Disclaimer: All characters belong to Stephenie Meyer, even though this story is loosely based on real life experiences.
Written for The Heart of Country Contest by Jiff Simpson (Prompt Used: Picture #8)
I feel like I'm sinking in quicksand but, in reality, I'm running. Running as fast as I can, even though it seems to have the opposite effect. Instead of moving faster, I swear I'm barely moving at all.
These words are floating around in my brain but I will not allow them to make sense.
I barrel through the Emergency Room's heavy double doors and I see her. Her face blurs as tears I've been holding back fall freely and I am instantly on my knees.
Blinking through my confusion, I take in my surroundings before realizing I'm in my living room. Shit. I must've fallen asleep on the couch - again. Not that it matters. I could sleep in the bathtub and no one would know or care. I suppose to some that would be a benefit to living alone, but to me, it's just a reminder of my loneliness.
Wiping the beads of sweat that are covering my face, I briefly recall my dream. It's the same dream I've had for over 2 years now and I quickly push the images out of my mind.
I can break down later but, right now, I have to work.
After my morning routine, I find myself in the same place I've been for the past 22 years: the ranch. It belonged my daddy but, when he retired last year, he gave it to me.
I've lived here all my 27 years and have worked these fields and livestock in some capacity or another since I was 5. Working here is in my blood. It's my past, my present, and my future. I can't imagine not breathing this air or walking this land. Now, more than ever, this ranch is my reason for getting out of bed every day.
"I'm marrying Edward."
"The wedding is in a week. You just now realizin' you're gettin' married?"
My sister, Bella, rolls her eyes. "I know I'm marrying Edward next week. It just hit me that this is really happening!" She does her little girlie-clappy-squealing-thing before disappearing into the office. This time, I'm the one rolling my eyes.
When I took over the ranch, I was so overwhelmed with paperwork, bills, and other shit that I didn't know whether to scratch my watch or wind my ass. Thankfully, Bella took over the business side of things and now works full-time in an office that once was the den in my parents' house.
I don't know what I would've done without my sister...and I don't mean because she saved from being confined to an office all day. She's supported me during my darkest days and I will forever be in her debt, one I can't possibly repay. I'm financing her wedding-it's the very least I can do.
Not that a small church ceremony and reception are expensive but, even if Bella had wanted to get married in the Sistine Chapel, I'd have paid the tab, no questions asked.
Seeing my sister start her life with Edward both hurts and heals, if I'm being honest with myself. Of course, I'm thrilled for Bella. He's a great guy and one of my best friends. He loves Bella and will do everything in his power to keep her safe and happy.
I still grieve for the loss of my Savannah, though. I can't help it. My wedding day was the happiest of my life and I'm lucky to have experienced it. Now it's Bella's turn. If only one of us can keep their forever, it should be her.
Bella pops her head out the office door and brings me back to the present.
"Hey, Jaz, you sure you're ready for next week?"
There she goes again with her sisterly mind readin'. I don't want to answer what she's asking. Instead, I reword her question to something I'm more comfortable with. "You mean, am I ready for my nice, quiet, country life to be blown all to hell for an entire week just so you can say 'I do'?"
She plays along. "Yep, that's exactly what I mean."
"As long as you and your rowdy friends stay in the big house and leave me alone, we'll be just fine."
Bella's wedding party is coming here tomorrow and staying exactly seven days in my parents' house, doing who knows what in preparation for the wedding.
My plan had been to stay as far away as possible. Being the brother of the bride, though, I got roped into entertaining Edward and his groomsmen.
Thank the Lord I only have one sister.
"I can remember a time when you were the 'rowdy' one, Jasper Whitlock," Bella teases, a crooked smile on her face.
"Hey, I can be rowdy when I want to be!" I try not to think about how long it's been.
I swear I hear my sister mumble "I'll believe it when I see it" as she walks away.
Watching the sun rise while riding my horse is my favorite thing to do. We don't have many trees to distract from the view. When I am in the middle of the field, it's like I'm surrounded by God's canvas. I marvel at the colors, the way His brushstrokes create a new masterpiece every morning.
Savannah was an artist. She chose to teach at the local elementary school rather than sell her art. Her work was as good, if not better, than anything found in a big city gallery. It gives me peace imagining her in heaven right now, helping God design the sunrises for me.
