Forever Now(9)

By: Ruth Cardello

“Sounds about right, mate,” Mitch said with a nod of approval then picked up his utensils again. “Let’s eat before it gets cold.”

“Dad,” Harrison interjected as he picked up his own cutlery, “can I have tomorrow off? I can be Kade’s wingman. I’ll scope out these Barringtons—listen in to a few side conversations—see if there’s anything funky about them. A few shots of tequila and I’ll have one of them spilling all their plans.”

His mother smacked her son’s shoulder playfully. “You are not getting Kade’s family drunk.”

“You should take Annie,” Mitch suggested. “Annie, didn’t you say you have tomorrow off? Might be good if you went with Kade. He could use a friend by his side.”

Although his first instinct was to assure the Martins he could handle this on his own, as soon as he met Annie’s gaze he knew he wanted her there. Annie would be his compass, his guide home if he got lost. “Annie? I’ll understand if you say no. God knows, I wish there were a way I could get out of it, but will you come with me?”

On any other day Annie would have said she was a good person. In the silence that followed Kade’s request, she felt like the most selfish, self-absorbed person on the planet. She didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to be dragged back into Kade’s life—especially not to this depth.

Yet, how could she say no? He needed her.

She looked down, realized she was still holding his hand, and quickly broke off that contact. If she did this, she would have to remember it was for a friend—a good friend—not more than that. “Of course I’ll go.”

He leaned over, put an arm around her shoulders, and gave her a hug. “You have no idea how much I appreciate this. I owe you, Annie.”

His smile was wide and genuine. The light in his eyes did confusing things to Annie’s ability to concentrate. She frowned, shrugged off his arm, and tried to look unaffected by his touch. “It’s nothing,” she said then shoveled a bite of lasagna into her mouth and looked away.

When she made the mistake of looking at her brother, he wiggled his eyebrows at her. She kicked him beneath the table and sent him a message via a glare. Although he bent to rub his shin beneath the table, he didn’t say anything. Message received.

The rest of dinner conversation was thankfully about the more mundane. Kade asked questions about the brewery. He shared stories from the life he’d made for himself in Wabonga. Harrison did hilarious impressions of people in town after several beers. Annie shared how her charter company had grown and the corporate direction she’d taken it in.

Kade cocked his head to one side when she finished. “It’s hard to imagine you flying suits back and forth.”

“Really?” Annie told herself not to ask, but she couldn’t help it. “What do you picture me doing?”

His beautiful eyes darkened. “Remember that bush fire—the big one when you volunteered to drop water? You took me on that run with you. Grown men were scared that day, but you took notes, fueled up, and did it. I remember thinking you were fearless—and heroic.”

Annie swallowed and looked at her plate. “Not quite fearless. And I don’t put out fires anymore.”

“Harrison, what happened after I left? Did you stop convincing your sister to jump first and think later?” Kade joked. “Like the time we tried that tire swing we found by the lake? I wanted to climb up and make sure it was secured, but before I could you had Annie up and testing it.”

Hazel gasped. “Annie, is that how you hurt your arm that summer? You told me you tripped over a root.”

“More like face-planted on it,” Kade said, even though Annie was waving for him to cease. “Not that it stopped her from trying it again after I retied the rope. Like I said—fearless.”

Harrison shrugged. “Only because she wanted to impress you.”

Annie kicked Harrison again, harder. I’ve got to get out of here. She stood. “I’m going to step outside for a minute if that’s okay. I need some air.”

As soon as she was outside on the veranda, Annie took a deep, fortifying breath. The lure of going back to how things were before was strong. It would be easier if Kade were an asshole or if he didn’t like her. Annie bent to rest her arms on the railing and placed her head on her arms.