Instead, though, he didn’t press. “Mom?” he called behind him. “I’m going to go visit Jax.”

“Okay,” I heard her reply. “Be careful driving.”

Jared tipped his chin at me and left the door open as he walked around me, the dog racing after him and both of them hopping into a black Mustang. I walked into the house, and before I closed the door, I heard his engine fire up. I was sure I had him to thank for getting Madoc into cars and racing.

Or him to blame.

The house was dim, the glow of a few lamps shining in the living room and family room. I continued down the hall toward the kitchen, hearing Kat move around in there. New pictures lined the walls, and I also saw that she had painted the living room and added some new bookshelves.

As I stopped at the entryway to the kitchen, I watched her at the sink, and it looked like she was peeling potatoes.

I slipped my hands in my pockets and took her in, remembering all the times I had just stood and watched her in the past. I loved to see her move around the house, making pancakes or putting laundry away or cooking dinner. I pretended that she was mine and I could stay forever and this was our life.

She moved her foot behind her ankle, scratching it with her toe, and the sudden desire to touch her was almost too much. She’d changed into a clean pair of jeans with a white shirt, and her hair was down.

Turning off the water, she grabbed the hand towel and wiped off her hands before spinning around.

Locking eyes with me, she let out a little gasp. “Jase.”

I held her gaze, having no fucking clue what I was doing or what I wanted to tell her, except everything.

I inhaled a long breath and looked down, because I needed to find my words, and I couldn’t do that staring at her.

“When I was four,” I told her, “I walked in on my father with another woman.” I finally raised my eyes, seeing her holding the towel as if frozen in the middle of drying her hands. “I don’t remember much, but I still have the image, and for the longest time, I thought maybe I imagined it or it was a dream that had stuck with me.” I leaned against the door frame and kept going. “And then when I was sixteen I saw him touch my mother’s best friend at a party when he didn’t know anyone was looking. My mom knew. She knew everything. And still she constantly put on a brave face, trying to act like everything was fine and we were the perfect family.”

Her eyes shifted from side to side, hopefully absorbing what I hadn’t shared with anyone.

“I promised myself I would never do that to my family,” I explained. “I would never become my father. But then I met you, and I knew. You were the girl I was going to love.” My chest tightened, and I had to force the words out. “So I deluded myself. I told myself I wasn’t him. That I had good reasons for doing what I was doing. I was keeping my family together for my kid, doing what was best for him. I needed you. I kept telling myself that. I was falling apart, and what we had was special. You were the only one, after all. It wasn’t like I was a serial cheater. I wasn’t him.”

Tears pooled in her beautiful brown eyes, and I was fucking lost. God, I felt weak.

I licked my dry lips and continued, “And then one day, years ago, Madoc answered my cell phone, and it was you calling. I was so angry, I yelled at him. I saw me, four years old, all over again. He couldn’t find out, I told myself. He couldn’t look at me the way I looked at my dad. He wouldn’t understand. I couldn’t be a failure to him. He had to love me,” I gritted out, pain wracking my body, because I could still feel everything that tore me and her apart.

She clutched the towel in her hands, listening.

“The truth is,” I said, feeling my eyes grow thick with tears. “I knew what I should do, what I wanted to do, but I was afraid of being a failure, not realizing I became one anyway.”

I rushed forward and held her head in my hands, rubbing circles on her cheeks.

“I should’ve let Maddie go and been with you and only you,” I admitted. “I should’ve moved you into my house and made you my wife and had you in my bed every damn day.” I leaned down, nose to nose as her breath shook with silent tears. “I should’ve married you years ago, and Madoc and Jared would’ve grown up with two loving parents.”

I took her lips in mine, the pain of sixteen years replaced with the hunger that was always between us. I would always need her because she made me feel alive and she expected more from me than anyone in my life other than my son. She made me want to be better, and while I had always failed her and never fought to keep her, that would end today. I didn’t want to wake up to another day without her.

“I’m miserable,” I told her. “Seeing you today hit me like a truck. Every day I spend without you, I’m miserable. And maybe it’s what I deserve, but I’m so sorry I never gave you what you needed. I’m sorry I treated you badly for so long.”

I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her into me, burying my face in her neck and scent, holding her to my body.

“Marry me,” I whispered.

“You’re already married,” she pointed out.

“I left her,” I admitted. “Months ago. She’s moved out, and I’m working on the divorce. I love you, and I don’t want to waste another day.”

She pulled back, her hands cupping the back of my neck as she peered up at me. “Why now? After all this time?”

“Because seeing you today was when I realized that I couldn’t hurt you anymore,” I admitted. “You’re stronger, and maybe . . . just maybe . . . I won’t be bad for you. Maybe I don’t have to feel so ashamed for what I did to you and force myself to stay away.”

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