Sitting on the back deck nursing a beer, he watched the sun disappear beneath the horizon while waiting for Paige to return from Denton. Raymond was bouncing back faster than the doctors expected and could be coming home a couple of days ahead of schedule. While that pleased Paige to no end, it would put the kibosh on the extra hours Austin had been able to spend with his girl.
Lifting the beer bottle, he took a long pull, trying to ignore the ache in his fingers and hand. He’d spent the whole day in town, helping decorate Main Street in an ocean of red, white, and blue for the annual Fourth of July parade, picnic, and fireworks display, set to kick off tomorrow afternoon.
Paige had promised that as long as Raymond didn’t have any unexpected setbacks, she would be there.
“You’d better be up running laps around that hospital and not messing up my plans, old man,” Austin drawled.
In the distance, he heard the familiar rumble of Paige’s truck coming down the road. Setting his beer down, he stood and smiled as she pulled into the drive and maneuvered through the grass and around the propane tank before stopping near the steps of the deck.
After Austin had told his family that Paige needed help, like a hot meal after visiting Raymond, he didn’t get an ounce of flak about her nightly dinner visits.
Bounding out of the truck, she flashed him a blinding smile, then raced up the steps and plopped down on the chaise beside him. “What’d you fix me for dinner tonight, cowboy?”
“After sweating my nuts off in the field all day, I came home and slaved over a hot stove, making you some tender, chicken-fried steak, creamy mashed potatoes and thick country gravy, and sweet buttered corn.”
“What? No dessert?” She mockingly gaped.
He narrowed his eyes and tsk’d. “What do you think I am? A rookie? Of course there’s dessert. I cored and peeled a bushel of apples, then made a sweet, sticky Dutch apple pie. It damn near took me two hours to mold the plastic containers I put the slices in.”
When Paige threw back her head and laughed, Austin lost another piece of his heart.
He stood and clasped her hand, then hauled her up off the chaise, wanting nothing more than to wrap his arms around her and kiss her senseless. It was enough that his dad was turning a blind eye to Paige’s visits. Austin didn’t want to rub his nose in it with any PDA.
“Toot’s is a lifesaver.” She grinned.
“Right? Come on. Let’s go inside. I’ve everything staying warm in the oven.”
“Why do you spoil me so?”
“Because I like to see you smile, little girl,” he confessed, holding the door for her.
“And scream,” she murmured.
“Definitely. And shatter…fuck yeah,” he growled, nipping her shoulder as she eased past him.
Together, they set the table and dished up dinner.
“How’s Raymond feeling today?”
“Stronger by the minute. He walked the hall for an hour and a half. The nurses finally had to make him quit and haul him back to his room.”
Austin chuckled. “So I guess that means you’ll be at the celebration tomorrow?”
“I will. I told Gina I’d help her at her beer tent.” Paige’s expression dimmed. “I’m glad she and Nate are together, but I’m worried. She spooks so easily now.”
“Of course she does. Bennett Chamberlin hurt her again. He was a fucking animal. I’m glad Nate put a bullet in his brain, but it doesn’t erase the abuse Gina endured. Those wounds are still fresh and bleeding. Give her some time to process everything and start to heal. From what I know of Nate, he’s patient and kind and loves her enough to help carry her through the darkness.”
“You’re right. Even though she’s…haunted. I’ve never seen her happier than when she’s with Nate.”
And I’ve never been happier than when I’m with you, little one.
When their stomachs were full, they cleaned up the kitchen together, then snuggled on the couch to watch a sappy chick flick. It was all glaringly domestic but soothing and satisfying at the same time.
As the credits scrolled across the screen, Paige was sound asleep in his arms.
She hadn’t spent the night with him since he’d brought her home from Denton. No way was Austin going to wake her and send her home to an empty house. He gently lifted her into his arms, climbed the stairs, then tucked her into his bed. After easing in beside her, he drew her to his side and fell sound asleep.
He woke as her warm lips pressed to his. Lifting his heavy eyes, Austin found her hovering over him, fully dressed.
“Where are you going?” he asked in a sleep-soaked voice.
“Home. I need to get ready for the Fourth of July festivities, but I knew I had to wake you before I left.”
“Damn right, you did,” he murmured, unable to keep his eyes open.
“Go back to sleep, cowboy. I’ll see you later in town,” she whispered, then softly kissed him again.
The sounds of her soft footfalls barely registered as darkness dragged him away.
At noon, Austin was showered, shaved, dressed, and squeezing his truck into the last available spot in the alley, behind Doc Knight’s clinic. As he trekked down the gravel passageway, the back door of the Hangover swung open. Gina stepped outside, lugging a big, black trash bag.
“Hold up, woman,” he yelled, jogging her way. “Put that damn thing down.”
“I got it.”