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"I've had it, Desiree. I can't do this anymore. Not for one more day. Not for one more minute."
"What's the matter?" Desiree Hawthorne-Rainwater asked with raised eyebrows, glancing up from her jewelry box just in time to see her husband of twenty-seven years hurl a large manila envelope at the center of the bed they hadn't shared in more than a year.
"This." Jesse's eyes darkened to obsidian as he used a sweeping gesture to encompass everything in the room, his voice vibrating with contained fury. "All of this."
Understanding moved through her, warming her for the first time in she couldn't say how long. At last, something they could agree on again.
The noise and chaos were gratingtruck after truck of the supplies needed to make this afternoon and evening a success were arriving nonstop and she certainly couldn't blame Jesse for being annoyed by it when she herself had wanted to run away and bury herself in work more than once since this whole process had begun.
In a moment of weakness, she'd even contemplated offering Willow money if she would simply run away to Vegasanything to get life back to normal on their idyllic Thoroughbred ranch in central Texas. But Willow had her heart set on a Christmas weddingat homeand as mother of the bride and assistant wedding coordinator, burying her head and encouraging elopement hadn't really been an option.
"I know it's been crazy around here lately, but it'll settle down after the wedding this afternoon." She smiled wryly at the six feet, four inches of bristling, enraged masculinity currently regarding her with disbelieving eyes.
Part of her longed to reach a soothing hand out to him, but the tension between them had grown so thick in the past few months that she was afraid even that small gesture would rock the delicately balanced boat of their relationship. "We just need to hang in there a little longer."
"You think that's what this is all about? Willow's wedding?"
The warmth died as an icy trickle of unease moved through her. "Isn't it?" It was her turn to glance around the room. "Things are nuts around here today and have been for a while."
"You can't seriously be that out of touch." Jesse shook his head, disgust evident in every line of his body. "If it would make Willow happy today, I'd gladly put on a gorilla suit and attempt to fly to the moon under my own power."
"Well, what, then?" She couldn't help the defen-siveness that had crept into her toneonce upon a time he'd felt the same way about her.
"I'm talking about the new trainer you hired."
"Oh." Embarrassment washed through heralong with a healthy dose of annoyance. Hating the weakness her red cheeks hinted at, she focused on the annoyance instead. Fed it, until she was almost as angry as Jesse.
It wasn't as though she'd deliberately kept Tom's hiring from Jesse. She simply hadn't had time to discuss it in between all the other things going on the past couple of weeks. "I was going to talk to you about that."
"You were going to" Jesse broke off in midsen-tence, his eyes narrowing dangerouslya sure sign that he was one small step away from total meltdown. He took a couple of deep breaths, then in a voice so quiet it hurt to listen to it, he asked, "That's the best you've got?"
Her irritation kicked into high gear. Who was he to question her decisionhe who barely bothered to say three words to her at any given time? Who left a room almost as soon as she entered it? Besides, the Triple H was her ranch. She made the decisions on it and had for more than a decade and a half. "What do you want me to say, Jess? I did what I thought was best."
"Did you? I thought" He broke off again. Rubbed a hand over his eyes. Turned away. When he finally spoke, his voice was devoid of emotion. "What you thought best. I guess that's what we're both doing, then."
He pointed at the envelope on the bed. "Sign the papers, Desiree. We both know this isn't working anymore."
"What papers?" she demanded as he stalked to the door. "Jesse?" She couldn't keep her voice from quavering as he deliberately ignored her. "What papers?"
The sudden slamming of the door behind him was the only response she got.
Crossing the room on leaden legs, she reached for the envelope, though every instinct for self-preservation screamed at her to run the other way. Desiree Hawthorne-Rainwater didn't run from her problems. Her father had pounded that into her from the moment she had taken her first step.
She pulled out a thick sheaf of papers.
"Jesse Rainwater vs. Desiree Hawthorne-Rainwater. Petition for Divorce on the Grounds of Irreconcilable Differences."
Her legs collapsed beneath her and she hit the ground, hard.
Jesse wanted a divorce.
The papers slipped from her nerveless fingers as the words chased themselves around in her head.
Her husbandthe father of her children wanted a divorce.
Her partnerthe man she'd loved for thirty-three yearswanted a divorce.
And she hadn't even seen it coming.
Desiree studied the bedroom door, seeing once more the contemptuous look Jesse had thrown at her before slamming outas if simply being in the same room with her might somehow contaminate him.
A sob escaped before she could stifle it.
God, she was such a fool.
Eleven words. That's all the time or interest he'd had to spare. After twenty-seven years of marriage and a friendship that dated back over thirty years, their relationship could now be reduced to eleven measly words. Fewer, really. This isn't working anymore. Sign the papers.
Her stomach revolted and she grabbed the waste-basket by the bed just in time to prevent herself from throwing up all over the white Berber carpet.
When the nausea finally abated, she collapsed prone on the floor. Too weak to get up, too shocked to do anything but stare into space.
What should she do now? she wondered.
What could she do?
Did she sign the papers?
She was so tired of fightingshe'd been doing it for so many years and on so many fronts that she didn't know if she had any fight left in her. Didn't know if what little she did have left was enough or if she had lost the war before the first battle was ever decided.
