It’s Only Love

It's Only Love, Book 5 in the Green Mountain Series

Ella & Gavin

It’s Only Love is a New York Times and USA Today bestseller! 

Ella Abbott has had a secret burning love for Gavin Guthrie for almost as long as her sister Hannah loved his late brother, Caleb. A few recent encounters have only added to her infatuation, especially the kiss they shared on the day Hannah got remarried and Gavin admitted that the re-marriage of his brother’s widow was hitting him hard. It doesn’t matter to Ella that Gavin is in a bad place or that he says he has nothing to offer her. It doesn’t matter that he’s made it clear there’s no hope for a future for them. All that matters is the overwhelming love and compassion she feels for him. Gavin Guthrie is spiraling. It’s been seven long years since he lost his only sibling and closest friend, and he thought he had things under control until Caleb’s beloved dog died and his adored wife re-married. Since then, he’s been off the rails, drinking and fighting and even getting arrested for the first time in his life. It seems the only time the spinning stops and his demons leave him alone is when lovely Ella Abbott is around. Gavin knows it wouldn’t be fair to drag Ella into his darkness, but when Ella inserts herself into his life, what choice does he have but to allow her to soothe the ache with her sweetness and light?

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ISBN
eBook: 978-0698164055
Print: 978-0425275504


Read the Green Mountain and Butler, Vermont Series in Order


Chapter 1

“Grief is the price we pay for love.”

—Queen Elizabeth II

Resigned to another Saturday night at home, Ella Abbott settled into her sofa with her two best friends—Ben and Jerry. She’d been spending a lot of nights with these guys lately, which she would regret the next time she stepped onto a scale. But who cared about scales or exercise or anything else for that matter when your heart was broken?

It was all she could do to get up, take a shower, dry her hair, eat something that tasted like nothing, go to work and barely function once she got there. She went through the motions day after day, one foot in front of the other with a stiff upper lip that quivered an awful lot when she was alone. No one needed to know that.

She dug her spoon into yet another new pint of Cherry Garcia, which was the only thing that made her feel better. So she overindulged. Whatever. She’d happily pay the piper as soon as she stopped feeling like utter crap.

In the last couple of weeks, she’d had no choice but to accept that nothing was ever going to come of her fierce love for Gavin Guthrie.

“And how’s that going for you?” she asked the ice cream. “Are we at the acceptance stage yet?” She took another bite and then one more. “Nope, still stuck firmly in denial.”

If only he hadn’t kissed her. If only she could take back that one perfect moment of utter bliss on the beach in Burlington during her sister Hannah’s wedding last summer. Not knowing what it was like to kiss him would make this whole acceptance thing a hell of a lot easier.

And it wasn’t just a kiss. That would be oversimplifying what’d happened between her and Gavin while everyone else was listening to Nolan serenade his bride. She’d dared to put her arms around Gavin, wanting only to offer comfort as his late brother’s widow got remarried. But then he’d kissed her—and not the way she’d dreamed for all the years she’d been thinking about him.

No, this kiss had been rough and untamed and powerful, the single most incendiary kiss she’d ever received from anyone.

Thinking about it now, she rubbed her finger absently back and forth over her lips, which had tingled for hours afterward. And during those hours she’d had to act like everything was fine, like her entire world hadn’t been redesigned in the course of five unforgettable minutes.

She’d relived it a thousand times since then. The way he’d swooped in like a man who’d been drowning until she came to rescue him. The way his tongue had swept into her mouth and his lips had pressed so tightly against hers they’d felt bruised later, not that she minded. Bruised lips had been a reminder, for days afterward, that it had really happened. It hadn’t been a figment of her overactive imagination.

Gavin Guthrie had really kissed her. And then he’d walked away like it hadn’t changed everything between them. He’d pulled away so abruptly he’d left her reeling. Worst of all, he’d actually apologized for kissing her. She shuddered recalling what he’d said.

“Christ, Ella. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m so fucked up today. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.”

But that wasn’t all he’d said. No he’d had to take her breath away with a sweet caress to her face and even sweeter words. “You’re beautiful, Ella. Inside and out. If I were going to let something like this happen with anyone, you’d be the first one I’d call. But I’ve got nothing to give you, and it wouldn’t be fair. It just wouldn’t be fair.”

Even though he’d walked away from her after that, his words and that kiss—that incredible, unforgettable kiss—had filled her with foolish, giddy hope, which had been snuffed during two less memorable encounters with him since then. Both times, he’d reminded her once again that he had nothing to give her and refused to suck her into the disaster his life had become.

