“I always envied you, you know,” Daniel quietly stated. “I know that you lost your parents when you were really young but, God, you had this family that was pretty damn awesome.”
“How would you know that? I mean, thanks to the feud, it’s not like we saw much of each other growing up.”
“Before I came to live with Grandmother full-time, I saw you when I was visiting. At church, at the town parade, the cookout at the community center.” A small smile touched Daniel’s face. “And maybe I saw more of you than I should’ve...”
“Meaning?” Alex demanded.
Daniel lifted one powerful shoulder. “I used to sneak onto Slade land, head for the tree house and watch you and your brother.” He grimaced. “I’m sorry, that sounds creepy as hell, but I was young and, I suppose, lonely. After I moved to The Silver C, I started at school and life became busy and I stopped sneaking onto Slade land.”
“Until the day you came across me in the high meadow. You were trespassing.”
Daniel’s mouth twitched. “I was on Clayton land.”
“You wish you were,” Alex retorted, her voice holding no heat, because how could it? Memories washed over her, as sweet as that summer’s day. They’d started arguing about who was trespassing and before they knew it, they were inching closer and then Daniel grabbed her hips and she his biceps, and their lips touched.
“And then you kissed me.”
“You kissed me,” Alex replied because she was expected to. Soft laughter followed their familiar argument and Alex dropped her forehead to rest it on Daniel’s muscled shoulder. “We loved each other so much, Dan, but it vaporized. I don’t understand how that happened.”
Daniel moved his head so that he could kiss her hair. “You asked me to do the one thing I could not do. You told me that leaving was the only way I could prove my love and that you would only carry on loving me if I did what you asked.”
Alex frowned. “I don’t remember saying that.”
“Trust me, I heard it. And then you made me choose, Alex.”
“And you chose The Silver C.”
His easy agreement hurt, but for the first time since she was eighteen, Alex felt the need to push aside the pain and understand. Daniel wasn’t a guy who was careless with people’s feelings, and she wanted to know and understand what drove him back then.
She was having a child with the man, so she had the right to try to understand him.
“I have no idea who my father is. He left before I was born, or so my mother said. She also said that he left after I was born, so who the hell knows what’s true? I was raised in apartments, in trailers, in rented rooms and, for one memorable month, a women’s shelter.”
Dan ran his hand through his thick hair, then over his face. This wasn’t easy for him and Alex respected him for opening up.
“Life with my mother was a matter of measuring the depth of the trouble and debt we were in—sometimes it was nose-deep and we were about to drown, and sometimes it was only ankle-deep. But it was always there...and she created most of it.”
Alex kept her eyes on his face, scared to move in case he had second thoughts and stopped talking. She schooled her features because she knew that sympathy would make him clam up as quickly as inane platitudes would.
Stay still, don’t breathe and just listen, Slade.
“When Stephanie tired of me or couldn’t cope, she’d send me to Grandmother at The Silver C. Or my grandmother would ask to have me. Either way, she had to pay to have me at The Silver C. I once tried to work out how much she paid my mom and I stopped counting after fifty thousand dollars.”
A low whistle escaped.
“Yeah, my mom was a piece of work,” Daniel said, his voice steady and unemotional. But Alex could see the pain in his eyes and noticed the tiniest tremble in his bottom lip. His mother’s lack of maternal instinct and his father’s lack of interest still had the power to hurt him, Alex realized.
“So yeah, I watched you and seeing you with your family, with Sarah, I was envious of how much you were loved. How secure you felt.” Daniel placed his hand on her thigh and skimmed the tips of his fingers across her knee. “That summer, I know that you argued with Gus, with Sarah—you were angry with them so often.”