This was somehow worse, the proof that Jonathan was right, that she did indeed blame herself. Feeling hollow at the notion that she’d been feeling this way for ten years, Aidan shook his head. “Why would you possibly blame yourself?”
“Because she was just trying to be like me!” She covered her face. “I’d climbed the face and hiked down and she couldn’t let it go until she’d done the same.” She broke off and swallowed hard before covering her mouth with a hand and closing her eyes. “If I hadn’t bragged about it—”
“Lily, that was your relationship with her, competitive to the core. What happened to her up there was an accident. A horrible, tragic accident. But it wasn’t your doing.”
Her eyes flew open, filled with surprise, and that just about killed him. Hadn’t anyone else ever told her these things? She was still staring at him when he took her hands in his and lifted them up to his mouth, where he brushed his lips over her knuckles. “Not your fault,” he repeated softly as it all clicked into place and made sense for him.
She’d left because of grief.
She’d stayed away because of guilt.
Not because of him. The knowledge at once changed things for him and also devastated him—for her. “Ashley was book smart but not street smart. We both know that. She didn’t have your logic skills, your ability to know your own limits. She was headstrong and self-centered and she did whatever she wanted—not thinking about the cost to anyone, especially you. You can’t carry around the responsibility for what happened to her, you just can’t. And more than that, she wouldn’t want you to.”
She pulled free and moved to the woodstove. “It’s June and I’m about to light a fire,” she said, her back to him. “Definitely not in San Diego anymore, Toto.”
Nudging her aside, he crouched before the woodstove and began to build her a fire.
“I can do that,” she said.
“I know.” He was expertly and efficiently crisscrossing the kindling, then adding the wood on top, doing what would have taken her a good half hour in less than a minute.
“You’re good at that,” she said, but it wasn’t his fire skills she was admiring. It was the easy way he was balanced on the balls of his feet, his pants stretched taut across what was surely the best ass in all of Cedar Ridge.
He rose and met her gaze, and she could feel herself blush because what if he could read her mind?
“I’m good at a lot of things,” he murmured.
“Now tell me how you can be one of the smartest people I know and yet really believe you were responsible for your sister’s death,” he said, switching gears with far more ease than she could. “What am I missing?”
She stared at him for a long beat. “The day before, I’d come home with a scholarship to the University of Colorado at Boulder and an invite to be on their ski team.”
“Prestigious ski team,” he corrected.
“Yeah, well, it was the last straw for Ashley after the attention I’d received in the recruiting process. And Boulder was the only place she’d ever wanted to go ski, so it was her dream opportunity and I got it a whole year before she could even apply.”
Aidan didn’t point out that Ashley should’ve been proud of her sister, so damn proud.
Lily shook her head. “I know what you’re thinking, and she would’ve been happy for me. Later. It would’ve come to her, really it would have, but in the moment all she saw was that I had something she wanted. I shouldn’t have told her like I did, I shouldn’t have—” She let out a low sound of regret. “We were already in a fight because she’d been bugging me to take her up to Dead Man’s Cliff and I’d refused. It was way too dangerous for her. She was only an intermediate climber at best, but she was determined to beat me at something.”
“Listen to me,” Aidan said. “All siblings are like that, okay? Hell, Gray and I nearly killed each other a hundred times over when we were growing up. Never mind the bad example we set for Jacob and Hudson.”
“This was different,” she insisted. “I knew the Boulder admission letter would hurt her. She got straight A’s through every single semester of high school in preparation and I …” She shook her head. “Didn’t. I didn’t get A’s at all. I wasn’t into school. I wanted to be outside.”
“On the mountain,” he said quietly. “I know. You were out there exploring every single day that you could, which was just about every day in the summer.”
She looked surprised. “How … how did you know that? I saw you a few times but … every day?”
He hesitated to tell her. She was like a bird with a broken wing, nursing her past hurts, afraid to forgive herself and be happy. He wanted to soothe, to help ease the pain, but wasn’t sure how to do that without losing his heart and soul to her. Again.
“Gray and I took turns going up after you,” he said. “Making sure you were okay.”
She gaped at him. “Why?”
“Because no one should be out there by themselves, Lily.”
“I was fine,” she said. “I knew what I was doing. I’d been out there hiking those mountains all my life.”
“It was your escape,” he said. “It was always mine too. We all got that, and no one wanted to impede on the only time you ever had to yourself.”
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