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When she turned her head toward the doorway, the expression on Kasey Stonestreet's face faded from a hopeful smile to a look of barely suppressed disappointment and confusion.
Eli saw the instant change as he walked into her hospital room. Kasey hadn't been expecting him, she'd expected Hollis. Hollis was the one who was supposed to come and pick her and their brand-new son up and take them home, not him.
"Hi, Kasey, how are you?" Doing his best to pretend that everything was all right, Eli flashed her an easy smile.
He had a feeling that for once, she wasn't buying it or about to go along with any pretense for the sake of her pride.
Kasey pressed her lips together as a bitter disappointment rooted in the pit of her stomach and spread out. When he left her yesterday, Hollis had told her that he'd be here at the hospital long before noon. According to the hospital rules, she was supposed to check out at noon.
It was past noon now. Almost by a whole hour. When the nurse on duty had passed by to inform heragainthat checkout was at noon, she'd had no choice but to ask for a little more time. She hated the touch of pity in the woman's eyes as she agreed to allow her a few more minutes.
Excuses came automatically to her lips. Life with Hollis had taught her that. "He's stuck in traffic," she'd told the other woman. "But I know he'll be here any minute now."
That had been more than half an hour ago.
So when the door to her room finally opened, Kasey had looked toward it with no small amount of relief. Until she saw that the person walking in wasn't Hollis. It was Eli, her childhood friend. Eli, who always came when she needed him.
Wonderfully dependable Eli.
More than once she'd wondered why Hollis couldn't be more like the man he claimed was his best friend. It went without saying that if she had asked Eli to come pick her up before noon, he would have been there two hours early, looking to help her pack her suitcase.
Where was he?
The disappointment evolved into a feeling of complete dread, which in turn spilled out all over her as she looked up at the tall, muscular man she'd come, at times, to think of as her guardian angel.
When her eyes met his, the fear she harbored in her heart was confirmed.
"He's not coming, is he?" she asked, attempting to suppress a sigh.
Last night or, more correctly, Eli amended, this morning, when Hollis had left after delivering that bombshell, he'd suddenly snapped out of his fog and run after Hollis barefoot. He'd intended to either talk Hollis out of leaving or, that failing, hog-tie the fool until he came to his senses and realized that Kasey was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
But it was too late. Hollis was already in his car and if the heartless bastard saw him chasing after the vehicle in his rearview mirror, Hollis gave no indication. He certainly hadn't slowed down or attempted to stop. If anything, he'd sped up.
His actions just reinforced what Eli already knew. That there was no talking Hollis into acting like an adult instead of some errant, spoiled brat who did whatever he wanted to and didn't stick around to face any consequences.
Eli looked at the young woman he'd brought to the hospital a short three days ago. She'd been on the very brink of delivering her son and they had just made it to the hospital in time. Had she waited even five minutes before calling him, Wayne Eli Stonestreet would have been born in the backseat of his Jeep, with him acting as an impromptu midwife.
Not exactly a notion he would have relished. He had a hunch that Kasey wouldn't have been crazy about it, either.
The doctor who'd been on duty that night had mistaken him for the baby's father and started to pull him into the delivery room. He'd been very quick to demur, telling the doctor that he was just a friend who'd volunteered to drive Kasey here.
He'd almost made it to the waiting area, but then Kasey had grabbed his hand, bringing his escape to a grinding haul.
On the gurney, about to be wheeled into the delivery room, Kasey had looked at him with panic in her eyes. "Eli, please. I'll feel better if you're there. I need a friend," she'd pleaded. Her own doctor was out of town. With Hollis not there, she felt totally alone. "Please," she repeated, her fingers tightening around his hand.
The next moment he'd felt as if his hand had gotten caught in a vise. Kasey was squeezing it so hard, she'd practically caused tears to spring up in his eyes. Tears of pain.
Kasey might have appeared a fragile little thing, despite her pregnant stomach, but she had a grip like a man who wrestled steers for a living.
Despite that, it wasn't her grip that had kept him there. It was the look of fear he'd seen in her eyes.
And just like that, Eli had found himself recruited, a reluctant spectator at the greatest show in town: the miracle of birth.
He'd taken a position behind Kasey, gently propping her up by her shoulders and holding her steady each time she bore down and pushed.
The guttural screams that emerged from her sounded as if they were coming from the bottom of her toes and he freely admitted, if only to himself, that they were fraying his nerves.
And then, just as he was about to ask the doctor if there wasn't something that could be done for Kasey to separate her from all this pain, there he was. The miracle. Forever's newest little citizen. Born with a wide-eyed look on his face, as if he couldn't believe where he had wound up once he left his nice, safe, warm little haven.
Right now, the three-day-old infant lay all bundled up in a hospital bassinet on the other side of Kasey's bed. He was sound asleep, his small, pink little lips rooting. Which meant he'd be waking up soon. And hungry.
Eli took all this in as he cast around for the right way to tell Kasey what he had to say. But he hadn't been able to come up with anything during the entire fifty-mile trip here, despite all his best efforts. Consequently there was no reason to believe that something magical would pop up into his brain now as he stood in Kasey's presence.
