I stood in front of the church, looking out at the solemn faces of family and friends. Standing up there so they could all look at me wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to curl up in a ball beside the casket in front of me and cry like a baby. This all seemed so unfair. I’d done this before. Standing in front of a crowd of tear-stained faces and talked about a man I’d loved but that had been taken from me.
Now, there I stood again. I was expected to talk. To say something about the man in front of me. The one I’d trusted with my life. The one I’d clung to and wept on when I’d found out I was going to be a single mom. The one I’d known would never leave me. He was now gone.
I looked over to see Jeremy standing in his suit and tie watching me carefully. He was still there. He wasn’t going to leave me. I still had him. He gave me a silent nod, and I knew if I asked, he would come up there and hold my hand while I did this. I kept my eyes on him as I opened my mouth to speak. Seeing him there would give me the strength I needed to go on.
“In life one never expects to lose those who they love. We don’t plan on standing in front of our friends and family and talking about someone who meant the world to us. But it happens. It hurts. It never gets easier.” I stopped and swallowed the lump in my throat. Jeremy took a step toward me and I shook my head. I would do this without him. I had to.
“We aren’t promised tomorrow. My daddy taught me that when I was a little girl and I didn’t understand why my momma wasn’t coming home. Then again, when I lost the boy who I thought I’d grow old with, I was reminded of that fact one more time. Life is short.” I dropped my gaze from Jeremy. I couldn’t look at him while I talked about Josh. Seeing the pain in his eyes only made the tears burning my eyes sting worse.
“I’ve been lucky enough to know what unconditional love is. I’ve had it twice in my life by two different men. They loved me until the day they died. I will hold that close to me for the rest of my life. I only hope that the rest of the world is as lucky as I am.” The back doors of the church opened and I stopped talking. The world around me seemed to move in slow motion.
Cage’s blue eyes locked with mine as he stood in the back of the church. I hadn’t expected to see him today. I hadn’t ever expected to see him again. I wasn’t ready to face him. Especially not today.
Jeremy’s arm was around me, and I could hear him whispering something, but I couldn’t focus on his words. The mix of emotions in Cage’s eyes held me frozen. It had been six months since I’d seen his achingly beautiful face. Even longer since I’d been wrapped up in his arms. He’d been the biggest lie of my life. I’d thought he was the one. I’d been wrong. I knew then you were only given one of those in life, and when Josh died, so did my chance at being loved completely.
“Let’s go sit down.” Jeremy’s words finally registered. He was worried about me. I was going to finish this though. Cage York showing up wasn’t going to stop me from finishing this. He’d stopped me from so much already. I wouldn’t let him control this, too.
“Not a day will go by that I don’t think about my daddy. His memory will stay tucked close to my heart. I’ll be able to tell my daughter all about her grandfather one day. What a good man he was. How much he would have loved her. I won’t ever go to bed at night feeling unloved, because I was loved by one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.” Jeremy’s hand tightened on my waist. I glanced down at the diamond ring on my left hand and my chest tightened. Daddy had been so relieved the day Jeremy had put this ring on my finger. He’d been worried that I’d be left alone when he was gone. Jeremy had eased that fear for him.
“I love you, Daddy. Thank you for everything,” I whispered into the microphone.
Jeremy tucked me close to his side as he remained my support while we walked back to our seats. I couldn’t look at Cage again. Not now. There was no mistaking that I was pregnant. Once I stepped out from behind that podium he would have seen it. He would know.
I was going to tell him. Just not right now. I had grieving to do first. I wanted to sit in my house and remember my daddy. I didn’t want to deal with Cage and his reaction to my pregnancy. Or even if he would have a reaction to my pregnancy. Maybe he would be relieved that Jeremy had stepped up and offered to be not only my husband but the father to my baby. I wasn’t sure where Cage’s head was these days. He’d had plenty time to move on from me. . . from us.
