Widowed, hugely pregnant and about to drown in her husband’s debt, Cass Stern is determined to solve her own problems, especially for the sake of her teenaged son and her adored, eccentric mother-in-law. But her control is tenuous enough without having to face her ex-husband’s deadly grins. . .not to mention his hell-bent-for-leather determination to right past wrongs.
Blake Carter is well aware of just how badly he screwed up, twelve years before, when he virtually abandoned his wife and young son. Cass has every right to not trust him. But now he’d give anything for a second chance, with his son. . .and with the woman he never stopped loving. Yet even though he can tell the spark between them is very much still alive, even though he’s done his best to prove he’s not the jerk he was, why won’t – or can’t – she believe that, this time, he’s here to stay?
They say it takes a big man to admit when he’s made a mistake. In which case, Blake thought as he sensed more than heard Cass enter the room, he should be at least twelve feet tall by now. His feigned interest in the ostentatiously large impressionistic landscape over the stone fireplace immediately abandoned, he pivoted, his breath catching in his throat.
He'd never seen her look worse.
Her gold-tipped bangs catching in her lashes with each blink, she stood at the edge of the step leading down into the brick-pavered living room, one hand propped on her lower back. Despite her above-average height, she seemed dwarfed by the tedious expanse of chalky white soaring fifteen feet to the beamed ceiling overhead. A bank of clerestory windows slashed the top of the wall, choking the air with sunlight, but even so, the room seemed cold. Inhospitable.
A smile flitted over her lips, as if she wasn't sure what was appropriate, under the circumstances. “Well. This is a surprise.”
His pulse involuntarily quickened at the sound of that creme-de-menthe voice. He used to tell her she could make ordering breakfast in a truck stop sound like a seduction. And she would laugh, right before she'd give him a smile that made the laugh seem childlike by comparison.
She wasn't smiling now. Instead, she'd obviously been crying. Well, what did he expect? She’d just lost her husband, for God's sake—
Breathe, Carter. Breathe.
There was nothing he could say that would make any sense, or make things any easier. He hadn't been sure, when he'd decided to come down from Denver, what he thought he could possibly do. What a shock to discover that all he really wanted to do was pull her into his arms. “How are you holding up?”
She carefully stepped down into the room. “I'll let you know when the Prozac wears off,” she quipped, just as he would have expected. For a second, irritation prickled his skin: Cass had always used humor as a cop-out to mask what was really going on in her head. Blake had never been sure what, exactly, had destroyed their marriage, since Cass had too often substituted wisecracks for honesty. Oh, the obvious reasons were, well, obvious enough. What fed those reasons, however, was something else again. Now, twelve years later relationship was undefined, ambiguous. Not friendship or love or hate or even mutual disinterest colored their forced conversations. At least with good old-fashioned animosity, you knew what you were dealing with.
With an unmistakable grimace, she lowered herself into a ladderback chair in front of a bare window, next to a carved table littered with carefully arranged knickknacks. Blake remembered the posture well – legs apart, one hand still on her back, the other absently rubbing against her thigh. The memory slashed through his heart, catching him off guard. He didn't let on. “I thought Shaun said the funeral was at eleven?”
“But you're not dressed yet.”
Tropical blue eyes lifted to his, more weary than sad, he thought. Hoped. “I didn't expect company this early on the day of my husband's funeral.”
Point to her.
Cass angled her head at him, her hand wandering over her swollen middle, instinctively massaging the child within. Another man's child.
Another slash. Irrational and petty as it was.
“You didn't have to come down,” she said.
“I got the feeling Shaun was asking me to.”
She nodded, then looked away, letting a silence slip between them so profound it was practically visible.
