Authors: Diana Gardin
A Nelson Island Novel
New York Boston
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I’ve wanted Forever for as long as I can remember. This story is dedicated to my very own version of that. Thank you, Tyson.
Two Months Previously in Duck Creek
ver sniffled once, twice, wiping her red nose on her plaid flannel shirtsleeve. Each tear she shed sliced like a dagger through his heart. He hated that he was the one doing this to her. More than once, he’d vowed never to be the one to hurt her. She’d had enough pain from that asshole father of hers. He used her like a punching bag on the nights he came home stumbling drunk. Too many times her nose looked just like this on those nights she climbed into Sam’s window long after her father had fallen into a stupor.
But now, here he was, the one making her cry. Like he’d said he’d never do.
Damn it all to hell.
“Listen to me,” he said fiercely as he grabbed both sides of her face in his calloused hands. “I promise you I’ll be back for you. Don’t spend a day missing me. Don’t drop your guard. I’ll come back, and when I do, we’ll go away together and we won’t look back at this godforsaken town. You hear me?”
She nodded, and he leaned down to claim her lips. He kissed her long and hard. When he pulled back, her tears were mixed with his on both their faces.
“I don’t want you to go,” she said. “You don’t have to go, Sam. I can tell them—”
“You tell them nothing,” he insisted. “Nothing. We agreed, didn’t we? You let them look for me. They can search ’til the cows come home, but they won’t find me. And when things die down, I
coming for you. Have I ever let you down?”
She shook her head. “No, Sam. Never.”
“And I’m not about to start now.” He lifted his head sharply as sirens blared in the distance. It always took the county sheriff longer than it should to get anywhere. Sam had the time he needed to get gone.
He stepped backward but stopped at the stricken look on her face. He stepped quickly in front of her again and took her chin in one hand, lifting it up so she would meet his eyes.
“Be strong, Ev. You be strong for both of us. Stick to the story. You’ll be safe now. I promise.”
He bent his head to hers, letting the feel of her lips envelope him for the last time. He pulled away too quickly and backed away.
One last look allowed him to memorize the familiar curves and the way her auburn hair fell in waves around her. Then he took off through the woods. Sharp branches slapped his face, leaving burning, angry marks behind. Tiny twigs snapped beneath his feet as they pounded through the brush. He’d keep running until he emerged on the other side where the state highway ran around the outskirt of Duck Creek. That’s where his brother, Hunter, had hidden his Harley for him as soon as they’d realized what had to be done. Sam would take off, headed south, and wouldn’t stop until he crossed state lines and then some.
Ever would be safe now. He’d made sure of it. He’d protected her most of their lives, and he wasn’t going to stop now.
He didn’t care that it turned him into a wanted man. Because she was worth it.
eep stacking those bales, son. When you’re finished, we’ll head back up to the main house and I’ll let you go for the day.” Leon, the ranch manager, scratched his forehead as he lifted his Stetson in the steamy, late afternoon heat.
“Yes, sir.” Sam stood back from the hay bale and wiped the sweat dripping from his forehead. It was unusually hot for May. On a day like this, he’d guzzled two gallon-size jugs of water, and he’d need more by the time he was done. He’d lost his shirt hours ago, and the brazen heat sizzled into the now-golden skin of his chiseled torso.
When Sam finished spreading the hay through the pasture for the horses for the day, he met Leon in front of the stables.
“I want to run something by you, Leon. Do you mind?”
“Go ahead, son.” Leon’s expression teetered between tense and exhausted. He was down a few workers, which was why the ranch had hired Sam on as a temp without asking a whole lot of questions.
“How’s the new scheduling procedure working out?”
“Savin’ my ass. Your suggestion of having some of the trainers pitch in was a great way to get around the shortage of hands. You done a lot of this scheduling stuff before, kid?”
The corner of Sam’s mouth tilted upward in a smile. He grabbed his shirt, lying atop the swinging barn door, and used it as a rag to wipe the sweat dripping from his chin. “A little bit. I helped the owner of the garage where I used to work with a lot with stuff like that. Ended up managing the place when I was eighteen.”
They climbed into Leon’s work truck and turned up the gravel path toward the main house.
“So, Sam,” Leon began. He removed his well-worn Stetson and scratched his head. Replacing the hat, he glanced at Sam. “You plannin’ on stayin’ around just for the summer? Or you gonna be here in Nelson Island longer than that?”
“You know, sir, I really don’t know yet. I’m just trying to figure things out. Taking it one day at a time.”
Leon nodded. “I can understand that. You’re young. What…twenty or so?”
“I was twenty-one last month.”
“Twenty-one. You got a lot of road stretched out in front of you, Sam. Nelson Island is a great place to figure it all out.”
“Thank you, sir. I can see that.”
“And you moved from where?”
“North of here, sir.”
Sam wasn’t willing to go into details about exactly where he was from. Too much information may lead someone to draw conclusions about what he’d done back home, about why he was running.
Leon pulled the truck onto the circular driveway that curved into a horseshoe in front of the main house. He turned off the ignition and climbed out of the truck.
“Got any special plans this evening?” Leon asked.
