Authors: Sharon De Vita
“Jesse,” she said again as her lids slid closed and her hand lifted to smother the sob that struggled for freedom. “Oh my God, Jesse.” It had been so long since she’d allowed herself to say or even think his name because she’d been unable to bear the tremendous pain and grief the mere thought of his disappearance brought on.
Grief that, as a child, she hadn’t known how to handle or what to do with. How does a five-year-old cope with the knowledge that her best friend—her only friend—has disappeared and that she’ll never see him again?
It had been too heavy a loss for someone so young to understand or to carry. So she’d buried the pain deep inside her heart, where it had been covered over by other losses, more grief from a life and a family that had not turned out as she’d wanted, expected or needed.
“My God, Jesse, I can’t believe it.” Her voice was stronger now, but she couldn’t stop staring at him, tears streaming down her face as her pulse raced like a runaway train.
“Please don’t cry,” he said gently, taking a step closer and tenderly wiping a tear from her cheek. Stunned by her reaction to his slight touch, Hannah let her lids lower as she savored the feelings storming through her. When he’d touched her, she’d felt a tingle of electricity strong enough to light up six counties.
With any other man such a reaction would have sent her running in the opposite direction as fast as her legs could carry her. But this was Jesse, she reminded herself. And Jesse had always been different, special to her.
“Jesse, is it really you?” she asked. Stepping closer, Hannah knew she had to touch him, just to assure herself he was here and he was real.
Through eyes blurred with tears she tipped her head back to look at him, then laid her hands on the broad expanse of his chest, feeling her pulse—and his heart—jump in response.
Jesse sighed, a little off balance, a little frightened by the feelings, as well as the memories, swarming over him. Memories he never realized had been buried somewhere within and now could not be ignored or denied, a fact that only added to his emotional confusion.
As did the sight and touch of this incredibly beautiful woman.
“Yeah, darlin’, I reckon it’s really me.” He smiled at her and Hannah was certain someone had hitched the sun a notch. The world somehow seemed brighter. More beautiful.
Hannah didn’t think, she couldn’t, she merely reacted, throwing her arms around his waist and burying her face in his chest, holding on to him as if she could hold him to her forever.
“Oh, Jesse, I thought I’d never see you again.”
“I know, darlin’, sorta seemed that way, didn’t it?” he said, not knowing exactly how to respond to her. With her lush, curvy little body pressed against his, he found his own body reacting and responding in a way that shocked him. Since his mother’s death three months ago, he hadn’t felt anything, it was as if he’d gone cold and dead inside.
Until he’d touched her.
Unable to resist, he stroked his free hand down the long curtain of her hair simply to see if it was as soft as it looked. It was.
She was close enough for her deliciously feminine scent to tease him. It was an erotically feminine mixture of heat, sun and woman. He inhaled deeply, wanting to brand the scent into his mind, his memory.
“Welcome home, Jesse.” Hannah lifted her tear-stained face and gave him a big, watery smile. “Welcome home.”
It was as if she’d thrown a bucket of cold water on him. Instinctively, Jesse drew back from her, still watching her, not certain this was the time or the place to explain…what? Well hell, he thought in frustration, to explain that he wasn’t
home was in Texas. He was merely here for a visit.
And a short visit at that.
Once he’d satisfied himself that he’d done the right thing, honored his promise to his mother to find his real family, he’d go back home to Texas.
But he wasn’t certain this was the time or place to get into it, not with this beautiful woman and adorable little girl looking at him with a mixture of joy and adoration.
“He rescued me, Mama,” Riley said with a grin, glancing up at Jesse in adoration. “I almost felled down off my bike but he caught me.” Riley’s free hand went to her mother’s face and her blue eyes rounded in alarm. “Why are you crying, Mama?” she asked. “Are you sad, Mama?”
