She looked into his blue eyes and caressed his soft skin, “It’s not the same kind of love.”
“I know that,” he told her, “But I need you to know that it’s okay. Loving someone else doesn’t take away from what we have. No one can take this from us. It will always be ours.”
Relief coursed through her veins. She hadn’t realized it before, but maybe she somehow needed his permission to love Cooper. His blessing. His approval. She needed to know that it wouldn’t make him feel any less loved if she loved someone else.
“Will we ever be together, you and I?” She was desperate for answers that would make the idea of letting him go easier. If she had the promise of futures with Austen, then maybe, just maybe, she could walk away from him in this life.
“Oh, Katherine Johns, we have many lifetimes to share together. After this one, of course.” He knew what she needed to hear.
“You promise?” His words gave her hope.
“I’ve seen them,” he lied, and she smiled.
Her eyes opened to find those familiar green eyes staring back at her.
“Hi, favorite eye,” Katherine said to the eye with the speck in it.
“How are you feeling?”
“I think I’m okay.” She noticed the amount of blankets piled on top of her body and quickly tossed a few off.
“Were you dreaming?” Cooper asked her innocently, with a hint of sadness.
“Were you with him? I mean, how does it work? Are you with him every time you go to sleep?”
“Not every time, but pretty often. Does it bother you? I mean, now that you know?” She was tired of making everyone around her feel bad, especially Cooper. He had been perfect since the moment she’d met him and he didn’t deserve to be in constant pain because of her.
“It’s just hard, I guess. I know that if he was alive right now, you’d be in his lap and not mine. I know that if he was physically here…I wouldn’t be. And that thought alone makes my stomach knot up.”
She took a deep breath and acknowledged he was right. If Austen were alive, she would be with him. Of course she would. Her heart wouldn’t allow her to be with anyone else. Her soul would align itself next to his like a magnet. “But he’s not here, Cooper. You are.”
“What if it’s not enough? What if you never get over him?”
“Cooper. I told you last night that I loved you and I meant it. I know you’re not Austen. And on the flip side of that, Austen’s not you. I don’t want you to be anyone or anything you’re not. I promise you that who you are is more than enough for me.”
Cooper leaned down and brought her mouth to his. For the first time in months, she was happy it was Cooper’s arms that held her.
“You could have died today,” she said with a question in her voice.
“Yes,” Cooper answered, very matter of fact.
“Why’d you do it? I mean, what if you would have fallen in too?”
“I couldn’t just sit there and watch you drown. I didn’t have a choice.”
“What do you mean?”
“My body kicked into gear. It was like my instincts were in overdrive and I knew I had to do whatever it took to save you. My brain didn’t stand a chance against my heart.”
“So if you could have stopped yourself, would you have?”
“Are you insane? All I meant was that before I even had a chance to think, I was in the water. Had I let my brain catch up to my body, I still would have done the exact same thing.” He looked at her thoughtfully. “Nothing about the person I am would ever let anything happen to you. Not as long as I can help it.”
At that moment she’d never felt more secure. The fact that he had literally risked his life for hers was something she couldn’t fully process. It was something you had to experience to grasp. “I don’t know how I’ll ever thank you for saving my life.”
“You’re probably indebted to me forever now. So basically, I think I own you.”
Katherine laughed. “Own me?”
“Oh yeah. Come on, it’s a fair trade.”
“Crazy about you,” he reminded her, but she didn’t need the reminder.
They were kissing when Taylor walked in. “Oh gross, you two. Get a room.” Taylor bent down next to Katherine. “I was so worried.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“How are you feeling?”
“I think I’m all right. I mean, I feel good right now. But I am kinda hungry.” She glanced at Cooper.
“It would be a good idea to get you to stand up.”
“Okay,” Katherine agreed. At this point, she’d do anything Cooper suggested.
“You okay?” he asked her, concerned.
“Just a little light headed and dizzy.”
Cooper helped Katherine into a chair and then worked on fixing up soup, bread, and pasta.
Katherine’s mind reeled. She flashed back to her fall through the ice, seeing Austen and then suddenly seeing Cooper. She couldn’t get past what Cooper had done for her today. The accident suddenly forced everything into perspective. Katherine knew she could no longer continue living—if that’s what you called it—in her sleep.
She had been living to dream. Everything that happened during the day was just one step closer to where she really wanted to be…asleep and with Austen. And while she didn’t fault herself for her actions, she knew it was time to move on. Her chest ached with the realization. But amidst all the pain, she felt a small sliver of relief. And that sliver informed her that she was making the right decision.
