Clark didn't have a single coherent thought until he was flying over a different continent in his private jet. Then everything flooded into his head. What Jeannie had said. What he'd said.
Oh, God. What have I done?
Every day with Jeannie had brought him more happiness than he'd ever known. She'd made him want…more. The night of the ball, her beauty stole his breath, and the need to possess her overcame him. He could no longer deny he was in love, and guilt slashed through him. Wasn't he doing exactly what Catherine had accused him of? Would he ever be able to love Jeannie without the crushing weight of his guilt?
He'd resolved to tell Jeannie that they should go back to being friends without benefits. He'd never expected her to want more. Never imagined her heart would be involved. But when she told him she was in love with him, he wanted to hold on to her more than he wanted anything else in his life. The need and guilt had warred inside him. It was more than he could bear.
When she'd walked away from his car, his only thought was to run. He didn't want to consider what he'd done. He couldn't face what had happened.
So he ran.
His plane would be landing in Argentinian Patagonia soon, and he was anxious to climb. He wasn't prepared enough to free-climb, but even with gear, clinging to a rock face thousands of feet above the ground always made him feel alive. But right now, he appreciated the numbness that encompassed him. He wasn't sure if he wanted to feel anything.
When they landed, Clark didn't pause to take a breath. He grabbed his gear and jumped into the 4x4 waiting for him, and headed for his destination. He expected to feel anticipation and adrenaline flow through his veins when he faced the steepest cliff in La Cosa, but all he felt was terror. Even with the gear, the climb wasn't an easy one, and the sudden fear of never seeing Jeannie again rooted him to the ground. After Catherine had died, he'd felt as though he had nothing left to lose, but now…he had everything to lose. Jeannie. She was his everything. He couldn't do this climb. Not in his current state.
But you already lost her. Jeannie was gone. He had left her. She loved him, but he'd heartlessly refused her. An ache developed in his heart, breaking through the numbness he'd cocooned himself in.
He'd had no idea. He didn't think it was possible for her to fall in love with a man like him—guilt ridden and broken. He had no idea that he could hurt her. God, I hurt her. The dam finally broke and all the pain he'd been holding at bay came crashing into him. Leaning back against the rock face, he moaned and pushed the heel of his hand against his chest.
He had been so confused and consumed by guilt that he'd broken the heart of the woman he loved. The one person who had given him hope that life could go on—that he could let go of the past and live to the fullest. And he'd thrown her precious love in her face.
He had to let go of his guilt about Catherine. It had been two years since her death. She had been afraid of him being unfaithful to her during their marriage, but he'd never broken his vows or betrayed her trust while she was alive. His newfound love for Jeannie wasn't a betrayal of his late wife's memory. It was about moving on.
Clark loved Jeannie too much to let his past hang-ups hurt her any longer. Keeping himself from loving her wasn't just punishing himself, it was punishing Jeannie, too. He couldn't let that continue. He was going back to her and groveling until she forgave him. But a terrified thought hit him. What if she didn't want anything to do with him? No. He couldn't think that. He couldn't imagine life without her. He wouldn't give up until she forgave him. At the very least, he wanted her to know that he loved her with all his heart, and all the horrible things he'd said were born out of fear and guilt.
He drove purposefully away the jutting cliffs, no longer interested in the thrill and the temporary escape from reality. Jeannie was his new reality, and he never wanted to escape from her.
His plane landed in Los Angeles before dawn. Clark wanted to rush to Jeannie's condo and knock at her door, but he didn't want to act like a complete lunatic. So he waited. When the blue and purple hues of the sky hinted at imminent sunrise, he jumped in his car and made a mad dash to Jeannie.
He screeched into the guest parking space and cut the engine. Rather than pausing to take a deep breath and figure out what he was going to say to her, he dashed out of the car and toward her building. And nearly ran straight into the woman of his dreams.
"Eek," she yelled in alarm, as she flailed from the impact.
"I got you." He held her up by her arms, and the small touch made him catch fire.
But she shook her arms out of his hold. "Where—"
They both stopped and stared at each other. Clark felt his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed. "Please. You go ahead."
"Where the hell have you been?" she seethed.
He blinked at the unexpected question. "I—I flew to Argentina after I dropped you off."
"You crushed my heart and went off on a joyride?" Slashes of red stained her cheeks, and her fists clenched at her sides. "I texted you. I called you. I even went to your office and your house, but I couldn't find you anywhere."
"You were…looking for me?" he asked in a daze. Why?
"Of course, I was, you idiot. Did you think I would let you go that easily?" She lifted her chin in challenge. "I was just on my way to your house to camp out there. I thought you were ghosting me again."
"I don't understand."
"Oh, yeah? Well, you don't understand a lot of things. Including your own heart." Some of her bravado left her and a forlorn sigh escaped her lips. "Do you realize how terrified I was to make myself vulnerable again? Do you have any idea what it took me to tell you I loved you?"
"Oh, God, Jeannie. I'm so sorry."
"You should be," she said softly, pain still darkening her eyes. It killed him that he put it there. "You hurt me, Clark."
"I know. It's tearing me apart. Please. Let me—"
"No, it's my turn to talk," she said. "Once I ran out of tears, I went through our conversation in my head. Over and over. And do you know what I realized? I remembered what you said the night we first made love. You didn't reject my love because you don't love me—because I know you love me—but because you were suffocating in your own guilt."
She wasn't going to let him go. She knew he loved her. His blood thundered in his ears. Did it mean he could still win her back?
"Wait, a minute," she said. "If you went to Argentina, how are you here?"
"I realized my mistake the moment I got there and came right back. I can't run from my feelings for you, Jeannie." He took a step closer to her and heard her quiet gasp. Hope fluttered in his heart. "I was halfway down another continent before I figured out what a coward I'd been. I never dreamed that you could love me. And I never thought I could hurt you. When I tried to end things between us, I thought I would be the only one with a broken heart. But when you told me you loved me, I panicked. I was so happy but felt so guilty because of it."
"Why…why are you here?" Her eyes were so wide, full of fear and hope.
"I'm here to beg you to forgive me for being an idiot. I'm here to tell you that I love you more than anything in the world." He took another step closer to her and tentatively held her hands in his own. She let him. "I refuse to live in the past anymore. I want to let go, and live my life to the fullest with you."
"I want that more than anything. I want to fight for us but…I'm scared," she said so softly he had to lean down to hear her. "You broke my heart. I don't know if I can survive another heartbreak."
"You won't have to. Nothing will keep me away from you again, not even fear or guilt. Our friendship, our love has never been wrong. What we have is true and precious," he said fervently. "I will never run from you again. Will you…please give me another chance?"
"Yes," she whispered with trembling lips.
He couldn't hold back anymore and pulled her into his arms. "God, I love you, Jeannie."
"I love you, too."
"The time I spent thinking I'd lost you were the worst moments of my life." He shuddered, and held her tighter against him. "I'm not letting you go ever again. I can't live without you."
"You won't have to." She pulled his head down until her lips were a breath away from his. "Because you and me…this is forever."
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