My mom reached out and grabbed my hand. “Don’t let the past mess up your future, Eli. It’s been years. It’s time to let it go. You should sell her the land.”
“I can’t,” I croaked out. “You know I can’t.”
She shook her head. “I’ve watched you torture yourself for years. For entirely no reason. It has to stop.”
It was a subject I absolutely didn’t talk about, and today was no exception. “I want to focus on Jade right now,” I told her.
“You’re as stubborn as your father was,” she lamented.
I crossed my arms. “Are you going to try to convince me that my orneriness only comes from him?”
“You think it comes from me?” she gasped, putting her hand to her chest with mock distress. “Not possible. I’m as sweet as a Georgia peach,” she drawled, laying on her Southern accent.
I let out a reluctant grunt of laughter. My mother could be sweet, but she was by no means a Southern belle. She’d been out of the South for decades, and she’d learned to bite when necessary. Luckily, she had a kind heart.
“I’m sorry I’m being a jerk,” I said, feeling bad because my mother had taken care of everything for me, and as always, she’d jumped into the fire with both feet.
I hadn’t even noticed that she’d been trying to make things easier for all of Jade’s family. Maybe it was because it was what my mom always did.
“It’s just been a really tough few days,” I added.
“You don’t need to apologize. You’re my son, Eli. I know you love me. But when you hurt, I hurt. All I ever want is to see you happy.”
I saw the tears glistening in her eyes, and it jolted me into reality. “I know. Thanks for coming. But you need to go home and get some sleep. Is Jeff here to drive you home?”
“Good. Did you eat?”
“I did,” she confirmed. “I had a lovely talk with Brooke while we were having dinner. If Jade is anything like her sister, she’s a lovely girl. The Sinclairs are an amazing family. Their rags-to-riches story is pretty remarkable. But it hurts my heart to know how much they struggled. It must have been hard for Noah.”
“I think it was difficult for all three of Jade’s older brothers. But they’re all pretty tough.”
“You need a girl like her,” my mother mused.
“Enough,” I said gently. “Leave my love life to me.”
She rose from the table. “If I left everything to you, I’d never live to see a grandchild,” she said huffily.
“No guilt trips,” I said. “You’re not exactly elderly and on your deathbed.”
My mother was still beautiful, and just as active as she’d always been. She could work circles around women who were decades younger.
I stood up, snagged her lightweight jacket, and held it out for her.
When she turned around, she gave me a worried look. “Please get some rest. I know you’re not going to leave, but try to sleep.”
I was my mother’s son, and she knew it. When my father had been critically ill before he’d died, my mother had never left his side.
She continued, “I left you a bag of clothes in the closet.” She pointed at the small wardrobe in the room. “There’s a physician’s shower around the corner. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
I nodded. Honestly, I was grateful for clean clothing. I was pretty sure I stank.
I hugged her tight for a moment and then watched her walk out the door.
I gathered up the clean clothes and went to find the shower.
My mother was right. I wasn’t going anywhere. But for the sake of all Jade’s family, I knew I needed to clean up.
I was back in her room ten minutes later, determined to camp out there until I was finally convinced that Jade was going to be okay.
I woke up abruptly, panicked because I didn’t know where I was or why I didn’t recognize my surroundings.
“Where am I?” I called out in the dim light of what appeared to be a hospital room.
I gulped in deep breaths, trying to calm myself down, suddenly realizing that my whole body hurt.
“You’re okay,” Eli’s steady voice said as he came to the side of the bed. “You had an accident, sweetheart.”
Just his presence made my heart rate return to normal, and my fear dissolved when he reached out and grabbed my hand.
I remember. I was awake a few times. After I answered some questions for the nurse, I went right back to sleep.
Images of my fall from the rappel cliff flashed through my mind, followed by memories of excruciating pain. And then there was nothing. “I fell. All I remember is the pain,” I told him softly. My throat and my mouth were dry. “Can I have some water?”
“You can have any damn thing you want now that you’re talking to me,” he said in a low, raspy voice.
He held the water glass, and I drank my fill from the straw before I asked, “Are we in Montana?”
“No. We’re back in San Diego. You were flown to Billings first, and once you were stabilized, you were cleared to fly back here. You’ve been here for two days now. It’s been almost five days since the accident. They’re slowly cutting down your pain medication, so you’ll probably be more awake now.”
His face was close to mine after he sat down, and I squinted to see him. “You look awful,” I said.
Eli’s eyes were red, and his face looked ravaged with exhaustion.
He grinned at me. “You haven’t seen yourself. I think you look a hell of a lot more beat up than I do.”
“What did I injure?”
My whole body hurt, so I couldn’t really pin down my real injuries.
“You bruised just about everything,” he said grimly. “But the major stuff is a dislocated shoulder and you fractured your skull.”
“And I thought that rappel was pretty tame,” I muttered.
“It should have been. I’m so fucking sorry, Jade. I made you fall because I yelled at you. You would have been fine if I hadn’t startled you.”
A flash of memory revealed the moment when Eli had called out so loud that I’d faltered. “It wasn’t your fault,” I denied. “I was way too close to the edge. I saw a bald eagle, and I wanted a picture. I was already in an awkward position because I was trying to get my camera out. Being that unstable on the edge of a steep drop was my stupidity.”
“That’s why I yelled up to you. It was instinct. A bad one. You would have been okay if I hadn’t made you completely lose your balance,” he said stiffly.
I could hear the remorse in his voice, and I hated it. I reached out my hand to stroke his tight, whiskered jaw. “Don’t blame yourself because I was dumb. It was an accident. I assume I’m going to live?”
He nodded. “It’s going to take a couple of months for you to recover, but thank fuck you didn’t do any lasting damage. But you’re going to hurt.”
“It’s tolerable,” I told him. Now that I was over the initial shock of waking up in pain, it didn’t seem quite so bad anymore.
“Your head will heal. It was an uncomplicated linear fracture, so it will just take time. We were lucky.”