Authors: Liliana Hart
By Liliana Hart
Copyright 2011 by Liliana Hart
There were those who said Dane MacKenzie would never amount to anything. That he'd spend his life drifting aimlessly from one thing to the next, never to settle down or take on an ounce of responsibility. There were even some who said he'd end up behind prison bars or six feet under ground. He'd been closer to both
than he cared to admit.
Dane had the body of a brawler and ready fists, but there were some folks—usually women—who claimed the smile that graced his sensuous lips when those fists connected with another man's flesh was enough to make any woman want to take a walk on the dark side. Though he wasn't as bad as he used to be, his reputation remained the same.
He was a man with appetites. The ladies could attest to that as well, for he'd left many broken hearts in his wake. But no matter what the pleasure—whether it be braw
ls or seduction, violence or
passion—he always put everything he had into what he wanted.
What was the point of playing if you weren
t going to win
He pulled the ratt
rap car he'd rented off to the side of the road at the top of a hill, just past the
Now Entering Surrender, Montana
sign that sat weathered with age and slightly crooked. It had been ten years since he'd been home. Sure, he
kept in touch with his brothers. They got together once a year for a vacation and again at Christmas. But always somewhere else. He hadn't set foot in Surrender since the day he'd thrown his bags in the trunk of his car and sped out of town.
There were too many memories. Of the old farmhouse he and his brothers had been raised in. Of the Christmases and birthdays. Of fighting and carousing with his brothers with equal abandon. The chores, the school programs, his first kiss in the alley behind Gruber's Ice Cream Shoppe. And then later, his first taste of a woman—the fumbling, sweaty bodies on a blanket in the back of his pickup truck. All of those memories were here, but still he hesitated on the outskirts of town.
Dane opened the car door and got out, ignoring the shudder of the engine and coughs of smoke from the tailpipe. There hadn't been a lot of options for car rentals when one of his buddies had flown him to the private airstrip thirty miles south of Surrender, so he'd taken the keys of the rusted out Honda and kept his focus on getting home in one piece. But now that he was here he wanted nothing more than to turn around and head back to the airport.
Everything was lush and green in the middle of July. Surrender was nestled snuggly at the bottom of the hill, a gem of white fences and red barns wi
th hundreds of acres of pasture
land dotted with roaming livestock that was so many people's bread and butter in this part of the world. The town itself was one long road, and a row of bricked businesses flanked each side of the street. They all had matching black awnings and wooden sidewalks. It looked exactly the same as when he'd left.
An uncomfortable feeling lodged in the pit of his stomach. He didn't even know why he'd come home. Partly for his brothers. He missed them more than he cared to admit. And partly because he was tired of traveling. Tired of not having a place of his own—moving from jungles to army barracks to third world hovels to five star hotels. He'd always gone where the story had lead him. He'd needed the adventure. To prove that he could survive outside of Surrender. Without his brothers there to catch him if he fell.
But now he was here.
And Charlotte wasn't. He'd lost his chance there. It was his one regret for leaving. The pang of memory hadn't lessoned over the years. He remembered her as fresh-faced and beautiful. Black hair and bright green eyes. A sarcastic tongue, and a laugh always ready on her full lips. A body just beginning to become a woman's. She'd been eighteen when he'd felt her beneath him for the first time. And in the ten years since, no woman had ever come close to making him feel the same.
He rubbed his chest just over his heart and got back in the car. He was here to face his demons. To face his past. And there was no point in dredging up the memory of the girl he'd loved—the girl he'd walked away from because he hadn't had the courage to stay.
He’d been a kid when he’d walked away, and a stupid one at that because he hadn’t realized at the time what he had
His brothers had told him Charlotte had packed up and left town just a couple of months after he had, and they didn't know where she'd gone. It was for the best. The past belonged in the past. At least that's what he tried to convince himself. She was probably married with a couple of kids by now, never thinking of the boy who'd had to leave her to preserve his own sanity.
Dane shifted the car into first, and
ground his teeth together at the unholy sound that greeted his ears. The car took off with a jerk and shudder and he was on his way into the bowels of Surrender, whether he wanted to be or not.
The car died less than a mile from the edge of town. He took it with a shrug of acceptance—he'd been in too many similar situations over the course of his career not to take things as they came—and grabbed his bag from the trunk. The sun was just starting to set—an orange ball of flame nestled between the two hills—and the sky had turned gray, hovering just on the edge of darkness.
Dane pushed his sunglasses up on his head and slung his bag over his shoulder. He hadn't slept in more than twenty-four hours. When one was flying out of Afghanistan and catching four different puddle jumpers to get home, a man had a tendency to keep his eyes open and his brain alert.
His shoes kicked up dust as he started the trek into town. Everything was getting ready to close for the night. It was still another five miles before he would reach the farmhouse, but if he was lucky his brother would be on duty for the night, and he could get a ride home in the squad car. He smiled at the irony. There were plenty of people who thought he'd spend plenty of time in the back of one before he'd left. If he was really lucky, there would be dinner still warm on the stove. He hadn't had a decent meal in a couple of days.