“Don’t worry, darlin’,” he said gently. Something about this little tyke had touched his heart the moment he’d lifted her into his arms after she’d nearly crash-landed onto the pavement. She’d trustingly wound her arms around him and was now holding on to his hand as tight as her mother had just a few moments before. “I don’t think your mama’s sad. I think she’s happy, honey.”
Aware she was frightening her daughter, Hannah wiped away her tears and smiled. “Jesse’s right, honey, I’m not sad.” She swiped her damp face again, slipping her shaking hands into the pockets of her shorts. “I’m happy, very happy,” she added, unable to drag her gaze away from Jesse’s.
“Riley, honey, do you remember Mama told you that a long, long time ago when I was a little girl, right about your age, I had a best friend whose name was Jesse? He was Uncle Jake, Uncle Jared and Uncle Josh’s youngest brother?” Hannah reached out and straightened one of her daughter’s pigtails. It had come loose from her morning of play.
Riley’s eyebrows scrunched together as she tried to concentrate on remembering. “He went away, right?” she asked, then grinned at her mother’s nod. “And you never got to play with him again?”
“That’s right,” Hannah said, blowing a wad of hair off her face. “Well, Riley, this is Jesse. Your
“Did you come back to play with my mama again, Uncle Jesse?” Riley asked with wide-eyed innocence, making Hannah flush and Jesse laugh.
“Well, darlin’, I guess you could say that.” His gaze shifted to Hannah’s and she saw the mischievous male twinkle in his eyes, a twinkle that had been there even as a boy, a twinkle that revealed his incredible sense of humor.
She was unbearably pleased to see that it still remained, but felt a bit skittish at the hint of masculine interest she saw there. And the fact that she was readily responding to it.
She’d do well to remember the vow she’d made when she found herself alone and pregnant. She would never allow herself to be vulnerable to a man’s charms again. Never again would she fall blindlessly, heedlessly in love, especially with a man who didn’t want or value his family. No, she’d come from a family like that, and wanted no part of it or any man who didn’t share her love and appreciation for what family meant. If and when she ever took another chance on love, it would have to be with a man who wanted and would treasure the kind of family and family life Tommy Ryan had created.
Finding a man like that was going to take a miracle, and Hannah was fresh out of believing in miracles, so she’d resolved to raise her daughter alone and be alone rather than risk her heart or her daughter’s ever again.
Still, looking at Jesse, remembering the closeness they’d once shared, Hannah felt her own female yearnings spring to life, yearnings she’d buried a long time ago. They both annoyed and embarrassed her.
“Well, Miss Riley,” Jesse began, his intense masculine gaze still on Hannah’s, making her feel a rush of warmth as well as a stirring of female desire she could only categorize as pure, blind lust. It had been so long, she was surprised she recognized it, she thought in amusement. “I guess you could say…uh…playing with your mama just might be one of the things I came back for.” Tucking his tongue in his cheek, he rocked back on the heels of his boots as Hannah’s face flamed.
With a laugh, she shook her head. Jesse was as charming as the rest of his brothers, but unlike Jake, Jared and Josh, she found herself responding to Jesse, something she knew she couldn’t do. She’d simply pretend to ignore whatever electricity was arcing between them. If she ignored it, she wouldn’t have to deal with it or worry about it.
“Well, Jesse, it’s nice to know some things haven’t changed,” she said with a smile. “You still have a wicked sense of humor.”
“Hannah,” he said carefully, not wanting there to be any confusion. “Make no mistake. Everything has changed.” His face slowly sobered as he took in his surroundings with an uneasy glance. “I’ve changed.” He brought his eyes back to hers. “I’m not Jesse Ryan,” he said quietly but firmly, sending a chill over her, dashing all the warm feelings. “At least not the Jesse Ryan you remember.” Frustrated, he dragged a hand through his hair and blew out a breath. “Hell, at the moment, I don’t know who I am.”
“Mama, Uncle Jesse said a bad word.”
“Uh, yes, honey, I know,” Hannah said, banking a smile.
