“I cannot believe you,” I said.
Braden looked down at his hands, like they were the ones who did something wrong.
“Look at me,” I said. I was only eighteen then, but I had all the strength and fire of an older woman. And all the rage, too. “Just take a look at me.”
Braden looked up at me, his deep blue eyes just as gorgeous as the open Colorado sky.
“You look good. Beautiful. I told you before.”
We were both standing in the stadium, where we’d just graduated from high school. It was a monumental occasion, since my family hadn’t seen anyone but me and my sister graduate from high school. All the rest of us had dropped out to work the family business. And Braden Ennis, my so-called boyfriend, had everything handed to him his entire life. Including the scholarship to Texas A&M. A scholarship he didn’t even need.
“Yeah, you did. And that’s all good and well. I do look good. I was the salutatorian. I’m going into the best pre-vet program in the country. And somehow, I’m not good enough for you.”
“Adele. I told you I didn’t do anything with that girl. I wasn’t into her. I just had to bring her to my family’s graduation party because they told me to bring her.”
“Because they don’t like me.”
“No, that’s not it —” He started, and then stopped mid-sentence. Braden had told me he was going to a basketball game. He hadn’t mentioned a thing about his family’s graduation party. I only knew about it because my sister Dahlia spotted him and that other girl walking out of the best steakhouse in town together — arm in arm.
“See, you can’t even defend yourself. They don’t like me, and you’re too cowardly to tell me.”
“Adele,” he said, hopelessly. “I love you. I want to spend my life with you, have kids.”
My whole body seized up at the thought. We’d talked about having children for all the years we were together. It was a cornerstone of our relationship — that one fantasy. And I felt it in my bones more deeply than any other desire I’d ever had. I knew it would haunt me — my need to be with Braden, my desire to have his children.
But he had lied to me. And it wasn’t the first time.
“Braden,” I said gently. The wind whipped through my curls in the open stadium. “I want that too. But you lied to me about this, and you lied to me about your family before. I can’t be with someone who does that. And with what your grandfather said about me —”
“He’s a prick,” Braden said. “And I don’t need him.”
“You do need his money if you’re going to get through school. That’s not a full scholarship, you know.”
“I do know,” he said gently. “But I could work. Prove to you that I’m good enough —”
“That’s just the thing Braden. I don’t want someone who needs to prove that to me. Not when I’m ready to leave and go somewhere new. I was even thinking about enlisting after I graduate. Might be able to save enough to go to vet school after that. Come back here. Maybe then —”
“Maybe then, what?”
“Maybe then we could do all those things we wanted. After you’re ready — after we’re both ready to grow up.” I nearly choked on my words. I wanted to say something harder, harsher. But Braden was right there in front of me, just as beautiful as he’d always been. He was kind and generous and funny. He had a good heart.
But I knew I couldn’t leave with the ghost of his family and his deceits weighing me down.
I turned to go, tears forming at the corners of my eyes. I wiped them away, and Braden stood, catching me by the arm. “Adele, please.”
“No, my mind is made up,” I said without turning around.
“Listen, Adele. At least listen.”
I nodded, but I didn’t turn.
“I don’t want to be with anyone but you. That other girl — I can’t even remember her last name. I want to marry you. Have kids.”
“Stop,” I said, the word barely forming in my throat. “Stop it. You’re making this really hard.”
“It should be. We’ve been together for three years. It should be hard to leave me.”
I sighed heavily. It was.
I didn’t say anything.
“At least promise me you’ll come back. Like you said.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Maybe.”
“And promise me that you’ll have my children,” he said.
I turned to face him, furrowing my brow. “What? You can’t be serious. I just broke up with you.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m getting that message. I’m not so dense that I didn’t get that point. But listen,” he said. “I’m pretty damn confident that I’m the best man for you, Adele Cartwright. And if you’re not knocked up or a mama by the time you’re thirty, make me a promise that you’ll come to me for the job.”
“Oh my God — you can’t be serious —”
“I’m serious. I’ll provide for you. I’ll give you a family.”
I paused. The wind picked up, and an early summer thunderstorm threatened us from overhead. Braden was what I’d wanted for a long time. And maybe — just maybe — I’d keep wanting the same thing for a decade or more. It was hard to know. Why couldn’t I promise him that? Seemed like a good way to resolve the whole damn thing.
“Okay,” I said.
Finally, he let my hand go.
“I’ll hold you to it,” he said.
“Fine,” I said.
I reached out to shake his hand just as the first raindrops started to fall.