One Year Later
The moments before they went out were always Teo’s favourites. Lia had yet to put on her killer heels, but she was in a gorgeous dress with loose hair and a mist of lilac perfume following her around. He was nervous, like he always was when he had to make a public appearance, but for now all that mattered was the two of them.
“Is everything all right, darling?” she asked, turning to him.
The blue of her dress matched her inquisitive eyes and looking at her, he had one of those moments where all the goodness of his life hit him all at once. He had been with Lia for a year and in that time gone from living alone in the woods to spending most of the time with her, falling a little deeper in love with every minute they spent together.
“Just wondering if I should lock the door and keep you all to myself.” He leaned back and rested on his arms. “We could stay home and I’ll make the neighbours come knocking again.”
She turned to him. “It’s not funny, Teo,” she said while clearly trying not to laugh. “It was mortifying.”
“It was pretty funny.”
He still chuckled when he thought of the day his girlfriend had been forced to admit that she was a screamer. The moment when Lia Cavalcante, dressed only in a robe and with a face as red as a ripe apple, crept to the door and explained that she wasn’t being murdered, was vivid in his memory. He could tell from the way she pouted now that it was pretty vivid for her, too.
“No, it wasn’t funny.” She cracked a smile anyway.
Lia rolled her eyes and went about doing her hair. She attached the last couple of pins, and he mused to himself that it was a shame that she only let her hair down at home. She turned to him.
“Well, are you ready?”
“So long as you’re with me, I’m ready for anything.” He held a hand out to her and she took it, settling happily into his arms.
“Good. I asked them to limit the number of people in the bookshop at the same time, but there will be at least ten to twelve people who bought tickets. I hope you won’t feel too bad.”
“I’m getting used to it.”
It was still a little hard to understand that the biography was out there and that people were reading it. That many people were reading it. Close to the date of publishing Lia wrote an afterword on a whim, one that detailed the relationship that had bloomed between them while writing the book. Teo cried when he read it and her publisher insisted that she should add it.
“It’s so dreadfully sentimental, though,” Lia said when they tried to convince her. “I don’t know if it adds anything.”
But it did. The book became something of a sensation and everyone cited the afterword as the reason. Lia kept insisting it was the worst part of the book, but it was Teo’s favourite. He still sometimes read those words, because on the days when he felt trapped in his own head, it was a comfort to see himself through her eyes.
The attention they got from the book was weird, but it was bearable because Lia was at his side through it all. He would have preferred not to go to signings, but he managed it well enough and took it as a chance to practise being out in the world.
“We had better leave then,” she said. “We’ll want to be there a little early to set up.”
Teo nodded, but he didn’t get up. He kept her in his arms, looking into those eyes that he loved more than anything. It amazed him that she was here, that she loved him even half as much as he loved her. The love that radiated back at him gave him the courage to push through with his plans for later. It felt right to do it tonight even if he felt instantly sweaty and worried at the thought.
“I want to talk to you about something when we’re done with the signing,” he said.
“Oh? What is it?”
“Just, you know, a few details about stuff.”
Lia narrowed her eyes. “Teo, you’re hiding something.”
“Yeah, it’s a surprise. You’ll know after the signing, if you’ll come to the cabin with me.”
“Very well,” she said, though her eyes were still suspicious. “If you insist.”
“Mm,” he said and kissed her. “I do.”
They arrived at the bookstore just before they were set to start and took their seats behind the table set up for them. While customers started pouring into the shop, Lia’s hand found his under the table and gave it a comforting squeeze. Right as they were about to start, she looked him in the eyes and smiled.
“Are you all right with this, darling?” she asked.
He nodded, but he realised that she saw through him when her eyes narrowed.
“You’re more nervous than usual,” she said.
“What? No, this is the usual level.” It was a lie, which must be completely obvious to her, but before she could protest, he pointed at the line that had formed. “Oh, we’d better start.”
Lia looked sceptical, but her face softened. She squeezed his hand and, as the first in the line moved up, she mouthed “I love you.”
They signed and chatted with the customers as they came up one by one. It still blew him away how many came by and how happy they were to talk to him. They had read the book and the truths written in it, but they didn’t seem scared.
He figured it was mostly due to the way Lia had written about him, but at the same time, he admitted to himself that with the help of therapy, he was becoming a halfway decent guy. He had lingering anger issues and sometimes she had to remind him that he was, in fact, lying, but it didn’t happen as often.
He didn’t have any problems during this signing. In fact, it turned out to be their best signing yet. Halfway through, he saw Costanza’s familiar face bounce up and down near the back of the line. She marched up to the table later with Lorenzo in tow and a copy of the book she had just bought pressed to her chest.
