Authors: Jessie Evans
She smiled that sad, secretive smile that slipped across her face sometimes, the one that made him think she knew something he didn’t and maybe never would.
“I’m an old soul I guess.” She reached down, brushing his hair from his forehead with an affection he knew he didn’t deserve. “You think you could teach me how to swim tomorrow? I’m too worn out today, but I’d like to learn.”
“I’d be happy to,” he said, his throat tight again. “Thank you, Grace.”
“You’re welcome, Canyon,” she whispered in a voice that made him want to ask her to stay.
He wanted to pull her back to the ground next to him and take her in his arms. He wanted to bury his face in her damp curls and beg her forgiveness for letting her down, and then he wanted to stretch her out on the warm pebbled beach and kiss her.
He sensed Grace would understand the language of kiss and knew he could answer all her questions so much better with a touch, a kiss, the movement of his body as he slid inside of hers. If he made love to her, she would see that even in the moments when he was so close to another person, he was still alone. He was as unreachable as any fairy tale princess locked away in a tower, his heart and soul walled up behind an unbreakable barrier of regret. He couldn’t be saved and maybe if she could see that for herself she wouldn’t feel bad about failing in her self-appointed mission to rescue him.
But instead of reaching out to her, he let her walk away and did his best not to stare as she stretched out her towel, looking so beautiful and healthy it was hard to imagine that she wouldn’t be here for much longer.
It made his heart ache to know she was dying. If he could give her his life and take her illness into his own body, he would do it.
But he couldn’t, because there was no cosmic justice. There were only people muddling through life as best as they could, making mistakes they could never take back and wondering if that was all there was.
Lily didn’t know what to do next and so she did nothing. It was a skill she’d learned from her grandmother, a master of knowing when to let things sit.
Gran had always said that at least a third of your problems will solve themselves if you give them time and space to breathe. The other two-thirds required more aggressive action, but there’s no sense in rushing in before you have a solid plan of attack.
Wilma Jean wasn’t just a sweet Southern woman who knew how to make friends and influence people. In her thirties she transformed her father’s failing drugstores into a profitable natural foods grocery chain and by her fiftieth birthday had built a real estate empire that made her one of the richest women in Texas, all while raising her son alone after her husband passed away.
Gran was good at life and Lily had always wanted to be like her, though on a much smaller scale. After she’d married John, she’d been happy helping the Lawsons keep their ranch profitable, raising veggies for the family in the backyard, and spending as much time as she could with her kids.
After losing her own parents so young, she’d wanted to make the most of every moment with her boys.
. She was going to see them tomorrow. Every time the thought skipped through her head, she had to stop to catch her breath.
“You okay?” Canyon asked, watching her over the top of his half-eaten cheeseburger.
“Yeah.” She forced a smile and picked up her own neglected burger. “Meat tastes different than I remember.”
His brows lifted. “You’re not a veggie are you? You should have told me.”
“No, I’m not a veggie. It’s just been awhile since I had a burger. It’s delicious. You’re a good cook.”
She took a bite and chewed, amazed all over again at how different it tasted. The burger was still good, but Grace’s taste buds didn’t respond to the salty rush of meat and cheese the way her own had. Grace’s body seemed to prefer lighter foods, like the fruit salad she’d made with the bananas, apples, and oranges she’d picked up at the park market.
But she would finish at least half the burger before she reached for the container of fruit salad. She and Canyon had declared a cease-fire and she didn’t want to do anything to disrupt the peace, at least not until she figured out how to approach the problem from a different angle.
She wasn’t going to give up on him. No matter what body she was in, that wasn’t Lily’s way. She wasn’t a quitter. She was a fighter, especially when it came to the people she cared about.
She wasn’t sure when it had happened, but sometime between Canyon saving her life the first time and the second time, he’d become one of her people. He was a good man, probably one of the best she’d ever met.
If only he could see himself through her eyes…
“Spit it out,” he said, reaching for the bag of potato chips and shaking some out onto his paper plate.
“I will not,” she said, deliberately misunderstanding him. “My food stays in my mouth. I wasn’t raised by wolves.”
His lips quirked. “I wasn’t talking about the burger. You’ve got something on your mind. Might as well spit it out.”
“Okay.” She took a bite and chewed slowly, stalling for time. She wasn’t ready to revisit the subject of his impending suicide, but maybe he could help her with the other things that were weighing on her mind. “I have a hypothetical question for you.”
He nodded. “Shoot.”
“Say that someone you loved had disappeared for a long time, but then suddenly they came back,” she said, the words enough to make her pulse speed. The closer the time came to see the boys, the more anxious she felt about whether making contact was the right thing to do. “So now they’re back, but they can’t stay.”
“Why not?” Canyon asked, popping a chip in his mouth.
“They just can’t,” she said, unable to think of an analogy that would come close to her situation. An extended business trip or a job overseas didn’t come close to the kind of going away she was talking about. “But before they leave again they tell you that they will always love you and be wishing wonderful things for your life.”
He frowned. “Okay, so what’s the question?”
Lily dropped her burger onto her plate, her stomach too cramped with nerves to eat another bite. “The question is, does that make you happy because you know this person you thought was lost is still okay and loving you? Or do you wish they hadn’t reopened old wounds only to go away again?”
Canyon chewed thoughtfully. “I don’t know. I guess it would depend on the person and how I felt about them before they went away and after.”
“Before they went away, you loved them like family,” she said, her throat tight. “After, you were sad, but you didn’t blame them for it. You knew they had no choice. That someone…” She licked her lips and swallowed. “Someone took them away from you. They didn’t want to go.”
