“Okay, what would you like to do? In your heart of hearts, what would you really like to do with your life?”
He was slow in responding. For a long time, he pushed gravel around with his rake, until Blair thought he wasn’t going to answer her question. With a sigh, she started working again, almost missing his soft-spoken words.
“I always thought after my military career was over, I’d come back to civilian life and begin a career in policing or firefighting.”
“Those both sound like good options. So why haven’t you applied to some police forces or fire departments?”
The anger in his eyes took her breath away. “Are you deliberately trying to be cruel?”
Blair stepped back, shocked by his words. “No, of course not! What are you talking about?”
“I’m not exactly a prime candidate for either the police force or the fire department.”
“Why would you say that?” Was he worried about his drinking as well? Did he think he’d be unable to handle the rigors of policing or firefighting because of it?
He tilted his head. “You don’t know, do you?”
He bent at the waist and rolled up his right pant leg till it was above his knee, revealing a device made of metal and plastic where flesh and bone should have been. He rose to his full height and looked her straight in the eye, as if daring her to pity him.
“As you can see, I’d have a tough time acing the physical.”
Blair wanted to cry. She wanted to run into Garrett’s arms and hold him forever, to make all the hurt go away. She wanted to scream and yell and rail against war and all the stupidity and intolerance in the world.
But Garrett wouldn’t appreciate her tears, and crying wouldn’t solve anything.
So, she sucked them back and raised her gaze to his, willing her chin not to tremble.
“I hope you’re not going to use your leg, or lack thereof, as an excuse to get out of work. There’s still plenty to be done here.”
He rolled his pant leg over his prosthesis once more, straightened and grinned at her.
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Somehow Blair managed to smile back at him. “Good answer.”
“We asked you to come here this evening because we have something we want to tell all of you. Lauren and I are getting married.”
The room went deathly quiet. Lauren tightened her grip on his hand. Her face turned pale as she stared at her family’s stunned expressions. Cole put his arm around her waist, afraid she might faint.
He needn’t have worried. She lifted her chin at a defiant angle and turned to face the others.
“Cole and I have decided this child needs the best possible start in life and that means having a mother and a father. We’ve always been friends, so what better way to start a marriage then with friendship?”
Garrett pushed himself to his feet and came forward. “I think it’s a hell of an idea. You two will make wonderful parents.”
He enfolded Lauren in an embrace. Cole heard her murmur her thanks to her brother. “I think you’ll make a wonderful uncle.”
Charlotte was next in line. She kissed Lauren’s cheek. “I’m so happy for you, sweetie. When’s the big day?”
“In a couple of weeks,” Cole said. “As soon as we can arrange everything.”
Lauren’s parents, Robert and Grace, also extended their congratulations. If they had reservations, they kept them to themselves.
Only his mother remained in her seat, staring at them in disbelief. Cole sat next to her. “What do you want to say, Ma?”
“You can’t replace Billy.” She choked out the words.
“I know that.” He’d known he was second best in her eyes all his life. “I wouldn’t even try.”
“But to marry his wife, to raise his child? It’s wrong. They don’t belong to you. You always wanted what belonged to your brother.”
He wanted to shout at her that the baby was his, that it had nothing to do with Billy. And Lauren was his, too. He’d loved her first. His brother had never appreciated what a gem he’d had in her. He’d squandered his marriage the way he’d squandered the love that had been lavished on him all his life, from his parents, from Lauren, and even from him.
Instead he pressed his lips together and said nothing. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and saw that Lauren stood beside him.
“I know this is difficult for you, Ella. I know you’re grieving. But I have to raise my child in the best way I know how. Aside from my brother and sister, Cole is my best friend in the world. He’s a good man, and I know he’ll be a wonderful father. You should be very proud of him.”
His mother stared at Lauren as if she couldn’t believe what she was saying. Her face twisted. “Don’t you miss Billy at all? Don’t you grieve for him? Nobody understands. Nobody.”
He said the word a little sharper then he’d intended, but at least it got her attention. She looked up at him in surprise.
“I’m sorry if it hurts you, but Lauren and I are getting married. We care about one another and we care about the baby. The three of us are going to be a family. I wish you could be happy for us.”
Ella dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. Finally, with a shuddering breath, she turned to look at him.
“For Billy’s baby’s sake, I’ll try.”
The pain was swift and unexpected. If she’d stabbed him through the heart with a dagger it wouldn’t have hurt as much.