Kelly’s first instinct was to pretend she wasn’t sure she heard Ross right. But it would have been a lie and she hated lying. Regardless, she didn’t know how to answer.
She was thirty-three years old. She had two great kids, a successful professional life, and this man, whom she could see building a life with, had just asked her to marry him. Only less romantically, it was more of a we’ve been sleeping over at one another’s houses for a year now. We should just get married because it’s good for everyone and it would be more cost efficient, don’t you think?
What else could she do but say yes? It didn’t matter that Ross wasn’t Vaughan. Or, actually, it did matter that he wasn’t the man who’d broken her heart into so many pieces she’d been uncertain she could ever get over it.
Kelly was pretty sure by that point that she wouldn’t. So it was more like trying to figure out how to have a happy life even though she still ached for someone who didn’t love her.
Eight years. She’d walked out on her ex-husband and the father of her children eight years before. And she’d waited. Waited for him to figure out she was amazing and that together they could have such a wonderful, loving family. If he just got his shit together.
Plenty of tears and lots of lonely nights later, all she’d gotten was the lesson that no matter how much she wished it wasn’t true, Vaughan Hurley wasn’t a stable, reliable bet.
Worse, Kelly wasn’t sure he ever would be. Whether he’d ever grow the hell up and be a man worth her love wasn’t something she could bet on anymore. What was she supposed to do? Be single forever? Wait for something that might never come to pass? Kelly didn’t want to be alone anymore. She wanted to be married. Wanted to come home to someone every day.
Ross was a good man. He’d be a good husband. She had no right to expect superhot chemistry every single moment. She loved him. They could have a good life. He was exactly what she needed.
She had to stop waiting around and start living her future. She focused on Ross’s warm, brown eyes. He was safe. “All right. Yes,” a stranger seemed to say, though Kelly didn’t take the words back or argue with them.
Ross smiled and hugged her tight.
Vaughan Hurley was finally home after being away for the last three months touring with his band, Sweet Hollow Ranch. Even before that, he’d been hard at work on their new album. It’d been a good move on his part, as his career and the band’s sales and tour had done exceptionally well. But there’d been no denying he’d put pretty much his entire focus on work.
He was done with that for now. He had things to do. Things he’d avoided doing for years. Maybe too long.
And it had taken his ex-wife’s being proposed to, to finally get him to admit it.
“I thought I should let you know Ross asked me to marry him and I accepted.”
His heart lurched as he struggled to keep his composure. “When are you getting married?”
“We haven’t set a date yet, but not for another year or so.” She waited. He needed to beg her not to do it.
She’d nodded. “Thanks. Have a good tour.” She’d turned and left him there on her porch, and he’d driven back home on autopilot.
Vaughan’d been thinking of little else over the last three months. Not just her engagement, but his ridiculous silence and the way she’d waited for him to say something, and when he didn’t she’d walked away.
And here he was, after a show, amped up and missing something he hadn’t realized he’d been blessed to have until he’d lost it.
They shared two beautiful daughters he adored like crazy, though. After three months on the road and not being able to kiss or hug them, he missed them. As they got older it was harder and harder to leave them each time. Because the next time he saw them, even if it was just a few weeks later, they’d have grown and lived and he’d missed all those moments.
Despite that, he was blessed that they loved him back. His little girls, smelling of that strawberry shampoo they loved, snuggling and kissing him good-night. When they looked at him with so much trust and love, it broke him apart and put him together anew every damned time.
He drove the short distance, waiting until he was parked at the curb in front of the house his ex-wife raised their children in. Their home. A place he had to ask to visit.
All his goddamned choice. His divorce had been the epitome of being sorry you got what you wished for.
The lights appeared to be on upstairs so he had hope that he could at least poke his head in on the girls if they were asleep and drop presents off.
And see her.
He pulled his phone out and texted her that he was outside. But she didn’t text him a reply. Instead Kelly appeared on the porch and waved him inside. He moved to obey and that’s when he noted her urgency.
Fear seized his heart as he rushed to her. “What is it?”