The first time she saw him after “The Kiss,” he’d told her he’d been spiraling since the wedding, locked in the kind of grief he’d experienced when his brother Caleb first died after stepping on a land mine in Iraq. As happy as he was for Hannah and Nolan, both of whom were close friends of Gavin’s, seeing his brother’s widow remarry had rekindled his grief. And knowing that, knowing he was alone and suffering so badly, was killing Ella one spoonful of Ben and Jerry’s at a time.

Her phone rang, which was a welcome interruption from the direction her thoughts were taking. She’d already been rebuffed by him multiple times. She wouldn’t try to reason with him again, but damn she wanted to. Good thing she’d turned to ice cream rather than booze. With some liquid courage in her belly, she’d probably get in her car and drive to his house.

She went to the kitchen to grab the phone. “Hello?” In the background she could hear loud music and louder voices. Suspecting a wrong number, she nearly hung up.

“Yeah, I got a guy here who has you in his phone as his ICE.”

“His what?”

“His ‘in case of emergency.’”

She immediately thought of her brother, Wade, who would list her ahead of any of their siblings, except he didn’t have a cell phone as far as she knew. “Who is it?”

“Damned if I know, but you’d better come and get him the hell outta here before I call the cops.”

With the phone tucked in the crook of her shoulder, she stashed the leftover ice cream in the freezer and went to find some shoes. “Where are you?”

“Red’s Bar out on 114. Come quick. I’m giving it half an hour, and I want him out of here. Guy’s nothing but trouble. I knew it the second he walked in here with a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas.”

“I’ll be right there. Don’t do anything until I get there.”

“Thirty minutes.” He hung up on her.

Ella was out the door a minute later and heading out of Butler shortly after that. As she navigated the one-lane covered bridge by her parents’ house on Hells Peak Road, it occurred to her that no one knew where she was or where she was going. Not that she felt the need to check in every time she left her house, but heading to a roadside bar late on a Saturday night—alone—was definitely out of character for her.

In the back of her mind was the nagging suspicion that it might be Gavin at the bar. By why would he have her listed as his ICE, a term that was completely new to her as someone who didn’t have a cell phone. What was the point? There was no reception whatsoever in their town, and almost everyone she knew lived in Butler. If no one could call her and she couldn’t call anyone, why get a cell phone? Where would Gavin have gotten her number and why would he list her, of all people, as his ICE?

She dismissed that idea almost as soon as she had it. His parents would be his points of contact, anyway.

She couldn’t let her foolish hopeful heart lead her on a wild goose chase through the dark Vermont night on a mission to rescue one of the men in her life. Maybe it was Lucas or Landon. Both of her younger brothers had been known to party and get into trouble on occasion. Not bad trouble, more the mischievous kind. Though they drove her crazy most of the time, both knew they could call her if they were ever truly in trouble.

As did Max, the youngest of the ten Abbotts. But with his girlfriend Chloe’s baby due at any minute, he was probably in Burlington with her, waiting for something to happen. And wouldn’t Chloe be his ICE?

Ella was still trying to figure out who would have listed her as their emergency contact when she pulled up to Red’s, which was, apparently, a biker bar. Row after row of neatly parked bikes lined the lot, their chrome fixtures illuminated by the lights.

“That’s a lot of bikers.” Ella swallowed hard at the thought of walking in there alone. She should’ve called Charley or Wade to come with her, except the pissed off guy on the phone had given her thirty minutes to get there, which hadn’t been enough time to round up reinforcements.

“Get moving, chicken shit.” Ella took another minute to find the courage to walk into a bar where she wouldn’t know a soul except for the man who’d made her his emergency contact—without her knowledge. Whoever he was would get an earful about doing that without telling her.

The gravel parking lot crunched under her feet as she made her way to the front door. Inside, voices and music competed to create a deafening roar. How did anyone stand it in here for more than a few minutes? It was also dark. She could barely see a foot in front of her with all the lights focused on a band on a stage on the far side of the huge space.

“Help you, sugar?” a deep voice asked.

“I’m looking for the manager or the person who would’ve called about a patron who needs a ride home.” She ventured a glance up at him and then kept going until she finally found his eyes, gasping at his sheer size. The man was at least six foot six or seven, a wall of solid muscle. Ella wasn’t sure if she wanted to run from him or beg him to keep her safe in this unfamiliar place.

“Right this way.” He took her by the hand and led her through a mass of sweating, dancing bodies.

More than one hand copped a feel of her as they pushed through the crowd with Ella holding on to her escort for dear life. She swatted at the roving hands and stayed with the giant who took her to an office in a deep, dark corner.