“No,” Sam answered, shaking his head. “I think I’ll just go back to the tack house and crash for the night.”
He nodded. “It’s almost dinnertime, son. Shouldn’t be skipping meals while you’re doing all this hard work. Go on, then. I’ll see you early tomorrow. Seven o’clock.”
“I’ll be there,” answered Sam.
Leon headed up the steps leading to the front door.
Sam watched him go, thinking back to when he’d first met Leon on his way down from Virginia. He’d stopped at a gas station to fill up, and Leon had stopped him to ask about the Harley. They’d gotten to talking, or rather Leon talked and Sam listened. The ranch manager was looking for some workers. Sam ended up leaving the gas station and following behind Leon’s truck while Leon led him straight over the bridge from Charleston, South Carolina, to Mr. Hopewell at his horse ranch in Nelson Island.
Sam shoved his hands in his pockets and walked around the driveway and down the stone-paved path through wooded land that led to the tack house.
Greenery surrounded the ranch, from old magnificent magnolia trees to palmettos flapping in the breeze. Lush, green pastures rose and fell gently with the rolling hills. The property was perfectly pristine due to Leon Jackson’s running the place like a well-oiled machine. He was the man who made sure every job was handled, every animal was well looked after, and every building on the property was spic-and-span. Details and organization were law to Leon.
As he made his way through the trees, Sam had a flash of the night he’d left Duck Creek. He’d left Ever standing alone in woods so similar to these. The mountains of southwest Virginia accompanied him like a friend during his childhood, and the contrast he found on the coast of South Carolina was both comforting and disconcerting.
He couldn’t wait to show Ever—just as soon as it was safe.
Walking into the tack house, Sam clicked the door closed behind him and stood just inside, surveying the living room.
Mr. Hopewell had fashioned several of the buildings on his property into guesthouses. He used the larger ones for actual guests and the couple of smaller ones as houses for the hired help who needed to stay on the property. Sam qualified, as he had no other place to live on the island. Most of the staff drove to work. Leon lived in quite a nice house only a couple of miles away, with his wife.
Leaning against the door, he pulled the well-worn sheet of stationery out of his back jeans pocket. He pulled it out and began to read.
If you only knew how it felt being in Duck Creek without you, you’d come running back to me. I know you don’t want to do that. But I really am miserable here without you. The only silver lining about you being gone is that my dad is gone too. He can’t hurt me anymore, thanks to you. And Hunter.
I’ve known you my whole life, Sam, and I’ve known I loved you for the same amount of time. We’ve never been so far apart. How are you? I know you can’t e-mail without access to a computer. I was so excited to get a letter from you. Letters are more romantic than e-mail anyway. So I’ve written you this one. Maybe it will make you a little less lonely if you read it at night before bed.
Thank you for asking Hunter to take care of me while you’re gone. He’s been doing just that. Hovering a little, but I appreciate the help he’s given me. I was able to use the insurance money from Daddy to pay off the house and car. Now I only have to worry about the monthly bills, and my job at the bakery is doing a pretty good job of covering that.
Without you, Sam, none of this would be possible. I’d still be terrified to sleep in my own bed every night. I’ll be forever grateful.
I want this to be over soon, so we can be together again.
Love you forever, and
His daily readings gave Sam the strength he needed to stay away from her. Until the whole thing with her father’s death blew over, they had to stay apart.
He carefully folded the letter on its worn creases and placed it back into his pocket. Then he wandered over to the desk in the corner and waited.
The phone on the desk jangled a few minutes later. He picked up the cordless handset.
“It’s me.” Hunter’s gravelly voice.
“How are you, man?” Worry laced the edges of Hunter’s tone. He’d always taken care of Sam. He took the big brother role way too seriously, if you asked Sam. They were only eighteen months apart.
“Couldn’t be better, considering. The Hopewells have been real nice so far. Can’t do much better than that. There’s been a lot of fixing fences, cleaning out barns, and lifting heavy-ass feed bags, but the money’s good. It’s not like I haven’t done hard work before. So I’m gonna be okay here, Hunter.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“How is she, Hunter?”
He couldn’t wait any longer to hear about Ever.
“She’s missing the shit out of you, Sam. Like you’d expect. I try to drive over most nights after work to check on her. But sometimes I leave the site too late. On those days I call to see if she needs anything.”
“Good. Keep doing that, Hunter. You keep taking care of her, since I can’t right now.”
“Sam…look. You could come home if we’d just—”
“We’ve been through this. It’s not going to happen. This is the best way for everyone.”
“How’s it the best way for you, Sam? You’re on the run. I never thought you’d—”
“Just stop. We don’t need to rehash this over the phone. What’s done is done. No one will understand the truth except the three of us. Now, do your damn job and take care of Ever.”
“Done, man.” Hunter sighed.
A rhythmic knock sounded on the heavy wooden door of the tack house. Sam glanced at it quickly.
“I gotta go, Hunt. Stick to the plan. Love you, bro.”
He hung up the phone and strode to the door.
When he opened it, the slick grin of Reed Hopewell shined up at him from the stoop. Reed leaned against the doorjamb, looking casual in a pale blue T-shirt and jeans.
