That night, back in the hotel room, I was talking to Sheila all about Carter and our conversation earlier as we both got ready for bed.
"He really likes you," Sheila assured me. I'm sure she could tell I was over analyzing everything from the day in my mind.
"But, I want to take it slowly. When I was in high school, I immediately started dating Brad...we hadn't really had a chance to get to know each other and build a friendship first. I don't want to make that same mistake again. And I don't want my feelings to get in the way before it's too late."
"And from the looks on his face when he's around you, I don't think he'll have any problem waiting around."
I sighed, and turned to face the window. I had shut my eyelids to fall asleep, when I saw I had a text on my phone.
"I had a lot of fun with you today. Maybe we can do it again before we leave?" Carter asked in a message.
"I was just thinking about you. I'd love that," I figured I would just be open about how I was starting to feel about him. It seemed to be pretty obvious that he had been doing that from the time we met.
For the next hour and a half, we ended up talking. It was like we'd never run out of ideas to talk about. I thought back to when I was with Brad, and how as soon as we had talked about our days at work that was about all we'd have to say. I had never realized how real a relationship could be; how it could really mess up your heart and mind if you weren't careful.
"Can I just say that I'm scared?" I asked with my heart pounding like crazy as I waited for a response.
":( What are you scared of?" he replied.
I wasn't sure that I could exactly put a finger on what I was afraid of. In fact, it was what I didn't know that scared me.
"I don't know what I'm scared of, because I don't know what's to come or where this is going."
"I know that I really like you! And I'm really looking forward to being your best friend. I know that you've been hurt and I don't want to push you into anything."
"I appreciate that. And I hope someday I'll be ready to let you in all the way!"
"I do too :) Because you're the one I've been praying for all these years," he sent back, and a flood of butterflies flapped from my head to my toes.
"I think you're the guy I've always wanted, but never thought I was good enough for," I admitted. And suddenly, it hit me that I didn't feel there was anything I had to hide with him.
The following day, Carter and I spent the day in Santa Monica. We walked around at the Third Street Promenade, grabbed some lunch at the pier, and went bike riding on the beach.
"I can't remember the last time I went to the beach," Carter told me, closing his eyes and taking in the sounds of the ocean.
"I can't imagine life without the beach," I told him, "This is how I unwind and get away from it all."
"Well, you're lucky because you're in San Francisco. I'm in Tennessee, so it's a little farther for me," he nudged."
"Maybe that's an excuse to get you over to my neck of the woods then."
"I don't need an excuse to see you," I felt our bodies getting closer in space as we walked next to each other along the beach after we turned our bikes in.
The sun was setting and was growing dimmer just above the water. There was an orange glow filling the sky; it was romantic.
I felt him grab my hand, and I intertwined it with his. It was the first time since Brad that I had ever let myself get this close to anyone, and it was terrifying.
"You okay?" he asked, looking me in the eyes.
Strangely enough I didn't feel anxious or annoyed, I felt calm around him. His holding my hand made me feel safer than I ever had before, "I'm almost perfect."
We went for several minutes without saying anything, just watching the sun set and enjoying life. I didn't have to fill the silence with some awkward conversation about the weather or my day. It's like we understood each other, in a way that I've never been able to decode guys. Carter is different, and I had to remind myself of that before I went back to my old way of thinking.
He was calling me everyday, making sure I was alright if (on the rare occasion) we didn't hang out, we'd grab dinner, we'd Skype or we'd just walk around LA Live at night if nothing else. It scared me that I was falling fast again. True, it was a different guy and a completely different relationship, but it worried me that I was moving too fast again. I went from having the time of my life with this guy I thought I was falling in love with, to completely freaking myself out.
"I can't do this Carter," I suddenly found myself saying one night. We had just gotten into his car and started driving down the 101-s, heading back into LA from Santa Monica, where we had gone for dinner. The radio was playing , and was asking me about my family. I'd told him I hadn't had much time to talk to them lately with work events keeping me busy this time of year.