Ella was shown to a room where Gavin Guthrie was in the middle of a fierce argument with another man with bright red hair, presumably the Red in Red’s Bar.

“I didn’t do anything!” Gavin said, his voice slurring. “I had a few drinks! So what?”

“I know what you did to the bar down the road. You’re not welcome in my place.”

“I paid my cover like everyone else. You can’t just kick me out.” He took a lunging step toward the other man, staggering.

“Gavin,” Ella said.

Freezing in place, Gavin did a double take when he saw her standing next to the giant of a man who had stayed, probably to watch the show. “What’re you doing here?” he asked in a much softer tone than he’d used on the bar owner.

“They called me to come get you.”

“Why you?”

“My question exactly.”

“Will you get him out of here, please?” the frazzled bar owner said to Ella. “We don’t want any trouble.”

“Let’s go, Gavin.” Despite the fact he was obviously drunk, disheveled and disorderly, he was still gorgeous. And furious, too. With one last filthy look for Red, he crossed the room to where Ella stood next to the giant.

The giant looked down at Gavin and handed over his cell phone. “I realized who you are, and I just want to say, I’m sorry.”

The big man’s gently spoken words nearly reduced Ella to tears. She could only imagine what they did to Gavin.

The kind gesture seemed to defuse Gavin’s fury. He sagged, visibly, as if he’d been reminded of why he’d gotten drunk in the first place. “Thanks.” With his hand on Ella’s back, he opened the door and guided her through it. The giant came with them, helping them through the crowd to the main door.

Outside, Gavin headed for his truck.

Ella looked to the giant for some help.

He went after Gavin, grabbing his shirt and spinning him around. “Dude, you’re in no condition to drive. Let your lady drive you home.”

“Leave me alone.” Gavin tried unsuccessfully to shake off the giant. “No one told you to call her.”

“If I had a girl like her at home, I wouldn’t be hanging out here.”

“She’s not my girl.”

Ella wanted to turn and walk away so she wouldn’t have to hear anything else that would further lacerate her injured heart. She wanted to leave him there to deal with whatever was going on by himself. But she couldn’t seem to get the message from her brain to her feet, so she stood riveted in place while the giant tried to talk some sense into Gavin.

“Just go with her and make this easy on everyone, will you?”

“What business is it of yours what I do?”

“Making sure everyone who leaves here does so safely is my business. If you don’t want me in your business, get in her car and go. Then we won’t have anything further to talk about.”

“Fine. I’m going.” Gavin stalked over to where Ella stood, arms crossed, watching him swerve as he crossed the parking lot. She pulled out her keys and pushed a button on the key fob to unlock her white Honda CRV.

Gavin got into the passenger side and slammed the door.

“Thanks so much for your help,” Ella said to the giant.

“No problem. He’s a decent guy who’s heading down a bad road. I hope he can figure out his shit before the trouble finds him.”

“I hope so, too.”

“You have a good night now.”

Ella got into her car and nearly dropped her keys in the dark, which is when she realized her hands were shaking.

“You don’t have to do this,” Gavin said. “I can call a cab.”

“I don’t mind.”

Ella started the car and pulled out of the parking lot, heading for Butler. Gavin never said a word as they got closer to the town line where she took a left toward his house, rather than a right toward hers in town.

The closer they got to his home on the grounds of the logging company he owned, the harder it became for Ella to refrain from asking him how she ended up in his phone as his ICE. She kept telling herself she was better off not knowing. What difference would it make? He’d sent her away twice before, so what would make this time any different. Just give him a ride and leave it at that.

Except… How was she supposed to drop him off, go back to her life and forget about the fact that out of all the people he knew, she was the one he wanted called in an emergency? Why her? Did this count as an emergency? Ella knew herself, and she’d never get a minute’s peace if she didn’t ask him why.

She pulled up to his log cabin on the far side of the logging property and turned off the car. Being here reminded her of the time she’d come a couple of months ago, after hearing he’d been arrested in a fight at another bar. He’d sent her away then and he probably would again.

“Thanks for the ride. Sorry about all this.”

“It’s okay.”

He reached for the door handle. Was he really going to get out and that would be that?

She forced herself to speak before she missed the opportunity. “Gavin?”

“Yeah?

“Why am I in your phone as the one to call in an emergency?”

Chapter 2

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

—Desmond Tutu

He stared at her, long enough to be unnerving, before he spoke. “Can you come in for a minute?”

“Oh, well . . .”

“I’m sorry. You were probably doing something and had to leave to come rescue me from myself.”

“I was actually on a date.” He didn’t need to know the date was with a sofa and two guys named Ben and Jerry.

