CHAPTER SEVENTEEN. no thanks

I doodled on the front of my notebook, making squares in squares, connecting them to each other to form rudimentary three-D boxes. Ten minutes before class was to begin the classroom was still empty. Life was in the beginning stages of normal, but it still took me a few minutes to psych myself up to be around anyone other than Finch and America.

“Just because we’re not dating anymore, doesn’t mean you can’t wear the bracelet I bought you,” Parker said as he slid into the desk beside me.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you if you wanted it back.”

He smiled, leaning over to add a bow to the top of one of the boxes on the paper. “It was a gift, Abs. I don’t give gifts with conditions.”

Dr. Ballard flipped on her overhead as she took her seat at the head of the class, rummaging through papers on her cluttered desk. The room was suddenly abuzz with chatter, echoing against the large, rain spattered windows.

“I heard that you and Travis broke up a couple of weeks ago.” Parker held up a hand seeing my impatient expression. “It’s none of my business. You’ve just looked so sad, and I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry.”

“Thanks,” I muttered, turning to a fresh page in my notebook.

“And I also wanted to apologize for my behavior before. What I said was…unkind. I was just angry and I lashed out at you. It wasn’t fair, and I’m sorry.”

“I’m not interested in dating, Parker,” I warned.

He chuckled. “I’m not trying to take advantage. We’re still friends and I want to make sure that you’re okay.”

“I’m okay.”

“Are you going home for Thanksgiving break?”

“I’m going home with America. I usually have Thanksgiving at her house.”

Parker began to speak but Dr. Ballard began her lecture. The subject of Thanksgiving made me think of my previous plans to help Travis with a turkey. I thought about what that would have been like, and I found myself worrying that they would be ordering pizza yet again. A sinking feeling came over me. I instantly pushed it from my mind, trying my best to concentrate on Dr. Ballard’s every word.

After class, my face flushed when I saw Travis jogging toward me from the parking lot. He was clean shaven again, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and his favorite red baseball cap, ducking his head away from the rain.

“I’ll see you after break, Abs,” Parker said, touching my back.

I expected an angry glare from Travis, but he didn’t seem to notice Parker as he approached. “Hey, Pidge.”

I offered an awkward smile, and he shoved his hands into the front pocket of his sweatshirt. “Shepley said you’re going with him and Mare to Wichita tomorrow.”

“Yeah?”

“You’re spending the whole break at America’s?”

I shrugged, trying to seem casual. “I’m really close with her parents.”

“What about your mom?”

“She’s a drunk, Travis. She won’t know it’s Thanksgiving.”

He was suddenly nervous, and my stomach wrenched with the possibility of a second public break-up. Thunder rolled above us and Travis looked up, squinting as the large drops fell against his face.

“I need to ask you for a favor,” he said. “C’mere.” He pulled me under the closest awning and I complied, trying to avoid another scene.

“What kind of favor?” I asked, suspicious.

“My uh….” He shifted his weight. “Dad and the guys are still expecting you on Thursday.”

“Travis!” I whined.

He looked at his feet. “You said you would come.”

“I know, but…it’s a little inappropriate now, don’t you think?”

He seemed unaffected. “You said you would come.”

“We were still together when I agreed to go home with you. You knew I wasn’t going to come.”

“I didn’t know, and it’s too late, anyway. Thomas is flying in, and Tyler took off work. Everyone’s looking forward to seeing you.”

I cringed, twirling the damp strands of my hair around my finger. “They were going to come, anyway, weren’t they?”

“Not everyone. We haven’t had all of us there for Thanksgiving in years. They all made an effort to be there since I promised them a real meal. We haven’t had a woman in the kitchen since Mom died and…,”

“That’s not sexist or anything,”

He tilted his head. “That’s not what I meant, Pidge, c’mon. We all want you there. That’s all I’m sayin’.”

“You haven’t told them about us…have you?” I said in the most accusatory tone I could manage.

He fidgeted for a moment, and then shook his head. “Dad would ask why, and I’m not ready to talk to him about it. I’d never hear the end of how stupid I am. Please come, Pidge.”

“I have to put the Turkey in at six in the morning. We’d have to leave here by five….”

“Or we could stay there.”

