Working Back Chapter 1
My nerves are shot. Partly for my oldest brother Jamie, who’s pacing the room behind me, clock watching like a pro as we wait to leave for the church. The biggest reason is knowing that sometime during today’s proceedings, I’ll see her—my childhood sweetheart who should’ve been my wife and the mother of my children by now.
Twelve years ago, I left California with a biology degree and a broken heart. Faith Baker successfully obliterated it when she rejected my marriage proposal and left that same night, not even saying goodbye.
It’s been twelve years of anger, sadness, what ifs and if onlys. Twelve years of wondering whether I’d ever find another woman who I’d let get in my heart so completely that they’d never want to leave—and I’d never want to let them go. Twelve years of wondering if I was being an idiot for never extinguishing that burning ember deep inside. Yet I knew the answer all along.
A knock at the door breaks the silence. In the reflection of the floor-length mirror in front of me, I watch Jamie cross the room and turn the handle.
I go completely still. That voice—the one I fell in love with at eight years old before I even knew what love was.
“Is he in there?”
I’m frozen in place. Why can’t I move?
“Yeah. I’ll give you guys the room. I’ll be back, Bry,” my oldest brother says, stepping out of sight. The void is replaced by a beauty so bright the imprint sears my soul.
Snap out of it, Cook. I frown as I begin to doubt my ability to get through this with a clear head.
The click of the door echoes around the room, those bright green eyes of hers boring into mine in the mirror. We stay like that for what seems like forever, a strange silence stretching between us.
Despite knowing for almost two months that this moment was coming, nothing could prepare me for the sucker punch of being in her presence again.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath before turning around.
“Hey,” I say roughly. I look down and clear my throat, fidgeting with the cuff of my shirt as I will my heart to stop racing. You’ve waited too long to stuff it up now.
“You look good, Bry,” she says softly. Her voice is gentle, but there’s no missing the edge of wariness in her tone.
I run my gaze from her heel-clad feet up her tanned bronze legs. Her bright purple dress skims her body before clinging to her chest, the fabric knitted together in a series of twists and weaves and wrapping around her torso to gather on one shoulder. Her hair is lighter than it used to be, a myriad of copper streaks scattered through shiny brown waves. She’s just as head-to-toe gorgeous as she always was—even more so now.
As if on instinct, my focus falls to her left hand. Ezra or Mom would have told me if she was married or engaged, but I’m compelled to check regardless. Everything would be in vain if she was otherwise involved. No ring. Thank fuck for that.
I feel compelled to say something. “You look . . .” Beautiful. Radiant. Not mine, though I still want you to be.
Her lips twitch, drawing my attention to them. I really need to stop checking her out.
“How have you been?” she asks, breaking the awkward silence between us.
“Good.” Nervous. On edge. Stuck on you.
“That’s goo—” She stops herself. Is this really what it’s come down to? Forced, polite conversation, like we’re strangers?
That’s because we are.
She sighs, shaking her head. Her lips curve in a half-hearted smile. “Okay, so I think one of us has to just come out and say it.”
“What’s there to say, Faith?”
“I missed—” She swallows hard. “I miss you.”
“After this long, that’s it?”
“Definitely not all, but it’s the most important. I figured that was what I should lead with if you didn’t kick me out.”
“I still could . . .” I say. Her brows lift up. “Kick you out, I mean.”
“I’m willing to take my chances,” she says, stepping closer.
I should stop this, but I don’t want to. I should want her far away, but I want her as close as can be.
How is it possible that this woman—the girl I’ve loved for more than twenty-five years—still has me wanting her?
Is it because when she was gone it was easier to push her out of my mind? Is it because a part of me always knew—hoped—that when she finally came back, she’d still feel the same about me as I obviously will always feel about her?
I shake my head. Get it together, dumbass.
“You’re the first boy I ever loved, Bry. You were my everything—”
That hits the spot, the one I need to focus on in this moment. At least until I know the lay of the land between us. “Until I wasn’t.”
She gasps, her eyes misting over. She covers her mouth with her hand. “Is that what you think?” she says, her voice breaking.
This is exactly what I need. I grab hold of the anger, frustration, and wounded ego that’s never gone away and run with it. A hurt man is not always rational, especially when that hurt festers for so long.