“Oh God, El. I’m so sorry. I hope you’ve met someone really nice who treats you the way you deserve to be treated.”

“Do you? Do you really?”

“Of course I do! You know I care about you, and I want you to be happy.”

“If that’s the case, then . . .” No, I won’t say it. I will not give him the satisfaction of knowing that no other man could ever make me happier than he does, even when he’s pushing me away. Again.

“Then what?”

“Nothing. Never mind.”

“Come in. We need to talk.”

As her heart did a happy dance for the ages, Ella shook her head. “If you just want to tell me—again—all the reasons this will never happen, I’m good. I got the message the first half-dozen times you explained it to me.”

“That’s not why I want you to come in.”

Go, go, GO, her heart cried. For the love of God and all that’s holy, get out of the car and go into that cozy log cabin where the man of your dreams lives.Ella had always been one to follow her heart, but this time her heart was in deep conflict with the brain that was telling her to run, run, RUN before he could hurt her again.

“Please, Ella?”

Her brain didn’t stand a chance against her heart when he said please in that soft, urgent tone. She reached for the door handle.

They met at the front of her car, him still a little less than steady on his feet, and her certain she was making yet another in a string of huge mistakes where he was concerned. Then he put his hand on the small of her back to guide her up the stairs, and that was her undoing.

Why did he have to be so perfectly imperfect? Why did he have to be everything she’d ever wanted, wrapped up in one devilishly sexy, deeply wounded package? Her feelings for him ran the gamut from unbearable to undeniable to untenable and back again, an endless circle of frustration.

Her heart simply couldn’t take another self-inflicted wound—self-inflicted because she kept going back for more even though he’d repeatedly told her there was no hope for anything between them. She didn’t blame him. At least he’d always been straight with her. She blamed herself for being unwilling to take no for an answer.

So as she climbed the stairs to his front door, she attempted to manage her expectations. Nothing would happen. They would talk. She would stay until she was certain he was okay, and then she’d go home alone the way she always did, this time without a lacerating wound to nurse for the foreseeable future.

From behind her, he reached around to open the door, which wasn’t locked. The brush of his arm against her shoulder sent a tingle of awareness to parts of her that only seemed to stand up and take notice of this man. Only he had the power to activate all her systems with just the slightest contact of his body against hers. It made her wonder what it would be like—

No. Not going there. Under no circumstances are you going there. Well . . . No!

While she should be listening to her better judgment and distancing herself, instead she wanted to purr with the simple pleasure that came from being close to him for however long the moment lasted. She’d never claimed this situation was anything other than pathetic. At least she was remaining true to form in her “relationship,” such as it wasn’t, with Gavin.

She stepped into his home ahead of him. The door closed behind them with a resounding thud, and suddenly this felt like a bad idea. A very bad idea, indeed. The last time she’d been here, after hearing he’d been arrested for fighting in a bar, she’d left work to come check on him and had ended up crying all the way home after he sent her away.

“I, um . . . I should go.”

“I was going to make some coffee. Can I entice you to stay for that long?”

If she drank coffee at this hour, she’d be up all night, but she’d be up all night anyway, analyzing every second of this bizarre evening. “Sure. I guess.”

Gavin got busy making the coffee. The only sign of his slight intoxication was the mess he made pouring the water into the back of the coffeemaker. Aim, shoot, miss. Those three little words were like a metaphor for this entire situation, and the thought nearly made her laugh out loud. Except . . . There was nothing at all funny about unrequited love. It sucked every bit as badly as the songs, books and movies claimed it did.

“Have a seat.” He pointed to the stools at the counter. “I’ll be right back.” He disappeared into the hallway that presumably led to his bedroom and the bathroom.

The urge to follow him, to force a confrontation, to jump his bones—something, anything—was so strong that instead of giving in she got busy in the kitchen, poking through cabinets in search of mugs, taking a carton of half-and-half from the fridge and giving it a sniff to make sure it was still good, and locating spoons. Gavin took his coffee with just a touch of cream and a teaspoon of sugar. How she knew that she didn’t even know. She’d been paying close attention to her late brother-in-law’s sexy younger brother for as long as she’d known him, which was starting to measure in decades, rather than mere years.

Pathetic.

In all that time, she’d dated other guys. Even had the misfortune of sleeping with some of them. But she had never once felt anything even close to what happened every time Gavin Guthrie walked into a room. Take now, for instance. He’d changed into a T-shirt and old sweats, washed his face and, judging by the minty fresh scent that came with him, apparently brushed his teeth, too. Drops of water clung to the ends of his longish dark hair, and the scruff that covered his well-defined jaw made her want to rub against him in the most shameless way possible.

