Chapter Five

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Danielle cut ties with the balloons, let them rise and hide in the corner while she ripped her clothes out from the turquoise canvas weekend bag that she'd packed in preparation for the trip to New Hampshire. Tossing each item onto her antique twin bed at her grandmother's house, she hissed through the process. A dress, a pair of shorts, a tank top, a sweater, they all took a beating. Nothing was folded, nothing was tidy, and for her, that was the ultimate evidence of frustration.

She huffed through the unpacking, tossing aside her small collection of toiletries—skin cleanser, moisturizer, sunscreen, a toothbrush—along with her slim see-through makeup bag.

Then she fell face first onto the heap of clothes, the bed letting out a squelch beneath her. Every time she'd tossed or turned since she'd moved in with her grandmother, any time the heavy stress of school or life choices became too overwhelming, that same squeak had sounded under the weight. It was familiar in its song, and served as a signal of her stress levels, just as the frantic piles of disorganization signaled her mood.

She'd burst, she knew. She'd said terrible things. She'd been mean to the man she'd been head over heels for since the minute she met him. But she'd been honest, she thought, reaching for some strand of mercy to hold on to. She'd had those thoughts brimming in her head and she'd let them out...at the worst moment possible.

Everything came easy for Beckett—it was like he had some innate trust in the universe she couldn't understand. She'd watched her parents carefully consider every step they took—whether it was switching poultry suppliers or adding a new sandwich to the menu—and she'd learned to operate in much the same manner. She was careful, she watched her steps, she analyzed, considered, and calculated. Because she had to. If she didn't, she'd never get anywhere in life.

Beckett didn't have to do any of that. Things always just flowed his way and worked out. Nothing had ever flowed for her in that way.

Hearing her thoughts, she was humble enough to recognize that what panged inside of her was a sharp, twisted twinge of jealousy. Beckett trusted that things would work out, and there was an attractive freedom that went along with that. He had two siblings who looked out for him, a town full of people who adored him. He had a good life that he was settled into, a life that looked great on him. Really great. But that freedom, that trust, wasn't something taught in school, nor was it innate within her. Beckett was free to ride the flow, and Danielle worked hard to make the flow happen in the first place.

The jealousy, she decided as she rolled over and looked up to watch the ceiling fan spin in slow rotation, was intensely depressing to consider.

But even so, where was the line? Where was the line between reaping the rewards of her hard work, and trusting the heart and whim of a man like Beckett? And just what did Beckett want besides for her to stay? He'd told her he loved her—words she'd wished to hear over the years but had never thought they'd actually be spoken. It had been a silly daydream that promised never to slide over into reality.

They'd gone from no strings to him saying that he wanted her to stay. And while the delivery had been less than ideal, he'd said that he loved her, which must have been difficult and... Her spinning thoughts trailed off, letting his words catch up with her.

He loved her and he wanted her to stay, she thought again, her temper slowing to a simmer.

What if—for the sake of argument—she stayed? What would happen next? What would her life look like? What, she wondered, did the man ultimately want? If she didn't accept the job and stayed in Stonebridge, what did he want with her? Before she could consider making any sacrifices in her life, she needed to understand at least that much.

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