“Then I think I’d be glad to know they were okay,” he said. “Sure, it would hurt to have them go away again, but if they couldn’t help it, I’d understand.”
“Even if you were younger?” Lily pressed. “A child even?”
Canyon met her eyes for a long moment before he wiped his hands on his napkin and pushed his plate away. “Grace, if you have someone you want to say goodbye to, then you should. You’re the one who’s dying. You deserve to go out with as little weighing on your soul as possible.”
“It’s not like that,” she said with a sigh, wishing she could tell Canyon the truth and have him believe it. But he wouldn’t and she wasn’t sure telling him would help her case with him, anyway.
“Then what’s it like?” he asked. “Explain it to me. I’m assuming you’ve got a little one out there you haven’t seen in a while. And maybe you’re scared about how they’ll take you showing up again?”
She nodded slowly, her gaze on the weathered wood of the picnic table.
“Well, I think kids are more resilient than we give them credit for,” he said. “They just want to be loved, especially by their parents, and I don’t think you can go wrong letting someone know you care.”
She glanced up at him, meeting his hazel eyes, which had turned a haunting shade of grayish green in the fading light. “I care about you.”
He held her gaze for a long moment, the air between them beginning to simmer again. “I care about you, too.”
But that doesn’t change anything.
He didn’t say the words, but he might as well have. She heard him loud and clear and it broke her heart a little bit more. If she didn’t find a way to reach him, she was going to fail. She was going to fail and this wonderful man would be lost.
She pressed her lips together, fighting the wave of emotion that threatened to pull her under. It wasn’t time to cry. Not yet. She still had five days. If she ended up on that bus Saturday morning, she’d let the tears flow then.
“I’m stuffed,” she said, as she stood. “I’m going to the restroom, want me to go for you?” She held out her cupped hands in front of her, pleased when Canyon laughed in response.
She loved his laugh. When he laughed, she could see the man he should have been, the man he could be if he would allow himself to believe in second chances. Everyone deserved a second chance, especially people who had tried so hard to learn from their mistakes.
“No thanks,” he said, still grinning. “I’m good.”
“All right,” she said, memorizing the sparkle in his eyes.
Canyon wasn’t good yet, but if she had her way, he would be.
Canyon woke up with Grace curled against him, her sleeping bag pressed tight to his and her face tucked beneath his chin. They’d gone to bed on separate sides of the tent, but at some point during the night, they’d rolled to the center, the pull between them too strong to resist when their waking selves weren’t there to keep them apart.
He knew he should get back to his own side of the tent before she woke up, but instead he closed his eyes and inhaled. Her hair smelled like wood smoke from the campfire last night, but beneath it was something sweet and fresh that reminded him of a summer hay field just before dusk. She smelled like hope and all he wanted to do was wrap her in his arms and hold on tight.
But his arms couldn’t give her more time and he was too far gone for hope. Still, he couldn’t resist pressing a kiss to the top of her head and silently wishing for whatever came next for her to be as painless as possible.
“Good morning,” she murmured, blinking sleepily as she pulled her head away from his chest. “Sorry. I must have moved in my sleep.”
“We both did,” he said. “No need to apologize.”
She ducked lower in her sleeping bag until only her eyes were peeking out over the top. “I was dreaming about you.”
“Oh yeah?” Canyon tried to keep his voice casual, but he’d woken up hard and the husky note in Grace’s voice was only making him harder.
If she told him about a naughty dream right now, he might not be able to keep from making her dream a reality. Every second he spent with her made him want her more. At this rate, he wasn’t going to make it to Saturday morning without tasting her lips and every other part of her he could get his mouth on.
“Yeah, we were kids,” she said, making him feel like a jerk for jumping to raunchy conclusions. “We were in different bodies, but somehow I knew it was you and I was so happy to see you again.”
“Sometimes I wonder about that,” he said, touched. “Every once in a while I meet someone I would swear is already a friend. If that makes sense.”
“It does.” Her legs curled in her sleeping bag as she turned to face him. “I kind of like the idea of reincarnation and running into old friends again.”
“Or old enemies,” he said. “There’s another bull rider on the circuit who I swear did me wrong in another life. Loathed the guy at first sight and never have gotten over it.”
She made a considering sound. “That’s a less pleasant idea. I’d rather believe that once the bad guys are gone they stay gone.”
“Me too, I guess.” He reached out, tugging her sleeping bag low enough for him to see her face. She was so beautiful, with her curls wild around her head and her cheeks flushed with sleep.
All he wanted to do was kiss her good morning, but instead he asked, “Are you ready to learn to swim? I figured we could go out right after breakfast before the beach gets too crowded.”
Her lips pressed together and a shadow passed behind her eyes. “Can we wait until later this afternoon? I wanted to take a walk this morning.”
“I’m up for a hike,” he said. “Probably better to get that in while it’s cool.”
“I wanted to go by myself if that’s okay,” she said, nibbling on her bottom lip. “I have some things to think about and a walk always helps me sort through my thoughts.”
“Oh. Yeah, of course. I can keep myself entertained.” He sat up, running a hand through his hair before reaching for his cowboy hat and plunking it on to hide his bed head. “I’d planned to come here alone, so don’t feel like you have to keep me company.”
“I enjoy keeping you company,” she said, seeming distracted as she wiggled out of her sleeping bag and kicked it back toward the other side of the tent. “And I’ll be back soon. I don’t think my walk will take that long.”
“All right,” he said, but he got the feeling that there was something she wasn’t telling him.