When the sun is high enough to knock out the morning chill, I ride Annabelle back to the stables. I don't work Sundays, but watching the sunrise is a ritual I try my best not to miss. I like consistency. It calms me, makes me feel like I have some control in my life. That's why working the ranch is perfect for me. The chores never change.
Don't get me wrong, plenty of things happen to keep it exciting around here, too. Any time you are dealing with horses, or any type of animal, there will always be mishaps and funny stories. It's the hands-on work that brings me peace.
"How was your sunrise, Honey?"
My mom asks me this every morning when I go to the big house to eat breakfast.
"It was good," I answer as I kiss her cheek. My reply is always the same and I get the feeling she is hoping for a different answer one of these days, but I don't see that happening anytime soon.
After eating a hearty breakfast of sausage, eggs, toast, and fruit, I help my mom clean the kitchen. I nearly drop a plate onto the floor when I'm startled by yelling coming from the direction of the stairs. A wave of brown hair flies past me and I hear Bella exclaim, "They're here! They're here!"
I'd almost forgotten that Bella's friends were coming. So much for peaceful mornings for the next week.
My dad walks in with a smile that makes his eyes crinkle. "Looks like our guests are here, Son. Why don't you start helping the young ladies with their luggage?"
He may have worded that in a way that sounds like a question, but I know he's not asking me; he's telling me. Being raised in the south, I know not to question or argue. I simply say, "Yes, Sir" and walk outside.
In less than ten minutes the front yard of my parents' house has gone from looking like a ranch to a college campus on Sorority Day. There are, at least, three bags to every girl and they're all gathered together in a heap, screaming and hugging one another.
I make a mental note to grab some earplugs and keep them on me at all times.
"Hey, Jas, come here! Let me introduce you to everyone!" Bella grabs my arm and turns me to face her friends.
"Girls,this is, Jasper. He's the best brother a girl could ever ask for and I promise I'm not just saying this because he's paying for my wedding." She laughs and her cheeks are flushed with happiness. "He's truly the sweetest guy I know, besides Edward, of course, and I love him very much." She squeezes my arm a couple of times and I feel the tips of my ears turn pink.
I don't like being put on the spot but I let Bella have her moment. "Are you gonna tell me who your friends are or do I have to try and figure it out on my own?"
I panic once the words have left my mouth, realizing I potentially have put myself in a pickle. I'm sure Bella has mentioned their names to me before but I sure as hell don't remember.
"Hold your horses, jackass! Okay, these three over here are my bridesmaids: Jessica, Kate, and Angela." Nope, those names don't ring a bell. "And over here, is my Matron of Honor, Rose," - that name is vaguely familiar - "and my Maid of Honor, Alice!"
That name sounds familiar. I'm assuming, given her wedding party position, they must be best friends and that Bella has mentioned her more than the others. I am confused, though. "How can you have two Maids of Honor?"
"You can't. Rosalie is Bella's Matron of Honor; I'm her Maid of Honor. Rose is married." Alice states matter-of-factly, a coy smile on her face. "I'm not."
I look at Alice and her ice-blue eyes are staring up at me. The contrast between the color of her eyes and her short black hair is so striking, I don't know how to respond.
If Alice is bothered by my dumbass answer, she doesn't show it. Instead, she gives me a quick grin before grabbing her two, not three, bags and heading towards the house.
"Um, I can carry those for you," I offer lamely.
"No, thanks. I promise my arms won't break under the strain of carrying my own luggage. I'm spoiled, but not that spoiled."
Her frankness shocks the hell out of me. Alice is obviously not your typical southern belle. Maybe Bella has decent taste in friends after all.
I don't know why piling wood up in a field and watching it burn for hours is so much fun, but it is. What's even more interesting is how the fun increases when you watch and drink alcohol at the same time but, here I am, standing in front of a big-ass bonfire, drunk as a skunk, and, surprisingly, I'm having fun. It's been awhile since I've let loose and enjoyed myself. So, I'm not going to question it too much.
It was Edward's idea to have a bonfire to welcome the wedding party to the ranch. Because it's late spring and the ground isn't too dry, the conditions are ideal. Add fire-roasted hot dogs, some gooey s'mores and ice-cold beer, and you've got yourself a perfect evening.
