She took her mother’s hand, held it, kept talking.

“He’s been here every night, Momma. He brings dinner, then spends time with me and makes me laugh. I know he’s out of my league, that there’s no future to us, even he’s admitted that, but spending time with him is such a joy.” She closed her eyes. “He makes me feel good, Momma. Like my insides are lighter and like the whole world is a bit more colorful just because he’s in it. We’re friends, but—”

“Y-you l-love h-him.”

Carly’s gaze shot to her mother’s face. Her mother who had said very few coherent things the past two days.

She wanted to deny what her mother said. But what would be the point in arguing with a woman whose mind came and went?

Especially when Carly wasn’t so sure that her mother’s comment was wrong.

“It’s hard not to fall for a man like Stone,” she admitted, wondering at how her heart was pounding, knowing she had to say something to take the wedding bells out of her mother’s gaze. She couldn’t bear to deceive her mother even when her mother might or might not recall the conversation.

“He’s a good man, but, Momma, Stone and I aren’t destined to be more than just friends. So, don’t go thinking anything more. Even if things were different, if I were able to date freely, I wouldn’t be interested in a committed relationship. Some day I want to travel and see the world as a travel nurse, to go places and try new things, like what Tony and I had planned to do. The very last thing on my mind is marrying and settling down.”


STONE SHOULDN’T HAVE gone to check on Carly and her mother. Before he’d started hammering, he’d wanted to make sure Audrey wasn’t asleep so he wouldn’t be disturbing her. From what Carly had implied her mother had been more difficult the past few days. The last thing he’d want was to wake and, possibly, agitate her.

Or overhear Carly’s conversation.

But it was good to know Carly didn’t want a committed relationship.

Quietly, Stone moved away from the door, went outside to his SUV. Mind racing and muscles tense, he got his tools and the boards he’d brought.

His hammer struck the nail, driving it deep into the wooden plank. Just a few boards tonight, but he had plans to come back on his day off work. He’d work on spiffing up the porch, the paint, maybe even tackle trimming the overgrown bushes and shrubbery. Although there were signs the yard had once been well tended, it had obviously been years, if not decades ago.

Making minor repairs to her home would help Carly regardless of whether she opted to keep the house or to sell it down the road.

After her mother passed and she was free to do anything she wanted to do in life.

She deserved that. The freedom to explore and see the world. He’d done that. In undergrad, he and a group of friends had backpacked Europe, climbed to the base camp at Everest, backpacked in New Zealand, had even gone on a trip to Antarctica. He’d traveled, been free to explore the parts of the world that interested him most, had done residencies in various cities throughout the country and had done several medical mission trips outside the United States. Yes, some of the trips had been about purging his mind of his divorce, but, still, he’d traveled.

Carly hadn’t had the freedom to do any of those things, had never been much further than the outskirts of Memphis’s city limits.

He wanted her to have that freedom.

Which made him stop to question himself. She didn’t want that freedom. Wouldn’t choose that freedom. She wanted every moment she could have with her mother.

Even when she exhausted herself and carried the burden alone.

Still, she was grateful for his help even if she didn’t really want to accept it.

Was gratitude what had put that light in her eyes earlier? The light that had made him want to toss the hammer down and take her into his arms?

He hoped not, but the notion wouldn’t let go.

Just as the notion that Carly needed his friendship more than she needed him as anything more nagged.

If they became lovers, would they be able to remain friends, afterwards?

He hit his thumb with the hammer, cursed, and stuck the pounding appendage into his mouth as if that would somehow help.

He pulled it out of his mouth and inspected the damage. A little red, but no real harm done.

He straightened the nail he should have hit instead of his thumb, then drove it into the board with his hammer.

If he really wanted to help Carly, they should remain just friends.

* * *

At the banging noise, Carly excused herself from her mother despite her reluctance to leave her side.

“What are you doing?” she asked Stone, stepping out onto the porch and staring at where he was hammering nails into a loose board.