“It’s been six years now?”
She gave a jerky nod.
“Do you ever miss talking about him?”
She spun on her heel and walked toward the window. Pressing her forehead against the pane of glass, she began to speak. “Yes, but I’m afraid if I think about it or talk about it too much, I’ll go back to the way I was. When I couldn’t cope. I can’t be weak like that anymore. Everyone is counting on me.”
“That’s not weakness, Bella,” he said strongly, trying to make her listen. “That’s just loving someone so much, you need to go away for a while inside to cope. You fought your way back to Zoe. To your sisters. And you can do it as many times as you have to—no one believes you’re weak.”
She shrugged, a sob in her throat. “I never wanted to run a million-dollar business like Avery or travel the world and be an artist like Taylor. I just wanted my own home, children, and Matt. I was the simple one. But Matt was worried about money, so he took this job in AC and had to do a lot of commuting. I kept telling him it wasn’t important, but Zoe was a baby, and he wanted so much for us.”
“I bet he was stubborn.”
“Oh yes, Zoe’s so like him. But very kind. Do you know he wasn’t that big of a guy? He got called Shorty a lot in high school before he sprouted senior year. Anyway, he saw this Hispanic boy getting beat up on the school grounds, and he grabbed this big stick and started smacking those bullies on the back of their heads. They got so pissed. They turned on Matt, but he was fast, so he got away. The school heard about it and started calling Matt ‘Gump’ in the hallways, so he joined the track team. The next year, he scored a whole bunch of medals and got offered a scholarship for cross-country.”
He cocked his hip, settling in. “You were seriously dating then?”
“Oh yeah, we were crazy about each other since junior high. We hooked up officially when we were in freshman year because my mom wouldn’t let me have a boyfriend until then. I followed him to college, and we both graduated. Got married and moved back home to see if we could stay close to our families. We were so happy when we got pregnant. I was young, and technically it wasn’t the best time since we were just starting out, but God, we were so excited.”
He was afraid to ask his next question, but that same gut instinct urged him forward. Somehow, getting her to open up today was important. He didn’t know why or how he knew, it was just a sense he needed to follow. “What happened the day he died, Bella?”
Her shoulders jerked. She raised her hand and pressed her palm against the window where no light streamed through. “It was a gloomy day, just like this. Matt was heading home from a job in AC, but he’d gotten off early. We were going to order Chinese takeout and watch a movie. So simple, but I couldn’t wait. Zoe made me tired, and I craved some downtime with Matt. I remember it was past six, and I was annoyed. I kept texting him, wondering if he’d hit traffic or got out late. He didn’t answer. I remember Zoe was cranky and crying, and I was in a bad mood, and I thought of all the ways I was going to show him I was mad when he got through the door. And then my doorbell rang and there were two policemen standing there.”
She paused, and he waited her out, not wanting to break the fragile thread between them.
“You know, it was just like in the movies. They were in their uniforms, wearing somber expressions. Asked if I was Mrs. Caldwell. Said there’d been an accident. I got ready to grab Zoe and get to the hospital, but when I asked over and over if he was okay, they just looked at me like they’d probably looked at a million other people before and said Matt was dead. I couldn’t believe it. Kept wishing it was a bad dream or a prank, but they stayed there, and I don’t remember much after that.”
Her hand dropped. She turned around and stared at him from across the room, a fragility shaking her body that told him she was at the edge of a breaking point.
“How did you survive the pain?” he finally asked.
“I withdrew. Went inside myself to a place where I didn’t have to face it or worry. I tried to come back for Zoe, and my family. But it was too easy to stay. I went to the hospital for a while, Gabe. They termed it a breakdown.”
“But you came back.”
“Yes. One day, Avery came to visit me, and she had Zoe. I held my sweet little girl, and I heard her crying. It was as if she was asking me to come back. After they left the hospital, I tried harder, and things became less fuzzy. Then I heard Matt’s voice.”
A chill leaked through him. “What did he say?”