“It’s Maddie. She’s got a really high fever and abdominal pain that when it happens is so bad she can’t stand through it. I’m just about to take her to the emergency room. Can you come?”
Vaughan looked at her, truly looked at her for the first time in a while. She still made his heart skip a beat but right then, it was totally clear she needed him. He shook himself loose and focused on the problem. “Yes, yes, of course. Tell me what you need.”
Kelly paused. Just a slight one, and drew a quick breath. She licked her lips and then pointed him upstairs. “I just finished getting her dressed. I have her shoes in my purse. Can you bring her down? I’m going to get the car unlocked and ready. Take her out the front door.” Her delivery was clipped and very precise, and that moment of intimacy between them passed. He took some comfort in her apparent self-control and got his shit together, too.
Halfway up the stairs, he remembered their younger daughter. “Kensey?”
“She’s spending the night with a friend. Hurry, Vaughan.”
He did, jogging to the bedroom at the end of the hall. His baby smiled up at him briefly. “Daddy? You’re here. I’m glad. I have a fever.”
Vaughan bent, picking her up, the heat of her burning against his skin. Panic licked at the edges of his consciousness. He dug deep and got it under control. His child needed him. “I heard. Come on, baby. Your mom is getting the car ready.”
She nodded sleepily, her pale green eyes glossy with fever.
Kelly was at the door and she led him to the car where he loaded Maddie in, sliding next to her.
“Settle in, noodle. We’re going to the doctor now. Lean on Daddy.” Kelly met his gaze in the rearview mirror. He noted her fear. Thank God he’d been there, and she and Maddie hadn’t had to go through this alone.
No one spoke much as they hurried to the hospital not too very far from Kelly’s place. Once during the ride Maddie tightened up with a hiss as the pain shot through her abdomen, but it was fleeting.
When she pulled up under the awning outside the ER, Kelly came around to his door. “I’m going to take her inside. I have all her medical info and they know me here. So I need you to park the car and join me inside afterward. Can you do that?”
Her tone was exactly what he needed to hear. No nonsense. In charge and efficient. He got out, transferred Maddie to Kelly’s arms and she went inside.
Vaughan didn’t waste any more time looking longingly at her. He jumped back into her SUV and found a place to park as quickly as possible. His phone to his ear as he called his parents, he also managed to grab his hoodie and Maddie’s stuffed pig before hurrying back toward the double doors leading to the emergency room.
Vaughan stood across from Kelly, on the other side of the gurney their daughter lay on. They were preparing to roll her into the operating room, and Kelly paused to press a kiss to Maddie’s forehead after brushing the hair away from her eyes, already heavy with the first step of sedation.
She looked so small, so vulnerable. Fear sent Kelly’s heart pounding fast, but she worked to keep her tone upbeat. To hold it together because that was her job. “I love you. I’ll be waiting right here when you get out.”
That her daughter already knew that meant everything to Kelly. And when Maddie murmured, “Love you, Mommy,” that was enough to get through and be the person her children could always depend on.
Vaughan whispered that he loved Maddie and would see her soon before he stepped back, standing next to Kelly as they wheeled the gurney down the hall and through another set of double doors.
She kept her gaze on the spot Maddie had been. A sob tried to escape the pit of her stomach and she wrestled it back. But not before Vaughan heard it. He took her hand then, squeezing it. “She’s going to be aces, Kel. You know it.”
That made it a lot harder to wrestle tears away, but finally, Kelly nodded, hearing the fear in his tone, adjusting her tone to soothe. He needed her, too. She’d dealt with stitches and middle of the night croup-driven sessions in a foggy bathroom with the hot water running. That kind of parenting had taught Kelly just how amazing and resilient kids could be. Maddie would be just fine and she needed to keep her focus on that.
Vaughan hadn’t had to deal with an emergency in the middle of the night, she reminded herself. Empathy was something she could give him freely and it wouldn’t harm her. Kelly smiled at her ridiculously beautiful ex-husband. “Thanks.”
They headed out to the small waiting room and she slumped into one of the chairs with a sigh. It was nearly one in the morning and the adrenaline was beginning to wear off, leaving her exhausted and jittery at the same time.