"What?" His eyes turned a darker shade of blue, and I sensed a sadness in them.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean for this to come out the way I said it," I explained. I was frazzled and my mind was running everywhere now. I tried to collect my thoughts and figure out where I was going with this.
"I just don't get it. We've been having this really great time together and I think we're moving along nicely...I just didn't see this coming. If there's a problem with something I'm doing, just talk to me about it. You know I'm here."
"I guess I just don't know how to do that," I admitted quietly.
"Alright, we're gonna take a little detour." Carter switched lanes and kept driving where we would've taken the turnoff.
"Carter, where are you taking me?" I demanded annoyed. When I got annoyed, he didn't feed into what I wanted, he made me work past that. I admired him for it.
"Chill out, you'll find out in a bit. We're almost there."
"How do you even know where you're going? You're not from here."
"Neither are you. I've had some downtime to explore and see some things before I met you, okay? Trust me. I know where I'm going."
We arrived at this garden area, someplace far away from the city. I had never been on this side of town. He came around quickly and opened the door for me. I stepped out, and he took my hand; leading me through a forest to reveal this romantic little pathway. There was a fountain in the center, lampposts lining the sidewalk and benches along the way. It was either a horror movie waiting to happen or something out of one of those cheesy chick flicks I made fun of Sheila for watching. I placed my face on Carter's shoulder as we walked, and I felt him hold me tighter with his other arm.
"What are we doing here?" I questioned.
"It's no wonder you're a journalist with all the investigating you're doing here," he chuckled to himself.
"Well you do a complete 180 and bring me out here, what am I supposed to do?"
"Now, can you sympathize with me from my perspective in the car?" He asked.
"Fair enough…I see what you were doing there."
We walked a little way and finally sat on a bench close to the fountain. You could hear the water trickling down, and it felt peaceful. I put my hands in my jacket as the breeze picked up and held my arms closer to my sides.
"I just wanted us to talk. Away from all the chaos and commotion of…down there. I know it doesn't really have anything to do with us…not yet…but I need you to talk to me. What's on your mind? Why are you so scared?" He rubbed my shoulder, and let go, giving me time to process.
I took in a breath of fresh air, and began, "This...what's happening between the two of us...is the best thing that has ever happened to me, I want you to know that."
His eyes were glowing and he gave me a sweet smile.He waited for me to go on.
"I'm scared because this has never happened to me."
"But, you were engaged..."
"Yeah, but that was different. I told you all about having the 'perfect' relationship. That, we had down. We could do the whole relationship thing in our sleep. We worked out every problem logically, we worked out everything perfectly. I told him what I thought he needed to hear and he told me all the things I wanted to hear. Love isn't logical, it doesn't always make sense, there's not always a reason for everything happening, and when I met you...It hit me, that a lot of times it's two of the most unlikely people that possibly for no reason, other than the Big Man upstairs needs a little humor, come together and make it work."
"So, are you gonna help me make this work?" He asked me seriously. I knew he had taken everything I said to heart.
"I am going to do whatever it takes to make this work. I'm just sad that tomorrow we both leave." I felt this emptiness in the pit of my stomach.
"Hey, it's okay! I'll be in the area for the Idol tour and I'm sure you'll cover something out here at some point when I am. We'll make it happen, I promise." He put his arms around me, and kissed the top of my head.
"I love you, Stacey. It's gonna take a lot more than distance to change that for me."
As if all the stars were aligned and everything had finally clicked in my heart, "I love you too, Carter," came flooding out of my mouth so effortlessly.
With no hesitation whatsoever, he gently lifted my chin and kissed me out of the blue. It wasn't planned, it wasn't expected, but it was perfect in every sense of the word. If the butterflies had been fluttering around and my heart had been pounding earlier, this sure hadn't helped it.
I tiptoed back into the room a little after one. I sent a quick text to Carter, letting him know I'd made it in safely and crawled into bed.
"So, have you been out all this time with Carter? Because if so...I want ALL the deets!" Sheila said, turning over to face me.
"Sheila....He told me he loved me...." cue the shrieking on her part, and even a little on my end. Which I never do.
"And I actually said it back..." I said almost in tears, because it sank in the significance of that moment in the garden between the two of us.
