Della had opened up more than I expected to Nile and his family. Mostly it had just been to Nile’s daughters. They had been drawn to her, too. Watching it had been heartbreaking and amazing all at the same time. Della could have had a normal life. Her father was a good man.
I had also watched Nile most of the night. He had watched Della and his girls, too. The pleased look on his face was hard to miss. He might never be someone that Della considered a father but I had hopes that she would form a relationship of some kind with him and his family. I thought she needed it.
“Tell me what you thought of Nile and his family,” Della said as we walked into the house. She had been quiet on the ride back and I had left her alone with her thoughts. It was a lot to process without my trying to pull things out of her.
“I think he’s a good man and he’s a good father. The girls are well-adjusted and they are fascinated with you.”
Della grinned as she slipped off her heels. “I liked the girls. Each one was so different. It was like they made this one complete person. I wonder what it must be like to know you have someone on your side all the time, knowing you can make snide comments and even push and shove but they’ll love you when the rest of the world is against you.”
I walked over and wrapped my arms around her from behind. “I’m always on your side. You can push and shove—hell, you can even slap me—but I will still be right here, ready to face the world with you.”
Della leaned back against me and wrapped her arms around mine. “I know that. I meant growing up. Having a sibling to stand in your corner.”
I understood what she meant and it broke my heart to think about the little girl who was so alone in dealing with a mother who wasn’t there mentally. “You did find Braden.”
“Braden found me. And you’re right. She was always in my corner.”
“I like knowing you have her. She loves you almost as much as I do.”
Della laughed. “Don’t let her hear you say that. She’ll fight you for that title.”
I wondered what Braden would do when I asked Della to marry me. Would she grill me? Make sure my intention was to treat her like a princess? I had no doubt I’d hear from her when the time came. I just wasn’t sure about the right time.
I loved Della and I knew no one would ever take her place in my heart. She was the one. But marriage also meant a commitment that scared me. I’d been ready to ask her before she left me. Now I knew how quickly she could rip my world out from under me. Could I handle that kind of pain if she were my wife? It was making me even more vulnerable. I needed time to adjust to having her back. Having a Della who didn’t wake up screaming and one I didn’t worry about all the time.
“I love you,” she said as we stood there together.
“I love you more,” I replied. And I meant it. That was what kept me from asking her to marry me. That was my roadblock. I loved her more.
A knock on the door broke into my thoughts and Della stepped out of my arms to look back at me. “Who could that be?”
“Not sure. I’ll get it.”
Jace was pacing back and forth on my front porch when I opened the door. His head snapped up when he saw me. He shook his head and went back to pacing. This was woman trouble. I looked back at Della, who stood watching me from the other end of the hallway.
“Looks like Jace needs to talk. We’ll be out here if you need me,” I told her.
A worried frown pinched her forehead but she nodded. “Okay.”
I closed the door behind me and watched as Jace continued to pace.
“What’s wrong with Bethy?” I asked. I knew that was the only thing that could get him to pace like a madman.
He stopped his constant moving and shoved his hands in his pockets. “She’s . . . She wanted to get married. I mentioned it to her and she wanted to. But she’s started to act different lately. So I dropped the marriage thing. I thought that was what made her go crazy. But she’s just getting worse. Hell, what was I supposed to do? I can’t get married if she’s not ready. I sure as hell can’t ask her. I don’t know what I was thinking. Just because Rush and Blaire are playing house doesn’t mean the rest of us are ready.”
I was going to be here a while. I could tell by the frantic tone in Jace’s voice. I sat down in the swing. “So you’ve changed your mind on the marriage thing? Sounds like it scared Bethy anyway. Maybe you two need more time just being a couple.”
Jace let out a hard laugh. “Yeah, I thought that, too. But she’s just . . . reverted.”
“Reverted?” I asked, trying to figure out what in the hell he was talking about.
