"Maybe I could." She said the words quietly, unaware that she’d even been about to speak.
The thought filled her with an incredible sense of hope. For the first time in fifteen years, she really believed it was possible. Not easy, perhaps, but possible. The world didn’t scare her as much anymore.
If she practiced diligently, took a few baby steps forward every day, and truly let herself believe, maybe she could do it. A smile tugged at her mouth. "Maybe .. ."
Jake turned to her. "I love you, Mariah. Merry Christmas."
She turned to him, gazed down at him through the stinging curtain of her tears.
Pulling him into her arms, she gave him a fierce, loving hug. "I love you, too, Jake.
Mad Dog saw the farm in the distance and stopped. The boxy farmhouse sat like a perfect tooth in the center of endless snow-covered fields. Dozens of skeletal apple trees fanned out from the house, their bare limbs draped in elegant white.
For the first time since he left, he felt warm. A smile curved his lips. He was home.
Then the smile slid slowly downward. Something was wrong. He glanced around, cataloging the orchard, the house, the barn. Everything looked the same, but something felt . . . different.
The fence was gone.
He smiled again, feeling a surge of pride for Mariah. She’d done it. Jesus Christ, she’d taken down the white picket fence. He could see the repetitive depressions in the snow where the slats had been. It was the best welcome he could have imagined.
He reslung his bag over his back and strolled toward the house. There was a spring in his step that had been missing for weeks. Excitement thudded with every beat of his heart. He couldn’t wait to see his family again, couldn’t wait to be welcomed back into their loving arms.
He grinned and glanced up. Jake stood beside the bunkhouse, carrying a load of firewood. "Hiya, kid. I told you I’d be back."
Jake’s mouth dropped open. The firewood slid from his arms and thumped into the snow at his feet. "Might be back," he muttered, staring at Mad Dog through huge, round eyes. "You said you might be back."
He started to make a flip comeback, then changed his mind. He’d come a long way to tell Jake something. He didn’t want to ruin the moment by being his normal, careless self. "I missed you."
"You did?" Jake’s voice was a breath of wonder.
He smiled. "Yeah. It surprised me, too." He dropped his bag and waved Jake over.
Jake moved cautiously forward, crunching quietly through the snow. About a foot away, he stopped.
Mad Dog felt a moment’s disappointment. He pushed it away. He wanted to reach out and squeeze his son’s shoulder, wanted it so damn bad, he hurt inside. But he didn’t do a thing, didn’t move. He wanted to take this thing slow, wanted to make everything right so it would last.
Jake looked painfully young and vulnerable right • now, standing there, his arms at his sides, his face j scrunched against the bright winter sun. Mad Dog knew j how his son felt, remembered waiting for his own father’sj ther’s return with an aching sense of desperation.
"I’m sorry, Jake," he said quietly, feeling a sharp statj of regret. The words were so small, nothing really, yet they were all he had to offer. That, and a lifetime o|
commitment and love to back them up.
Jake didn’t say anything.
"I shouldn’t have left you. It just happened so damne fast—not that that’s an excuse-—but I didn’t know what do. I was scared shitless of the responsibility."
Jake took a hesitant step forward. "What change(j your mind?"
"You’re my son." Mad Dog’s throat squeezed up the simple words. "You can’t imagine how it makes feel to say that, Jake. Once I started thinking about it! about you, I couldn’t stay away." He looked away.i "God, I’ve missed so much of your life
… I don’t want* to miss any more."
Jake made a sobbing, choked sound and launched himself forward. Mad Dog grabbed his son, held him in a fierce, desperate hug.
"I missed you, Mad Dog," Jake said, clinging to his father’s neck.
Mad Dog drew back slowly, stared down into Jake’s teary eyes. "I don’t suppose you’d want to call me dad?"
Jake gave him a watery, quivering smile. "I’ve waited for that all my life."
"I wish I’d known, Jake," he said softly, realizing for the first time that it was true.
He wished he’d known about his son a long time ago. He liked to believe he would have changed, would have stayed.
"Me, too, Dad."
Dad. At the quietly spoken word, Mad Dog felt something in his heart swell almost painfully. He swallowed hard, fighting a surge of raw emotion. "I’d best go see Mariah," he said in a thick voice. "You know, sweep her off her feet and make this family official."
Jake winced. "Mariah’s . .. changed."
He grinned. "I can see that by the missing fence. Jesus, I’ve missed her."
Jake chewed on his lower lip. "I’ll just stay here and wait___"
Mad Dog laughed. "Probably a good a idea, Jake. Last time I surprised her, she coldcocked me with the butt of a shotgun."
"I wouldn’t rule it out this time."
Mad Dog grinned at Jake’s joke. Tossing his bag toward the bunkhouse, he looked up at the house. An idiotic smile curved his mouth.
God, he couldn’t wait to see her, to taste her. Ever since he left, his arms had felt empty and lifeless. He needed Mariah to fill them and make him feel complete.
He tousled Jake’s hair. "Seeya in a minute, kid. I got some courtin’ to do."
"Good luck, Dad."
"I won’t need luck. I’ve got love." Still grinning, Mad Dog raced across the snowy yard and bounded up the sagging porch steps. He turned the knob quietly and went inside.
