Folding the last t-shirt and laying it on top of the pile, Izzy glanced at the clock above the couch. A slow smile crept across her face. Three more hours and Tanner would be home. Two days had felt like an eternity while he’d been gone.
But tonight, she hefted the laundry basket onto one hip and headed to the stairs. Tonight the kids were at his parents’ house and it would be just the two of them. The first time in far longer than she cared to admit.
The roaring sound of a loud truck engine made her jump just as she reached the top step. Her brows drew together. That sounded like…but it couldn’t be.
Izzy flew down the stairs and ripped open the front door. She beamed when she saw the bright June sun reflecting off Tanner’s obnoxious yellow truck as it sped up the long driveway, dust clouds rolling behind the tires. Her feet were fixed until he parked in front of the house. As the driver’s door opened, she bolted down the porch steps and ran the few feet to the truck, launching herself into his arms before he could even shut the door. She wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist.
But even her overwhelming excitement couldn’t disguise the change in him. Instead of enfolding his body around hers as he had for so many years, his back stayed straight. His strong arms held her loosely, not pulling her close.
Izzy leaned her head back, hands braced on his shoulders. The expression on his face had the same effect on her as a dip in the lake on a January day. “Tanner?”
He gently pried her off him and made sure both her feet were on the ground before he spoke. “Belle, we need to talk.”
Her throat closed at his tone. She took a step back and then another. “No, Tanner. No, we don’t need to talk. You need to hold me and tell me you missed me and we need to go in the house and make up for the past two days, but we definitely don’t need to talk.”
Tanner closed the truck door and shoved his hands in the pockets of his khaki shorts with a heavy sigh. He dropped his gaze to the ground. “Come on, Belle. Let’s go inside.”
Izzy’s stomach churned, and she held her arms around her midsection. Her mind flew in a million directions. They had been married for nearly eight years, and in all that time she hadn’t had a single doubt or concern about their relationship—until now.
The company took a massive hit.
Wyatt had an accident.
An avalanche of worst case scenarios flooded her mind. The one person she needed was standing just a few feet in front of her but seemed miles away. She wanted nothing more than to reach out to him, but everything about him from his voice to his posture screamed “closed.” Something he’d never been before.
“Belle,” his voice softened a fraction, and he put a gentle hand on her back, “let’s go inside and sit down. I really don’t want to talk to you out here.”
She allowed him to steer her toward the house and up the porch steps, unable to slow her racing mind. A nervous laugh bubbled up as they crossed the threshold. “Tanner, you’re really scaring me.”
He stood near the far corner of the gray overstuffed couch and gestured for her to sit down. She couldn’t remember ever feeling this overwhelming sense of trepidation in Tanner’s presence. He had been her safe place since the first time his lips touched hers a month into her freshman year of college.
After a moment’s hesitation, she finally sat down. When he sat next to her, he gently wrapped his hand around hers and pulled it lightly until it rested on his knee. For a brief second, her heart lifted at his touch. But then the complete absence of warmth registered and she felt her heart breaking all over again. “Please, Tanner.” Her voice cracked. “Just tell me.”
His mouth opened, but he seemed to think better of what he was going to say. “Where are the kids?”
Izzy’s eyes dropped to her free hand, nervously playing with the hem of her shorts, and tears prickled the back of her eyes. “At your parents’ for the night. I asked them to watch the kids so we could have some alone time and…”
Tanner nodded, his eyes fixed on their joined hands. “Belle, I did something.” The words came out in a rush, and when he finally looked up, his blue eyes were tortured. His grip on her hand tightened infinitesimally. “Before I say anything else, you need to know I didn’t sleep with her…”
From her head to her toes, Izzy was numb. His mouth was moving and she knew there were words coming out, but all she could hear was the distant sound of ringing in her ears. She didn’t move. Couldn’t move. She could barely remember to breathe in and out.
Izzy blinked and focused on him, narrowing her gaze. She pulled her hand free from his and slid to the opposite side of the couch. “What do you mean you didn’t sleep with her?” she bit out between clenched teeth. “With who? And if you didn’t sleep with her, what did you do with her?”
He swallowed, his brow knitting together. “I don’t know her name. I-I-I don’t know what happened. Not exactly. Wyatt won the whole thing. He got the big belt buckle and decided we needed to go out to celebrate. And he was probably self-medicating some bruises after eight seconds on particularly nasty bulls three nights in a row. I don’t even remember how much we drank—”
“I don’t even care. What did you do with her?” She wanted to shout the words, but she could do little more than whisper.
“Wyatt had this group of…fans, I guess, following him around, and he pulled me on the dance floor with all of them. I had a few more beers while we were dancing, and I-I don’t really remember what happened next or how it happened, but the next thing I knew, Wyatt was pulling me away from some blonde girl that was holding onto my arm and he said I was…” He swallowed again. “Kissing her. Touching her.”
Izzy wanted to run away. She wanted to throw up. She wanted to throw something. Preferably at his lying, cheating head. She wrapped her arms around her stomach again, trying desperately to shield herself from some of the pain ripping through her body.
She focused on a small speck on the area rug beneath her feet. Leave. He had to leave. He had to get out of their house and just leave. A familiar memory tugged at the corner of her mind, but instead of seeing herself watching her father drive away, it was Ava and Noah with tears streaming down their faces watching as Tanner left.
No, he would stay. For now.
“Belle.” His voice cut into her thoughts. “I’m sorry. I can’t possibly apologize enough. I guarantee I hate me more right now than you do.” He ran his hands through his light brown hair. “I’ll spend the rest of my life making it up to you, Belle. I’ll do anything…”
She jumped up. “Bring your bag in.” She focused her attention on the large window at the front of the house. “I’m doing laundry.”
