Authors: Jill Sanders
When he leaned in, she was too shocked to move. How was she allowing this to happen? Why couldn’t she stop herself from wishing it would? She knew it would only take one word to make him stop. Why couldn’t she just say, no?
When his lips touched hers, she sighed and felt her heart stir for the first time in years. How did he have this control over her? He moved closer and brushed his lips gently over hers again. It was like breathing for the first time in years. The soft feel of his lips against her own, the feel of his hands touching her, holding her. His chest pressed up against her own.
When he pulled back, there was a smile on his lips, reminding her of why this wasn’t a good idea.
“No,” she finally said, shaking her head quickly. “No, not again. Never again.” She pushed away and rushed from the bridge. She heard him calling her name, but she didn’t stop or turn back to look. She was stronger than this. She was strong enough not to walk into the storm. And that is just what Wes Tanner was, a raging storm ready to take away everything she’d been protecting for the last six years.
When she rushed from the trees, her family looked over at her with concern.
“What is it?” Alex rushed up.
Shaking her head, she took a deep breath. “Nothing. I . . . I have a headache and I’m going to head home.” She walked over and picked up her bag.
“I’ll drive you home.” Tom walked over to her, but when his eyes darted behind her, she knew he had spotted the cause of her distress. Glancing over her shoulder, she watched Wes walk out of the trees, right where she had just come from. There was concern and satisfaction on his face. When he looked at her, he smiled slightly and nodded, then walked over to where his family sat.
The sun was just slipping behind the trees, and the field was quickly filling up with people who were spreading blankets and lawn chairs so they could watch the fireworks.
“Oh, you can’t leave now,” Lauren said, pulling her close. “It’s Ricky’s first Fourth of July. He needs his aunts here.” Lauren glanced over towards Wes. “Don’t let him spoil our good time.”
She sighed, knowing her sister was right. Besides, she didn’t want Tom to drive her home and couldn’t think of any excuse not to let him.
She looked over to where Wes stood looking at her, and saw Savannah Douglas walk up to him and wrap her arms around his shoulders. Something inside her jumped when she saw the kiss Savannah placed on his lips. Although Wes didn’t pull away, she could tell that he wasn’t enjoying the attention Savannah was giving him.
Straightening her shoulders, she looked over at her sister and said, “You’re right.” Then she wrapped her arms around her sister. “I’ll stay,” she said, turning to the group.
Half an hour later, when the fireworks started, she wished she hadn’t. Tom had laid out a blanket a little ways away from her family. When he pulled her close, she sat up and tried to talk to him, but the fireworks were too loud, so she laid her head back against his arm and watched the show.
After the grand finale, she quickly sat up and asked that he take her home, knowing she would have the opportunity to talk to him then.
She sat in silence as Tom drove her back to Saddleback Ranch, the only place she had ever called home. The house had recently been remodeled by Chase, Lauren’s husband. He’d moved in and fixed everything that had been going wrong with the place since their father’s death.
Her sister still ran the ranch, along with Alex and Haley and a dozen or so hired hands each year. Their cattle grazed on over a thousand acres of rich Texas grass and were split and sold once a year. Each year, Haley picked the best calf and raised it to show in the county fair. It was her calling. She had a knack for picking out the best livestock. She loved helping to separate the herd, making sure to keep a handful of the best for breeding.
Ever since she was a child, her father had told her she had a way with animals. She just figured she had the patience and the extra love to really see what the animals wanted.
When Tom’s car pulled into the long drive, he stopped behind her truck and shut off his engine. When she turned to him, he pulled her close and shocked her by placing a kiss on her lips. It wasn’t as if kissing Tom was unpleasant, it was just that she had mentally made up her mind to break it off, officially. Pulling away, she tried to smile.
“Tom, I don’t think this is going to work.”
He sighed and shook his head. “No, I didn’t think it would after . . .” He sighed again. “Not after knowing that Wes was back in town to stay.”
Wes woke from the nightmare quickly. Every muscle in his body was tense. It took less than a second for him to realize he wasn’t in the Middle East but in his childhood bedroom, in a bed that was almost a foot too small for him.
He took several deep breaths before his heart settled back in his chest. His vision was grayed, and when it finally cleared up, he could see the moonlight streaming through the blinds. He glanced over at the Batman alarm clock on his nightstand and sighed. It was one o’clock and he knew that was all the sleep he was getting for the night.
Sitting up, he ran his hands over his face. He wished that he wasn’t in his parents’ home, that he could easily walk down to the kitchen and grab a beer or some of those cookies his mother had made for dessert. But his mother was the lightest sleeper in town, and he knew that short of sneaking out his window, walking down the back patio, and pushing his car a few block before starting it, he wasn’t going to get away with being awake at this time of night.
A smile crossed his face as he remembered all the times he’d done just that. Almost always he’d ended up at Haley’s, knocking lightly on her window until she came out and they would sneak away together.
Standing up and stretching his legs, he winced when pain shot up his left leg. Looking down at the nasty scar that ran from the middle of his thigh to just above his knee, he closed his eyes and sighed. He couldn’t escape the last five years, in his dreams or physically.