She tried to ignore her suddenly throbbing head, tried to plan a course of action. She was good at plans, she reminded herselfgood at listing goals and plotting how to get there. She would just
Just what? Desiree tried to think, to focus, but her mind refused to work. It's usual agility no match for the shock rocketing through her. She lifted a hand to press against her eyes, then stopped in midmotion, horrified to see it tremble. Her father would never have approved.
But what did she expect? She had been woefully, embarrassingly unprepared for this, completely blindsided by the idea of not having Jesse in her life. Of not being a part of his. Because no matter how bad things had gotten in the past few years, divorce had never been an option. She loved Jesse wholeheartedly and, until five minutes ago, would have sworn he felt the same.
Not anymore. Her fists clenched involuntarily, her expensiveand unfamiliarFrench manicure digging grooves into her palms as doubt assailed her again. How could she have been so wrong?
Pushing herself into a sitting position, she concentrated on breathing, to combat the bile scalding the back of her throat. In, out. In, out. Her eyes fell, unwittingly, to the carpet Jesse had been dead set against, swearing white had no place on a Thoroughbred ranch. Maybe he'd been right, as it now boasted numerous stains.
Without thinking, she sought out the light amber stain near the nightstand where Jesse had dropped his drink the first time she'd worn the red push-up bra and thong Willow had insisted she buy on her fortieth birthday. The bloodstain near the balcony where their oldest son, Rio, had sliced his forehead open when he was seven. She smiled absentlyhe'd been so brave. The red lipstick near the bathroom doorshe'd dropped it years ago, when her youngest son, Dakota, had flown into the room and grabbed her around the waist, so thrilled at being named first-string varsity quarterback that he could barely get the words out.
The memories of a lifetime. Their lifetime.
Desiree tightly hugged her knees to her chest. She was cold all the way to the bone, despite the perfection of the late-December day. Willow had been afraid to hold the wedding outside, terrified that the capricious central Texas weather would ruin one of the most important days of her life. But Desiree had pushed for a garden wedding as images of the ranch decked out in sunshine and poinsettias danced through her mind. And she'd been right to pushthe morning had dawned clear and bright. A perfect day to give her youngest child away.
She'd looked forward to this day for months, had even thought past the excitement of the wedding to how things would be when it was all over. When she and Jesse could snuggle on the couch and talk, finally, about this thing that had grown between them. About the plans she'd made to fix things.
What a joke she was.
Desiree swiped impatiently at her wet cheeks, disgusted with the tears that continued to fall. She could count on one hand the number of times she'd cried in the past thirty years, but her stoicism had deserted her completely.
What kind of woman was totally blindsided when her husband asked for a divorce? How could she not have knownshe, who prided herself on knowing everything that happened on the ranch? How could she notice a stable boy's discontent and not see her own husband's misery? Was she really that blind?
Damn it, why hadn't he said something, anything, to clue her in to the fact that things had gotten so bad that divorce was the only option? When had he decided? Divorce papers weren't drawn up overnightno matter how rich you were. How long had he known? How many days had he sat across from her at breakfast and known that he didn't love her anymore? How many nights had he worked beside her in the study knowing that he was leaving?
Yes, she'd recognized that things were going downhill between Jesse and her, just as she'd recognized that she was mostly to blame. But she'd thought she had all the time in the world to fix it, had put it off until a more convenient time. Until the kids were on their own. Until the ranch didn't need her so much.
Until Jesse no longer needed her at all. She really was her father's daughter after all.
Jesse took the stairs three at a time, desperate to get some fresh air. He was nauseous, his gut churning sickly as he realized he'd taken the last, irrevocable step necessary to end the relationship that had shaped most of his adult life. To sever all ties between himself and the love of his life. And he'd done it right before Christmas, on their daughter's wedding day. Could he have picked a worse day?
Slamming the front door behind him, he sucked huge gulps of air into his suddenly starving lungs. He closed his eyes, only to open them again as he saw Desiree's stricken face dancing on the back of his closed eyelids. Guilt ate at him making him even angrier because she was so clearly the one in the wrong.
He hadn't planned on doing it today, had had no intention of hurting Desiree on what should have been one of the happiest days of her life.
He'd been holding on to those papers for almost three weeks nowasking himself if he really wanted to go through with it. Telling himself he'd talk to her after the wedding, after Christmas, when things had settled down and they could discussrationally what they should do about their pathetic excuse for a marriage.
But when he'd found out about the new trainer about his replacement, for God's sakehe'd stopped thinking altogether. Fury had taken over, and it had been all he could do to keep from finding Mike and stuffing that damn article down his shrewd yet well-intentioned throat.
Jesse's hand slipped into his pocket of its own accord and he was staring at the fragment of newspaper before he realized what he was doing. As his eyes skimmed over the headlineagainhe found himself thinking back on his conversation earlier that morning with Mike.
"Jesse Rainwater. You're just the man I've been wanting to see."
Startled by the unfamiliar voice booming from his living room, Jesse spilled some of the water he'd been pouring into the base of the eight-foot Christmas tree as he turned to investigate. A large sandy-haired man wearing a hat and suit was walking toward him, right hand extended.