“When I say deeper, I mean like I’m pretty sure I’m falling in love with you, Red. I don’t take this lightly.”
Piper’s breath caught. She’d had a feeling, but to hear the words come from his mouth...
“Wait—” he held up a hand “—I just need to get this out and then you can have the floor and say anything you need.”
Piper nodded and stepped back, giving him space. Apparently whatever he needed to say was going to be life-altering and she needed to be closer to the door...in case she had to make a hasty exit. If he was calling this off, she would be utterly broken.
“When I moved back home I was more than ready to start this school, to become an active member with TCC and to really put down roots in Royal.” He raked a hand over his messy bed-head. “I even imagined this, between us. I knew if I could somehow take us beyond our comfort level of being best friends, I was confident we could have something special.”
Piper really, really liked what he was saying, but for each second he spoke she waited on the giant “but” that would inevitably come. And if he dashed her dreams, if he was trying to break things off, she would be crushed, heartbroken and shattered. But she had to remain strong for now until she knew what she was facing. So help her, if he decided he’d changed his mind, she’d kick his ass for making her envision a future with him.
“And what we’ve found is far greater than anything I ever imagined, Piper.” He met her gaze and stepped forward. “I want you to know all of that. I want you to understand the level of my feelings for you, the fact that I would die before I ever let anyone or anything hurt you.”
Tears pricked her eyes and she blinked them away. She honestly couldn’t tell if he was getting ready to propose, tell her he had a fatal disease or if he was breaking up.
“You’re scaring me, Ryan. Just say what you need to say. The groundwork has been laid.”
Ryan sighed, reaching for her hands and squeezing them. “Joe called me yesterday.”
For a moment the name didn’t hit her, but when it did, dread settled in the pit of her stomach.
“Your old roping partner,” she said slowly. “I’m assuming he wants you back and that’s why you had to tell me your feelings so I’d be all mushy and happy on the inside before you delivered this blow.”
Okay, so maybe she was jumping the gun and letting her anger seep in just a wee bit. But from the look on his face, she knew she’d nailed it.
Oh, God. The hurt. That instant, piercing pain that enveloped her nearly knocked her to her knees. How dare he do this to her, to them? Especially knowing how she felt about the circuit. Was he seriously just going to jump back in and say to hell with everything else?
“You’ve got to be kidding.” She slid her hands from his and crossed her arms over her chest. “You get one phone call and you’re ready to just throw in the towel on everything? The school, your new home and the club? Us?”
“Hear me out before you jump to conclusions.”
Piper needed to do something, needed to keep busy so Ryan wouldn’t see her hands shaking...from fear, from anger. She went to the cabinet and pulled down a mug.
“By all means,” she said, pouring herself a cup of coffee. “Don’t let me stand in the way of your dream. Carry on.”
Okay, she was a tad snarky and she’d already put up a wall of anger around her, but damn it, she’d known this could happen. She was more than aware of his love of the rodeo and she’d seen how the circuit got in the blood and became more addictive than drugs. She’d seen firsthand how this damn sport destroyed her family and she would not lay back and play the victim if Ryan chose to leave. This was as much her fault for getting her hopes up, for trusting him when he’d told her time and time again that he wasn’t her father.
When she turned and leaned against the counter, her gaze sought his over the top of her mug.
“Joe’s new partner that replaced me broke his leg last week,” Ryan started, holding her gaze. “They only need me to finish out the season. Two months tops. I don’t intend to return permanently, Piper. I hadn’t planned on this, either, but Joe needs an answer soon and I can’t leave him hanging.”
Piper nearly choked on her coffee. Damn, she hated black anyway, but she wasn’t breaking the tension by crossing the room for the milk. She needed the anger that enveloped her because if she let go of it, all she’d have left to hold on to would be fear, anguish and a flood of tears she’d be damned if she’d let him see. One had already leaked out, but she’d remain in control for as long as possible. She was a strong woman; she’d lived through rejection before.