My eyebrows shot up. “No way! It’s bad enough that I’m going to have to lie to your family and pretend we’re still together.”

“You act like I’m asking you to light yourself on fire.”

“You should have told them!”

“I will. After Thanksgiving…I’ll tell them.”

I sighed, looking away. “If you promise me that this isn’t some stunt to try and get back together, I’ll do it.”

He nodded. “I promise.”

Although he was trying to hide it, I could see a spark in his eyes. I pressed my lips together, trying not to smile. “I’ll see you at five.”

Travis leaned down to kiss my cheek, his lips lingering on my skin. “Thanks, Pigeon.”

America and Shepley met me at the door of the cafeteria and we walked in together. I yanked the silverware from its holder and then dropped my plate on the tray.

“What’s with you, Abby?” America asked.

“I’m not coming with you guys tomorrow.”

Shepley’s mouth fell open. “You’re going to the Maddox’s?”

America’s eyes darted to mine. “You’re what ?”

I sighed and shoved money at the cashier. “I promised Trav I’d go when we were on the plane, and he told them all I’d be there.”

“In his defense,” Shepley began, “he really didn’t think you guys were gonna break up. He thought you’d come around. It was too late by the time he figured out that you were serious.”

“That’s bullshit, Shep and you know it,” America seethed. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to, Abby.”

She was right. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have a choice. But I couldn’t do that to Travis. Not even if I hated him. And I didn’t.

“If I don’t go, he’ll have to explain to them why I didn’t show, and I don’t want to ruin his Thanksgiving. They’re all coming home thinking I’m going to be there.”

Shepley smiled, “They all really like you, Abby. Jim was just talking to my dad about you the other day.”

“Great,” I muttered.

“Abby’s right, Baby,” Shepley said. “If she doesn’t go, Jim will spend the day bitching at Trav. There’s no sense in ruining their day.”

America put her arm around my shoulders. “You can still come with us. You’re not with him, anymore. You don’t have to keep saving him.”

“I know, Mare. But it’s the right thing to do.”

 

The sun melted into the buildings outside the window, and I stood in front of my mirror, brushing my hair while trying to decide how I was going to go about pretending with Travis. “It’s just one day, Abby. You can handle one day,” I said to the mirror.

Pretending had never been a problem for me; it was what was going to happen while we were pretending that I was worried about. When Travis dropped me off after dinner, I was going to have to make a decision. A decision that would be skewed by a false sense of happiness we would portray for his family.

Knock, knock.

I turned, looking at the door. Kara hadn’t been back to our room all evening, and I knew that America and Shepley were already on the road. I couldn’t imagine who it could be. I set my brush on the table and pulled open the door.

“Travis,” I breathed.

“Are you ready?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Ready for what?”

“You said pick you up at five.”

I folded my arms across my chest. “I meant five in the morning !”

“Oh,” Travis said, seeming disappointed. “I guess I should call Dad and let him know we won’t be staying after all.”

“Travis!” I wailed.

“I brought Shep’s car so we didn’t have to deal with our bags on the bike. There’s a spare bedroom you can crash in. We can watch a movie or—,”

“I’m not staying at your dad’s!”

His face fell. “Okay. I’ll uh…I’ll see you in the morning.”

He took a step back and I shut the door, leaning against it. Every emotion I had weaved in and out of my insides, and I heaved an exasperated sigh. With Travis’ disappointed expression fresh on my mind, I pulled open the door and stepped out, seeing that he was slowly walking down the hall, dialing his phone.

“Travis, wait.” He flipped around and the hopeful look in his eyes made my chest ache. “Give me a minute to pack a few things.”

A relieved, appreciative smile spread across his face and he followed me to my room, watching me shove a few things in a bag from the doorway.

“I still love you, Pidge.”

I didn’t look up. “Don’t. I’m not doing this for you.”

He sucked in a breath. “I know.”

We rode in silence to his dad’s house. The car felt charged with nervous energy, and it was hard to sit still against the cold leather seats. Once we arrived, Trenton and Jim walked out onto the porch, all smiles. Travis carried our bags from the car, and Jim patted his back.

“Good to see ya, Son.” His smiled broadened when he looked at me. “Abby Abernathy. We’re looking forward to dinner tomorrow. It’s been a long time since…Well. It’s been a long time.”

