Unbreak my Heart, page 6
Willow gave him a slow exaggerated nod. “I promise!”
“Then I guess it’s okay for you to run ahead if it’s okay with your mom?”
“Okay,” Clare said, rolling her eyes, “but be careful by the water until we get there.”
“Thank you Mama, thank you Crank,” Willow said excitedly. “I will.”
Before running off she grabbed her mother’s hand again and guided it over to Crank’s. “Here Mama you can hold Crank’s hand while I’m gone. He won’t mind.” She pushed their hands together and waited until their fingers entwined. “There ya go.” she said chirpily. “I’ll see you two at the lake.”
When she had skipped out of earshot Crank turned to Clare and smiled. “She’s quite the little match maker.”
Clare looked up at Crank and raised an eyebrow. “Is that such a bad thing?”
Crank was confused; his heart was hammering in his chest telling him to go for it; that Clare and Willow could help mend his broken heart and allow him to feel love again, but at the same time his head was cautioning him and reminding him of his decision to back off before he got too involved.
Clare gently squeezed his hand. “You’ve made a huge impression on her you know,” she said softly, brushing a stray lock of hair back behind her ear. “I’ve never seen her take to someone as quickly as she has taken to you, especially being a man. Normally she’s quite shy until she gets to know someone properly.”
Crank impulsively leaned down to kiss her, but before he could Willow was back by their side. “Mama,” she exclaimed wide-eyed, the forest keeps going all the way out into the water. There are tall trees standing in the lake!”
She grabbed Crank’s other hand and tugged on it excitedly. “Crank, hurry up, where’s my surprise?”
Crank looked forlornly at Clare. He had wanted to kiss her so badly, but the moment had now passed and he was deeply disappointed. Forcing a smile, he pointed to the thin timber jetty where he had sat to drink his coffee earlier that morning. “It’s just up there by the jetty,” he explained, “not much further, I promise.”
When they reached the jetty, Clare and Willow both spotted the old wooden dinghy moored to the jetty. “Crank, is that our surprise?” Willow asked, pointing to the weathered, grey boat that had possibly once been white.
“It sure is!” he assured her. “How would you ladies like to come for a scenic row with me out on the lake for a half hour or so?”
“Clare looked a little apprehensive. “Is it safe? It looks so old.”
Crank nodded his head to reassure her. “It don’t look much, I’ll grant ya that, but I checked it over this morning and it is still very solid and safe.”
“But who does it belong to?” she asked, still not convinced that going out on the water in it was such a great idea. “What if the owner comes looking for it and finds it gone?”
Crank let go of her hand and walked out along the jetty until he reached the old boat and gently dragged it around in the water until they could both plainly see the name on the side of it.
“Hey, that’s my name!” Willow exclaimed excitedly, pointing to the word WILLOW, neatly painted in large faded, black letters near the stern.
“I have a feeling that this old dinghy belonged to your great granddaddy,” Crank explained to Willow as the two girls reached his side. “Either that or it’s one heck of a coincidence.” He looked up at Clare. “And if I’m right, that makes you and Willow the new owners of this boat. So what do you say we jump in and go for a nice, scenic row around the lake to test it out?”
Both of the girls looked at each other and grinned excitedly. “Yes please!” they agreed in unison.
As the three of them slowly meandered around the lake in the small, wooden dinghy, Crank suddenly realised that he was feeling genuinely happy and relaxed for the first time since Georgia and Ellie had been killed. And for the first time in six years he had actually spent an hour or so of his life without thinking about them. What’s more he was distracted not only by Clare’s beauty, but also by the timeless beauty of the lake and its surroundings.
As the realisation hit him, he suddenly felt guilty. What sort of man was he? His wife and precious daughter, Ellie, were dead and here he was frolicking and enjoying himself with a new family as if they never existed; as if they were something that he could simply replace and move on.
