I nodded. “I know.”

We rested our foreheads against one another, breathing in each other’s existence. “Her double problem showed up every Christmas. I always got two of the same sweaters, just in case I ruined one. She would bake double the amount of cookies. She would make us watch It’s a Wonderful Life twice. She…” he chuckled, brushing his finger across his forehead. “She added double the vodka to the holiday punch. But that was for Dad mainly.”

“What was his craziest fact?” I asked, lightly kissing his lips.

“Hmm, he was a dreamer who made things happen. He bought the boat before he had the lake house. But he was sure the house would come. He dreamed it to life, I think.” My fingers knotted his hair in my hands. He kissed the bridge of my nose. “You’re never going to have to do these types of things alone, Ashlyn. Never.”

Chapter 36

I want to know who you were before me.

I want to see the world that you see.

~ Romeo’s Quest

We made a quick stop before heading to Mom’s house. When Daniel drove the rental car up to the curb of the suburban house, I smiled. One of the cars in the driveway had bumper stickers covering it with some of the best bands ever created.

Bentley’s car.

I reached into the treasure chest and pulled out Gabby’s promise ring and the letter addressed to Bentley. Feeling the ring against my fingers made me sigh. They would’ve been so happy together.

“I’ll wait here,” Daniel said, noticing the look in my eyes.

“Please come with me?” I asked, climbing out of the car.

His door opened and he climbed out, too, closing the door quietly. Each footstep I took toward the household felt painful. Each time my winter boots lifted, I felt a sharp knife stabbing me inside my gut.

Holding on to the ring and letter with one hand and Daniel’s hand with the other, I climbed the steps up to the front door. My head turned to the porch swing, which was covered in a bit of snow. I blinked and the memories started to resurface.

“I think I love him,” Gabby whispered against my ear as we swung back and forth on Bentley’s porch on a humid summer night. He headed inside to grab us some sodas before we went to the fair.

I snickered at my sister. “You love him.”

She gave me a sly smile and nodded. “I love him.”

Shaking my head back and forth, I snapped myself out of the memory. My finger rose and I held the doorbell down for a second. Right at the sound of the doorbell, though, I wanted to retreat. I wanted to go back the way I’d come and drive back down to Chicago.

Then Daniel tightened his hold on my hand.

I relaxed.

The door opened, and when I saw Bentley through the screen door, I gasped. He looked surprised and a bit sad at first. I wished I didn’t look so much like her. Just seeing me probably broke his heart.

Bentley stepped onto the porch and his eyes widened. “Ashlyn,” he whispered.

My feet started shifting around. My nerves were growing strong.

Daniel let go of my hand, and when I looked at him, he gave me a small grin.

“Hi, Bentley.”

Bentley laughed, his eyes watering over. “‘Hi, Bentley?’ That’s all I get? Come here.” He wrapped me into a hug. I breathed him in, hugging him tighter and tighter as time went by. “You look so good,” he whispered against me.

“You too, Bent.” We pulled away from one another and both wiped at our eyes, laughing. “Oh, Merry Christmas!” I said, scratching at the back of my neck.

He smiled wide. “So who do we have here?”

I turned to Daniel, who was quietly waiting to the side. I blushed. “This is Daniel, my—” I paused, not knowing what we were at the moment.

“Boyfriend,” Daniel smiled, holding his hand out toward Bentley. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Bentley gave me a coy look, “Oh, it’s nice to meet you, too.” He pushed his tongue against the inside of his cheek. “He’s a looker, isn’t he?” I giggled and shoved Bentley in the arm. “Well, don’t just stand out here. Come on inside.”

Hesitation took over me. For some reason, I didn’t feel as if I should step inside without Gabby by my side. “We can’t stay. I just…” My hands rose with the letter and ring. “I wanted to give you this.” The ring landed in his hands and I heard a deep-rooted gasp run through him. “She left it in the treasure box you gave me. And she asked me to give you the letter.”

He held the piece of paper tight in his hand. “This is from Gabrielle?”

I nodded.

As I watched him slowly open the letter, a weird sense of peace washed over me. It felt like a book closing, the final chapter to the love story of Bentley and Gabrielle receiving closure.

He cried as he read her words. Of course he cried. Her letters always made people cry. “She was my favorite.” His voice cracked as he kept reading the words over and over again.

“I know.”

“Sometimes I wonder how I’m supposed to begin again, ya know? How am I supposed to…” He coughed and ran his hand over his water-soaked face. “How am I supposed to ever be happy again?”

“You start slow.” Daniel stepped forward, placing his hand on Bentley’s shoulder. “You allow yourself to feel whatever the hell it is you’re feeling. And when you start to feel happy, don’t feel guilty about it.”

“Start slow,” Bentley repeated to himself. His head fell to the porch. “Wow. He’s a looker and he’s smart. So much better than Billy.”