Chapter Fourteen

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Fireworks streamed through the darkened sky—electric pinks and golds and reds and purples—like glowing sea creatures, Danielle thought. She'd always loved fireworks, loved the combination of calm quiet then loud booms with light crackling through, spewing like a surprise burst of color every time.

But this year, the simple act of watching fireworks didn't even begin to penetrate past the thick sludge of feelings that collected inside of her. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism to keep the hurt at bay, perhaps it was emotional exhaustion. Whichever way she looked at it, all she really wanted to do was curl up and cry. But instead, she sat on a picnic blanket on top of a castle in New Hampshire, watching a display of fire and light, listening to the ooos and ahhs of the couples snuggled for closeness and comfort around her.

"Where's Uncle Beckett?" Archer asked, then followed with a quick, "He said I could call him that. Whoa, you see that?"

More lights spewed, more booms sounded, demanding attention.

Danielle tried to numb herself to wondering the same thing as the kid—where was Beckett? But it was no longer her business, no longer healthy to wonder where the man was. For all she knew, he'd found a maid and was getting carnal in a closet somewhere in the castle.

And the thought made her want to throw up.

Because it was dark, and the couples—and kid—that surrounded all stared up to the sky, Danielle took a moment to close her eyes and just breathe. The scents of thick woods and a warm summer, she thought, would never be the same. They would always have heartache attached to them. They would always have Beckett attached to them.

Maybe it was good she would soon move to California—new scents, new scenery, new feelings. Abigail, Kara, and Emerson had all understood that she couldn't let the opportunity go for a man who wanted no commitment to her, hadn't they? She was doing the right thing, she reminded herself. It was for the best all around.

Mostly, she thought, she needed to focus on what would come next—the logistics of moving, the preparation to begin a new job. Planning, she decided, was an improvement over any other thoughts that sneaked in and sunk her heart.

Because her eyes were still closed, she smelled the clean, masculine scent of Beckett before she saw him. His hand—warm, strong, steady—touched at her back to let her know he was there, joining her on the blanket.

She didn't want to look at him, she didn't want to care. But she did anyway.

Color erupted in the sky and reflected brilliantly in the liquid gold of his eyes. Even without the explosions in the night sky, something in his eyes wound through her, swirling her insides into tiny knots she knew would take years to unravel.

And yet, she couldn't look away.

"I'm sorry," he started, his voice so low only she could hear.

She didn't know if she could bear it, to turn the Fourth of July into a holiday she'd forever want to avoid. It all hurt enough, she'd cried enough, and she didn't know if she could keep it together in front of the couples in love that huddled together on their respective blankets, watching the sky's every burst of color.

"Beckett, just don't. Not now. Just let it be," she said in a quiet whisper. "Please."

She tilted her head up, calling on her strength to singularly focus on the show that played out over their heads.

"I love you," he told her, ignoring her request. "And you asked me to be honest with you, so that's exactly what I'm going to do." He took a steadying breath, waited until she looked at him again.

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