Thank God Kensey was safely elsewhere so she wouldn’t need to be disturbed and Kelly could be there at the hospital without worry. She ticked off her mental checklist, making sure she hadn’t missed anything important.
Vaughan looked her over critically, looking a little more settled. “How long has it been since you’ve eaten?”
It flustered her when he was like this. It was easier when he was gone from her life for long periods of time. She could not love the man who’d chosen to let go of his family so he could keep from growing up. Kelly had two children; she didn’t need a third. Didn’t need to chase after the fleeting moments of true connection when she had something good with Ross.
Her fiancé, she reminded herself when she started to think about the way it sounded when Vaughan said her name. Eight years after her heart had been broken and she finally had the chance to make a family with someone else.
“I made Maddie dinner at five. She hadn’t been feeling well so I made her tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich. She didn’t eat much.”
“My mom used to make me that when I was sick.” He smiled and her stomach did a little flippy thing. Probably just because she was worried. “I noticed you told me when Maddie ate, but not if you did.”
“I had soup and a sandwich, too. Did you eat? You just got off stage. I remember what you were like.” She colored, though she tried not to. After a show he’d be starving. For food and for sex. No one had ever made her feel like Vaughan had. She’d wait for him in his dressing room and he’d head straight to her. It would be raw, hard. He left bite marks on places only he would see. It had been overwhelmingly hot. So sexy and intensely pleasurable she’d gotten lost in it. And in the end it hadn’t been a good thing. She shook her head to release her memories. Because it had never been more than that to him, while for her it had been part of the everything he’d been.
“You can go if you want to. I’ll keep you updated on her status. You’ve got to be exhausted.”
Vaughan looked at her for a really long time. Long enough she’d started to squirm. Finally, he said, “I’m done going.”
She knew he meant something other than just Maddie. She forced herself to ask, though she wasn’t entirely sure she was ready for whatever he might answer. “What?”
He shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere, Kelly. I’m just glad I stopped at your place. I’m here. This is our child. We can do this together.”
Maybe she was projecting and he hadn’t meant anything more than that. She was too tired to push. Her eyes burned. Her stomach hurt and she was jittery and emotional.
He was Maddie’s dad. And Kelly always encouraged the girls’ relationship with their dad and his family. Here was Vaughan trying and she decided to let him and be grateful. “Okay. I’m glad you’re here, too.”
“I have a proposal. There’s a twenty-four-hour joint not too far away. Nothing fancy, but I stop there with the girls sometimes before I bring them home. How about I go and pick some food up and bring it back?”
Her hands had started to shake a little so she balled them into fists a few times before shoving them into her pockets. Food would be good, especially since they’d be up hours more.
She also needed some time alone to get herself together and make some calls.
“Yeah, that’d be great. Thanks.”
“I’ll call it in so it’s ready when I get there. I should be back in half an hour or less.” Vaughan smiled for a second. “I said this already, but I’ll say it again. I’m glad I stopped by tonight.” He handed her his sweatshirt. “Here, you look a little chilly.”
He left quickly and she leaned her head back, closing her eyes.
She’d given up on Vaughan being there when she’d needed him at all a long time ago. Wished it didn’t matter that he’d been there that night.
It made a difference. And she was a fool to let it.
It seemed as if she’d been trying to get over Vaughan Hurley since before they divorced. Of all the people she’d sought attention and affection from in her life, only Vaughan still had a hold on her heart and it made her so stupid, but love did that.
With a groan, Kelly sat up and pulled out her phone to text her best friend. Stacey was across the country in Manhattan. She was attending some conference where she was presenting a paper. As much as Kelly wished Stacey could be there with her right then, this paper was a big deal.
So she kept her text pretty light. Gave the basic details and urged her to stay in New York. There really was nothing Stacey could do at that point, but Kelly would keep her updated.
That done, she texted Ross. He didn’t like Vaughan, though he never showed that in front of the girls. He was resentful of any time Kelly spent with him, even for family events, and jealous that Vaughan had a connection to Kelly through their children. She filled him in about the situation with Maddie and said she’d talk to him when he got up.
