The Way Back Homeby Barbara Freethy
From New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Barbara Freethy, an emotional, heartwarming contemporary romance set in a California river town, featuring a returned Marine and the woman he never forgot.
Ex-Marine Gabe Ryder is fulfilling the last request of his best friend Rob, who was killed in a firefight during their final days of service./i>/i>
From New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Barbara Freethy, an emotional, heartwarming contemporary romance set in a California river town, featuring a returned Marine and the woman he never forgot.
Ex-Marine Gabe Ryder is fulfilling the last request of his best friend Rob, who was killed in a firefight during their final days of service. He promised to help Rob’s family—especially Rob’s twin sister, Alicia—with their struggling river rafting business. Gabe has a hidden past with Alicia, however; she’s the woman who taught him that love might exist, but he walked away from her.
Alicia has more than enough on her plate with her brother’s death, her father’s injury from a tragic rafting accident, the entire town turning against them, and a series of dangerous attacks on her business. She doesn’t need this rugged loner who broke her heart. But passion flares between them, and this time, they can’t walk away. Alicia can’t help wondering: did Rob really send Gabe to watch over her—or did he want her to show Gabe the way home?
Read an Excerpt
We need to buy rafts, hire guides, and update the reservation software, and I have no idea where we’re getting the money to do any of that,” Alicia Hayden told her father, frustration overwhelming her as she walked across the back deck of Hayden River Adventures. The one-story building, set on the banks of Northern California’s Smoky River, was the launchpad for their world-class river-rafting adventures company. Next to the one-room office was the boatyard where they kept their rafting equipment. On the other side of the building, tucked behind the trees, was a dirt parking lot that was empty now. About a hundred yards away and up a grassy incline stood the family home.
In the spring and summer months, they rented rafts and launched day trips off the pier. For more adventurous white-water experiences, they bused their guests ten miles north for the higher-class guided rapids tours. They’d been in business for more than sixty years, and three generations of Haydens had run the company. But now their business was sinking fast, and Alicia wasn’t sure they could save it.
Her father, George Hayden, didn’t reply. Leaning heavily on his cane, he’d fixed his gaze on the wide, winding river that ran through the Sierra Nevada mountains. The late-afternoon foggy mist that had given the river its name was a little thicker than usual. While the winter rains had finally tapered off, the late-March air was cold, and luminous clouds shadowed the sun.
As a brisk wind lifted the hair off the back of her neck, Alicia shivered and wrapped her arms around her waist, wishing she’d thrown a jacket over her knit shirt and worn jeans. She’d been hunkered down in the office all afternoon, trying to find a way out of the mess they’d gotten themselves into, but there was no clear path. Rafting season would officially open in two weeks, and they weren’t even close to being ready. She needed her father to understand that, but he was living in a world of denial, believing that nothing had changed since the rafting accident six months before, since her brother’s death three weeks before. But everything had changed. Their world had turned completely upside down in less than a year.
Sadness, anger, and fear ran through her, but she couldn’t let her emotions take hold. This was the time for thinking, not feeling. She’d been trying to talk to her dad about the business since her brother’s funeral three weeks earlier, and he’d always managed to evade her. But not now, not today.
“Dad,” she prodded, stepping up to the railing next to him. “We need to talk about whether or not we can keep on going.”
He slowly turned his head. In his early sixties, her father had aged considerably in the last year. But while there was weariness in the weathered lines of his square face and more white than gray in his rapidly thinning hair, he still had some fight in his eyes.
“We’ve never missed an opening day, and we won’t start now, Alicia,” he said.
She sighed. “We need more than just a ‘can-do’ attitude, Dad. We need money and manpower, and we don’t have either.”
“We’ll get the money, and we’ll find some guides. We have time.”
“We’ll figure it out. This is our family business, a business that will one day go to Justin. You don’t want to jeopardize your son’s future, do you?”
“His future is exactly what I’m worried about. I’m afraid our family business will take every last penny we have and still fail, and then where will we be? I need to make sure I can send Justin to college.”
“He’s nine years old, Alicia.”
“Almost ten, and I should be saving now. I’m a single mother, so it’s up to me.”
