Forever Now(4)

By: Ruth Cardello

They also made a damn convincing argument for how a good brew added to a person’s quality of life.

“I’d love to if there’s room at the table.” Warmth filled Kade, pushing back some of the panic that had been rising within him before he’d sought out the Martins. Not everything in his life had been a lie. This was real.

“For you, Kade, always. Hazel was asking about you the other day. You kids are all so busy now; it’s hard to keep up.” He waved for Harrison to pour two beers then motioned for Kade to follow him to a table off to the side. Once seated, Mitch took a healthy swig then asked, “Your dad said you came back because of family issues, but he didn’t say more. Anything you need?”

Kade opened his mouth to answer but instead raised his beer and downed the entire glass. Mitch’s eyes rounded.

“That bad, hey?”

“I don’t even know where to begin.” Kade rubbed his hands roughly over his face. “It’s really fucked up, Mitch. I shouldn’t come and lay it at your door, but I don’t know what else to do.”

Mitch put a hand on Kade’s shoulder. “You couldn’t be more a part of my family if you’d come out of Hazel. Whatever is going on, we’re here for you, mate.”

Movement at the bar caught Kade’s attention. Annie. Even dressed in a dark blue pantsuit and white shirt, he recognized her instantly. How long had it been since he’d last seen her? A year? Two? How had that happened? Her long brown hair was neatly contained in a braid. When she turned, her blue eyes widened then narrowed. Her face didn’t light with the welcoming warmth he’d expected, and he tried to remember their last conversation . . . but couldn’t. There’d been no fight. Nothing worth committing to memory. Their friendship had been solid until he’d moved away.

Kade stood and met her halfway. “Annie.” He was about to hug her, but she put out her hand for a shake.

“Kade. Good to see you,” she said in a formal tone.

“Is it?” His hand closed over hers, and he held on rather than immediately releasing it. “You don’t look happy to see me.”

Seeing Kade again hit Annie like a sucker punch to the kidney. Their paths hadn’t crossed in years, because she had carefully arranged to be absent whenever he’d come to town. It hadn’t been difficult, as the holiday seasons were busy tourist times for both of them. His trips home had been brief and easy enough to avoid.

God, he looked good—better with every year that had passed, and considering he’d been the most lusted-after hottie in high school, that said something. Part of her wanted to throw her arms around him, as she would have when they were younger, and announce without caring who heard that she’d missed him.

It wasn’t his fault she’d fallen for him in second grade when she’d spilled her milk on her sandwich and he’d given her his. Ridiculous as it seemed now, she’d decided right then and there that she would marry him someday.

Early puppy love became painful adolescent longing during her teen years. It didn’t help that she also loved him as a friend. He fit in with Harrison and her like the missing piece to a puzzle. They learned to swim together, camped out with and without their parents, scaled and paraglided down mountainsides shoulder to shoulder. It was one wild adventure after another when they were together. Annie had loved it but it was embarrassing to calculate how much was simply because she was with him. She wondered if he knew the reason she’d originally learned to fly a helicopter was because in her innocent young delusions she’d imagined it would be the perfect skill for a wife of his to have. Who better to rescue him or one of his clients from a mountaintop accident than the woman who loved him?

Even when they’d separated for university, she’d told herself it would be good for them. They’d grow, have time to miss each other, and he’d sweep into town with a diamond ring and the realization that he couldn’t live without her.

He’d come home after he graduated, but not to propose to her. Instead, he’d excitedly shared his plans of expanding his father’s tour company in another town—without her. He’d been young, enthusiastic, and determined to earn enough to provide for his parents when they were older. Hard to hate a man like that. Even harder to love him and watch him walk away.