"SHUT.UP!" she exclaimed."You did mean it, right?"
"Yes. I meant it more than I've ever meant it in my life. It's like it just flowed from my heart to my lips. He took me to this garden place far away from the city. I'm still not even sure of the name or anything, but that's besides the point. We talked and he asked me if I would work on this relationship with him, and there would have to be something bigger than distance that makes him stop loving me...and then after I told him I loved him, he just...."
"He what? Oh my gosh, tell me woman!"
"He kissed me!" And the squealing started up again.
"I am so happy for you. I told you he was the one."
"I'm gonna keep praying about it, but I think he could be too. He says that I'm the one he's been praying for. Now, I just have to hope that goes both ways."
"Well, at least right now is wonderful if nothing else."
"Exactly," I nodded, with the rush of excitement dying off, and exhaustion coming in full force. "I'm ready for bed, but we'll talk more in the morning." I settled under the sheets again and closed my eyes.
Morning. It was really going to be hard to say goodbye after having such a wonderful night with him. We had established so much, only to let it fizzle into what?
"You have a visitor," Sheila was shaking me awake the next morning. The sun wasn't quite shining yet and she hadn't even started getting ready. I knew it had to be early.
"Huh?" I was about to roll over to sleep again, when Carter peeked his head through the door.
"Hi there," he whispered.
I sat up and wiped my eyes, while brushing my hair down. I wasn't expecting company so early.
"Meet me in the hall in a few minutes, okay?"
"Okay..." I nodded. "Did he say what this is about?" I nervously asked Sheila as I heard the door shut behind him.
"Nope. I'm just as confused as you are."
I shrugged, did a quick check in the mirror, and brushed my teeth. I threw some jeans and Ugg boots on with a Lakers sweatshirt and met Cole in the hallway, per his request.
"What's going on?" I asked him.
"Good morning, Sleepyhead," he pulled me into his arms and gave me a kiss.
"Hi to you too. If only all morning greetings could start like this," that didn't sound right, "Uh, I meant that differently in my head."
"It's early, I'll let it slide."
"C'mon let's go."
"Now where are you taking me?" I started to groan.
"You're not seriously already complaining are you?" he shot me a look that told me to stop.
"You're right, sorry!"
"Well, I leave for the airport in a couple hours and I wanted to spend some time with you."
"Aww! You didn't have to...You're probably exhausted too."
"Nah, I can sleep on the plane."
"We're not going anywhere fancy are we?"
"I can see how you'd be confused..." he gave me a sarcastic look, and I glanced at his wardrobe. It consisted of a sweatshirt, skinny jeans and converse.
"Oh...okay..." I grabbed his hand and we headed downstairs.
The morning breeze hit my face as we opened the door leading to the parking garage.
"Another famous excursion, I see?"
"I want to watch the sun rise with you."
"No way! I've always wanted to do that, but I guess I've been too busy sleeping to put forth the effort."
"See? I'm expanding your horizons just a little bit at a time."
"Right, right...."I rolled my eyes, "I wouldn't get too comfortable with that just yet."
We drove through Starbucks and hit the freeway. We got off a little before the exit to Dodger Stadium.
I let out a gasp; Carter laughed at me from the driver's seat and kept going along.
"Did you already figure it out, because you just can't stand the idea of another surprise?" he asked.
"Possibly! Not because I meant to, I just..think I've been here before." I smiled with giddiness stirring inside of me.
We drove a little further; up and around a hill to reveal Griffith Observatory. My eyes grew wide with wonder, as the lights of the city were still aglow in the distance. And a crack of dawn was starting to rise up. Cole parked the car and we walked around.
"You are my hero!" I told him, taking everything in. I could see the downtown LA buildings, the outline of Dodger Stadium, and the Hollywood sign behind us.
"Well, hero's stretching it a little, but I'm glad you're happy," he laughed at me, "You're such a dork!"
"HEY! There's no need for name calling right now, this is supposed to be a nice moment."
I put both hands around my coffee cup to warm my hands up. The breeze picked up again, and a shiver went through my spine. "Brrr," I let out, shaking a little.