Clare noticed the sudden frown on Crank’s face and felt confused. He had seemed in good spirits when they had left her cabin for the lake and certainly seemed cheerful enough as they set out in the boat .She had been discreetly watching his enthralled facial features for the past half hour as he effortlessly rowed them around the lake and gave them a commentary about some of the fauna they had encountered, such as the majestic Peregrine Falcon, which had briefly circled overhead to check them out, and the very cheeky pair of Alligator Snapping Turtles which had briefly followed their boat.
Clare had also been discreetly admiring his powerful biceps as he stroked the oars, and imagined what it would be like to feel his lips on hers and how it would feel to be held in those powerful arms.
“Is anything wrong Crank?” she asked, rousing him out of his reverie.
“Please forgive me for frowning,” he apologised, forcing a smile. “I guess I’m just a little worried about my brother-in-law, Eli,” he lied, deciding not to tell her about his own tragic family losses and the guilt he was enduring for feeling happy for the first time since their deaths. He glanced down at his watch. “It’s getting late and I still have to drive in to Marshall to pick up my nephews. I’d better start rowing us back toward the jetty or I’ll be late picking them up.”
During the walk back to Clare’s cabin, Crank noticed that Clare was unusually quiet. “Clare, can we talk?” he asked, a minute or so after Willow had let go of their hands and announced that she was running ahead to wait for them on her mother’s porch. This time she had not linked their hands together as she had done on the way to the lake, and now, as they walked side by side, the silence and awkwardness between them was almost uncomfortable and deafening.
“To be honest Crank, I can’t quite figure you out,” Clare said sadly, breaking the silence. “One minute you’re warm and open and friendly and the next minute you’re cool and moody and withdrawn. To tell you the truth it’s doing my head in. It feels like one minute you want to spend time with us and the next minute you don’t. I wish you could make up your mind.”
Crank reached down and took her hand in his. Without speaking, he lifted it to his lips and kissed it gently. “I’m attracted to you Clare,” he said softly. “I have been since I first laid eyes on you yesterday, and it’s scaring the hell out of me.” He put a finger under her chin and gently lifted her gaze to meet his. “Clare, I’m 35 years old yet whenever I’m near you my pulse starts racing and my heart starts pounding like a lovesick teenager.”
Clare felt her heart skip a beat. “I’ve been feeling the same way about you too,” she admitted. “But every time I look at you and my body reacts, I feel guilty, as if I’m cheating on Clay.” On impulse, she lifted up onto her tippy-toes and gave him a gentle kiss on the lips.
“What’s that for?” he drawled.
Clare grinned. “No particular reason. It’s just that I’ve been wanting to do that since you tried to kiss me earlier on our way to the lake.”
Crank’s lips were still tingling from the unexpected kiss and his heart was hammering uncontrollably, but the guilt that he was experiencing earlier lessened despite the intimacy of the moment and he smiled at the irony. “I guess I owe you an explanation for my hot and cold behaviour,” he said, leading her by the hand to the shade of a large nearby Cypress. “I lost my wife, Georgia, and my six-year-old daughter, Ellie, in an automobile accident in Austin just over six years ago,” he confided. “Today in the boat when you asked me if something was wrong, I lied. I wasn’t thinking about my brother-in-law, I was feeling guilty for feeling truly happy for the first t
Clare gently took his other hand as well. “Oh my God!” she exclaimed sympathetically. “I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to lose a child. I mean, I was completely shattered when I lost Clay, and it took me a long time to bounce back, but if I had lost Willow at the same time …?” She shuddered and left the sentence unfinished. “Crank, I am so sorry.”
He wanted desperately to change the subject and lighten the mood, but he felt compelled to continue; to explain himself so she could better understand his irregular mood swings. “When I found out Georgia and Ellie had been killed,” he continued, “a large part of me died with them and I honestly thought that I would never be happy again. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t ever really want to be happy again. But yesterday something changed. You and Willow ignited a tiny spark somewhere deep inside me and I think it’s begun to slowly thaw my frozen heart.”
“So what happens now?” she asked breathlessly.
