Authors: Liliana Hart
"I was in the neighborhood and thought you might like to see my pretty face," Dane said. "It's got to be depressing for the three of you ugly women to sit around and stare at each other all day."
He deflected the elbow to the ribs from Cooper an
d twisted out of Thomas's choke
hold. Riley stood off at a distance, a smile plastered on his face and his hands in the pockets of a pair of warn chinos. His dark blonde hair was cut short and a light stubble shadowed his face. His eyes were a darker shade of Dane's.
Riley was a doctor as well, only the PhD kind instead of medical. He was the dean of archaeology at a small private college not too far from Surrender, and when he wasn't teaching he was working on new excavation sites.
"Welcome home, Dane," Riley said. "The beer's on you."
They shoved at each other through the doors of Duffey's and everyone in attendance stopped, slack-jawed at the sight of the four MacKenzie brothers together again. The last time they'd come through the doors together a brawl had broken out. That was before Cooper became Sheriff, of course, and before the other MacKenzies became such fine, upstanding citizens, but people's memories tended to be long in Surrender.
"You boys head to the back room. I'll have someone bring you a pitcher and glasses," Duffey shouted from behind the tap. "I don't want any trouble in here tonight."
Cooper rolled his eyes. "You'd think that fight had been our fault by the way Duffey carries on. It was the man's own low-life son-in-law who started
in the first place."
"Yeah, but we finished it," Thomas said. "And I'm glad for it. No one should beat on a woman like that and get away with it."
They settled themselves in the game room, and Dane propped his feet on a chair and waited for his turn at darts. Thomas and Riley were already starting a game.
"So I heard you were out at Charlie's place," Thomas said, wiggling his eyebrows. "You sure look relaxed, brother."
Dane shot Coop a disapproving look. "It was the first place I came to when I walked into town. You can imagine my surprise at seeing her there, considering you guys didn't bother to tell me she was back in town. I'd have come home sooner if I'd know she was here."
"Would you have really?" Riley asked.
Dane watched as Thomas and Cooper shared a long look, and a tingle of awareness started to prickle up his spine. It was the same tingle that had kept him from going down a certain path in the jungle or approaching an empty car in Afghanistan. The tingle had kept him from getting dead. But he had a feeling the axe was about to drop on his head
just the same
"Why would you ask that? You guys know why I left. I just needed to get away for a while after mom died. I needed a career. Something that would make Charlotte proud of me. Hell, something that could make
proud of me. Leaving was the only way I knew how to do that. I had to leave her to make something of myself."
"But did you explain that to her?" Riley pressed. "She was still a kid, Dane. And hell, even we knew she was crazy about you. You weren't here to see what she was like after you left. You broke her heart to the point that she had to leave town just to get away from the memories. I'm not sure you're making the best judgment call messing with her again. I think you should just leave her alone."
Dane felt rage simmering inside him. He'd let it reign free as a kid, always looking for a ready fight, but he'd learned to keep it contained the older he got. Except there was nothing he wanted more than to take a swing at Riley and bloody his lip. And by the crooked smile on Riley's face and the gleam in his eye, he'd gladly take the punch and throw some of his own.
There was an anger in Riley he hadn’t noticed before.
"Is that what you all think of me?" Dane asked. "That I just left because I'm a bastard and wanted to be free to do whatever the hell I wanted?"
He stood abruptly, his chair hitting the wall in his haste. His brothers stared at him warily.
"We don't blame you for leaving, Dane," Coop said softly. "We know mom's death hit you hardest. And we know she would have wanted you to do something important with your degree. But ten years is a long time. People change. Everybody's changed."
"How long do you plan to stay this time?" Thomas asked, his own anger coloring his question.
Dane pushed his fingers through his hair in frustration. "I don't know. I'm in between projects. I've got some time to decide before I make up my mind."
"Then leave her alone," Thomas said. "She's just moved back to town and has her own life now. She's got her dad's ranch to deal with and her own business to run." He looked like he wanted to say more, but he pinched his lips closed at the last minute.
"I can't leave her alone," Dane explained. "I can't physically do it. I've thought of her for ten
years. I've loved her for ten years. And her being here now…when I thought I'd never see her again. I just can't ignore it. She's the only woman I've ever really wanted."
"Then you'd better be prepared to grovel, because she doesn't strike me as someone who could forgive and forget so easily," Cooper said. "You broke her heart. You're going to have to fix it. And there are some things you're going to have to accept about her. Like I said, ten years is a long time."
Dane was just about to ask Coop what the hell he was talking about when the game room door opened and Jana Metcalfe came through, balancing a pitcher of beer and glass
on a tray in one hand and a couple of baskets of fries in the other. She was plumper than she used to be and her hair was blonder, but her smile was genuine and Dane and Riley went to help her with her load.
"Give me a hug, Dane MacKenzie," she said, laughing.
He pulled her into an embrace and patted her on the shoulder. She'd always been like a kid sister. The MacKenzie brothers had palled around with Jana's oldest brother, and more often than not, she'd wanted to trail behind them.
"How are you, Jana? You're looking good." Dane said, meaning
it. She looked—
She rolled her eyes and passed out their drinks. "It's nice of you to lie. I'm busy as ever."
"Jana is married to Mike Marshall now and they have a little boy that's a pistol," Riley said, reminding him with a smirk how much he'd missed over the last years.
"Mike's doing kid duty tonight while I'm working," Jana said, oblivious to the undercurrents of anger in the room. "We're having a sleepover, but for all I know, I'll go home to find Mike tied to his recliner. Nine year old boys are a menace to society."