I nodded and followed Travis into the house. Jim rested his hand on his protruding belly and grinned. “I set you two up in the guest bedroom, Trav. I didn’t figure you would wanna fight with the twin in your room.”

I looked to Travis. It was difficult watching him struggle to speak. “Abby’s uh…she’s going to uh…going to take the guest room. I’m going to crash in mine.”

Trenton made a face. “Why ? She’s been staying at your apartment, hasn’t she?”

“Not lately,” he said, desperately trying to avoid the truth.

Jim and Trenton traded glances. “Thomas’ room has been storage for years now, so I was going to let him take your room. I guess he can sleep on the couch,” Jim said, looking to the ratty, discolored cushions in the living room.

“Don’t worry about it, Jim. We were just trying to be respectful,” I smiled, touching him arm.

His laughter bellowed throughout the house, and he patted my hand. “You’ve met my sons, Abby. You should know it’s damn near impossible to offend me.”

Travis nodded toward the stairs, and I followed him. He pushed open the door with his foot and sat our bags on the floor, looking at the bed and then turning to me. The room was lined in brown paneling, the brown carpet beyond normal wear and tear. The walls were a dirty white, the paint peeling in places. I saw only one frame on the wall, enclosed was a picture of Jim and Travis’ mother. The background was a generic portrait-studio blue, sporting feathered hair and young, smiling faces. It must have been taken before they had the boys, neither of them could have been older than twenty.

“I’m sorry, Pidge. I’ll sleep on the floor.”

“Damn straight you will,” I said, pulling my hair into a ponytail. “I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.”

He sat on the bed and rubbed his face in frustration. “This is going to be a fucking mess. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“I know exactly what you were thinking. I’m not stupid, Travis.”

He looked up at me and smiled. “But you still came.”

“I have to get everything ready for tomorrow,” I said, opening the door.

Travis stood up. “I’ll help you.”

We peeled a mountain of potatoes, cut up vegetables, set out the turkey to thaw, and started the pie crusts. The first hour was more than uncomfortable, but when the twins arrived, everyone seemed to congregate in the kitchen. Jim told stories about each of his boys, and we laughed about tales of earlier disastrous Thanksgivings when they attempted to do something other than order pizza.

“Diane was a hell of a cook,” Jim mused. “Trav doesn’t remember, but there was no sense trying after she passed.”

“No pressure, Abby,” Trenton chuckled, grabbing a beer from the fridge. “Let’s get out the cards. I want to try to make back some of my money that Abby took.”

Jim waved his finger at his son. “No poker this weekend, Trent. I brought down the dominoes, go set those up. No betting, dammit. I mean it.”

Trenton shook his head. “All right, old man, all right.” Travis’ brothers meandered from the kitchen, and Trent followed, stopping to look back. “C’mon, Trav.”

“I’m helping Pidge.”

“There’s not much more to do, Baby,” I said. “Go ahead.”

His eyes softened at my words, and he touched my hip. “You sure?”

I nodded and he leaned over to kiss my cheek, squeezing my hip with his fingers before following Trenton into the game room.

Jim watched his sons file out of the doorway, shaking his head and smiling. “This is incredible what you’re doing, Abby. I don’t think you realize how much we all appreciate it.”

“It was Trav’s idea. I’m glad I could help.”

His large frame settled against the counter, taking a swig of his beer while he pondered his next words. “You and Travis haven’t talked much. You having problems?”

I squeezed the dish soap into the sink as it filled with hot water, trying to think of something to say that wasn’t a bald-faced lie. “Things are a little different, I guess.”

“That’s what I thought. You have to be patient with him. Travis doesn’t remember much about it, but he was close to his mom, and after we lost her he was never the same. I thought he’d grow out of it, you know, with him being so young. It was hard on all of us, but Trav…he quit trying to love people after that. I was surprised that he brought you here. The way he acts around you, the way he looks at you; I knew you were somethin’ special.”

I smiled, but kept my eyes on the dishes I was scrubbing.

“Travis’ll have a hard time. He’s going to make a lot of mistakes. He grew up around a bunch of motherless boys and a lonely, grouchy old man for a father. We were all a little lost after Diane died, and I guess I didn’t help the boys cope the way I should have.