“It’s what I know.” My words are strong, flat, unequivocal.
Then I catch it—a change in the way she holds herself. It’s in the squaring of her shoulders and the slight lift of her chin, her eyes narrowed.
I should ask her to leave. Now isn’t the time to rehash the events of our past or try to process anything other than the fact my brother is getting married in a few hours.
Today is supposed to be about celebrating love, not thinking how this could’ve been the two of us. Getting married. Building a life together. Renovating our own dilapidated relocated farmhouse, instead of me flipping it with my brothers.
I swallow down the lump in my throat and take a deep breath to ease the tightness in my chest. “Faith, we do need to talk, but not on Jamie’s wedding day. Let’s not make this about us when it should be about my brother marrying the love of his life and getting everything he’s ever wanted.” Everything I wanted with you.
That’s when I see a spark, the flash in her eyes that used to make me rock hard. I’d see it when she’d punch Jamie in the stomach if he was being a dick to me, or when Missy Gregory was flirting a little too much for Faith’s liking and she bitch-slapped the girl into submission. It’s a look that screams determination, telling me she’s not about to let this go easily. Just like I’ve never been able to let her go either.
It’s then I decide to go for it—to do the one thing that will give me an answer once and for all. It will scare her off if she’s not really invested in this. Right now, I need her to put up or shut up so I can get on with my day, and my life.
“Are you staying in Chicago?” I ask.
She stills, tilting her head to study me. “Of course I am. I came back for you, Bry. For us . . .” There’s the briefest hint of annoyance in her tone.
“Right,” I say, trying to sound unaffected. “If you really came back for me—for us—you’d be willing to do absolutely anything to prove it.”
She furrows her brows. “Yes,” she says. “I know I stayed away too long but we were too close, too wrapped up in each other. It was too much, too—”
“And now?” I ask harshly. I’m not this guy, except apparently when faced with the love of my life who I can’t—don’t want to—get over.
Faith takes a tentative step toward me. “I’m back, and I’m staying. I’m here for the long haul, Bry. I’ve come back for you . . . for us . . . to rebuild what I broke and fix it. I’m going to stay with Ez until I find my own place, and I’m here now to find out if there’s even a chance.”
There’s always been a chance with you.
Everything in my head scrambles together. I look down, fidgeting with my shirtsleeves again, my fingers twisting the silver cuff links Jamie gave each of us with our initials on them.
I never expected her to be so open and upfront about what she wanted. I didn’t imagine she’d turn up and lay it all out there for me. But if she’s sincere and she wants this, then I want it all. No uncertainty. No maybes. No running away when life gets hard or confusing or too much.
There’s only one possible solution. A controlled situation. A certain situation. One final test, if you will. She’ll either go for it or prove she’s not fully invested—again.
Taking a deep breath, I lift my head and meet her eyes. My palms are clammy and my heart is firmly lodged in my throat.
This is it. This is the moment when I find out whether my soulmate is all talk or not. If I want to know for sure, I have to risk it all.
“Okay,” I say with a shrug, masking my nerves.
She jerks, her eyes wide. “What?”
“We can work on this—us—but on one condition.”
Her shoulders sag, her gaze bright and full of hope. “Anything, Bry. You name it, and I’ll do it,” she rushes out. “I really want to fix this. I want to make it up to you. I just want you.”
I nod and run my tongue over my bottom lip. “The plan is this. We enjoy today, no drama or tension. I don’t want anyone feeling like they have to walk around us on eggshells.”
Her gaze turns skeptically cautious. Her eyes narrow ever so slightly. “What’s the catch?”
My lips curve up into a half smirk. “So you do still know me.”
“I remember everything,” she replies, her voice wavering. “What is it? What hoops do I need to jump through? What mountains do I have to climb? Because I’ll do it, Bry. Whatever it takes.”
“It’s pretty simple, really. You want to get back together, and I need certainty.”
She steps closer and I can smell her soft, subtle, absolutely Faith perfume. “I’m sure, Bryant. I’ve never been more sure about anything in my entire life,” she says softly.
She leans in, her eyes shining with hope, a look that morphs into something else entirely when I say the two words I’m expecting will be the deal breaker and prove once and for all that—yet again—Faith Baker truly has no idea what she wants and who she wants it with.