Suddenly, I feel the need to sing.
"The stars at night
Are big and bright"
I clap my hands four times, quickly.
"Deep in the hearrrrrtt of Texaaaassss!"
Everyone starts clapping and cheering at my outburst and I feel obliged to take a bow for my adoring fans. Unfortunately, once I am bent over at the waist, I struggle to stand back up. It's not until I feel a sticky glob of marshmallow hit my shoulder that I have enough incentive to right myself. I touch my shoulder and, sure enough, the marshmallow is still there. I grab as much as I can, leaving only a small amount of stickiness, and throw it on the ground. Of course, a good bit of it is now stuck on my fingers, too.
Rose's husband and Edward's best friend is a bit of a prankster. He's been zinging people all night and now he can add me to his list of victims. If I remember any of this tomorrow, I'll have to get him back.
I walk over to the cooler that is holding the bottles of water and I take one out. After opening it, I pour about half of the water onto my hands in an effort to wash the sticky mess off. My plan works pretty well until I realize I don't have anything to dry my hands off with. I look around quickly and, sure enough, I'm shit out of luck.
The night air is mild and my shirt is probably ruined so, I unbutton and slide it off my body. While I'm drying my hands, I hear someone gasp, making me turn around.
I didn't think those ice-blues could get any bigger but, boy, was I wrong.
Realizing I am half-naked in front of her, I hold my shirt over my chest, trying to cover myself. Then I remember that this is my land, the weather is fantastic, and I'm drunk so why should I care if she sees me without a shirt? Not to mention, when the hell did I start acting like a girl?
"Fuck it," I mutter, tossing my shirt next to the cooler.
"Honey, I've seen naked men before. You don't have to be shy."
I clear my throat, when I feel my cheeks flush. "Me? Oh, um, no. I just didn't want to make you uncomfortable." Sure, that's it.
Alice laughs and I know I've been busted. "I know it's been awhile since we've seen each other, Jasper, but I am a grown woman and you don't make me uncomfortable."
I show my proof of my rapidly decreasing intelligence by stuttering and stammering, not really knowing how to respond to her words.
Her laugh, now louder, helps clear my brain.
"We've met before?" I ask, while scratching the side of my jaw.
Good job, Jas. Ignore her flirting and tell her you don't remember her. Women love that.
No more beer for me tonight.
"I've been Bella's best friend since our freshman year in college. I've been here many times."
My mind flashes back over the past seven years or so. and images of Bella and a friend with long, dark hair become clear. Holidays, birthdays, and summer breaks fill my brain until all I can see is auburn hair and green eyes. My body freezes. I can't think of her right now.
"Y-y-you've cut your hair," I spit out.
Her fingers tuck dark strands behind her right ear and I notice how tiny her hands are. "Yeah, about a year ago. I didn't really expect you to notice or remember me. I know you're still grieving. Even before Savannah died, though, she was all you ever saw," she smiled wistfully.
The blood drains from my face when I hear Alice say my wife's name. This time, she notices my reaction.
"Jasper, if you ever want to talk, about Savannah, or anything at all, I'm a good listener."
Her words are gentle and I know, logically, that she means well, but when they mix with the memories and beer, I start to panic.
I stumble over to the cooler, grab my shirt, and take off running. I don't know where I'm going but I can't be here anymore. I hear Alice yell, "Jasper, I'm sorry" but it's too late. I stop behind a tree and empty the contents of my stomach onto the ground.
I know my night will only get worse.
I push through the double doors of the Emergency Room, heavier this time, and I find the nurses' station. A woman turns and smiles, asking me how she can help.
"My wife was in a car accident. I need to see her."
The nurse's smile fades as she tells me to wait in a room down the hall. I follow the direction of finger until I reach the door. To the side of the door is a sign that says, "Family Waiting Room."
I instinctively know no good news ever enters here.
Moments later that a doctor comes into the room and utters the words I've grown to hate so much: I'm sorry.
I feel like I've left my body and I'm floating above myself. Nothing feels real and the words that leave the doctor's mouth cannot be true. I wait for him to take it back, to tell me he was wrong.
"This has to be a mistake! I just talked to her on the phone! She can't be dead!"