All that done, Kelly stood, stretching. She pulled on Vaughan’s sweatshirt, as it was indeed chilly in the waiting room. It had been years since her skin had been this close to his scent and it sent her reeling.
An ache that she’d grown accustomed to many years ago throbbed at the memories of what it had been for a brief, shining time. She slammed that shut by remembering the Hurleys would be showing up soon enough.
Of this she had zero doubt. They’d drop whatever they were doing and rush over because Vaughan needed them, and every damned one of them would show up to support him and Maddie.
Mostly she was grateful her children had that support and love in their lives. Mostly. Her former mother-in-law might hate Kelly, but she loved her grandchildren and her sons.
Kelly had no room to judge. Especially because she had absolutely no plans to call her mother. Rebecca Larsen was in the Hamptons for the summer—at the house Kelly’s money had bought—and Kelly liked it that way.
Kelly had grown up in an angry, turbulent household. At twelve, when she’d walked a show for the first time, she’d recognized it as her means to get away from Rebecca.
When she’d given birth to Maddie and they’d gotten home from the hospital, Kelly had been alone with her daughter and she’d made a promise right then and there to make a family with that tiny creature. To keep her safe and loved and to do her all to empower and raise a child who knew every moment of every day that she was worthy.
With a sigh, Kelly focused on the prerequisite black-and-white nature photo on a far wall as she sank into a chair. Letting herself go blank, a meditation technique she’d learned from an old roommate back in her modeling days, Kelly let go of everything that wasn’t Maddie.
Being a mother hadn’t made Kelly into a woman or anything like that. But it had dug roots into Kelly’s life in a way she’d never really experienced before. This was a toss-yourself-in-front-of-a-speeding-car-to-save-someone love, and it had revolutionized her entire existence.
She’d been strong in a way she could look herself in the mirror every morning and not flinch. Sometimes the only thing that gave her the ability to keep going was to always be a good example to her kids. Maddie would be fine because Kelly would rip the world apart to make it so.
They moved down to the main waiting room once Vaughan had returned with the food. Only he and Kelly had been allowed in the one just outside the pediatric surgery, but they could see through to those doors from where they were seated now.
“Not the first time we’ve eaten diner food after one in the morning.” He grinned at her. She wore his sweatshirt and though it had been so long, he wasn’t surprised that it still made him greedy for her. Or that it made him remember the way she’d looked in nothing but one of his T-shirts after a show.
She balled up her napkin after wiping her mouth. “I’m not as young as I was then. I’m going to have to take an antacid. As far as a meal in a hospital this late at night goes? It’s top notch. Thanks for going to pick it up.”
“It gave me something to do and like I said, I was hungry, too.”
“I hadn’t really had the chance to ask how the tour went.” There was a caution in her tone that he rarely heard from her on other subjects.
This topic was full of briars and hidden traps between them. Had been. And maybe, just maybe, it was his fault.
Before he could answer, though, Kelly stood, a smile on her face. “Why are you here? I told you to stay home.”
Vaughan withheld his growl of annoyance at the sight of Kelly’s boyfriend Ross strolling into the waiting room and enfolding Vaughan’s wife into a hug she clearly needed. One Vaughan hadn’t offered. Because he had no right to anymore.
Ross kissed her forehead and Vaughan wanted to punch the guy. The guy who said, “I decided you could be forgiven for such a ridiculous request since you were under duress. Of course I’m here. Where else would I be?”
All Ross’s attention had been on Kelly but Vaughan knew very well the other man hadn’t missed Vaughan in the room. Especially when Ross’s gaze focused on Vaughan for long moments before he released Kelly and held a hand Vaughan’s way.
“Hey, Vaughan. Good to see you. Sorry about the circumstances.”
Ross may not have liked Vaughan, but he had good manners. He also clearly loved Kelly. And why shouldn’t he? Kelly was gorgeous. She had her own businesses, she was a great mom and she was smart. And funny. Her skin was really soft and she smelled really good.
“Good to see you, too.” Which was a total lie. Vaughan would be happy if he never saw the other dude’s mug again.