“Do you want me to go out first and corner Cage and deal with him?” Jeremy whispered in my ear as the pastor began the final prayer. We would be going outside to bury my daddy next. Seeing them lower Josh into the ground had brought me to my knees. Would it be just as hard to see them lower Daddy? I’d had time to say my good-byes to him. We had been together in the end. I had a peace with Daddy’s death that I didn’t get with Josh’s. Daddy hadn’t been ripped from me.
“I’m not ready to face him, but even if he doesn’t love me anymore, I don’t think he will try and approach me right now. He wouldn’t do that. He may just be here to pay his last respects and leave. Seeing me like this could send him running.”
Jeremy frowned and glanced toward the back of the church. “I don’t think he’s gonna be running. He noticed that you’re pregnant. The dude’s face is pale.”
Oh God. Not today. Not today. I didn’t want to talk to Cage about this today. I would tomorrow. “Maybe you should go talk to him. Tell him if he wants to talk to me, that I need it to wait until tomorrow.”
“I think that’s a good idea. I’ll meet you outside,” he whispered as we stood up. He quickly made his way to the back before everyone else left to go outside to the graveyard behind the church.
She was pregnant. Holy shit. She was pregnant. My chest was so tight, I couldn’t take a deep breath. I was forcing oxygen into my lungs as I stared at the front of the church. The back of Eva’s head as she spoke to the pastor. I had to get to her. That baby was mine and that diamond ring on her hand was not f**king okay with me.
“Outside. We need to talk,” Jeremy said as he stopped in front of me and nodded toward the exit. My hands fisted at my sides. This was the motherfucker who was gonna marry my woman and take my kid away from me.
“I don’t know if being alone with me is a real smart idea for you,” I snarled, tearing my eyes away from the back of Eva’s head so I could glare at Jeremy.
“It’s her dad’s funeral, Cage. I realize you noticed Eva’s stomach, but you need to remember this is the hardest day of Eva’s life.”
He was right. Damn him. I managed to nod and tap down the anger rolling under the surface. Then I followed him outside. He kept walking until we were in the parking lot and away from the crowd walking to the cemetery.
“I’m not gonna let you take what’s mine.”
Jeremy stuck his hands in his pockets and let out a weary sigh. “She thought you’d see her stomach and take off running. I told her you wouldn’t. Guess I was right.”
“She thought I’d run? Where the f**k did she get that idea?” Not only did she not trust me not to cheat on her, she also didn’t trust me to want what was mine. Did she not know me at all?
Jeremy lifted his eyes to look directly at me. “Why should she think differently? It’s been six months, Cage. She hasn’t heard a word from you. What is she supposed to think?”
Ah, hell no. He wasn’t pegging this shit on me. He was the one who was coming after me with a gun, telling me not to ever come near her again. Not that he stopped me. Eva telling me she was done with us. . . That’s what had stopped me.
“She ended it. I gave her what she wanted. She didn’t trust me. She didn’t even f**king let me explain.”
Jeremy’s eyebrows shot up like he was surprised by my words. “Really, Cage? That’s what you’re going with? Because the girl you were dealing with wasn’t just Eva. It was Eva in deep depression and grief because she was watching her daddy grow sicker every damn day. She was dealing with the fact he was going to die. That’s the girl you were talking to that day. Not the Eva that was sure of your love. Her emotions were a damn jumbled mess. You never tried to contact her again. You just walked.”
I hated him.
I hated what he was saying.
I hated how f**king right he was.
“That baby is mine,” I said, needing to hear him admit it. There was no way it was his. Eva wouldn’t have slept with him or anyone else so soon after our breakup to be that pregnant already.
“Ain’t nobody saying it isn’t yours. She’ll even tell you it’s yours. She told her daddy it was yours. She just needs you to give her a day. Let her mourn today. Let her say her good-byes to her dad. Tomorrow she’ll talk to you. She’s ready.”
She was gonna talk to me. She was carrying my baby.
And she was wearing his motherf**king ring on her hand.
“Why she wearing your ring?”
Jeremy shifted his feet, and for the first time since we’d walked out there, he looked nervous. “I asked her to marry me. She said yes. I love her. I have since we were kids.”