Riley turned to Jesse. “You’re not supposed to say bad words, Uncle Jesse. They’re not pul-lite.”
“You’re absolutely right, Miss Riley,” Jesse said, struggling to smother a smile as well. He gave Hannah a quick, amused glance before bringing his gaze, somber now, back to the indignant imp. “I’m not supposed to use bad words. My mama taught me better than that, and I sure do apologize.”
With a frown, Riley continued to study him before turning to her mother, her eyes clouded in confusion. “Mama, are you sure he’s not Uncle Jake?” Riley shook her head, setting her pigtails waving to and fro. “’Cuz Uncle Jake says bad words sometimes, too. And he really
like Uncle Jake.”
Hannah laughed at her daughter’s logic, completely understanding her confusion. “Well, honey, that’s because Uncle Jesse is Uncle Jake’s brother.”
Riley’s face brightened. “So if we get a new baby sister or brother for me, will it look like me?”
“That’s right, sweetheart,” Hannah said with a laugh, realizing Jesse was still studying her. Knowing those glorious, gorgeous blue eyes were appraising, measuring her, made her incredibly nervous. She shrugged to hide it. “Well, Jesse, I’m sorry, but you
look just like Jake.”
He nodded, struggling to digest that information. “That’s what I’ve gathered.”
She studied him for a moment, a flicker of something close to apprehension settling in. “You don’t remember?” she asked quietly. “You don’t remember your brothers?” she asked, trying to hide her horror at the mere thought.
Jesse blew out a frustrated breath and shook his head slowly. “No, ma’am, I reckon I don’t.”
A thousand questions suddenly sprang to Hannah’s mind. None of which had any answers. Where had he been?
Where had he lived?
Who’d raised him?
What had his life been like?
Why hadn’t he come home?
Struggling to hide her concern, Hannah searched for a safer topic, something that would give her a moment to regain her footing. Realizing she’d introduced Jesse to Riley, but not vice versa, she forced a smile past her nerves as she continued the introductions. “Jesse, this is my daughter, Riley.”
“Well, Miss Riley,” Jesse said. “I’m always happy to meet such a pretty little lady.”
“I’m five,” Riley offered, holding up one sticky hand and spreading her fingers. “And I get to go to kindergarten in a few weeks.”
“You do? Kindergarten?” Jesse drew back, pretending to be surprised. “Well, then, I reckon you’re a pretty lucky little lady, and almost all grown up too, aren’t you, darlin’?” He kissed one of her outstretched fingers.
“Timmy and Terry said kindergarten isn’t so bad.” Fear clouded the child’s blue eyes and Jesse felt a tug at his heart. “I get to ride on a big yellow bus with all the big kids.” She glanced up at him, her eyes wide. “But Mama doesn’t get to go.” Fiercely she shook her head. “I get to go all by myself ’cuz I’m big now, right, Mama?”
Hannah’s heart began to ache at the fear shadowed in her daughter’s eyes. Oh how she wished she could just wrap her daughter in her arms and protect her from anything and everything that would ever hurt her or be unpleasant.
“That’s right, sweetheart,” Hannah said with a smile.
He pressed another reassuring kiss to one of Riley’s sticky little fingers. “Well now, Miss Riley, I reckon you’re going to have a fine time on that big yellow school bus. Just think of all the new friends you’ll meet. And then when you come home you can tell your mama here all about your adventures each day.”
“Can I tell you, too, Uncle Jesse?” Riley asked hopefully.
“Absolutely, darlin’,” Jesse assured her, not wanting to disappoint the child by telling her he probably wouldn’t even be here by the time she started school.
“You talk funny,” Riley blurted in response.
“Riley!” Hannah almost groaned, but Jesse merely laughed at her daughter’s antics, plopping his Stetson on her golden head. It drooped down, covering her eyes, until she pushed it back so she could see.
“Well, darlin’, I guess I do talk funny, but then again, where I come from I imagine they’d think you all talk a bit funny as well,” he said, punctuating his words by tickling her belly and making her giggle.