Then the coffeemaker beeped, and her brain took over once again, shoving her rapidly beating heart aside to remind her that she was having a cup of coffee that would keep her up all night and then getting the hell out of there.

Gavin had no idea what he’d been thinking when he all but begged Ella to come inside with him. Hell, he barely recalled putting her name in his phone in case of an emergency at a time when his entire life seemed to be one endless emergency after another.

He still had no business dragging Ella into his crap, but at the same time he couldn’t bear to let her drive away not knowing when or if he might see her again. She was like a breath of the freshest, coolest mountain air, infusing him with a warm ray of sunshine in the bleak landscape inside his mind.

Things were bad and getting worse. Pushing her away, repeatedly, hadn’t made anything better. In fact, during a wide-awake moment the night before, Gavin had undergone an epiphany, during which he realized that pushing Ella away was part of what had made everything worse. Thus his invitation for coffee, which had been reluctantly accepted. Not that he could blame her. Ella was a lot of things, but a fool had never been one of them. And she’d be a total, unmitigated fool to shackle herself to him.

He poured the coffee into the mugs she’d placed on the counter, stirring cream and half a packet of sweetener into hers. How did he know how she took her coffee? He didn’t recall not knowing that. He barely recalled a time before he knew Ella and the entire Abbott family. He and his brother Caleb had been friends with Ella’s brothers Hunter and Will since they moved to Butler when the Guthries were in fifth and sixth grades. Caleb started dating Hannah when they were all in high school, and the two families had been close ever since, never more so than in the difficult years that followed Caleb’s death.

Gavin pushed his thoughts away from that sorrowful topic. He was getting sick and tired of the relentless grief that refused to give him an ounce of slack lately, especially since Caleb’s dog died and Hannah got remarried. Life went on, even when you thought it couldn’t possibly. Maybe it was time to allow his life to move forward, too.

He couldn’t seem to picture that life without Ella part of it in some way, but he had amends to make where she was concerned, and there was no time quite like the present.

Gavin put the mug on the counter in front of her and brought his with him to sit on the stool next to hers. “Listen, El . . . I wanted to tell you—”

She held up her hand to stop him. “Please, don’t. I just can’t rehash it all again.”

“How do you know what I was going to say?”

“Because,” she said with resignation that tugged at his heart, “you’ve said it all before, and there’s only so much rejection a girl can take before she begins to get a complex.”

“Eleanor, look at me.” His use of her full name clearly startled her as she looked up at him with those wide, liquid brown eyes that could hide nothing, her lips parting with surprise. Yeah, he’d thought about that kiss on the beach in Burlington a few thousand times since, and hearing she’d been out with another guy made him feel panicky in addition to all the other unpleasant emotions he’d been contending with lately. “I never meant to reject you. It had nothing at all to do with you. I need you to know that.”

“So you say.”

“I mean it. Every time we’ve . . . talked . . . in the last few months, I’ve walked away from you because I had to, not because I wanted to.” She was very focused now on her mug of coffee rather than him, not that he could blame her.

“What happened tonight?”

“Tonight,” he said with a sigh, “I discovered my reputation is beginning to precede me. I had a couple of beers with some guys from work, and decided to hit Red’s on the way home for a nightcap. I was minding my own business at the bar when Red came in, saw me there and turned it into a federal case because of what happened down the road. I tried to tell him I don’t want any trouble, but he wasn’t hearing it. Somehow that big dude got ahold of my phone, and . . . And, well, you know the rest.”

“What was your plan for getting home?”

“I’m not an idiot, Ella, despite how it might seem lately. I was going to call a cab.”

She jumped up, those same soft eyes now flashing with anger. “If the bouncer hadn’t stopped you, you would’ve driven home. For God’s sake, Gavin, don’t make everything worse by lying to my face.”

“I never would’ve driven home. I would’ve walked before I drove—I’ve done it before.” When she eyed him skeptically, he ran his hands through his hair. “I know how it looked, but that guy was pissing me off getting up in my grill the way he was.”

Someone needs to get up in your grill to make this crazy shit stop!”

In all the years he’d known her, he’d never once heard sweet, lovely Ella Abbott yell at anyone—or swear—and since she was one of ten siblings, that was saying something. Her raised voice did the same thing to him a slap to the face would have. It woke him up once and for all. He closed the small distance between them, hooked an arm around her waist and tugged her in close to him.

If she’d been surprised before, she was flat-out stunned now.

“The only person I want up in my grill, Ella, is you.” And then he kissed her the way he’d been dying to since that day at the beach, since the day he’d gotten his first taste of her and developed a hunger for her that had kept him awake on many a night after he pushed her out of his life.

