His leg muscles were so tight beneath her hips she was almost afraid to move. "Sarah." Her name was a warning, and her chest squeezed as she realized the depth of the pain he must be in, deep enough that he was afraid to share it with her. Had he shared his lingering grief, his suffering, with anyone? But she already knew the answer, didn't she?
Thanking God that she was actually here for once when he needed her, she wrapped her arms around him--because for all her fears about being with him, and despite the fact that she knew forever was never going to be theirs--she still wanted so badly to give him comfort, to smother his demons with love until they couldn't live and breathe inside of him anymore.
Hugging Calvin was like hugging a brick wall, but she didn't let go, couldn't let go of him. Over and over, he'd been there for her, had helped her and her family. So if holding him here in the dark was her only way to give him comfort right now, it was what she would do.
"I still dream about it," he finally said in a low voice. "Walking into the trailer and seeing my dad there. I swear I knew something was wrong before I even opened the door."
She didn't loosen her hold on him, not even at the stark pain in his voice, so at odds with the sound of the waves lapping at the lakeshore in front of his porch.
"I knew he was taking my mom's death hard. I knew he was having a hell of a time trying to take care of a newborn. I knew he was drinking more than he usually did. But I didn't know he could ever do something like that."
Sarah could feel Calvin's heartbeat racing against her chest. She wanted to tell him he didn't have to say anything else, that he didn't need to relive it all for her. But something told her that what he needed was, strangely, just the opposite. She could feel him opening up word by word, sentence by sentence. And it meant more to her than anything ever had before that he trusted her with his pain.
"There was blood everywhere. So red and thick it looked like someone had broken a ketchup bottle all over the floor, the walls, the couch, with bits and chunks of something. I threw up. Right there in the middle of it all, I threw up."
Oh God. She'd thought she knew the story, but she hadn't been inside his trailer that weekend--and he hadn't ever gone into the details of what he'd seen. She hadn't been brave enough to ask either. She shivered at the awful picture and pulled herself in closer to him. She could tell by the rigidity of his body beneath hers that he was lost in his memories of that night.
"I'm so sorry." Sarah couldn't stop her tears from falling. "You were so young. You should never have had to see something like that. Should never have had to live through something like that."
His eyes were on her, but she didn't think he saw her. Instead, he was seeing his old trailer, bloody from his father's suicide.
"I don't even know how I got to Jordan, how I made it through that mess to her crib. But she was crying. And from that moment on, I vowed to do whatever it took to take care of her. Anything."
Jordan was why he had stayed at Summer Lake. Not just because he loved the town. Not just because he felt he owed the people here a lifelong debt for helping him when he needed it most.
It was all for his sister.
Calvin wasn't just a good man. He was a magnificent man. And she would never ask him to choose her over the welfare of his sister.
Summer Lake was a place where people took care of each other, where Dorothy watched over Jordan as a grandmother would, where Sarah's own mother and grandmother showed their love with yarn and hugs and cookies. This was exactly the right place for Jordan to be, so Sarah would never ask him to leave this small town. Even though her heart was going to break a hundred times over when she left without him at her side.
But right now all that mattered was finding a way to help him heal, to clear away the darkness from his soul so that he could sleep through the night again, so that lingering pain didn't hide behind his smile, pulling him down when he deserved to soar.
"Who knows what you've just told me--about what you saw, about how bad it really was?"
"The police chief. The paramedics. They kept it quiet. People knew my father shot himself, but none of them dared ask me to paint them a picture."
"So you've never seen a therapist?"
"You just picked up the pieces and moved on?"
She felt him tense again. "I did what I had to do."
"But I saw how angry you were," she said softly. "That first weekend when I came back from college after you called to tell me what happened, you were vibrating with it."
"I told you, I'm not upset with you anymore."
"I know you're not." How could she make him see what she was really trying to say? "But before we had our blowup over Jordan's diaper, you were already angry. And how could you not be? If your father had given one single thought to the kind of life he was leaving his kids to deal with, then you wouldn't have had to--"
His hands came around her waist fast and hard, lifting her off his lap so that he could stand up and leave. Deep, heavy regret pulled at her, made her wish she could have kept her mouth shut. For so long, she'd been a master at holding everything inside. And now, the one time she let her real thoughts and feelings loose, look what happened. She hurt the very person she never wanted to hurt again.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have pushed you like that."
But instead of walking away from her the way she expected him to, he lifted his stormy gaze back to hers. "How could I have been angry with my father? He was depressed. He couldn't control what he did."
Sarah had a big decision to make. She could give in and stop talking about his father and maybe salvage some of the night. Or she could risk the fragile bond they'd just begun to form again and push him all the way to where he needed to go.
But the truth was, there wasn't any decision to make. Because she already knew she'd give everything, anything she possibly could, to help him heal.
Tonight, out on his porch, she saw all the shades of the boy she'd known... and the man she was discovering. Calvin Vaughn wasn't just the incredibly great guy she'd adored as a girl. He wasn't just the protector of his little sister. He wasn't just mayor of a town that he deeply cared for. He wasn't just sexy, funny, loving, wasn't just a man who made her heart race every time he was near.
He was also a man who had been working like crazy every minute of his life to contain a deep well of anger and sadness and pain.
Going to where he stood staring out at the lake, she was shaking as she pressed herself against his back. "You were such a great son, but you had already been dealing with your father's depression for years. Isn't it one thing to be empathetic with someone who's got problems--and another thing entirely when they take an action that's guaranteed to hurt you? With everyone else, you can be Mr. Hero, swooping in to save your sister and the town, but even though you really are a hero, it doesn't mean you can't take some time to deal with your own demons. So that you can finally move on." She rested her cheek in the center of his broad back, felt his heart beating strong and fast. "You can pretend with everyone else, but you don't have to pretend with me. You've
always taken care of everyone around you. You've looked so strong for so many years. But has anyone ever taken care of you the way you need?"
"The town was there for me." His words were raw, rough. "Henry from the general store used to send over packages from out of the blue--pipes would be delivered just in time to fix bathroom plumbing, paint cans would show up right when the front porch was peeling. He even gave me new windows after a tree limb broke through during a nasty storm, saying it was part of an order that his guys had screwed up for someone else and what were they going to do with one window. Catherine would babysit. Your mom was constantly dropping off food."
Yes, she could see that so many people had helped him with the details. But had anyone been there to heal his heart?
She should have been there.
As Calvin slowly resurfaced from the darkness, he realized Sarah was standing soft and warm against his back. Out there on the porch, it felt like she was trying to break through his armor. Armor he had barely acknowledged he'd covered himself with for the past ten years. Everyone had long ago assumed he was over his parents' deaths. No one knew he continued to have nightmares about finding his father dead on the carpet.
Not until tonight.
He turned around to come face-to-face with the woman he loved. He needed to take her into his arms to find his balance. Even though she'd just sent him careening.
Hadn't he known all along that it would come to this--that letting her in, even part of the way, meant she wouldn't stop until she'd yanked off every last layer of armor?
This armor had seen him through the worst moments of his life. When she'd been nowhere to be found. But it was really, really heavy.
And he was sick of wearing it.
Faith. He had faith in Sarah. Faith that her caring about him this much meant that she wouldn't just be here for him tonight--that despite having told him she wasn't going to stay, in the end she just might choose to stay forever this time.
Without saying another word, he picked her up and walked back into the house with her.
He didn't speak until they were back in his bedroom. "Thank you for helping."