Joel leaned closer to try to hear more than one side of our conversation, and I rubbed a spot between my eyes as I confessed, “I love him. I just wanted you to know I love him.”
“Sweetheart,” my dad said, “I knew that at Easter.”
“How?” I breathed.
My dad chuckled into the phone. “Because I’m your dad. I know things.”
“So you’re okay with me living with him?” I asked.
“I didn’t say that. Now put him on the phone.”
I reluctantly handed Joel the phone, and he and my dad had a long talk during which he told my dad that he loves me and that he’d never do anything to hurt me. By the time he handed my phone back, all I wanted to do was hang up on my dad so I could kiss Joel senseless for saying all of those perfect things.
“Okay,” my dad said. “You have my seal of approval, but if he ever gets out of line, you tell him I have a gun.”
“But you don’t . . .”
“But he doesn’t need to know that.”
I laughed and told my dad I loved him, and when he finally let me off the phone, I beamed at Joel. Rowan and the guys showed up a short while later with the moving van, and I immediately got to work bossing people around, which I’m still doing when Shawn and Mike carry my dresser into the room.
Moving the furniture in is easy, but the little things are hard—like positioning my coffee mug next to Joel’s, or spreading my comforter on his bed. When I drop my purple toothbrush into a plastic cup next to his green one, my heart lashes against the walls of my chest and I have to take deep breaths to calm it. The little things feel like bungee jumping, like skydiving.
And there are moments when I want to back away from the ledge again, but when I remember how lonely that felt—how bad—I let myself fall. I cling to Joel on the way down—holding his gaze, brushing his fingers, and planting soft kisses on his lips as we unpack—and he falls with me.
Later that night, after the little things are done and I haven’t passed out even once, I change into a pair of teeny pajama shorts and one of Joel’s T-shirts.
“So your dad is really okay with this?” he asks me for the second time that day as I watch him tug his shirt over his head. God, that will never get old.
“My dad loves you,” I say, climbing into bed—under my crisp covers, on top of his firm mattress. Our bed. My heart pounds again, but this time it feels a little warmer, a little nicer.
Joel gives me a skeptical glance and climbs in next to me. “He didn’t sound like he loved me on the phone . . .”
“What did he say?”
“He said he wasn’t a fan of seeing his baby girl cry over a boy.” Joel slides closer, his hand coming to rest on the curve of my waist. His voice is soft, careful, when he says, “Did you cry?”
I fight the urge to deny it, to downplay the misery I felt. Instead, I admit, “I fell apart.”
“I thought you’d be relieved I was gone . . .”
I curl up against his chest so I don’t have to look him in the eyes, and he wraps his arms tight around me. “When you left, I lashed out at my dad. Then I went over to Rowan’s and cried my heart out. I got sloppy drunk and passed out, and my dad had to come get me.”
His firm fingers rub my back, and he says, “I’m sorry.”
I shake my head against his bare skin, closing my eyes and breathing his scent deep into my lungs. “I slept in the guest room that night and cried into the T-shirt you left behind. After I came back to school, I wore it to bed a few times just because I missed you so much.”
“Yeah. I still have it.”
Joel pulls away to lower his lips to mine, giving me a soft kiss that tells me he loves me more than words ever could.
“I love you,” I say anyway, getting better at saying it. My heart beats strong and steady.
“I love you too,” he says back, giving me another sweet kiss and asking, “Did you love me at Easter?”
“I loved you at the festival,” I confess. I snuggle against him again, knowing it’s true. “I just didn’t know it.”
“Same here,” Joel says. “I didn’t know it until you went home and didn’t text me.”
“I should have known it earlier. I just didn’t want to admit it.”
“I never wanted to fall in love. My mom . . .”
“You don’t have to tell me,” he offers when I trail off, and I take a steady breath. I’ve never talked about my mom to anyone but Rowan, and to some extent, to my dad. But I want Joel to know about her. I want him to know about me.
I need to stop hiding. I need to let him see me.
I pull away from him so I can lose myself in his blue eyes. “My mom had an affair,” I say, strengthened by the steady way he looks at me. “I have no idea how long it had been going on, but she left when I was eleven, and when she did, my dad was broken. I never wanted anyone to have that power over me.”
“You know I’d never do that to you, right?”
“How do you know?” I ask, and when he just stares at me like he’s not sure what I’m asking, I say, “The band is getting huge, Joel. You have girls throwing themselves at you every time you perform.”
“They aren’t you,” he says simply.
“What happens when you get tired of me?”