“What’s up, man?” he drawled. “Dad sent me down here to ask you to come on up to the main house for dinner tonight.”
Sam stepped back so Reed could come inside. He closed the door behind him.
“Yeah, okay. It’s always nice enjoying a meal up there.”
The too-familiar panic began to set in deep in Sam’s bones.
“That’s what Dad does. He treats all the help like family.” He smiled playfully and slapped Sam on the back.
Sam chuckled, not quite relieved. He’d been invited to the main house a couple of times for dinner since he’d been working at the ranch. Each time his heart ended up in his throat, anxiously waiting to hear that his short-term employment was terminated. Or worse…that the sheriff would be there waiting to haul him back to Duck Creek.
Mr. and Mrs. Hopewell didn’t seem to suspect a thing. They were gracious employers and seemed to want to include Sam for purely innocent reasons. They claimed they didn’t like thinking of him always alone, fending for himself.
“All right, man. Let me change and I’ll be right out.”
Reed sank onto the soft plaid couch, propping his scuffed boots up on the coffee table. Then he straightened, staring at the couch cushions with eyes full of doubt.
“You haven’t been…” He glanced pointedly at Sam, and then back at the couch.
Sam caught his gist, and cleared his throat. “Uh, no. Definitely not.”
“Cool. Just had to ask. So my sister’s in town for the summer. Mom and Dad have asked the kitchen staff to do it up right. It’s gonna be bangin’.”
“Oh yeah?” Sam called as he walked to the bedroom, stripping off his work clothes as he entered the attached bath.
He showered quickly and changed into a fresh pair of jeans and the nicest shirt he owned, a striped button-down. He preferred T-shirts to shirts with collars. But if he was having dinner with the Hopewells, he’d play the part as best he could.
“Yeah. My sister stays gone most of the year. So when she’s home for the summer, they really go all out.”
Sam nodded. He was aware of the Hopewells’ other child, a girl who attended college in Louisiana. She hadn’t been home during his time in Nelson Island, so he’d never met her.
“I’m ready,” he told Reed.
“All right, dude. Let’s head on up.”
Their easy conversation as they walked up the path brought Hunter back to the forefront of Sam’s mind. Reed, although younger than he and Hunter were, was friendly and good-natured, with a wild streak and a wicked sense of humor. He’d just completed his senior year of high school, so the summer stretching ahead of him was the last he’d spend as a carefree teenager.
When they arrived at the main house, all of the windows were alight. The front doors swung open, and Mrs. Hopewell stood at the top step, waiting for them.
“Sam.” She greeted him with a sweet smile. “I’m glad you could join us. We know you must get lonely down there all by yourself. What were you going to eat for dinner if Reed hadn’t come to drag you on up here?”
His answering smile was impossible to prevent. “Peanut butter on crackers.”
She frowned. “See? Fate intervened at just the right time.”
“I guess so, ma’am.”
“Well, come on, boys. Appetizers are being served as we speak.”
She took off down the hall. Sam marveled at the sheer size of the home’s interior. His entire trailer back in Duck Creek would have fit in the foyer.
He and Reed followed Mrs. Hopewell down the hall. The ivory-paneled walls flashed by Sam as he went. His eyes traveled up to the high ceiling, where a large crystal chandelier hung over an ornate fountain in the center of the entry. He was used to seeing family photos covering the walls of houses he’d entered, but not here. Expensive-looking tapestries and paintings adorned the paneled walls.
At the end of the entry hall, they turned right and entered the massive dining room. A huge rectangular glass-top table was laden with china. The middle of the glossy surface was completely occupied by a centerpiece dripping with flowers and fruit. The flickering of candles set the entire room aglow.
“Wow,” Sam murmured under his breath.
“I know.” Reed nudged him hard in the ribs with an elbow. “You’ll get used to how the other half lives, my friend.” His voice was barely loud enough for Sam to hear. “Like fucking gluttons.”
A laugh rumbled up from Sam’s chest, but he smothered it just before it could escape.
Gregory Hopewell sat at the far end of the table, and he stood as they entered.
“Sam, my boy! Good to see you!”
His hearty voice filled the dining room. Sam had never once heard Mr. Hopewell’s voice do anything other than boom. Mrs. Hopewell smiled at them from the other end of the gargantuan table.
“Come sit, boys. We’re waiting on Aston, of course, but try some of the miniature crab cakes.”
Sam was still trying to figure out why they were waiting for a car when Reed’s sister swept into the room.
“Ah! There you are, sis. Sam Waters, meet Aston Hopewell. The one and only.”
Reed smirked at Sam, as if he were expecting a certain reaction from him.
Sam held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Aston.”
The girl who took his hand shook out a long tumble of dark hair, pulled off to the side to hang over one shoulder and pinned in place with a glimmering clip. Her crazy high heels and short white sundress showed off her tanned legs to perfection. Her face was exotically beautiful, her bright blue eyes a stark contrast to her raven-colored hair. The clear gloss on her lips made her mouth look deliciously kissable. For the briefest moment, Sam wondered what she’d taste like.