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It'd been a mild winter so far in Palo Pinto County, Texas, and this February afternoon the sun was once again shining, and the sky over the small ranch house was a cloudless swathe of pale blue.
The weatherman had said the unseasonably mild temperatures and dry conditions were supposed to hold through the weekend, which was a good thing as Rachel James's childhood friend Mia Jenkins was getting married tomorrow, and while the party tent might be heated and fully protected from the elements, no one liked slogging through muddy or slushy gardens in formal wear. Not the bride or the guests or the cake baker.
And Rachel was both a guest and the cake baker.
"What do you think?" Rachel asked as Mia swirled a finger across the frosting-covered spatula before popping her finger in her mouth.
Mia sighed, rolling her eyes with pleasure. "Yum. Heavenly. Melt-in-your-mouth buttercream with just the right amount of vanilla. How come my frosting never tastes this good?"
"Because you probably worry about the amount of sugar and butter in your icing. I don't." Rachel crossed her arms over her chest, creasing her white apron, feeling ridiculously pleased with herself as she studied the tiered wedding cake, all four layers swagged with delicate swells and scallops of icing that resembled Belgium lace. "You like the cake?"
"I love my cake. It's beyond gorgeous, and you know it, so stop fishing for compliments."
Rachel grinned and gathered the stainless-steel bowls, carrying them to the kitchen sink. As she turned the faucet on, her gaze lifted to the window and the view beyond. The kitchen window overlooked the small, fenced backyard, which seemed even smaller right now with the mountain of cardboard boxes stacked next to the detached garage. Her smile faded as she looked at the boxes. She'd been packing for weeks, was nearly done. Just had bedrooms and the kitchen stuff left to pack, and now that Mia's wedding cake was finished, Rachel could box up all of her baking things.
"Can't believe you're moving," Mia said, joining her at the sink and getting a glimpse of the U-Haul moving boxes outside.
Rachel made a soft, inarticulate sound as she turned the tap off. "Can't believe I lost Grandma's house. She'd die if she knew."
"Maybe it's a good thing she's already dead, then," Mia said drily.
"That's horrible!" Rachel spluttered, reaching for a dish towel, uncertain if she should laugh or cry or both.
"It is, but it's the truth."
For a moment Rachel struggled to speak and then she blurted, "Today would have been her birthday. I've been thinking about her all day."
"Oh, Rachel! I know you still miss her so much."
"I do. I really do."
Mia wrapped an arm around Rachel's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "But knowing your grandmother, she would have been beside herself if she realized what she did to you, deferring her property taxes all those years."
For a moment Rachel let herself relax into the hug. It was so rare that she revealed weakness, so rare that she took comfort from anyone, but she needed the hug right now. It was brutal losing her home, but she wasn't the only one this had happened to, and she wasn't going to cry over spilled milk. What happened had happened, and there was nothing she could do about it but move forward and have a good attitude.
Gently, Rachel disengaged from the hug. "It's not Grandma's fault. I knew money was tight and yet I let her help us she was always giving to us, trying to help me with bills. I should have asked her where the money was coming from."
"She probably wouldn't have told you, though. She loved Tommy so much. Loved having the two of you with her."
Mia was right about that, Rachel thought. Grandma loved having family around. She always said family gave life meaning.
Mia looked anxious. "You're really okay moving while we're gone?"
"Have a moving company and everything. I'm good. And you shouldn't be worrying about us. You're getting married tomorrow. This is about you right now."
"But I hate your new apartment complex. It's awful"
"It's fine. And it's cheap, as well as close to Tommy's sitter."
"I wish I'd had the money to help you."
Mia nibbled on her thumb. "I can name a half-dozen folks right now who would have helped you if you'd asked"
"Not going to impose on people. This is my problem.
"But they're your friends"
"And I appreciate them, but I'm not going to ask for handouts."
"It'd be a loan, Rachel."
"A loan I can't pay back." Rachel shot her a dark look.
"Cakes pay basic bills, but they won't make me rich." Peeling off her apron, she glanced at the clock on the old kitchen stove. "Isn't your rehearsal starting at four?"
Mia checked her watch and shrieked. "It's almost four already, and I haven't picked up the bridesmaids' dresses or the shoes, and I still have a twenty-five minute drive"
"Don't panic," Rachel answered, rushing with her to the front door, "and don't drive crazy. You'll get there, and you're the bride. No one's going anywhere," she added, swinging open the front door.
"You're the best, Rache." Mia took a step and then froze on the doorstep. "Cade?" Mia squeaked, eyes widening with surprise.