“He said it was time to go back to my life. To be with Zoe. To be strong.” Her voice grew faint. “I always listened to Matt, you know. He was really smart and had my best interests in mind. So I fought harder and got out of the hospital. Began therapy. Got better.” She swayed on her feet, and her eyes took on a glassy sheen. “Do you think I’ll always have something broken in me?”
Shock waves of emotion hit him full force. He didn’t think, just moved.
In seconds, he’d crossed the room and swept her up in his arms, carrying her gently back to the sofa. Pulling her tight, he held her against his chest and rocked her like a child, stroking her hair, murmuring her name. She was stiff at first, then, inch by inch, her body folded in, and she let go. The sobs came later—huge, racking, horrible sounds from the depths of her, trapped for so long they exploded out. He was humbled by the force of her love, horribly jealous of Matt to have claimed her in a way that would transcend a lifetime, and fiercely determined to show her how damn strong she really was.
Finally, the sobs eased. He kept her close, tucking her head against his chest, offering her a physical comfort he knew she desperately needed. “Life breaks everyone at one point. But the survivors get up and keep going, even if they’re a bit broken. That’s the type of strength you have,” he said quietly. “You’ll love and miss him till the day you die. But you didn’t give up. You fought back to give Zoe a mom, and flourished in a career that fosters happiness and love. Terming it as weakness insults both you and Matt. Don’t do that, Bella.”
She raised her head. Tears streaked her cheeks. Her lipstick was rubbed off. Her hair was a wild thing of curls and waves that exploded around her. But it was her eyes that stole his soul, those powder-blue eyes that stared right back at him with a surge of heat and life that made him desperate to lower his head and kiss her deep and long and hard until they burned like fire and melted into each other as one.
His muscles locked in an effort to remain still. She needed something else from him right now—something bigger than the physical—and he intended to give it to her.
“I could never cry on this day,” she said. “I didn’t realize by refusing to feel anything, I’d made the pain stronger. And you’re right. Matt would have hated me calling myself weak.”
He caressed her cheek, treasuring the silky feel of her skin. “Good, then we’re in agreement.”
Slowly, she lay back in his arms. He leaned back and shifted her slightly to the side so her cheek rested against his chest. He stroked her back, and they sat in silence for a long time. He knew it wouldn’t change anything between them, but he savored the moment of closeness, happy to be the man who was able to quiet her demons for a while.
When Bella finally extricated herself from his embrace, she expected to feel ashamed. Instead, there was a new lightness inside her that hadn’t been there before. As if she’d been carrying rocks and had finally let them drop.
He immediately eased away, got up, and came back with tissues. She wiped her face, blew her nose, and let out a breath. “Thank you.”
“There’s nothing to thank me for. You’re hard on yourself.”
She gave a half laugh. “Aren’t we all?”
“I guess we are. Just remember you’re an extraordinary woman.” He paused. “I wish you could see yourself the way I do.”
Emotion choked her throat. God, he was beautiful, inside and out. He’d given her a precious gift, helping her crack open the darkness inside and let in the light.
Her gaze met his, and her breath caught when she glimpsed the raw fire in his eyes, but then it was quickly gone, replaced by a resolve and distance that tore her apart. A battle raged inside her between head and heart. When she opened her mouth to speak his name, the doorbell rang.
He turned and walked down the short hallway. “It’s Carter. He’s with Lucy.”
She heard low chatter, and Carter came in with his small Yorkshire terrier in tow. A pink bow tied her fur back in a tiny ponytail, and she wore a sparkly pink collar. “Hey, Bella, how are you? I was just taking Lucy for a walk and figured we’d stop by.”
Gabe blinked. “Dude, you live across town. You couldn’t have walked that far.”
“Well, we walked a bit, then figured we’d go for a relaxing drive, then stopped here on total impulse.”
She narrowed her gaze in suspicion. “Who told you?”
He let out a breath. “Thank God. I can’t lie. Ron Livery from the police station called Avery and let her know you were in a car accident. She’s wrapping up an event, so she told me to come right over. Are you okay?”