“I know it’s hard not to blame him, but you have to love him, anyway, Abby. You’re the only woman he’s loved besides his mother. I don’t know what it’ll do to him if you left him, too.”

I swallowed back the tears and nodded, unable to reply. Jim rested his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “I’ve never seen him smile the way he does when he’s with you. I hope all my boys have an Abby one day.”

His footsteps faded down the hallway and I gripped the edge of the sink, trying to catch my breath. I knew spending the holiday with Travis and his family would be difficult, but I didn’t think my heart would be broken all over again. The men joked and laughed in the next room as I washed and dried the dishes, putting them away. I cleaned the kitchen and then washed my hands, making my way to the stairs for the night.

Travis grabbed my hand. “It’s early, Pidge. You’re not going to bed, are ya?”

“It’s been a long day. I’m tired.”

“We were getting ready to watch a movie. Why don’t you come back down and hang out?”

I looked up the stairs and then down to his hopeful smile. “Okay.”

He led me by the hand to the couch, and we sat together as the opening credits rolled.

“Shut of that light, Taylor,” Jim ordered.

Travis reached his arm above me, resting his arm on the back of the couch. He was trying to keep up pretenses while appeasing me. He had been very careful not to take advantage of the situation, and I found myself conflicted, both grateful and disappointed. Sitting so close to him, smelling the mixture of tobacco and his cologne, it was very difficult for me to keep my distance, both physically and emotionally. Just as I had feared, my resolve was wavering and I struggled to block out everything Jim had said in the kitchen.

Half-way through the movie, the front door flew open and Thomas rounded the corner, bags in hand.

“Happy Thanksgiving!” he said, setting his luggage on the floor.

Jim stood up and hugged his oldest son, and everyone but Travis stood to greet him.

“You’re not going to say hi to Thomas?” I whispered.

He didn’t look at me when he spoke, watching his family hug and laugh. “I got one night with you. I’m not going to waste a second of it.”

“Hi there, Abby. It’s good to see you again,” Thomas smiled.

Travis touched my knee with his hand and I looked down, and then to Travis. Noticing my expression, Travis took his hand off my leg and interlocked his fingers in his lap.

“Uh oh. Trouble in paradise?” Thomas asked.

“Shut up, Tommy,” Travis grumbled.

The mood in the room shifted, and I felt all eyes on me, waiting for an explanation. I smiled nervously and took Travis’ hand into both of mine.

“We’re just tired. We’ve been working all evening on the food,” I said, leaning my head against Travis’ shoulder.

He looked down at our hands and then squeezed, his eyebrows pulling in a bit.

“Speaking of tired, I’m exhausted,” I breathed. “I’m gonna head to bed, Baby.” I looked to everyone else. “Good night, guys.”

“Night, Sis,” Jim said.

Travis’ brothers all bid me goodnight, and I headed up the stairs.

“I’m gonna turn in, too,” I heard Travis say.

“I bet you are,” Trenton teased.

“Lucky bastard,” Tyler grumbled.

“Hey. We’re not going to talk about your sister like that,” Jim warned.

My stomach sank. The only real family I’d had in years was America’s parents, and although Mark and Pam had always looked out for me with true kindness, they were borrowed. The six unruly, foul-mouthed, loveable men downstairs had welcomed me with open arms, and tomorrow I would tell them goodbye for the last time.

Travis caught the bedroom door before it closed and then froze. “Did you want me to wait in the hall while you dressed for bed?”

“I’m going to hop in the shower. I’ll just get dressed in the bathroom.”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “All right. I’ll make a pallet, then.”

I nodded, making my way to the bathroom. I scrubbed myself raw in the dilapidated shower, focusing on the water stains and soap scum to fight the overwhelming dread I felt for both the night and the morning. When I returned to the bedroom, Travis dropped a pillow on the floor on his make-shift bed. He offered a weak smile before leaving me to take a turn in the shower.

I crawled into bed, pulling the covers to my chest, trying to ignore the blankets on the floor. When Travis returned, he stared at the pallet with the same sadness that I did, and then turned off the light, situating himself on his pillow.

It was quiet for a few minutes, and then I heard Travis heave a miserable sigh. “This is our last night together, isn’t it?”

