“We need to.”
“I know.” The pressure to get his shit together grew even heavier.
After interminable tense minutes driving, they reached the hospital in Denton only to spend several more hours sitting in the ER waiting room before moving to the Surgical waiting room to wait even longer while a heart surgeon performed a much-needed bypass operation.
Paige was angry and hurt that Raymond hadn’t told her about the blockage. Or that the surgeon performing the operation had advised the old man to have it done the first time he’d been brought to the ER…the same night Austin and Paige had met.
“I don’t understand why he’s so damn stubborn,” she groused, wiping another tear from her cheek.
Austin didn’t have an answer for Raymond’s mule-headedness or his own.
Chewing on her question, he finally realized there was no rational or logical reason for him to keep clinging to the past and living in those ugly dark shadows.
Have I simply been too fucking stubborn to break free?
He didn’t know. The only thing he did know was being around Paige was triggering a whole lot more theories than he’d been able to come up with alone.
Long hours later, the surgeon stepped into the waiting room, flashed a reassuring smile, then sat down next to Paige.
“Raymond did very well.”
Paige closed her eyes and exhaled heavily. “Thank you.”
The doctor smiled and nodded, then explained the procedure, the changes in diet, and the medications Raymond would now need. Then informed her that he would spend a couple days in the ICU before they moved him to the heart unit for another five or six days.
“When can I see him?”
“I’ll have a nurse come escort you up to ICU once they get him settled in there.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much.”
When the doctor left, Paige threw her arms around Austin’s neck and softly cried tears of relief. He rubbed her back and murmured reassurances as he suddenly realized Johnny had never shown up—not that Austin had wanted him to—had never even called.
Holy shit. Did I really read that whole ice cream thing wrong?
Relief soaked every cell in her body as she clung to Austin, weeping with joy. She didn’t have words to express how grateful she was for his strength, his support, his…everything. He’d been her rock through the whole horrific ordeal.
No, he’s been my rock for longer than just today.
Paige was still struggling to process the shock of him dropping everything to rush to her aid. He’d gathered her in his arms and held her together as fear splintered her into kindling. He’d helped her get dressed, then chauffeured her to the hospital only to sit and wait bedside her for hours on end, simply to save her from worries and fears eating her alive all alone.
Easing back, she wiped the tears from her cheeks and sent him a watery smile. “Thank you so much for being here. I-I’m not sure I could have gone through this without you.”
“When I heard the terror in your voice, which I never want to hear again, nothing or no one was going to keep me from you.”
She swallowed back a sob and softly pressed her lips to his. Heat, familiar and achingly absent, sluiced through her veins, warming her with the steadfast reassurance she’d desperately missed.
“Miss Nelson?” a woman asked from across the room.
Paige quickly pulled from his lips, then turned to find a nurse, wearing a little smile, standing in the doorway the doctor had entered and exited moments ago.
“The ICU is a little backed up. It’s going to be a bit longer to move him than expected. He’s still heavily sedated, but if you’d like, I can take you to see him for a few minutes.”
Bolting from her chair, Paige glanced at Austin.
He smiled and nodded. “Go on. I’ll be here when you get back.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, then all but ran to follow the nurse.
After passing several empty and occupied beds separated by curtains, the nurse paused and swept a panel of fabric open. Paige gasped at the sight of her grandpa surrounded by humming machines and wires and tubes attached to his pale, frail-looking body.
The nurse sent her a sympathetic smile. “I know it’s a lot to take in, but trust me. He’s doing fine.”
“I-it is,” Paige stammered, inching closer to the bed before dropping onto the chair beside him.
As the nurse closed the curtain, Paige slid her hand beneath his and gently cupped it, taking solace in the warmth of his palm. She silently sent up a prayer of thanks that he was still alive, then stood and pressed a tender kiss.
“You scared the daylights out of me,” she whispered. “Don’t ever do that again. Okay? I was so afraid I was going to lose you…” Her voice cracked. “I can’t imagine a world without you.”
She wiped her tears, then gently stroked his gray hair.
“I lied to you, Grandpa…well, I didn’t. Johnny did. I’m sorry. I should have told you the truth then and there. Ever since I found you on the floor this morning, it’s been eating me alive.”
Shaking, Paige cupped his hand again and dragged in a ragged breath.
“The truth is…it’s not Johnny’s baby. I’m sorry. I know you’re gonna be angry and disappointed in me, but I can’t marry Johnny. I’m not in love with him. I-I’m in love with…Austin Carson. He’s the father of your great-grandchild.”
As her admission hung in the air, Paige thought about all the times she’d wanted to confess her truth to Austin, too. But every time the words burned the tip of her tongue, she swallowed them down. She was too raw, too wrecked, and too scared of what Austin’s reaction might be. After everything else she’d gone through today, Paige couldn’t risk having her dreams destroyed, too. She definitely planned to tell Austin; she simply wanted to wait until she was on solid ground again.
Silently holding her grandpa’s warm, wrinkled hand, Paige cleared her mind and simply breathed.
When the nurse pulled back the curtain and whispered it was time for her to go and let him rest, Paige stood and kissed his forehead.
“Sleep and get well, Grandpa. I’ll be back tomorrow. I love you.”
When she returned to the waiting room, Austin stood and ate up the distance between them before wrapping her in a sturdy hug and pressing a kiss to the top of her head. Paige closed her eyes and drank in his warmth and strength like a life force.
“Come on, little girl,” he murmured, lips still pressed against her hair. “I’m taking you home…to my house.”
Paige had foolishly thought her emotional roller-coaster ride was over for the day. But the whip of excitement and dread climbing and dropping within said she’d sadly been mistaken.
While Paige would love nothing more than to return to his house, strip off her clothes, and lose her mind, body, and soul beneath him, the remnants of their unresolved quarrel and the subsequent distance he’d purposely or inadvertently put between them pressed in all around her.
Easing back, Paige warily peered up at him. “You don’t have to do that. I’ll be—”
“I’m not leaving you alone, little girl. Either you come home with me or I’m coming home with you.”
“Is that really what you want? Our relationship is—”
“A little rocky at the moment. Yeah, I know. I’m not asking for anything you’re not ready to give. I simply want to take care of you.”
“I think that’s all I can handle right now,” she whispered.