If You Stay

Chapter Twenty Four


Nights seem very long now, very dark and cold.

I roll over in my lonely bed again, pulling my quilt up to my chin, trying to force my mind away from thoughts of Pax. As if that will happen. My heart constricts at the memory of what Pax has been through.

Ever since he walked away from me last week, ever since I watched the rejection ripple over his face, the hurt and angst, I have played that moment over and over in my mind. Regretting it, beating myself up over it. But there's nothing else I could have done.

He has to know that every action has a consequence. And even though he says he will change, that he realizes he needs to change, I'm pretty sure he needs a reason to actually change. If I take him back like he didn't hurt me, he won't have a very good reason.

Except for the one where his entire life has imploded around him, you idiot, I tell myself. Pax has every reason in the world to change, reasons that don't even include me. If only he is strong enough to see it.

Against my better judgment, I reach for my phone. It has been a week since I have seen him or spoken with him. My heart just wants to hear from him, to know that he's okay. Maybe then I can sleep.

I'm thinking about you. I hope you're okay.

I send the text and wait with the phone in my fingers. There is no answer. Although I probably deserve that.

I waver back and forth in my conviction. Maddy agrees that I had no other choice but to send him away when he came to my shop. But part of me, an increasingly more insistent part, doubts it. I love him. I love him more than anything. And isn't part of love standing next to him through thick and thin?

Love never fails. I gulp.

But then again, sometimes love has to put boxing gloves on and be tough in order to survive. Sometimes, you have to do the harder thing - the thing where you let someone grow on their own.

I fall asleep with tears on my cheek and my phone in my hands. When I wake up, there is a text waiting for me.

I'm thinking about you, too. And I'm getting there.

His words make my heart smile. And it is somehow easier to get up and face my day.


"I think you're losing weight," Maddy announces, as she prances through my shop in her new boots and a take-out sack.

I look up from where I am framing a print of the night sky and roll my eyes.

"First, I thought you said we had to tighten our belts this winter?" I ask with my eyebrow raised as I stare pointedly at her boots.

She looks sheepish. "That was true. But things are perking up now that spring is rolling around."

"February isn't spring," I tell her wryly. She rolls her eyes.

"A mere technicality. It's late February. Almost spring. Now that people aren't snowed in, business is picking up. But you're deflecting. You haven't been eating right. I bet you've lost ten pounds - and you didn't have it to lose, Slim."

I would say something, but I wouldn't have a leg to stand on. She's right. I've lost weight and I didn't have it to lose.

"Did you bring me something to eat?" I ask instead. She nods, plunking the sack unceremoniously down on my picture.

"Grilled cheese and a bowl of minestrone. Tony said to eat it all and you'll get dessert. He also said you're getting chicken legs."

I shake my head, and can't help but smile. Tony loves us in his own gruff way. I wouldn't be surprised if it was his idea that Maddy brought me the food.

"I saw Pax's car parked in front of Dr. Tyler's office," Maddy mentions as she curls herself into a sleek red chair. "He's been there a lot lately. Have you talked to him?"

I chew a bite of my sandwich and swallow hard to get it to go down. "No. Not in a month. Has he been in to The Hill?"

Maddy shakes her head. "No. And I haven't seen his car at the bar, either. He's pretty much been out of sight, except for when he's with Dr. Tyler."

She stares at me.

I ignore it.

"Well?" she finally demands, her ice blue gaze on mine. "He's respecting your space and he's putting in the effort so that he can move forward. Don't you think it's time that you took the initiative to speak with him?"

I almost drop my sandwich. "Who are you and what have you done with my sister?" I demand. "You don't like Pax. You've never liked Pax. You've told me a hundred times that he's not worth my time, that he'll never be boyfriend material."

I am beyond shocked at her.

Maddy has the grace to look sheepish.

"I don't know," she admits. "I can't explain why I feel differently. I just do. My gut instincts are telling me that he deserves a second chance. I really think he's trying, Mi. To be honest, not only have I not seen his car at the bar, but when I was in there the other day for a drink, I asked Mickey if he's seen him. He hasn't."

She stares at me again, hard and long. I sigh.

"Madison, just because he hasn't been in the Bear's Den doesn't mean that he's stopped drinking. Or doing worse things. For all we know, he's holed up in his house with whiskey and drugs. We don't know what he's doing."

There is a pause while Madison fidgets.

"You don't know what he's doing," she finally says hesitantly. "Because you haven't talked with him. But I have."

I do drop my sandwich this time, right into my soup.

"What?" I ask, as my stomach plummets into my feet. "You lied? You said you haven't spoken with him."

For some strange reason, my fingers shake as I wait for her answer, as my heart beats loudly against my ribcage.

Madison looks uncertain now. "I didn't lie. I said he hasn't been in The Hill. And he hasn't. But he called me a couple of weeks ago. Apparently, he's been keeping an eye on you and he noticed that you've still been picking up a lot of shifts for me and he wanted to help."

"He. What?" I ask stiltedly, trying to wrap my mind around this new turn of events. My icy sister has been speaking to Pax behind my back?

"He wanted to help," she repeats. "He told me that he knows how much The Hill means to us since it was our parents' dream and he wanted to make sure that we don't lose it. He paid off our renovation loan and then he sent one of his own business advisors to talk to me. We sat down and wrote out an updated business plan and now The Hill is back on track. It appears that I needed to make a few changes and so I did. And also, apparently, I needed to make a few changes in my personal life, too, like not judging someone that I don't even know. I didn't know Pax. I had no right to tell you stay away from him."

