The Darkest HourMaya Banks
She hadn’t realized that her hands were clasped together, her fingers twined so that the tips were white, until Ethan carefully pried them apart and laced her fingers with his.
“We’re going home. To our house, baby. ”
She tried so hard to bring an image of their house to mind. Just a brief glimpse, something to tell her that she had a connection to the place she’d lived with her husband.
“I can’t remember,” she said in frustration.
Garrett turned in his seat, reached over to touch her knee, and as he’d done so many times over the last few days, he offered comfort with just a few well-placed words.
“You’re trying too hard, sweet pea. Relax and let it come to you. Even if you don’t remember now, there’s nothing to say that when you walk inside your own place, that it won’t all come back. And if it doesn’t? So what. You have all the time in the world. ”
She let go of Ethan’s hand and grasped Garrett’s, squeezing with all her might. “Thank you. I love you. ”
She gasped, completely mortified as the words escaped. Ethan stiffened beside her. She dropped Garrett’s hand and raised her fingers to her mouth, horrified by what she’d said.
Garrett stared back at her, no hint of emotion or judgment in his eyes. Just patient understanding and answering love. Why hadn’t she said those words to Ethan? Why Garrett?
Her gaze flew to Ethan, apology etched into every surface of her face. She wanted to scream it but was too embarrassed.
There was no anger in Ethan’s eyes, just a tightness as if he battled some unknown reaction. A sound from the front had her turning away. It was Sam. Laughing.
Sam glanced in the rearview mirror, a wide grin splitting his lips. “I’m seeing more and more of the Rachel we know and love all the time. You always were the most lovey, demonstrative woman I know. ”
Ethan chuckled and seemed to relax against her. But she was too far rooted in regret to feel as if the awkward moment had passed. She closed her eyes and turned away, for the first time denying herself the comfort of his embrace.
Garrett’s deep voice washed like warm water over her ears.
Slowly she looked up until she locked gazes with him.
“I love you too, sweet pea. We all do. ”
She smiled tremulously and nodded. Ethan’s hand crept back over hers, and he gave her a little squeeze. Gathering her courage, she peeked up at him, almost afraid of what she might see in his eyes.
She sucked in her breath at the shock of emotion she found. Raw, searing. She couldn’t breathe.
He touched her cheek, slid his finger underneath her ear and to her nape, and then he pulled her carefully forward until her lips were just a breath away from his.
“I love you,” he whispered.
The words choked her, and before she could try again, his lips touched her cheek. Undemanding and so tender, almost as if he was afraid that the slightest pressure would make her fold.
The knot in her throat grew bigger, as did her panic. Why did the idea of saying the words that had come so naturally just a moment before instill such gut-wrenching fear?
She broke away, twisting in her seat as she gulped for air. Ethan touched her shoulder, tentative and seeking, but she flinched away. She was going to be sick.
“Sam, stop the truck,” Ethan barked.
He caught her arm as Sam veered off the highway. A few seconds later, her door flew open and she surged forward. Sam caught her as her knees buckled and she sank to the ground.
“Deep breaths,” Sam murmured. “Take it easy. ”
She shook from head to toe. She was simultaneously hot and cold. Thick sweat soaked her clothing and yet she shivered. Rapid images, harsh and unrelenting, hammered her mind.
Ethan’s face harsh and drawn in anger. Shouting. Demands. Accusations. She covered her ears and shook her head, trying to shut out the ugliness.
Ethan’s voice, so far away.
“Rachel, what’s wrong?”
Garrett this time, closer.
“He hates me,” she whispered as tears slipped down her cheeks.
Two sets of arms surrounded her. Hands smoothed her hair back and eased away the tears on her face.
“No one hates you, baby. ”
Ethan sounded so fierce, as if he’d single-handedly chase away all her demons.
Slowly the darkness faded away. The voices stopped their assault and the coldness dissipated, leaving warmth.
She sagged, her head falling forward. Strong fingers kneaded her neck while other hands supported her shoulders.
“Let’s get you back in the truck,” Garrett said.
Before she could respond, Ethan picked her up and cradled her close. His chest heaved, and she opened her eyes to see such pain reflected on his face. He looked . . . tortured.
“I’m tired,” she whispered as she leaned her head against his neck.
“Then sleep, baby. I’ll wake you when we get home. ”
Ethan ducked into the back and laid her on the seat. He retreated, closing the door, and then walked around to the other side. He climbed in and picked up her head and pillowed it on his lap.
The slamming of the front doors signaled Sam and Garrett getting in, and then came the roar of the engine and the low hum underneath her back as Sam maneuvered back onto the road.
I really am losing my mind. Maybe I already lost it. Maybe I’ll never get it back.
She closed her eyes as more tears gathered and spilled silently down her cheeks.
Ethan watched helplessly as silver, damp trails marked a path over her pale skin. What had she meant? Was she remembering? Was her mind tortured with memories of their marriage? Was she putting it all together so soon?
He hates me.
He wanted to puke. Who had she been talking about? God don’t let it be him. Don’t let her ever think he hated her. He’d die before ever letting her think that even for a moment.
I love you.
The words she’d said so easily to Garrett haunted him. He wanted so desperately to hear them from her lips. Directed at him. Wanted to go back in time to when not a day passed that she didn’t tell him how much she loved him.
But a woman will only go so long putting her heart on the line without getting anything in return. If only he’d just returned them. I love you too, baby. Only in the beginning. Later, he’d nod or even smile. In the end, he didn’t even do that. He’d felt too guilty. The words that were so sweet in the beginning became daggers that slithered insidiously between his ribs and into the vulnerable organs beneath. He’d felt like the worst sort of hypocrite, and so he’d remained silent, until finally she’d stopped saying anything at all.