“Where do you come from?” Riley asked, wideeyed, and Hannah wanted to groan again, but Jesse smiled indulgently.
“Texas, honey. I’m from Texas.”
“I don’t know where that’s at,” Riley said, pushing his Stetson back farther on her head.
“Is that where you’ve been, Jesse?” Hannah asked quietly. “In Texas?”
“For as long as I can remember,” he admitted with a shrug and a slow, sexy smile that made her toes curl in the small patch of grass she was standing in.
“Do you remember anything, Jesse?” she pressed carefully. “Anything about your life here in Saddle Falls?” Her words caused her heart to beat in trepidation. “Before you went to Texas?”
“You,” he said quietly, letting his gaze meet hers, making her heart tumble over again. “I remember you. And I don’t exactly reckon why.” Confused, he shook his head. “I hadn’t remembered anything until I was driving down the road, and then…” He glanced around, trying to absorb his surroundings. “I remembered this house—something about it…”
She chuckled softly to hide her nerves. “That’s probably because you spent so much time here. Almost as much time as I spent over at the Ryans’.”
He was still studying his surroundings, wondering if doing that would jog more memories. “I didn’t know what I remembered about this house. Except that as I drove by, I knew it, knew too that the third step on the back porch used to creak—”
“Still does,” Hannah admitted with a laugh, surprised that he would remember something so insignificant.
“And I remembered a little girl named Hannah-Anna,” he said quietly, tilting his head to continue to study her.
She forced a smile past the sadness that had surfaced. “It’s been twenty years since anyone has called me that, and you, Jesse, were the only one who ever did.” Clearly, he didn’t remember her, not in the same way she remembered him. And it hurt, she realized. Very much.
“I’m sorry,” he said, not certain he knew what he was sorry about. He only knew her eyes had shadowed at his words and he felt responsible somehow.
“Oh, Jesse, don’t be sorry. It’s all right.” She pressed her hands to his chest again, wanting to touch him, to comfort and ease the pain and confusion she saw in his eyes. It only increased the ache in her heart. For him. For her. And especially for the Ryans.
If it hurt this much for Jesse not to remember her, she couldn’t even imagine the pain Tommy would endure, knowing his own grandson didn’t remember him.
remember her, not really. And he probably didn’t remember the special bond that had always been between them, a bond that at one time she’d been certain would never be broken.
Now she wasn’t certain of anything.
“Do you remember the last time you saw me?” she asked, cocking her head to look at him curiously.
He was thoughtful for a moment, and then images flashed before him and he saw her standing on the sidewalk looking lost and forlorn, crying. The memories flashed quickly, brightly, barely giving him time to absorb them.
“We were playing hide-and-seek out behind the main house here.” Lost in the images of his memory, he spoke by rote, not certain where the words or the memories were coming from. “It was summer and hotter than blazes. We were both running around barefoot. We’d run under the sprinkler just to cool off before we went on with our game.” He had to stop, to swallow because his mouth was so dry. “But I had to be home before dark. I was walking backward down the sidewalk toward my house, waving, and feeling bad because you were standing out front, crying because I had to go home.”
The word slammed into him.
He’d had to go home.
Absently, he rubbed his forehead where a dull ache had started. Apparently there were some long-buried memories deep inside the recesses of his mind.
“That’s right, Jesse,” Hannah said, encouraged. “That night I was standing on the front porch waving and crying because you had to go home.” She had to swallow around the sudden lump in her throat at the painful memory. “That was the last time I saw you. You disappeared that night.” She brushed a fresh tear from her cheek, the loss as fresh today as it had been twenty years ago. “Jesse,” she began carefully. “Do you remember anything else? Anything about your family?”
How could he tell her he knew who Jesse Garland was, who Jesse Garland’s family was, knew who he was supposed to be, knew what was expected of him, and knew too how he’d act or react in any given situation.