Liz tried to breathe easy . . . normal. All of these things he couldn’t promise sounded so familiar . . .
Hayden continued, “I can’t promise you that we won’t argue or fight or disagree like we did last night. I can’t promise you any of these things, but I can promise you, on the record,” he said, with that beautiful Hayden smile, “that I’ll always be here and I’ll never let go. I am not a perfect man, but I’ll always be yours, imperfections and all, if you’ll have me.”
Oh the sincerity. Liz put her hand on her head and tried to process it. She had thought he would apologize, but all of this. It was so much.
He was right: they had never had an argument before this. This was a doozy of an argument. Not to mention the bullshit with him smoking. She didn’t even know what to make of it, but how could she ask him if she didn’t tell him that she had been spying on him and that she hadn’t left right away? How was she supposed to explain that away logically?
She knew how to do it. She needed to tell him about Brady, but when she opened her mouth to speak, the words stuck in her throat. She had been holding on to it so long that she couldn’t even form the words.
“Do you know what it feels like for someone to take everything they have ever worked for and have someone else tear it all down? You of all people know how much work I put in to become editor, to get this internship, to be on the Morehead scholarship. You know the work I’ve put into this relationship. And then you took all of that, Hayden, and stomped on it,” she whispered, looking up into his hazel eyes, almost brown in the darkness.
“I know I did. It was wrong of me to do that to you. Wrong and selfish. I’m not sure what happened, but something snapped inside of me. I worked so hard in college to get where I was, and then somehow I was stuck in an average reporting position in Charlotte. I was overwhelmed and did the worst thing I could,” he said, walking toward her, pleading. He sat heavily on the bed and stared into her eyes. She let him take one of her hands and he stroked her palm with his thumb. “I never should have taken this out on you.”
She nodded, but didn’t pull back. She was angry with Hayden, but angrier with herself. She had called Brady in her desperation instead of working through her problems with Hayden. Hayden was the one who deserved a second chance . . . not her.
“I love you, Liz. I was an idiot. I’ll say it a million times over to prove to you I was wrong,” he whispered, staring straight into her eyes. “Just don’t leave me. I need you. You’re my world.”
Liz bit her lip. She knew she should give him an answer. She knew that she should tell him everything she was feeling. But exhaustion nipped at her from all sides. She had made up her mind already anyway.
“Okay,” she murmured.
“Yeah?” he asked, his eyes lighting up.
“But, Hayden, if you ever make me feel like that again, it’s over,” she told him point-blank.
Hayden left for Charlotte that evening. Liz tried to act normal throughout the remainder of his visit, but she was emotionally exhausted.
She knew that Brady was out of her life. She had known it every day since she had walked out on him, but still in the back of her mind she had always secretly hoped that it would work out. Now that hope was gone.
Before that night, she hadn’t realized how hard she had clung to that feeling. It hadn’t even been a realistic or rational expectation. She had known that, but it was Brady Maxwell. She would have clung to his memory forever. She was sure of it. But he had erased that too. She was supposed to act as if he had never existed.
The guilt of her actions ate at her, though. When she saw Hayden the weight pressed down on her shoulders and tried to crush her. They spent their one-year anniversary over a fancy dinner. Hayden gave her small diamond earrings. She had stared at them in shock. She knew he had a real job now and that he could buy her things, but she hadn’t been expecting it. Part of it was him trying to make up for their argument and part of it was just how much he adored her. The itch to tell him about Brady grew a bit each day.
When they talked on the phone, all she wanted to do was blurt out what had happened. Somehow she held her tongue. Even when she was away from him over Thanksgiving and Christmas, all Liz could think about was that one word, the one word that threatened to undo her.
She had cheated on Hayden. One kiss. A drive with Brady. The feel of his hands sliding across the waistline of her pants. Emotional attachment that had lasted far too long.
She had taken Hayden back. She had made him feel terrible for how he had treated her. And what kind of person was she? Harboring feelings for another man, hiding secrets from him for over a year, kissing someone else and never telling him. She was a coward. But she had lost Brady, and she hadn’t been willing to lose Hayden too.
They spent their second New Year’s together at a bar in D.C. with Jamie and James. Besides the nagging guilt that settled into the pit of her stomach, their relationship was smoother than ever. And she wanted to keep it that way, so she did the only thing she knew how: she buried the guilt and kept her secrets.
She spent the week before school at the New York Times and wasn’t able to see Hayden once school got back in because she was so busy. Two weeks into the semester, she and Victoria received invitations to a banquet for their Morehead scholarships. It was an annual thing for seniors to thank them for dedicating so much time to the school and the enhancement of their education. It was supposed to be pretty dull, but they were told it had free alcohol so it was always full.
Victoria used anything as an excuse to go shopping, which was how Liz ended up in a dress boutique in downtown Durham looking for the perfect thing to wear to the banquet.
“Okay, bitch, I have fifty dresses and you only have one. How is that even possible?” Victoria asked, holding a pile of dresses in her arms.
“I already have something to wear,” Liz said with a shrug.
“You are not wearing that champagne dress in the back of your closet!” Victoria snapped. “I know that’s what you’re thinking.”
Liz bit her lip. No way was she wearing the champagne dress she had gotten for Brady’s gala event. That would be torture. “I wasn’t planning to.”
“Good. Now find a couple more options to try on so I’m not in there alone.” With that she turned and walked into the first dressing room.