"Mr. Whitlock, your wife suffered severe brain trauma and died instantly. Hopefully, you can find comfort in knowing she didn't feel anything,"
"Comfort? How can that comfort me when I'mfeeling everything?!"
"Would you like to see your wife?"
I stare at the doctor and I know I must look like a crazy man. I've been pulling my hair in every direction and my eyes are wild. I stop pacing long enough to give him a quick nod.
The doctor leads me into a room and, when I see the wedding ring I bought her only four years ago still in its place but now covered in blood, I cry out.
I'll never get used to waking up crying. It's such a strange, disorienting feeling. I don't usually wake up this way but, when I do, it takes me awhile to recover.
Once I've had my shower and coffee, I make my way to the stables. I missed my sunrise this morning. so I decide to take Annabelle for a ride to help clear my mind.
I should apologize to Alice today. I'm not really sure why I reacted the way I did. It's been two years since Savannah died and I've had plenty of conversations about her since then. Talking about her sometimes hurts but, for the most part, I like it. It helps keep the memories fresh, I guess. There was just something about Savannah's name coming out of Alice's mouth that I wasn't ready for.
I ride Annabelle up to the big house and tie her reins to a tree in the shade. When I walk inside, Mama asks me about the sunrise and I admit that I slept in. I'm pretty sure she knows that means I had a bad night but she doesn't press for any information. Mama's pain was nearly as deep as my own. Savannah was like a second daughter and she was devastated just like I was, like we all were.
After eating one of Mama's incredible homemade cinnamon rolls, I tell her that I'm going back to the stables and work.
"Hey, Mama, if you see Alice, could you let her know I'd like to talk to her?"
Her eyes widen in surprise but she quickly neutralizes her expression. "I sure will, Honey."
I don't offer her any kind of explanation before I kiss her cheek and walk out the door. Once Annabelle is in her stable with plenty of food and water, I start working.
This is a horse ranch. We have a small amount of cattle around to help keep the grass low but the purpose of this ranch is to breed, raise, and train horses, mostly quarter horses. We're the only ranch of this kind within a 100 mile radius and we have clients that come from all over the state of Texas, keeping us very busy.
Now that my dad has retired and I'm the 'Big Boss', I don't do a lot of the hands-on stuff anymore. I leave most of the work to Ben, Tyler, and Mike but I like to help when I can. I've been around horses my whole life and I feel a special connection to them. They're incredibly smart animals and can pick up on your emotions, which makes riding them and taking care of them is very therapeutic. I'd pick a horse over a shrink any damn day.
After warming up some horses for Mike, I decide to take a break and cool off for a bit. I'm wiping sweat off the back of my neck with my handkerchief when the slight breeze brings a new scent to the me. It's fresh, like lavender and linen, and is so much better than the smells I've been around for the past two hours. I take a deep breath, letting the clean air wash over me, before I turn around and see Alice watching me.
Her cheeks flush red at being caught and she refuses to make eye contact.
I clear my throat. "Hey."
"Hi. Um, your mom said you wanted to talk to me..." She twists the hem of her shirt in her hand and I am momentarily distracted.
"Oh, yeah. I wanted to apologize...you know, for running off the way I did last night." I'm having a hard time looking her in the face when I talk so, I just toe the dirt on the ground with my boot.
"Jasper, you don't owe me an apology."
This makes me look at her, incredulously. "Yes, I do, Alice! Savannah's been dead for two years now and I freak out because you say her name? There's gotta be something wrong me!" I take a deep breath to calm myself before speaking again. "Savannah was my life, you know? I know I need to move on but I just don't know how."
"There is nothing wrong with you; you are grieving. What you're feeling, whenever you feel it, is normal. There is no time limit on grief and I don't mean to push you, I promise. I like you, Jasper. I always have. If you need a friend right now, I'm here for you."
Alice smiles at me and, for the first time, I notice how pretty she is. She's beautiful, in fact. I don't want to get ahead of myself but I could definitely use a friend.
I give her a genuine smile. "I'd like that."
She lets out a deep breath, like she had been holding it for a while, and laughs. "Ok, that's great. Friends, it is!" She nods toward the house. "I'd better get back. I think we're supposed to do the final fitting for our dresses this afternoon."
"Well, don't keep Bridezilla Bella waiting but I hope you have some fun today."
She laughs again before saying "I will."