“Being a single mother was your choice,” he said with a frown.
She wasn’t about to get into that old conversation. “We’re getting off track.”
“Bill already got us some rafts. We just have to pick them up tomorrow.”
Bill ran the local hardware store and was one of her father’s best friends, but he was also one of her father’s enablers, continuing to tell him that he would be back on the river any day now, when the doctors were saying the opposite.
“Dad, we need to face reality.” She drew in a deep breath, then plunged ahead with words that needed to be said. “People have to trust us to keep them safe, and they don’t anymore. They don’t want us to reopen. They want us to shut our doors for good.”
Her father’s face paled. “Once we get back on the river, the trust will come back. We’ve had one accident in sixty years. It’s a damn good record. And it wasn’t our fault.”
Fault was debatable, but she wasn’t going to get into that. “Wild River Tours is breathing down our necks. They’re a national company with a sophisticated Web site, and they want our rivers, our runs. How will we compete with corporate money?”
“We’ll find a way. I’m not afraid of them. We know the river better than anyone, and we’ve always made our money on it. The river gives us life.”
“And sometimes it takes it away,” she reminded him.
It wasn’t only her father who had been hurt last year. A local man, twenty-nine-year-old Brian Farr, had lost his life when one of their rafts flipped over, and she’d come close to drowning herself. Another chill ran through her at the memory of those terrifying moments.
“Let’s go inside,” she said abruptly. “It’s getting cold.”
“In a minute.” He turned his gaze back to the water. “She tested us, that’s all, wanted to know if we were worthy.”
“We will be next time.” Her father raised his fist to the river. “I’ll give you another run for your money. You can’t take me down.”
Her father often spoke of the river as if it were a woman. Her mother had complained on more than one occasion that George was more married to the river than he was to her. It was probably why she’d left when Alicia was twelve years old; Margaret Hayden just couldn’t take coming in second.
Distracted by the sound of barking, Alicia turned her head as Justin, her nine-year-old son, came running up the steps of the back deck, followed by Sadie, their very excited golden retriever.
“Grandpa, look,” he said. “I finished Uncle Rob’s boat.”
Her son held up a model boat that he’d been working on. Her brother had sent Justin the kit a few months earlier. It was a project they’d planned to do together when Rob got out of the Marines. But Rob had been killed in action on the other side of the world six days before he would have completed his service. Just six days, and then he would have been safe. She couldn’t get the bitter taste of injustice out of her mouth.
They’d taken one hit after another in the past few months, and she couldn’t quite get her feet under her. But she pretended she was coping, because that’s what her family needed her to do.
“I did it all by myself,” Justin added as he let his grandfather inspect the boat.
With his sandy brown hair, freckled cheeks, and blue eyes beaming with pride, Justin looked a lot like her twin brother. She and Rob had shared blue eyes but not much else. Her hair was golden blond, her skin tanned instead of freckled, and she’d never made it past five foot five, while her brother had topped the family at six foot three. Her heart ached as Rob’s smiling face flashed through her mind. Whenever she thought of her brother, she thought of his big toothy grin, his goofy personality. He’d been the bright, shining light of their family, and now everything seemed darker.
“Good job,” her father told Justin.
“Can I try her out, Mom?” He turned to her with a plea in his eyes.
“It’s getting late. You have homework, and I have dinner to make,” she said. “We’ll do it tomorrow.”
His face fell. “But Mom—”
“Why don’t you let him try it out?” her father cut in. “Homework can wait.”
It was difficult to face down the two of them, and she was reminded of many other times when her father had gotten Rob or Justin to side against her. It hadn’t been easy being the only female in a house full of males. Her dad was a guy’s guy, and Rob had been the same. While she’d grown up more tomboy than girlie girl, she was still a woman. Right now, she was a really annoyed, tired, frustrated, overwhelmed woman with a million things on her to-do list.
So why did she hear herself saying “Fine” when what she really wanted to say was no?
Justin led the charge to the edge of the riverbank, her father following far more slowly. As Justin knelt down to launch his boat, she heard the phone ring in the office.
“Go get it,” her father said. “I’ll watch Justin.”