When he walked to the bathroom, the old floorboards creaked under his feet. Tip-toeing the rest of the way, which he found particularly hard due to his leg, he decided that he needed to find a place of his own, and quick.
It wasn’t as if his parents didn’t want him here; he just needed to be free to come and go as he wished. At least without waking everyone in the house up while doing it.
Getting dressed, he decided he would take a walk. When he opened his window to crawl out, he felt the summer heat hit him and he smiled. He was used to the heat, but had missed the moisture in the air that had been missing overseas.
He had always been thankful that his room was on the ground floor of the house. It made sneaking in and out easy. He knew his folks had known he was sneaking out, but as long as he hadn’t gotten in any trouble and had kept his grades up, they hadn’t minded too much. His father had always said that he didn’t raise any fool. He had always taken that as a compliment, since his folks had trusted him so much.
He started walking down his street. Most of the homes here looked the same. It was the middle of the night and dark as sin, but he could still see that the Regans left the TV running all night. Mr. Regan was probably fast asleep on his La-Z-Boy, where he’d slept for the last twenty-odd years; his wife had taken over his bedroom.
The next house was empty. He knew the McKormics were on vacation since their mobile home wasn’t parked on the large drive they had built a long time ago. They traveled a lot since their two daughters had left home.
As he continued walking, he wished that he could drive up to Saddleback Ranch and Haley. What would she do if he knocked on her window now?
When he’d kissed her earlier that week, he had felt the old spark as before. But something had been missing. He knew he was to blame for her anger. It had only taken him two weeks in basic to realize that he’d been a coward. He should have told her he’d enlisted. There was no getting around the fact that he’d hurt her. Then to top it off, he’d made a point not to write or call her. After a year, he was sure that she’d moved on and thought it was for the best. She deserved someone who wanted to start a family and settle down, someone who would be there for her. And at that time, he just couldn’t give her any of that because he was uncertain about his on future.
She’d been right when she’d accused him of being afraid, he'd been lying to himself. When she’d told him that she thought she was pregnant, he’d had a panic attack. Sure, he'd been excited, but a part of him was afraid, and in the end, fear had won. They’d been so careful, ever since that first night in her hay loft, when they’d been almost sixteen.
Up until their kiss a few days ago, he had thought that she was the only woman he could love. Now he
that she was the only woman he wanted to love. He didn’t have a plan yet, but he knew he had to think of one, and quickly.
Over the last few days, he’d asked around. It seemed that she and Tom had been seeing each other for almost seven months. No one in town thought they were serious, since they had only been seen together on a few occasions. Before that, Haley hadn’t seen anyone else, and that knowledge scared him. If she had been single all this time and had just started seeing Tom, she must be very interested in him.
He turned the corner and headed back to his house. His leg screamed at him with each step. He knew he had to go into Tyler to sign up for his therapy, but he’d been putting it off.
He desperately wished he could jog again, something he’d done his whole life. He’d placed first in the 1500 meter and 400 meter hurdles at regionals, not to mention the awards he’d gotten for the high jump and sprints.
Looking down at the way he walked now, he wondered how long it would take him just to get the pain to subside when he walked across the room. It had been almost three months since he’d been hurt, and he knew the emotional scars would be with him a lot longer than the physical ones. He’d lost several of his closest friends that day.
When he crawled back in his window, his body was too tired to continue thinking about everything he’d lost over the last couple years. Instead, as he lay down in his small bed, still fully clothed, his mind drifted to the past and he dreamed of making love to Haley in the loft on a cool fall night.
don’t care if it takes all day,” Haley said, putting her hands on her hips. “I told you already that I’m taking him and that’s final.” She looked across the room at her sister and for the first time in her life wondered if she wasn’t going to get her way.
Lauren sat at the table and stared at her. Ever since she’d become a mother, Lauren had learned how to push it until she got what she wanted. But Haley was even better at it.
Finally, after what seemed like a millennium, Lauren sighed and relaxed. “Fine, but you have to take your cell phone with you and call me the second you two get there.”
Haley smiled and pulled out her fully charged phone from her back pocket. “Yes, Mother.” She giggled and walked over and kissed the toddler that was sleeping in her sister’s arms. “It should only take me a few hours. I have everything packed, and I promise there won’t be any trouble.” She turned to walk out.
“Haley,” Lauren said and waited until she stopped at the door and looked back to finish. “Be careful. I used to think I was indestructible, too.”
I know.” Haley smiled at her sister and walked out to greet Dash. He was older now and a million times more stubborn then when he was younger, but he was her favorite man in the entire world. Dash had never been mean to her, never left her, and had never broken her heart. She walked up to him and patted him on his silver mane.
Are you ready to go have some fun?” she asked him as she made sure her pack was secure on the saddle. He nodded, a trick she’d taught him the first year she’d gotten him.
They took their time, winding through the hills on their way up to the old cabin site. The original cabin that her grandfather and father had built had been burned down last year by drug runners who had used their land and almost killed Lauren in the process. Chase had moved a smaller modular home up to the site.