Tommy had been following the conversation and he grabbed his mother’s sleeve. “Dog?” he asked hopefully, his blue eyes light, sparkling, and suddenly he looked like the little boy she’d always imagined he’d be...present and focused and beautifully alive.
“You and Tommy could share a room, or you could both have your own rooms. Either way, you’d have total privacy, Rache,” Cade said. “And then as soon as Phil calls to say your car is ready, I’ll drive you straight to the garage.”
Rachel exhaled and looked down into Tommy’s face. His blue eyes shone with eagerness, his gaze focused on her face, waiting for her response. He literally glowed right now with life. This was one of those moments, she thought, that the therapists had said were significant because they helped his brain rewire, allowing him to make new connections, connections that would allow him to communicate better with the world.
Ironic, she thought, lightly touching his cheek, that he came to life around Cade?
Grandma had always said Cade would do great things one day. Maybe Grandma was right.
“Okay,” she murmured, glancing up at Cade. “Just be prepared for Tommy to change his mind and have a total meltdown. It could be midnight and he might suddenly want to be at home and in his own bed, and I’d need you to drive us home.”
“Not a problem,” Cade drawled, and shrugged, putting a handful of bills on the table for the waitress. “I like driving at night.”
For some reason his shrug and easy answer bothered her. It was a little too easy, a little too smooth. She flashed to David, and then she knew why she’d gotten her back up. David had been the same way...slick, charming, telling her only what he thought she wanted to hear. But Rachel wasn’t interested in smooth or charming. She wanted true. She wanted honest. And she wanted real.
“You better mean that, Cade,” she said fiercely, her tone suddenly flinty.
“Mean what, Rache?”
“Everything.” Her jaw jutted and her eyes locked with his. “Because I’d rather you just take us home tonight than say things you don’t mean.”
Rachel’s heart pounded as Cade drove them back to his ranch house. She couldn’t believe she’d agreed to this. She shouldn’t have agreed, but Tommy was happy, humming to himself in the backseat of the cab. He remained in a buoyant mood at the ranch house where he followed Cade around the barn as he checked on each horse and then returned to the house to feed Lacey.
But by eight Tommy was nearly asleep among the puppies, and Rachel carefully disentangled him from wriggling golden puppies and rubber dog toys.
Cade had shown them around the house earlier today and had given them the big guest bedroom at the end of the hall downstairs. All the other bedrooms were upstairs but Rachel had been worried about Tommy and the stairs.
“Tommy, can you say good-night to Cade?” she said, pausing, waiting for him to respond, just as she always did. It’s what the speech therapist had taught her. Include him in your conversations. Give him an opportunity to speak. Give him verbal cues. And so she did. But unlike most nights when he ignored her or retreated to silence, he spoke.
“Night,” he said haltingly, smiling briefly, the smile sliding over his face before it was gone. “Cade. Cade.”
Cade smiled back, his expression gentle. “Night, buddy. Sleep good.”
She reached for Tommy’s hand but he pulled away and looked at Cade. His hand twisted in the air. “Horses,” he said. His hand waved up and down in a swimming motion.
Cade nodded, understanding without needing Rachel to translate. “That’s right, Tommy. I promised you we’d see the horses again, and we will, in the morning.” Cade glanced at her, his expression impossible to read. “And if your mom agrees, I’ll take you on a horseback ride.”
Both Tommy and Cade turned to look at her and Rachel struggled to hide her dismay. “Horseback ride?”
Cade nodded casually. “Tommy thought it sounded like fun.”
“He doesn’t know how to ride,” she answered under her breath, aware that Tommy was watching her face carefully.
“He likes horses, Rachel.”
“They’re huge,” she said, smiling tightly.
“And he’s not afraid of them.” Cade hesitated and glanced down at Tommy, picking his words with care. “I’ve been reading up, you know, trying to learn about autism, and studies show that children on the autism spectrum respond well to horses and dogs. They’re both frequently used in animal-assisted therapy, and all over the country horseback riding is a common form of therapy for children with autism.”
Rachel wasn’t sure she liked Cade telling her what was good for Tommy. Tommy was her son. She was responsible for him. And while she appreciated Cade being kind to Tommy, as well as exposing him to new things, she worried that Tommy was becoming too attached to Cade, forming a bond with someone who wouldn’t be able to keep the promises he’d made to her son. Because let’s face it. Cade had disappeared on her before. He could very easily fall off the wagon and then he’d be disappearing on her—them—again.