She ran back into the office and grabbed the phone. It was Keith Andrews, the man she’d been seeing for the last few months. Keith and his ten-year-old son, David, had moved to town in September, just in time for the start of the school year. Keith was a history teacher and a soccer coach at the local high school, and David was in Justin’s grade. The two boys had become fast friends, and in turn, she and Keith had discovered a connection, too.
Unfortunately, she hadn’t been much of a girlfriend in the last few weeks.
“I finally tracked you down,” Keith said. “I’ve been trying your cell phone all day.”
“I forgot to charge it. Sorry.”
“You do that a lot lately, Alicia.”
She did do that a lot—maybe because there were very few people she actually wanted to talk to. And the people she wanted to talk to didn’t call. “What’s up?”
“I heard that it’s your birthday on Sunday. Something you neglected to mention. I’d like to take you out to dinner.”
Another reason she’d been lazy about recharging her phone. “I appreciate the thought, but I’m not up for celebrating.”
“Justin wants you to have a party.”
“I know, but the thought of celebrating my birthday without Rob is unthinkable. I’d like to skip the day entirely.”
“I understand. Here’s another thought. Why don’t I take Justin off your hands? The boys have been asking for a sleepover. Sunday night seems perfect.”
“Really? It is a school night.”
“I’ll get them to school, don’t worry. I want to do something for you, Alicia. And I can do that.”
It would be nice not to have to pretend to be happy in front of her son. “That does sound tempting. Why don’t you and David come over for dinner tonight? We’ll make plans for the weekend. The Spring Festival starts on Saturday, and I know Justin and David are interested in entering some of the contests.” The sound of barking and yelling drew her attention away from the phone. “I’ve got to go. We’ll talk later, okay?”
Hanging up the phone, she walked quickly out of the office, across the deck, and down the stairs. Her father was a few yards away, by an outcropping of rocks. Sadie was barking up a storm, and Justin—
Adrenaline raced through her body. Justin was stretched out on his stomach on a large boulder, trying to snag his runaway boat from the river current.
“Justin, get down!” she yelled, glaring at her father as she ran past him. “Why did you let him go up on the rocks? They’re unstable and off-limits.”
“He got up there before I could stop him.”
She doubted her father had even tried. His favorite line was “Boys should be boys.” “Get down, Justin,” she commanded. “You know you’re not supposed to be up there.”
“We have to get the boat!” Justin yelled. “It’s Uncle Rob’s. We can’t lose it!”
She saw the panic on his face and the fear that he would lose the last gift his uncle had given him.
“I’ll get it,” she said decisively. “You climb down from there right now. And do it carefully.”
She kicked off her shoes, rolled up her jeans to her knees, and grabbed the longest stick she could find, then waded into the river. Her heart skipped a beat as the cold water hit her feet, the current swirling around her ankles. She drew in a quick, sharp breath, unexpected fear shocking her into stillness. She knew how to swim. She knew this river like the back of her hand. There was nothing to be afraid of—but she couldn’t seem to move.
She could hear Justin yelling at her that the boat was getting away. Sadie barked even louder. Her father was shouting something, but nothing was clear beyond the pounding of her heart. She hadn’t been in the river since that day six months earlier, that day she’d gone under again and again and again, struggling to find a foothold, something to grab on to—
A sudden splash next to her brought her head around. A man was wading into the river, heading straight toward Justin’s boat. The water was up to his waist by the time he reached the boat. He grabbed it, half walking, half swimming his way back to shore. When he reached her, he grabbed her by the arm, and she was shocked again, this time by the strength of his grip.
Gazing into his dark eyes, her heart skipped another beat. His thick curly brown hair, rough-edged features, strong jaw, dark eyes, and five o’clock shadow were very familiar. Gabe Ryder.
She’d been expecting him to come ever since Rob’s death. She’d rehearsed over and over the things she wanted to say to him, the questions she wanted to ask. Now that he was here, she couldn’t speak.
“Let’s go,” he said, dragging her toward the shore.
Under his grip, she stumbled onto the bank. As soon as her feet hit solid ground, she yanked her arm away. “What are you doing?” she demanded.