Carter came up from behind me and put his arms around me, "What's the number one thing on your bucket list?" he randomly asked.
"What is this A Walk To Remember?" I asked, giving him a hard time.
"No...because that was a different kind of bucket list. I'm just curious with you..."He shrugged.
"Hmm..." I thought for a minute and looked out over the horizon, as we walked up to the fence. We were facing the LA buildings, waiting for the sun to come up; everything felt possible in that moment. "I guess I'd just like to make a difference in the world; maybe through a magazine publication or my own talk show and spread God's word through them."
"I'm really surprised you don't have a show already. You're so likeable! You could easily do a something like Ellen where you have entertainment, but you also help people out with things they need. But, right now your life is a testimony. The way you treat people and talk to them on the red carpet, you're doing your ministry right there. The way you were talking to me that night, you weren't afraid to talk about God."
"You know, I've thought about that a lot. I guess when the right opportunity comes, it'll happen. Until then, I'll just keep doing what I'm doing. I guess I'm on the right track after all," I smiled. "What about you?"
"I guess mine is along the same lines. I just want to put music out that'll bring people closer to God, even if it only reaches about five people."
"You've done that already with Idol. You're gonna go to places and do things you've never dreamed of. God's pretty crazy like that! He knows our hearts and He knows the things that we desire, even more so than we do!"
"Exactly! We think we have everything figured out, but we're usually so far off, but in the best ways."
"Amen to that. I never could've imagined how my life would've turned out. Especially the past couple weeks; meeting you has shown me that God's not done with me yet. He still has so many things in store that had never even crossed my mind, until now."
I hadn't told anyone else that I had been thinking about this lately or the job I had been offered, but something told me it was okay to get feedback. "I got a job offer at E! News. I'd be a correspondent for them, going out on location some and gathering up news as it comes in to blog about it. That would mean moving out here…" I shrugged.
"No way! Why have you been holding this back?"
"Well, you know how sometimes God gives you these things because He trusts them with you?" He nodded that he understood that," Well…this was one of those things that just needed to be between him and I for awhile. I've been praying about it and I think I'm ready to take that jump."
"Absolutely! That'd be such a wonderful opportunity. I think you'd have so many doors open out here, you would definitely stand out here. San Francisco is a beautiful place and seems like its been good to you…"
"But?" I asked with a sly grin. I knew it was coming.
"But, certain things are only meant for a few seasons until better things come along."
"I agree. It's like I found out who I was again after Brad and I split up. And I never would've met you." I could feel a tear coming to the surface; I tried to push it away.
"Hey, hey…Everything happens for a reason. I think either way, we would've met and somehow, someway it would've worked out for us. Don't look back, just keep looking forward to what's ahead."
"I like that thinking better," I took a sip of my coffee and glanced back out at the view. "Can you believe how breathtaking this is?" I asked in amazement.
"It's moments like this that take your breath away."
"Thank you for bringing me up here! I can't think of a better way to spend the last minutes together."
Carter pulled me into a hug; he was warm and we were so close I could smell his Armani cologne. I took one last breath of it to remember when I was missing him. There's something about a scent that just makes you feel closer to that person.
We stood there watching the sun come up over Los Angeles, dreaming and talking about the future with one another. We got into some pretty deep talk about God and more of our beliefs, how we had been raised in church, and what we'd been called to do.
"This is it, I guess,"I said, as we stood out on the sidewalk, waiting for Carter's limo to pick him up.
"Nah, this isn't it. It's just for right now...I'll work something out and I'll visit you soon, okay?" He gave me a hug and rubbed my back to reassure me that he would be there.
"We never even talked about what this means now though. We've kissed, we said i love you...Now what?" I asked all these questions as they popped up in my head.
"What do you want it to mean?" He kept holding onto my hand when I pulled back a little.
"I'm not sure. I don't think it's fair to you to be holding you back when your career is really getting ready to take off. I'm already settled into that."
"Is that what you're afraid of?"
