“Cooper, please, sit down. It’s not what you think it is.” Katherine wanted him to calm down.
“Then how is it, Katherine? You’ve got to give me something. Please, because I’m dying here. All I want is to be with you and you won’t let me. I try to get close to you and you push me away.”
“There is someone else. I know I already told you that…but it gets weird. And just let me finish before you say anything, okay?” She looked at him for confirmation that he would let her speak uninterrupted.
“I have these dreams. And the same guy keeps showing up in them. I’d never seen him before, but after the first dream, I couldn’t get him out of my head. Remember the night of our first date, when I told you I thought I saw someone?” Cooper nodded his head, remembering. “Well, he had flashed into my mind right then and completely threw me. It was mostly weird because I hadn’t dreamt about him in weeks. After that night, the dreams didn’t stop and they haven’t stopped.”
Cooper interrupted with a relieved, yet confused tone, “So my competition is some guy you dream about?”
“I’m not finished,” Katherine smirked at him.
“This guy from my dreams, his name is Austen…and he’s Taylor’s brother.”
“Great,” Cooper rolled his eyes. “I can’t compete with your best friend’s brother. That’s like written in the girl handbook or something on how to turn best friends into sisters.”
Katherine shot him a look, “Hello? Still.Not.Finished.”
Cooper looked at her with puppy dog eyes, “I promise I’ll shut up.”
Katherine smiled and continued, “So Austen, Taylor’s brother, he’s dead. He died two years ago.”
Cooper’s jaw dropped open in surprise.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, he’s dead. I saw his picture when I went to Taylor’s house for Thanksgiving.”
“And that’s why you got weird after…”
Katherine watched as Cooper silently put the timeline of her behavior together in his mind.
“Yes. So...he comes to me in my dreams each night. And we, I don’t know…we spend time together. We laugh and play and talk…and...”
Cooper winced. His body stiffened as he processed the information. “Do you love him?” he asked seriously.
“Beyond reason,” was the only response Katherine could come up with, although it made her uncomfortable to admit to Cooper. “And I don’t say that to hurt you. I just don’t want to lie to you anymore.”
“I appreciate that. One more thing...”
“Do you love me?”
Katherine inhaled deeply and gazed at Cooper through misty eyes, “I do. It’s just...different. I can’t explain it, but it’s not the same.”
“We’re not talking like you love me like a brother or something, right?” Cooper asked for clarification.
“Definitely not like a brother. Cooper, you’re the most amazing guy I’ve ever met, in real life.”
Overwhelmed, he stated, “I can’t compete with a ghost.”
His words were so simplistic in their truth that they forced the tears to fall from her eyes, “I know.”
“So what do we do? Where do we go from here? I’m in love with you, Katherine Johns.” He reached out and took her hands in his, “I want to be with you and I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Her heart didn’t know whether to race or break. “I love you, too. I really do. I just don’t know how to be with you both.”
He pulled her up from the couch and wrapped her in his arms. She sobbed uncontrollably into his chest and soaked his shirt. “I know it doesn’t matter what I say. The choice has to be yours.”
“I’m so sorry, Cooper. I know the choice should be easy.”
“Of course you should choose me, babe,” he stated and she snickered.
“I know. It’s just not that simple.”
“I just wish you would have told me what was going on sooner. I’ve been dying here, kid. Dying. Taylor wouldn’t give me a clue, so I made up ridiculous stories in my head. Did you know that you’re dating Zac Efron?”
“Really?” she laughed a little. “I bet our relationship is amazing.”
“Oh, it is. He took you on location with him over break. That’s why you stopped calling. You were too busy travelling the world with your movie star boyfriend.”
“My life is so glamorous.” She squeezed him and stared into his green eyes. She could barely stomach seeing them in pain. She plopped back down on the couch and he handed her a wad of tissues.
He scooted next to her and tossed his arm around her shoulder. She leaned into him the way she had so many times before. He kissed the top of her head and realized he wasn’t ready to lose this girl. But how do you fight a ghost…and win?
Katherine was emotionally exhausted and drifted to sleep right away. The rest of the group sat in the living room talking about everything that had transpired between Cooper and Katherine.
Danny listened to the story as he rubbed his temples. “That’s stupid. Why wouldn’t she choose you? You’re the only one in this equation still living, bro.” Then he looked at his girlfriend and said, “No offense, babe.”
“No, it’s okay. I agree. Look, my brother wasn’t selfish in that way. He would never put his desires above someone else’s well being.” Taylor paused and reminisced. “I love my brother, but he wouldn’t want this for her…especially since he loves her.”
