Home > The Road to Rose Bend(3)

The Road to Rose Bend(3)
Author: Naima Simone

   The same with his big body. Still tall, still a swimmer’s build with the expanse of shoulders and chest and a tapered waist, lean hips and powerful thighs. But whereas before he’d carried a sense of peace she’d always envied, now a fine tension seemed to hum from his motionless frame. As if even when not moving, he was on the verge of it. Or needed to be moving. She understood that. Because putting her hands to something, losing herself in action, prevented thinking.

   Was that it? Was Cole running from his own thoughts, desperate to get out of his head?

   “I was visiting my wife and son,” he said, his voice ground glass and gravel.

   Pain blasted her in a fiery backdraft.

   She swayed, the world expanding then contracting like a snapped rubber band. He’d been the person in the cemetery. The man standing under the tree, alone. Grieving.

   Lovely, kind Tonia. His love since high school.

   She was dead.

   And son. Another wave of stunned pain swelled and broke over her. Her hand rose toward her own belly. Cole had not only lost the love of his life, but a son, too.

   Only a hard hand clasped above her elbow prevented her from stumbling backward.

   “Sydney.” The sharp whip of her name penetrated the roar clouding her head, steadied her trembling knees. Cole gripped her other arm, and she lifted her head, scanning his frown and the worry darkening his eyes. “Sydney, are you okay? Do you need to sit down? Can I get you—”

   “No, no,” she interrupted him, shaking her head, embarrassment and pain mingling like the best of friends. “I’m fine. I just...” She trailed off.

   What could she say? What was there to say in this situation? She flashed back to when Carlin died. The platitudes of “I’m so sorry for your loss” and “She’s in a better place” and “God works in mysterious ways” had bombarded her, and Sydney had wanted to howl her fury and agony at every person who’d uttered those inadequate condolences. They’d been acid poured into an open wound.

   Because Carlin had belonged there with Sydney, with their parents who loved her more than anything—more than the daughter they’d been left with. And what merciful God would allow a thirteen-year-old to suffer for years from cancer only to take her away? Sydney hadn’t—didn’t—call His ways mysterious; she called them cruel.

   “I didn’t know,” she finally murmured. “I’m sorry. How long?”

   “Two years.” Those shadows in his gaze thickened, swallowing the gold for a moment.

   She nodded. Licked her suddenly dry lips. “I don’t know exactly the depth of the grief you’ve suffered, but with...” Again, she trailed off. She might have thought of Carlin over and over again since she’d crossed the town limits, but she hadn’t spoken her sister’s name in eighteen long years. “I won’t lie and promise you that it goes away completely. But it does become tolerable after a while. And then there will be the day when you only think about them five times instead of fifty.” The corner of her mouth lifted in a faint half smile. “And then, there will come the time when their memory brings more happiness than pain and guilt. When you get there, you’ll let me know how it feels, okay?”

   Because she hadn’t yet reached that plateau. But Cole had always been strong, seemingly indomitable. With the huge, loving Dennison clan behind him, she had zero doubts he would get there. She should know. His sister Leontyne had been a wonderful friend to Sydney before she left Rose Bend.

   His lashes briefly lowered, and he squeezed her arms before releasing her. “How long are you in town?” he asked, not answering her question. “Leo is going to lose her mind when she finds out you’re here. Maybe you can do something about dragging her away from the inn. God knows, she’s twenty-seven going on seventy-seven with all the responsibility she piles on herself.”

   “Leo? I-faked-the-swine-flu-to-get-out-of-work Leo?” Sydney gaped. “Did Rose Bend drop into an alternate universe while I was away? And did you check the seams along her hairline to make sure it’s really her and not some body-snatching clone?”

   He snorted, and though it wasn’t a laugh, for a second, the shadows thinned. “You know what? I didn’t check. I’ll have to get Wolf to help me yank her away from the laundry and hold her down so we can make sure.” An evil glint gleamed in his gaze, and Sydney laughed at the image of Cole and his older brother wrestling Leo to the ground. That would be a battle she’d pay ticket fare to see.

   “Whatever you do, don’t tell her I suggested it. I know some things might’ve changed here, but somehow I’m doubting her bloodthirsty need for payback is one of them.”

   “Not even a little bit,” he agreed. “But back to you. How long are you here? A week? Two?”

   The sigh escaped her before she could trap it. “I don’t know,” she hedged, glancing down and sweeping her hand down her baby bump. Just touching her rounded stomach comforted her, grounded her. “But since I have a good part of my life stashed away in my car, I’m guessing more than one or two weeks,” she drawled with a soft chuckle.

   But like before, her teasing slammed against a wall of silence.

   Wary, she tipped her head back.

   Stark agony widened his haunted gaze, tautened his light brown skin and flattened his full lips into a grim line.

   His gaze fastened on her belly.

   Understanding crashed into her. He’d lost a child; she couldn’t imagine how that affected him. How he could bear being around children when all he probably thought about was his son who should be there with him.

   “Cole,” she whispered.

   “You’re pregnant,” he stated the obvious, tone flat.

   Just moments ago, delight had colored his voice, his smile, his eyes. Now, there was nothing.

   An ache bloomed in her chest. As inappropriate as it might be, she missed that happiness. How many people in this town would greet her return with joy instead of curiosity, side-eye and gossip? She could count them on one hand and still have about two fingers left over.

   Before she left this place to go to her parents and face their disappointment, she needed that pleasure lighting his amber eyes again.

   Hell, even his pain was preferable to this, this...emptiness.

   “Yes.” She lifted her chin. Curling her hand around her stomach, she cradled the swell. As if protecting her baby from his coldness. His rejection. “I’m a little over four months along.”

   His expression remained shuttered, a smooth, blank mask. But the muscle along his jaw bounced like a jackhammer.

   “Congratulations.”

   “Thank you,” she murmured. Then, on a sigh, she swept her hand over her head, fingers bumping into the large, bound puff at the top. “Listen, Cole...”

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