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Sara Franck had never considered herself a coward, but walking into Chester's Bar and Grill this evening was about to be the hardest thing she'd ever done. She hesitated on the doorstep.
Earlier today, Remington Caldwell had sent her a note.
Tonight. Seven o'clock. Chester's. Far corner, back booth.
Just you and me, babe. Time for a reckoning.
To a woman who prided herself on her common sense, the butterflies in her stomach were disconcerting, but she'd been off balance since Junethe last time she'd seen Rem.
He'd asked her to marry him
"Sara?" Her brother, Timm, held the front door open for her. "You coming?"
The scents of beer and grilled meats, and the welcoming warmth of the place enveloped her. drawing on the determination that had pulled her through every hardship she'd ever faced, Sara followed Timm in out of the frosty december night, to Christmas carols filling the air and candles winking on every table. Silver garlands hung from the rafters. Fresh cedar swags gathered with red velvet bows covered the walls. a decorated Christmas tree took pride of place on a small stage.
Chester and his wife, Missy, had invited all of Ordinary, Montana, to their first annual Christmas party and it looked as if the whole town had shown up. The sounds of conversation and merriment saturated the big room, but Sara heard little. Rem was here.
Timm went straight to the bar, to visit with his new wife, Angel, who was helping out for the night as bartender and waitress. no surprise. after all, Missy was her mom and Chester her stepfather.
Sara stepped farther into the room and, as though her heart were a compass, spotted Rem in the far corner. Ha. Some compass. It had been slipping since the summer, careening off center, along with her ability to keep focus on the direction her life had always taken and should continue to take, and all of it Rem's fault.
She started toward him with her tender feelings locked down. She didn't want or need to be vulnerable to this man.
Someone called out a greeting. She answered in kind, but had no idea to whom.
Rem watched her as she crossed the busy restaurant, the hot blue of his eyes a guiding light.
Don't look at me like that.
He raised a glass of clear liquid to his lips. So, he was still drinking. What was in that glass? Gin? Vodka?
Sara, I'm a changed man, he'd said in June. I want you to see the new me.
Sitting here in the bar amid the hubbub of a happy crowd, the new Rem didn't look much different from the old and it proved that she'd made the right decision when she'd turned him down. He'd lied about changing.
He drained the last of his drink. Her gaze followed. With that mouth, how could it not? He'd kissed her that day in June, just before proposing.
Why did that kiss still haunt her? Because it had been sweet and tempting and seductive. But he'd been sweet and tempting before, when he was a teenager, and things hadn't worked out then. Why would anything work now?
She slid into the booth across from him.
He kept his eyes on her, but didn't say anything.
Angel showed up beside them. "What can I get you, Sara?"
"We'll have a couple of club sodas on ice," Rem answered before Sara could.
Angel nodded and walked away, taking Rem's empty glass with her.
"When you get a minute, Angel," someone shouted. "We need another round here."
"I'm on it, folks," Angel called.
Sara ignored all of it, her focus on the man who had the power to shift her world's axis. "I'm a big girl, Rem. I could have ordered my own drink."
"So, you're not drinking?" "Not a drop."
The scent of French fries wafted from the table beside them. Sara knew she should eat, but couldn't. Her stomach rejected the thought, at least until she'd finished her business with Remwhatever this business was.
"Since when have you not been drinking, Rem?"
"Since I got stabbed in the summer."
Sara didn't want to think about the stabbing. Instead, she concentrated on the drinking issue. "How long will it last this time?"
"Forever. Those two months last summer were an aberration, Sara, because you turned me down. I was hurting. That was the first alcohol I'd had in six years. I'm over the drinking and the disappointment."
"Why am I here?" she asked. "You proposed. I said no.
What's left to discuss?"
Rem got out of the booth and she wondered where he was going. Before she could stop him, he sat beside her. "What?"
He forced her into the corner, facing him with her back against the wall, and laid his warm hands on her thighs. She knew she should protest, should push him out of the booth because he was too big and too close, but her body craved him even as her mind rallied against him.
"Damn it, Rem."
He turned toward her.
"I" Whatever she was going to say died on her lips, the festive crowd faded away and they might as well have been alone in the room. Rem stared at her with brilliant blue eyes framed by dark lashes, reflections of the white lights hanging from the ceiling shining in his pupils.
Black hair fell across his forehead and she almost reached out to push it back, managing to stop before making a fool of herself.
He smelled like cedar and pine. Maybe he'd helped Chester decorate today.
Amy Grant sang about having a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. But Sara's wasn't. It was dark and scared and off-kilter. She wanted her sanity back, her old life before Rem had proposed.
"Why?" she asked, as though he could know her thoughts. "Why couldn't you have left well enough alone?"
"I wanted to make things right."
"They already were right. My life was perfect."
"Nothing was right between us, Sara." He ran a finger down her cheek and she jerked away.
"keep your hands to yourself."
He let his hand fall to the table. "Nothing's been right since that night in the hospital after Finn was born. I rejected you both. I was scared and immature and dead wrong. I should have married you then."
"For Finn. Because I got pregnant." It wasn't a question. "So, more than eleven years later you proposed out of guilt?"
"No!" Rem slapped his palm on the table. "Are you blind? I love you." He hauled her close and wrapped his fingers around her nape. Before she could protest, his lips were on hers and there was nothing sweet or seductive about this kiss.
It was carnal. Heat-drenched. Laden with so much anger and frustration, Sara could taste it. She felt the same things herself.
