Rachel perched on the top rail of the corral, watching her boy circle around, his small back straight, his little hands clutching the pommel, and she could tell from the way he smiled that this was heaven. Life couldn’t get any better for him, and she’d seen a different boy here. One less anxious, one less detached and distracted, one more interested in the world around him. It was the ranch and the animals, but also Cade. He’d worked some kind of magic—just how or what she didn’t know.
Maybe he had started to grow his wings.
And around and around they went for nearly an hour with Tommy beaming the entire time, happy, so very, very happy.
How was she ever going to tear him away from this place?
She glanced at Cade, and her gaze took in his broad shoulders and strong, muscular legs, and she wondered how she’d ever leave him, because he’d worked his magic on her, too. But had he really changed? Could he be trusted? Could he be trusted with her son as well as her heart? She hoped so, but to be honest, she didn’t know. It was one of those things that only time would tell.
“Okay, last time around, Tommy,” Rachel heard Cade tell Tommy from the far side of the corral, “and then I’ve got to check on my cows before we take your mom to get her car.”
To Rachel’s surprise, Tommy didn’t protest about getting off the horse, and it wasn’t until he was pointing at Cade’s truck that she understood why. It turned out Cade had promised Tommy that he could ride along with him when Cade went to check on his cows in the west pasture.
“We won’t be long. I just want to make sure the new fence is holding. We’ll be gone twenty to thirty minutes at the most. Do you want to come?” Cade asked her.
Rachel hadn’t seen much of the ranch and would enjoy a drive, especially on a clear-sky day like today, but she’d had a call earlier from a couple wanting to book her for their wedding cake and she needed to phone the bride-to-be back. “I actually need to return a call. Are you comfortable taking Tommy on your own?”
“Of course,” Cade answered, lifting Tommy into the truck and buckling him into his booster seat.
She glanced at Tommy, who was staring off into space, a vacant expression in his eyes, lost again in his own world. “He should be okay with you,” she said.
“He’ll be fine with me.” Cade leaned over and kissed her forehead. “Don’t worry.”
Rachel crossed her arms over her chest, fighting to suppress her fear. She was overprotective. Always had been. “See you soon?”
Cade laughed softly as he opened the truck door and climbed behind the steering wheel. “Relax. Nothing’s going to happen.”
* * *
BUT HE WAS WRONG, CADE THOUGHT, thirty-some minutes later. Something had happened. Tommy had vanished.
Cade spun at the top of the hill, his gaze searching through the scraggly shrubs and clustered oak trees for a little boy in a puffy blue jacket, but there was no sign of Tommy, or his bright blue jacket, anywhere.
Where was he? How could he have vanished? Cade had only turned his back for a minute—just long enough to hammer a couple more nails into a fence post—and when he’d finished hammering the fourth nail, he’d turned and called for Tommy, but Tommy didn’t answer. And when Cade returned to the truck to search the cab, Tommy wasn’t there, either.
Where could he have gone?
Cade tried not to think of all the streams and ponds on his property. Or the water troughs in every pasture. And then there were the hills with steep banks and jagged drop-offs. The holes that could swallow a small boy...
Cade reached for his walkie-talkie since his cell phone didn’t get the best service on his ranch and called Bill, his foreman. “I need you to go to my house and get Rachel. She’s on a call and doesn’t know you’re coming. You need to keep her calm and quickly bring her to me. I’m at the top of the hill overlooking the west pasture, where I was mending the fence earlier this morning—”
“Why do I need to keep her calm? What’s going on?”
“I’ve lost her son. I lost Tommy.”
* * *
RACHEL WOULD NEVER FORGET the next sixty minutes. She and Cade and Bill van Zandt tramped up and down the hills searching for Tommy. Rachel and Cade constantly called to him. Bill just hunted, inspecting every tree and rotted log and flattened bit of grass, checking for footprints without finding a single one.
The lack of footprints troubled Bill and he told Rachel it didn’t make sense. If there was no sign of Tommy’s footsteps leaving the grassy hilltop, perhaps he hadn’t walked away from the truck. Perhaps he was still in the truck...hiding.
Rachel ran all the way back to Cade’s truck because Bill’s words had struck a chord. Tommy liked to hide. He loved to play hide-and-seek. What if he’d tried to play hide-and-seek in the truck and gotten himself stuck somewhere? What if he’d gotten wedged in, or the strings on his jacket hood had gotten tangled on something...what if...
