“I should have guessed or done something, just in case. Instead, I told Nikki to do what she had to do. Then I hung up on her. An hour later, her sister called me to tell me that she was dead.”
“Damn it, Gavin, you didn’t force her to take the pills.”
“But I didn’t even try to save her.” Gavin stood and kicked the chair across the room. “She really was pregnant, a few weeks along according to the coroner. He kept it quiet for me.” Slade winced. “You are not going to want to hear this, Gavin, but how can you be sure the baby was yours?”
He’d asked himself that question a million times. “Does it really matter? If I had taken her threat seriously, that child would be alive today.”
Dex shook his head. “You would never have intentionally hurt her or that baby. I know it.”
“You’re obviously missing the fact that through my negligence, I killed both a woman and a child.”
“No,” Slade said in an even tone. “You didn’t. You broke up with a woman who wasn’t stable, and she decided to go off the deep end. She needed help, man.”
“I didn’t give it to her. Damn it, you two are not listening to me.” It was maddening. “I left her there. I let her die.”
“She chose to take the pills herself. She didn’t care about the baby in her belly. She didn’t call for an ambulance. She didn’t want to live. That’s not your fault.” Slade stood and began to pace, his hand running through his hair. “You’ve seriously wasted years of your life over this?”
“That was my child!” Gavin yelled. Years of anger threatened to bubble to the surface.
“She took the kid down with her,” Dex said quietly. Gavin couldn’t mistake the sadness in his brother’s eyes. “And that’s what you’re grieving most of all. I know. And I am so sorry.” Slade’s hands rested on his shoulders. “I’m sorry, too. I wish you’d told us sooner. We would have done anything to help you through this.”
Gavin pushed them away. “Don’t.”
Dex frowned. “Don’t what, give a damn? Don’t get pissed that you’ve wasted years of your life over something you couldn’t control?”
“Don’t forgive you? That’s what you’re really upset about it, isn’t it?” Slade challenged.
“You don’t want us to forgive you.”
Gavin sat for a minute, his thoughts racing. Slade’s words hit him squarely in the chest. He didn’t want forgiveness. He’d held the pain in for so long. The thought of releasing it terrified him. He’d hidden behind it, used it as barrier to keep him from everything that could hurt him again. He’d used it to push people away.
He hadn’t loved Nikki. He’d had some vague affection for her in the beginning—and nothing but contempt at the end. That hadn’t seemed abnormal to Gavin. He’d watched his mother and father’s utterly loveless relationship and decided he was incapable of true devotion. He’d held onto that lie until now, even in the face of his feelings for Hannah.
Fuck. He wasn’t afraid of what he would do to Hannah. He was scared of what he felt for her—and how vulnerable that would make him.
She could die or walk away. Hannah could love his brothers more than she would ever love him. Any of those scenarios would demolish him.
“You’re right. Forgiveness is scary. Your loathing would have been easier. And now I’ve fucked up again.” Gavin let his head fall to his hands.
Regret, deep and cutting, sliced through him. He’d allowed his own fear to push Hannah away. She’d offered him everything he could have hoped for, and he’d acted like an animal.
“Because you pushed Hannah away with insults?” Slade clapped him on the shoulder.
“You’re human. You make mistakes. An apology fixes things most of the time. You’ll do better in the future. But now, it’s long past time to forgive yourself. There’s a woman in this house who loves you. Don’t push her away again because you’re scared. Do you have any idea how precious she is? She has a heart big enough for all of us.”
Gavin shook his head. “Not for me. Not after what I did earlier. God, she’ll never forgive me.
Neither will you.”
Dex’s face got hard and unrelenting. “What happened with Hannah?” This might be worse than telling them about Nikki. “Hannah found me shortly after I’d talked to the attorney. I had been drinking for a while—hard.” Slade slapped at the bottle. “Obviously.”
“Did you hurt her?” Dex demanded.
Filled with shame, Gavin nodded, reluctant to say the words that might really sever his relationship with his brothers. He had only started to understand that he wasn’t responsible entirely for what had happened with Nikki. He couldn’t say the same thing of Hannah.
He hadn’t known until this moment how much he’d needed his brothers’ support and comfort. Now it might all be gone. But he owed them the truth.
“I didn’t hurt her physically,” Gavin choked. “But I tore her heart apart.”
“Spit it out,” Slade insisted.
“I was trying to push her away. I thought it would be easier on everyone if she hated me.”
“The way you’ve been hating yourself?” Slade asked pointedly.
God, put that way, his behavior sounded pathetic. “I love her. I couldn’t stand the thought that she would find out what I had done and look at me like I was a monster.” Slade’s eyes rolled. “You don’t know her at all. She would have hugged you and told you to forgive yourself. She would have understood.”
“He knew that, deep down. But like you said, he wasn’t ready to forgive himself. Now…” Dex loomed over him. “Tell me what you said to her.”
In that moment, Gavin figured out why this relationship with Hannah had a chance. They would keep each other in line. When one of them was cranky and difficult, the other two would set him straight. They would all be there for Hannah and each other. They would be a family.
If he could find the courage to be a part of it.
“I called her graceless and classless. I told her that she wasn’t good enough to be my wife.” Gavin had been prepared for the fist that flew his way. He wasn’t prepared for just how hard his youngest brother hit. Gavin’s head flew back, the pain in his jaw a welcome wake up call.
“Don’t ever say that about her again. It’s bullshit, and you know it. Understand?” Gavin nodded. “I didn’t mean it, Dex. I love her. God, I love her so much. I think she’s perfect.”