I waited a moment, trying to think of the right thing to say. “I don’t wanna fight, Trav. Just go to sleep.”

Hearing him shift, I turned onto my side to look down at him, pressing my cheek into the pillow. He supported his head with his hand and stared into my eyes.

“I love you.”

I watched him for a moment. “You promised.”

“I promised this wasn’t a stunt to get back together. It wasn’t.” He reached up his hand to touch mine. “But if it meant being with you again, I can’t say I wouldn’t consider it.”

“I care about you. I don’t want you to hurt, but I should have followed my gut in the first place. It would’ve never worked.”

“You did love me, though, right?”

I pressed my lips together. “I still do.”

His eyes glossed over and he squeezed my hand. “Can I ask you for a favor?”

“I’m sort of in the middle of the last thing you asked me to do,” I smiled.

His features were taught, unaffected by my expression. “If this is really it…if you’re really done with me…will you let me hold you tonight?”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea, Trav.”

His hand gripped tight over mine. “Please? I can’t sleep knowing you’re just a foot away, and I’m never gonna get the chance again.”

I stared into his desperate eyes for a moment and then frowned. “I’m not having sex with you.”

He shook his head. “That’s not what I’m asking.”

I searched the dimly lit room with my eyes, thinking about the consequences, wondering if I could tell Travis no if he changed his mind. I shut my eyes tight and then pushed away from the edge of the bed, turning down the blanket. He crawled in bed beside me, hastily pulling me tight into his arms. His bare chest rose and fell with uneven breaths, and I cursed myself for feeling so peaceful against his skin.

“I’m going to miss this,” I said.

He kissed my hair and pulled me to him, unable to get close enough to me. He buried his face into my neck and I rested my hand on his back in comfort, although I was just as heartbroken as he was. He sucked in a breath, and pressed his forehead against my neck, pressing his fingers into the skin of my back. As miserable as we were the last night of the bet, this was much, much worse.

“I…I don’t think I can do this, Travis.”

He pulled me tighter and I felt the first tear fall from my eye down my temple. “I can’t do this,” I said, clenching my eyes shut.

“Then don’t,” he said against my skin. “Give me another chance.”

I tried to push myself out from under him, but his grip was too solid for any possibility of escape. I covered my face with both hands as my quiet sobs shook us both. Travis looked up at me, his eyes heavy and wet.

With his large, gentle fingers, he pulled my hand away from my eyes and kissed my palm. I took a staggered breath as he looked at my lips and then back to my eyes. “I’ll never love anyone the way I love you, Pigeon.”

I sniffed and touched his face. “I can’t.”

“I know,” he said, his voice broken. “I never once convinced myself that I was good enough for you.”

My face crumpled and I shook my head. “It’s not just you, Trav. We’re not good for each other.”

He shook his head, wanting to say something, but thinking better of it. After a long, deep breath, he rested his head against my chest. When the green numbers on the clock across the room read eleven o’clock, Travis’ breaths finally slowed and evened out. My eyes grew heavy, and I blinked a few times before slipping out of consciousness.

 

“Ow!” I yelped, pulling my hand from the stove and automatically nursing the burn in my mouth.

“You okay, Pidge?” Travis asked, shuffling across the floor and slipping a t-shirt over his head. “Shit! The floors fucking freezing!” I stifled a giggle as I watched him hop on one foot and then the other until the soles of his feet acclimated to the frigid tile.

The sun barely peeked through the blinds, and the rest of the Maddox’s were sleeping soundly in their beds. I pushed the antique tin pan further into the oven and then closed the door, turning to cool my fingers under the sink.

“You can go back to bed. I just had to put the turkey in.”

“Are you coming to bed?” he asked, wrapping his arms around his chest to ward off the chill in the air.

“Yeah.”

“Lead the way,” he said, sweeping his hand toward the stairs.

Travis yanked his shirt off as we both shoved our legs under the covers, pulling the blanket up to our necks. He tightened his arms around me as we shivered, waiting for our body heat to warm the small space between our skin and the covers.

I felt his lips against my hair, and then his throat moved when he spoke. “Look, Pidge. It’s snowing.”

I turned to face the window. The white flakes were only visible in the glow of the street lamp. “It kind of feels like Christmas,” I said, my skin finally warming up against his. He sighed and I turned to see his expression. “What?”

