“Rafe, are you all right?”
That was a stupid question, Anne realized as soon as she asked it. Nobody swearing with such harsh ferocity could possibly be all right. And he looked awful, balanced on some sizzling edge between anger and pain.
“No,” he muttered, lifting a hand as if to warn her from coming any closer. “Just—”
If he thought she would leave him this way, the man didn’t know her very well. Anne took a few steps toward him, knowing she was safe in spite of his rage, and wished she’d moved faster when she first heard him slamming things.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
To her relief, he didn’t even attempt a pretense that everything was fine. Instead he set down the suitcase he’d been kicking a moment ago, and she saw in his posture the raw anguish of defeat.
“She was leaving me,” he blurted, yanking open the scorched lid and reaching inside for a crumpled piece of paper. “Before the train wreck. Beth didn’t want to be married.”
“Oh, no.” She felt a sinking sensation in her chest, a mixture of sorrow and disbelief. It didn’t seem possible Beth would leave him, not when it was obvious how much he’d loved her. Besides, anyone married to a man like Rafe Montoya— “No.”
“I thought,” he began, then faltered. “We had some problems, yeah. But I never thought—” He gestured with the letter, gripping it so tightly his hands looked white. “She wrote it all down.”
What, a letter instead of a goodbye? “That doesn’t sound like my sister,” Anne protested as he returned the page to the suitcase with abrupt, almost jerky movements. “I can’t believe she would’ve left you with just a note.”
“No,” he agreed with an edge of bitterness in his voice, “she would’ve told me in person. She wouldn’t just…walk off. But I never—” He drew a shuddering breath and looked up again, his eyes stark with devastation. “She never knew I loved her.”
That didn’t seem possible, either. Anyone loved by this man would surely feel the passion in him. “She must have.”
“Not well enough,” he said bleakly. “I�ve never been any good at…at…”
She couldn’t let him start running himself down, Anne thought. Not when he was already hurting so badly, and not when it was patently wrong. “You’re good at a lot of things!”
“Not this.” He sounded so certain that she caught her breath. And he must have seen her getting ready to protest, because he interrupted with a ragged explanation. “Not loving. She wanted more than I could give her, and I never even saw it.”
“I can’t do it!” he cried, and for a moment she heard his soul straining against its usual barrier. “I don’t have the…the heart, the love, the—” Then he broke off, as if only now realizing how much he’d revealed to a virtual stranger, and closed his eyes for a moment. “God, I’m sorry. Don’t let me dump all this on you.”
He was ready to retreat behind his defiant self-confidence again, and Anne took a step closer to him. “I wish you would,” she said gently.
“I just…” He drew a shaky breath, then stopped. Hesitated. Tried another breath, and she reached to draw him toward her.
“Rafe, you need to let yourself grieve.”
With a shuddering gasp, he stumbled into her arms, and she held him as close as she could. If he would just let go, just let himself cry….
“I can’t,” he choked.
“It’s okay,” she murmured in an effort at reassurance. For a man this strong to break down, he would have to feel incredibly desperate—and incredibly safe. But if only she could give him that safety…. “It’s okay to hurt,” Anne said softly, and felt a searing compassion rising inside her. “It’s okay…”
And then, as if something inside him had snapped, he let go a harsh breath—took another—held it for a brief, unsteady moment—and started to cry. Choking back sobs, struggling for breath, while she held him and whispered a litany of comfort. Of consolation, of tenderness, of all the reassurance and warmth and care she could offer. “Rafe, it’s okay. Oh, Rafe…”
“I can’t,” he repeated, and she cradled him against her, stroking his hair, feeling his arms encircling her shoulders as if he needed all the support he could get. She would give it, gladly—and he must have sensed that here was the security he needed to let go, because finally he was abandoning any attempt at regaining control and letting himself give way to grief.
Raw, harsh grief. From a man who lived behind such solid strength that he’d probably never allowed it, never permitted the wall around his heart to crack. But now he was clinging to her with the same ferocity she’d glimpsed whenever he faced a challenge, holding her as desperately as a lifeline, and she held him with all her heart, anchoring his body, smoothing his shoulders, bolstering his soul. Promising safety, promising warmth, promising whatever he needed to get through this torrent of grief and betrayal and loss.
“It’s okay,” she whispered again, still stroking his hair, his back, still keeping him safe. Until, when he finally lifted his face to hers, she saw that he’d made it, he’d come through in one piece…and in a rush of affection, she gently touched his cheek.
Rafe pulled her closer to him.
Then drew a long breath, gazing at her in silence.
The silence held.
And the warmth began to build.
Shimmering between them.
Pulsing with a curious current of heat.
Growing steadily stronger.
Anne jerked away, and so did he. In the same moment, as if a crash of thunder had separated them. What on earth—?
“God,” Rafe muttered, looking suddenly aghast. “Anne… I didn’t mean—”
“No, of course not!” Nobody could have meant for such a startling awareness to flash between them, to rise as swiftly as that. Holding him, touching his face was supposed to be comfort, reassurance, not this throbbing awareness of heat. “We were both upset,” she stammered, “talking about Beth. But, listen, I didn’t mean to—”
“No, I know,” he said quickly. “It’s all right.”
Yet this man was her sister’s husband, so how could it be all right? Comfort was one thing, but for that sizzling moment she hadn’t even been thinking of comfort.
And neither had he.