Crank shrugged his shoulders. “I wish I knew. Last night I thought it would be best if I slowly drew away from you and Willow to protect myself from getting hurt again, but now I’m not so sure? Every time I see you I feel like my heart is being kick-started after being in tatters for so long, and when I interact with Willow her innocence and vitality and genuine enthusiasm for life makes me remember all the things I loved about being a parent and I suddenly can’t remember why I vowed not to risk falling in love and becoming a parent again.”
Clare glanced over at her cabin and saw Willow waiting patiently for them to hurry up and get there. She had painstakingly dragged a chair to the edge of the porch and was sitting in it watching them intensely with her little legs kicking as if she didn’t have a care in the world.
Clare’s heart did a little somersault, she so desperately wanted to grab Crank and just hold him to help take away some of his pain, but for Willow’s sake she knew she had to take things nice and slow and make sure that Crank was prepared to stick around for the long haul. At the moment, as much as she felt drawn to him and enjoyed his company, she had to consider the effect on Willow if he was to get involved in their lives and then suddenly get cold feet and do a runner back to Austin. Willow already adored him and was always asking, ‘Mom, when are we gonna go see Crank again?’
“Hey, slow down a bit,” she said, trying to hide the fact that she was still feeling giddy from their kiss. “You’re getting a bit ahead of yourself. Let’s just agree to enjoy each other’s company over the next couple of weeks and see where it leads.”
Crank slipped an arm around her waist and they resumed walking. “I’d like that very much,” he admitted.
“I have a confession to make,” Clare announced happily as they reached her porch. “I was going to invite you over to our cabin for dinner tonight to thank you for generously fixing my car, so today, when we were in Karnack, I bought all these extra ingredients for the meal, but now you have to drive into Marshall and pick up your nephews.” She slipped her arms around Crank’s neck and pulled his head down so she could kiss him full on the lips. “I was planning on doing that after the meal when Willow was in bed,” she whispered breathlessly as their lips parted, but seeing as though you can’t come …”
“Will the food keep for a day?” he groaned, kissing her back before she could answer.
When their lips finally parted, Clare felt so giddy she could barely speak. “It should keep fresh for a few more days, why?”
“Good. Then you and Willow can come along for the drive to Marshall this evening, and once we have picked up my nephews I will drive us around ‘til we find an eat-in pizza joint and then fill us all up with pizzas and soda. What do you say?”
Willow’s ears pricked up. “Did you say pizza, Crank? Yum, pizza is my favourite!”
“Good. Me too!” he agreed, smiling down at her. “What do you say, Clare? Would you and Willow like to accompany me to Marshall this evening?”
Clare fiddled in her pocket for a key and slipped it into the keyhole of her front door. “Willow and I would love to, but only under one condition.”
“And what’s that?” Crank asked curiously.
Clare pushed open the front door. “That you let me shout the pizzas and soda. It’s the least I can do to repay you for replacing my radiator today.”
Crank glimpsed down at his watch. “It’s a deal. How ‘bout I head back to my cabin, grab a shower and get changed and then pick you both up around six? That should get us into Marshall in plenty of time to meet the boy’s bus at seven.”
Clare looked down at her daughter and raised her brows. “I think us ladies can manage to get ourselves ready by six. What do you think Willow?”
Willow giggled loudly. “Yeah Mama, we can do it!”
As Clare stood at the cabin door waiting for Willow to drag the chair she had been sitting on back into place, Crank hovered by the edge of her porch, totally mesmerised by her incredible beauty.
Clare shooed him with her hands like she would a stray cat. “Go on, scoot,” she said as Willow skipped past her into the cabin, “or we’ll be late picking up your nephews.”
“Uncle Crank!” The twins called out in unison as they spotted him with Clare and Willow waiting on the footpath by the bus stop. “It’s so great to see you again.” Both boys gave him a brief hug before following the bus driver to the luggage compartment to fetch their luggage.