For a second, he scrutinized her. She'd lightened her hair a little, he thought, the shag cut softly framing those high cheekbones, her long neck, in wispy strands of shimmering red-gold. Her smooth skin, pulled taut across model-worthy cheekbones, a square-edged jaw, was nevertheless etched with a tracery of worry lines, around her mouth, her eyes, between her brows. She seemed thinner, too, despite the pregnancy. That, he didn't like. Her eating habits had always been atrocious; when she'd been pregnant with Shaun, they'd nearly come to blows over her diet. Olives for breakfast, he remembered. And French fries. But only Burger King's, no one else's. The one time he'd tried to sneak a package of McDonald's fries past her. . .
Blake forced his attention elsewhere, again fighting the insane urge to hold her, to comfort her. As the friend he'd once been, if nothing else.
“Did you drive down?” The question echoed in the vast room.
“Yes. Figured I'd rather have my own car.”
She nodded again, slipped back into the silence.
She reminded him so much of the overwhelmed college freshman who'd tripped up his heart seventeen – no, eighteen – years ago. He’d been a senior, working part time in UNM’s bookstore, when she’d come in, all huge eyes and tremulous smile, and he’d fallen so fast he didn’t even feel the bruises from landing for weeks afterward. A soft ache accompanied the memory of how hard she'd fought not to let him, or anyone else, know how petrified she was that first day. She wore exactly that expression now, overlaid with an edgy exhaustion that brought out a keen protective streak – for himself almost more than for her.
Hands in pockets, Blake's eyes flicked again over the living room he'd never seen before today. Hadn't been able to face. Shaun had flown up to Denver a few times since Cass's marriage, but Blake hadn't once returned to Albuquerque. His business had provided a convenient excuse.
Oh, yeah. She'd done well. The house, set high in the Foothills on the east side of the city, screamed money. Fairly new money, Blake thought, tempered by good taste. Sleek, contemporary furniture in blacks and grays, richly-patterned Navajo rugs, gallery-quality artwork. Impressive. And not a trace of the Cass he'd known – or thought he'd known – anywhere.
“Nice place,” he managed.
A slight wince preceded her shifting as she tried to find the mythological more comfortable position. She had narrow hips; the final months of pregnancy weren’t easy for her. Irrationally – again – Blake hated this guy, for being her husband, for making her pregnant. Even for dying on her. For leaving her with that frightened little girl look in her eyes. Hell, not even Blake had done that.
Or had he?
“Thank you,” she replied at last. “The view at night—” he followed her gaze to the expanse of glass that led out to an upper level deck “—is really something. You can see the whole city from up here—”
Her voice caught. He was intruding, he knew. But leaving wasn't an option. Not until. . .
Cass was watching him, he realized with a start. “What?” he asked.
“Is it me, or is this incredibly awkward?”
His lips cracked a little when he tried to smile for her. “Probably not all that unusual, though. With so many stepfamilies nowadays. . .” His heart rate kicked up as her brows hitched underneath her bangs. “I'm still our son's father. That didn't change because you remarried.”
Heeling one hand on the end of the table, she pushed herself out of the chair. “The limo's coming for us at ten-thirty,” she said, her words clipped. “Now I do need to get dressed.” She seemed to hesitate, worrying her knock-your-socks-off wedding set with the fingers of her right hand. He found himself wondering what she'd done with the plain gold band he'd given her. “Do you. . .you could ride with us, if you want.”
“Thanks, but no.” He smiled, a little. “That would be awkward.”
That got a quietly assessing look, for a moment. “Yes, I suppose so.” She started out of the room, then turned back. “I didn't thank you for coming.”
“Please, forget it. You're a little preoccupied, I'm sure.”
Understandably, there was no joy in her smile. “I hope I don't reach the point where I ever forget my manners, Blake. No matter what the circumstances. Besides, I know how busy you are, with your business and all—”
“This is still family, Cass. That always takes precedence.”
Accusation flared in her eyes, reminding him of his less-than-sterling reputation in that particular area, before she finally left the room. It struck him, as it had so often since the divorce, how badly he'd failed her.
And that he'd failed his son even more.
(c) 2005 Reprinted with permission of Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.
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