Rachel glanced past Mia to the tall cowboy on the porch, and the air caught in her throat.
Her heart stuttered, staggered, and she blinked, certain he'd disappear, certain he was an apparition. But even after blinking twice, he was still there, one hand hooked on his massive silver belt buckle, and a bouquet of yellow roses in the other, six-two without his boots and cowboy hat, and even taller wearing both. He was wearing both.
"Hello, darlin'," he said. "Mia," he added, giving Rachel's friend a nod.
Mia blushed. "Long time no see."
"It's been a while," he agreed, his tone grave.
Rachel could only stare at him as she dragged air into her lungs, hating the bittersweet pain that filled her heart. It'd been five years since Cade King had walked away from her, and he'd gone without a backward glance, shattering her heart into a thousand pieces.
"Congratulations on your third consecutive title. We're all proud of you" Mia broke off as she caught sight of Rachel's expression. "Anyway, I was just leaving. Take care."
"You, too, Mia."
And then with a swift, speculative glance in Rachel's direction, Mia was gone, dashing down the front steps, heading for the driveway.
For a moment the only sound was Mia's car door slamming and her engine starting. Rachel swallowed hard and forced herself to look at Cade, still unable to believe he was here. But he was here. And he was even bigger and more ruggedly handsome than she'd remembered.
"Cade," she whispered, shocked, numb, dumbfounded. He had been completely absent from her life for over five years so why was he here now?
"What what .are you doing here?"
"It's your grandmother's birthday. Brought her some flowers."
He'd remembered Grandma. She ground her teeth together, her eyes burning. Was this real? Was he real? And God forgive her, was he sober?
"I probably should have called," he added gruffly, "but I wanted to surprise her."
Rachel blinked and struggled to find her voice. Just when she'd thought everyone had forgotten her grandmother, Cade showed up with birthday flowers. Yellow roses. Her favorite. "That's nice of you."
Dusky color warmed his high, hard cheekbones. "Can I come in?"
She nodded, stepping back to open the door wider. He dipped his head and, crossing her threshold, he removed his cowboy hat, revealing his glossy black hair. "Is this a bad time?"
It had been years since she had last seen him. Years since she had last heard his warm honeyed accent, a voice so rich with the Texas south that even in winter she felt the heat of an invisible sun and the caress of a breeze. He looked surprisingly good but different, too. He was leaner than she remembered, tanner, healthier, his blue eyes so clear.
"No," she said unsteadily, aware that she'd need to pick up Tommy by four forty-five but she had a half hour. She closed the front door behind Cade, catching a whiff of his fragrance as she stepped towards him. The scent was light and a little spicy, but it suited him, and made her head spin.
"Mia looks well," he said.
"She's doing great."
His gaze searched hers for a moment. "And you? How are you?"
This was strange so strange, she thought. "Good. I'm good."
"Glad to hear it."
For a moment neither of them seemed to know what to say and Rachel's stomach did a series of somersaults that made her wish she'd eaten something today to counter the cups of coffee she'd drunk earlier. Then she remembered her manners. "Would you like to sit down?" she asked, and subtly tugged on the hem of her red T-shirt, drawing it lower over the waistband of her faded jeans, glad she'd gotten rid of the shapeless apron. She wished she could pull the rubber band out of her hair, but that would be too obvious.
"Yes. Thank you."
She led the way into the small, oddly formal living room, with its old-fashioned Empire sofa and matching armchairs, all still upholstered in its original yellow silk. Cade sat down on the edge of the sofa cushion, looking far too big for the antique sofa's dainty lines.
"Would you like something to drink" She flushed. "Coffee, tea," she added hurriedly.
"I'm fine. Thank you."
She slowly took a chair opposite him, hands folding in her lap to hide the fact they were shaking. She was trembling. None of this seemed real, especially when he was looking at her so intently, his blue eyes fringed by those long black lashes, startlingly clear, his gaze piercing, un-nervingly direct.
"I had some business in Mineral Wells today," he said, "and since I got to town early, I thought I'd stop by and wish Sally happy birthday and see how you two were doing." He glanced around the bare living room. "Is Sally even here?"
The corners of his mouth curved. "Is she out with the girls or having her hair done?"
Rachel felt sick. She wanted to throw up. This was awful. Everything about this was awful. "Cade, Grandma died two and a half years ago."
She nodded miserably. "Cancer."
He sat back heavily and set the flowers aside, placing them on the cushion next to him. "Cancer? When how?"
