Authors: Karen Templeton
“I did. And mare and filly are both fine.”
“Excellent. And you?”
“Nothing a four-hour nap wouldn’t fix.”
Even as she laughed, sympathy swam in Val’s eyes. A single parent herself, she knew what it was like, trying to juggle child care with working. Especially in a small town with limited day care options. “Hey. I’m off at three. If you want I’d be happy to take the boys. They can play with the girls for a couple of hours. In fact, y’all could even stay for dinner. Levi’s probably gonna give the grill one final whirl before it gets too cold. Whaddya say, guys? You wanna come over and play with Josie and Risa later?”
Jeremy looked up, all bright eyes and snaggle-toothed grin. “Cool—”
“Thanks,” Zach said, “but I’m good.”
Clearly, exhaustion was making him cranky. Not to mention stupid. But honestly, as much as he loved his brother—and his soon-to-be sister-in-law—he didn’t think he could handle four children under the age of eight right now.
No, let’s be honest—what he couldn’t handle was watching how happy his brother and Val were. And if that didn’t make him a rotten brother, not to mention a terrible person, he didn’t know what did. For crying out loud, they were both great people who’d been through hell. God knew if anyone deserved a happy ending, it was those two. As well as Val’s two little girls.
Except even he knew his funk had nothing to do with them, even if his brother’s engagement had made Zach that much more aware of his own loneliness, of how desperately he still missed his wife. Especially at times like this, when he simply felt like there wasn’t enough of him to go around, when his kids needed more than he had to give—
He felt Val’s hand on his shoulder. “Hey. No playing the martyr allowed.”
“Trust me, been there, got the T-shirt. So you’re coming over and that’s that. You wanna go pass out upstairs, that’s okay. We’ll handle the kids. All you have to do is hang on for a few more hours.”
He released a weary laugh. “Fine,” he said, and Jeremy gave a fist pump. He and Val’s oldest were about the same age and loved nothing more, apparently, than verbally sparring with each other. About
“Hey, there,” Val said brightly as the bell over the door tinkled. “Sit anywhere you like—”
“Oh, my goodness! Dr. Talbot?”
In a blur of fluttering fabric and jewelry, Dorelle made a beeline for him while Mallory hung back a few feet, her lip caught between her teeth. Embarrassed? Amused? Hard to tell. But the twinkle in the redhead’s eyes, those damn dimples, made Zach’s chest thump. In a not entirely unpleasant way, actually. The wind had messed up her hair, which she was trying to smooth back down. Then she tugged a strand of it out of her mouth.
And suddenly Zach wasn’t nearly as pooped as he’d thought he was.
“Imagine finding you all here!” Mallory’s mother said, giving Jeremy a quick side hug. Which, amazingly, the kid didn’t seem to mind. “And I thought we were pushing it, getting here so late for lunch! What a beautiful blue horse, Liam!”
By this time Mallory had pushed herself close enough to mutter, “Laying it on a little thick, Mama?” which earned her an eyeroll and a gentle swat. In spite of himself, Zach chuckled. And despite spending so much time in barns, he hadn’t been born in one. So he wriggled out of the booth, then gestured toward it.
“Join us? No, no, it’s okay, we don’t even have our food yet. And there’s plenty of room.” He looked at Mallory. “Really.”
Dorelle looked extraordinarily pleased. But it was Mallory’s lifted eyebrow that made his chest thump a second time.
A lot harder than he would’ve expected.
allory had been relieved to discover the little town was actually pretty wheelchair-friendly. Yes, there were laws about that, but unfortunately some business owners weren’t above skirting those laws as much, or as long, as they could. At least until they got caught. But she’d been able to roll into every place they’d gone that day without too much problem, and the diner was no exception. Even sitting at the end of the booth wasn’t particularly awkward.
Sitting three feet away from Zach, however, was another issue entirely.
Not that he wasn’t as polite as always. Friendly, even. And he was the one who’d invited her and her mother to sit with them, although she wouldn’t go so far as to say it was his idea. Again, polite. His mama had raised him well. But all the good manners in the world weren’t enough to erase the tension in the set of the man’s jaw, the sadness lurking behind his tired smile. How damn hard he was
Just kill her now.
