My Cowboy Valentine - Page 5

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“Then why would—”

Cade never finished. He couldn’t because he was cut off by a piercing shriek from inside the house.

Rachel threw open the door, racing inside to Tommy, who stood in the middle of

the hallway in his pajamas.

“Ma! Ma!” he screamed, even as she crouched in front of him.

“Hey, Tommy, Momma’s here. It’s okay.” She tried to smooth his dark hair back from his forehead but he flinched and pulled away.

“Ma.” He batted her hand away.

“Did you have a bad dream?”

But he wasn’t listening to her. He was looking past her to Cade, who’d followed Rachel inside.

“Man,” he said, staring at Cade.

She glanced over her shoulder, her stomach falling. Cade’s jaw had dropped. He looked stunned. She swallowed hard, wishing none of this was happening. “That’s Mommy’s friend. Cade. Cade King.”

Tommy shook his head. He didn’t like strangers, and he especially didn’t like them in his home. “Go.”

“Tommy, can you say hi to Mr. King?”

“Man. Go. Leave.”

“That’s not nice,” she rebuked gently, reaching up and trying once again to soothe him by smoothing a fistful of hair off his brow. This time he let her, and her palm lingered on top of his head, his hair silky smooth and reminding her of rich, dark chocolate.

“Leave,” he insisted, pointing at Cade. “Go. Leave.” Then he pushed her hand away and ran back to his room.

Rachel watched him go, heart heavy, before standing and looking at Cade, her lips curving in a tight smile. “And that was my son, Thomas James.” Her gaze met Cade’s and held. “And no, he’s not yours. He’s four and a half. He’ll be five in July.”

Then she, too, walked away, but headed in the opposite direction, going to her kitchen where she pushed in the chairs around the small kitchen table, the legs scraping the old linoleum floor, and knocked an imaginary crumb off the scratched table surface.

Cade entered the kitchen, too, but she ignored him, continuing to straighten things that didn’t need straightening, but it was better than looking at Cade and seeing whatever it was he was thinking.

“He has developmental delays,” she said jerkily, adjusting the faded terry-cloth dish towel hanging on the handle fronting the old oven. “Autism. Which isn’t actually a single disorder, but a spectrum of closely related disorders—” She broke off, took another breath. “And he doesn’t mean to be rude. He just doesn’t have strong verbal skills.”

“That’s all right.”

She heard his flat tone and shot Cade a quick glance. He looked pale, almost sick, and she looked away just as swiftly. It’d been so difficult getting Tommy diagnosed...none of the Mineral Wells doctors agreed on his exact diagnosis. Obviously Tommy had PDD, pervasive developmental disorder, but was it classical autism or autism with Asperger’s syndrome, or PDD-NOS? “People don’t understand that he has special needs. He’s not a bad boy, and he’s not a problem. He just gets agitated easily. Overwhelmed by change and too much stimuli. Kind of a sensory overload.”

“You don’t have to explain to me. I wouldn’t judge him or criticize him.”

Her head jerked up again, and her eyes searched his. She knew Cade had had problems, knew he’d gotten in plenty of trouble growing up, and wished she could believe him. But she didn’t. Couldn’t. Her shoulders twisted. “You wouldn’t like how he acts in public. You’d say he was out of control. And you know, he does get out of control. He’ll throw something in a store—a can of soup or frozen orange juice—and it’ll hit someone or something, or he’ll knock over a display and send a hundred packages of toilet paper all over the store. And you’d be like everyone else. ‘Why don’t you give that boy some discipline?’ It’s embarrassing, but it’s not his fault. He didn’t ask to be born this way—” She stopped, gasping for breath, horrified to discover she was close to tears. “Sorry. I’m sorry. I’m tired. It’s been a long day.”

Cade didn’t say anything and after a long moment Rachel glanced at him. He was leaning against one of the counters, big arms bracing his weight, his jaw set, his brow furrowed, his gaze resting on the cardboard box she’d just begun to pack, looking every inch the bull-riding champion he was. Not just All-Around champion, but a bull-riding champion, too. In the past seven years he’d won four national bull-riding titles in one of the world’s most dangerous sports. Four. The man was fearless. Tough as nails. Stronger than anyone she’d ever met, but also more dangerous, too.

“Where’s his dad?” he asked roughly.

“Not in the picture.”

“Why not?”

She drew a ragged breath. “His dad didn’t want him.”