The house welcomed him in the way it always had, with warmth and comfort and quiet. He heard the crackling sputter of a fire in the sitting room, and the hissing pop of cooking bacon.
He closed the door gently and moved toward the kitchen.
Mariah was in the corner, kneeling in front of the icebox. It took him a moment to notice that she wasn’t wearing brown. Her hair was drawn back in a loosely woven braid that brushed the floor behind her, its tail caught up in a frayed pink ribbon. Her dress was pale blue, sprigging with tiny yellow flowers. She stood up and turned around. He leaned casually against the doorframe and crossed his arms, smiling at her. "Hiya, darlin’."
"Matt . .." she breathed. The yellow crockery bowl in her hands crashed to the floor and shattered. "I’m back."
She stared at him, her mouth parted, her cheeks brightened with spots of color. For a second, her gaze was liquid and warm and welcoming. Then she stiffened. Her face hardened into that austere, disapproving pinch he knew so well. "No, you’re not." "Huh?"
"Good comeback, Matt." She dried her hands on a soggy dish towel and stepped backwards. "I said, you’re not back. You’re here. There’s a difference." He frowned.
She tried to smile, but her eyes were cold and wary, untrusting. "That’s wonderful for Jake. He’s missed you. The bunkhouse will be ready on Saturday, as usual. Until then, you may use your bedroll."
She’s mad, that’s all. You can handle a riled-up woman. Mad Dog gave her his best sexy grin and moved toward her, looping his thumbs through the fraying waistband of his Levi’s. "How ’bout you, darlin’, did you miss me?"
"I missed you," she said tightly, "for a while."
He halted, stunned. "And you stopped?’
She smiled. "And I grew up." Her eyes met his, and this time there was no wariness in her gaze, no coldness. Only a solemn honesty. "You changed me, Matt. First by coming into my life, and then by leaving it. I’ve learned I can take care of myself."
Mad Dog felt off balance, unsure of himself. He’d thought she’d throw herself at him and smother him with kisses until he couldn’t breathe. He’d envisioned it just that way a thousand times, imagined their hot, wet, hard reunion. It had never once occurred to him that there wouldn’t be a reunion at all.
The thought made him feel queasy, lost. He sighed, ran a hand through his shoulder-length hair. He couldn’t have come this far only to lose the only woman he’d ever loved. Ever would love.
He licked his dry lips and looked at her. This time there was no cocky grin, no sexy smile. There was just pain and honesty and hope. "I want to change your life again,"
he said softly, "by staying."
She flinched. "Then stay in the bunkhouse."
"You don’t understand."
"No, you don’t understand. You . . ." Her voice cracked. Tears filled her eyes and she looked away. "You broke my heart. … I don’t want you anymore."
Mad Dog felt her pain. Regret and shame coiled around his heart, squeezing until it hurt to breathe. He dug deep in his pocket for the cheap tin ring he’d bought in Albuquerque. He pulled it out, dusted it off, and wished to hell it were gold. "I love you, Mariah, and I want to marry you. I want you and Jake and me to be a real, honest-to-God family."
She didn’t look at him or the ring. "Ha."
"I … I stopped off at the Lonesome Creek Ledger and got a writing job."
She gasped and looked at him. "You got a job?"
He smiled. "Writin’ articles twice a week. I figure that’ll help us pay some bills and still give me time to manage the orchard."
She clasped her hands and looked away again. "Oh."
He felt a moment’s weakness, a hesitation on her part. "Marry me."
She closed her eyes and breathed heavily, then slowly opened them and looked at him. "No. I can’t trust you to stay."
"Tell me you don’t love me, Mariah. Tell me that and I’ll leave right now. Otherwise, I’ll stay here a hundred years, proposing to you every morning—until you do trust me."
Mariah. A shiver of longing moved through Mariah at the way he said her name, so softly, gently. Memories besieged her, drew her reluctantly back into the way she used to feel about him.
Sweet Lord, she’d missed him.
She clutched the sink and forced herself not to move, but the heat of his gaze, the warmth of his smile, burned through her, made her feel liquid and rubbery inside.
"Oh, God, Matt." She sighed, feeling the sting of tears. She couldn’t lie and tell him she didn’t love him. The words would be impossible to form. She loved him as much as her own life, needed him as desperately as she needed air to breathe.
He moved toward her, came within a hairsbreadth of touching her, but he didn’t. He just stared down at her, gazing at her through painfully honest eyes. "Have I ever lied to you, Mariah?"
He touched her chin, a feather-stroke of a caress that set off a tremble in her stomach. "I’ll stay," he whispered, and she saw the moisture in his eyes.
She looked up at him, into the quiet desperation in his eyes, the lingering sadness in his look, and she was lost. She couldn’t turn him away, couldn’t say she didn’t love him. Not if he broke her heart a hundred times, a thousand. The days of protecting herself were long over. She was stronger now, strong enough to reach for what she wanted. Strong enough to let herself believe in him, in herself, in love.
She gave him a fragile, loving smile and started to cry. "Oh, Matt," she breathed, opening her arms to him, "what took you so long?"