The closer he got to town, the more he realized things had changed. Some more than others. He heard the music before he saw where it was coming from. Classic rock pulsed from a white tin building with a blue awning and several open garage doors. It was the same building that had been there before he'd left, but it was no longer a full-service gas station. A new sign with fluid black letters said
. It wouldn't hurt to stop in a see if they could tow the piece of shit car he'd left down the road. It would save his brothers from having to help him take care of it later.
Dane stuck his head in the barely air conditioned office. It was stark in appearance—white walls, grey utilitarian carpet and a solid black desk piled with papers and invoices. Another glass door led into the garage, and a
sign was tacked to another.
There wasn't anyone in sight, so he followed the sound of the music into the garage. Three of the four bays had cars in varying states waiting for attention, but he still didn't see anyone. The jangle of metal hitting the pavement had him moving between an old Chrysler and a brand new Ford pickup. A pair of legs covered in blue coveralls stuck out from beneath the Chrysler, knees bent and boots tapping to the beat.
"Excuse me," he said, pitching his voice over the music. Or at least trying to. It was hard to compete with Robert Plant.
A grubby hand felt along the ground, searching for a tool of some kind. Dane bent down, picked up a heavy crescent wrench and put it in the roaming hand. He winced as he heard the thunk of a head hit the underside of the car in surprise, and he moved out of the way as the coveralls came out from under the car with a vengeance.
The first thought that came to Dane's mind was that he'd never seen a man so tiny, but then he realized the baggy coveralls were hiding a decidedly delicate body. A smooth curve of neck and porcelain skin, smudged with grease.
Definitely not a
grubby hand rubbed at the forming knot under thick black hair. Vivid green eyes framed with dark lashes stared at him in resentment. Mermaid eyes. Or at least that's what he'd once compared them to. But by the way they were shooting fire in his direction they resembled that of a sorceress, ready and willing to turn him to dust with a flick of her wrist.
He felt the blood drain from his face and took a step back.
She grabbed the remote from the hood of the car and shut the music off, leaving an echo in his ears. Or maybe it was his heartbeat thudding wildly out of control.
"Charlotte?" he whispered, afraid he was hallucinating.
"Well, if it isn't the Prodigal Son himself. You worthless son of a bitch."
Dane barely had time to duck as the heavy wrench sailed toward his head.
Charlie Munroe took satisfaction as the wrench skimmed just over Dane's ear and clanged against the metal wall of the garage. She turned on her heel and made her way to her office, unzipping her coveralls and stepping out of them quickly, revealing the denim shorts and tank top she wore beneath.
She ignored her shaking hands as she closed the office door behind her and locked it. She slipped into the bathroom and soaped off the grease from her hands and face. Maybe when she came out he'd be gone, and she could pretend she hadn't just seen Dane MacKenzie, big as life and looking better than ever.
She slipped out of the bathroom and heaved a sigh of relief when she didn't see him in the garage. She dug her purse and car keys out of the bottom drawer of her desk, her hands steadier, her heart heavier.
What the hell was Dane doing back in Surrender? The last she'd heard he'd been traveling alongside a battalion of soldiers in the Middle East and writing a column about his experiences for the
New York Times
supposed to be in Surrender. She'd only been back six months herself. It had been her only option after her father had died and left her to handle the affairs of his sprawling ranch. And as much as she'd resented the idea at first, moving back had been the best thing for Jayden. He'd hated leaving his school and his friends in Chicago, but he'd adjusted since the move. The animals and the male influence of all the ranch hands had helped the transition. She knew it was going to be hard on him when she sold the place, but she couldn't take care of it all by herself. And the money she got from the ranch would go a long way for paying college tuition in the next nine years.
Until just now, she'd had plans to stay in Surrender permanently. Her shop was doing well and she was surrounded by the people who knew her best. But as soon as she'd seen Dane's face, her first instinct had been to run. To speed back to the ranch, throw her clothes and Jayden's in the trunk, and get out of town.
Dane MacKenzie walking back into her life was not good.
God, how was she going to tell Jayden?
The answer was easy. She wouldn't tell him. There was no way she was going to present him with the dad he'd never known only to watch him walk away again when the next big story came or when his feet itched to move on.
"Dammit, Charlotte, you could have killed me."
Charlie gasped as the outside door to the office opened. It was the door customers used to check in their cars.
. She'd forgotten to lock it in her hurry to get out.
"Charlie. My name is Charlie. You know I hate to be called Charlotte."
The fact of the matter was, she'd loved being called Charlotte, but only by Dane. When he said it, it made her feel beautiful, special. She still remembered the sound of his voice as he buried himself inside of her, calling her name from his lips.
"You used to love it," he said, and by the huskiness of his voice she knew he was reliving the same memories she was.
His voice surrounded her, as if he were physically touching her, and she bit back a moan. The short glimpse she'd gotten of him had sent her dormant libido into overdrive. He was harder than he'd been at twenty-two. His rangy body corded with muscle, and his skin darkened by the sun. His golden hair hung shaggy over his ears and collar, and his eyes—God, his eyes were the same pale, crystalline blue—but they were harder, steeled by things she could probably never imagine.