Especially when she usually had such a numbing effect on him, causing all thought to float out of his head, unfettered. It had been like that since kindergarten.
So, with no fancily wrapped version of a lie, no plausible story or excuse to offer her, Eli had nothing to fall back on except for the truth.
And the truth was what he offered her, hating that it was going to hurt.
"No, he's not coming," he confirmed quietly. "Hollis asked me to pick you up because he said that the hospital was discharging you today." He offered her a smile. "Guess that means that you and the little guy passed the hospital's inspection."
His attempt at humor fell flat, as he knew it would. He hated that she had to go through this, that Hollis had never proven worthy of the love she bore him.
His attention was drawn to the sleeping infant in the bassinet. He lowered his voice so as not to wake Wayne. "Hey, is it my imagination, or did he grow a little since I last saw him?"
"Maybe." Kasey struggled not to give in to despair, or bitterness. She shrugged. "I don't know."
It was clear that she was upset and struggling not to let her imagination take off.
But it did anyway.
Still, Kasey tried to beat it back, to deny what she felt in her soul was the truth. Her last sliver of optimism had her asking Eli, "Is he going to be waiting for us at the ranch?"
Dammit, Hollis, I should have taken a horsewhip to you instead of just let you walk out like that. You 're hurting her. Hurting the only decent thing in your life. She deserves better than this. Better than you, he thought angrily.
It hurt him almost as much to say it as he knew it hurt her to hear it. "No, Hollis isn't going to be there."
Suspicion entered eyes as blue as the sky on a summer's day, momentarily blocking out her fear. "Why? Why are you so sure?" she asked, struggling to keep angry tears from falling.
When Hollis had come to see her, not on the first day, but on the second, he'd been full of apologies and even more full of promises about changing, about finally growing up and taking responsibility for his growing family. All right, he hadn't held Wayne, hadn't even picked him up when she'd tried to put the baby into his arms, but she told herself that was just because he was afraid he'd drop the baby. That was a normal reaction, she'd silently argued. First-time fathers had visions of their babies slipping right out of their arms and onto their heads.
But he'd come around, she'd promised herself. Hollis would come around. It would just take a little time, that was all.
Except now it seemed as if he wasn't going to come around. Ever. She felt sick.
"Why?" she repeated more sharply. "Why are you so sure?"
He didn't want to say this, but she gave him no choice. He wasn't good at coming up with excuseswith lieson the spur of the moment. Not like Hollis.
"Because he came by at two this morning and asked me to look after you and the baby."
"All right," she said slowly, picking her way through the words as if she were navigating a potential minefield that could blow her apart at any second. "Nothing he hasn't said before, right?" Her voice sped up with every word. "He's just probably got a job waiting for him in another town. But once that's over, he'll be back." A touch of desperation entered her voice. "He's got a son now, Eli. He can't walk out on both of us, right?" Her eyes searched his face for a confirmation. A confirmation she was silently begging for.
More than anything in the world, Eli wanted to tell her what she wanted to hear. That she was right. That Hollis had just gone away temporarily.
But he couldn't lie, not to her. Not anymore.
And he was tired of covering for Hollis. Tired of trying to protect Kasey from Hollis's lies and his infidelities. Tired most of all because he knew that he would be lumped in with Hollis when her anger finally unleashed.
He looked at her for a long moment, hoped that she would find it in her heart to someday forgive him, and said, "I don't think that he's coming back this time, Kasey."
She didn't want to cry, she didn't. But she could feel the moisture building in her eyes. "Not even for the baby?"
The baby's the reason he finally took off, Eli told her silently.
Rather than say that out loud and wound her even more deeply, Eli placed his hands very lightly on her slender shoulders, as if that would somehow help soften the blow, and said, "He said he was taking off. That he wasn't any good for you. That he didn't deserve to have someone like you and Wayne in his life."
Yes, those were lies, too. He knew that. But these were lies meant to comfort her, to give her a little solace and help her preserve the memory of the man Kasey thought she'd married instead of the man she actually had married.
"'Taking off,'" she repeated. Because of her resistance, it took a moment for the words to sink in. "Where's he going?"
Eli shook his head. Here, at least, he didn't have to get creative. He told her the truth. "He didn't tell me."
She didn't understand. It didn't make any sense to her. "But the ranchwith Hollis gone, who's going to run the ranch?" She was still trying to recover from the delivery. "I'm not sure if I can manage that yet." She looked back at the bassinet. "Not if I have to take care of"
This felt like cruelty above and beyond the norm, Eli couldn't help thinking, damning Hollis to hell again. "You're not going to have to run the ranch," he told her quietly.
Because this was Eli, she misunderstood what he was saying and jumped to the wrong conclusion. "Eli, I can't ask you to run the ranch for me. You've got your own spread to run. And when you're not there, I know that you and your brothers and Alma help your dad to run his. Taking on mine, as well, until I get stronger, would be too much for you."