“Costanza, we sent you a copy,” Lia protested as she held it out.
“We want to support you, don’t we honey?” Costanza looked at her husband.
He laughed and smiled at his wife. “We do.” His smile was a little guarded as it always was around Lia. “We already read it. It’s good,” he said.
Teo was so close to telling Lorenzo that his girlfriend’s writing was more than just good, but Lia squeezed his hand in warning. He knew it made sense that Lorenzo was a little awkward around Lia since they were former lovers, but that didn’t stop him from hating the guy a little. He played nice because he cared about Lia and Costanza and the two of them seemed to prefer to not talk about it. At least the two of them were the best of friends now.
There were people up until the signing was over and it went well enough, though he couldn’t help but notice that Lia seemed on edge, much like he was himself. She kept looking at the door, but when he had a moment to whisper and ask what it was, she just shook her head and insisted it was nothing. When they had signed the last book, she looked a little dejected. Since she didn’t look inclined to share, he didn’t ask yet, but she wasn’t going to get away with keeping silent forever.
Once the signing had ended and the last stragglers had been sent away with autographed books, there was a break before they started the questions and answers session. They spent that time sitting in a sofa near the front of the store, tucked away into a corner. A few people milled around the bookshop, waiting, among them Costanza and Lorenzo, but everyone seemed to let them have a few moments to themselves.
“I’d say that went well,” said Lia. “Though you do seem nervous today.”
“It’s okay,” he said truthfully. It wasn’t this that made him nervous. “It’s not my favourite way of spending a Friday night, but I’ll manage. I hope your next book’s about someone other than me.”
She smiled. “You think I’ll write more?”
“Yeah.” He kissed her forehead. “You can’t help yourself. Though… don’t fall in love with your next subject, okay?”
“Now I can safely promise you that won’t happen.”
Lia wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a kiss that made him feel like he could take on another five evenings like this. She broke the kiss, but stayed in his arms, playing with a lock of his hair.
“There’s something you’re not telling me,” she said. “What is—”
What it was she was going to ask, he wouldn’t find out, because she suddenly started and sprang up from her seat when the bell announced the arrival of new people in the bookshop. He followed her eyes and stopped dead.
Two people had just entered, a man with light-brown, greying hair, and a small, stooping woman. Nevio had inherited their dad’s height and early greying hair just like he had. He had gained weight over the last decade and a half, but he looked clean. Healthy. Their mum was older, her formerly blonde hair now a silver grey. Lia spoke up before he had a chance to even form a coherent thought.
“Oh, you made it.”
Teo’s mother and brother turned, first noticing Lia and then Teo who scrambled to his feet. He only made it to his wobbly legs because Lia supported him. He stared for what felt like a small eternity and then his mother smiled.
“Teodoro,” she said in that quiet, soft voice of hers. “Hello.”
Teo’s heart leapt. “H-hi, mum.”
It was like they had stepped into a small pocket where time didn’t pass normally. Lia slipped a hand into his and the other she held out to his family.
“It’s Clementina and Nevio, right? I’m Rosalia, the one who sent you the invitations.”
She shook hands with his family and Teo looked at her, amazed.
“You invited them?”
“I invited them for every signing we’ve done so far.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry. I was busy with work so we couldn’t make it until now,” Nevio said.
Teo sank back tears looking at his brother. Busy with work. He was working. Not just sitting around at home. He felt Lia’s hand on his cheek and became aware that he hadn’t been able to keep from crying.
“What do you do?” he asked.
“I’m a physicist. I went to a different university, but I got to go.”
Teo covered his mouth with a hand, but a sob still escaped. His brother came over and wrapped him in a hug and when their mum followed suit, he gathered them both into his arms. They smelled different, both of them. Not dirty or bad, not like they lived among hoarded piles.
“We looked for you, you know,” said Clementina after they pulled back. “I was out of my mind, I thought you’d crashed the car.”
“I’m sorry,” he cried. “I-I sold the car. I couldn’t stay after I hurt dad.”
“You’re safe,” she said matter-of-factly. “Right now, that’s all that matters. The rest… the rest we’ll figure out.”
Lia’s hand stroked his back with slow, comforting motions like she so often did when he was out of sorts.
“We have to start the questions and answers session soon, darling,” she said.
“Shit.” He laughed and cried at the same time.
Clementina reached into her pocket and got a tissue for him. Teo took it and blew his nose loudly which made both his mother and brother laugh out loud. It was still unreal to hear them after all that time only hearing it in his memories.
He still wasn’t sure how he could even begin to apologise for leaving and for staying away so long. For worrying them. Right now, however, wasn’t the time to deal with it. They walked to their seats and did the questions and answers and he was almost grateful for the distraction.
