The One Real Thing Page 55

Her eyes suddenly shone with tears and that sting got a little sharper at her genuine sympathy. “I’m sorry you lost her.”

He nodded, unable to speak for the emotion that was thick in his voice. Sometimes the grief could hit him hard out of nowhere, even after all these years.

“But you know what?” she said. “I’m even happier that you had her.”

And just like that her words took away a bit of the sting. He cleared his throat, but it was still thick when he said, “Me, too, Doc.”

Jessica

I discovered something new about myself right then. I discovered that my emotions could be connected to my sexual attraction to someone. Because right then, emotionally tangled up in this man, I had never been more attracted to a guy in my life.

I wanted Cooper Lawson.

Badly.

I wanted to launch myself across the table at him.

To hold him.

To kiss him.

To rip his clothes off after the embracing.

Very inappropriate, considering what we’d just discussed. I’d never met a man like him before, though. How he could be so many things . . . so goddamn rugged and masculine, honest and open, and even showing a little of his vulnerability . . . it was unreal. He hadn’t hidden his emotion, his grief over his mom. He’d given that to me. And that meant so much more to me than anything else could.

And for the first time in a very long time I wanted everything with a man.

And for the first time ever I was going to see if it was possible to have everything with this man.

“So what about you?” Cooper said after a moment of comfortable silence. “Tell me about your family.”

His question dropped down in my stomach like a lead weight, sending up a flurry of butterflies in its wake. Anytime someone asked me a question about my family I physically trembled before shutting the line of questioning down. This time was no different—Cooper’s question made me shake—but it was the first time I’d ever contemplated giving someone at least part of the truth as an answer to that question.

This would be a day of a lot of firsts because I knew it would be unfair not to give Cooper anything after he’d given me something of himself. Something so real.

I took a deep breath and watched Cooper frown as he watched my reaction to his question. “It’s not an easy question, is it?” I said.

“For some people it is.”

“Well, that’s true,” I said. “I’ll amend that. It’s not an easy question for me.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”

He meant that. However, I could see the light of something in his eyes and I thought it might be disappointment. I felt completely anxious at the thought. I didn’t want to disappoint him and miss my chance to explore this connection with him.

“It’s just not a pretty story . . .” I took another slow breath, trying to find the words and all the while willing the painful images to stay out of my head. “I don’t really ever talk about it. My sister . . . uh . . . my sister, Julia, committed suicide when I was nineteen. It was only a few days after her sixteenth birthday.”

Cooper looked stunned. “Fuck, Doc . . . you don’t have to—”

I waved away his concern with a confidence I didn’t feel. “It’s alright. She . . . had her issues that I won’t go into. But we were really close. Our parents . . . um”—at the mention of my parents, the old hurt gripped my chest hard like it always did—“they completely disconnected from me when she died. I mean, I tried. I tried for years to reconnect with them, but they’re not interested. I only have my best friend, Matthew, back in Iowa, and his daughter, Perry, is my goddaughter. They’re about the only family I have left now.” My mouth trembled, but I wouldn’t cry. A long time back I’d shut that part of my emotions off. It protected me from the worst of the pain.

Suddenly Cooper’s hand covered mine, his fingers wrapping tight around my hand. The gesture made me look up.

His expression was fierce. “If you need to cry, Doc, you can cry. You don’t have to hide that from me.”

I covered his hand with my other one and gave him a grateful smile. “I’m okay, Cooper. It’s a hard story to tell. But I’m okay.”

“It means a lot to me that you told me,” he said gruffly.

And there. There it was.

What I’d been thinking about him, he’d just said it right out in the open.

No bullshit.

God, I liked this man.

I squeezed his hand and then let go and watched him as he slowly withdrew his hand from mine. “You don’t have any other family?” he said, frowning. “No aunts or uncles, cousins or grandparents?”

“My mom’s sister. Theresa. We were close. But after . . .” I’d feared she’d want nothing to do with me, just like my parents, and somehow I knew her rejection, her blaming me, too, would hurt worse, so I’d left her also and never looked back. “We haven’t spoken since . . . then . . .” I shook off the thought of her. “Tell me about growing up here,” I said, changing the subject to something a little less heavy.

“Let me get you another coffee, and I’ll do just that.”

Five minutes later he was back and sprawled in the booth, relaxed and at ease with me as he’d been from the moment we met. “This is a great place to raise kids,” he said immediately. “Even with all the shit going on with my family, I had a great childhood here. It’s got that small-town thing where nearly everyone knows your business, and that has its ups and downs, but for the most part it’s good. Thing about Hartwell is, although you’ve got your small pocket of hard-core conservatives, this is a friendly, open place. We’ve moved along with the times pretty well.” He gave me a crooked grin.

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