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“What do you want me to say?”

His eyes searched hers with such intensity she couldn’t look away. “Say that the time we spent together meant something to you.”

No matter how upset she was, she couldn’t lie to him.

You don’t have to be an idiot and blurt out the truth either.

But Celia found herself doing just that. “Yes, it meant something to me, ass**le.”

Just like that, his miserable posture changed. He erased the distance between them with four angry strides. “You want to know the honest-to-God truth, Celia? I love you. For chrissake, woman, I’ve been half in love with you for the last two years and you haven’t even noticed! So what if we were impaired the night we got married? Marrying you was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life and I won’t apologize for it.”

Her mouth dropped open. “Then why didn’t you just tell me that?”

“Because I was afraid this would happen! You’d get pissed about the marriage license screwup and not believe me when I said it didn’t matter to me. I wanted to be with you anyway. With you as my wife. I’d decided to give myself every single f**king minute of those six months you promised me because that might be all I’d ever get with you.”

“Kyle.”

“I love you. Do you hear me? I love you.” He shouted the last part. “Only you. Only ever you, Celia. From the moment I knew I’d made pledges to you I’ve considered you my wife. Mine. Even now, when I know the rings aren’t legally binding, I won’t take mine off. Because it means something to me. You mean everything to me. You know in your heart that what we have is real. No little piece of paper should have the power to change that.”

Now that he’d finally opened up to her, telling her everything she’d wanted to hear for months…she had to leave? But she had no choice. Tanna, who took great pride in not needing anyone, had begged her to come to Texas. And Celia wouldn’t let Tanna down when she so desperately needed someone to help hold her up.

But what if her leaving at such a crucial time put everything with Kyle in jeopardy? What if he gave her an ultimatum?

He must’ve sensed her indecision because his eyes were gentle even when his tone stayed firm. “I know you need to go to Tanna. I’m not asking you to slap your friend’s hand away when she’s reached out to you.” He paused. “But don’t slap mine away either.”

She remembered saying that to him and it’d been a turning point for them.

“I’ll stay here and hold down our ranch. Not mine, ours. I will be waiting in our house, sleeping in our bed, waiting for you to come home to me. You belong with me. You’re happy with me.”

Kyle didn’t touch her. Didn’t beg her to keep in contact with him. He just looked her dead in the eye and said, “I’ll be waiting for you. As long as it takes, Celia. I love you.”

Then he turned and walked away.

Kyle had hoped for a declaration of love from Celia after he’d yelled out that he loved her in the parting lot of Bernice’s Beauty Barn, for chrissake.

But somehow…her calling him an ass**le was close enough to an admission of feelings to prompt him to come clean with her about everything. He’d laid himself bare for her. He hoped it would be enough to make this right.

He just had to put his head down, keep the ranch running, and hope like hell she came back to him.

Day one without Celia sucked ass.

Day two without Celia sucked ass.

Day three without Celia sucked ass.

By day four without Celia, Kyle was ready to sell the whole damn ranch.

So when his mother’s car pulled up to the house, Kyle was so happy to see her he opened the door even before she knocked.

He watched her climb out of the car, the smart, strong woman who’d raised him on her own. She’d had no family, no one to count on but herself during her pregnancy and throughout his childhood. It’d always been the two of them. It’d always been enough.

If he truly thought about it, he hadn’t been overly concerned about discovering the identity of his father growing up. Once in a while he’d ask his mother, never really expecting a serious response. He’d become obsessed with the male who’d given him half of his DNA only since he’d received the inheritance from that mysterious man.

Genetically, Kyle didn’t know if he’d inherited any of his father’s features. He’d not found a single picture of Marshall in any of his belongings. So because he had only a fuzzy mental image of the man, he had no idea if he and Marshall had the same hands or the same eyebrow shape or the same shoe size.

But Kyle knew what his mom had looked like as a child. As a teenager. As a young mother. He knew how she’d felt at all those different stages of her life. He knew he’d inherited her eyes, her mouth, and her good nature.

Her work ethic.

Her capacity to love unconditionally.

Over the past few days, he’d had all the time in the world to think and no one to talk to about his realizations. Maybe revelation was a more apt description for what he’d finally grasped: Marshall Townsend had lost out.

Kyle understood that he would not find a letter of explanation from Marshall in the boxes of papers about why he’d made no effort to get to know his son. He wouldn’t find a secret scrapbook Marshall had compiled with newspaper clippings of Kyle’s triumphs in the world of rodeo.

At last count his mother had thirty-two scrapbooks. One devoted to every year of Kyle’s life. And she made an effort every day to be part of her son’s life.

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