Just as she could only take so much rejection, he could only take so much temptation. Eventually, someone was going to snap.

Her hands, which had been lying flat against his chest, were now pushing hard—hard enough for the signal to reach his kiss-addled brain. She tore her lips free, and that was when he realized only one of them had been enjoying that kiss. “Stop it.” She rubbed her forearm over her lips, seeming to wipe him off, which actually hurt him more than it should have. As if he had any right. “What’re you doing?”

“I thought that was rather obvious.” Since her mouth was apparently unavailable, he directed his attention to the long, elegant neck that had occupied far too many of his Ella-related fantasies.

But she was having none of that either. “Knock it off, Gavin. Whatever game you’re playing, I’m not interested.” The tears that gathered in her eyes said otherwise, but she turned away from him and headed for the door.

He chased after her, placing his hand flat against the door to keep her from opening it. “Stay, Ella. Please, don’t go.” Lowering his voice again, he said, “Please.”

Her shoulders slumped and her forehead landed against the door.

Gavin put his arms around her from behind. “Come here.”

She turned into his embrace, and he gathered her in close, the top of her head fitting perfectly beneath his chin. And just that simply, everything felt better than it had in years.

“If you’re screwing with me, Guthrie, I’ll kill you with my own hands, and I’m more than capable of that after growing up with seven brothers.”

The low rumble of laughter caught him off guard. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had cause to laugh. “Duly noted.” Tightening his hold on her, which seemed to be in direct relation to the fragile hold he had on his sanity, Gavin ran his lips over her smooth dark hair, which always had a shine to it. That was something he found endlessly fascinating. “I’m not screwing with you, Ella.”

“Then what is this?” she asked tentatively. He could hardly blame her for that. He’d given her more than enough reason to be tentative where he was concerned.

“This is me admitting that I need you, that I’m tired of fighting whatever this is that’s been happening between us for years now, that—”

She drew back to look up at him. “Gavin?”

“What?”

“Shut up and kiss me.”

Chapter 3

“Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.”

—Anne Roiphe

Gavin did exactly as he was told, capturing her mouth in a deep passionate kiss that had her clinging to him, trying to get closer, until he abruptly pulled away. “What about the guy you’re seeing?”

Ella had to think about that for a second, and then she began to laugh. “Theguys I’m seeing are named Ben and Jerry.”

“There’re two of them?”

“How much did you drink tonight? Hello? Ben and Jerry? Ringing any bells?”

“Ice cream,” he said on a deep sigh of relief.

“Thank God. I thought you’d finally managed to pickle your brain with all the beer you’ve been drinking.”

“You said you were on a date . . .”

“With my sofa and a pint of Cherry Garcia. It’s become somewhat of a Saturday night routine lately.”

“I thought you were seeing someone else.”

“Is that why everything suddenly changed for you?” she asked, trying to break free of his hold.

“No. God, no. I was jealous as hell, but this is about you and me and no one else.”

“You were jealous? Really?”

“Insanely.”

They stared at each other for a long, charged moment.

“Just because I’ve pushed you away doesn’t mean I haven’t wanted to pull you closer, El.”

“If you’re messing with me, I swear . . .”

“I’m not messing with you. I’m exhausted, Ella.” He took her by the hand and led her to the sofa, where he sat next to her, turning to face her. “I’m . . . I can’t do this anymore.”

“Do what?” she asked, hesitantly. Part of her didn’t want to know what it was he couldn’t do anymore. It couldn’t be her. He hadn’t exactly . . . done . . . her. Stop it, Ella. Let the man talk.

Raising his free hand to his head, he ran his fingers through his hair repeatedly while he seemed to be looking for the words he needed. This,”he finally said after a long period of silence. “Half a life spent living mostly in the past, only sort of in the present, devoid of hope and drowning in grief. I can’t bear it another minute. None of it is going to bring Caleb back.”

Blinking back tears, Ella reached for him.

He leaned toward her, dropped his head and, for the first time, allowed her to shoulder some of his burden.

Ella ran her fingers through his hair, hoping to offer whatever comfort she could. Selfishly, she’d wanted to run her fingers through that hair for years and wasn’t about to miss the opportunity. If only she could think of something she could say that would help him. But the only words that came to mind were self-serving. And then it occurred to her . . . Maybe by serving herself, she could serve him, too. “You’re not alone, Gavin. You don’t have to do this alone.”

“I worry about taking you down with me.”

“I’m a lot stronger than you think.”

“I know that. I’ve always known that.”

“So what now?”

“I guess we take it a day at a time and see what happens.”

