She’d never believed in fairy tales. Certainly not the prettied up versions she’d tried to read to Brian a few times. Caleb hadn’t liked that and they’d gone in the trash with everything else he hadn’t approved off.
If she’d ever been in a fairy tale, it wouldn’t have been as the princess who found her happily ever after. No, she thought her life might be the exact opposite of that. She got the prince who had seemed so charming, but underneath it all, he was the evil villain. At eighteen, when Caleb first came back from basic training, he’d looked so fine in his uniform, she’d called him her knight. She thought he’d always protect her.
He was the one she’d needed protection from.
The front door swung open, and her shoulders hunched. She scrubbed harder at the counter. She didn’t want the evil prince catching her slacking off on her duties.
Her shoulders slumped. Of course, it wasn’t Caleb. Caleb was dead. Why did he still have such a hold over her, even though he’d been dead for years?
“In the kitchen, Brian,” she called, her voice wavering as she tried to overcome that rush of panic.
“Patrick’s with me,” he called back as he came down the hallway. “Said he hasn’t seen you in a few days.”
And the panic came back. Not because she thought Patrick would ever hurt her. He didn’t have that meanness in him. But, he’d seen her at her lowest, back when she was sure Caleb would kill her. And what had he done? He’d tried to help, to get her away. But, she’d only turned her back on him. If anyone, he was the prince. But, she was only an ugly stepsister. Why would he even want her?
Then, he was there, standing at the other end of the counter. “Natalie. How are you? I haven’t seen you around town.”
His voice held so much worry, it nearly broke her in two. How could he even care about her? She kept turning her back on him, but he was always there. Never pushing her for anything. Just there.
“I’m fine,” she said. “Just had a couple days off, so I’ve been getting some things done around here.”
She saw him glance away, probably to where Brian stood. She wished they wouldn’t worry about her so much. She was doing just fine. She had her moments still, but she didn’t need anyone to rescue her.
“Why don’t we go out for lunch today, Mom?” Brian suggested. “You need to get out of the house for more than just work.”
This wasn’t the first time he’d told her this. Still she bristled against it. “I can make something. I’m perfectly capable.” Not worthless. Not completely useless. Not-
“I know, Mom.” Now, Brian’s voice was soft and near her, then his hand rested on her arm, as if he knew just what thoughts went through her head. He’d probably fought against similar ones. Caleb had used words to hurt just as much as his fists.
“It’ll be my treat,” Patrick suggested. “Brian’s been working extra hours on this case recently. It’s the least I can do.”
“I can’t let you do that,” she said, finally turning toward him.
“I want to do it, though. Natalie,” he said, his voice so soft she couldn’t bring herself to look into his face. “I’m still a friend. Let me buy you some lunch.”
If she didn’t, she knew Brian would do it for her. And he had a second child on the way. He might make decent money working for Patrick, but he didn’t need to be spending it on her when he had his own family to take care of. “Let me get changed, then we can go,” she said.
“You already look wonderful,” Patrick told her, taking her hand.
She felt heat rise to her cheeks, and it made it even harder to look in his face. She pulled her hand free and whispered, “I’ll be right back.”
Patrick watched Natalie walk away and closed his eyes. Why did looking at her have to hurt even after all these years? He wished she’d meet his eyes, just once. Maybe then she’d see the truth in them.
She hadn’t seen the truth for the last thirty years.
He should have fought for her back then. Instead of just letting Caleb have her. He’d considered the man a friend at one time, and he knew just what she’d seen in him. He’d always had a streak of mean in him, but Patrick had never thought he’d turn it on the woman he claimed to love. Or his own son.
He could feel that son watching him now. “When are you going to ask my mom out, Patrick?”
“Anyone ever tell you you’re too observant for your own good?”
“You do all the time. I think anyone would see it, though.”
“She never has.”
“She never saw she’d be better off without him, either. That both of us would have been.”
“She had her reasons,” Patrick said.
Brian didn’t say anything to that, and Patrick knew the only reason was that Natalie had to be returning. He’d told her she didn’t have to change, and he’d meant it. But, the shirt she’d slipped into had his temperature rising. It wasn’t anything revealing. Natalie wouldn’t wear anything like that. But, for some reason it had him wanting to reach out and touch.
He was afraid she’d shy away from his touch.
“You ready?” he asked, wishing his voice didn’t sound so rough.
She hesitated but nodded then headed out of the house. They were just about to Patrick’s car when Brian said, “I just remembered. I was going to meet Ashley for lunch. I better go.”
Natalie’s head whipped around and Patrick watched as her eyes narrowed. But, Brian only grinned. “I’ll see you this afternoon.” Then, he brushed his lips over Natalie’s forehead. “Love you, Mom.”
Patrick barely held in a chuckle as Brian hurried toward his own car. He’d wondered what the boy’d had up his sleeve. It had been his idea to have Patrick come along for lunch. He glanced over at Natalie and saw her face had gone white. He didn’t want her to be scared of spending time with him.
“We don’t have to go to lunch if you don’t want, Natalie. I swear I didn’t know he was going to do that.”
She drew in a long trembling breath then let it back out. “I know. Brian’s been his own person long before he was an adult. I need to eat anyway. And he’s right. I need to get out of the house.”
Patrick let out a breath of relief then and opened the passenger side door of her car. Once she was inside, he closed the door and turned to walk around to the other side. But, first he closed his eyes for a moment. He knew he was no prince charming, his first wife had accused him of pretending to be just that, with everyone but her. He just wish Natalie realized he wasn’t an evil dragon either.