Forever Now(5)

By: Ruth Cardello

For a long time, she’d believed he would come back for her. Every time he’d returned and not asked her to go with him had shredded another piece of her heart. On her twenty-fifth birthday, she’d gotten drunk and handed her virginity to a man she’d met via the small helicopter charter company she’d started. He not only ended up confessing later that he was married, but he’d felt so guilty about being her first that he stuck around to talk the next morning. Before she knew it, she’d spilled the story of unrequited love to him. There weren’t many more humiliating moments than having that man tell her she was wrong about Kade.

“Don’t waste your best years on a man who doesn’t love you,” he’d warned. She could have called his wife and passed on the same advice, but he’d shown Annie photos of her and their children. They’d all looked so happy. Annie lectured him instead, first about not wearing his wedding band and then for not honoring someone he claimed to love. Neither of them enjoyed the conversation much or had the ability to understand the other person’s choices.

Her married mistake was still married two years later when she ran into him in Melbourne. When he asked if she was still waiting for the man she’d been obsessed with, she’d realized she was. Sure, she’d dated other men, even slept with a couple of them, but none had become anything serious.

None would as long as her heart belonged to Kade Thompson.

After that frightening discovery Annie decided to close him out. She poured herself into her business and put away every photo she had of him. His became the name she asked her family and friends not to utter. They understood.

Some things were not meant to be, no matter how much a person craved them. She shook off her childish idealism about what love was, and focused on appreciating what she did have: a flourishing business, good friends, and a family she adored. Life was good. Damn good. She had enough clients that she often directed the overflow to a flight school in Melbourne. In turn, several of their pilots came to work for her when they finished their training.

Although love hadn’t come, she had dated a man from the city for over a year. Things with him had been easy and comfortable, but never great. When disagreements stopped leading to make-up sex, they mutually agreed it was over. Although memories of him sometimes brought a sad smile to Annie’s lips, she didn’t actually miss him.

A year of sleeping with him hadn’t affected Annie as deeply as one handshake from Kade. He expected her to be happy to see him? Her heart ached for him. Couldn’t he feel that? Every wall she’d built around her heart was in danger of crashing down, and he had no clue. If she let him, he had the power to break her heart again without ever knowing he did. No, she wasn’t happy to see him.

She forced a smile as she tried to pry her hand out of his. “Sorry. It’s been a long day. I just got back from dropping someone in Melbourne.”

“Good, I thought it was me.” He let her hand go. Relief flooded in. Then, whoosh, her whole world went upside down again when he pulled her to his chest for a hug. “I know I’ve been wrapped up in my life for too long, but it’s so good to see you.”

The ability to breathe left Annie as she stood in shocked stillness in his embrace.

“God, I needed this,” he said into her hair. “I need you, Annie.”

Annie closed her eyes and hugged him tight for a moment, blinking back tears as she did. She’d waited for him to come home and say those very words, but something told her he wasn’t voicing them for the reason she’d craved. Be smarter this time, Annie. Be strong. She slowly pushed out of his arms.

But then concern for herself fell away when she saw the pain in his eyes. “What happened, Kade?”

He shook his head. “Harrison and your dad asked me to stay for dinner. Mind if I tell you then?”

“Of course.” Annie’s family had always adored Kade, just as his family had always fawned over Annie. It made sense he would turn to them for help. She took a deep breath and told herself if their roles were reversed he wouldn’t turn her away. He might not love her, but he was a good man and had always been a good friend.