How much longer before she had no life at all? The weight of the thought sat on Sadie’s chest, constricting her breath.
“Yes, she would have,” Zach said. “She created a beautiful family.”
“A legacy,” Marie agreed.
And Amber would have none.
Suddenly the walls wavered. Sadie knew if she didn’t get out of there, she was going to embarrass herself by either weeping copiously or passing out. Neither option made her very happy.
Her throat was too constricted to speak, to excuse herself. She lurched for the back door, stumbled through a closed-in porch, then burst into the weak sunshine. Not sure why, she kept moving forward, as if the motion would somehow jump-start her body into behaving again. But suddenly she was halted by a set of heavy hands on her shoulders.
Her body was pulled upright, then back against a solid, muscular chest. The warmth soothed her, making her aware that she was out in the cool January air with no coat over her dress. Just an apron. The thought made her want to laugh, but her lungs were strained.
Zach leaned in close, burying his face against her neck. His heat surrounded her. “Just breathe, baby,” he murmured against her ear.
* * *
Zach felt Sadie’s body unlock as if he’d turned the key. Breathing deep, she rose up on her toes. Then she collapsed back against him.
Leaving him feeling like he’d won the lottery.
He sensed her beginning to relax. The feel of her ribs expanding beneath his palms. The loosening of her muscles against his chest. The sigh that finally graced his ears.
He waited for her to sag as the tension drained from her, but Sadie was too strong for that. Instead her knees locked. She didn’t pull away, but she wasn’t relying solely on him for her stability, either.
That was the essence of the woman he’d come to know.
And she was kind, compassionate, hardworking. Today, he was determined to learn something new.
Stepping back was a hardship, but he substituted holding her hand for the embrace. A poor substitute, his body said. He led her to a bench near this end of the sloping back lawn. During the summer, irises bloomed plentifully here, but the now-barren leaves didn’t detract from the richness of the view.
He took a quick inventory of her. Breath steady. Eyes closed. Pulse slowing beneath his palm. He waited a few minutes more before pushing.
“Tell me what that was about.”
“A panic attack,” she said simply. “I’ve had a few over the years, but they’re so rare that I never feel quite prepared for them.”
Her deep breath drew his gaze down to the fullness of her chest, even though he knew that’s not where his focus should be right now.
“Marie’s words...they just brought up some bad memories for me.”
“Did you lose someone you love?”
She shook her head, but it wasn’t really an answer—more the movement of someone trying to deny reality. “Not yet...but I will.”
He waited, trying to wrap his mind around her words. Was it her mother? That was the only relative she’d ever mentioned.
“I have a sister...a baby sister.”
Zach felt his world tilt slightly, then right itself.
“She was diagnosed when she was a teenager. The cancer is terminal at this point.” A sad smile tilted the corners of her lips. “She’s a trouper—it’s been six years since her diagnosis. They said she would only live two.”
Zach could read between the lines. “But she won’t be able to fight it forever?”
Sadie shook her head, her lips pressed tight for control. Fortunately, he could read all her emotions in those expressive eyes.
“No,” she finally conceded. “She’s fought long and hard, but her resolve is weakening. As is ours—mine and my mother’s. We take the best care of her we can, but there’s only so much we can do.”
“And that’s heartbreaking.”
“My poor mother—she’s handled the majority of Amber’s care, but it’s too much. We had to place her in a type of halfway house. Not hospice...yet.” Sadie looked away, but Zach could still see her neck working as she swallowed.
As he’d done with Marie, he reached out to comfort her. Only this wasn’t Marie. He reacted in a completely different manner that shook him deep inside. But he didn’t let go.