The coffee pot was half full of cold coffee. One bowl, one spoon and one cup were in the sink. Just as he decided to check her bedroom upstairs, he noticed her cell phone on the table. Right next to a calendar.
He didn’t pay much attention to dates, and most days he’d be hard-pressed to answer if someone asked him the actual date. He saw that she’d written in events for all the days of this month except for one. This day, the third of August, was devoid of any marks.
A punch of sadness hit him as well as guilt.
Now he had a pretty good idea where she was.
It was so like Georgia not to mention it. He hoped she wouldn’t reject his comfort because he hadn’t remembered what today was.
Although it wasn’t far to the cemetery, Tell opted to drive. The gates were still open and he parked in the empty visitors’ lot. Gravel crunched beneath his boots as he started on the first path.
This was one of the few places in Sundance where deciduous trees grew. Weeping willows, which were appropriate, he supposed. Soft breezes stirred the branches. Dappled sunlight threw shadows on the manicured grounds and across the headstones.
Tell avoided the cemetery as a general rule. The McKays had their own section in the far corner, in the oldest part, since his great-great-grandfather Jonas McKay had been one of the first settlers in Wyoming Territory. The odd thing was he’d only been in this cemetery twice. For his grandfather Jed McKay’s burial and when they buried Luke. He remembered his surprise at seeing how few McKays were buried there, and feeling sadness at how much space was available for the existing McKays
He’d never understood why his mother came here bearing flowers and tears—because Luke wasn’t here. Were visits solely a reminder of the finality of death? Or some weird prompt for survivors not to forget the loved one they’d lost?
Trying to keep his morbid thoughts at bay, he scanned the neatly ordered sections of grave markers, some elaborate, some simple, some so weathered by the harsh Wyoming elements the names and dates were no longer visible.
Then he saw her, five rows over, sitting cross-legged, her back to him. Her glorious black hair shone in the sunlight.
Part of him wanted to leave, to let her have the private moment, just relieved he knew where she was.
But a bigger part of him wanted her to realize he was there, ready to give her whatever she needed, whenever she needed it.
And that’s when Tell knew that he was in love with her. Not the beautiful girl from his past he’d put on a pedestal. But the beautiful, complex woman she’d become, even when she swore she wasn’t sure who that woman was. The woman he’d cherish every damn day of his life, if she let him.
Confessing his love while she wept at her brother’s grave could possibly be the worst timing in the world.
He approached her cautiously.
Georgia glanced up when Tell’s shadow fell across her. She wiped her tears and managed a wan smile. “I don’t know why I’m surprised you found me.”
Tell crouched down, within touching distance if she was so inclined to reach out for him. “As far as hiding places go, this is a pretty good one. Or a pretty bad one, depending.”
“Bad, mostly. But no one looks at you funny if you’re sitting alone crying.” She sniffled. “Mostly they just leave you be.”
“Do you want me to go?”
She shook her head.
He watched her, not shocked by her grief, but by the fact that she wasn’t chasing him away. Maybe she did need him for more than sex and good times.
“I haven’t been here since a year after his accident.” Her fingers plucked pieces of grass, turning the blades into green confetti. “I don’t know what I expected to be different. Maybe if I started talking to him, like in the movies, his ghost would appear. But to be honest, I’d probably wet my pants and run away screaming if that did happen.”
He had no idea what to say to that, so he said nothing.
“I miss him.”
“I know you do, baby.”
Georgia ripped up more grass. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Her chin trembled.
He felt so damn helpless, even when he knew exactly what she was going through. He dealt with the anniversary of Luke’s death differently, surrounding himself with people—strangers usually—so he had no choice but to slap on a happy face and not dwell on the loss.
Several long moments passed. Then she blindly reached out to him. “I…”
Tell stood and picked her up like she was a child, cradling her to his chest. “It’s okay. I’m here.”
She melted into him, with a whispered, “Thank you.”
“You’re breakin’ my heart, sweetness. What can I do?”
“Take me home.”
He headed back to his truck, wishing he could wrap her in cotton batting and keep her safe from all the hurt the world inflicted. He rubbed his lips over her crown, breathing in the scent of her, murmuring assurances he’d be there for her, no matter what.