Tonight’s session was a little different. When somebody asked if he ever spoke to his family again, a common question at these events, he said yes. He said he hoped that they could mend things going forward and as he said it, he caught Nevio’s eyes and his brother nodded. It was only Lia’s hand in his and the many eyes on them that kept him from crying again.
After the session was done, they left the shop and while Lia had a few words with the bookshop’s owners, Teo took his family to their car. He asked about the things he missed—Nevio’s job, his mum’s retirement, their lives for over a decade. Nevio had a girlfriend that he shared a flat with. Their mum had moved to a different place as well and she played cards with the woman next door. The old hoard had been cleaned out after his dad’s death, the old house sold and torn down to make way for new flats. All of the evidence of that time was gone, except for the scars it had left on them all.
They asked him about his life, and he was embarrassed to tell them that more had happened in the past year than the whole decade before it.
“You built a whole cabin though, right?” Nevio asked.
Teo shrugged. “Yeah, but that’s about it. The rest of the time I just… tended to chickens and chopped trees.”
“We read about it in the book,” his mum said. “I hope you’ll let us see the cabin and maybe we’ll get to meet Rosalia properly. She seems lovely.”
“She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I-I’m going to ask her to marry me,” he said without thinking as the nerves came up to the surface again.
His mum suddenly looked at him with reproach and put her hands on her hips. “Teo! Were you going to get married without ever contacting us?”
“No, well… I…” Teo bent his head. “I was going to call. Lia wanted me to. I wasn’t sure… if you’re uncomfortable around me, I understand. I hurt dad.”
“He was okay, you know.” Nevio crossed his arms. “We took him to get stitches and he got a concussion. He was mad about it but you leaving was what really got to him. It changed him.”
Teo looked at them with a frown.
“Well, he was still your dad,” Clementina said. “He absolutely refused to throw anything away and he never apologised for ruining Nevio’s chance at that scholarship, but… he did help him find another university.”
Nevio smiled sadly. “He never stopped talking about how you were probably okay. Mum and I thought you might be hurt but he wouldn’t hear it. Said you’re a smart kid and you’d figure it out.”
Teo could practically hear the old man’s voice in his head. For a moment he could barely breathe, he missed him so much. All the hurt and misery and pain he caused was still there and always would be, but it couldn’t change how much he missed him. His mum noticed that he went quiet and hugged him tight. He rested his head on her hair.
“I’m sorry, mum,” he mumbled. “I’m so sorry for leaving.”
She pulled out of the hug and put her hands on his face.
“Well you had better be sorry, but… but it’s okay now.”
Teo blinked away tears.
“There’s another thing I haven’t told you,” he said.
She tilted her head in a quiet question.
“Your boots were in the car. I kept them and Lia’s been using them.”
Clementina threw her head back and laughed before pressing kisses to his face. And just like that, everything was right with the world.
It was maybe the thousandth time Lia sank into the sofa in the cabin and curled up while Teo made tea for her, but tonight she couldn’t relax. She had offered to help, but he insisted that he wanted to do it himself and she let him because she wanted to give him all the space he needed after the talk with his family. He had been quiet afterwards and she couldn’t help but feel like she had overstepped.
It had been a long year of trying to convince him to call and it seemed like he always had a good reason for not doing it, so at the end she searched up their address and invited them to the signings. Was it wrong? A part of her still felt bad about it and even though he insisted that he was happy that she did it and that everything was fine, he was still so unusually quiet, perhaps even nervous. Lia guessed it must be nerves about the next day’s visit from his family, but when she asked if it was that, he said no. He lied. That hurt more than she cared to admit. Surely he would trust her enough to share his worries with her? In the last year, they had become so close, she never imagined that he wouldn’t tell her if she overstepped his boundaries.
She was so steeped in the worries, she barely noticed that he had finished the tea and came over to her with a tray.
“Are you all right darling?” she asked immediately when he took his seat.
She couldn’t help but notice that he was shaky.
“Yeah,” he said, lying.
“Teo, you’re lying dear. Look…” She took a deep breath. “I’m really terribly sorry about this coming as such a surprise. I shouldn’t have gone behind your back.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I think you were right to do it.”
She blinked. “You’re… not lying.”
“No, I’m not, I mean it. If you’d done it a year ago or if someone else had done it, yeah, I would’ve been a bit pissed, but it’s you. You know better than anyone that I need a bit of a push sometimes, just like I know that it’s time to lure you away from your laptop when you’ve been working for eighteen hours in a row.”
He sounded so sincere, but she couldn’t shake the thought.