Such a gentle face, she thought, stealing a glance at his profile as he quietly, but firmly, put the kibosh on Liam’s attempts to stuff French fries up his nose. Gentle, but strong, too, shouldering his obvious pain with grace and courage.
Tears stung Mallory’s eyes as she tried to choke down a bite of her own burger. Sometimes, this empathy stuff was for the birds—
“You okay?” Zach said, his low voice startling her. She glanced over to see her mother deep in conversation with the boys before pushing out a little breath. Nodding. Wanting to laugh, actually, that his concern for her stemmed from hers for him.
Welcome to irony.
“I’m fine,” she said, figuring if she could convincingly pull off playing a homeless transgender prostitute surely she could pull off one little white lie. Okay, so maybe not so little. “I remember that phase with Landon,” she said for Zach’s ears only, nodding toward the little boy, now completely enchanted by her mother’s drawing horns on the blue horse. “The orifice-plugging phase, I mean. You name it—if it fit, he shoved it up there. Beans. Rocks. Chocolate chips. Although at least those melted. But oh, dear Lord, what a holy mess
Zach laughed, and she smiled. Then her mother announced that, since she and boys were finished, she was taking them outside to run off some steam in that adorable little square across from the restaurant.
“You two take your time finishing up,” Mama said. “Nobody’s in any hurry...”
After they left, Mallory bit off half a French fry, then sighed. “I’m so sorry.”
“That your mother took my kids? I’m not.”
“You’re very trusting.”
“That she’ll bring them back? Absolutely.”
Mallory chuckled, then gobbled up another fry. Holy cow, these were good. “Actually, what I meant was—”
“I know what you meant. And no worries—”
“Y’all doing okay over here?” Val said, swooping by to refill Mallory’s water glass.
“You kidding?” Mallory said, brandishing a fry. “I can’t remember the last time I had fries this good. And this burger
The cute little blonde grinned. “AJ’ll appreciate that, I’m sure—”
“And you have to have a piece of Val’s pie,” called out an equally thin, but older woman on the other side of the counter.
Val blushed. “Annie, really?”
“We’ve still got...let’s see...” Adjusting her chained glasses on her nose, Annie peered into the glass dessert case. “Apple and peach, looks like. And chocolate crème. Pickings are pretty slim this time of day.” She let her glasses drop. “But still good.”
“The chocolate, then,” Mallory said.
“Honestly, Annie,” Val said on a sigh, then gave Mallory an
I’m so sorry
look. “Please don’t feel obligated—”
“To eat a piece of chocolate crème pie? Not a problem.”
“And apple for you, Zach, I presume?” Annie called, already removing two pieces from the case. “Plain or à la mode?”
A second later Val set their respective choices on the table by their plates, then cleared the boys’ and Mama’s places before swooping away again. Mallory gawked at the three-inch-high confection, and Zach chuckled.
“Somebody looks like she’s seriously contemplating not finishing her lunch and going straight for dessert.”
“The thought had occurred to me,” she said, and he smiled again. And if she wasn’t mistaken, at least some of the tension seemed to have sloughed off his shoulders, faded from his eyes. “There’s a real ‘everybody’s family’ thing going on here, isn’t there?” she said, prying off a piece of her burger and popping it into her mouth.
Zach got quiet for a moment, then said, “We’d be idiots not to be at least
to strangers, since a good chunk of our economy depends on tourist dollars.”
“Good call,” Mallory said, trying to ignore the slight twinge of disappointment that the banter hadn’t been personal. Then again, how could it have been, considering she hadn’t been in the town but five minutes? After all, Whispering Pines was only a temporary escape for her. But for all these people, it was home.
Zach took a bite of his burger, then set it on his plate, wiping his hands on a napkin, looking as if he was weighing whether he should say what he was thinking. Her burger finally finished—or close enough—Mallory shoved away the greasy plate and reached for her prize. “What?” she said, and he slightly jerked.
“I just keep thinking how tough it must’ve been, after your accident. Especially right after. Not only on you, but your son.”
Wondering what had prompted this twist in the conversation, Mallory took a bite of her pie...only to almost choke on her gasp of delight. A small smile curved Zach’s mouth.
