She closed her eyes. “Why are you saying this?”

“Because it’s true. Because I miss you. Because I never really believed we were just friends. I wanted you for myself from the beginning, but when I learned about your mom, I realized you deserved a life without being tied down to someone.”

“I don’t consider taking care of my mother as being tied down,” she defended, crossing her arms, and daring him with her expression to say otherwise.

“I didn’t mean your mother,” he clarified. “I meant me.”

What he was saying seemed to sink in and her expression softened. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“I’m sure you do.”

She didn’t deny his claim, just glanced toward her sleeping mother, then took on a resolved look.

“I was practically engaged in college,” she told him. “His name was Tony and we were crazy about each other. We were going to graduate with our nursing degrees and sign on to be travel nurses and go around the world together.”

She walked over to the foot of her mother’s bed, straightened a wrinkle in the quilt that covered her.

“Everything was wonderful until Momma got so sick and quit working. She’d made a mess of her bills, taken out loans against the house, and was on the verge of losing everything. I moved home, took on extra hours waitressing at the restaurant where we went that first night, and somehow managed to keep going to school and keep my scholarship.”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—you are the strongest woman I know.”

“I feel weak,” she admitted. “I feel weak that I wanted you so much that I carried on with you at the hospital and pretended it meant nothing because I didn’t want to stop. I feel weak that I didn’t make you stay away, that I wasn’t strong enough to stop this before it got started, before emotions got all tangled up.” She paused, took a deep breath. “I feel weak that I’m not able to juggle all this so I can keep you in my life.”

She stopped, closed her eyes. “I feel weak that I want you so much that I want to just forget everything else and be with you.”

“Carly,” he began, but she held up her hand.

“I’m not that person, Stone. I’m not somebody who can turn her back on someone she loves and I love my momma.” Her face became pained. “The problem is, I love you, too.”

Carly couldn’t believe she’d said the words out loud. That she’d just told Stone that she was in love with him.

That he hadn’t run out of the room. Or laughed in her face.

Instead, he stood next to her mother’s hospital bed and just stared at her.

“I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say to that, Carly. Am I supposed to tell you that I’m sorry you love me?”

She swallowed the knot forming in her throat.

“Because I’m not,” he continued. “Maybe I should be since it obviously stresses you, but I’m not,” he repeated, his gaze searching hers as he walked to her, placed his hands on her shoulders and stared down into her eyes. “I want you to love me, Carly,” he admitted. “Even when part of me doesn’t want to complicate your life or add to your stress or to tie your future down, I want you to love me.”

She trembled within his hold, then whatever walls were still in place crumbled and, tears running down her cheeks, she leaned against him. “I’m sorry, Stone,” she mumbled against his chest. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you everything from the beginning, that I let things happen between us when we can’t be together. Not now or ever because I can’t bear the thought of asking you to wait.”

* * *

Stone hugged Carly, breathed in her sweet scent, wanted to freeze time to this moment when she was safe in his arms.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t.

And maybe he didn’t really want to, because there were still things between him and Carly that needed to be removed.

“I need to tell you about that baggage I once mentioned.” He took a deep breath. “I got married while in graduate school.”

Carly jerked out of his arms, gawked up at him, her expression one full of betrayal. “You’re married?”

“Divorced,” he corrected. “We didn’t make it a full year.”

She was confused, her expression softening. “What happened?”

“I didn’t love her, but…she was pregnant and marriage was the right thing. I wanted to help her, to make things better for her and our baby. It’s what I planned to do. What I tried to do.”

Mind obviously blown, she choked out, “You have a child?”