Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. So all she could do was endure the pain that filled her and wait for the horror to ease just enough for her to function.

She ached-every part of her felt as if she’d been run over by a car. Even her bones were sore. Every time she figured she’d finally cried herself out, new tears spilled down her cheeks. At some point would she simply run out of bodily fluids? Dani would come home and find her flat, cracked body on the floor.

She gave a half laugh, half sob and wondered if she was slipping over to the dark side.

Someone knocked on her front door. It could be anyone, she thought. Reid, even Walker. Dani had a key and Naomi was gone.

Penny struggled to her feet. Bad enough that Cal had turned out to be a major candidate for jerk of the month, but Naomi had left.

“Because I insisted,” she reminded herself aloud. Keeping Naomi in Seattle to watch Penny suffer had seemed selfish and wrong. So she’d urged her friend to start the drive back to Ohio and had made her promise to check in when she got there.

She pulled open the door and stared. Cal stood in front of her, but not the same man she’d seen earlier that afternoon. He had a black eye, a bandage by his temple and a split lip.

“What happened to you?” she asked, not able to believe his injuries.

“Nothing important.” He stepped past her into the house, then closed the door behind him. “Penny, I’m sorry. I can’t tell you how sorry I am. I don’t know the words. I never meant to hurt you or not tell you about moving. I never thought about it. With everything else going on, the move wasn’t important.”

She started to speak, to protest that it was very important, but he touched his finger to her lips.

“Please,” he said. “Hear me out. I know the information itself is important, but I never actually thought about leaving. I didn’t get involved with you thinking that I was going to cut and run. I didn’t think much at all. You were there and so incredible and I found myself falling for you. Then Lindsey got sick and there was that, and the restaurant and you again. I’ll accept that I was stupid and thoughtless, but I never, ever kept the information from you as a way to trick you.”

Part of her thought he actually spoke the truth, but he’d hurt her so much she wasn’t sure that mattered.

“Okay,” she said quietly. “Thanks for telling me.”

He moved closer and touched her chin. “I’m not done. Not even close. You were right, what you said about me. That I never risked my heart. I was never willing to go all out because that meant there was a risk of losing everything. I couldn’t face that. I loved Lindsey and I felt guilty. It was a bad combination. I wanted our marriage to work, but I wasn’t willing to be there. I let you down again and again. Holding back, about the baby.”

He swallowed. “I swear, Penny, I was never glad you lost the baby. It hurt, but I was afraid to admit that. I was afraid it would mean I didn’t love Lindsey enough. You were right. I let you go. I should have come after you. I should have begged.”

“The news flash doesn’t change anything,” she told him. No way was he going to sweet-talk her into believing him when he’d already broken her heart twice. Although it was nice of him to finally admit he’d been wrong in letting her go.

“I get it,” he told her. “I get that I can love you and Lindsey and your baby and my brothers and Dani. I don’t have to just love one person. I don’t have to pick. I want to be the kind of man who loves with every fiber of his being.” He took her hand in his and held on, even when she tried to pull away. “I know we could be great together, Penny, and I think you know it, too. We’re good for each other. I always thought the best families were born and I was just screwed on that front. But it’s not true. Families can be created consciously. It’s not about bonds of blood, but bonds of the heart. I want to build a family with you.”

Her breath caught. “What are you saying?”

“That I love you. I want us to be a family together. You, me, the baby, Lindsey, my brothers, Dani. All of us.” He shrugged, then said, “Not Gloria.”

“Good. She wouldn’t exactly be welcome in my world right now.”

“Please,” he said softly, staring into her eyes. “Give me a chance. I’m willing to work to prove myself. I’m willing to pay. Whatever it takes to make you believe I love you and that I’m not going anywhere.” He kissed her fingers and smiled. “Except I quit my job earlier. Which you can do, if you want. I wrote an escape clause into your contract with the restaurant.”

There was too much information, she thought as the room began to spin.

“I need to sit down,” she said.

He led her over to the sofa.

She drew in deep, steady breaths and tried to clear her head. This wasn’t happening, she thought. He couldn’t be saying all those things to her. Love her?

Before she could ask him to clarify, he went down on one knee. Just like that. In her living room.

“Penny Jackson, you are the brightest light in my life,” Cal said. “I love you and need you with a desperation that defies words. Give me another chance. Marry me again.”

She felt her mouth drop open.

“I don’t expect you to answer me right now,” he told her. “I suspect I’ll have to do some crawling first, but that’s okay. I’m not afraid of proving myself to you. In fact, I look forward to it. I want you to know without a doubt how much you mean to me.”

She didn’t know what to say.

“I can keep saying it,” he told her with a smile. “I love you. Remember, before when we were married, you complained that I never said it enough? That’s because I was holding back. I was afraid of opening up to you. Not anymore. I’m never holding back. You’re my world and I love you.”

The pain faded as if it had never been. Penny stared into his eyes and saw down to his soul. The truth was there-shining so bright it nearly blinded her.

“Say yes,” he pleaded. “Marry me and have babies with me. You know we’re great together.”

She felt tears fill her eyes, but these had nothing to do with being alone and everything to do with finally finding her heart’s desire.

“I’ll still want to open my own place,” she said.

“Of course you will. You’re a great chef. But you’re more than that. You’re the woman I love.”

She threw herself at him and let the tears escape. “Yes,” she whispered. “Always yes. I never stopped loving you.”

He held her tight. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”

She sniffed and straightened. “I could say the same about you.”

He touched her cheeks. “Hormones?”

She nodded. “And I’m happy.”

“Good. So you want to get married?”

She laughed. “I do.”


SUSAN MALLERY

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