“Saving you,” he said.
“I didn’t need saving. I was fine.”
“You didn’t look fine.”
Justin came running over, her father and the dog not far behind.
“Is this yours?” Gabe asked, handing Justin the boat.
“You got it,” Justin said with reverence. “Thank you.”
“Good job,” her father said approvingly. “Didn’t think Alicia was going to make it out there in time.”
“I was just about to go after it,” she protested, hating that they’d seen her momentary hesitation. Her dad had always been tough on her, treating her like a son instead of a daughter. Be tough, be strong, don’t cry, he’d always told her. Today she hadn’t been as strong as she’d needed to be, and it infuriated her. “Where the hell did you come from, anyway?” she demanded.
“Your house,” Gabe said. “I rang the bell, but no one answered. I heard voices and the dog barking, so I came down here.”
“I mean, why are you here now? The funeral was three weeks ago.”
“I’m sorry I missed it,” he said. “It was unavoidable.”
“Alicia,” her father interrupted, a quizzical look in his eyes. “Why don’t you introduce us?”
“You’ve met him before,” she snapped. “This is Gabe Ryder, Rob’s best friend. The man who was supposed to be watching his back. The man who let Rob get killed.”
Gabe paled under his dark tan, but he didn’t deny her words. Instead, he turned to her father. “Mr. Hayden, I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“I remember you now, of course,” her father said with a contemplative nod. “You spent Christmas with us a few years ago. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you.”
“Not a problem. It’s good to see you again.”
“Rob spoke very highly of you,” George continued. “I think your name came up in just about every e-mail.”
“Rob was a great guy, the best,” Gabe said. Turning to Justin, he added, “I don’t know if you remember me, Justin. You were a lot shorter when I saw you last.”
Justin gave Gabe an uncertain look. “I kind of remember you. How come you let Uncle Rob die if you were his friend?”
An awkward silence followed his question. For a moment, Alicia regretted her impulsive comment, but she couldn’t take it back. She didn’t want to take it back. She did hold Gabe responsible. He’d promised to watch out for her brother.
“I’m sure it wasn’t like that,” her father cut in. “Come on up to the house, Gabe. We’ll throw those wet clothes in the dryer and get you something dry to wear. You can stay for dinner. We’ll catch up.”
“I don’t need clothes or a meal,” Gabe said.
Her father waved off Gabe’s protest. “Any friend of Rob’s is a friend of ours.” He gave Alicia a pointed look, then turned to Justin. “Come along, now, Justin. You can help me up the steps.”
As her father and Justin started up the hill toward the house, Sadie following close behind, Alicia gave Gabe a long look. He returned her stare with one of his own, his eyes dark and unreadable. She’d never been able to tell what he was thinking, and today was no different.
“So why didn’t you come to the funeral?” she finally asked.
“I had to take one of the other men in our unit home. He was injured in the same firefight that took Rob’s life. He spent some time in the hospital, and I didn’t want to leave him alone there.”
“So that guy was injured, and Rob was killed, but you, you’re fine.” Anger filled her. She’d wanted to scream at someone about the injustice of her brother’s death, and Gabe was the perfect target. “How did you escape?”
He swallowed hard. “I don’t know, Alicia. Believe me, I wish Rob was here instead of me.”
“I don’t believe you,” she said, shaking her head, tears burning her eyes. “You promised me you’d watch out for him. You stood right up there, on our porch,” she added, pointing toward the house, “and you told me you’d make sure he came home. Remember?”
“I remember everything about that day,” he said, his jaw tight, pain in his eyes.
A shiver ran down her spine. Their last conversation had not been solely about Rob.
“And I don’t need you to tell me that I failed Rob. I know that,” he continued.
She felt a flash of guilt. It wasn’t fair to blame Gabe, but she had no one else. The enemy that had taken Rob’s life was nameless and faceless. The Marine Corps wouldn’t tell her exactly what had happened, only that her brother had been a hero and she should be proud of his service. But that wasn’t good enough.
“You need to tell me how Rob died,” she said.
Gabe immediately shook his head. “I can’t.”