Alice turns to leave and, without thinking, I grab her wrist to stop her. The tingle that moves from my fingers to my shoulder when I make contact with her skin is surprising but calming at the same time. Alice's eyes widen and I know she feels it, too.
"Alice, thank you."
She smiles in a way that makes me notice a slight dimple in her left cheek. "I'll see you later, Jasper."
It's now Thursday and only two days until Bella and Edward's wedding. Being the thoughtful couple they are, they decided the bachelor and bachelorette parties will be tonight. No one wants to get married hungover or even watch a wedding hungover, for that matter.
There's definitely excitement in the air that is increasing day by day, leading up to the wedding. I've been working hard during the day but I've also been allowing myself to let loose and have fun in the evenings. Not that I don't like to have fun; I do. I used to feel guilty about smiling and laughing after Savannah died. I know it may seem silly to some people but it took some time to accept that it is okay to be happy. I am pretty happy now but I think I'm ready to try being happier.
Alice makes me happier.
I'm not ready to move too fast but I'm enjoying getting to know Alice better. She's an only child and comes from a well-to-do family in Houston. She is fiercely loyal and protective of her friends. She loves yoga and swears it counteracts her guilty pleasure, eating peanut M&Ms with popcorn. She's smart and compassionate, which is why she makes a perfect high school counselor. She's girly but not stuck-up and, most of all, she makes me laugh.
Not to mention, she's damn hot.
I tried not to think of her that way at first but I can't fight it any more. This morning was the first time that I've woken up with 'morning wood' that wasn't from dreaming about Savannah or one of my favorite actresses. I'm not sure what to think about that. The idea of being physical with someone new scares the shit out of me but, getting busy with my hand these past two years is getting old, too.
Hearing a knock on my front door pulls me out of my thoughts and I smile when I see my little sister standing on my porch.
"Hey, B. What's going on?" I close the door behind me and sit on my porch swing.
"Not much. I just wanted to check on you. We haven't really spent a lot of time together this week, you know."
"That's true, but it's alright. You have a big day coming up; it's okay to abandon your brother for your wedding." I give her a wink to let her know I'm teasing.
"Ha ha ha." she says as she sits next to me. "Seriously, how are you holding up?"
"Bella, I'm fine. Why are you so worried?"
She plays with a thread on her jeans before answering me. "This is the first wedding you've been to since Savannah died. I guess I'm just worried that it is bringing up bad memories and making you sad."
"I'll be honest with you, I've been feeling a lot of things this week but they haven't been all bad."
"I've noticed you talking to Alice a lot lately," she mentions, not trying to be subtle at all.
I chuckle. "Yeah, she's pretty cool."
"Are you going to ask her out?"
Stretching my legs out in front of me so that the swing moves a bit, I let out a deep breath. "I don't know, B. I want to but I'm not sure that I can."
"What is stopping you?"
Bella gives me a look that is part sympathy and part annoyed.
"Look, Savannah was my first love- my first everything! When she died, I was resigned to the fact that I was done with that aspect of my life..."
"Jas, you were 25 years old! You can't put that kind of pressure on yourself."
"I was so thankful to have had the few years with her that I did. Some people never find the kind of love we had." I shrug and gaze into the distance. " So, I thought there was no way I'd be lucky enough to fall in love again."
"Now? Now, I'm scared of forgetting her, or trying to replace her. I don't want her or anyone else to doubt how much I loved her...and still love her...just because I may want to be with someone else."
Bella grabs my hand and holds it. "Jasper, I don't believe for one second that anyone, especially Savannah, could ever doubt your feelings for her. I also don't believe that she would want you to stay miserable for the rest of your life. Life goes on and you need to go on with it. I don't mean you have to forget Savannah. I'm worried about you forgetting yourself."
After kissing my cheek, Bella steps off of the porch into the grass and turns around. "Alice is a great girl and I'm not just saying that because she's my best friend. For what it's worth, I think Savannah would approve, too."
I lean my head back on the wall behind me and close my eyes. Shit, I have a lot to think about.
After spending a good part of the afternoon reading, playing my guitar, and just generally being quiet, I decide to get ready for tonight. I'm loading up my tent, food, and other provisions into my pickup truck when the now familiar scent of lavender gets stronger and stronger.
"Hey, Cowboy. Whatcha doin'?"