She’d stopped crying, but she clung to him.
By the time he reached the parking lot, a prickly feeling caused the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He turned and saw an older man standing at the opposite end of the path.
A man he recognized as Georgia’s father.
Tell started in that direction, but the man shook his head. Then he pointed to Georgia, indicating Tell should continue as he was, tending to the weeping woman in his arms. Tell nodded, but it made him uneasy, given the strained relationship Georgia had with her father.
Such a surprise that she preferred his crappy trailer to her house in town. Wait. Did she consider his place…home?
She stayed in the middle of the bench seat, tucking herself against his side so no space remained between them. Tell idly played with her hair, letting music from the radio fill the silence on the drive to house.
Once they were inside his trailer, he noticed her cradling her arm. “What’s wrong?”
“I keep forgetting about my tattoo and then I rub against it.”
He frowned. “When did you get a tat?”
“Before I went to the cemetery. It’s a memorial tattoo India did for RJ. So I don’t forget what he meant to me.”
Oh. Sweetness. You are such a beautiful woman. Inside and out. “Does it hurt?”
“A little.” She blew out a long breath. “Okay. It hurt a lot. I cried while she was doing it. I cried when she finished.”
“Maybe the tears weren’t only from the pain of the needle?” he murmured.
Her beautiful eyes were wet again. “No. How did you know?”
He just stared at her.
“I’m sorry. Thoughtless of me, isn’t it? Sometimes I’m so…selfish in my grief I forget I’m not the only one in the world who’s lost a brother.”
“But you’re the only one who’s lost your brother,” Tell said gently.
Georgia touched his face, her palms lightly resting on his jaw as her thumbs stroked his cheekbones and his temples. “You are a good man, Tell McKay. Everyone underestimates you, don’t they? Believing you’re just a laid-back, fun-loving guy out for a good time. You keep things light because you don’t want people to realize the intensity of emotion inside you.”
How in the hell had she seen that?
“Thank you for letting me see that part of you. Thank you for letting me have some of your strength.”
“Anytime, sweetness. Anytime.”
She looked down and tears dripped on her jeans. “I’m so tired.”
“I know. C’mere.” Tell hauled her onto his lap.
She wiggled until she found her spot and sighed.
He kissed her crown. “Rest. I’ve got ya.”
They both dozed off.
Georgia shifted and something sticky rubbed on his arm.
He glanced down and saw blood. He kissed her forehead, wanting to wake her up gently. “Georgia? You’re bleeding through the gauze.”
“Guess that’s my sign it’s time to clean the skin and change the bandage.” She sat up. “Are you squeamish?”
“No. Why? Do you need help?”
Tell followed her to the bathroom.
She ripped off the gauze and surgical tape. She wet a big cotton square with water and squirted on antibacterial soap, dabbing at the crusted blood. After rinsing with clean water, she patted the area dry. “Wanna see it?”
Georgia showed him the inside of her forearm. Black block initials RJ outside a red circle. But upon closer inspection, the circle appeared to be in 3D, like a woman’s rounded belly, with the yin and yang symbols at the center.
“This is perfect. Did you design it?”
“Just the rough sketches. India did the real design work.”
Tell stroked the crease of her elbow. “This wasn’t a spur of the moment thing for you.”
She shook her head. “That’s how you end up with bad tattoos, with random, meaningless Chinese symbols, according to India. I scheduled an appointment for today several weeks ago. Right after I decided to make a permanent mark on my body to match the permanent mark I’ve had on my soul ever since RJ died.”
Poor woman had such deep pockets of sadness inside her. “I could’ve gone with you.”
“I know. And I appreciate the offer. But it was something I had to do on my own.”
She smeared A&D on the surface and he covered it with gauze. He kissed each side of the tattoo. When he glanced up at her, tears pooled in her eyes again.
“Thank you. It feels better already.”
Tell tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, then followed the line of her jaw to the other ear. “Let me love on you a little while, Georgia.”
“Do I look like I need extra TLC today?”
Yes. “Maybe after seeing you like this…I’m the one who needs it.”
Her sweet, lopsided smile nearly undid him. “Okay.”