She laced and unlaced her fingers, her eyes gritty, her throat aching with suppressed emotion. "Lung cancer"
"She didn't smoke."
"I guess you don't need to smoke to get it." Rachel blinked hard, struggled to smile, but failed. "We thought she had a cold that just wouldn't go away. Bronchitis. By the time she finally went to see a doctor, there was nothing anyone could do. We found out early June it was cancer, and by July 5 she was gone."
"Aw, shit." Cade's deep, rough voice broke. His head dropped, and he covered his eyes with one hand.
For several minutes neither said anything, and the room was silent. Rachel squeezed her hands together and fought to hold back her tears. Cade's reaction made her teary and emotional, and yet it almost felt good to feel so much it was almost a relief to know someone else had loved her grandmother, too.
"I'm sorry, Rache," he said, his voice raspy and raw. He lifted his head and looked at her, his dense lashes damp, the blue of his eyes almost aquamarine with sorrow. "You know, I promised her I'd always stay in touch with her. Promised her that I'd always be family" He shook his head, once, twice. "Was she did she suffer a lot in the end?"
"They tried to make her as comfortable as they could."
His head dropped again and he ran a hand over his eyes. "Wish I'd been here. Wish I could have been here for both of you."
Rachel couldn't even respond to that. Her heart felt as though it was breaking all over again. She dragged in a breath of air, then exhaled, struggling to keep it together. "It happened a long time ago, Cade," she murmured. "And Grandma didn't hold grudges. She believed people were a work in progress, and she'd be thrilled you won the All-Around title two more times after she was gone. She followed your career. Was probably your biggest fan."
His eyes watered and a small muscle popped in his jaw near his ears. "Even though I'd broken your heart?"
Rachel looked away, bit into her lip. This was so brutal, and so unexpected. She wasn't sure she could take much more of this. But Grandma had taught her to be strong, and she would be strong now even if it killed her. "Grandma always said you'd find your feet again. She said you were one of those fallen angels just waiting to regrow your wings."
"I wish that were true," Cade said regretfully. "But I haven't grown wings yet."
"Maybe they'll still come."
"If you believe in miracles," he answered drily, his firm mouth twisting, the corners of his eyes creasing.
His crooked smile made her breath catch and her pulse quicken. For a moment he lookedand soundedso much like the sexy, laid-back, self-deprecating cowboy she'd loved so long ago that the years seemed to fall away and she gulped another breath of air, overwhelmed. Dazzled.
"I used to," she said, smiling tightly, having forgotten how Cade could fill a room, making it feel small and other people seem boring. But it wasn't just his height and size that made him stand out. It was his intensity and his focus. When Cade King wanted something, he got it through sheer force of will.
And once upon a time, he'd wanted her.
But then later, he'd also wanted booze, and he'd been one of those guys who drank hard and often, and it worried her and scared her. And so she put it all on the line, wanting what was best for him, for them, and told him he needed to get sober or she couldn't stay. And he chose the booze over her.
"Everything else okay, though?" he asked, shifting on the yellow couch, almost crushing the cellophane-wrapped roses.
She nodded, determined to show no chink in her armor. "Yes. Very well," she said. The antique clock on the mantel chimed. She glanced at the pale gold face of the German-made clock, Grandma's prized possession. Her father, Rachel's greatgrandfather, had brought the clock with him when he'd emigrated from Germany. It'd been a wedding present to Grandma and Grandpa when they'd married and it still kept time perfectly.
Which reminded her, she'd have to go get Tommy soon from Mrs. Munoz. She had fifteen minutes. Give or take a few.
Cade saw her glance at the clock. "Am I keeping you?"
"No, not yet. But I do need to leave in a few minutes. I have an appointment."
Rachel didn't know why she called it an appointment.
She was only picking Tommy up from his babysitter, but for some reason, she couldn't bring herself to mention Tommy. Not because she was ashamed of being a single, unwed mother, but because people had been so unkind about him and she'd learned to be protective.
"I won't keep you, then," Cade said, picking up the bouquet and standing. "It was good seeing you."
"It was good seeing you, too," she lied, determined to hang on to her composure to the very end, because it wasn't good seeing him. It was terrible. Painful. She couldn't handle seeing Cade. He made her feel things she didn't want to feel, made her remember a time in her life when everything had seemed hopeful and beautiful.
"I'll just put these in the kitchen," he said, his grip crinkling the cellophane on the flowers. He headed out of the cramped living room without waiting for a reply.