“Yes, you can. You have to.”
“I don’t care. He’s my brother, my twin brother. I should know the truth.” Another wave of guilt hit her. “I should have known that he was in trouble. I always had feelings when Rob was in danger. We had that special twin connection, but I didn’t sense anything that day. Why didn’t I know?”
“We were on the other side of the world.”
“That shouldn’t have mattered.”
He gave her a long look. “Rob wouldn’t have wanted you to know what he was going through. Maybe he found a way to block the twin thing.”
“You’re not going to tell me anything, are you?”
He stared back at her with what looked like regret. “No.”
“Then you should go. You’ve paid your respects. Now you can leave.”
“I can’t go—not yet. I made a promise to your brother.”
“What are you talking about?”
“In the month before he died, Rob talked a lot about coming home and helping you and your father save your business. He was worried about all of you after your rafting accident. He was counting the days until he could get back here. He loved you all a great deal.”
Tears blurred her eyes. “I know that. Rob always took duty seriously, even before he went into the Marines.”
“He asked me to come in his place, to help you.”
She stiffened. “I told you before, I don’t need your help.”
“Don’t you?” His gaze settled on her face, a thoughtful expression in his eyes. “Something happened to you in the river just now. You froze.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I know what fear looks like, Alicia.”
“I’m not afraid of the river. I grew up on it.”
“And last year, you almost drowned.”
“I never told Rob that.”
“Then someone else did. Maybe your father.”
“I never told him exactly what happened, and he was too busy fighting for his own life to really understand what I’d gone through.” She saw the sudden spark in his eyes that told her she’d revealed too much. “Anyway, I’m fine. My father is getting better, and we’re moving on.”
“You need help. I made Rob a promise, and I’m going to keep it.”
“Consider your promise fulfilled; you saved Justin’s boat. Now you can go home.”
“I am home.” Gabe pulled out a set of keys, very familiar keys.
Her stomach turned over. He had Rob’s key ring. “No way,” she said, shaking her head. “You are not moving into Rob’s house.”
“My house. He gave it to me.”
She was truly shocked. The property next door had been in the family for generations. “I don’t believe you. Rob’s house was built by my great-grandfather. Rob wouldn’t give it to you.”
“I have a letter from him explaining everything.”
“No. There’s a mistake. If you think I’m letting you move into Rob’s house, into his life, you are crazy.”
“And if you think I’m going to walk away before I’ve done what I came to do, then you’re the one who’s crazy,” he said, his gaze hard and unyielding.
“You’re not wanted here, Gabe.”
“That’s not what you said the last time I was here.”
She swallowed back a knot of emotion at the memory of that cold winter day, the Christmas tree still up in the living room, the mistletoe hanging over the door, the cozy fire where she and Gabe had kept each other warm. “That was three years ago, one week of madness, and you made it clear when you left that whatever we had was over.” Unfortunately, it had taken her a long time to really believe that.
He gazed back at her for a long minute. “I know what I said, Alicia. But that’s in the past. I’m here now, and I’m not leaving.” He turned and started walking up the hill.
“So you’re going to save me?” she called out after him.
“Yes,” he said, pausing to give her a quick look.
“And who’s going to save me from you?”
His chest rose with his swift intake of breath, and then he turned and walked away.
She hated his confident stride, his arrogant attitude, but she couldn’t quite hate him even though she wanted to.
Turning her gaze to the river, she drew in long, deep breaths, but they did nothing to slow the rapid beating of her heart. She’d been drawn to Gabe from the first minute she’d seen him, attracted to his dark hair and darker eyes. Her brother had warned her that she should stay away, that Gabe came with far too many rough edges, that he could hurt a woman without even trying. But she’d sensed in Gabe a need to be softened, to be loved, not that he’d ever admitted that need, not that he’d ever let her get close enough to love him. He’d kept her at arm’s length, telling her that she was Rob’s sister and as far as he was concerned, that made her untouchable, except for one hot, reckless night—a night she’d never forgotten.