Her body begged her to give in to the kiss, but she wouldn't, because that darkness inside her that she'd felt toward Rem for years had grown bigger in the past six months. Since June. Since that devastating marriage proposal. She didn't know where the darkness came from or what it was, but it was profound and terrified her to her toes. Something that had been hidden for a long time had worked its way too close to the surface. A flood of emotion threatened to pour out of her and all she could do was stick her finger in the hole, resist the pressure and hang on for dear life.
She thought she heard someone whisper, "Wow, it's about time."
Sara took one last taste of Rem's tongue and lips, because it would be their last kisseverthen forced herself to pull away. His moisture cooled on her lips and his breath feathered bits of hair around her face.
"I can't do this." She was strong enough to control her body and its desires. She'd had a lot of practice.
She didn't need to understand the darkness lurking insidewhatever it wasto know that she didn't want to have anything to do with it. She and Finn had a good life. Things would stay the way they were.
"Damn it, Sara." A thread of desperation rang in Rem's voice. "Let go for once in your life."
"No. I did that once. With you. Remember? And I ended up pregnant. I wouldn't give up Finn for the world, but it's been anything but easy. You walked out on us. You decided you didn't want to be a father. I've raised a great kid. All by myself. I don't need you."
"I'm not talking about need. I'm talking about love and companionship. We belong together. We always have. We're connected." He leaned forward. "If we don't belong together, why did you sleep with me that night last summer?"
"That was a mistake." She traced a scar on the tabletop with her nail. "Do you think your mom knew I stayed late that night? Do you think she heard me when I ran out?"
"I don't know. It doesn't matter. We aren't kids anymore." He lifted her chin with his finger, forcing her to look into his intense blue eyes. "Answer my question. Why did you make love to me that night?"
"You'd been stabbed. You almost died."
"And it scared you because we're connected. Because if I died, part of you would die, too."
She shook her head sadly. "We might have been at one time, before you burned Timm. But that changed everything."
Rem cursed and bracketed her face with his hands. He rested his forehead on hers, breathing hard. "That was an accident. I was a kid. You know that. Timm's forgiven me. Why can't you?"
She wanted to touch him so she curled her hands into fists in her lap. She had to protect herself and her son.
"What about all of that stuff when you were a teenager? The drinking? The girls? The street racing?"
"There's a difference between what I did as a teenager and what I did last summer. When I was a kid, drinking and partying were a pattern in my life. I'd burned my best friend. I didn't think I deserved better for myself. Last summer's drinking was an aberration after six years of sobriety. Can't you see they aren't the same?"
He backed away and the bar came into focus again. People talked, laughed, sang along with the Christmas carol tinting the air with nostalgia.
Two glasses filled with clear soda and ice sat side by side on the table. Angel must have brought them while they were kissing.
Heat crawled up Sara's neck.
Rem picked up one of the glasses. "Club soda. No alcohol. I haven't had a drop since the stabbing. I've changed, Sara. You need to accept that."
He slammed the glass down and soda splashed onto the table.
"But I haven't seen any change," she said. "You drank in the summer. You sure looked like the old Rem."
"That was temporary. I was upset after you turned me down."
"Okay, so you haven't had a drink since then. But you could again at any time. It shouldn't have happened in the summer."
"It happened because I'm human. No one is perfect. Not even you." He rammed his fingers through his hair, his frustration a palpable thing beating between them. "There are things you don't know."
"What are you talking about? What things?"
He got out of the booth and his absence sucked all of the warmth out of the room. He reclaimed the bench on the other side and she felt a loss whose source she couldn't identify.
"Nothing," he said. "Forget I said anything." He took a deep breath and then let it out slowly. "Okay, listen. You haven't seen the changes in me because you were away too many years at school and then working. Your visits have been short. A week here. A week there. Just like now."
He took a long swallow of soda. "Dad died seven years ago. His death scared me straight. I knew I had to save myself. Ma needed me to grow up and take responsibility. I did, Sara. I went to school for six years. I didn't drink. Didn't party. I'm a veterinarian now. I take care of the ranch. I take care of Ma."
He reached across the table and took her hands in his. His gaze shot to her face. "Your fingers are icicles."
"I know." This year she felt winter's chill so deeply. She didn't know why she couldn't get warm.
You were warm a minute ago, in this man's arms. She ignored that sentiment.
"Before last summer," Rem went on, "I'd been sober for six and a half years. That's a long time."
"Yes, it is, but you did drink again last summer."
"And I don't now. We're going around in circles, Sara."
She didn't respond. What ruled her decisions about Rem were the times when he lost control, because those times destroyed her, devastated her, starting with her brother's eleventh birthday party. Rem had sprayed Timm with foam streamers and the birthday candles had set the foamand Timmon fire. Rem's questionable choices were terrifying.
"What about the car you crashed when you were sixteen? You were lucky to survive."
He tapped one fist against his forehead. "I'm thirty-two years old. Why are you dwelling on ancient history?"
"Because it will always be there between us."
"It doesn't have to be. Life changes. Only your memories stay the same."
"That's true. My memories don't change."
As much as it hurt her to do so, she took her fingers out of his grasp.
"Nothing is going to happen between us, Rem. That's final." She moved to slide out of the booth, but he stopped her with a hand on her arm.
"If you leave now, it will be final. For me, too. I'm done with you, Sara."
Rem sounded so strong, so determined, that Sara hesitated. He had hovered on the edges of her life for so many years. Had always been there, a constant, undeniable shadow. A man who'd loved her unceasingly. As of this moment, that all ended.
"I understand," she said, and left the booth.
It was over. This time, for good.
She walked away, through the warm and festive restaurant and straight out the door into the quiet night, where falling snow coated the ground like a feather duvet, cloaking the world in a reverent hush. And all Sara felt as she trudged to her mother's home was hollowness in the pit of her stomach and a bone-deep chill.