“I don’t know if I can do that.” As the words left her mouth, Ella wanted to take them back. Here he was offering what she’d always wanted, and she was about to tell him it wasn’t enough? Was she insane?

“What do you mean?”

She took a deep breath, determined to fight for what she really wanted from him. “I can’t go day by day and see what happens. I can’t take that kind of risk. Not with you.”

“I don’t have much more than that to offer.”

“Yes, you do, Gavin! You have so much more inside you, and it’s trying to get out. You just said half a life isn’t working anymore. So either you go all in or you don’t. But I’m not willing to settle for half of you—one foot in, one foot out. That doesn’t work for me.”

With his elbows on his knees, he stared off at a point over her shoulder, seeming to think about what she’d said.

“The last time,” she said tentatively, “after you were in the fight and I came here to check on you . . .”

“What about it?”

“It was weeks before I could take a deep breath that didn’t hurt.”

“Ella . . .”

“I didn’t tell you that to make you feel bad. I told you so you’d understand why I can’t do this halfway. I just can’t take that chance.”

“I’m afraid I’ll let you down in some way.”

“You’re a man,” she said teasingly. “Of course you will.”

He offered a small smile. “You know what I mean.”

“Maybe this isn’t the right time.” A ripple of pain attacked her entire body as she said those words, but she couldn’t afford to be stupid or too hopeful where he was concerned. Despite the steps forward they’d taken earlier, he was still waffling.

“May I say something that might be extremely unfair in light of the mixed signals I’ve sent you for far too long?” he asked.

“Um, okay. I guess.” While part of her wanted to put her hands over her ears so she couldn’t hear something that couldn’t be unheard, she was far too curious to do that.

“I told you that since Homer died and Hannah got remarried, I’ve been spiraling back in time to when Caleb first died. I’ve felt almost as bad as I did then, except for the rare occasions when you’re close by. That’s the only time the spinning stops.”

Ella had no idea how to reply to that. It was, perhaps, the most important thing he’d ever said to her. She swallowed hard as she acknowledged what it had taken him to admit such a thing to her.

“I need you, Ella. I’m no longer capable of pushing you away, not when I feel so much better when you’re here. I feel like a selfish bastard for dragging you into my nightmare, but I can’t fight it anymore.”

Maybe she was insane or at least downright crazy, but there was no way she could walk away from him after hearing him say those words in that pleading tone.

“If you’re asking me to commit to a genuine relationship,” he continued, “I’ll do it if it means I get to have you in my life. I’ll take you any way I can get you.”

Even though alarm bells were ringing loudly in her mind, Ella pretended not to hear them. How could she possibly pay any attention to them when the man of her dreams had just said what she’d waited years to hear? He feltbetter when she was around. He needed her. He’d take her any way he could get her. She could work with that, couldn’t she? She could damned well try.

“I-I should probably go,” she said, though that was the last thing she wanted to do. “It’s getting late.”

“Stay.”

Never had one word packed a bigger wallop. Ella was on the verge of hyperventilation. Spend a whole night with Gavin Guthrie? She needed oxygen. She needed a reality check. She needed a toothbrush.

“Ella? Are you okay?”

“Yes, of course I am. I was just thinking about what I need to do tomorrow. I have . . . Dinner. With my family.” For God’s sake, Ella, he’s not asking you to move in. What the hell does dinner have to do with anything? You’ve waited forever for an opportunity to be close to him, and you’re bungling it!“That’s later in the day.”

“So nothing in the morning?”

He didn’t need to know that Sunday morning was her usual errand time. Gavin Guthrie was asking her to sleep over. Groceries could wait. “No, nothing in the morning.”

“Great, then you can stay?”

“I . . . um . . . Sure. Okay.” The last word came out as a squeak that she covered by coughing. She was acting like a virgin on the threshold of the big event, when she was a long way from that. But having the man she’d adored from afar for her entire adult life ask her to spend the night with him wasn’t something that happened every day.

Suddenly, she was far more nervous than she’d been the night she lost her virginity. This felt like a much bigger deal in every possible way.

“You’re freaking out, aren’t you?” he asked.

“What? No, I’m not freaking out.”

He smiled, as if he didn’t believe her, and got up from the sofa to offer his hand. “Come on. Let’s find you something to sleep in.”

Following him and holding his hand as he turned off lights and led the way to his bedroom, Ella wanted to wave her free hand in front of her face to cool herself off. She was on the verge of seriously overheating—and blowing this up into the most important event of her entire life. But wasn’t it? Wasn’t it quite possibly the single most important thing she’d ever done?