She shook off the memory. They were different people now. And she didn’t need his help. Well, okay, that wasn’t exactly true. Her gaze swept across the yard, noting the rafts in need of repair, the peeling paint on the building, the broken planks on the pier. They did need help, just not Gabe’s. He didn’t understand their business. It would have been different with Rob. Her brother had known everyone in town. People respected him, adored him. He would have been able to help them get back on their feet. But Gabe … What did he know how to do, except fight?
Gabe wiped his hands on a towel as he stared at himself in the bathroom mirror. George had handed him a pair of navy-blue sweats to wear while his jeans were drying and told him he’d have a drink waiting for him when he finished changing. He didn’t know why Rob’s father was being so welcoming; Alicia’s anger was a lot easier to take.
He understood her feelings, and she couldn’t possibly blame him more than he blamed himself. Over and over in his mind, he’d relived the minutes of that horrific day. He could still feel the sweltering desert heat, the beads of sweat under his helmet; still hear the screeching of tires, the rocking blast; still see the sudden burst of flame and the shocked look in Rob’s eyes as he sank to the ground. Chaos and panic had followed, and so much blood …
He splashed some cold water on his face, driving the memory away. In the dark of the night, the images would come back, but he’d be alone then. He wouldn’t have to hold it together in front of Alicia or her family. By morning, he’d have his game face back on.
Staring at his face in the mirror, he saw the new scars along his hairline and one across his lower jaw. He felt the ache in his ribs that had been fractured by shrapnel. But none of those pains compared with the loss of his friend. For six years, they’d lived together, worked together, laughed together. That was over now.
Folding the towel over the rack, he told himself to stop stalling. He couldn’t hide in the bathroom forever.
He’d known it wouldn’t be easy to come here, but he hadn’t realized just how difficult it would be, not just because of Rob but also because of Alicia. It had taken him a long time to get past the night they never should have had. For three years, he’d tried not to listen when Rob talked about her, made sure he was somewhere else when Rob and Alicia were video-chatting, and skimmed past photos that had her in them. But he’d never been able to get her out of his head.
And now she was back in glorious color, her golden hair, eyes the color of a morning sky, soft, full lips.
Damn! He needed to get a grip. She might be more beautiful than he remembered, but she was also angrier. She hated him, and that was probably a good thing. He hadn’t been the man for her three years ago, and he certainly wasn’t that man today. He needed a barrier, and hate was a good one.
After opening the door, he walked down the hall to the family room. The kitchen was just beyond a decorative archway. He could see Alicia busy at the stove. Her movements were efficient but a little jerky, as if she was still pissed off that she had to cook for him. Or maybe she was annoyed because he’d seen her fear. She had looked at the swirling water around her knees as if it were a monster trying to take her down. The accident must have been worse than Rob knew.
“There’s your beer,” George said, motioning toward the bottle on the coffee table.
“Thanks.” He sat down on the couch while George kicked his feet up on the recliner. The local news was on the television. It was a totally normal scene, and yet it felt so strange. He’d spent half his childhood in homeless shelters or sleeping on friends’ couches and the next decade in barracks and mess tents, where danger lurked around every corner, where letting down your guard could get you killed. When he’d taken leave, he’d gone to vacation spots with friends. He hadn’t spent much time at all in a normal house like this one, waiting for the family dinner. He was completely out of his element.
He’d felt that way the last time he was here, when Rob had forced him to come home with him for Christmas. This room had been decorated to the hilt then, with a huge Christmas tree in the corner, a model train running around under it, Santas and snowmen and sleighs taking up every available shelf, a garland of Christmas cards strung over the fireplace. Rob had joked about how Alicia went Christmas crazy, and he hadn’t been lying. It had been the best Christmas of his life. Unfortunately, New Year’s hadn’t been nearly as good.
“You hungry? Dinner might be a few minutes, but we can get you a snack,” George said.
His gaze moved toward the kitchen. Alicia threw some spaghetti into a pot, and the steam made her blond hair curl. She was thinner than he remembered, more fragile, with a weary set to her shoulders, as if she had the whole world weighing her down.
“Alicia didn’t mean what she said earlier,” George said abruptly.
Gabe glanced at Alicia’s father, who had muted the television. “I understand why she said what she did.”