Cade must have read her resistance because he pressed his case. “Horseback riding can help children with their physical development. It’ll strengthen muscles and improve coordination. But it’s also something fun. It’d give him pleasure. And I think it’s good for him to be out of doors, in fresh air, doing new things—” He broke off, his gaze searching her face, and then he sighed and shrugged. “But you’re his mom. You know what’s best for him. Obviously, I’d never have Tommy do something you don’t approve of.”
Slightly mollified, she gave Cade a brief nod. “Thank you,” she said, before steering Tommy out of the room and walking him down the hall to the guest room where she and Tommy would be sharing the queen-size bed.
After washing his hands and face at the sink in the attached bathroom, she tucked her little boy into bed and stayed with him until he was asleep. It usually took fifteen or twenty minutes for him to fall asleep, but tonight Tommy was so excited from his day, as well as overtired, that it was almost an hour before he wound down, giving Rachel far too much time to just lie there in the dark and think.
And she didn’t want to think, not about Cade, or how she felt when around him, or even the fact that he’d been doing research on autism, because it impressed her. As well as troubled her. On one hand she was glad that he’d taken interest in Tommy, and Tommy’s unique and challenging world, but on the other hand, she knew how easy it was to get swept up in Cade’s warmth and charisma, and she never wanted Tommy hurt the way she’d been hurt.
Maybe she should limit the amount of time Tommy spent with Cade. Or maybe she needed to make it clear to Cade that Tommy wasn’t a cute puppy looking to be adopted by a loving cowboy. No, he was a boy, a complex little boy with lots of special needs, which included needing to be protected from people who might abruptly abandon him...
A door banged in a distant part of the house and Rachel sat up, rubbing her eyes. She’d dozed off waiting for Tommy to sleep and she glanced now at the bedside clock. Ten. Time for her to go to sleep herself, except that suddenly she wasn’t tired anymore. Leaving the bed, she dragged a hand through her hair and opened the bedroom door.
The house was dark, with just a few lights on here and there, and those that had been left on were dim. Cade must have gone to bed, she thought, peeking into the family room where Lacey and her pups were sleeping. But Lacey heard her and she lifted her head
and whined softly. Rachel went to her, gave her back a scratch, whispering thanks in her ear for being so nice to Tommy, before heading to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
In the kitchen, Rachel flicked on the overhead light and froze as she spotted Cade by the stove, leaning against a counter. He’d changed from jeans into soft, baggy, gray sweatpants that hung low on his hips and a short-sleeve, black T-shirt that stretched tight over his big biceps. His feet were bare. His dark hair was slightly rumpled, and she didn’t think he’d ever looked better. Or sexier.
“I’m sorry,” she said, gulping a breath and hanging back in the doorway. “I didn’t know you were in here.”
“Just making a cup of tea,” he said, nodding at the kettle on the stove. “Want one?”
“Water should boil soon. Come in. Sit.”
Rachel hesitated, suddenly overwhelmed by the domesticity of the scene.
If he hadn’t loved his liquor...
If they’d stayed together...
This was how it would have been with them. Intimate, warm, sweet...very sweet, because she would have loved nothing more than coming downstairs to him every night after putting their babies to bed. She would have loved walking into the kitchen and seeing him here in his pajamas, gorgeous and sexy and ready for bed...
Don’t go there, she told herself, catching herself. Don’t get tangled up in a fantasy that is only a fantasy...you have to know it would have never been like that. He’s good at wooing and winning, but he’s not a man who can keep the promises he makes...
And yet, what if he had changed? What if things could be different this time?
As if reading her mind again, Cade gave her a wry smile and crooked his finger, beckoning her. “Come, darlin’. I might bark, but I don’t bite.”
She blushed and fidgeted with the string at the neckline of her peasant blouse. “You used to bite.”
His smile stretched, his blue eyes warm. “That’s right. And you, darlin’, used to like it.”
Rachel’s eyes widened and she gulped, growing warmer by the moment because yes, it had been good with them. Very good. And she’d once thought that maybe it was this way for everyone, but then she’d slept with David and it hadn’t been the same.
“Sorry. I don’t remember,” she said with a careless shrug, jamming her hands in the back pockets of her jeans.