When she turned to leave, he stood and grabbed her arm from behind. She spun around and wrenched it away, looking him in the face for the first time since he made his proclamation. “Don’t touch me.” She ground out the words. “You don’t get to touch me after you touched her.”
As the tears streaked down his face and his knees hit the floor in front of her, she felt a pang in her stupid heart. Today marked the fifth time in the twelve years they had known each other that Izzy had seen Tanner cry. “Belle, please.” His head fell forward. “Tell me what to do to fix this. I’ll do anything, Belle, anything. Just tell me what you want, what you need. I promise I will fix this.”
Her fingers itched to run through the hair on the bent head in front of her. As much as she wanted to hate him right now, this was Tanner. And she only had that one simple fact to blame for the softening of her voice. “I don’t know what I want, and I don’t know what I need, but right now you just can’t touch me.”
Izzy ran up the stairs into their bedroom and pressed her back against the closed door. She managed to find the lock on the knob behind her and click it into place before sliding down the door. The sobs she was barely able to contain in front of Tanner rolled through her body.
She drew her legs up and laid her forehead against her knees. She would have to face him, and face this, soon enough. She would have to figure out what she wanted, what she needed, and what, if anything, Tanner could do. But right now all she was certain of was that she needed silence and to never, ever hear him call her Belle again.
Twelve years ago
Izzy slid her aviator sunglasses into place over her chestnut eyes and stole another look across the quad. There he was again. Nearly every day he was sitting at the same place with his back pressed against the trunk of a tree, long legs stretched out in front of him, reading a different book. He never seemed to be in a hurry and was never bothered by any of the commotion around him, while she scurried to get from one class to another.
She glanced down at her black watch and bit her lip. She had nearly thirty minutes until her next class started, and it was only five minutes away…
Nope. She shook her head and continued down the path. She could never approach him. Even if she could see the cover of one of her favorite books in his hand. Even if the wind ruffling hair that was just a little past due for a cut was possibly the cutest thing she’d ever seen. Even if she liked the way he smiled at the book while he was reading.
She had been at Wake Forest for only two weeks and, although most of that time her head was buried in textbooks, she knew who was important, and Tanner Carlisle was important with a capital “I.” He was a key player on not only the football team, but the baseball team. He was the shining hope for the fledgling athletic department. Easily the most well-known guy on campus.
Izzy forced her eyes to the ground as she walked by and tucked a stray wave of dark brown hair behind her ear. She was the antithesis of everything he represented. She had yet to attend a single game or frat party.
Her father’s decade of guilt had manifested in his willingness to pay for a private dorm. It was her sanctuary. Her days consisted of running from one class to another while cursing the double course load she’d requested, studying in the library, or eating alone in her room as often as possible.
She’d have time for a social life once she was done with college and was teaching at some school in North Carolina, hundreds of miles from her parents and their bitter arguments. Isabelle Ricci would make friends and fall in love in four years. But right then she needed to get to Early American History class early before someone took…
Lost in thought, she hadn’t noticed someone keeping pace beside her until he spoke. She turned her head to politely rebuff whoever was talking, but as her eyes traveled up the black shirt and collided with bright blue ones, her words and feet halted at the same time.
Scratch that. It wasn’t someone. It was him. “Hi.” The single word finally came out.
Perfect white teeth flashed at her, and he stuck out his hand. “Tanner Carlisle.” His slow drawl dragged out his last name slightly, and it was the most charming sound Izzy had ever heard.
After a couple of beats, her brain finally kicked in and she slid her hand into his. “Isabelle Ricci.” She grinned back, feeling foolish, but completely unable to stop herself. “But everyone calls me Izzy.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Isabelle Ricci.” He pulled his hand back and hiked his backpack higher on his shoulder, inclining his head to the building a distance behind her. “Are you going to Trib?”
She could only nod in response, once again feeling at a loss for words. This was ridiculous. He’s just a boy. Just another dumb jock who relied on his good looks and gift for…whatever he did in sports. She straightened herself to her full five-foot four-inch height, which still failed to bring her to his shoulders, and summoned her confidence. “Yes.” She congratulated herself on her strong voice. “Early American History with Mr. Calhoon.”
“Great, I’ll walk with you.” He held a hand out in front, encouraging her feet to finally start moving again.
Just like that, he fell in step beside her and asked about her major, her dorm, where she was from, and almost everything besides sports or himself. Izzy was confused and, if she were being completely honest, mildly in awe. Every time someone tried to pull him away he would smile and wave them off, never once stepping from her side.
Izzy turned to face him when they reached the door of Tribble Hall. “You never said what class you’re taking here.” She waved her arm toward the large brick building.
“That’s because I’m not taking a class here.” He ducked his head and offered a crooked grin. “My next class is Global Marketing Strategy over in Farrell Hall.”
Izzy had spent the entire summer memorizing the campus map in an effort to bolster her confidence. She pulled it out of her memory bank, and her eyebrows drew together. “But that’s in the opposite direction,” she argued. “And that’s quite an impressive class.”
He raised his eyebrows and offered an amused look, pointing at himself as he took a step back. “Not just a dumb jock.”
Heat started to creep up her neck. “I never…”
Tanner threw her a wink. “Thanks for letting me walk you to class, Isabelle. But I think you need a new nickname.”
Izzy captured her bottom lip between her teeth for a minute. This ought to be good. “Yeah? What’s that?”
His smile widened. “Isn’t it obvious? Belle.”
She popped a hand on her hip and opened her mouth to make a sarcastic response. It had to be some sort of derogatory joke.
Tanner took a few more steps backward, not breaking eye contact. “It means beautiful, doesn’t it?” He lifted his hand with a small wave as he turned. “See ya around, Belle.”