Chapter 19

I Love You, I Hate You

A few months prior…

"I don't want this, mom. I don't want any of this," I begged. I didn't even cry—I was too angry to cry. "Why would you do this to me?"

"Because I don't want you to be lonely, and I don't want you to waste your life on things that don't matter. He'll be a good influence on you. He'll help you realize your full potential in life, Pepper. You are so smart. I want you to put your intelligence toward something meaningful." My mother looked at me though imploring eyes, hoping and wishing that I would see from her point of view and agree with her.

"He's not going to help me do anything. We barely know each other. I don't understand how you even got him to agree to this," I said. "And I'm not good at school. I scrape by. I would be destroyed in a medical program."

"Honey," my mother snapped. Well, she tried to snap, but she was so weak that it came out gentler. "If you keep viewing yourself as a failure, you always will be."

"I don't view myself as a failure!" I whisper-shouted at her. I tried to keep my voice down so that I wouldn't disturb the other patients in nearby rooms. "I'm a success—just not in the area you want me to succeed in! Why can't I just do what I'm good at already?"

"Because you will never make enough to support yourself and a family. I'm doing this to protect you. Michael will make a splendid husband," she said. "Someday you'll be as happy as your father and I were, but you'll be able to better support a family."

I crinkled my nose at the thought of making a family with Michael. "I doubt it." I would never be as happy as my parents were when they were both alive. I secretly wondered what my father would think of my mother today if he were still around. Would he have agreed with her, or would he have let me follow my dream?

"Let's not argue for a bit," my mother said. As she exhaled, she seemed to become one with the bed, letting her full weight press into it. "Let's talk about the good times. Remember when we went to the beach together?"

We spoke about trips we had taken and good times we had shared for a while. I smiled around her for the first time in a long time.

XXX

Thankfully, Michael and I were able to make up. After sobbing my eyes out in my room for a while, I came down and apologized for making him upset. He accepted my apology, and in turn apologized for not taking my side. To further his apology, he presented me with a timely surprise on Sunday.

"I got a room at The Soliel for us. Two queen beds," he said with a wink that made my heart flutter, even though not sharing a bed wasn't sexy at all. The Soliel was known as being the fanciest, most extravagant hotel in the city. It was where famous people stayed when they were shooting a movie, or where rich CEOs stayed on business trips. "It has a kitchen, a mini-fridge, and we can order food from the restaurant downstairs if we want to. We have it from Wednesday through Sunday, because everything is going to be crazy around here. Camilla comes back on Friday, so that should give things time to settle down."

"You don't mind being away when she returns?" I asked, feeling a little guilty.

He shook his head. "I'll spend time with them in the evenings when you're away at work."

"Oh… I mean, you wanted me to get to know them, right?" I asked.

"Not like this," he said, shaking his head and smiling. "I want to be there in the beginning. I know you feel a certain way about my parents, and I think you would like them even less if you had to deal with them alone when Camilla comes."

My stomach churned as I grasped for something to say. "It's not that I don't like them, really. It's just—it's just—they're really nice—"

He chuckled as I tried to figure out what else to add. "It's okay, Pepper, really. You don't have to love them just because I do. I know you said you hate your mom. Your mom and mine have a lot in common, so it makes sense if you don't love mine right away." He looked at me with a serious expression and took a step closer, taking my hand in his. "I know you're still going through a lot. We're still going through a lot. Right?"

I nodded, my lip trembling again. Why did I have to be such a baby?

"Can I ask you a kind of embarrassing question?" he asked, shifting his weight and glancing down at the floor before looking back at me.

Again, I nodded, my attention fully set on him.

"Do you still like me? Like, romantically?" he asked. "I know a lot has changed in these past few days."

"Yeah, I do," I said, grinning.

"Okay, I just wanted to make sure. I don't want to push the romance card if you don't want me to," he said.

Romance had clearly stagnated between us after our rough return home from Florida. How were we supposed to act like our argument hadn't happened? How were we supposed to come back from that?

Instead of pushing the topic, I changed it. "I was thinking about my mom yesterday," I said, not knowing where the words came from, or how I found the bravery to say them.

"Yeah?" he asked. "Do you want to talk about it?"

I nodded and he gestured over to the cream-colored loveseat beside the window in the living room. We sat down together and I pulled my knees up to my chest, not caring if it gave away how vulnerable I felt. You can trust him. You can trust him.

My eyes bounced around the room to everywhere but his face. I was terrible at eye contact during tough conversations. "Yesterday, when Tana was leaving, she said she was sorry about my mom passing away." I took a deep breath in and out, steadying myself. "And I don't know why, but…" Another deep breath. "I cried after she said that."

He stretched an arm behind me, resting it along my shoulders. I wanted to pull his other arm in for a hug, but I had more to say, and he was waiting.

"I don't know why I cried, but I'm trying to figure it out," I said.

"Do you… think you might miss her?" he asked.

My lip trembled again and I rubbed my eyes, but there were no tears there yet. "I think I might, but it doesn't make any sense." A tiny sob escaped me and he wrapped his other arm around me, pulling me in so that my head rested on his chest. He was so nice and warm that I let myself melt into him and cry a little more.

He lifted a hand to my hair and stroked it, occasionally saying things like, "It'll be okay," and, "I'm here for you."

When I lifted my head, there were tears soaked into his shirt. "Sorry. I think your shirt's wet," I said, reaching up and rubbing a finger one of the wet spots on his chest.

He shrugged one shoulder, not taking his arms from being around me. "It doesn't matter. I have plenty of shirts."

For some reason, that made me laugh. I leaned my head onto his shoulder and we sat there like that for a long time, not saying anything. Michael was my friend, and now he was my confidante, too. Not to mention, a great kisser. I loved it. I loved him.