Ross turned back to Kelly. “What’s happening with Maddie?” He brushed her hair away from her face. “Let’s sit.” He led her back to where they’d been sitting, settling next to Kelly.
Vaughan used that opportunity to check in with his brothers but even with his back turned, he could see their reflection in the window he stood before.
Kelly leaned into Ross. Relieved that he’d come. Soothed by the stability he always brought into her life. “Who’s with the girls?” Ross had two daughters roughly the same age as her own.
“My mom came over. I wouldn’t even have seen your text until the morning but I got up to go to the bathroom and I saw my phone as I passed back to bed.”
He kissed her temple and spoke into her ear. “Did you think I wouldn’t come? With all his family most likely moments from descending on this hospital?”
Of course he would have thought about how it would feel for Kelly to be the only non-Hurley in that room. She knitted her fingers with his. Ross was what she needed. Steady. He would carry his weight. He was what she’d been missing most of her life.
Though it had been something she found herself having to repeat over and over like a mantra, and she was pretty sure it wasn’t because it made her so happy to think about.
Halfway through her telling, Sharon and Michael Hurley came in, heading straight to Vaughan, hugging him and speaking quietly before they all returned to settle in to wait for news.
The doctor came in shortly after that to let them know Maddie was out of surgery and that things had gone well. Vaughan stood at her side and squeezed her hand at the news.
They went back to recovery where they were allowed to kiss Maddie and tell her they loved her. Kelly pulled Pete from the pocket of her hoodie and tucked him in against Maddie’s side. “Daddy brought Pete to keep you company.”
Maddie’s smile was goofy as her eyes slowly closed.
“So glad you brought him,” Kelly murmured as they left.
He looked so eager for her approval it made Kelly feel guilty.
“They’re buds.” He shrugged, blushing a little.
He may have never taken his kids to a dental appointment, but he knew that. He didn’t know their friends, either, but he knew how much his daughter loved that stuffed animal and that it would comfort her. He paid attention when it mattered. At least when it came to his children. Which in the big picture was important. She chided herself to always remember. Especially when she started to get bitter. Things could always be worse.
“Hang on a second. I need to stop by the nurses’ station.”
He stood at her side as she made sure they had her daughter’s allergies noted. She also got the times they could come back to see Maddie.
In the long hallway, before they hit the swinging doors leading back to the waiting room, Vaughan stopped her. “Hey, thank you for letting me be here. It means a lot to me.”
“It means a lot to her, too.”
His smile was lopsided. The one she’d dropped her panties for way back when. It still made her happy and sad all at once.
“What’s next? What can I do?” Vaughan asked, looking a little lost.
“I’ll hang out here a while longer and then head home. You should go and get rest. You have a tour-ending show tonight.”
He stopped her with a hand at her shoulder. “This is a million times more important.”
It was, of course, but it was nice to hear him say it. Even if she didn’t believe him all the way. He’d chosen music over his family more than once. She understood that this tour meant they were employing the crew, filling seats with fans who loved Sweet Hollow Ranch and who’d be disappointed if they didn’t play. So many livelihoods to be responsible for.
“Look, I’m not going to be upset if you do. If she keeps improving over the day, there’s no reason you should cancel,” Kelly said. Which was true, of course.
Vaughan looked as if he was arguing with himself but finally shook his head. “Ezra and Paddy hooked me and my parents up with hotel rooms for today. We also talked about tonight and the show and we’re all agreed that we’re waiting to see how Maddie is today. I’m not going anywhere, Kel.”
Kelly nodded. Even though she knew he hadn’t been before. She’d needed him and he just hadn’t been there. She nodded, even though she knew he could easily rip her trust to shreds if she gave it to him, so she wasn’t going to risk her trust. Especially not when it came to her daughters. And yet what point would there be in saying all that? Why call him out and start something when they were both on edge and stressed?
Vaughan loved his daughters. They adored him right back. That was important. That was what she always had to remember.
This was about Maddie, who would undoubtedly benefit from having her dad around. And Kensey, too, because she’d be worried about her big sister, and her daddy would be around to make her feel better.