Or was it that she didn’t want to admit to how guilty she felt that, rather than working on the claims as she needed to be doing, she snuck a few hours a day to spend with him?

Did that make her a bad person? A bad daughter?

The reflection in the mirror didn’t answer, just stared back with glassy, red-rimmed eyes.

* * *

“Hello, gorgeous.” Stone bent and dropped a kiss on Carly’s cheek before walking over to the table to put down the bags of take-out he’d brought with him.

“Obviously, you didn’t look at me.”

He turned, ran his gaze over her from head to toe. She wore her usual home dress of T-shirt and yoga pants. Her hair was pulled back in its usual ponytail. Her face was make-up-free. She looked tired, her expression pinched, a little haunted.

But the most obvious reason she’d made her comment had to be the scratches across her left cheek.

Scratches that must have been made by her mother. He’d not seen Audrey during a bad spell, other than a few nights that she hadn’t known who he or Carly was. Today must have been a bad day. His heart ached for Carly.

He reached out, took her in his arms, and hugged her. “I looked. I liked. I agree with my original statement. You are gorgeous.”

Resting her head against his shoulder, she snorted. “You’re delusional.”

“I do feel that way sometimes when I hold you like this,” he admitted, causing her to pull back.

“I knew you’d do this.”

“What’s that?”

“Make me feel better.”

His insides warmed at the compliment. He wanted to make Carly feel better, to make her life better.

“It’s probably the freshly baked yeast rolls you are smelling. They smell good enough to make anyone feel better. But I’m good with taking credit for anything that makes you smile.”

“Yeast rolls?” She inhaled deeply. “Okay, you convinced me. It’s not you.” She stepped away from him and began to pull things from the large brown paper bag. “It’s definitely the yeast rolls. Yum.”

Watching her, he laughed. “Hungry?”

“Starved,” she admitted, glancing up as she opened the bread bag and tore off a piece. Her eyes closed and she looked as if she’d just taken a quick trip to heaven. “That is good.”

Stone swallowed, trying to clear the knot that formed in his throat. “Remind me to bring you bread every night.”

Her eyelids popped open and her gaze met his as she stuck another bite of bread in her mouth. “Sorry. I forgot to eat today. I hadn’t realized until just a few moments ago.”

He frowned. “You have to take care of yourself or you won’t be able to take care of your mother. Then what would she do?”

Her face immediately paled. “You’re right. I didn’t mean to forget. I was busy and time got away from me.”

She didn’t need to be skipping meals so Stone was even more grateful he’d brought food.

“You going to tell me about your face?” His gaze lowered, took in the red streaks on her arms. “And your arms?”

She looked away. “I’d rather not.”

“Rough day?”

Flinching a little, Carly nodded.

“That bad?” Unable to resist, he reached for her.

“This morning was rough,” she mumbled against his chest as she slid her arms around his waist and held him tight, as if she thought she might fall if she let go.

Needing to comfort her any way he could, Stone kissed the top of her head.

“She slept the rest of the day, so I shouldn’t be so emotional now.” She sighed, then stepped out of his arms and rubbed her hands across her face. “I should be over what happened this morning, but I know her sleeping all afternoon means I will probably have a rough night as she’ll likely be awake more than asleep.”

Her expression filled with guilt and she moved away from him, removed the last items from the brown paper bag he’d brought their dinner in. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t complain.”

Her shoulders drooped a little, as if strained under a heavy load.

“You’re not complaining, Carly.” Most people he knew would be, would say how unfair life was, would bemoan what she was dealing with. Not Carly. “I asked you about your day and you were telling me.”

“It’s not what you need or want to hear.”

“Not true. I want to hear about you. To know about your life. The good and the bad. Being friends is about more than the good times.”

Her gaze cut to him and her lips gave a trembling smile. “Thank you. You are a good man, Stone.”

Not that good, but now wasn’t the time or place for that conversation. He doubted there ever would be a time or place as he wouldn’t want to burden Carly with his problems when she had so many of her own.

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