Bill radioed Cade as she ran, and Cade reached the truck before she did. Rachel reached the truck to find Cade searching behind the cab seat, and then crawling beneath the truck frame. He was under the truck for what seemed like forever before he let out a shout. “He’s here!”
Rachel’s legs nearly gave out as she leaned against the truck. “Is he okay?”
“He’s not moving,” Cade said shortly. “But he’s breathing.”
“What do you mean, he’s not moving?”
“I think...I think he’s asleep.”
Bill arrived then, and together they worked to ease Tommy out. “He’d wedged himself behind one of the tires,” Cade said as he settled a grease-stained Tommy into her arms. “But he doesn’t look hurt.”
Cade was right. Tommy seemed fine. Rachel, however, was not. She held Tommy on her lap during the short drive back to the ranch house, and then after inspecting Tommy once again in the driveway of Cade’s house, asked Cade to take them to her car now.
Cade shot Rachel a dozen different glances during the twenty-minute drive to Weatherford, but she never once looked at him or spoke to him, keeping her gaze averted and on the barren landscape outside his truck window.
“I’m sorry,” Cade repeated, having apologized at the top of the hill and then again in his driveway. “It shouldn’t have happened. I should have watched him better—”
“Yes, and you’re right,” she said tightly, cutting him short, unable to bear yet another apology because Cade didn’t get it. What had just happened was potentially tragic and fatal. If he’d climbed behind the wheel and returned to the ranch to get her, if he’d driven his truck any distance— She shuddered. “It shouldn’t have happened. And you should have watched him better.”
“I thought he was right there behind me.”
“But he wasn’t.”
“I only turned my back for a minute.”
She shot Tommy a quick glance over her shoulder. He was staring out the window, oblivious to everything, and at this moment, Rachel was grateful for that, but she dropped her voice anyway. “He could have died, Cade.”
She shook her head and bundled her arms across her chest, biting back the furious retorts that rose to her lips, because he didn’t know. Cade thought he knew, but he didn’t know, and that’s how Tommy had gotten lost in the first place. Children had to be watched. Children needed vigilant, attentive parents. Parents who wouldn’t get distracted. Parents who put their children’s needs first, and their own needs second.
And the tr
uth was, while she was upset with Cade, she was even more upset with herself. What was she thinking, sending Tommy off with Cade? Cade had never been a father. He didn’t know the first thing about raising children. But she did. And she knew Tommy wasn’t an easy child to manage. She’d known that he could be a handful, and yet she’d allowed inexperienced Cade to take her son with him...
Rachel was grateful to arrive at Phil’s auto shop, and she held on to Tommy’s hand while she paid Phil, and Cade quietly transferred Tommy’s booster seat from his truck into the back of Rachel’s Jeep.
Once the bill was settled, she put her purse into the car and buckled Tommy into his seat, aware that Cade was standing at her side, silently watching, waiting for her to finish so they could...what? Talk? And yet what was there to say? Was there anything for them to say? They’d made a mistake. This wasn’t going to work. She should have used better judgment...because truly, she had known better.
And that’s what she ended up saying to him—in pretty much those words. He hadn’t flinched at her announcement—thank God—but she could tell she’d struck a nerve, and she watched the emotion fade from his eyes and saw his strong jaw harden.
She gulped a breath, determined to get through this, and put an end to this once and for all. “So I don’t think we should see each other again,” she concluded lamely, shriveling a little under his now-glacier gaze. “I’m sorry. But I have to think of Tommy. Do what’s best for him.”
“And I’m not best for him.”
She winced at his harsh tone. “I didn’t say that.”
“But that’s what you mean, isn’t it?” His powerful shoulders shifted, his jaw jutting. “I don’t come from a great family. I haven’t had a lot of experience with kids. So no, I’m not daddy material, but I do care about him, Rache. And I care about you—”
“Caring isn’t enough. Words don’t matter. It’s one’s actions that matter. It’s the actions that count.”
Cade looked away, and he ground his teeth together so hard that a small muscle in his jaw popped. “I thought... I wanted...” He shrugged and shook his head. “It doesn’t matter what I thought, because you’re right. Of course you’re right. I’m not a parent. I don’t know how to take care of a child with special needs. Christ, I’m the guy that grew up in foster care. Don’t trust your child with me.”
And then he was walking away from her. Again.
Rachel watched him go, too stunned to speak. He was ending it with her? He wasn’t going to even fight for her?