Dex pointed an accusatory finger at him. “You’re going to make it up to her. You’re going to treat her like a princess. You’re going to apologize, and if she wants you to kiss her feet, then you’re going to get down on the floor and kiss them.”
Slade cut in. “Exactly. And you’re also going to tell that fucking lawyer to stop whatever it is you have him doing.”
“Damn straight. I’m going to go find Hannah. We’re going to talk this out. You better be ready to grovel.” Dex turned and stomped out of the room.
Slade calmly got up and walked to the fridge. He came back with a bag of frozen peas and handed it to Gavin. “Put that on your face. Is anything broken?” Gavin moved his sore jaw. “I don’t think so. But it hurts.”
“Be glad you weren’t standing up. I’ve been in bar fights with our shitkicker baby brother.
He’s mean. He might have kicked you in the balls.” Slade’s head shook affectionately. “But he’s always quick to forgive when he gives a damn about you. I think you’ll find Hannah is, too.” He hoped so. Gavin put the frozen vegetables to his swelling jaw. Something had eased inside of him. Gavin realized he hadn’t taken a full breath in years. That guilt and fear had always been pressing down on his chest. But that ball of self-hatred had begun to ease with his brothers’ acceptance. Gavin hoped it would dissolve to nothingness under Hannah’s love.
What was he going to do if Hannah rejected him?
His lips curled up as the answer came to him. She could reject him all she liked, but he would win her in the end because he would wear her down with his love. He would always be there, opening the door for her, seeing to her needs, telling her how beautiful she is. He was fucking Gavin James. He had stared down a room of greedy executives at the age of twenty-two and beat them all back. He’d taken care of his brothers. He was stronger than he’d ever given himself credit for.
And he would take a page from his shitkicker brother’s book. When he found this little asshole who threatened his family, he was going to beat the fucker to death.
“I’m so glad that look isn’t directed toward me,” Slade said.
“You’re right. I am not stepping down as CEO.” Gavin needed to say those words—and more. “I am not giving Hannah up. And I’m not holding myself back anymore. I am done. I might be a shit, but I’m a member of this family.”
Relief was palpable on Slade’s face. “Thank God. Every now and then Dex just has to start a fight. You can be his combination babysitter slash punching bag, at least part-time. He’s exhausting.”
Gavin smiled. That sounded fun. He could fight with his brothers and they would still love him. Except…
He should probably tell Slade everything. “I didn’t use a condom with Hannah.” He wasn’t prepared for Slade’s fist to slam right into his cheek. The other side of Gavin’s face lit up. Crap, when had Slade learned to do so much damage?
“Mother fucker!” Gavin yelled. He hoped there was another bag of frozen peas.
“Don’t you do that again until she’s right and properly married.” Slade frowned at him.
“Even then, we talk about that shit in this family. Are we clear?” They weren’t going to exclude him for that fuck up. Gavin breathed a sigh of relief that flooded his very soul. “I agree. Guess that means we have to get her to the altar soon.” The door to the kitchen swung open, and Dex ran in, his eyes wild with worry. “I can’t find Hannah. She left us a note on her computer that she’s gone. She left us. If we can’t find her, I’m going to break more than your jaw, Gavin.”
Slade raced to the kitchen drawer where the keys to all the vehicles were kept. “The keys to the limo and the Jeeps are still here. God, do you think she went on foot?” He doubted that. Hannah was stubborn, but she was also smart. Gavin stood, his face aching, and peered out the window. “One of the golf carts is missing. Depending on when she left, we might be able to catch up to her by simply running after her.” Dex started for the door, apparently willing to do just that. Gavin put a hand out. “We could run her down faster in the Jeep.”
“Oh,” Dex said. “That’s better.”
Gavin picked up the keys to the Jeep and handed them to Slade.
It was time to get their girl.
Hannah stared at all the unfamiliar men at the Angry Moose crowding in on her with expressions ranging from curiosity to downright hunger. What the devil was she going to do?
“You boys take a big step back now,” a firm, feminine voice rang out.
An older woman, her steel gray hair in a braid that ran almost to her waist, stepped out. The roughneck who had stared at Hannah outside the bar stood at this woman’s side wearing a sheepish expression.
“Tobias, you little traitor!” The biggest cowboy in the group growled, but the woman hushed him with a single glare of her brown eyes.
“The first one to make a move on the young lady loses bar privileges.” Every man in the bar took a big step back. Hannah grinned. Apparently, her charms weren’t as coveted as a cold mug of beer.
She breathed a deep sigh of relief as the older woman walked forward wearing a friendly smile on her face. The woman was slender but built solid, a fact underscored by her no-nonsense blue jeans and standard flannel shirt.
“You, young lady, look like you could use a drink.”
Hannah took a seat on the nearest stool and peeked at her inebriated pilot, still happily snoring. It didn’t look like she was going anywhere for a while.
Twenty minutes and two tequila shots later, she grinned at Marnie. “I want another one.”
“Are you sure?”
Hannah pondered that question. Probably. After all, she’d spent the last few days biting off way more than she could chew. Did she want just one James boy? No, that was too simple. Two?
Bring it on! Three? Well…three had proven one too many. Would a third tequila shot put her over the edge, just like that third man? It didn’t matter. She might as well have another drink—
one for each James brother.
“Yeah, I’ll take another.” She slapped firmly at the bar, missed and hit her own thigh. She probably didn’t need more alcohol, but the tequila made her stomach feel warm and tingly. And that made her think of those men again, being naked and entwined with them, bringing her the kind of pleasure that even romantic fiction hadn’t adequately described. She missed them, wanted them. She needed more tequila to drown that out.
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