When I'm not hurting you, I'm doing something else that's stupid and I don't understand why you still keep me around. I'm a fucking disaster, Christian. I'm barely able to keep my shit together for longer than two goddamn seconds and after that I'm back to screwing something else up. Aren't you exhausted of all of this? Aren't you exhausted of me? Because I am. Dammit, I am!"
The heaviness from the sound of her laboured breathing and the soft murmurs from the crowd back at the house oblivious to us are all that I can hear. If I listen hard enough I can hear the lapping of the water on the lake behind me, but all I can focus on at the moment is this terribly broken angel before me, her wings clipped a long time ago. Why did this have to happen to her?
"Are you done?"
She looks at me dumbfounded.
"Are you done using yourself as a punching bag?"
Her glare is meant to be perturbed, but I'm not going to back down. I'm not going to let her treat herself this way no matter how upset she is, or how consumed I am by my own confusing thoughts.
"Now that you've gotten it out of your system, that's enough. Don't ever speak that kind of garbage around me ever again, do you understand?" Finally, my limbs decide to cooperate and I take a few steps closer to her. Thankfully, she doesn't back away. "Right now, we're both messed up. I get that you're upset and frustrated, and that every little thing sets you off but that's okay."
"They're not little things, Christian."
"Well who the hell cares if you screw up or get upset? Because I don't! You know why? Because you have earned the right to be upset! You have earned the right to mess up and to be exhausted and to get angry. But it doesn't mean you need to constantly push away anyone who wants to be there for you, okay? Believe it or not, you're stuck with me. So there! I'm not going anywhere!"
And just like that, I've decided. I can't let her leave me. I just won't.
She quirks her head to the side, part confusion, part amusement. "I am?"
"Yes. Absolutely." It's my turn to huff. "Now are you done ruining the evening?" I add lightly, hoping to erase the past few minutes.
She pauses before nodding, the sag of relief in her shoulders much welcomed.
"Happy Birthday." She smiles, closing the gap between us as she checks her watch. She's mercurial as ever. We stand on the dock, arms wrapped around each other, staring across the lake as the lights from the nearby houses flicker and sparkle against the blackness of the water.
After some time, I can't help but ask, "Are we done being weird around each other?"
"I'm not weird. Maybe sometimes, but not always."
"You're such a weirdo." I begin to sway her hips, the faint music from the party floating down to the boathouse. "How about you let me do some weird things to you later? Then we can be weird together."
I'm rewarded with that smile of hers, the deadly combination of just the right amount of naughty and nice. Tugging my hand, she pulls me towards the boathouse, a skip to her step. "Why don't you lend me that helping hand after all?" She whispers, her finger tracing over my lips as she looks back at me. She has me panting like a mad man as I chase after her, my hands all over her body as we stumble towards the boathouse in a frenzied dash. She licks her lips and grins wickedly, enjoying herself. I'm quick to catch up with her, and then it's me who picks up the pace dragging her forward just shy of throwing her over my shoulder.
For now I don't want to fight what we have. What we have is worth having, and I don't want to spoil a moment of it with my doubts.
"I'm to believe that on one's birthday there are special gifts given by one's girlfriend. Gifts of a sexual nature, the naked kind. A perk of having a girlfriend on one's birthday."
"Hmm, is that so? And what source was this information retrieved from?"
"I believe it was called The Book of Truth. Or The Bible. Maybe Wikipedia. Something that was meant to be taken very seriously. You can rest assured it was a very credible source."
"Did this source specify the type of gifts in mind?"
"If I remember correctly it had to do with being allowed to tear off lacy panties and play with toys of the vibrating kind. And oh yes, there's to be a lot of moaning and crying out of one partner's name in reverence prefaced by a deity – akin to the 'Oh god, oh god' variety. I'm also told that there's a lot of touching… and kissing… and licking of the sorts."
"Ahh, sounds messy."
"The messiest. But it is a time-honored tradition, and I'm a traditional man."
"Oh yes, given your penchant for tying up your girlfriend's wrists with her panties, correct? How very traditional of you."
"Definitely our tradition." I grin.
With a feigned sigh, she wipes her hand across her forehead dramatically. "Well, I guess if I have to…"
"It is strongly recommended…"
"And because I'm such a good girl who does what she's told all the time…"
"How very submissive of you… though you lie…" I smirk.
"I suppose I can give in to this so-called tradition Sir-"
But before she can finish her little game of Lets Make Christian All Hot and Bothered, we're climbing the front steps of the boathouse and I decide it's time to take matters into my own hands. I swiftly pick her up, carry her over the threshold, and sprint up the stairs eager for my presents, the first one being the joy of unwrapping her from this dress. Then, I'll slowly peel away the lacy underthings I know she's wearing underneath, and finally… oh yes, let the games really begin.
A/N: Thank you for all the reviews/favourites/follows! I love hearing from you, and your support means everything :)