He hated the thought that she could possibly have had that much power over him. "You didn't ruin my life."
"I taught you about lies. I taught you about secrets. I've seen you with women over the years, the way you hold yourself back. The way you never let any of them touch your heart." She paused, and he knew what was coming. "Until Christie."
He couldn't keep his fingers in her grip any longer. "If you want to talk, fine. We'll talk. But keep Christie out of it."
"She loves you."
"What the hell do you know about love?" Years of repressed anger banged and bumped up against the walls he'd built to contain them.
It was the first time he'd ever spoken to her like that, and she looked shocked, but then, instead of falling apart even more, she actually straightened up a bit in the chair. "I can take it," she said, "whatever you've got to say to me. You must be so angry with me."
"It all happened a long time ago." Even though, when he closed his eyes, he could see the whole scene with his mother and Roy as though it were yesterday.
"Please, Liam," she begged. "I'd rather you yelled and screamed at me than look right through me."
"I'm not the one you should be apologizing to. I'm not the one you should be coming clean with."
He left her sitting on the chair...alone. Just the way he'd been since he was a teenager. Just the way he was going to be again once he undid the mistake he'd made with Christie. The mistake of thinking he could let himself trust her.
And love her.
Christie hadn't moved from her spot by the maple tree in the farthest corner of the bush. She was glad she was wearing a bright red jacket over her sweater and jeans. She wanted it to be easy for Liam to find her. Not because she wanted to get their breakup over with sooner--that wouldn't make it hurt any less; she wasn't nearly stupid enough to believe that--but because she knew how much he must be reeling right now.
She just wanted to make life better for him. Now. In the future. And then one day, maybe he'd wake up and realize that he missed her.
She watched him as he approached, her heart breaking even further apart with every step he took--his expression proving without a doubt that she was right about the way everything was going to end between them. She had less than thirty seconds to try to pull herself together. And even though she needed more like thirty years to accept that Liam was already gone, she'd use every last store of her strength for what was coming. Because the last thing Liam needed was one more woman crying. One more woman begging for his forgiveness.
Besides, she wouldn't let herself be sorry about giving her heart for his.
And then, there he was, close enough that she could reach out and touch him. Close enough that he could pull her into his arms and kiss her. Close enough that he could tell her everything was going to be okay.
Instead, he looked at her as if he was berating himself for ever trusting her in the first place.
"You promised to keep what I told you between us."
"I thought I could." A tear fell before she could fight it back. "But I couldn't. I love you too much to keep it." Her words were soft, but they didn't waver. Hopefully, Liam would find a way to patch things up with his mother and finally let out all the love he was holding inside.
"You're the first woman I've trusted since I was a kid. If you really loved me, you wouldn't have said anything to her."
But that's where he was wrong. She'd already lost so much that there was no point in stopping herself now. "That promise you made to her has hurt you from the first moment you made it. I kept Wesley's secret for only a few weeks, and even that was too much. It took something out of me that I shouldn't have had to give up. Just like your mother should never have asked you to give up a piece of your soul for her mistake."
But he clearly didn't want to hear her, and she understood why, even as he said, "You should have respected my wishes. Period. It doesn't matter what your reason is."
She knew what he was doing, that all he wanted was for her to stop loving him, that he wanted to finish putting up his walls and walk away. But though she knew it was the last thing he wanted her to do, she reached out, took his hand, and held it. She couldn't stop her eyes from closing at the pleasure of feeling his warmth, of knowing his touch this one last time. Every second with Liam had been precious.
And she would never regret a single one, regardless of the way they were ending.
"Sometimes loving someone means breaking a promise that will only hurt them if it's kept." She steeled herself to reopen her eyes, to hold his gaze, to keep the tears back. "You're more important than any promise I could ever give you."
Where there had been warmth and love in his eyes just hours ago, now there was nothing. Not even anger. So she finally let go of his hand. But she had to say it one more time, while he was still standing with her.
"Whatever you think, Liam, I love you. I'm pretty sure I loved you from that first moment I saw you at Sarah and Calvin's wedding." She made a sound that could have been a laugh, but that was impossible now. "I was crying then, wasn't I?" She wiped her tears away. "At least I make consistent first and last impressions."
She was that babbling open book she'd always been, but she'd never been able to hold back with Liam. She couldn't do it now even if it meant saving what little strength she had left to move forward. But she could force herself to take a step away, even as the cold penetrated not only her coat but also her flesh, her bones. Her heart.
"I won't make you choose," she said. "This is your home. You should be able to find someone to run the inn within a couple of weeks." She looked over his shoulder at festival attendees struggling with their syrup tapper. "I need to go help with that machine. I'll have a report for you on the festival attendance by close of business tomorrow."
And then she forced herself to move past him, to squash the part of her praying he'd call her name, come after her, and tell her not to go.
She knew that was never going to happen.
And it didn't.
Christie had wanted to run, to flee, to hide. She'd been tempted--so very tempted--to leave the festival grounds and lock herself in her bedroom to curl up on her bed and cry for all she'd just lost.
Instead, she forced herself to stay and follow through on what she'd set out to do in a way she never had before.
Saving the festival had helped bring her and Liam together. Now, even though her actions had ripped them apart, she hoped that taking care of a million and one details today and tonight would help her get through to tomorrow in one piece.
Even without Liam's love.
She was standing a hundred yards from the bustling activity, working to open a cardboard box of empty maple syrup containers when she heard, "Christie!"
How was it, she thought as she turned to face Wesley, that he'd managed not only to come back just as abruptly as he'd left, but with the worst possible timing to boot?
"I'm sorry for leaving the way I did," he said, honest regret evident in his tone, his expression.
An hour ago, she would simply have accepted his apology. She would have told him not to worry about it, that he'd had to do what was right for him. But the dam had already broken with both Susan and Liam, so how could she possibly hold back with Wesley?
"You should be sorry. You left me here to deal with everything. To run the inn by myself." She gestured to the crowd of happy people with a jerk of her arm. "To get this festival off the ground by myself."
"I know I shouldn't have treated you like that, but everything looks like it's going so great. You pulled off the festival beautifully. Just like I knew you would."
"Do you really think that's all you left me with? Just the festival? Just the inn?" She could see his surprise at her harsh questions. She'd never spoken to him like this, had never really let loose her true feelings with anyone until Liam. With Liam, she simply hadn't been able to hold back the love she felt.
"You left me to deal with telling everyone the wedding was off. I thought you were going to be there beside me, that we were going to tell everyone together."
She could see the flush of shame grow deeper beneath his tanned skin. "You're right. I was a coward. I wasn't thinking about anyone but myself."
"Dealing with people whispering, wondering about me, wasn't the worst, Wesley. Even the way your mother looked at me, talked to me like I'd driven her baby away, wasn't the worst." She paused, tried to gulp in air as swift pain nailed her in the chest. "Your brother came home. Liam didn't get your letter. He didn't know the wedding had been canceled."
"Oh shit." Wesley grimaced. "I told him it was my fault, that he shouldn't take it out on you, but if he didn't get the letter..."
"Summer Lake was supposed to be a safe haven for my heart. If I could have stopped myself from dreaming those dreams again, I would have."
"I love him."
Wesley blinked at her, obviously more confused now than ever. "Wait, what are you talking about? Who do you love?"