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Last week I posted Chelsea boarding her flight to find she's been seated next to Gavin. In this week's excerpt, we see what Gavin thinks of seeing her again.
Leave it to Chelsea Parks to take him from vague boredom to nearly crying in public. Gavin tried to get hold of himself, swallowing a lump of grief that hadn’t faded much in the last year. Weird that it could be both better and worse when Chelsea offered up a heartfelt memory of the old man.
Actually, the worse came from guilt. Old and new. He hadn’t sent her a card. Not even an email. What would it have taken to text a few words? I’m sorry to hear about your mom. Hope she recovers soon.
He’d thought it, when he’d stood in the kitchen of his Chicago apartment, reading the first sympathy card he’d had the stomach to open. All the rest had sat on his counter for weeks, but the minute he’d seen Chelsea’s name and her New York address, he’d run his finger along the seal and read her apology for missing the service.
A tasteless kind of relief had struck him. He’d wondered if he was the reason he hadn’t seen her at the service, but he hadn’t had the guts to ask his sister or mom why she wasn’t there. Then his mom had mentioned her situation and he’d been worrying about the two of them ever since.
But he hadn’t reached out. Even though he’d been hoping to see her at the service. Certainty that he would finally see her again had got him through those days between hearing the news about his dad and struggling through the eulogy.
Chelsea had been seven years old when she’d lost her own dad. He’d been nine and it was his first experience with something like that happening to someone he knew. She’d spent a lot of time at their house in Santa Clara after that, mooning at him through high school, which hadn’t done his ego any harm. He’d been as protective of her as he had been of his sister, Amber, but for a completely different reason.
He always carried a mental picture of her sitting in his dad’s lap, crying her eyes out while they’d all been wearing their best clothes.
There had been a million reasons he’d wanted to see her at his own father’s service, but that was a big one. She would understand.
And she did.
But she didn’t want anything to do with him beyond that quiet expression of shared loss. Not anymore.
The plane’s engines began to whine as it prepared to take off. It rumbled forward, pressing him back into his seat, making the weight on his chest feel even heavier.
He looked at her hand. No ring, not that he expected one. He stalked her on social media now and again, checking up on her. Not trying to connect because, well, when a girl you’d finally hooked up with walked in on you making out with someone else, you didn’t come back from that.
Witness the disinterest she was directing at him now.
While he wanted to talk. Catch up. Touch her golden hair and watch her straight teeth flash as she spoke. And smile. Smile at me, damn it. Chelsea wasn’t glamorous gorgeous, more wholesome pretty, but when she hit a guy with direct eye contact, brown eyes warm and amused, welcoming laughter on her lips, well, it was a hit. A kick.
An irresistible tractor beam that drew you in.
An irresistible invitation to a young man sewing wild oats. I want it to be you the first time. I know I can trust you.
Not so much, as it turned out.
She turned a page.
The plane leveled out.
“Chels, I’m sorry,” he said. Blurted it, really, even though he’d said it once before. She hadn’t been in a mood to listen then, but she was trapped now.
“For—? Oh!” Her gaze came up and flickered away, but not before he saw the pang of old pain in them. “Forget it. I have.” Her nose went down and her book came up.
“I was young and stupid,” he said.
“So was I.” She flipped another page.
He winced, surprised how much that hurt. The one thing Chelsea had never been was stupid. She was not only book smart, but she didn’t make a lot of life mistakes. His sister made questionable choices, but Chelsea had always put thought into her future. If she had chosen him as The One, it had been because she really believed he could make her happy.
Which told him how much he’d disappointed her.
She was also the girl who could keep up with his sister, talking a mile a minute, making jokes, never backing down from a bit of hazing from a guy, and she was always the one to reach out with her heart pinned firmly on her sleeve.
For her to be this dismissive of him and his callous treatment, well, it told him exactly how far he’d been relegated to her past.
What had he thought, though? That they’d hook up this week while his sister got married?
Dinner. He’d definitely hoped for that much. He wanted to make up. He missed her. That card of hers had been so much more than a social convention. She’d reminded him how good, how really good she was as a person. Kind-hearted and thoughtful.
Everything he wasn’t?
Hell, what could he ever say to excuse his behavior? The freedom of university, the course load that had sent him down dual paths of self-destruction and extreme stress relief, a gift of looks and charm that had always given him his pick over the females around him.
By the time she’d caught up to him as an impressionable freshman he’d been well on his way to world-class douche-dom, conceited enough to think his three years of experience was wisdom. He had convinced himself that sleeping with Chelsea was a favor, that he was initiating her into the world of possibilities around them. Then a former paramour had made him an offer he should have refused, and he hadn’t. Because life was to be enjoyed, right? Opportunities were supposed to be seized.
How had he imagined he’d get through a dinner and somehow explain himself in a way that allowed him to come out remotely elevated in her eyes?
“For what it’s worth, I grew up after that,” he said, not even sure if she was listening. Not blaming her if she wasn’t, but he had to try. “I’m not such an arrogant a-hole anymore.”
“I’m sure your girlfriend appreciates that.” Flip.
“We broke up.”
“That’s a shame.”
He snorted at her insincerity, oddly encouraged by it even as he stung under a fresh lash of guilt. Maybe he hadn’t grown up as much as he claimed. Karen had jumped on the significance of one card being opened. One photo of a bridesmaid dress saved to his family album. One old girlfriend he kept trying to tell her was a friend. It had turned into a thing, which now made him wonder if she’d seen something he hadn’t.
At the same time, this milestone of his sister’s had also caused conflict between him and his live-in lover. He hadn’t been contemplating marriage at all. Karen had turned up the pressure in the last few months, though, using words like ‘intention’ and ‘future’ and ‘family.’ She had clearly been hoping she’d be wearing a diamond ring to his sister’s wedding. They’d finally had it out a couple of weeks ago, leaving their relationship a chalk outline on the sidewalk.
He’d called his travel agent sister to cancel Karen’s flight and change the time on his own so he’d have an extra day in Chicago to make arrangements with the movers.
This had been Amber’s revised itinerary: seating him next to her best friend.
“Did you ever tell Amb—”
“No,” Chelsea cut in sharply.
“My therapist.” Her smooth lips offered up a flat smile as her gaze cut up to his and quickly flicked away.
He snorted, not convinced finding him cheating on her had been so traumatic she’d sought professional help, but wondering. She’d been through some tough times.
“Is there anything I could say or do to earn your forgiveness?”
“Letting me read my book would be a good start.”
Yeah, he’d missed Chelsea Parks. Who else could tell him to eff off so politely?
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Cruel Summer is available in Kindle and ePub format. If you'd like a PDF copy, email me off my contact page here. (Remember that I'm traveling! I'll try to answer promptly, but it may take a couple of days before I can send it.)
Hopefully next week I'll have some photos from New York!