Chapter Twenty-Seven – Prepare to Grovel
by Jannine Gallant
Mitch paid the cab driver and stepped out onto the slushy street. A cold wind blew down the back of his neck, and he shivered in his denim jacket. After ten years in Georgia, he’d forgotten how damn cold New York winters were.
Not nearly as cold as I’ll be if Candy refuses to listen.
Taking a breath, he pushed random buttons for the secure building, lighting up the board. Every button but Candy’s. He wanted to look into her eyes when he spoke to her, not beg for forgiveness through an intercom. Finally the door buzzed, and he pushed it open.
His heart pounded in his chest as he climbed the stairs carrying his overnight bag, too keyed up to wait for the elevator. His feet echoed hollowly in the stairwell. Exiting on her floor, he stood in front of the door and raised his fist.
Then lowered it.
Closing his eyes, he leaned against the wall. “Get it together, moron,” he muttered. If she tells me to drop dead… He shuddered.
Rapping softly on the door, he waited with his heart in his throat. The door cracked open, chain attached, and one wary hazel eye regarded him. It widened before Candy shut the door in his face.
All his blood drained straight to his feet, and he swayed. God, I’m not going to get a chance to explain. If only she’d listen…
Raising his fist to launch a fresh attack, the door swung wide. He caught himself on the jam to avoid toppling inside. Embarrassment surged as he took a step back.
Candy wore pink flannel pajamas, and her hair was hauled back in a sloppy ponytail. Face devoid of make-up, her eyes were red-rimmed and a little puffy. Had she been crying? His heart expanded. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
Mitch swallowed. “Hi.”
One brow shot up. “Hi, that’s all you have to say?”
“No, but I’d rather not say it in the hall.”
She stepped back and gestured him inside. “I was thinking about—Major.”
Leaving his bag in the foyer, he followed her across an acre of off-white carpet and sank into a butter-soft leather couch. Close enough to touch her if he stretched out a hand… He clenched his fingers together in his lap.
“Major missed you. I missed you. Candy…” He cleared his throat.
“I missed you, too.” Her voice cracked a little. “But nothing’s changed. You lied to me about—everything.”
He let out a shuddering breath, shifted closer, and picked up her hand. Smoothing the back of it with his thumb, it took all his willpower not to grab her and kiss her. “I’m ready to explain about that.”
He saw a flicker of hope in the clear hazel depths of her eyes, and smiled. “Jeb suggested groveling.”
Her lips curved in response. “Jeb is a wise man. If you don’t start talking, I’m going to head back to Georgia and marry him.”
Leaning against the couch cushions, he held her gaze. “I’m not sure where to begin.”
Her grip tightened on his. “How about with why you changed your name and moved to the middle of nowhere. If I can understand your reasons, maybe I can forgive you for not telling me the truth.” Her nails dug into his palm. “Maybe.”
He reminded himself this was Candy, the woman he loved. Suddenly, telling her everything didn’t seem like an impossible task. The tightness in his chest eased as he opened his mouth.
“Ten years ago, Crawford Industries was located in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.” He heard her indrawn breath but didn’t pause. “On that day in September when everything changed, I was late to work, home nursing a hangover.” He squeezed his eyes closed, then forced them open. “I lived. Friends and co-workers didn’t. They call it survivor’s guilt.”
“Oh, God, Mitch. I’m so sorry.” She bent her head and kissed their tightly clasped hands, her lips whisper soft. “I can’t imagine what you must have felt.”
“I was worthless for months afterward, and my father…” He hesitated and stared at the floor. “He told me to be a man and move on.” Raising his head, he met her concerned gaze full on. “So, I did. I left New York and Crawford Industries and moved to Georgia. Michael Crawford III died with everyone else in the towers. I became Mitch Johnson, a man whose skin I could live in, a man I could respect.”
“There was nothing wrong with Michael. Nothing at all.” She grasped his arms and gave them a shake. “You were the better man for caring. I’m sorry your father couldn’t see that.”
He sighed. “You’re right, but I couldn’t stay in New York. I had to get away.”
She drew her finger down the seam in the cushion, avoiding his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me who you were? Didn’t you trust me to understand?”
Mitch swallowed. He had to tell her the truth, even if she walked away. There’d been too many lies between them.
Pulling her close, their thighs touched, sending a shot of desire straight to his groin. When she didn’t shove him away, he slipped his arm around her waist. Her head dropped onto his shoulder, fitting perfectly in the hollow of his neck.
“Honestly, I didn’t trust you at first. You were a city girl with attitude.” When she stiffened, he held on tight. “But that changed as I got to know you again. The Candy I cared about all those years ago emerged and won my heart.”
“You had plenty of chances to confess, Mitch.” There was an edge to her voice that sent a quiver through him.
“I tried more than once, but the words stuck in my throat. My past isn’t something I talk about to many people.”
“So I’m the same as everyone else?”
“No, of course you’re not.” He rubbed a hand across his face. “I’m making it worse, when all I want…”
She spoke softly. “Tell me what you want, Mitch.”
“I want you, Candy. No one else. Just you.”