Home > Aflame (Fall Away #4)(14)

Aflame (Fall Away #4)(14)
Author: Penelope Douglas

Two cables looped around two branches on both sides of Tate’s and my tree and ran into the ground, securing the heavy maple in place. And at the trunk, what looked like some sort of steel brackets cut into the bark on top of and beneath a nearly two-foot slash across the width of the tree. I ran a hand through my hair, stopping mid-stroke as I took in the sight and tried to wrap my head around what could have done this.

“Tate.” I heard Madoc’s raspy voice from behind me.

But I barely heard him. I approached the tree, running my hand down the jagged trunk to the shallow gash, letting my fingers dip into the cut.

And then the bark bit into my skin as I curled my fist.

“She wouldn’t do this.” I swallowed down the trembling in my throat.

This tree was us. She would never do this. She would never try to cut it down!

“After you left, she went cold,” he started, and I felt him approach. “She wouldn’t talk about you. She wouldn’t come home on the weekends . . .” He trailed off, and I wished I didn’t have to hear this.

“I let her have time,” he continued. “I remembered how it felt when I lost Fallon. First loves are the worst pain.”

Except Tate never lost me. I was coming back for her.

“I came home one day the September after you left,” I heard Jax chime in. “And workmen were bringing down the tree.”

No. I closed my eyes.

He continued, “But when they sliced into it, she stopped them. She couldn’t do it.”

“I think she knew you would never have forgiven her,” Madoc added. “And she would never have forgiven herself once she got her head out of her ass.”

I bit the inside of my mouth to stifle my shaky breath. And then I opened my eyes, taking in the damage and almost hating her in that moment.

How could she?

“I understood at first,” Madoc told me. “I was with you the whole way, man. I knew what you needed to do.”

I finally turned around and met his eyes. He and Jax stood back, while Pasha had sat down on the grass with her bag of Sour Punch Bites, playing on her phone.

Madoc continued, “But then she stayed distant—she kept pulling away—and it was like slowly the family was breaking. All of us. She wasn’t Tate without you, and without you both, the rest of us had to struggle to keep things together. To feel normal.”

I dropped my head back, looking up at the bright green leaves fluttering in the early evening breeze. Aside from the gash, the tree looked healthy. It was repairing, thank goodness.

“After a while,” Madoc kept going, “and a lot of persuasion from me, she started to come around. To find her place without you. I think she felt like the fifth wheel all of the time.”

“I couldn’t be there for you and for her, Jared,” Madoc explained. “I don’t want to go into it. It’s Tate’s business, but I had to choose, and I’m not going to apologize for that. She needed me more.”

While I had a damn hard time understanding why he couldn’t be Tate’s and my friend at the same time, I was glad that if he had to choose, he chose her.

Tate had shut me out, she’d kicked me out, and she wouldn’t return texts or calls. But then I realized it wasn’t just me. She must’ve been different for everyone.

“There’s more,” Jax said hesitantly.

I let out an aggravated laugh, shaking my head. What now?

They started walking back from where we came. “Take a look in the front yard,” Madoc called out, gesturing in front of Tate’s house.

I didn’t have to walk far. When I spotted the FOR SALE sign on the other side of the driveway, the ache Madoc’s story had created in my gut turned to full-blown rage in my head.

“What the hell is going on?” I growled, eyeing the tall white wooden pole planted in the grass that hung the FOR SALE sign in full view of anyone who drove by.

Her house is for sale? My eyes shifted from side to side, the flood of thoughts keeping my feet planted to the same spot.

Jax stepped forward. “Tate’s off to Stanford in the fall. Her dad is spending most of his time abroad,” he explained and then approached me. “Last week, he decided to sell, since they’re both home so rarely. He’s buying a house closer to work when he’s in the country.”

“And Tate was okay with that?”

“She had no choice,” Madoc stepped in. “James wouldn’t let her spend her inheritance on buying the house from him. She needs it for medical school.”

I squatted down, running my hand through my hair. I breathed in and out, trying to stay calm, but this shit was flipping my world upside down. Tate’s coldness, the tree, the house . . .

What did I think was going to happen, anyway? That she was going to stay in this house forever? I knew shit was going to change, and I had to accept it. Tate fell away from me, and her life was as it should be. She was moving forward and on track.

But as my lungs filled and emptied, I wished the knots in my gut would hear what my brain was trying to convey.

Tatum Brandt isn’t yours anymore.

But then my fists tightened, and I looked up at her house.

And then at our tree.

And then at my house.

And I couldn’t accept that.

Even after all the good in my life—my business, my career, and how I’d grown—I was satisfied but not really happy.

I still loved her. I’d only ever wanted her.

“Are there any offers on it yet?” I asked, not meeting anyone’s eyes.

“They’ve had two,” I heard Madoc say.

Of course. No one could refuse a Leave It to Beaver house like this. The offers would come fast, and there would be plenty.

“James rejected both, though,” he continued. “He doesn’t seem to be in too big a hurry to sell. That’s why Tate’s staying at my house for a few days. They’re doing some touch-ups inside for new buyers.”

I ran my hand through my hair again, ignoring the fact that Pasha now had her full attention focused on me as she stared wide-eyed, eating her candy. There was only one other time she’d seen me really angry, so she was probably damn well enjoying this show.

I looked up at Tate’s house. Perfect white with some summer green trim. A big, beautiful porch. Her manicured lawn sprawling down an easy little hill. I remember loving the sight of the lights glowing inside on cold winter nights as I pulled into my own driveway.

And my fucking eyes started burning, and I had to look away.

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