I am stunned beyond words. I feel like something is sitting on my chest, weighing down my lungs as I stare at my sister. I can't breathe.

I grab my water and take a drink, then another.

"Pax did that?" I finally manage to croak. Maddy nods.

"But I was sworn to secrecy. He doesn't want you to know what he did. He was very adamant that when you finally give him another chance, it will be because he earned it on his own merit, not because of this."

"Do you know how he's doing?" I whisper. "Is he okay?"

Madison nods. "I went to his house to meet with his business advisor. He and I chatted for a while. His main concern was you. He wanted to make sure that you're okay. He feels like such an ass for hurting you and he's afraid he's never going to redeem himself for that. But otherwise, he's okay. He looks healthy and he's been seeing Dr. Tyler two times a week. He even said that he and his dad are working things out. I think those are huge strides, Mi."

And they are. She really has no idea. She wasn't there to see the look on Pax's face when he found out that his dad had hidden everything for years. The gut-wrenching betrayal that lived in his eyes. I really wasn't sure that he'd ever be able to forgive his father.

"I don't know what I'm supposed to do," I finally admit to her in a whisper, collapsing onto the chair with my sister. She wraps a slender arm around me.

"Do you love him?" she asks, staring into my eyes. Without hesitation, I nod.

"Is he worth the heartache and the effort?"

Her face is grave and somber as she brushes the hair out of my eyes.

I nod again.

"Pax is worth anything."

Madison smiles. "I thought you would say that. My advice to you then, little sister, is that you go talk to him. He's trying very hard. I admire that. I have to respect it. And I know he loves you."

I am frozen. Utterly frozen. I can practically feel my heart beating in my ears.

"What are you waiting for?" Maddy asks me gently, pushing at my shoulder. "Go."

So I do.


The drive to Pax's house has never taken so long before. But even still, I sit in my car for a couple of minutes after I pull into his drive. Danger is parked in front of me, so I know he is home. I am filled with both breathless anticipation and utter anxiety as I slosh through the muddy snow to his door.

What if he doesn't want me anymore? What if I took too long to get to this point? What if it's too late?

I take a few deep breaths as I stand on Pax's front porch.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.


I ring the doorbell, then knock. I am suddenly overwhelmed by the need to see his face, to see him healthy and strong. I want to see his eyes without pain in them. My stomach clenches again and again as I wait. It seems to take forever and when the door finally opens, I am breathless.

For the first time in a month, Pax is standing in front of me, filling up the doorframe.

He is so beautiful in jeans and a black shirt. No one can carry off casual like he can.

My knees feel weak.

His eyes widen when he sees me, but then he smoothes his expression out. He's casual now, friendly. But cautious. Clearly cautious.

"Hi, Red," he says quietly, watching my face. Waiting for me to say something. I am the one who came to see him, after all. I swallow. I have to restrain myself from vaulting into his arms.


Oh my god. I want to say a thousand things and all I say is hi? I'm a lunatic.

"Can I come in?" I quickly add. Pax smiles and gestures with his arm.

"Of course. Anytime. You know that. Can I get you something to drink? A water, maybe?"

Why is he being so formal? My heart twinges a bit. Did I wait too long? Has he moved on?

The thought practically paralyzes me, but I still manage to decline the water and follow him into his living room. I glance around as I sit. He hasn't changed his house any. It is still light and airy, a modern loft, perfectly neat and clean. A part of me deep down is relieved. If he hasn't changed his house, maybe he hasn't changed his feelings for me.

Even I know that thought is irrational as hell. But I think I'm grasping at straws.

"How are you?" I ask, staring at him. "Are you okay?"

He thrums his long fingers against his denim-clad thigh. He's still working out. That much is apparent. I can see the hard muscle through the fabric. I gulp.

He smiles. "I'm doing really well. I won't lie, though. It's been hard as hell to wrap my mind around everything. But it's given me perspective. And this past month, I've sort of isolated myself and just focused on things I need to change. I wanted to make sure that I gave you a reason to want to be with me."

He pauses.

And my heart pauses as he looks at me. His golden eyes are so warm and vibrant. How had I ever thought they were cold?

"I've done a lot of thinking, Mila. And you were right to turn me away a month ago. You really were. I've spent a lot of time worrying that I'd completely fucked up with you, that you'd never forgive me. Or that I'd hurt you so badly that you'd never want to look at me again."

I start to interrupt, but he holds up his hand. "Please. Just let me finish. I've thought about what I would say to you a hundred times. I'm so happy to have the chance to say it."

I close my mouth and nod. He smiles gently.

"Mila, I've said this before, but you are the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. You are beautiful inside and out. I don't deserve to have met you. I don't deserve you in any way. But there's nothing I want more than to be with you. To wake up beside you for the rest of my life. I am so grateful that you stuck by me for as long as you did. And all I want to know now is what I can do to make you stick with me again? You name it and I'll do it. Anything."

He waits, his eyes glued to mine and I feel overwhelmed by emotion, completely choked up.

"I haven't waited too long?" I finally manage to say. Pax looks surprised.

"What do you mean?" he asks bewilderedly. "Of course not. I said I would wait forever for you. I meant it."

Tears are streaming down my cheeks as I launch myself into his arms. We fold into each other and I bury myself against his chest. He smells the same, like the outdoors and the fresh air. I inhale him and then he tilts my chin up, his lips meeting mine.

As I lose myself in his kiss, I know that I never want to be anywhere but here, wrapped in Pax's arms.

It's where I belong.

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