"I cared, baby."
"Oh, yeah, sure you did," she threw at him bitterly. "You cared so much you walked right out of my life and never looked back."
His expression filled with pain. No wonder she'd let him get only just so close. He'd reinforced her darkest fears.
"Michelle's been gone a long time." Her voice was soft and hurt when she said, "If you loved me so much, how come I never heard from you?"
"I knew you'd gone on with your life, just as I knew you didn't want wounds opened again. Neither did I. We parted badly and I didn't hold out any hope."
She looked at him. "But you never even tried!" she accused.
"No. I didn't. I couldn't." His blue eyes hardened with the tone of his voice. "I have my girls to consider in everything I do, Hayley. They can feel tension when I don't even know it's there. And I knew seeing you again would have been hard on us both." If he'd so much as spent an hour thinking about her, the girls would feel it and say something. "You were my deepest regret."
"And you were mine." She shook her head sadly. "I should have come to you and demanded an explanation. But I thought if you could leave so easily, what we had was only in my imagination."
"It wasn't. I didn't imagine last night and the days before. I love you and I know you love me."
"Of course I do."
"Why are you fighting me, then?"
"Because I don't have a choice."
"We all have choices."
She shook her head, angry with him. "You didn't know a damn thing about who I was years ago and you don't now."
His temper rose and he reached for her hand. "Now there, you're wrong."
She jerked free. "How could you know?" She scoffed. "Look at this place. It's a palace!" She threw her arms wide. "You have the American dream. You're good-looking, rich, powerful, respected and adored by all, plus you have two beautiful children. You've lived in the lap of luxury all your life, and I don't hold it against you, but because of it, you know nothing of how I've lived."
"Dammit, Hayley, my memory isn't that bad."
"You saw what I wanted you to see, wanted everyone except my sorority sisters to see. Have you ever gone hungry to pay for a class?" His features yanked taut. "I've lived on nothing but popcorn and caffeine because if my grade point dropped, I'd have lost my scholarships. Then in med school, I held three jobs to make the tuition for the next semester. I was scared I'd never finish my graduate studies and wondered if I was going to be cleaning toilets for the rest of my life because working so hard left me barely enough time to study!"
"But that's over. You did it." He approached her, slowly as if she were a frightened animal and would bolt. "What are you so scared of now?"
She didn't answer, her throat choking off her air and making her gasp over and over.
He eased near, touching her chin and tipping her head back. "What, baby?"
Fat tears rolled down her cheek. "I'm terrified that when I finally get my dream and can legally write MD after my name, that it won't be what I'd wanted all along."
His brow knitted. "How come?"
"To see you again, to love you and love your babies—" she gripped his upper arms "—it's all I'd wanted with you, everything I lost thrown in my face … and it's still out of my reach."
Her anguish was a part of him, making him hurt for her, with her, and when he was trying to be patient and let her see what he could offer her, all she saw was what she could have had. Before he'd taken it away from both of them.
"My God, Nash—" she searched his features "—don't you know if I could, I would stay?"
His heart soared with hope. That was all he needed to hear. "Then I'll find a way, baby." His fingers trailed over her cheek, wiping away her tears before sliding into her hair. "I will. I swear it."
At his touch a little whimper escaped her and she closed her eyes, trembling.
"Shh." He bent, his lips near. "I will. Trust me."
She kissed him, a tender trembling kiss filled with want and sorrow.
"I have to go. No. I do, Nash. I do. Don't make me fight for you and my career, please." Oh, how easily she could give up ten years of work when he looked at her like that. "I need you, Nash, but I need this, too. I know I can't have both."
Then he stepped back suddenly, his gaze narrowing. "I'd never stop you, Hayley. And I'm not sure I want a woman who is working all the time and whose career comes before love and family."
Her chin lifted. "I thought family stood by you no matter what. I guess I was wrong."