“She misses Rob. We all do. It’s hard not to blame someone.”
“I miss him, too,” he said heavily.
“Alicia and Rob were so close. They knew what the other was going to say before they said it. She felt his death in a way that I can’t even imagine. You got any brothers?”
“No, but I considered Rob to be one.”
“He felt the same way about you. He talked about you and the other guys in his unit every time he came home. I never understood why he wanted to fight, but I was proud of him. Proud of all of you.” George coughed, clearing his throat. “Never thought I’d lose my son.” He shook his head, his lips tight, as he struggled for composure. “But he was doing what he wanted to do. I find some peace in that.”
A minute or two passed in silence. Then Gabe drew in a breath, deciding that it was time to let George know about his plans. “Rob told me about some of the problems you’ve had to deal with since your accident. He was very concerned and eager to get home in a way I’d never seen with him before. You were both on his mind a lot. Rob gave me the keys to his house. He asked me to come here and help out with the business or anything else you need. I promised him that I would, and I’d like to keep that promise.”
George stared back at him thoughtfully. “Rob knew he was going to die?”
The question took Gabe back to that moment when he and Rob had realized the unimaginable truth. He’d tried to fight reality far longer than Rob had, making up stories about how everything would work out. Rob had let him talk. He’d even offered up a feeble joke, saying that was the best bullshit he’d ever heard from Gabe.
The knot in his throat grew larger at the memory, choking him with a pain he wasn’t sure would ever go away. As the seconds ticked by, he realized that George was still waiting for an answer. “Yes,” he said, meeting the older man’s gaze. “Rob knew he was going to die. He wanted me to make sure you knew how much he loved you.”
“You need to tell Alicia that.”
“I will … when she’s in the mood to listen.”
“It’s been difficult for us to grasp what happened, being so far away and all. It didn’t seem real. Rob’s body came back in a closed casket. We never saw him.”
“You can remember him the way he was.”
“That’s how I want to remember him. Rob was always laughing, happy, optimistic. Never gave up on anything or anyone.” George took a moment, then added, “We could use some help around here. I’ve been laid up this year and haven’t been able to run the business the way I used to. I was counting on Rob to help us get back on our feet. Alicia can’t do it by herself. And she has Justin to worry about.”
“Then I hope you’ll let me help. Of course, I’ll be happy to give the house back when I move on. I know it belongs to your family.”
“The house belonged to Rob; it was his to do with as he pleased. Maybe you’ll decide to stay on. River Rock isn’t a bad place to live. Our family settled here almost a hundred years ago, you know.”
He had known, and he’d never been able to imagine having roots that went that deep.
“My great-great-grandfather built this house, and my grandfather built Rob’s house. My uncle built another house about a mile away that my nephew lives in.”
Gabe couldn’t help wondering why Alicia didn’t have her own place, but that was a question he’d save for another day. As George rattled off more family history, Gabe’s attention returned to Alicia. She looked up and caught him staring. She held his gaze for a moment, her beautiful blue eyes begging him to leave. But he couldn’t give her what she wanted—not yet, anyway.
Getting to his feet, he told George, “I’m going to see if Alicia needs any help.”
As he walked into the kitchen, she frowned. “I wish you’d leave. You’re going to make things more difficult.”
“That’s not my intention.”
“It wasn’t your intention the last time you came here, either.”
“If I hurt you …”
“If you hurt me?” she echoed. “Is there really any doubt in your mind?”
“I had to leave, Alicia. I had commitments. You knew that—”
She cut him off with a wave of her hand. “I’m not talking about any of that now.”
“You’re the one who brought up the past.”
“And now I’m done.” The doorbell rang, and relief flashed across her face. “That’s Keith—my boyfriend,” she said, stumbling a little over the word.
“Rob told me about him. He wanted me to check him out.”
Her gaze narrowed. “Keith is a great guy. He’s a teacher at the high school and a single dad. He’s wonderful.”
“Maybe I’ll think so, too, if you ever let him in,” Gabe said as the doorbell rang again.
Meet the Author
Barbara Freethy is the hugely successful author of many romances, a #1 New York Times bestseller, and a native Californian.
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