Taylor’s laughter stopped Kat’s daydream. She laughed when she noticed the boys dancing around the kitchen wearing aprons. Sometimes the best dreams happen while you’re wide awake, Katherine thought to herself.
“How are you feeling, California?” Cooper asked.
“Much better, thanks.”
“Do you see how much food you just ate?” Danny pointed at Katherine’s empty plate.
“Almost dying takes a lot of energy,” she quipped back.
“Oh yeah, you’re fine. Thank goodness,” Taylor smiled.
The girls cleaned up the dinner mess while the guys headed downstairs to play a quick game of pool. Danny creamed him. “What’s wrong with you, man? I never beat you in pool.”
“Off night, I guess.”
“You feeling all right? You don’t necessarily look all right.” Danny asked, concerned.
“Oh yeah. Nothing a good night’s sleep won’t fix.”
“All right, bud. I believe you.”
“One more game?” Cooper asked and Danny racked the balls.
“So…things seem different between you and Coop,” Taylor noted.
“Today sort of changed things. I can’t explain it, but I feel different inside.”
“Like, you and my brother are going to break up?”
“At some point, yeah. I mean, this was a wake-up call. I can’t keep living the way I’ve been living.”
“I know it must be hard, but you’re doing the right thing.”
“Thanks. I know it’s the right thing to do, but my heart doesn’t like being logical.” Katherine grabbed onto a chair for balance as her eyes rolled back.
“Whoa. You okay there, cowgirl?” Taylor asked.
“Yeah, just a little dizzy. Plus, I’m really tired. I’m sure it’s nothing,” Katherine smiled to reassure her friend.
“I’ll go get the guys, you go sit down,” Taylor insisted and Katherine obliged.
Cooper refused to let Katherine out of his sight and in all honesty, she didn’t mind. It was the first time in ages her thoughts were only of him. She didn’t wish or want to be anywhere else.
She fell asleep on the couch in Cooper’s arms. He refused to let her spend the night alone after the traumatic day she’d had. When she woke up once during the night she smiled as she felt Cooper’s arms still wrapped securely around her.
They both startled awake to the sound of doors slamming shut and a car speeding away. They thought nothing of it and shook it off.
“Do you want to go get into your bed?” Cooper asked.
“I think so.” She started to get up, but Cooper didn’t budge. “Come with me please. I don’t want to sleep alone.” Cooper followed her into the bedroom and they both lay on top of the bed. He pulled the comforter over them as Katherine snuggled into his chest. They fell asleep in each other’s arms.
Katherine walked down the familiar sandy path toward the silhouette on the bench. The beach was dark and the moon hung in the sky above as if waiting to witness the heartbreak about to come. Austen stood and met her on the pathway. She started to speak, but he stopped her. He pulled her close and sang softly into her ear. They slow danced together by the light of the moon. Tears poured from her eyes and her heart felt like it had dropped to the sand below.
Austen tried to hold back his own tears, but failed. He knew why she had come and the pain of that realization was too much, even for him.
She broke the silence. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
“I know.” He brushed her cheek and more tears fell.
“It hurts so much. I need you to know how painful this is.” She placed his hand above her heart. “I know we keep saying it’s the right thing to do, but wouldn’t it be easier?”
“Sometimes the right thing to do is the harder thing.” He leaned down to kiss her sweet lips. “I love you, Katherine. I always will.”
His words almost brought her to her knees. She thought they might give out on her at any moment and she’d tumble to the ground at his feet. “I don’t think I can do this, Austen.” She cried so hard that she had trouble breathing. She clenched at her stomach. “It hurts.” Her chest felt like it had caved in on her from the inside.
“I know, babe. I know.” He tried desperately to comfort her.
“I can’t. It’s too much. I can’t do it.” She wept in his arms. “Oh, God. I don’t want to live without you.”
The reality of saying goodbye to him forever was simply too much.
Austen knew Katherine needed him to be strong. He wiped at his tears and gained control of his voice. “I’ll never leave you. I’ll always be here, Katherine. We can’t keep doing this. You know why you came here tonight. You have to do it.”
Any sign of weakness and she’d convince them both that leaving was wrong. He was certain it wouldn’t take much effort on her part to make him change his mind.
She sniffed and let out a quick huff. “You’re right.” She looked into his clear blue eyes. “Do we just say goodbye then and walk away like nothing? Like it never mattered or happened?”
“Don’t say that. We both know it was the wrong time for us. But we matter. We will always matter.”