“You won’t be here for Christmas.”

“I’m here, now.” He pulled his mouth up on one side and leaned down to kiss my lips. I leaned back and shook my head. “Trav….”

His grip tightened and he lowered his chin, his chestnut eyes determined. “I’ve got less than twenty-four hours with you, Pidge. I’m gonna kiss you. I’m gonna kiss you a lot today. All day. Every chance I get. If you want me to stop, just say the word, but until you do, I’m going make every second of my last day with you count.”

“Travis—,” I thought about it for a moment, and I reasoned that he was under no disillusionment about what would happen when he took me home. I had come there to pretend, and as hard as it would be for us both later, I didn’t want to tell him no.

When he noticed me staring at his lips, the corner of his mouth turned up again, and he leaned down to press his soft mouth against mine. It began sweet and innocent, but the moment his lips parted, I caressed his tongue with mine. His body instantly tensed, and he took a deep breath in through his nose, pressing himself against me. I let my knee fall to the side and he moved above me, never taking his mouth from mine.

He wasted no time undressing me, and when there was no more fabric between us, he gripped the iron vines of the headboard with both hands, and in one quick movement, he was inside me. I bit my lip hard, stifling the cry that was clawing its way up my throat. Travis moaned against my mouth, and I pressed my feet against the mattress, anchoring myself so I could raise my hips to meet his.

One hand on the iron and the other on the nape of my neck, he rocked against me over and over, and my legs quivered with his firm, determined movements. His tongue searched my mouth, and I could feel the vibration of his deep groans against my chest as he kept to his promise to make our last day together memorable. I could spend a thousand years trying to block that moment from my memory, and it would still be burned into my mind.

An hour had passed when I clenched my eyes shut, my every nerve focused on the shuddering of my insides. Travis held his breath as he thrust inside me one last time, I collapsed against the mattress, completely spent. Travis heaved with deep breaths, speechless and dripping with sweat.

I could hear voices downstairs and I covered my mouth, giggling at our misbehavior. Travis turned on his side, scanning my face with his soft, brown eyes.

“You said you were just going to kiss me,” I grinned.

As I lay next to his bare skin, seeing the unconditional love in his eyes, I let go of my disappointment, and my anger, and my stubborn resolve. I loved him, and no matter what my reasons were to live without him, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted. Even if I hadn’t changed my mind, it was impossible for us to stay away from each other.

“Why don’t we just stay in bed all day?” he smiled.

“I came here to cook, remember?”

“No, you came here to help me cook, and I don’t report for duty for another eight hours.”

I touched his face, the urge to end our suffering had become unbearable. When I told him I had changed my mind and that things were back to normal, we wouldn’t have to spend the day pretending. We could spend it celebrating instead.

“Travis, I think we.…”

“Don’t say it, okay? I don’t want to think about it until I have to.” He stood up and pulled on his boxers, walking over to my bag. He tossed my clothes on the bed and then yanked his shirt over his head. “I want to remember this as a good day.”

I made eggs for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch, and when the game began, I started dinner. Travis stood behind me at every opportunity, his arms wrapped around my waist, his lips on my neck. I caught myself glancing at the clock, eager to find a moment alone with him to tell him my decision. I was anxious to see the look on his face, and to get back to where we were.

The day was filled with laughter, conversation, and a steady stream of complaints from Tyler about Travis’ constant display of affection.

“Get a room, Travis! Jesus!” Tyler groaned.

“You are turning a hideous shade of green,” Thomas teased.

“It’s because they’re making me sick. I’m not jealous, douchebag,” Tyler sneered.

“Leave ‘em alone, Ty,” Jim warned.

When we sat down for dinner, Jim insisted on Travis carving the turkey, and I smiled as he proudly stood up to comply. I was a bit nervous until the compliments washed in. By the time I served the pie, there wasn’t a morsel of food left on the table.

“Did I make enough?” I laughed.

Jim smiled, pulling his fork through his lips to get ready for dessert. “You made plenty, Abby. We just wanted to tide ourselves over until next year…unless you’d like to do this all over again at Christmas. You’re a Maddox, now. I expect you at every holiday, and not to cook.”