I had seen it from the beginning. I had wondered about it, but I’d been okay with it because she didn’t see him that way. She loved him like a brother. Which still confused the hell out of me as to why they were f**king engaged. Was it because she was pregnant?
“I’m not letting you have her.”
Jeremy’s shoulders stiffened at my words. “That’s her decision. Not yours to make.”
“I’m gonna fight for her and our baby. She loves me. She may have forgotten, but deep down she knows. What we have. . . it’s always. She and I. . . We’re always.”
Jeremy shook his head and glanced back at the crowd gathering around the freshly dug grave. “Sometimes, Cage, a hurt goes too deep.” He didn’t look back at me. He turned around and headed toward Eva. Her shoulders were slumped and jerked gently as she cried into a handkerchief. I wanted to be there to hold her. To soothe her. But she didn’t want me. Not now.
I’d make sure she wanted me again. I would spend the rest of my life making sure she wanted me again. It would wait until tomorrow, though. I stood there and watched her lean into Jeremy’s arms, as she laid one white rose on her father’s casket and they lowered him into the grave. I continued standing there as the crowd slowly began to leave. I waited. I waited until she looked up and finally gave in and turned her eyes toward me.
Her head tilted to the side as she studied me. I could see the confusion in them from here. She thought I’d moved on. My gaze dropped to her stomach as her hand rested on it. The diamond caught the sun and it mocked me as it sat over my child. Our child.
Tomorrow. I’d talk to her tomorrow.
* * *
Low brought me a beer and sat down across from me. Thankfully she didn’t crawl up in Marcus’s lap. I wasn’t in the mood at the moment to witness other people’s happiness. I’d f**ked my shit up.
“I can’t believe she’s pregnant,” Low said for the third time since I’d walked in the door and announced that Eva was carrying my baby.
“It sucks that she didn’t tell you when she found out,” Marcus said, shaking his head while moving closer to Low to put his arm around her.
“She didn’t exactly find out when she was in a good state of mind. She and Cage were broken up, her daddy was sick.. . . I mean, it had to have been hard on her.” Low was going to defend her. I was kind of surprised she wasn’t upset for my benefit.
“Pregnancy messes with your hormones. You don’t think clearly a lot of the time. It makes you emotional and very vulnerable. Then combine that with the emotions of watching your father slowly die of cancer. I can’t imagine. I really can’t. She must have been a mess.”
Well, fuck. Now I felt worse, and I hadn’t thought that was possible. I’d already sent her into the arms of another man. She lost her daddy and cried on another man’s shoulder. I had lost her. No. . . No. I wasn’t going to think that. I could never make any of this right, but I could win her back.
“At least you’ll be seven hours away and not have to watch her with him. The distance will help, I think,” Marcus said, taking another swig of his beer.
“I’m not going back,” I replied. I couldn’t leave now. If I left, I would lose her forever. What would my life be worth then? Without Eva, I didn’t give a flying f**k about my future.
“Cage, you can’t mean that. You have to go back. Think about your future—”
“My future doesn’t matter if Eva isn’t in it.” I cut Low off. I wasn’t going to listen to how I needed to go finish school. I was tired of hearing that shit. I had lost Eva because I’d left. If I’d been there, none of that would have happened. She wouldn’t be wearing Jeremy’s damn ring right now; she’d be wearing mine.
“But this semester is almost over,” Low said, sitting on the edge of the couch as if she was ready to beg me to finish school.
“I have a 4.0, Low. I’ll take my exams online and that will be it. I’m not going back there. I’ll get a student loan and transfer to South for the fall term. I need this next term to focus on Eva.”
Low blew out a long breath that made her bangs flutter against her forehead, then she sat back against Marcus’s chest. “That’s what you really want to do?”
“Let it go, baby. If I were in his shoes, I’d do the same thing. His future is Eva and their baby. Sometimes dreams change. His has.”
I looked at Marcus Hardy and realized that might be the first wise thing that had ever come out of the dude’s mouth.