Cade was slow to respond and hot emotion rolled through her, blistering her heart. “But that’s okay,” she said fiercely, “because I do. And I love him. I love him more than anything in this world and he is perfect to me. Absolutely perfect and just the way God intended him to be.”

His lips curved but his eyes were shadowed. “I bet Sally doted on him,” he said quietly.

Rachel blinked back tears. “Loved him to pieces.”

He nodded once, as if thinking. “So if Sally left you the house, and this is where you’re raising your boy, why are you moving, Rache?” he asked, looking up at her, his voice gentle.

“I couldn’t pay the property taxes.” There, she’d said it. Now he knew. She didn’t feel much better, but the truth was out in the open. “So we lost the house.”

“The taxes couldn’t have been much—”

“Grandma had deferred taxes for eight years, and even though it’s deferred, you’re accumulating interest and fines, and a little bit of money turns into a lot of money. By the time it was brought to my attention...” Her voice faded and she shook her head, sickened all over again by her inability to save her home. “It was too late.”

“Let me pay the taxes for you, Rachel.”

Of course this was what he’d say. This had always been Cade’s way. Cade was generous to a fault, and she knew he’d help her. Cade liked helping people. Cade had once loved being the good guy...rushing in, playing hero, being Mr. Wonderful—and he was Mr. Wonderful, he could be incredibly wonderful—until he started craving his buddy Jack Daniel’s again. “You can’t,” she said huskily. “I don’t own the house anymore. That’s why we’re moving.”

“Who bought the house? And how much did they pay you for it?”

She blinked, but couldn’t hide the tears. “Some company in Fort Worth bought it. But they didn’t pay me—they paid the county. Turns out all they had to do was go in and pay all the back taxes on Grandma’s house, and the house became theirs.” She put a hand to her mouth, fighting to hang on to her composure. And then when she was sure she could speak without falling apart, she added, “That’s why we’re moving. Another family is moving in middle of the month.”

“So they got Sally’s house for what...twenty-five thousand? Thirty?”

“Twenty and some change.” She laughed even as she cried, because it was ludicrous—it was. And Larry Strauss had offered to help her. Mia’s parents had wanted to help her. Even Mrs. Munoz had tried to give her some money but she couldn’t take it. Not from any of them. She was proud, and it was a fault of hers, but she couldn’t bear to go through life pitied and whispered and talked about. It was better to lose the house and maintain some self-respect, than take loans from people she’d never be able to pay back.

“You told me earlier today that everything had worked out the way things were meant to work out.” Cade’s voice was hard. “But that’s not true—”

“Yes, it is.” Rachel jerked her chin up. “I have Tommy and I love being a mom

and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Chapter Three

Cade drove the deserted back roads to his ranch as if the devil pursued him. It was reckless driving, but then his thoughts were reckless, too. Fortunately it was late, and the moon was high, casting bright winter light across the dark pastures and clusters of oak and elm trees.

Cade knew these back roads well, and he drove with his foot heavy on the accelerator. With its V-8 engine, his truck could fly and it flew now.

He’d told himself five years ago he was leaving her for the right reasons. He’d told himself he was walking because he wanted a different life...a better life than the one he had with Rachel.

But it wasn’t true.

He’d walked away from her out of laziness. Selfishness. He’d left her because he hadn’t wanted to change. He’d left to send her a message that he wasn’t about to let her start controlling him. He’d had enough of that growing up, being bounced around from home to home in foster care, and he was done being dictated to. Done having people tell him who he was supposed to be and how he was supposed to behave. Done being criticized and marginalized. He was a man and he was going to succeed his way, on his terms.

And so he left Rachel, sure that it’d been the right thing to do—for her, and himself—and for the next couple of years he’d lived his life his way...drinking too much sometimes, getting some success on the circuit, winning some big events only to lose others. He was always hurt or rehabilitating—part of the life of a professional rodeo cowboy—and alcohol helped ease the pain. He drank to medicate himself. Drank to help himself sleep. Drank to help himself forget.

But drunk, he thought of Rachel. Sober, he thought of Rachel.

Rachel became his demon, and he vowed he’d excise his demon once and for all.

And he thought he had, until he’d sat in one of those damn AA meetings two years ago November and thought about the people he’d hurt with his drinking, and Rachel was top of the list. But she was the one person he couldn’t go to. The one person he couldn’t face. Not because she didn’t deserve an apology, but because he didn’t want to see her.

Tags: Jane Porter Romance