God, she just wanted to let herself get lost in this moment. She wanted to feel his lips against hers, have him press her back into the bed, to just give in to the emotions warring through her. But thoughts of Brady crept in, coupled with the words of Hayden’s friends, and it all just felt so wrong. She had never had this happen before. She usually just let romance run its own course, but every time it seemed to begin with Hayden, she felt a Brady stumbling block cross her path. Her body stiffened and she couldn’t continue.
Reading her body language, Hayden pulled back to look at her. “Are you all right?”
Liz nodded and then after a second shook her head. No point in keeping it from him. That wouldn’t help anything, and she wasn’t ever going to go further with him if she kept this feeling bottled up inside of her. And she liked Hayden.
“What’s going on?” he asked, drawing her toward her bed. It had a big comfy queen-size feather-top mattress that she sank into when she sat down. She scooted closer to the center.
“I heard what your friends were saying at the bar,” she said in a rush.
Color drained out of Hayden’s face. She had never seen him look so ashamed and uncomfortable.
“I don’t know what you think about . . . this relationship,” she said. “But I didn’t know that there was anything wrong with me for waiting.”
“Liz, there’s nothing wrong with you.”
“I know. And I feel stupid for even bringing this up or feeling bad about it . . .”
“Please don’t feel stupid,” he said, taking her hands in his. “The guys are the stupid ones. They don’t know anything about a real relationship, and they don’t know anything about our relationship.”
“They seemed to know quite a bit about our relationship.” Liz arched an eyebrow.
“I would never want you to feel bad for your choices, Liz.” He paused as if deciding what to say next, and then he moved closer to her on the bed and brought her hands to his lips and placed a kiss there. His hazel eyes, almost green in the dim light, stared back up at her then like he couldn’t ever convey enough with just words. “If you don’t want to have s . . . go further with our relationship, then we can wait. I’m not in a rush.”
“I’m not in a rush either,” she whispered, lost in his gaze, in his sincerity, in that smooth voice.
“Good. Because I don’t plan on letting you go.”
ALL THAT MATTERS
Liz spent the long holiday lounging on the beach at her parents’ place in Tampa and catching up on reading. It was a nice break from reality. Normally she liked to stay in Chapel Hill for breaks, as she had over the summer. But by the end of winter break, she was more than ready to come home to see Hayden, who had been in D.C. with his family. He called every day and they chatted for hours, long into the night, but the phone calls weren’t enough. Liz had gotten used to him coming over to her apartment, seeing his smiling face at work, and spending time with him late into the evening.
She missed him. A lot.
The realization hit her all at once one afternoon right before Christmas. She had been home for two weeks and Hayden had called her like normal to wish her good night, which always resulted in a marathon phone conversation.
“I miss you.” It was the first thing out of his mouth. Not hey, Liz or Lizzie, as he had grown accustomed to calling her. Simply I miss you.
Liz knew that she hadn’t given her relationship with Hayden a hundred percent from the beginning. It was her own fault. She had let her own problems hold her back. She had clung so fiercely to her previous relationship with Brady—the late-night rendezvous, the intense passion, the adrenaline of the secret affair, falling blindly in love—that she hadn’t been able to see what was right in front of her. But in that moment, it didn’t matter what had happened before. She knew that if she wanted this to work—and she did—she needed to actually try to put some emotional distance between her and Brady and concentrate on the person who was putting in the effort.
Which was how she ended up convincing her parents to move her plane ticket to D.C. so she could spend New Year’s with Hayden. Better yet, the very next day his sister, Jamie, had the grand opening of her new art collection. After selling out of every single painting in her fall show, she had been commissioned for another, more prestigious exhibition.
Hayden picked her up at baggage claim at Reagan National Airport on New Year’s Eve. Liz dropped her heavy carry-on bag on the ground at his feet when she reached him and threw her arms around his neck.
“Hey, gorgeous.” He pulled her tight against him and she stood like that for a minute, just breathing him in.
“You smell so good,” she whispered.
Hayden chuckled. “Thanks. It’s good to have you back. Don’t go so far away again, okay?”
“Okay,” Liz murmured, surprised at how easily she agreed with him.
They picked up her oversize suitcase from baggage claim and Hayden wheeled it out to his car. They drove the short distance into the city, and Liz smiled as she started recognizing the familiar brownstones near where Jamie lived. It seemed so long ago that she had come up to D.C. for a weekend to see Hayden practically on a whim. And yet . . . so much of what had happened last summer always seemed to be fresh in her mind.
The last time she had been here, Brady had just confessed to loving her. Not to her, of course. He could never let himself slip like that. He had told his press secretary, Heather, and his attorney, Elliott. Liz shook her head. She didn’t really want to think about it, but memories of Brady never seemed to care. They just cropped up unbidden.
Maybe it would be okay to remember them once they didn’t do so much damage to her heart. Until then she would continue to wrestle them down.
Once they were parked, inside the brownstone, and up the three impossibly steep flights of stairs, the door practically burst open. Jamie grabbed Liz and yanked her into the apartment with way more force than someone with such a small frame should possess. Jamie immediately launched into a full-on excited question-and-answer session about Liz’s trip, flight, ride over, and more.
Hayden walked into the back and deposited her bag in the spare bedroom, leaving her alone to Jamie’s barrage. Liz tried to keep up with all of the questions, but Jamie was so enthusiastic, her black bob bouncing as she seemed to dance in place, that sometimes she would start asking another question before even letting Liz answer the previous one.