“You know, reverted to the way she was before. She’s drinking and wanting to go out partying all the time. She rarely sees Blaire anymore because she said it makes her sad. She wants what Blaire has but she says it’s rare. We can’t measure ourselves against that. But that makes no damn sense. I’ve been in two bar fights in the past week. Two fucking bar fights. Me. I don’t fight, dammit. But she’s forcing me to go save her drunk ass from men who want to touch her.”
I thought about Della playing with Nate the other day and how sweet she was. But not once had she asked for the same thing. She never pressured me for more. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if she did. I would probably give it to her.
“Do you want Bethy? Forever? Is she who you see yourself spending your life with?”
“I did. Before all this. I did. I thought we were ready. But now she’s changed. She’s acting like . . . she’s acting like she did before. When all I wanted to do was fuck her because she was so damn good at it. I was addicted to sex with her. Then she stood up to me and drew a line in the sand and I came barreling through it because I realized, through all that sex, that I had started to care for her. I wanted more than just the sex.”
Everyone knew this story already. No one had expected it. Jace was a trust fund baby and Bethy was a trailer park baby. The two didn’t seem to fit . . . until they did. “She could be drawing the line in the sand again. Forcing you to pick her.”
Jace walked over and sat down on a padded bench and dropped his head into his hands. “If I thought that was it I would just propose. I would just ask her to marry me. Because, yeah, I love her. But I think she’s hiding something. I don’t know what. I try to overlook it but there are times—and they’re rare—when she withdraws from me. I can’t pinpoint when it happens. I can’t figure out a reason—she just does. Then suddenly she’s back the next day or a few days later, however long it takes, and she’s my Bethy again. I just . . . she has to tell me everything. She has to explain to me what haunts her and why the hell she thinks going to a honky-tonk dressed like a cowboy’s wet dream is okay. I’m tired of getting into fights with dudes bigger than me.”
Della never did any of these things. I couldn’t sympathize and now I was pretty damn sure he shouldn’t propose because they had shit to figure out.
“You two need to talk,” I said. I had no other words of wisdom.
Jace ran his hand through his hair and sighed. “I know we do. Every time I try and ask her about it, she starts drinking. The next thing I know, she’s dancing on a bar somewhere. When she starts to sober up she tells me she wishes she was enough for me and that she wishes she was someone I could love forever. I tell her she is but she needs to tell me why she’s doing this. Why she pulls away from me sometimes. She either starts crying or sucking my damn dick. Both get me completely distracted.”
I had thought Jace and Bethy were fine. They were good. They were always together. I hadn’t imagined any problems with the two of them. Bethy was always so happy and bubbly. The Bethy he was describing wasn’t someone I’d ever seen.
“I love her. I’m gonna do whatever the hell I need to to stop this. Because I can’t lose her. I love her. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. All relationships before her pale in comparison. If she wants to get married, I’ll propose. I wanted to wait but I don’t think she’ll ever tell me why she pulls away sometimes. Maybe if we’re married she won’t do that. If I put a ring on her finger then it will stop this drunken partying shit she’s doing.”
The only thing he’d said there that even came close to a reason as to why he should marry Bethy was the part where he said he loved her and she was the best thing that had ever happened to him. The other stuff wasn’t good logic. “I think you need to get her to talk to you sober first. Lock her in a room and make her talk. Don’t just propose because she’s forcing your hand with this drinking shit. That isn’t what marriage is supposed to be about. You gotta want this, man.”
Jace glanced back at the door to my house. “What about Della? Do you want it with Della?”
Yeah, I wanted forever with her. “One day, but she isn’t pressuring me. When the time is right.”
Jace nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. But Bethy seems threatened by that idea.” He stood up. “Thanks for listening. I needed to unload on someone. I couldn’t go back to the condo and deal with Bethy after tonight. I just needed to talk.”
“You’re my best friend. I’m always here to talk when you need to. Besides, you kept me from losing it when Della left me.”
Jace chuckled. “More like Rush did. I was scared to touch you. You were going apeshit.”
“Rush was the only one strong enough to hold me back. But you listened to me and kept me sane while she was gone.”
Jace nodded. “You’re my family.”
And he was mine.