She began to feel a bit nauseated, which was definitely not the mood she was going for. Stop overthinking it. You’re not going to have sex with him. You’re only going to sleep with him. But what if he thinks I agreed to sex? DidI agree to sex? Am I hyperventilating? How will I know? I’ve never hyperventilated before.

The flannel shirt he’d worn earlier was lying across the foot of his bed. “This is fine,” she said as she released his hand and reached for the shirt.

“Bathroom is right in there. There should be extra toothbrushes in the cabinet. Let me know if you can’t find one.”

“Okay, thanks.” Ella ducked into the bathroom, thankful for the moment alone to collect herself. If he could act like this was no big deal, she could, too. Or she could at least try to act like it was no big deal when it was the biggest of big deals.

Moving quickly, she removed her boots, jeans and sweater. After a brief debate, she took off her bra, too, because she’d never be able to sleep with it on. She pulled on the flannel shirt that fell to her thighs. The shirt smelled like him. Unashamed, Ella took a full minute to breathe in the rich, appealing scent of him coming from the shirt.

Yeah, she had it bad, and it was going to get worse before this night was over. Of that she had no doubt. Her fingers trembled ever so slightly as she fumbled with the buttons, managing to button the shirt wrong the first time.

In the cabinet, she looked for a toothbrush and encountered an economy-sized box of condoms. And yes, she checked to see if it was opened—it wasn’t. As she put it back on the shelf, she noticed the size: extra large. She took a moment to daydream about Gavin Guthrie’s extra-large—

Oh, for God’s sake! Did she really need to know what size condoms he bought? It wasn’t bad information to have. But why the big box? Who was he planning to get busy with?

“Toothbrush, Ella,” she muttered, aggravated with herself and now him, too, because she couldn’t very well go out there and ask him who he’d bought all those condoms for. She found an unopened toothbrush and used his Colgate-with-whitening toothpaste. No wonder his smile was so perfect, and yes, she was being ridiculous glomming on to these little details the way a stalker would.

And then she spotted a bottle of cologne on the counter, and being only human, she had to take a good long sniff and then sigh with the pleasure. Gucci Black. Sigh . . . Here was the essence of Gavin in a bottle. Put it down, walk away, brush your teeth and stop acting like a freak!

Ella hated when common sense interrupted her daydreaming. She brushed her teeth and used his brush on her hair, trying not to think about her hair intermingling with his on the brush because that would be weird.

Then she took a long look in the mirror, summoning the calm control she needed to get through this night with him. Wouldn’t it be something if she’d waited all this time for a chance with him only to blow it by acting like a lovesick freak? What if he caught her sniffing his cologne? Or worse, his shirt?

Stop! Just stop it and be normal. Except she had no idea how to “be normal” when Gavin Guthrie was in the room, let alone next to her in a bed. She was never going to survive sleeping with him.

She emerged from the bathroom to discover a whole new challenge. Gavin had removed his T-shirt and sweats and was sitting on the bed wearing only a pair of boxer shorts. Holy hell. And she was supposed to act normal in the face of his insane hotness?

“Make yourself comfortable,” he said, brushing by her. “I’ll be right out.”

If he looked in the cabinet, he would know she’d seen the huge box of condoms that were in front of the toothbrushes. What did it matter if she’d seen them? It wasn’t like they were going to need them. Or were they? What did he think was going to happen here tonight? What if he came out of the bathroom with the box in hand, prepared to get down and dirty?

Before she could do something ridiculous like pass out on the floor of his bedroom by failing to breathe, she got into bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. She couldn’t be lying there like a mummy when he came out, so she turned on her side and confronted that yummy scent all over again on his pillow. Wait! Was this his side of the bed? Should she be on the other side?

“Oh my God, Ella, calm the hell down before you have a stroke.” Wouldn’t that be something? Imagine the story I could tell . . . On my first night with Gavin, after years of lusting after him, I stroked out from the thought of sharing a bed with him, so he had to take me to the emergency room where we spent a very romantic evening with me attached to IV poles.

The soft flannel of his shirt abraded her nipples, which were apparently standing at full alert, aware that something monumental was about to happen. By the time Gavin emerged from the bathroom, shut off the light and slid into bed next to her, Ella was on the verge of a full-on thermonuclear meltdown.

She’d told herself she could do this. She could get closer to him, knowing she might be setting herself up for disaster if he happened to change his mind at some point along the way. But after this, after sharing a bed with him, after sleeping next to him and God knows what else might happen during the night? Yeah, she’d never get over it if he decided to walk away after that.

Ella was thinking she should get out of there while she still could, but then his arm came around her waist to draw her closer to him, and she was lost, absolutely, positively lost.

She wasn’t going anywhere.