I glanced over at Travis whose smiled had faded, and my heart sank. I had to tell him soon. “Thanks, Jim.”

“Don’t tell her that, Dad,” Trenton said. “She’s gotta cook. I haven’t had a meal like this since I was five!” He shoveled half a slice of pecan pie into his mouth, humming with satisfaction.

I felt at home, sitting at a table full of men that were leaning back in their chairs, rubbing their full bellies. Emotion overwhelmed me when I fantasized about Christmas, and Easter, and every other holiday I would spend at that table. I wanted nothing more than to be a part of this broken, loud family that I adored.

When the pies were gone, Travis’ brothers began to clear the table and the twins manned the sink.

“I’ll do that,” I said, standing.

Jim shook his head. “No you don’t. The boys can take care of it. You just take Travis to the couch and relax. You’ve worked hard, Sis.”

The twins splashed each other with dish water and Trenton cussed when he slipped on a puddle and dropped a plate. Thomas chastised his brothers, getting the broom and dustpan to sweep up the glass. Jim patted his sons on the shoulders, and then hugged me before retreating to his room for the night.

Travis pulled my legs onto his lap and slipped off my shoes, massaging the soles of my feet with his thumbs. I leaned my head back and sighed.

“This was the best Thanksgiving we’ve had since Mom died.”

I pulled my head up to see his expression. He was smiling, but it was tinged with sadness.

 

“I’m glad I was here to see it.”

Travis’ expression changed and I braced myself for what he was about to say. My heart pounded against my chest, hoping he would ask me back so I could say yes. Las Vegas seemed like a lifetime ago, sitting in the home of my new family.

“I’m different. I don’t know what happened to me in Vegas. That wasn’t me. I was thinking about everything we could buy with that money, and that was all I was thinking about. I didn’t see how much it hurt you for me to want to take you back there, but deep down, I think I knew. I deserved for you to leave me. I deserved all the sleep I lost and the pain I’ve felt. I needed all that to realize how much I need you, and what I’m willing to do to keep you in my life.”

I chewed on my lip, impatient to get to the part where I said yes. I wanted him to take me back to the apartment and spend the rest of the night celebrating. I couldn’t wait to relax on his new couch with Toto, watching movies and laughing like we used to.

“You said you’re done with me, and I accept that. I’m a different person since I met you. I’ve changed…for the better. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to do right by you. We were friends first, and I can’t lose you, Pigeon. I will always love you, but if I can’t make you happy, it doesn’t make much sense for me to try to get you back. I can’t imagine being with anyone else, but I’ll be happy as long as we’re friends.”

“You want to be friends?” I asked, the words burning in my mouth.

“I want you to be happy. Whatever that takes.”

My insides wrenched at his words, and I was surprised at the overpowering pain I felt. He was giving me an out, and it was exactly when I didn’t want it. I could have told him that I had changed my mind and he would take back everything he’d just said, but I knew that it wasn’t fair to either of us to hold on just when he had let go.

I smiled to fight the tears. “Fifty bucks says you’ll be thanking me for this when you meet your future wife.”

Travis’s eyebrows pulled together as his face fell. “That’s an easy bet. The only woman I’d ever wanna marry just broke my heart.”

I couldn’t fake a smile after that. I wiped my eyes and then stood up. “I think it’s time you took me home.”

“C’mon, Pigeon. I’m sorry, that wasn’t funny.”

“It’s not that, Trav. I’m just tired, and I’m ready to go home.”

He sucked in a breath and nodded, standing up. I hugged his brothers goodbye, and asked Trenton to say goodbye to Jim for me. Travis stood at the door with our bags as they all agreed to come home for Christmas, and I held my smile long enough to get out the door.

When Travis walked me to Morgan, his face was still sad, but the torment was gone. The weekend wasn’t a stunt to get me back after all. It was closure.

He leaned over to kiss my cheek and held the door open for me, watching as I walked inside. “Thanks for today. You don’t know how happy you made my family.”

I stopped at the bottom of the stairs. “You’re going to tell them tomorrow, aren’t you?”

He looked out to the parking lot and then at me. “I’m pretty sure they already know. You’re not the only one with a poker face, Pidge.”

I stared at him, stunned, and for the first time since I’d met him, he walked away from me without looking back.

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