“As in, oh. My. God.”
He nodded toward Val, cleaning up after the couple who’d just left. “She makes ’em. From scratch. Crusts and everything.”
“Wow.” Making a mental note to get that girl’s number, Mallory took another bite, swooned all over again, then decided to address Zach’s comment.
“Landon was only six. And before, I’d always wrestle and roughhouse with him—I was a bit of a tomboy, anyway, so I was beyond thrilled that God gave me a son—” Reaching for his own pie, Zach smiled. “But then I couldn’t. Not at first, anyway. And I think for a long while he wondered where Mom had gone. Suddenly he had no idea how he was supposed to act with me. What he could and couldn’t do. What
could and couldn’t do. And of course I wasn’t sure, either, at first. So there was a lot of feeling our way with each other for a while.”
“But I assume you did.”
Her eyes filled again; annoyed, Mallory grabbed her napkin and dabbed underneath her lower lashes.
“I’m sorry,” Zach said, “I didn’t mean to bring up a sore subject—”
“It’s not that. It’s...” She blew out a sigh. “No matter how prepared we think we are for life’s curveballs, we never really are, are we?”
Zach blew out a long, weighty sigh. “Nope. Not by a long shot.”
“And it’s about more than simply coping with the changes. It’s about... Oh, Lord, this is going to sound silly...”
“I doubt it,” Zach said, smiling.
She snorted. “You haven’t heard it yet. But I was going to say, it’s about learning from them. Becoming stronger.”
Not looking at her, he took a large bite of his pie. “Whatever kills us and all that?”
“Exactly. I think we’re all a lot tougher than we believe we are. But unless we’re tested, we’ll never find out, will we?” She paused, then said softly, “And if you don’t mind my asking...what brought this on?”
He leaned back against the seat, his arms crossed as he chewed. “Not entirely sure,” he said, swallowing. “Although maybe...” One side of his mouth tilted before he met her gaze. “Maybe I feel I could learn something from you?”
And she’d thought she’d been thrown for a loop before.
“Not that I’m equating our situations, I don’t mean that. Only that we’ve both had, as you say, curveballs thrown at us. And you...” There went that gentle, soul-shattering smile again, God help her. “You seem to have found what I’m still looking for.”
It took a minute to find her voice. “And what would that be?”
His eyes locked with hers. “Acceptance.”
To hell with this
, she thought, reaching for his hand. Never mind they barely knew each other, or that they were in public, or...or a million other reasons why she shouldn’t. The man needed to be touched, dammit. And she was handy.
“Okay. For one thing, I’ve had longer to adjust than you have, so there’s that. For another, maybe it’s...well,
’s not the right word, but...this is just my body, you know? It’s not...
. Granted, there were all sorts of ramifications that happened as a result of the accident, and for a while I was pretty depressed, not gonna lie. And don’t kid yourself, it’s not all one big party going on inside my head. I have my moments. Days.” Her mouth screwed to one side. “Months. Even so, from where I’m sitting—heh—losing the ability to walk is nothing compared with losing a piece of your heart. And I don’t have to know details to know that’s what happened.”
Zach’s eyes watered, and she thought,
. He blinked, though, and cleared his throat, before letting go of her hand to pick up his fork again, only to hold it suspended over the pie. “Maybe so. But I am so tired of feeling like this. Like I’m half living. When I realized I was in love with Heidi...” A smile ghosted around his mouth. “That we were in love with each
I’d never been happier. And every minute we were together...it was pretty damned amazing.”
Mallory smiled. “Please don’t tell me you never fought. Or got on each other’s nerves.”
Laughing softly, he finally took another bite of his pie. “Sure we did. Sometimes. But never over anything important, you know? In any case,” he breathed out, “it’s like you said—we’re never really prepared for those shifts in the universe. Our universe, anyway. And when she died, I had no idea how much losing her would hurt. Could hurt.” His gaze met hers. “Would still hurt, even after all this time. And all I know is, I will never, ever let myself go there again.”
Except whatever she was about to say caught in her throat as something like surprise bloomed in his eyes.
“You know, I’ve never said that before. To anyone.”
“Not even to your family?”