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"Jodie-girl, is that you? Speak up! I can't understand you." Mae Parker's command traveled the distance between the ranch in West Texas and the apartment in Austin in a heartbeat.
Jodie stepped outside onto the narrow balcony. "It's me, Aunt Mae. Tate's asleep. I can't"
"I still can't hear you!" Mae complained.
"I can't talk any louder. Tate was awake for most of last night, and I don't"
"Another bad night?" Mae demanded.
"To go along with another bad day."
"I was callin' to see how he's doing. Not good, I take it."
"No," Jodie replied tautly.
Mae burst out, "I feel so dang helpless! If I could do anything to make things better, I would. You know that."
"He still won't see anyone, won't talk to anyone?"
Jodie adjusted her grip on the cordless phone.
"Maybe he should go back to the hospital, let the doctors"
"That would kill him for sure, Aunt Mae." Jodie's declaration ended in a strangled gulp as the control she'd kept for so long on her emotions finally crumbled. Tears trickled down her cheeks. She was near the end of her ability to cope. At a loss about which way to turn, what to do for the best. If Mae felt helpless, it was nothing to what she felt!
"Jodie, you listen to me. You have to keep bein' strong for the pair of you. You can't let down. Tate's been through so much. I know you have, too, but he's the one we"
"He's the only one I think about, Aunt Mae," Jodie said, swiping at the escaping tears. "I think about him all the time. What's best for him, how I can help. But he won't let" She stopped. She'd told her great-aunt a lot but not everything. Some matters were so private, just between her and Tate, that they couldn't be put into words. Painful things that had to be borne alone.
Mae Parker, the matriarch of the Parker family, who always was so fiercely protective of the Parker name, of Parker land, of the Parker way of life, allowed a gruff tenderness to brush her words as she offered, "Would you like me to come stay for a while? Maybe Tate would"
"No. That wouldn't work at all, Aunt Mae," Jodie cut in. "Thank you, but he wouldn'tTate wouldn't" She stumbled to a stop.
Mae was silent. "Then why don't the two of you come here. What better place for him to recuperate than on the ranch? It helped Shannon get well after the plane crash. Why not Tate?"
Jodie squeezed her eyes shut. Go home to the Parker Ranch. She'd thought of it before and rejected the idea. But so much had happened in the interim. Tate had dismissed himself from the intermediate-care facilitytoo soon, the doctors who'd wanted him to start rehabilitation had said. His homecomingan event she'd barely allowed herself to dream about during his days in intensive care, when she feared she'd lose him foreverhad turned out less than happy, with him treating her like a stranger.
"I'm not sure it would help," she said.
"Fresh air, sunshine, family all around who're willing to do anything to see him get better? Of course it would help!"
"He's notTate's not like he used to be, Aunt Mae. He's changed."
"That's not surprising. It takes a lot out of a person to come so close to dying. Then he's had to fight his way back. He's a strong man, used to doing things for himself he'll hate that he can't do what he wants when he wants." Mae paused. "Darlene and Thomas will be headin' off soon on that Australia trip they've been planning. Their house'll be empty for close to three months. No reason you two can't use it."
"I can barely get him to leave the bedroom."
"Then it's even more important that you two should get yourselves out here!"
Her great-aunt's bullying tactics had always grated on Jodie. As a teenager, she'd resented it to the point of rebellion, and had acted out first by befriending one of the ranch's less savory cowboys, then escaped by going away to college. Ultimately, she'd hidden out in Europe for a year. That she'd succeeded only in hiding from herself was something she realized later, after she'd returned to the ranch and at long last found her proper place in the familyalong with rediscovering the one true love of her life, Tate Connelly. At the moment, Mae's bullying felt good, though. As if someone cared. Jodie's resistance weakened.
"Maybemaybe you're right. Maybe we should come home. Tate would be closer to his mother and to Jack"
"Of course I'm right!" Mae retorted. "When would you like your dad to come get you? There's more room in the Cadillac than in that little thing you call a car. Tate'll be more comfortable. My car can carry more of his things, too. I'll tell Gib to give you a call and let you know when to expect him."
Typically, her great-aunt had taken over and removed even the smallest decision from her hands. Deciding the matter herself was important to Jodie, though, even in her distracted state. "How about if I call him, instead? II have to see what Tate thinks."
"Tell Tate I'm expectin' you," Mae directed her firmly.
"I'll tell him," Jodie agreed, but she doubted that she would go through with it. Tate wasn't receptive to much of anything she proposed these days.
