His dad banged his fist on the table, startling everyone, then jumped from his chair. “I think I know of a way. I’ll be right back.”
Austin grabbed his mug and took a gulp of coffee as the old man raced to his office.
While their dad did whatever he was doing, he turned to Houston. “What else did Paige tell you last night?”
“Plenty, but I’ll let her fill you in. But this time listen to her.”
Austin nodded. He’d listen. He’d listen to Paige talk until her voice was nothing but a whisper if she’d let him.
A few minutes later, his dad returned, wearing a huge grin like Austin hadn’t seen in over two years and carrying a piece of paper and a pen.
“Here. Look this over. If you agree to what it says, sign your name and date it.”
As Austin scanned the page, his lips stretched wider and wider until he was grinning like a fool. “This is brilliant, Pa. Simply brilliant.”
“With age comes wisdom, son…very, very slowly.” He winked.
Austin quickly signed his name and dated it. Then he folded it and tucked it in his pocket before he stood. “Wish me luck.”
“Wait. Sit down and eat some breakfast, son. She ain’t leaving till after lunch.”
“I’m too nervous, Pa. I don’t want to get on one knee and puke on her shoes.”
“I can’t let you go alone, Austin.” Duke frowned. “Dallas, keep me a plate warming in the oven, would you please?”
“Pa…really. You don’t have to chaperone.”
“I ain’t going to chaperone.” He smirked, clapping Austin on the shoulder. “I’m going to hear the momma of my first grandchild say yes and watch you slip that pretty ring on her finger.”
A tremor quaked through him. I sure hope that’s what happens.
Abittersweet smile tugged her lips as she read Houston’s message.
“He’s as protective as Austin,” she murmured sadly, zipping her last suitcase shut.
Paige might not have had the chance to say goodbye to Austin when he pushed her away for the last time, but she would get the chance to tell her grandpa, like now. She hated not telling him she was leaving today but had made it clear, at the hospital, that once he was home, she’d be on her way. At least she was keeping one promise.
As she started lugging her suitcases down the hall, Grandpa stepped out of the bathroom and scowled.
“What are you doing, Paige?”
“I’m gonna load up my truck. I told you I wasn’t staying where I wasn’t welcome.”
“Hold on a gosh darn minute, missy. You put those suitcases down right now and come to the family room. We need to talk.”
Exhaling a sigh, she stashed her suitcases by the front door, then followed him to the other room. Paige sat down on the couch while her grandpa eased onto his recliner, still wearing a scowl.
“I wanna know right now why you think you’re not welcome here.”
“Because I broke the rules. You told me not to see Austin and I disobeyed you. The very first summer I spent here, you sat me down on this couch and said”—she dropped her voice a couple of octaves to imitate his tenor—“you either follow the rules, missy, or you’re out the door.”
Grandpa pressed a hand to his forehead and groaned. “Paige. Paige. Honey, you were five years old then. I didn’t know how to take care of a little girl. I’d raised a son. Girls were soft and pretty and delicate. I only said that to intimidate you. To scare you into staying out of trouble, because I didn’t have the heart to take a switch to your backside if you misbehaved.”
Slack-jawed, Paige blinked at the old man as his confession rolled through her brain like a thunder cloud.
His love never came with conditions. I just assumed it did.
That realization hit her like a bolt of lightning.
Relief and sorrow collided, causing a mournful laugh to roll from her throat.
“Are you shitting me?” she screeched. “All the years, months, weeks, and days I’ve spent here with you, I tried to be so damn perfect. Tried to follow all the rules. Tried to make you proud of me and never disappoint you.”
“Because coming here, to Haven, to stay with you…in this house and on this ranch, was always my safe haven. I didn’t want to mess that up. I didn’t want you to push me away, like Mom.”
“Oh, baby girl,” he moaned as he stood and eased onto the couch beside her and clasped her hand. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart. I never should have said those words. I never expected or even wanted you to be perfect. I love and have always been proud of you just the way you are.”
A tear slid down her cheek as years of insecurities and fears slowly started melting away.
“Growing up the way you did, at home…I was right proud you turned to me instead of drugs or alcohol. Why, I could never be disappointed in you.”
Paige cupped his hand, sent him a sad smile, then pressed his palm to her stomach.
“I ain’t disappointed about this neither. You told me he was smart, kind, funny, respectful, and generous. I don’t know the boy because of my own foolishness, but I trust your opinion of him. And I look forward to the chance to meet him and get to know him…if he lets me. And I don’t think bad of you for being in the family way. Your daddy was growing inside your gramma’s womb when she and I tied the knot.” He cackled and winked.
Paige’s eyes grew wide. Discovering Grandpa wanted to get to know Austin was shocking, but the latter was an earthquaking newsflash.
His face softened. “I love you, baby girl. Always have. Always will. I should have told you that more often. Should have told you I was proud of you, too. Should have built up your confidence and given you the self-assurance that no-good hussy never did.”
He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her tightly.
“I’m sorry for making you think you had to be perfect.” His voice slightly cracked. “I should have taken you away from that wretched bitch when I had the chance. But I was suffering something fierce back then and full of fire and rage toward your momma for killing my wife and son.”
“What?” Paige barked. “You told me they died in an accident.”
“They did. I didn’t mean it to sound like she’d put a gun to their heads. But your daddy wasn’t coming here to visit that day your gramma picked him up at the airport. He was coming back home to stay. Your momma had found someone else. She didn’t want my son anymore, so she shoved your daddy out the door. Seems she shoves everyone out the door.”
“She does. I don’t know what she’s looking for, but so far, she hasn’t found it.”
“What are you looking for, traipsing all the way to San Antonio?”