She watched Cooper cringe at the mention of the word love.
“You okay, Donovan?” Danny asked his teammate.
“Yeah. It’s just pretty surreal. I had imagined a lot of things, but this was never one of them. How am I supposed to compete with this?”
Taylor noticed the confusion and pain in Cooper’s eyes. It made her sad for him. “I think you just have to give her time, Coop. She can’t live like this forever. Eventually it’s going to have to end.”
“You think?” Cooper’s shoulders relaxed as he let out a breath.
“I do,” Taylor assured him.
She remembered the pain of losing her brother like it was yesterday. She wouldn’t wish that type of torture on anyone and she hoped it would be easier for Katherine to let Austen go when the time was right.
Austen and Brody waited at the shore as Katherine slowly walked up behind them. Austen turned when she was near and bent down to kiss her sweetly. “I love you,” he whispered in her ear.
She was so at peace with him. “I love you too.”
They walked along the beach holding hands. Her mind focused on the fingers that were currently intertwined with her own. Energy swirled between them.
“Cooper’s lake house is pretty nice.”
Katherine nodded in agreement even though she didn’t like it when he brought up Cooper. “So what are we going to do today?”
“What do you want to do? I just want you to be happy.”
Since their big talk, their time together had been more carefree and fun. Austen took her places and showed her things she’d never seen before. She got to show him where she grew up and her favorite places in LA. Their relationship felt so intense all the time, they knew the only way to end it was to lighten things up.
“Hmmm, I don’t know? Where should we go? What should we see?” Katherine tapped her finger against her mouth.
“Is there anywhere you’ve always wanted to go? ’Cause I’m loaded, so it’s on me.” Austen winked.
Katherine liked when their relationship felt normal, instead of what it truly was. “Well I’ve always wanted to go to Italy. Think you can swing it, ghost boyfriend?”
He leaned close and confided, “I can swing anything you want, living girlfriend. I’m like magic.”
He grabbed her hand and she found herself surrounded by the beauty of Venice.
“Wow. It’s gorgeous here. And so colorful...and so old.”
“You’re colorful and old,” Austen joked.
They walked around the city, appreciated the architecture and found bliss in all their surroundings. The city seemed to be filled with people in love at every turn. Venice felt more alive than anywhere Katherine had ever been before.
“Have you ever been here?” she wondered.
“Oh yeah, I used to come here with my family every year,” he deadpanned.
“Seriously?” she was surprised and jealous.
“No.” Austen laughed, “The closest I’ve ever been to Italy was eating in Italian restaurants.”
“You’re such a brat.” She pushed him slightly.
“Takes one to know one.”
“Really? Are you five?”
She woke suddenly to the morning light streaming through the windows and into her room. She was always surprised at how quickly real time passed while she dreamed. She looked out at the frozen lake and marveled at its beauty.
The smell of bacon and coffee wafted in from the kitchen. She pulled herself out of bed and walked to where Cooper was cooking. “Can I help?” she offered.
He turned to face her and she noticed that his eyes looked different. She wondered if he had cried and couldn’t stand the thought. “Want to set the table?” he pointed toward a stack of plates and silverware set neatly on the counter.
“’Course,” she grabbed the pile and placed them down one by one. She looked back at Cooper. He was so strong and muscular that it was hard to look away. She thought about how cute he looked in his jeans and how his black t-shirt fit him perfectly, accenting all the right curves of his arms and shoulders. He turned around and caught her staring. She felt her cheeks flush with heat.
“Come here,” he smiled.
She rested the place settings on the table and walked toward him. He set down the spatula and grabbed her. He pulled her tightly against his body and squeezed her close. She timed her breathing with his and felt his lips brush the top of her head. “I’ll wait for you.” He breathed deeply, his chest pressing into hers. “As long as it takes. I’ll wait for you.”
Her eyes instantly watered, “I don’t deserve it.” All she could think about was how terribly she’d treated him since Thanksgiving. If he had done that to her she’d hate him for it. At least she’d want to.
“I love you.” He’d told her that twice now. “So, I’ll wait.”
She looked up at his piercing green eyes and knew without a doubt that he meant every word. “It might take a while.” She didn’t want to give him false hope. She had no idea how long it would be until she was able to really let go of Austen and walk away.
“It’s not like I have anything better to do.” He winked and gently kissed her cheek.
She smiled, her heart bursting with love for the two incredible guys who had come into her life.