A noise came from inside the apartment. She turned to see Tate standing in the bedroom doorway. He leaned weakly against the frame, his shoulders hunched, a protective hand to the left side of his midsection. His eyes met hers and Jodie's heart fluttered, both from guilt at what he might have overheard and because, even after these past five and a half months spent reeling from one form of hell to another, she still loved him.
"II have to go, Aunt Mae. Tate's awake.
"Don't let me interrupt," he murmured flatly, and headed back the way he'd come.
Mae started to protest, but Jodie's quick "Bye, Aunt Mae" shut her off.
Jodie's hand trembled as she set down the phone and went to join her husband. Because Tate's movements were labored, he'd managed to cover only a few feet. Perspiration glistened on his forehead and around his lips. She wanted to reach out to him. She even instinctively lifted a hand, but stopped herself. He would reject any assistance.
She stood by and watched as, with considerable effort, he made it to the bed, then lowered himself onto the mattress, a succession of quick shallow breaths following. He was so weak. In the months since the shooting, he'd lost more weight than he had to spare. The bones in his face had become more prominent. His pajamas hung loosely on him.
Fear, these days an unwelcome but familiar companion, knotted in Jodie's stomach. "IThat was Aunt Mae," she explained. "I heard."
"She said to tell you hello."
He stretched back cautiously to rest against the double set of pillows and made no comment.
"Sheshe wants us to come stay at the ranch. Aunt Darlene and Uncle Thomas are going on another trip and she says we can"
"I've told you what I want," he interrupted her tightly.
A muscle ticked along Jodie's jawline. "She thinks it might help you get well faster."
"I'll get well here. As well as I'll ever be."
"I want to go," Jodie said, and braced herself for what would follow.
"I want us to go together. Tate, we"
He broke in again. "Why don't you listen to what I say?"
Jodie rushed over to the side of the bed and fell to her knees. She tried to capture his hand, but he evaded her.
"Aunt Mae said we can use their house while they're gone. It's bigger than here, Tate, and you won't have to negotiate any stairs. Your mother can visit easier so can Jack. I know Jack wants to see you more often, but he can't get away. If we're closer, he can!"
"You've got it all worked out, don't you?"
"No IIt just makes sense. There's nothing to keep us in Austin. You won't see Drew for more than a few seconds when he stops by." She named the head of the elite anticrime investigative task force that a little over a year and a half before, had brought them to Austin. "You won't see the other investigators or our friends. You refuse physical therapy. I've quit my job at the gallery, so that won't interfere."
"I knew you'd get bored."
"I'm not bored. I'm worried.about you!"
He turned his face to the wall. "I want you to file for divorce."
The knot in Jodie's stomach twisted tighter. "I'm not going to do that."
"Like I said you don't listen."
"I want us to go to the ranch," she repeated unsteadily, a lone tear escaping.
There was a short pause, then he said, "If I agree.will you?"
She frowned, taken aback. "You mean will I agree to a divor" she choked on the word "if you"
"That's exactly what I mean," he said, turning back.
Jodie wanted desperately to kiss him, to hold him, to whisper so many words of love that she would smother the stubborn idea that had taken root in his mind over the past few weeks. Up to this moment she'd been able to deflect itto pretend it hadn't been said. Now she could no longer use that ploy. "I'll have to think about it," she said.
He continued to watch her steadily, and for one hopeful second Jodie thought she saw an answering spark of love, but it disappeared so quickly she couldn't be sure.
"You do that," he said quietly, dispassionately, putting the lie to any fantasy she might harbor.
When he said nothing more, Jodie's only option was to leave him in his lonely room.
Emotion overwhelmed her as she stumbled back out onto the balcony. If crying would help, if it would change anything, make Tate better, she would cry forever!
Her fingers curled round the decorative railing and held tightly. They'd been so happy! From the first day they'd moved into this apartment, they'd loved the view. It was so different from the near-desert region of West Texas where they'd both grown up. Green trees, green grass, a profusion of water. They'd stand on the porch each evening to gaze at the lake formed by the Colorado River and hold each other, drinking in the beauty made all the more beautiful by their love.
They'd married in haste, some had cautioned; without really thinking it through. Jodie's aunt Mae, her cousins, Tate's motherall had had misgivings. Their love had only grown stronger, though. By the end of their first year together they were on solid enough ground to start thinking about the future, to talk about the family that they might one day
Jodie moaned. The future. Did they have a future? They wouldn't if Tate had his way.