I look over my shoulder and smile at Alice.
"Hey. I'm packing all of the essentials for Edward's bachelor party tonight."
Her eyes move across the bed of my truck before she replies, "Essentials, huh? I see a lot of beer in that cooler...just what are you boys doing tonight?"
"Well, Nosey-Rosey, since we're in the country and since we are, in fact, men, there is only one thing we can do tonight and that is, go camping."
"Oh, so camping is only for men?" Alice quirks her eyebrow and asks.
"Camping is most definitely for all men but I'm not so sure it is for all women. What do you think about that?"
Egging Alice on has quickly become my new favorite pastime . I love seeing her get all worked up over silly things. She's feisty.
"I'm not sure it's for all women, either but I do know that I can handle it."
I quirk my eyebrow at her. "Really, now? What makes you so sure?"
"I'm from the country, too, Jasper," she huffs.
I throw my head back, laughing. "Darlin, Houston is the 4th largest city in the country. That ain't the country!"
Yep, that did it.
Alice sticks her jaw out and with her hands firmly placed on her hips, squints her eyes at me. I assume that this is her 'bitchface' and, even though I am very tempted to laugh, I don't. I don't want to piss her off completely.
"Listen here! Just because I'm from a big city, doesn't mean I can't handle myself outdoors. I can ride horses and shoot just about any gun you put in my hand. Oh, and I'm not afraid to get dirty." She is standing so close to me I can feel her heated breath on my throat. "In fact, I like it."
Well, fuck me.
My stomach hurts, my eyes are watering, and my face is flushed. Any other night I'd be feeling this way because of a nightmare but, tonight, it's because I've been sitting around a campfire drinking and laughing my ass off.
Edward has some great friends. Guys that, maybe after this week, will be my friends, too. Since Savannah's death, I've pretty much locked myself away at the ranch and, therefore, lost contact with my old friends. I don't blame them...it's hard to maintain relationships when you are the only one reaching out.
"So, Jas, I've noticed you and Alice hanging out a lot this week. You thinking about asking her out?"
Emmett doesn't beat around the bush, that's for damn sure.
I choke a little on my beer and, after wiping my mouth with my hand, I answer, "I've been thinking about it, yeah."
Edward is now the one to start choking and I question whether or not I should've answered so honestly.
"Wow, Jasper, that's great," Edward says. I can tell by his expression that he means it. Just to be sure, though, I give a shrug with the hopes that he will understand that I want to talk more with him about this without sounding too 'girly'. This is a man's camping trip, after all.
He doesn't disappoint. "Really, man, Alice is awesome. I think you'll be really good for each other. You should definitely ask her out."
I sigh with relief and give him a quick nod, signalling my appreciation. It seems everyone else agrees with Edward's assessment so, I just have to get off my ass and ask her out.
Tonight is the wedding rehearsal and dinner. The guys and I got home around lunchtime and all went our separate ways to rest up for the evening. I didn't sleep worth a damn last night, which is surprising. Usually, I sleep like a baby when I'm under the stars, but my mind would not settle down. Emmett was too happy to remind me that, since I'm the first groomsman and Alice is the Maid of Honor, she and I will be walking down the aisle together in the ceremony. It also means we have to dance at least once together at the reception. To say I am now scared shitless would be an understatement.
I somehow manage to sleep a few hours and I wake up feeling a hundred times better. I shower, brush my teeth, and get dressed for the rehearsal and dinner. I don't have to wear anything fancy tonight, but I still want to look nice. Bella and Edward are keeping tonight relaxed and focused on fun by having the dinner at our favorite local barbecue restaurant. This is Texas, after all, and every occasion is made better when barbecue is included.
I'm not surprised at all to learn that Alice and I will be sitting together at the rehearsal dinner. When I see her approach our seats, the southern gentleman in me kicks in and I quickly move her chair out for her. Alice smiles up at me and, without even thinking about it, I smile back. Smiling has come easier to me this week and it feels nice.
"You look beautiful," I tell her.
Her smile lights up her face when she says "thank you" and I am hit with the desire to make her smile like that again and again.
"So, Alice, do you have any big plans this summer when school is out?" I watch her play with her food while deciding how to answer. I didn't think it was that hard of a question, but I'll be patient and wait for her.
