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Authors: Anne Rainey

Rider's Kiss

BOOK: Rider's Kiss
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Dedication

For my amazing editor. You are without a doubt the most patient person I know. I’m not sure why you put up with me, but I’m so glad you do.

Chapter One

After Victoria reached the bridge and jogged to the other side of the small suburb of Summit Glen, Ohio, she stopped and leaned against the railing. Great gasps of crisp morning air filled her lungs as she battled to control her heart rate after completing half of her four-mile run. A couple of other early morning joggers sped past, and Victoria couldn’t help comparing herself to the two women. They both had perfect hourglass figures. Formfitting clothes showed off their spectacular muscle tone to perfection. They were in complete contrast to her bulkier build and baggy sweats. Would she ever have a figure like that? Fat chance. She shook her head and closed her eyes. Besides, wasn’t her mom always telling her to be happy with the gifts God gave her?

As the sun started to rise over the horizon, more and more people filled the streets. Summer was right around the corner, and the small town she called home seemed to be bustling with people coming out of hibernation from the unusually cold winter. Summit Green had always been Victoria’s home. Unlike so many of her old schoolmates, Victoria had never had an overriding need to leave in favor of a bigger city and better opportunities. She liked small-town life. Nothing could ever compare to the peaceful solitude she found here.

But it hadn’t always been so peaceful. The sad memories invaded her mind as if it were yesterday, and with them came the same awful sinking sensation as the scene played out for the thousandth time.

Her mother, Anna Kiss, had always longed for a daughter of her own to love. She used to tell Victoria that when the doctor had announced she was pregnant with a girl, after so many years of trying to conceive a child, it’d been the happiest day of her life. Her mom had wanted someone to share laughs and feminine secrets with, the way only a mother and daughter could. And she was more than thrilled when her prayers were finally answered.

Victoria had been spirited as a young girl, causing all sorts of mischief that would bring stern looks from her dad and lectures from her mom. Her antics would bring about long talks about what was expected of a proper young lady. But nothing had prepared her for the awful turn her life would take. Even now, Victoria feared she would never forget the haunted look in her dad’s eyes as he delivered the terrible news that her mother had lost the battle with breast cancer.

Victoria watched the water slowly drifting in the shallow river below as she attempted to breathe away the sadness. More years than she cared to count had come and gone since that fateful day. Still, no matter how much time passed, she still couldn’t stave off the cold loneliness that crept through her body. Her mom’s sunny kitchen sprang into her mind. She could still remember the helplessness she felt as her mom received the news of the cancer for the first time. Tears had streamed down her mom’s cheeks. Her mom so rarely cried, and the moment would be etched in Victoria’s memory always.

 

“Mom, I am perfectly capable of doing some yard work. Being a woman doesn’t make me helpless.”

Her mom laughed. “Oh, so you’re a woman now?” When Victoria only stood rigid with her nose in the air, Anna went on to explain, “You’re all of eleven years old, Victoria Lynn. And I never said you were helpless.”

Victoria scrunched her brows in confusion. “Then why can’t I mow the lawn? Dad said it was okay with him.”

“Well, your father should have talked to me before he made that decision. It’s too dangerous. That mower is on its last leg, and I don’t want you getting hurt. Heck, just last week your father nearly ran over his own foot with that crazy thing!”

Victoria hung her head and sighed. There would be no budging her mom on this point. “Are you ever going to admit that I’m growing up?”

Anna dropped her knife on the butcher block and set the apples she’d been cutting aside. She moved around the counter and wrapped Victoria in a familiar, warm embrace. “You are my only child, sweetheart, and I love you with all my heart. But I can’t help it if I’m a little overprotective. Is it so terrible?”

Victoria smiled, knowing she could never stay mad at her mom. “I love you too.”

“God saw fit to give me the most beautiful little girl ever, and I aim to raise her right.”

Victoria thought of her messy ponytail and the gray shirt she wore that was two sizes too big, and stiffened. “You’re my mom, so you have to say things like that.”

“Nonsense.” Her mom sniffed as if insulted. “I’ve never lied to you a day in my life.”

She didn’t know how to respond to her mom’s compliments. She never quite knew what to say actually. Victoria had a mirror, and beautiful wasn’t what she saw when she looked into it. Heather Clemmens, with her long blonde hair and blue eyes, was beautiful. She was the most popular girl in her sixth-grade class. Even the teachers smiled extra wide whenever Heather was around. Victoria cringed. Heather thought she was really something just because the boys drooled all over themselves whenever she was near. It was gross, really. Still, Victoria did wonder what it’d be like not to have mousy brown hair and dull hazel eyes.

Her mom pulled back a few inches and said, “Victoria, look at me.” She did as her mom asked and saw understanding in her kind brown eyes. “I realize that you will never be the frilly-dresses-and-flowers type—and heaven knows I wouldn’t know what to do with you if you were. Still, you must see that beauty comes in all forms. Someday, you’ll understand just how perfect God made you, just the way you are.”

Victoria heard the worry in her mom’s voice, and she hated it. Victoria smiled. “You win. I’ll stay away from the lawn mower.”

When her mother smiled contentedly at her, Victoria felt it was essential to announce one other thing. “But I’m not dressing like Heather Clemmens. She looks dumb with those stupid skirts she wears, not to mention those tight jeans.”