When they returned with their bags Crank did the formal introductions. “Clare and Willow I would like to introduce you both to my nephews, Edward and Michael,” pointing to each nephew in turn as he said their name.
“Hi Clare. Hi Willow,” Edward piped up instantly, greeting Clare with a smile and a brief handshake.
“Hi Clare. Hi Willow,” Michael added, stifling a yawn as he shook Clare’s hand.
Willow looked up at their almost identical faces. “Wow you two look exactly the same! How will I tell you apart?”
“That’s easy,” Michael replied, “I’m the smart one. Just ask me anything you need to know and I’ll tell ya; and if I don’t know the answer I’ll Google it.” He crouched down and shook Willow’s hand.
“Really?” Willow asked wide mouthed, not too sure whether to believe him or not.”
“He thinks he is,” Edward retorted, crouching down beside his brother to also shake her hand, “but it’s not true. It’s just that I like to use my brain for cooler things like sport and drawing cool tattoo art and making my friends laugh rather than filling it with useless information.”
“You don’t call it useless information when you need my help to study,” Michael jibed, giving Edward a playful shove which made him land on his butt.
Edward got to his feet and dusted off the back of his jeans. “Actually, Willow, there’s a much easier way to tell us apart,” he grinned, pulling Michael back up beside him and running his flattened palm from the top of his own head over to Michael’s and back again. “I’m taller than Michael by a quarter of an inch as you can plainly see.” He then pointed to the laptop case Michael was holding and the Hunger Games book tucked under his arm and rolled his eyes. “Besides, he will have his nose buried in that book or in his computer all day if Uncle Crank lets him get away with it.”
Crank walked over and squeezed his way between his two nephews, placing a hand on each of their shoulders. “Normally I would love to stand around and listen to your sibling rivalry until you run out of derogatory things to say to each other,” he drawled, “but tonight I am shouting us all to pizza and sodas for dinner so pick up your luggage and follow us to the car. I am starved.”
“Ahem.” Clare interrupted loudly, putting her hands on her hips and raising her eyebrows in mock protest “Who did you say was shouting the pizza and sodas tonight, Crank?”
“Sorry, my mistake, Crank apologised. He placed an arm around Clare’s shoulder. “Clare is shouting for the pizzas and so
Edward turned to Clare. “Thanks for shouting us all pizza tonight,” he said wryly, “but I just hope you don’t regret it when you see how much pizza Uncle Crank can eat. Mom always used to say he’s like a bottomless pit when he’s hungry.”
Clare looked up at Crank and smiled a dimpled smile that made him want to whisk her into his arms and kiss her again right there on the spot. “I think I should be able to cover it ... just,” she quipped, “but if I was a little short I’m sure your uncle could lend me a few bucks to cover it.”
This time it was Michael who decided to add his two bob’s worth. “Actually,” he piped up, “Uncle Crank is so rich he …”
Crank was forced to act fast. “Could afford to shout the whole meal,” he cut in before Michael had a chance to spill the beans about his vast wealth. “Providing, of course, that you two nephews of mine haven’t also both turned into bottomless pits since I last saw you.”
Michael looked at him strangely, but said nothing.
“Well, bottomless pits are my concern for tonight and mine alone,” Clare reminded Crank as he opened up the back of his 4WD so that Michael and Edward could put their luggage in. “And I am fairly certain that I can cover the cost of our meals regardless of how much anybody eats.”
Once they were all in the car and buckled up, Crank started the engine and headed back to Karnack. “I’m fairly certain that I spotted a pizza joint a couple of blocks from where I dropped you ladies off in town yesterday,” he said, glancing at Clare.
As he drove toward the heart of Karnack they passed a Thai and a Mexican restaurant and several high profile American fast food chains intermingled amongst the shops. “I don’t think it’s too much further now,” he said, turning on his indicator as he approached a set of lights. “I’m fairly certain that it was right… yup, just as I remembered.” He pointed to the large pink and white sign with a massive picture of a pizza as he turned the corner. “… just around the corner on the left.”