"I was thinking about moving, actually."
It feels like my heart has plummeted to my stomach when I hear her words. I know Alice lives and works outside of Houston, which is just over three hours away, but the idea of her moving farther leaves me feeling anxious. I don't like it.
"Houston not big enough for you?" I ask, laughing weakly.
"Just the opposite, in fact. I'm looking for somewhere smaller, not so loud, you know?" Her eyes pierce me and my mouth goes dry.
I'm not sure how to feel right now. Just a few seconds ago I was hating the idea of Alice being farther away. But now that I know she is wanting to move closer, possibly, I feel myself starting to panic just a bit. There is a big part of me that wants Alice closer, but a smaller part worries what will happen if she does move closer. What if I can't handle being more than friends? What if I screw things up completely? I'd feel like shit if she moved here for me and ended up hating me for it.
Alice must sense my discomfort because the next thing I know, her small hand slips into mine and gives it a little squeeze. That tingling sensation is back, soothing and exciting me at the same time. I don't know how I'm going to make it through the wedding tomorrow with all of the touching we'll be doing.
It's times like this I wish I was a smoker. At least, then, I'd have a way to calm my nerves. I've run out of fingernails to chew off, as it is, and I'm pretty sure I've created a permanent groove in the church's carpet with all of the pacing I am doing. It's ridiculous that I'm so nervous; it's not even my wedding. I just have so many feelings and emotions coursing through my body and I honestly don't know how to handle them.
I'm excited for Bella and Edward to start their lives together. I'd be lying, though, if I didn't admit that I'm scared of what being at a wedding will do to me..how I'm going to feel when I start thinking of my own wedding day with Savannah and how I will react while I am in public. I'm nervous about walking down the aisle with Alice and messing everything up; not only for her, but for Bella and Edward, too. I'm worried Alice will realize how screwed up I am and know I'm not worth the trouble. I'm positive I will disappoint everyone.
My phone buzzes with a text message and I see that it's from Edward, asking where I am. After I send my answer, I immediately get a reply, telling me to go outside to the parking lot. When I get there, I see Edward, Emmett, and the rest of the groomsmen standing behind Edward's truck, looking very happy with themselves.
"What are y'all doing out here?"
"We're relaxing before the main event, man, Here, have a swig!" Emmett holds out a bottle of Jack Daniels.
I start laughing while I take the bottle. "I see I'm not the only one who is nervous. Cheers!" I take a large gulp and feel my body instantly relax, as the liquid burns its way down my throat into my stomach.
"Nah, man, I ain't nervous," Edward scoffs. "I'm so ready to be Bella's husband. I wish we could just skip all of this bullshit, say our 'I do's' and get to the honeymoon."
"Hey, now, that's my sister you're talking about!" I punch Edward lightly on the arm and he laughs. "Speaking of which, man, I want to say 'thank you'."
Edward looks confused so, I continue. "Thank you for loving and taking care of my sister. You're a part of our family and I'm proud to call you my brother."
"Dude, you're thanking your brother for marrying your sister? That's messed up!"
"Fuck you, Emmett!"
We continue to joke around and laugh as we make our way inside the church. When I see Alice standing in the foyer, my movements freeze. She's wearing a pale lavender dress that somehow makes her blue eyes brighter and I find myself wanting to kiss the pale gloss off her lips.
It's not until I am dancing with Alice at the reception that I realize, not once today, did I feel guilty. Not for drinking whiskey outside of the church. Not for ogling Alice during the entire ceremony. I didn't even feel guilty for not thinking of Savannah while I stood at the front of the church watching Bella say her vows. For the first time in two years, I am finally starting to feel normal.
I feel a warm hand touch my cheek and my arms tighten around Alice's waist on instinct.
"Whatcha thinkin' about, Cowboy?"
"I'm thinkin' I'd like to take you for a horse ride early in the morning."
I'm in the Emergency Room.
My family is here, as well as, my friends. Everyone is staring at me, but no one says a word. They simply look lost. I imagine I look the same.
When I ask the smiling nurse at the front desk if I can see Savannah, her smile doesn't falter this time. She grabs my hand and leads me down the hall. My footsteps are heavy and my breathing becomes louder and louder the closer I get to the double doors.
Even though my hands are shaky, I push hard on the doors and am surprised when they fly open. These doors must be different; they're not heavy like the others.
