Climbing into the front passenger seat, Rachel buckled her own seat belt and glanced at Cade as he opened the driver-side door and slid behind the steering wheel, wondering what it was about Cade that put Tommy at ease, because normally Tommy didn’t like men or big people. He preferred older women...gentle women, women like Grandma or Mrs. Munoz, and Cade was most definitely not like either of them.
But then, Cade was calm, and he had a different energy—relaxed, laid-back—and animals responded to it, particularly young animals and high-strung horses. She wouldn’t go so far as to call him a horse whisperer, but often all he had to do was touch an animal for it to settle down, relax. Maybe he had the same effect on Tommy.
She looked over her shoulder at Tommy in his car seat. He was crooning to himself and looking out the window, as happy as could be. He hated the car, yet he liked Cade’s truck.
Of course her boy would love Cade. She’d once loved him, too.
A lump filled her throat and, swallowing hard, she looked out the window, hands balling in her lap.
But she couldn’t go there. Wouldn’t go there. Life was hard enough without giving in to memories and wishful thinking. Better to remain focused and disciplined. Better to think about what was, rather than what could have been. Far fewer expectations that way. Less opportunity for disappointment and pain. And she was a realist now. Life and experience had made sure of that. She didn’t dream dreams for herself anymore. Her dreams were for Tommy. It was Tommy who mattered now.
“I haven’t had a drink in over two years, Rachel,” Cade said, his deep voice breaking the silence.
Rachel stiffened, surprised, and more than a little uncomfortable, feeling as if he’d somehow peeked into her mind and seen what she was thinking.
“I’m done with drinking. It might be okay for some people, but it’s not a good thing for me.” He looked at her, his blue gaze steady, piercing. “It never was a good thing for me.”
She opened her mouth, then closed it, not knowing what to say. What did he want her to say? Great, Cade, I’m proud of you.
“You were right,” he added, his voice a little deeper, a little rougher. “But you know that. I just want you to know that you were always right. You did the correct thing, too, telling me to sober up. I’m glad you were strong enough to do it. And I’m also glad you weren’t there to see me hit rock bottom...it got pretty ugly before I figured out the drinking wasn’t working.”
“So what was your lightbulb moment? What sobered you up?”
He hesitated so long that she wasn’t sure he was going to answer, and then he said bluntly, “I drove my truck into a tree, going eighty miles an hour.”
She shot him a swift glance. “Did you miss a bend in the road?”
A small muscle popped in his jaw. “No. Meant to do it.” His right hand tightened on the steering wheel. “I was racing my demons that night and they won.”
“Cade,” she whispered, chest aching, eyes burning. Because as mad as she was at Cade, the idea of a world without Cade didn’t make sense to her. A world without Cade was no world at all.
Over the years, yes, part of her had hated him. But a bigger part of her had loved him, and maybe it was crazy, but just loving him a little bit from afar had kept her going when nothing else did. And even though she couldn’t talk about him with Mia or any of her other friends, she was secretly glad he’d done well on the circuit. She was happy when he climbed in the standings and proud when he won. Maybe they couldn’t be together but she wanted good things for him. No, she wanted great things for him. Not because she was selfless and all altruistic, but because she’d loved him that much. It was impossible to love someone that much without wanting what was best for them, and that’s all there was to it.
“Good thing you didn’t die,” she said tartly, lifting her chin and giving Cade a fierce look. “Because then I couldn’t have given you a piece of my mind, Cade King, and I promise you, when we don’t have little ears listening, I’m going to tell you exactly what I think about you and your drinking and your demons.”
Cade’s gaze locked with hers for a second before he focused on the road, but she saw the corners of his mouth curl and creases fan from the edges of his eyes. “You do that, darlin’,” he drawled. “You give me that piece of your mind. And don’t hold anything back, either, because Lord knows, I have it coming.”
And just like that, a little crack formed in the ice coating her insides and she had to draw a very careful breath to keep the crack from growing any bigger.
