Authors: Kaylea Cross
It hadn’t been enough though. Her throat tightened. Such a simple declaration, but it made her want to cry all over again. “You’re welcome.” She’d hated watching them destroy themselves. She hated losing Danny more.
Those callused, work-worn hands rubbed up and down over his faded jeans, betraying his inner turmoil. “We have to remember Danny as he used to be,” he said, voice wobbling with the effort of keeping his grief in check. “He’d want that. We have to remember that he was sick, that there was nothing any of us could do to make him want to stay here.”
She’d told herself that same thing more times than she could count over the past two years, but she’d also never stopped hoping that he’d come back to them one day. Snap out of the funk he’d sunk into and see how many things he had left to be thankful for, all the reasons he had to live for. The throbbing in her temples suddenly intensified with a vengeance. She rubbed circles there with her fingertips, still struggling to accept that this was reality and not just another nightmare.
Gage stood and left the room. She and her father were still sitting there in silence when he returned with some aspirin and placed them in her hand. His thoughtfulness sent an arrow of pain through her. She knew if she reached for him right now he’d wrap those strong arms around her and hold her for as long as she needed him to. And even though she was hurting unbearably, that would be cruel to them both. With a murmured thanks she took the tablets and set about discussing funeral plans with her father.
He left her with a giant hug at ten o’clock and let himself out. Gage, however, seemed to have no intention of leaving. Something that simultaneously flooded her with relief and dread. He rose and picked up her empty glass from the end table beside her. “Want more? Something to eat?”
“Thanks, but I’m not hungry.” All she felt right now was exhaustion. She pushed to her feet and followed Gage into the bright white country kitchen as he rinsed the glass and put it in her dishwasher. Still appearing at home here in spite of what she’d put him through. She searched for something to say. “I appreciate you coming over. That meant a lot to my dad, not having to break the news to me alone.”
“I didn’t do it for him.”
She lowered her eyes and nodded once. “I know. Thank you.”
He leaned back against the granite counter, hands braced on the edge on either side of him. “No problem.” He stared at her, a shadow of hurt in his eyes.
It didn’t mean a lot to you?
they demanded silently.
Yes it meant a lot to her and he knew it, but he also knew why she wasn’t going to say it. She was already having trouble remembering why she shouldn’t just step into those strong arms and hide for a while, let him chase the worst of this stark anguish and guilt away. He was making it near impossible for her to stay detached from him. She cleared her throat, glanced away to the neatly arranged stacks of cream-ware dishes nestled in the glass-front cabinets above the L-shaped counter. “God, I’m wiped. I need to go to bed.”
“Sure, go ahead.” He made no move to leave.
Not liking what that meant, she tried a different tack. “I won’t be in to work tomorrow, and maybe not for the rest of the week, so I’m not sure when I’ll talk to you again.” Despite the dismissal she meant it as, the thought of not seeing him filled her with a terrible hollowness.
Still calm, he raised one auburn eyebrow in defiance. “You’re not staying here by yourself tonight.”
She should have expected this. “I’m okay.”
“No, you’re not, and it pisses me off that you’d even pull that shit with me.” He dragged a hand over his skull trim in exasperation, giving her an eyeful of bulging biceps. “Look, whatever shit that’s gone down between us in the past, this supersedes all of it. I don’t want you to be alone right now, so I’m staying. End of story.”
She shook her head, feeling her control slip. “Gage, I can’t handle this right now,” she blurted, the hot pressure of tears flooding her throat. “I
With a low curse he closed the distance between them, ignoring her feeble protests as he gathered her up in his arms. She should have pushed away, said something nasty to make him leave but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. It would have made her feel even worse and he didn’t deserve it. Her body and heart didn’t care that her brain was screaming at her that she was an idiot. They craved him, only him, and weren’t letting her walk away.
Instead she wound her arms around his sturdy neck and buried her nose in the center of his wide chest, breathing in his familiar, comforting scent. He was right; in spite of all the damage she’d done to their relationship in the past, Danny’s suicide had turned her world upside down. She needed Gage and didn’t want him to go, not after all these lonely months spent aching for the chance to feel this again.
Those warm, strong hands stroked up and down her shuddering back as he crooned reassurances into the hair at her temple. She squeezed her eyes shut, throat constricting as she thought of how many nights she’d lain awake yearning for the feel of his body up against hers like this.
“I’m here for you, no matter what,” he was saying softly, his warm breath brushing over her damp cheek. “I swear I’m not gonna push you for anything else, okay? Just let me stay.”
Unable to speak, afraid that she’d blurt out her feelings for him, that she’d made a horrible mistake by walking away from him all those months ago, she nodded.
“Come on.” He gently eased her away and steered her into her bedroom. Leaving her only for a moment to turn back the quilt on her queen-size four poster bed, he turned back and held out a hand. “Strip down to your undies and get in.”
The idea of stripping down to
in front of him probably wasn’t the best idea but she was too tired to care and was just grateful he was staying. Unbuttoning her blouse and skirt, she peeled them off and flung them over a chair in the corner to deal with in the morning. She was already dreading waking up and facing what the day would bring.
Acutely aware of the way Gage’s gaze swept over her body and lingered on the black lace bra and thong she wore, she averted her eyes and stepped past him to climb between the sheets he held back. Weariness engulfed her the moment she laid her head on the pillow. Gage pulled the covers up and tucked them beneath her chin, paused to stroke a comforting hand over her head, smoothing her hair back from her face.
“Get some sleep,” he whispered. “I’ll be here when you wake up and help you with everything.”