“But you seem upset about something. What happened? Did they say anything to you or was it—”
Teo placed a finger on her lips. “Christ, Lia, I’m fine. I’m happy you did that for me, okay? But I’ve been meaning to ask you about something and I’m dying here.”
He took the tray and placed it on her lap. Besides the tea mugs, there was a small pile of papers, which she took with a frown.
“What’s all this?” she asked.
“I need to show you something. It’s right there.”
He pointed and she took a good look at the papers which were full of drawings and notes in Teo’s neat handwriting. They were floorplans and it looked a lot like…
“This is the cabin, yes?” she asked, getting more confused by the second.
Teo draped an arm around her and pulled her close. “Yup.” He pointed at the drawing. “I drew these up during the past month. This is the kitchen and that’s this room.”
“Wait, that’s…” She studied it closer. “There’s an extra room here!”
Lia looked up at his grinning face.
“I want to expand.”
“That’s wonderful.” She leafed to the next page which had a perspective drawing of the room as he imagined it. It had a big four-poster bed in the centre. “Oh, it would be a new bedroom?”
“Yeah, thought you might like that. Now that you’re here so often, it seems right to have some more space.”
“I love it,” she said, giving him a quick kiss. “Did you want me to approve the plans? Because you already knew I would so there was no need to be so worried.”
“Go to the next page,” he said in a voice that was lower, softer.
He pressed a kiss to her temple and she did as told, expecting more floorplans for the cabin expansion, but the next page instead had sketches with measurements. It took her a minute to understand what it was. The page had drawings and measurements and notes on a small circular object. A ring. Lia blinked as she realised what it was and put a hand over her mouth. When she looked at Teo again, he held the actual ring up to her, as though he had magicked it out of the page and into his hand.
“You made that?” she whispered.
He nodded. “Read a few books. Made a few attempts. This is the final result.”
It was beautiful. The ring was a simple golden band, but with its uneven, rustic surface it was so like something Teo would have made with his beautiful, gentle hands. While she watched him, he got up from the sofa and went down on one knee in front of her. All of her worries suddenly vanished as it all made sense.
“I know it’s not much,” he said. “You deserve diamonds and mansions and all you get is this and a slightly bigger cabin.”
Lia had tears in her eyes.
“Teo,” she managed to say.
“Lia,” he said back, taking her hand, “you know I’m no good at this kind of stuff. I’m not good with words, because I have my biographer for that. I can’t tell you all the things you deserve to hear from me, but I do love you. I love you more than anything and I hope you’ll agree to marry a weird, old former hermit.”
She placed a hand on his unshaven cheek. “Of course, I’ll marry you.”
Teo’s smile was radiant as he slipped the ring on her finger and they watched it glowing in the light from the fireplace. Tears stung her eyes as she flung her arms around him and he drew her up and into his arms where she fit so well.
“I’ve been dying with nerves all night.” He rested his forehead against hers.
“Did you really think I would say no?”
Teo paused for a long time. “No, I didn’t, but maybe the ring wasn’t your thing. Or maybe I should have done it in public, like… at a fountain?”
She laughed. “A fountain?”
“Fountains are fancy and you’re fancy. Maybe you’d like that.”
Lia shook her head. “Teo, you’re being completely ridiculous.”
“But you agreed to marry me, so I’m doing something right.”
She smiled. “My love, everything you did tonight was right.”
That seemed to calm him down and his body relaxed against hers. He slipped his hands around her middle and drew her in, pressing a soft kiss to her lips. One kiss turned into more until she was wrapped up in him, barely able to tell her own needy body from his. Teo swept her up into his arms and between kisses said.
“Let’s see if I can’t do a few more things right tonight.”
Author’s note: Hi all and welcome back to the second to last chapter of Heartwood. I know it’s been a looooong time since the last one, but it turns out that having a full-time job doesn’t necessarily make it easier to write and snap pictures. 😅 I’m on a little bit of a roll, though, so fingers crossed that’ll keep being the case so I can finish up this story. In between this and the next, I’ll probably be putting out a picture-free post with a little bit I cut. This chapter used to be two longer chapters where I cut out a significant chunk. That chunk didn’t make sense to have here for reasons I’ll explain at a different time. Now, the last proper chapter is already written (and has been approved by my beta-reader), but it’ll take some CC making and probably quite a bit of set-up for photos.
This one took a bit of CC making, too. Had to make the banner and book for the signing. I also spent time making the engagement ring which you can’t see in the pics. At least not close up, so uh… time well spent! 🤣 Somebody ought to take the ability to make CC away from me – clearly I’m not handling it responsibly.
Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this chapter if you made it this far and I hope to see you in the next post.
Love you all,