That had been the worst. He lived each day hoping to hear those words again, only to get angry and resentful when they didn’t come. He punished her for what was his own doing.
Ethan looked up to see Sam studying him in the rearview mirror.
Sam sighed. “I wish I knew what to say, man. I know this isn’t easy for you. ”
“This isn’t about me,” he gritted out. “It’s about her. It’s all about her. She’s what’s important. ”
Sam nodded. “I know that. But you’re hurting too. You’re not a machine. You can’t just shut it off because you don’t want to feel the pain. ”
“I can handle anything as long as I get her back,” Ethan said in a low, desperate voice.
At that, Garrett turned, his gaze probing and thoughtful. “You have her back, man. What are you so afraid of?”
Ethan swallowed. Never would he admit to his brothers just how much of a role he’d played in Rachel getting on that plane to South America, how he’d driven her away, rejected her and her love.
How could he possibly ever tell them that what he feared most was losing her . . . again . . . after
getting her back?
“RUSTY is gone!” Marlene said as she waved her hands frantically in front of her.
“Calm down, Mom,” Joe said soothingly.
She shot Joe a fierce glare. “I will not calm down. I’m tired of my sons telling me to calm down. ”
“What do you mean she’s gone?” Nathan asked.
Marlene threw her hands up as she surveyed three of her sons as they slouched in her living room. None of them looked like he was in the least concerned that Rusty had run away. Rusty had been quiet since the news had broken of Rachel’s homecoming, but Marlene hadn’t expected her to disappear on the day Rachel was due to arrive.
“I sometimes wonder if all the common sense wasn’t handed out long before you two came along,” she muttered.
Nathan winced. “Ouch, Mom. That wasn’t necessary. ”
Donovan cracked up. But before he could issue a snappy comeback, Marlene shut him down with a well-aimed frown.
“I want you all to get your butts up and help me find her. I can’t handle this right now. Rachel is due home anytime now and Rusty is gone. ”
“Has it ever occurred to you that she wants to be gone?” Donovan said carefully. “You can’t make her stay, Mom. She’s a troubled kid. You can’t save them all. ”
“I don’t care if she wants to be gone, not that I believe she wants to be out on her own for a minute. She needs to have her rear end back in the house. I have no idea what’s happened, but unless I hear it from her own lips, we’re going to treat this as a family member in need. Would you be sitting here arguing if I told you one of your brothers had disappeared? You certainly didn’t waste any time going after Rachel when you learned she was in trouble. ”
Nathan scowled and stood up. “Now wait just a minute, Mom. You can’t compare this kid to Rachel. She’s just using you and Dad. ”
Marlene’s lips tightened. “I want all three of you out looking for her. Don’t you dare come back without her. I’ll go find your dad and we’ll take the truck. You call me the minute you find her, you hear?”
Joe sighed and rolled his eyes.
“That’s enough disrespect out of you, young man,” she snapped.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said meekly.
They all wore disgruntled looks, but they shoved off the couch and headed out the front door.
Nathan climbed into his Dodge truck and gave his brothers a look of resigned sympathy out his window as they climbed into their vehicles. When Mom got off on one of her tangents, there was no escaping. She’d turn Stewart County upside down looking for this Rusty girl.
He backed out of the drive and headed west. He’d take the county roads that paralleled the lake, and he’d leave Dover to his brothers.
He drove a little faster than was necessary, but impatience flared in him. He was much more interested in hearing that Ethan and Rachel had gotten home, and he was eager to see Garrett and get a report. He couldn’t very well do that when he was off on some fool’s errand for his misguided mother.
That wasn’t entirely fair, he supposed, but his irritation didn’t allow for more charitable thoughts. She had the softest heart of anyone he knew. Too soft. And once she decided something, nothing and no one was going to change it.
For half an hour he took winding paths off of 232 and then doubled back as he continued farther south along the lake. He’d just crossed Leatherwood Creek when he rounded the bend and saw a lone figure walking down the side of the highway. Rusty.
He slowed and rolled down the passenger window as he came up on her. She glanced warily over at him when he pulled up alongside her, and then she stiffened when she recognized him.
“Any particular reason you’re walking by yourself down the highway when my mother is about to lose her mind worrying over you?” he snapped.
She stared straight ahead and kept walking, her shoulders stiff and her jaw set.
“She doesn’t care about me,” Rusty muttered.
“Oh, really. I suppose that’s why she took you in, fed you, clothed you, gave you a place to stay and is generally making the rest of us insane demanding that we accept you, not say a damn word to you and all get out looking for you right now when we’d rather be focused on Rachel’s homecoming. ”
She came to an abrupt stop, her lips curling into a snarl. “Rachel. I’m so sick of hearing about Rachel. Rachel is so wonderful. ‘The daughter of my heart. ’ Everyone loves Rachel. Marlene has no need of me now that her real daughter is back. ”
Despite his irritation, Nathan softened as he stared at the girl. She was hurting, and she was doing everything in her power not to let him see how much she was hurting.
“Get in,” he said.
She shook her head.
“Come on. We’ll go for a drive. If you don’t want to go home yet, we’ll just drive. ”
She hesitated, and her lips trembled. He reached over and opened the door, shoving it outward. She gave a deep sigh and climbed into the passenger seat.
“Seat belt,” he said patiently.
She scowled but slapped the seat belt around her and clicked it into place.