"Ain't that the truth," Thomas said, giving her a wink and taking a sip of his beer. "How is Ben? Is he ready for school to start?"
"Hell, no. He's already told me he's decided to home school this year." She rolled her eyes again and propped a hip against the table. "Can you imagine that? I told him if he stayed home with me in the daytime I'd make him watch soap operas and help with the laundry, so he changed his mind about that pretty quick."
"Don't forget he's due for shots this year," Thomas reminded her. "Make sure you get an appointment early. Things get busy before school starts. In fact, you might remind the other parents when they come to get their kids tomorrow. What other fugitives are you harboring?"
"Stop peddling for business," Coop said, and turned to Dane. "A lot of the older folks in town refuse to call Thomas their doctor because they remember what he was like as a kid. Mr. Scranton said there was no way in hell he was going to drop his pants and let Thomas stick a needle in him after the thrashing he gave him for letting his cows out of the pasture."
"Who could blame him?" Jana asked, laughing. "You boys were a menace. And my boy and his gang are just like you, God help them all. You remember Jenny Mosely, Dane? She's got a boy name Tucker that can talk the paint off the wall. I shudder to think what he's doing to my house right now."
She giggled again and said, "And of course you remember Charlie. Didn't you guys date for awhile before you left? Anyway, her Jayden is the mastermind of the group. That kid has more ideas than he knows what to do with. And every one of them always ends with him in a heap of trouble."
His brothers started coughing and talking over each other, but all he could hear was the rush of blood pounding in his head. He leaned forward and pressed his hands against the table—hard—so the pain could remind him he was still alive. Charlie had a child. A nine-year-old child. He did the math in his head, and his legs gave out from under him. He sat down hard in the chair he'd abandoned earlier.
"Honey, are you okay?" Jana asked. "You're white as a sheet."
"I think he's just tired, Jana," Coop said. "He came straight here from the airport, and I'm sure he's worn out. Maybe if you could just get our check for us? We should probably take him home."
"Sure thing, Coop. Be right back." Jana scurried out of the room and his brothers ranged their bodies in a semi-circle around him, looks of concern varying their expressions.
"Did you know?" Dane rasped out.
"We knew she had a kid," Riley said softly.
Red clouded his vision and he charged at his brother before he could stop himself. He and Riley went down in a heap across the table and the wood snapped beneath them. His knuckles stung as they met his brother's jaw, and he winced as Riley got his own licks in against his ribs.
"Dammit, Dane. Control yourself," Coop yelled as he grabbed him around the shoulders to try and contain him. It would take more than Cooper to subdue his anger. The rage had been building in Dane for too long. Thomas held him from the other side, and together Coop and Thomas were able to pull him away from Riley.
Riley pushed himself from the floor and faced Dane. "What the hell is wrong with you, Dane? Why should you care if she has a kid? Would you really begrudge her for having a life after you left?"
"You should have fucking told me," Dane said, pushing against the bonds of his brothers' arms. "She has a nine-year-old kid you moron. Do the goddamned math."
Riley paled before his eyes, and Thomas and Cooper were so surprised by the declaration they dropped their hold on him. He crashed back into Riley, but instead of going down, Riley wrapped his arms around him in a tight embrace.
"Shit, Dane. We didn't know. None of us knew, or even thought it. I never even got a good look at the kid or knew how old he was. We would have told you. I swear."
Dane broke out of his brother's hold and backed away, keeping his head down so they couldn't see the emotions crossing his face. He couldn't talk to his brothers right now. He had to find Charlotte.
"I need keys," he said and held out his hand.
Coop stepped forward. "I don't know if that's such a good idea right now, Dane. Why don't you think things through a bit and calm down before you go talk to Charlie?"
A pair of keys landed in his hand, and he looked up into Riley's battered face. "Don't do anything stupid. And don't wreck my car."
"Dammit, Riley," Coop said, but Dane didn't wait around to hear the argument. He was already out the door.
Charlie owed him a hell of an explanation.
Charlie had been lying in bed, wide awake, for more than an hour. She could still feel Dane's touch, and her body heated with the memory of his kiss. She tossed the covers off, the cotton too heavy on her sensitive skin.
The fan whirred slowly overhead and her nipples puckered against her thin nightgown she wore. She closed her eyes and memories of Dane invaded her mind, as if he were right there with her. The first time they'd made love he'd been so gentle, so loving. He'd cherished every inch of her body, readying her for the invasion that would take her innocence. She'd barely felt a twinge as he'd buried himself deep inside her—she' been too lost in the sensation of him.
Her fingers roamed lazily up her thighs until the nightgown was bunched around her waist. Her fingers trailed higher, dipping along her belly before she reached the swell of her breasts. She cupped the heavy globes and gasped at the sensation, and when her fingers grazed across her cotton covered nipples she couldn't help the moan that escaped.
She imagined Dane's mouth suckling at her breasts, teasing a wet path lower until he reached the junction of her thighs. She was damp with need and it didn't take long for her fingers to become slick with her essence. She twirled her finger around the taut bud, wishing it were Dane's tongue. Her breathing grew heavy and she felt the familiar weight of release settle in her loins.
Whimpers escaped from her throat and she tossed her head back, just on the cusp of ex
plosion. A car door slammed
outside her window, and she pulled her gown down with a guilty start. The first thing that went through her mind was that Jayden and his friends had gotten in a fight and he'd demanded to come home. She pulled on a robe and hurried to the front door, but when she opened it, it wasn't Jayden who stared at her with anger and hurt radiating from his body. It was his father. She opened the screen door and stepped toward him before she remembered she wasn't going to get attached.