He’d been such a fool, a coward. He removed his hand from her shoulder and picked his tea back up. Guilt turned the tea bitter.
“I’m glad they brought you comfort.” She ran her finger over his name on the envelope. “Glad you didn’t open them.”
“Chump move on my part.”
“No.” She set the candy and letters down. “Your job needed your focus. I knew that. I wouldn’t change what happened for anything.”
He snorted a humorless laugh and slammed his empty mug onto the crate. “You needed me.”
“I wanted you, but I didn’t need you.” Julie took his hand in hers. “I needed to learn that I had strength on my own. That I didn’t need you rescuing me all the time. If you had been there to help, I never would’ve found that out.”
He got that. He did. Though her strength had always impressed him, drawing him to her. Maybe he had been the one that had needed her rescuing him all along.
He’d certainly clung to her letters like they were the only lifeline to reality—to peace—when his world was overrun with brutal conflict. Where she’d pushed past her leaning on him, he’d clutched her memory close. Replayed their life together so many times, all other memories of his childhood faded to dull gray.
Between the two of them, Julie possessed all the strength.
He’d siphoned all he could from her, bulking up his own gutlessness. Shutting down all emotion so he could do his job, then coming back to her swooping handwriting across the envelope and charging up with her compassionate strength like some robot.
“I don’t regret what happened.” Julie tucked the letters back in their spot and snatched the candy back up. “Well, that’s not entirely true. I regret one thing.”
She rolled the bag in her hand, staring at it, but her eyes were unseeing. He’d disappointed her in so many ways. How could she only have one regret? His numbered so many he could walk from the North Pole to the South and back and not step on one twice.
“I… I wish the cancer had waited a few more months. That the cancer had spared our son.” She swallowed, a tear tracing down her cheek.
“We had a son?” Gunnar brushed the pad of his thumb across her skin and dried the tear. His heart clenched at the news, renewed pain spiking him with the loss.
“Yeah.” She closed her eyes and leaned into his touch. “Losing him was worse than all the rest combined—the cancer, the treatment—all of it.”
“I can’t imagine what you went through.”
She turned and kissed his palm. The quick pressure exploded heat in his hand that spread up his arm like he held a flare on the hot end. Focusing back on the candy, she shook the bag and cringed.
“You should’ve seen me. I lost all my hair.” She smiled, shaking her head in lightheartedness. “When it started growing back in, Saylor would put it in these ridiculous little ponytails all over my head. We’d spike them up, then rub different colors of hair chalk on each spike. I’d go like that to the treatment center and joke with the other patients about what they had to look forward to.”
Just like Jules to lift others up even though she had to have been suffering herself.
“I bet you looked beautiful. Gorgeous, just like always.” Gunnar meant every word.
She was so breathtaking, it hurt to be near her. He ran his fingers through the ends of her hair, wishing he’d been the one helping her laugh through the treatments.
“I lost other things too.”
The joviality in her tone faltered. She placed the candy down and looked at him. His muscles froze, like he was bracing for the impact of an incoming explosion.
“They had to take everything, my uterus and tubes. All of it had to go.” Her voice cracked, sending shards of shrapnel into his chest.
She’d always gone on and on about wanting a big family like his. Said being an only child was too lonely. Of course, all her talk of children and dreams had stopped shortly after he’d started spouting his stupid plan of cutting ties when he joined the military. Her dreams, though, thoughts of a handful of children or more with her caring spirit and his sense of adventure, had set up a tent in his brain like some vendor at the county fair. Each time he ventured a peek, he wanted to buy the entire inventory.
“I’m sorry, honey.”
She sniffed with a shrug. “Made it easy to focus on mushing and helping Dad build the kennel into something amazing. Who’d want someone with so much baggage and no chance of having a family?”
“I would.” The words burst from his mouth, throwing all his hopes into the still, chilled air.