She could like Cade and want the best for him, but she couldn’t get carried away. She knew who Cade was and what he was, and he might be gorgeous and good with animals and children, but he wasn’t good for her. He wasn’t. And she had to remember that. Had to remember what loving Cade had done to her.
Ten minutes later, Cade slowed before a large gate, and the automatic gate slowly swung open, and then they were driving across the cattle guard, the big black truck rattling as they crossed the bars. But the ranch house was another five minutes off the road, and Rachel watched scenery, studying the fenced pastures, and the clusters of oak trees and elm trees, and the gleam of a distant pond or lake. She and Cade used to go look at ranches when they were together, pretending they had the money to buy something, and they’d talk about what they liked about a particular piece of property, and what was lacking...
“It’s called Sweetwater,” Cade said, gently braking and veering right, turning into a large circular driveway that connected a cluster of ranch buildings, “for the two streams and lake on the property.” And then he was parking in front of a house made from Texas limestone, the simple house fronted by a deep veranda. Six rough-hewn pillars supported the porch, drawing the eye upward to the three windows jutting out of the steeply pitched roof. The bedrooms, Rachel guessed, glancing up.
“Home,” Cade said, turning the engine off.
Just then Lacey came bounding from around the corner, thrilled to see Cade, and Tommy shrieked in the backseat, arms outstretched. “Dog!”
Cade laughed and looked at Rachel. “He really does like dogs.”
“Wait until he sees the puppies.”
* * *
IT WAS A DAY SHE’D NEVER forget, Rachel thought, watching Tommy sit in the middle of the family room, surrounded by gorgeous, fluffy golden puppies that wanted nothing more than to crawl over him, and lick him, and burrow into his hands. And Tommy—bless him, her beautiful boy—was so gentle and his expression was so full of joy, that it made her heart ache, and she had to fight tears to see a child that people didn’t understand and want to understand just love and be loved.
And maybe they were only puppies but still, love was love, and Tommy was in heaven. He was. Now and then he’d let out a little yelp, inarticulate with joy, and Lacey would go to him and give his face a lick, as if he was one of her pups, too. Rachel suddenly turned away as Tommy nuzzled Lacey back, kissing her soft muzzle as if that were the most natural thing in the world for him to do.
She walked to the window and stared out, a hand pressed to her mouth, fighting tears, fighting joy, fighting to maintain control because life wasn’t easy for them, and few things were simple for Tommy. But this was, and she was grateful. Grateful that for a couple hours her son could just be, and be happy, and good...not good as in well behaved, but good as in peaceful. Good as in complete and perfect just the way he was made.
?” It was Cade, and she’d heard his boots as he’d come up behind her but she couldn’t totally pull herself together in time.
Rachel nodded, wiping away tears, keeping her back to him.
She shook her head.
“But you’re crying.”
“He kissed Lacey,” she whispered, her voice cracking.
“Is that bad?”
She shook her head, wiping tears that suddenly wouldn’t stop. “No. It’s good. Sweet.” She gulped a breath and struggled to smile through her tears. “It’s just that...he doesn’t kiss me.”
Cade would never forget that moment. Never. It would be burned into his mind for the rest of his life.
Her face. Those gray eyes, filled with tears and shimmering like silver. Her lips trembling, struggling to smile. And those words. Just four little words.
He doesn’t kiss me.
Cade reeled inwardly, sucker punched, as it hit him harder than ever before just what his girl had been going through.
If it’d be okay for a man to cry, he would have cried right then and there because his heart was breaking for Rachel, and for the life she’d lived while he’d been riding bulls and broncs and trying to figure out which end was up and learning how to forgive himself, never mind like himself.
But he’d gotten to the other side of some dark, scary stuff and he was still here, and he was stronger for it. And God help him, but his scars and toughness had to count for something. His scars and banged-up heart still had to be good for something.
They had to be.
“You’ve raised a beautiful boy, Rachel. You have. You should be proud of yourself.”