I grabbed her hands and held them in mine between us. "You don't need to do that now," I said gently. "I'm here."
She nodded. "But you still don't know who you are," she said. "If you can find out where your parents lived before Acadia, you might have grandparents somewhere . . . aunts, uncles, family."
I looked off behind her, pausing. "I don't think I was born in Acadia anyway."
She tilted her head, looking confused. "What do you mean?"
I told her haltingly about what Mother Willa had said to me all those years ago, about how Maya was born at Acadia, but that I was not. And then I reminded her of the things Hector had said at the end about how he had brought me to Acadia. Granted he was as mad as a hatter, but. . . "My coloring, it was so different than my parents' and my sister's." A dull ache throbbed in my chest as I mentioned Maya, but I pushed that aside for now. "And learning that you were abducted, makes it even more plausible that I was, too. Clearly kidnapping was yet another thing Hector wasn't morally above doing."
Eden was studying me, biting her lip again. "Well, then this is even more reason to look into—"
"There's no way to find that out," I said, shaking my head. "I'm sorry, it's just, I can't . . . I can't go back there, not even in my mind, all right? I can't. Not yet."
She looked at me with such understanding sorrow and something inside me pulled tight and felt on the verge of snapping. I sucked in a breath and turned my attention back to the board. "I'll help you take it down."
She shook her head. "No. Not yet. I'll do it in my own time, but not yet." She motioned to the bottom of the board. "But I can take all this down. It was my attempt to locate Kristi so I could find Xander."
I looked down at the lists, some items crossed off, notes next to others. It looked like they were names of colleges printed from the Internet. My heart squeezed so tightly I almost brought my hand to my chest as if I was going to have some sort of heart attack. I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. Instead, I grabbed Eden and squeezed her to me again, putting the overwhelmingly fierce love for her into that embrace. Morning Glory. Morning Glory.
She squeezed me back and after a few minutes, our arms grew looser and Eden gazed up at me. I loved when she looked at me like that. It made me feel worthy. She shut her closet door. "I'll take care of that later. For now, take me on a date, Calder Raynes." She tilted her head and smiled at me. "It will be my first, you know."
"I'm all your firsts," I whispered, "and all your lasts."
She smiled. "And I'm all your firsts," she whispered back.
I grinned at her, feeling a stab of pain at the fact that she wasn't all my onlys anymore. Another thing I'd have to learn to forgive myself for. And I only hoped she'd be able to as well.
"Come on," I said, taking her hand. "Oh, grab some socks." She did and then slipped her shoes on at the door.
We quietly descended the stairs. The voices were still coming from the garden. I had borrowed Xander's truck so I didn't have to drive Eden around on my motorcycle. Plus I didn't even own one helmet, much less two, and there was no way on earth I'd ever risk Eden's safety. As a small matter of fact, I was suddenly a little more concerned about my own. I squeezed Eden's hand as I helped her up into the truck as the feeling of disbelief swept over me for the millionth time in a day and a half. Then I leaned in and inhaled her scent, reminding myself this was in fact, reality. Her relaxed and sweet expression caused me to think she knew exactly what I was thinking. And she probably did. I rounded the truck and climbed into the driver's seat, turning the ignition.
"So you learned how to use a computer, Eden?" I asked, wondering how she'd done the detailed research on Acadia. I turned on my headlights and pulled onto the street.
"Yes. I saved up for one and bought a laptop about six months ago. I realized if I was going to find Xander, I'd need one. Calling around places was getting me nowhere."
"Did you call the ranger station?" I looked over at her and she nodded in the dim cab.
"Yes. That's how I got Kristi's last name. But they wouldn't tell me what school she went to—if they even knew—but I figured they did." She bit her lip for a second and shrugged. "For all they knew, I was some weirdo." She paused for a second. "I called there from a phone in the lobby of Felix's building. I was so paranoid." She shook her head again and looked down at her hands in her lap. "It's so hard not knowing how things work . . . what's safe and what's not. I was paralyzed with fear most of the time." She ended on a whisper. "The computer seemed safer, more anonymous."
I nodded, reaching over and taking her hand.
"Anyway," she went on, "I research other stuff, too. I've been looking up politics, religions—trying to understand what different people believe, what sort of feels right to me."
I made a small snorting sound. "How can you believe in anything anymore?"
She was quiet for a minute and I felt the weight of her eyes on me in the dim interior. "Sometimes I don't." She looked straight ahead again. "I'm still working on that, too."
"What else do you research?" I asked to change the subject.
"Um, all kinds of things. Just trying to understand the big . . . I mean, the world. You know."
I smiled over at her. "Yes, I do know. Xander keeps trying to get me to buy a computer—and open a Facebook account. He tells me about it. Of course he uses a take off on his name."
"Clive Richter," she whispered. I nodded, frowning. It seemed that the thought of Clive Richter had been our constant companion over the past few years, dictating so much of what we did and didn't do.
I looked forward and was quiet for a minute. "Xander seemed upset he could never participate in this 'Throw Back Thursday' thing where you post pictures from the past, because he'll never have any of those." I laughed softly, but it held a note of sadness. Xander had actually seemed bothered by it.
"Do you care about that at all?" Eden asked, tilting her head. "I mean, for yourself?"
I thought about it for a second as I pulled into the bowling alley parking lot. I switched off the engine and leaned back in my seat. "I guess not."
She watched me for a couple beats and then nodded. "And who are Xander's Facebook friends exactly?" she asked, raising one brow.
I chuckled. "I don't know, guys he works with maybe? The women he sees. There are definitely enough of those." I stared ahead. Xander had his own way of coping with the demons that haunted him, and the loneliness I knew he struggled with.