She nodded, was about to say something else when he straightened and stepped back. Something akin to panic lit up in her chest. Without thinking she shot out a hand and grabbed his thick wrist. He stopped, peered down at her questioningly. Claire struggled past the uncertainty and whispered, “Stay with me?”
The set of his shoulders eased and she thought she saw a flash of tenderness in his eyes. “Sure. Scoot over.”
Not giving herself time to question her actions, Claire turned onto her side and moved to the far right side of the bed. A puff of cool air hit her skin as the covers lifted. The mattress dipped a moment later and then Gage’s warmth settled against her back and hips. He tucked her into the curve of his much taller body and wrapped a protective arm around her waist.
“Thanks,” she whispered hesitantly into the silence, aware of every single inch of contact and the low voltage hum running through her nerve endings.
The ghost of a kiss caressed the top of her head. “Shhh. Just go to sleep.”
With a weary sigh she snuggled deeper into his embrace and let herself drift until the blackness of sleep overcame her.
Claire rolled over and opened her eyes the next morning, for a moment confused by the rumpled state of the other side of the bed. Then it hit her all over again. Grief and shock that Danny was gone, the reality that it was really happening. She curled into a ball and focused on taking slow, deep breaths until the worst of the pain eased enough to allow her lungs to expand.
A clinking sound came from the kitchen. She burrowed deeper beneath her quilt and blinked back the sheen of tears, placing her hand on the indent Gage’s head had left in the other pillow. Twice she’d woken during the night and both times he’d tucked her back against his body without a word and stroked her hair until she fell asleep again.
How was she supposed to keep her distance from him now? During their entire relationship she’d never seen this gentle caretaker side of him. With his daughter, sure, but that was different. With Claire he’d always been strong and take-charge, had always lit her body up with effortless ease. Things between them had been intense and very physical, right from the start. The tenderness he’d shown her yesterday was devastating because she had no defense against it.
I don’t know if I can get through this
, she thought miserably, scrubbing a hand over her face.
She needed a shower to clear her head before walking out of this room to face him and the long list of unhappy tasks she had to complete. It was already almost nine o’clock. Dragging herself out of bed, she started the shower and stepped under the hot spray, letting the water soothe some of the stiffness out of her neck and shoulders. The thought of everything she had to deal with today, including her mother’s impending arrival, made her long to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over her head. But she didn’t cave under pressure, and she’d damn well face everything and anything she had to in order to see to Danny’s final arrangements properly.
After brushing her teeth, blow-drying her hair and putting some makeup on her puffy eyes, she dressed in jeans and a lightweight pink sweater before heading into the kitchen. Gage wasn’t there. She stopped in the doorway, her heart sinking. He’d up and left, just like that? She wasn’t sure if that offended or crushed her.
A full pot of Italian roast waited for her on the counter though, along with her favorite mug and the carton of half and half from the fridge, remembering how she took her coffee. She was so confused about everything she didn’t know
to think. Had he stayed last night out of a sense of compassion, or had it been obligation? Both those options sucked, and yet he’d given no indication that he wanted anything beyond the chance to help dull the worst of her grief. For that, she was grateful. And more disappointed than she could say.
Alone at the granite-topped island she sipped the coffee, a bittersweet rise of emotion filling her when she tasted how strong it was. Gage had always made it like that, no matter how much she’d argued with him about it. Funny how the little things triggered the most vivid memories after someone was gone.
The drone of a lawnmower started up outside, startling her. Claire turned toward the French doors that led out to the back deck and set her mug down just in time to see Gage stride by, pushing her mower. For a moment she was too stunned to move. The man was cutting her freaking lawn for her, a true old-fashioned Southern boy to his core.
Smiling a little, she carried her coffee over to the doors and watched him. Weak sunlight peeked through the sullen blanket of clouds. She admired the flex of muscle beneath the T-shirt stretched across his back and shoulders, the way his jeans hugged his ass and thighs. Gage at rest was a beautiful thing. In motion, he was a sight to behold.
She sighed, feeling her emotional walls crumble a bit more. Did she have the strength to deal with this on top of everything else? She’d been a complete and utter idiot to ever think she could live without this man. All her reasons for ending things with him, reasons she’d been convinced would mean certain doom for them if they’d stayed together, seemed so fucking stupid now. Especially today, when facing the reality of how quickly life could change.
Turning away from the doors she sat back at the island and with the sound of the mower as background music, pulled out a pen and paper to make a list of everything she needed to do. She was on the phone to a local funeral home when Gage came back inside from the front yard through the garage. She tensed, her instinctive reaction to ignore him, but what the hell good would that do at this point? It would only confirm she was the coward he’d accused her of being when she’d broken up with him.
Claire might be a lot of things, but a coward wasn’t one of them.
Pushing aside her fear of rejection, she made herself turn on the barstool and offer him a smile to show him how grateful she was for the lawn, and that he’d stayed. He paused in surprise for a beat, hand poised to grab his own mug from the cupboard. Then he smiled back and turned away to reach inside the cupboard.
Some of the anxiety in her gut eased and it seemed a little easier to breathe all of a sudden. She wrote notes about what the funeral home director said and answered the more difficult questions about Danny’s death. “He’s still at the hospital. I’ve spoken to my parents, and we’ve decided not to have a viewing. He wanted to be cremated, so…” God, maybe it wasn’t easier to breathe. She pressed a hand to her stomach, took a shuddering breath. “We’d like that taken care of as soon as possible,” she finished in a rush.