“I’m sorry, Rache,” he said, his voice raspy and raw. He lifted his head and looked at her, his dense lashes damp, the blue of his eyes almost aquamarine with sorrow. “You know, I promised her I’d always stay in touch with her. Promised her that I’d always be family—” He shook his head, once, twice. “Was she...did she...suffer a lot...in the end?”
“They tried to make her as comfortable as they could.”
His head dropped again and he ran a hand over his eyes. “Wish I’d been here. Wish I could have been here for both of you.”
Rachel couldn’t even respond to that. Her heart felt as though it was breaking all over again. She dragged in a breath of air, then exhaled, struggling to keep it together. “It happened a long time ago, Cade,” she murmured. “And Grandma didn’t hold grudges. She believed people were a work in progress, and she’d be thrilled you won the All-Around title two more times after she was gone. She followed your career. Was probably your biggest fan.”
His eyes watered and a small muscle popped in his jaw near his ears. “Even though I’d broken your heart?”
Rachel looked away, bit into her lip. This was so brutal, and so unexpected. She wasn’t sure she could take much more of this. But Grandma had taught her to be strong, and she would be strong now...even if it killed her. “Grandma always said you’d find your feet again. She said you were one of those fallen angels just waiting to regrow your wings.”
“I wish that were true,” Cade said regretfully. “But I haven’t grown wings yet.”
“Maybe they’ll still come.”
“If you believe in miracles,” he answered drily, his firm mouth twisting, the corners of his eyes creasing.
His crooked smile made her breath catch and her pulse quicken. For a moment he looked—and sounded—so much like the sexy, laid-back, self-deprecating cowboy she’d loved so long ago that the years seemed to fall away and she gulped another breath of air, overwhelmed. Dazzled.
“I used to,” she said, smiling tightly, having forgotten how Cade could fill a room, making it feel small and other people seem boring. But it wasn’t just his height and size that made him stand out. It was his intensity and his focus. When Cade King wanted something, he got it through sheer force of will.
And once upon a time, he’d wanted her.
But then later, he’d also wanted booze, and he’d been one of those guys who drank hard and often, and it worried her and scared her. And so she put it all on the line, wanting what was best for him, for them, and told him he needed to get sober or she couldn’t stay. And he chose the booze over her.
“Everything else okay, though?” he asked, shifting on the yellow couch, almost crushing the cellophane-wrapped roses.
She nodded, determined to show no chink in her armor. “Yes. Very well,” she said. The antique clock on the mantel chimed. She glanced at the pale gold face of the German-made clock, Grandma’s prized possession. Her father, Rachel’s great-grandfather, had brought the clock with him when he’d emigrated from Germany. It’d been a wedding present to Grandma and Grandpa when they’d married and it still kept time perfectly.
Which reminded her, she’d have to go get Tommy soon from Mrs. Munoz. She had fifteen minutes. Give or take a few.
Cade saw her glance at the clock. “Am I keeping you?”
“No, not yet. But I do need to leave in a few minutes. I have an appointment.”
Rachel didn’t know why she called it an appointment. She was only picking Tommy up from his babysitter, but for some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to mention Tommy. Not because she was ashamed of being a single, unwed mother, but because people had been so unkind about him and she’d learned to be protective.
“I won’t keep you, then,” Cade said, picking up the bouquet and standing. “It was good seeing you.”
“It was good seeing you, too,” she lied, determined to hang on to her composure to the very end, because it wasn’t good seeing him. It was terrible. Painful. She couldn’t handle seeing Cade. He made her feel things she didn’t want to feel, made her remember a time in her life when everything had seemed hopeful and beautiful.
“I’ll just put these in the kitchen,” he said, his grip crinkling the cellophane on the flowers. He headed out of the cramped living room without waiting for a reply.
* * *
IT WASN’T UNTIL CADE was in the hall and moving toward the kitchen that he exhaled. Why had he come? It was a mistake to have come by, an even bigger mistake to have just dropped in on her unannounced. If he wanted to know how she was doing, he should have just called. Sent a letter. A text. An email. Anything but this.
Seeing her made it all too real. Made her damn real again, and that’s the last thing he needed.
Getting her out of his system had taken years.
Entering Sally’s old kitchen, he froze. An enormous, white, tiered wedding cake filled the old oak table, making the kitchen smell sugary and sweet. His gaze moved to the clear plastic box of flowers on the counter. It was a small floral bouquet of white, cream and pale pink flowers...
A wedding cake. A bridal bouquet. Cade swallowed hard, stunned. Rachel was getting married.
He felt her come up behind him and, glancing over his shoulder, he saw her hovering in the doorway. “That’s a lot of white cake,” he said.
She smiled faintly, color turning her cheeks pink. “Better be. It has to feed over two hundred and forty people.”
“Two hundred and forty?” he repeated.
“It was hard to narrow the guest list to that. It’s a small town. Everyone wanted to go.”
Of course everybody did, he thought, his chest tight and growing tighter. Mineral Wells was a small town and Sally James had been widely loved by all.
Cade glanced down at the tips of his boots, wishing yet again he’d never come. He’d wanted to know that Rachel was happy, but this...this wasn’t how he wanted to see her...the blushing bride...the day before her wedding. But he had to be happy for her. This was what he wanted for her. Good things. Good people.
He forced himself to look up at her and he managed a smile. “Well, it’s a beautiful cake with all that fancy lace. Have never seen that done before.”
“The lace is actually icing. It’s all edible.”
“Yep,” she answered, a hint of laughter in her eyes, and he felt a tug of emotion. There was no one prettier than Rachel James when she smiled.
“And it tastes good, too?”
“I think so. Mia called it heavenly.”
“When is the wedding?”
He was determined to be happy for her. He was. “Where?”
“Clark Gardens. Over in Weatherford.”
He nodded and turned away to look out the kitchen window into her backyard. Cardboard boxes leaned against the garage. She’d been packing, getting ready for her move to her new life. “So you’re happy?” he asked, not trusting himself to look at her, afraid of what she’d see in his eyes.
But she wasn’t looking at him. She’d followed his gaze outside to the boxes. “Yes.”
“I’m glad,” he said, and then hesitated, wondering how to say the rest, wishing the words were easy, but they weren’t easy, they’d never be easy. Best thing he could do was just say them. Straight out. “I’m sorry, Rachel, truly sorry for all the pain I caused you—”
“That was five years ago, Cade—”
“Maybe. But I was wrong. I was a selfish ass, and I ask your forgiveness—”