"Well, that and I see the way girls were screaming for you at the finale. Any one of them would be extremely lucky to have you," my insecurities were starting to get the best of me.
"I'm sure they're all really great girls...who were made for other guys, because I'm looking at mine right here. You don't have to worry about me wanting to date other people or even the career getting in the way. I'll work it out to make sure that I can do both; spend time with you and work."
I felt a nerdy smile coming on, because I was so happy. I giggled quietly to myself.
"Call me when you get back to Tennessee, okay?" I nodded, glancing away as I wiped a few tears from my cheek.
"Of course! I should be back by noon," He shrugged, as if this leaving thing was no big deal.
"Alright, I think that's about the time we're leaving, but I'll be back in Frisco in 30-45 minutes, so I'll call you back."
"Yeah, you can call me back whenever..." He stuck his hands in his pockets, and kicked his feet around.
A black limo pulled up a few seconds later and a chauffeur stepped out to help Carter with his luggage. He put them in the trunk, said hi to both of us and returned to the driver's seat.
"I love you, Stacey. Don't worry about any of this okay? You're gonna sit on the plane ride going over and over what we said or did or what we should have talked about..but, don't! I'll figure it out."
"You make everything feel so much better, can I just say that?"
"You can," he winked playfully.
"I love you, Carter. Have a safe flight," I stood on my tiptoes and threw my arms around his neck to kiss him.
"Wow! Maybe this long distance thing will pay off."
"You're just feeling extremely witty today aren't you?" I asked, when we finally came up for air.
"What can I say..."
"We better not keep your driver waiting any longer," I pointed, realizing he had been waiting for a few minutes now.
"Yeah, I need to go," he gave me one last kiss, as I held onto his sweatshirt tightly. "Bye, beautiful!"
We finally let go of one another and he climbed in the car. I headed into the hotel before I saw him drive off. I wasn't quite sure how to respond to that. I returned back to the room, to see Sheila putting on makeup at the vanity and putting last minute items in her suitcase.
"I was beginning to worry about you!" Sheila joked, zipping her suitcase and rolling it by the door.
"We went to Starbucks to get coffee, then he took me to Griffith Park to watch the sun come up. We talked for, like, two hours straight about God, our dreams, and just all these things. It was THE best date I have ever been on."
"You are seriously glowing!"
"Ah, I can't help it. Thank you, thank you, thank you for helping me get out of my rut. I am in love with that boy," I gave her a huge hug and ran to the bathroom to get ready.
I decided on jean shorts, a light PINK sweater, with converse. I pulled my hair into a low messy bun and threw a fedora on.I hurried to finish packing; throwing my toiletries, dirty clothes, and laptop into the right places. I zipped up suitcase and grabbed my carry on.
"I'm ready to go!" And Sheila was too. We checked out and off we went to LAX.
As we drove down the freeway, I started thinking of how I WAS ready for a change. I was ready financially and emotionally to move to LA for good and start a new chapter.
As we boarded the plane and settled into our seats, I decided now was as good a time as any to tell Sheila about my big news.
"So, there's something I need to talk to you about..."I started. People were continuing to file in and place their belongings in the overhead bins.
"Ok, go for it," she said, not seeming to be fazed by it.
"Alright, well...About a month ago, I got a job offer out here in LA for E! News. I wasn't so sure, so I've been praying and doing a lot of thinking about it. I told Cole this morning as we talked about our futures and what that really meant for us...He thinks I should go for it. What do you think?"
"Are you serious?! I say, you've been working your butt off for something like this and more than likely your boy will be moving out here soon, so it's a win/win," she squealed.
"Then, I guess it's decided," I smiled, but it quickly turned to panic mode, "But, now I have to find a place to live, check into the job more, think about how much more it's going to cost so I can..."
Sheila stopped me before I could continue, "Hey, I'm here for ya. If you need anything just let me know! And I'm sure if you tell Carter he'll be there for you too."
"Yeah, I'm sure he will," I settled back into my sleep and shut my eyes. I thought of the past couple weeks and how things had drastically changed. I thought of where all of this was going and how things around me were going to change even more. But, no matter what God was going to take care of me.