I take a deep breath and step farther into the room. Savannah's bed is right in front of me, but I'm not ready to look at her just yet. I decide to start at her toes and work my way up to her face.
She's not wearing socks and I immediately notice her usual green polish on her nails and her dolphin toe ring. Her long legs are still pale and the closer my eyes travel to her shoulders, the more freckles from the sun I see. Her auburn hair covers most of the pillow and I want to run my fingers through it, but I don't. I close my eyes tightly and take a deep breath, trying to find just a tiny bit of bravery inside of me, so that I can look at Savannah's face.
When I open my eyes, I am not prepared for what I see. Savannah's eyes are open and they are the deep clover green I know so well. And, her mouth. I grab my chest when I see that her mouth is turned up in a glorious smile. How can she be smiling at me? Where is the blood? Where are my tears and my screams?
Somehow I know that we can't talk to each other, so I put a confused look on my face to show her that I don't understand. Savannah sits up gracefully and nods her head 'yes' before smiling even bigger than before. Seeing her this happy makes me happy and, before I know it, I am smiling right back at her.
I don't know how long we smile at each other...could be minutes...could be days...but I suddenly know that it is time for me to go. I don't want to say goodbye, but Savannah reassures me by blowing a kiss and waving at me.
I return her wave and mouth the words 'thank you' as I feel myself floating backwards, out of the hospital room.
When I wake up, I am calm and, surprisingly, well rested considering the intense dream I just had. Looking at my clock, I decide to go ahead and get ready for my morning date with Alice.
After I clean myself up, fix us a couple of travel mugs of coffee, and grab some blankets, I lock up my house and head for the stables. Annabelle is happy to see me and I am thrilled to be back on our regular routine again. I cover her back with a blanket before putting the saddle on her and am feeding her a couple of sugar cubes when I see Alice walking towards us.
She has no makeup on and is wearing blue jeans, a long-sleeve tee, and boots. My chest and crotch tighten at the sight of her. She looks like she belongs here and I find great comfort in that.
"Mornin'," I say as I hand her a mug of coffee.
"Thanks and good morning yourself. How did you sleep last night?"
"To be honest, I slept better than I have in a very long time."
"That's good to hear. I slept well, too." Alice frowns and looks away. "It's going to be hard acclimating to city noise when I go home tomorrow."
I don't like the idea of Alice going back to Houston either, but I am encouraged to see her disappointment, too.
"Shall we go for a ride?" I offer my hand for her to take, and when I help her onto Annabelle, I am flooded with desire. Alice looks like a natural, a real cowgirl, but is still soft and sexy. I climb up and sit behind her, noticing just how close our bodies are. I worry about how I am going to keep my hard-on away from her while we ride.
When the sun is about halfway over the horizon, I guide us to my favorite sunrise-watching spot. The light blue around the sun morphs into the most beautiful purple swirls. There are wide orange strokes and bright, yellow splashes, making this sunrise a true masterpiece. I swallow the lump in my throat as it dawns on me that this is the greatest gift Savannah could give to me now.
My voice is barely above a whisper when I say, "Alice."
She turns her head and looks over her shoulder at me, waiting for me to continue.
"I really don't want you to leave today but, if you must, I hope that you'll consider moving closer this summer."
Her smile dazzles me and a look of relief washes over her. "I was hoping you'd say that."
I tighten my right arm around her waist and cup her jaw with my other hand. My thumb barely ghosts Alice's cheek and she angles her body towards mine. Looking from her eyes to her mouth, I pause to see if she is going to stop me. She shows her impatience by gripping my thigh tightly and I chuckle, before I gently touch my mouth to hers.
That one small kiss feels so good, I have to do it again, firmer this time. It's not very long before our tongues have joined in the fun, swirling, searching, tasting. We eventually pull away, breathless and light-headed, and I am overcome with peace, comfort, and for the first time in a long time, hope.
When we walk into the kitchen a little while later, I am chomping at the bit for Mama to ask her usual question.
"How was your sunrise, Honey?" She's trying to hold back a grin, but fails miserably.
Looking down at my fingers that are intertwined with Alice's, I raise them to my mouth and place a kiss on her knuckle. Joy floods me and I boldly declare, "It was amazing."
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