Anna burst out laughing. “I should hope you never dress like that either. Heather’s mom should get that girl in check. Those jeans she wears are way too tight for such a young age.” She patted Victoria’s cheek and walked back around the counter. “How about you grab the sugar and a bowl so we can get this apple pie in the oven. At this rate, it’ll be midnight before it’s ready.”

Victoria and Anna went to work on the apples, laughing over the day’s events. But as the hours wore on, Victoria noticed her mom frowning. She had that look on her face whenever something was wrong and they just hadn’t found out what yet. Her mom had a way of knowing things sometimes. Her mom once told her that it was God’s way of preparing her for something bad. She was looking like that now as Victoria started to dump the heaping bowl of cut fruit into the sugar-and-cinnamon mixture.

“Mom, is something wrong?”

Anna looked up, a frown marring her brow. “I’m not sure.”

Victoria reached out and grasped her mom’s hand. It was ice cold, not warm like usual. Her eyes were distant and blank. “Want me to get Dad?” Just as the words left her mouth, the phone rang.

Her mom’s face turned ashen. She strode across the room and picked it up off the table. Victoria heard the words “doctor” and “mammogram”. At eleven years old, Victoria didn’t understand what it meant, but she could see it wasn’t good news. Everything changed after that.

 

Victoria shoved the dark memory out of her mind and pushed away from the railing. It wouldn’t serve any purpose to think of things she had no power to change. Instead, she concentrated on finishing her four-mile run. Even though it was Sunday, she had a long list of things to do, and she wouldn’t get them done by sulking.

By the time she was within a mile of her house, her cell phone rang. She grabbed it out of the pocket of her sweatshirt and looked at the number on the screen. Reena. Her spirits lifted immediately. Victoria hit Send. “Hey, lady.”

Reena had been Victoria’s friend since high school. Reena and her brother Rider had been transplants from a school up north. The first day of their freshman year, Reena had lost her locker combination and spilled orange juice down the front of her shirt. Victoria had walked in on her crying in the bathroom, and she’d offered to help. They’d been friends ever since.

Rider was another story altogether. Upon first sight, Victoria had fallen head over heels in lust with the dark-haired bad boy. His brooding stares and confident attitude had captured her teenage heart—along with several other hearts of Summit Green High girls. Unfortunately, he’d taken one look at Victoria and kept on walking, as if she didn’t warrant more than a cursory glance. He’d barely said two words to her throughout high school. Of course, that hadn’t stopped her from daydreaming about him. Then and now.

“You sound winded,” Reena said. “Please don’t tell me you’re jogging.”

“Yep. I’m nearly finished, though. What’s up?”

Reena sighed. “You make me feel like such a lazy ass, I swear.”

Victoria snorted. “Yeah, right. You work out harder than anyone I know.”

“Yoga is great, but I’m no marathon runner like you.”

Victoria looked down at her bulky clothes and rolled her eyes. “I’m not even close to being marathon ready. Not that it matters. All I want is to lose this winter pooch.”

“You and me both, sister. But that’s not really why I’m calling.”

“I didn’t really think it was.” Victoria heard a noise in the background that sounded like a microwave ding. Knowing Reena, it was probably a frozen breakfast sandwich. The chef in Victoria recoiled at the thought.

“Can I come over? I wanted to talk to you about something.”

The serious tone in Reena’s voice had Victoria slowing her pace as she turned onto her street. “Sure. Is anything wrong?”

“No, no, nothing like that.”

Victoria was curious, but she let it go. “Give me an hour, okay?”

“I’m still in my PJs, so that works fine.”

They said their good-byes, and Victoria tucked the phone back into her pocket. She didn’t know what was on her friend’s mind, but she was glad she was coming over. Victoria didn’t want to be alone. For some reason, she was feeling overly sentimental, and the company would do her good. Maybe she could even get Reena’s help on the hors d’oeuvres for the Williamses’ wedding reception.

She loved her catering business. Turning her love of cooking into a thriving business gave her a sense of pride, and it made her feel closer to her mom. Cooking had always been something they’d done together. Something they’d shared. Some of their best discussions had taken place over a pot of boiling water and sliced vegetables.

After Victoria got home, showered and dressed, she headed to the kitchen to make a fresh pitcher of iced tea. She was just adding ice when she heard a faint but cheerful, “Victoria? You here?”

“In the kitchen,” Victoria yelled out. “I was just about to pour a glass of tea.”

When Reena popped around the corner, Victoria noticed perspiration on her friend’s forehead and her shiny black hair was up in a bun. “Make that two glasses. It’s already getting hot out there. I think spring is passing us by without blinking an eye.”

Victoria was already getting out another glass by the time Reena took a seat at the table.

She handed her the iced tea, a spoon and a couple of artificial-sweetener packets before taking the chair across from her. “You sounded all mysterious over the phone. What gives?”

Reena took a long drink before saying, “I’m not sure you want to know.”

Now Victoria was getting worried. She reached out and took Reena’s hand and said, “Reena, you’re like a sister to me. You can tell me anything.” She paused and added, “Is there a body and do I need to grab a couple of shovels or what?”

As Victoria turned to offer her friend a chocolate chip cookie from the batch she’d freshly baked the night before, Reena said, “Nothing quite so sinister.” She took the cookie and shook her head. “You’re always feeding me.” She bit into it and hummed her approval. “How is it that you stay in such great shape?” she asked around a mouthful of the sweet treat. “Damn, if I cooked like you, I’d weigh a ton.”

Victoria plucked at her oversize shirt. “If I were in such great shape, I wouldn’t have to cover my bulk with extra material, now would I?”

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