I felt Eden's eyes studying my profile for a minute before she said, "I went on there looking for Kristi, actually, but it didn't pan out. I thought about opening an account, but at the time I guessed I'd just be 'Eden No Last Name' and my status update would always be the same–Life Sucks–feeling suicidal. I didn't figure I'd get a whole lot of friend requests."
I let out a burst of laughter and then tried to suck it back. It felt extremely inappropriate. But when I glanced over at her, she had a small, amused smirk on her face and so I grinned and then laughed harder.
She laughed, too, until we were both laughing so hard that tears were in my eyes and she was doubled forward.
The laughter brought on a huge surge of unexpected emotion and it hit me like a tidal wave.
I leaned forward on the steering wheel and continued to laugh until I realized there were tears running down my cheeks and my laughter had turned to shaking.
"Come here," Eden said, and I could hear the tears in her voice, too.
I moved over on the seat and grabbed her to me so tightly that she sucked in a breath.
"I missed you so much. So f**king much," I choked out. "Oh God, Eden, my Eden. Oh my God, I wanted to die without you." I tried to hold the tears back, but something had taken over—maybe the reality of her being back had hit me, maybe the laughter had broken the dam of emotion that was barely contained. I didn't know. But I was helpless to stop it and so I just gripped her to me and inhaled her comforting scent and cried like a damn baby into her chest as she stroked my back. I felt her tears hitting the back of my neck. It was the first time I'd cried since Xander dragged me off that roof.
We clutched each other for what seemed like a very long time as my heart slowed to a steady beat and I listened in awe and thankfulness to the sound of hers under my ear, which was wet from my tears.
"Just for the record," I finally mumbled, "this is not how first dates are supposed to go."
Eden laughed softly and then sniffled, kissing the top of my head. "No, in general circumstances, this would not be a good beginning."
I chuckled, too, and then sat up. Eden leaned forward and kissed my cheeks, rubbing her face against my own so that our tears mingled. She smiled against my mouth and then kissed me lightly. We kissed gently for a few minutes, me sucking her bottom lip between my own and nibbling at her mouth. It was slow and gentle and soothing to my soul.
After a few minutes of that, my blood started to heat to a point that wasn't going to be comfortable parked in Xander's truck in a public parking lot. So I pulled away and scooted back over to my side of the truck. I looked over at Eden who was wiping away the last of her tears.
"This is going to take some time before it feels like reality," I said. "It's going to take a while before I have a handle on my own damn emotions." I laughed self-consciously and looked over at her.
"You don't have to explain it to me, Calder," she said very gently.
I nodded, looking out the windshield. I could hardly explain the relief that coursed through my body to know I was perfectly understood. I’d always had Xander who got it more than most people could. But he also hadn't lost the love of his life the day he lost everything else. But now you have her back. The love of your life is sitting right next to you.
I reached over and grabbed her hand, that same tremulous joy I had felt at her mom's party filling my heart. Gods above, I couldn't keep up with my own emotions from one second to the next.
I looked over at her and raised my eyebrows. "Ready to make some bowling memories?"
She raised one eyebrow. "Will there be nachos?"
I laughed. "Hell, no."
She laughed and we got out of the truck and walked into the bowling alley together.
Fifteen minutes later, we had bowling shoes on and were directed to our own lane.
As I typed our information into the computer, Eden went about finding a bowling ball. When I finished, I stood up, looking around for Eden. I didn't immediately spot her and panic surged in my chest, making my heart speed up and my blood pump faster. I swiveled my head everywhere, panic setting in. "Eden!" I called. Several people looked over at me curiously. I jumped up on one of the chairs to get a better view over the tops of peoples' heads and called Eden's name again.
A guy at the lane to the right of me said, "You missing a kid?"
I shook my head. "No, my . . ." My words trailed off as a blonde head came into view, Eden turning the corner of a shelf of bowling balls and walking back toward me. The smile on her face faltered when she saw me standing on the chair probably looking panic-stricken. I hopped down and raced toward her, exhaling and pulling her in to me, the bowling ball she held colliding with my stomach. I didn't care. I held her for a minute, allowing my heart rate to return to normal.
"Whoa," she whispered, "you okay?"
I nodded and forced a small smile. "Yeah, sorry. It's just, I turned around and you weren't there, and—"
"I get it," she interrupted, smiling at me. "Sorry. I just couldn't find a ball that I could even lift. I just went around the corner." Her brows furrowed. "It will get better for both of us." She looked at me encouragingly.
I nodded and smiled again, leading her back to our lane. God, I hoped it would get better. Would I ever be able to let her leave my presence again without a feeling of dread taking over my body?
Eden sat down and I leaned in and kissed her lips, smiling and trying to lighten the mood. When I stood up, the guy in the lane next to me was looking at me with a small frown on his face. Yeah, I probably looked like a nutjob, panicking because my girlfriend turned the corner. Oh well, he didn't know the half of it. Did any of us ever know the half of it when it came to other people? Likely not.
I walked up to the lane and lined up my shot like I'd seen countless other people do as Xander and I had sat shoveling free nachos into our hungry bodies. If someone had told me then I'd be the one bowling, with Eden, a couple years later, I would have punched them in the face for trying to pull such a cruel joke.
I stepped forward and let the ball go. It glided down the lane, making a sharp turn at the end and knocking over the one pin to the far left. Well, that wasn't good. Still, I turned around and said, "Yes!" walking back toward Eden.
She laughed. "I don't think that's actually very good. You got one pin."
I winked at her, determined to make this a decent first date. "Yeah," I leaned in and kissed her quickly on her smiling mouth, "but things can only go up from here."
She raised a brow. "Or you could get a gutter ball."
I chuckled softly. "Very pessimistic. I won't."
She crossed her arms in front of her chest. "How can you be so sure?"
I smiled. "Because I learn from my mistakes."